David Dale in the Sydney Morning Herald writes about Isaac Newton’s self-isolation during the plague year 1665-66 and how he passed the time.
‘Newton was 23, a student at Cambridge. When the black plague spread there from London, he retreated to his birthplace – Woolsthorpe Manor, near the town of Grantham (later the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher). During what he called his “annus mirabilis”, or wonderful year, at Woolsthorpe, Newton did three significant things:
He invented the mathematical system called calculus,
He drilled a hole in the shutter of his bedroom window and held a prism up to the beam of sunlight that came through it, discovering that white light is made up of every colour (and giving Pink Floyd an iconic album cover), and
He watched apples falling from the trees in his garden and theorised about a force called gravity, which keeps the moon revolving around planet Earth. (He later wrote: “I can calculate the movement of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”)’ – Sydney Morning Herald
So what can you do while in isolation amid the corona virus outbreak to stay calm and centred and to concentrate your mind away from the current crisis? A writing project could be the answer.
What to write? If you’ve been wondering whether to write a short story or a novel, here are some thoughts on these two different forms of creative fiction:
Is a novel a short story that keeps going, or, is it a string of stories with connective tissue and padding, or, is it something else? Essayist Greg Hollingshead believes that the primary difference between the short story and the novel is not length but the larger, more conceptual weight of meaning that the longer narrative must carry on its back from page to page, scene to scene.
“It’s not baggy wordage that causes the diffusiveness of the novel. It’s this long-distance haul of meaning.” Greg Hollingshead
There is a widespread conviction among fiction writers that sooner or later one moves on from the short story to the novel. When John Cheever described himself as the world’s oldest living short story writer, everyone knew what he meant.
Greg Hollingshead says that every once in a while, to the salvation of literary fiction, there appears a mature writer of short stories—someone like Chekhov, or Munro—whose handling of the form at its best is so undulled, so poised, so capacious, so intelligent, that the short in short story is once again revealed as the silly adjective it is, for suddenly here are simply stories, spiritual histories, narratives amazingly porous yet concentrated and undiffused.
When you decide you want to write in a particular form—a novel, short story, poem—read a lot of writing in that form. Notice the rhythm of the form. How does it begin? What makes it complete? When you read a lot in a particular form, it becomes imprinted inside you, so when you sit at your desk to write, you produce that same structure. In reading novels your whole being absorbs the pace of the sentences, the setting of scenes, knowing the colour of the bedspread and how the writer gets her character to move down the hallway to the front door.
I sit at my desk thinking about form as a low-slung blanket of cloud blocks my view of the sky. Through the fly screen I inhale the sweet smell of earth after rain as another day of possibility beckons.
Self-isolation can give us an opportunity to create something new.
Good luck everyone during this horrific pandemic and please take care.