The 2020 Pandemic Made Me a Better Writer

On the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, I choose to appreciate the gifts given in the craziest year of my life

In all transparency, I spiraled at the onset of the 2020 pandemic. To be obsessed with clarity and void of valid answers is to be crazed. At the time, the words of the country’s president and medical experts were incongruent. Nurses and doctors who I called friends were also clueless, and more tired. By the second week of March, I had taught my first writing course for less than two weeks before COVID-19 shut down all NYC schools. The film I co-wrote for two Sundance Screenwriters Labs was scheduled to begin production in April. COVID killed that, too. We were less than two weeks away from the start of spring and my world was cold and crumbling. At least it felt so.

Then a casual phone conversation with my literary agent gifted me the lightbulb of the year. A simple assessment — “well, you now have the space you wanted” — changed my perspective, my 2020 and quite possibly the rest of my life.

In early 2019, I shared with my agent a desire for time to breathe and read then hear myself and write. It had been eight years since I decided being an independent contractor was best for me professionally (and mentally). But such sovereignty begets exhaustive demands. You must hunt, kill, cure and cook damn near every meal. With the interdependent entertainment and media industries as my place of business, a lot of time is spent reminding fellow creatives and check writers that I am the best person for the job. Those reminders require presence — a pull from my biggest energy source — at independent film screenings, album listenings, b-day dinners and on and on. With the pandemic shutting everything down, I got a refund on a third of my time. The new space allowed me room to expand as a scribe and journalist.

The request for space was inspired by a line from Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy. He wrote that reading is rereading. Writers are constantly taught that writing is rewriting, but honestly, outside of scholastic learning, my own prose and referencing an author’s brilliance, I never embraced the significance of rereading on a leisure level. It returned me to the books that had the most influence on me. Then I considered which of those I’ve read only once. The thought of these works continuing to fill my cup at this stage of my life was exciting. I dedicated the early pandemic to revisiting James McBride’s lush Song Yet Sung and the wealth of information inside Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Outliers. (For some reason, Soul On Ice felt heavier than it did in college. Cleaver was not a well man.) Rereading returned the initial euphoria with which these literary trips intoxicated. It helped me fall back in love with that print journalism major who had a jones for lyricism.

Space offered me the patience to sit, observe, dialogue with myself and investigate purely to quench my curiosity. Clarity strengthened my frequency and heightened my instincts. Never before had my gut been a brighter beacon.

The greatest writers have supreme vision. The lenses of Tananarive Due, Rod Temperton and Tarik Trotter support this. I’ve always coveted their sight. It’s why my greatest gift during 2020 was the sharpening of my third eye. Space offered me the patience to sit, observe, dialogue with myself and investigate purely to quench my curiosity. Clarity strengthened my frequency and heightened my instincts. Never before had my gut been a brighter beacon. Before I knew it, my hunter was more ravenous and efficient. The kills grew in size; enough to keep feeding both myself and those with whom I was in business.

Then George Floyd died and the country set fire. It immediately brought me back to 2014 and Ferguson’s volatile protests. I recall my friends flying into St. Louis to support and document while I felt grounded in New York. So after Floyd’s death, I joined a couple protests throughout NYC. My vision, though, was locked on the rest of the country. Never before in U.S. history had every state marched at once… for Black lives. White allyship was unprecedentedly active. Caucasians as the loudest and boldest was a sight to behold. At the time, I wondered if this was truly an American awakening or a mass reaction to pandemic-attributed cabin fever and late spring temps in the 70s? Turned out to be both.

After attending a march in Brooklyn the first week of June, I dropped everything and took my first flight since the pandemic began. I needed to go where the nationwide blaze began: Minneapolis. My first stop from the airport was the corner where George Floyd was murdered, E 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. I returned the following day and met men who helped burn down the Third Precinct, then volunteered time and semiautomatic rifle and pistols to protect Floyd’s memorial from White supremacists. During my third of four visits, I met Rashad West, the owner of the Asian restaurant across the street from Cup Foods — the last store Floyd patroned before his death. West had presented security camera footage of an arrested George Floyd prior to his death. The media was only concerned with West’s views on Floyd and racist police. I saw more — the beautiful story of a Black business owner, father, husband, son and community hero who didn’t start his business with illegal money or grow up in a fatherless home. It was a profile rare in today’s media. Ultimately, I unearthed gold to the tune of more than 87,000 readers. Having the space to quench a personal thirst positioned me to bring a feast home to my team.

If 2020 has affirmed anything for me, it’s that writers like African leopards need time and mental space to see and feel the entire Serengeti. Patience allows a baby impala to drink from a staked brook unscathed so that your family fills up on Wildebeest instead. Moreover, a sharpened lens can offer the greatest perspective when turned inward. The pandemic also allowed me to take inventory of my own terrain. To witness how my spirit moves throughout the day; to observe its variety of shimmers under the moving sun. The better I see myself, the clearer I see others. A journalist couldn’t ask for much more.

Bonsu Thompson is a writer, producer, Brooklynite and 2019 Sundance Screenwriters Lab fellow.

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