CNF Features Writing

A Spoonful of Sugar

By Nick Bertelson

photography by Caren Sturmer

In December 2020, I became a fiction-screener for the New England Review. Like nearly all literary magazines, NER grew inundated with new submissions in the wake of the pandemic. Casual writers were no longer cooped up in their day jobs, but stuck at home (often with children and spouses) and obviously in need of some escape. Why not dust off the old manuscript? Which today means rifling through computer files and being shocked by the “Last Opened” date of a once coveted project.

Diving into my assignments, it quickly occurred to me that the term, “to be avoided like the plague,” has more than one meaning. Yes, one should avoid the plague itself, but in writing, one should avoid the topic altogether. In the throes of a pandemic, writing about the event is akin to talking about any readymade topic—the weather for example, or politics. All one has to do is look out a window or turn on the TV. 

Casual writers look out windows when at a loss, when they should turn to books. The quintessential plague literature—the book that I guess defined the genre—is no doubt The Decameron. Boccaccio conceived of the premise shortly after the Black Death swept through Florence in 1348, but he didn’t complete the work until five years later. There’s the first lesson. Unprecedented events need time to distill, first in the minds of the author, but also for all those impacted by the event, i.e. the readers. After all, who wants to “escape” into a story about an inescapable catastrophe? The second lesson comes in the form of the premise I alluded to, but also dovetails nicely with the first. That is, don’t write about the disease at all. The beautiful thing about Boccaccio’s rendering of life during the Black Death is that the sickness itself festers in the background while ten friends quarantine together, telling tales and anecdotes about life sans plague, about the before times, and about what life will inevitably be like after. As Joyce says, “Absence is the highest form of presence.” In writing about a time of profound sickness, the memory of its impact will outlast any insight a writer can offer. 

Lesson three: don’t fall into the trap of politicizing sickness. This is no doubt the most important lesson and, to intentionally beleaguer these sick clichés, will be the toughest pill for many to swallow.

Case and point: in rereading The Decameron in the thick of Covid, I came across a tale that spoke to our time. Lauretta tells a story on the eighth day of quarantine about Calandrino, a man who is pranked by his friends. The prank is simple: if Calandrino fills his pockets with certain stones he, in turn, will achieve invisibility. Thus, Calandrino finds the specified heliotropes and fills his pockets. When he walks through town, everyone avoids him. He thinks the trick has worked. In truth, he is a renowned ass, a village idiot, one whose pants are falling down farther and farther with every step. Who wouldn’t avoid him? 

Pre-vaccine, anyone without a mask was that Calandrino figure—someone to avoid “like the plague.” As time wears on and we approach that life after, more and more facts emerge about masks. In January, I heard a quote on NPR that floored me: “Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations and should not be considered an acceptable form of face covering.” This came from Linsey Chen Marr, a leading researcher of nanomaterial and viruses at Virginia Tech. For nearly two years, I’d worn almost exclusively cloth masks for their comfort and breathability, assuming based upon everything I heard that they protected me and others from Covid. Now here I was with my pockets full of stones, my pants around my ankles. I’d not been invisible at all. I’d been duped. What I’m saying is, we’ve all been Calandrino, whether we were the butt of a joke or the pullers of pranks. It’s a universal feeling: not knowing what the hell is going on. And what is a good story if it’s not something everyone can relate to? 

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Nick Bertelson is from southwestern Iowa. His latest poetry appears in Connecticut River Review, Garfield Lake Review, and Oakwood. He is a James Hearst Poetry Prize finalist and winner of the Poetry of the Prairie and Plains Prize through North Dakota State University Press. 

I'm a fiction and CNF writer, an editor, and a blogger. I earned an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and am the associate editor of Parhelion Literary Magazine out of Richmond. An Ohio native, I'm at work on a novel and short stories set in the Rust Belt, and I hype Midwestern authors at my blog, Rust Belt Girl.

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