One Pandemic. Thousands of Ledes.

I asked Twitter how the great COVID-19 novel would begin. Thousands of you replied. Here are some of the funniest, scariest, most eloquent, most heartbreaking responses.

Apr 12, 2020 · 9 min read

By Bill Grueskin

Sometimes, a news story strikes so deeply into our lives that nonfiction cannot do it justice. This coronavirus epidemic is one of those stories.

Photo by Duc N. Ly, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Yes, we owe it to ourselves to keep informed of school closings, market crashes, mask shortages, unattended deaths, and even those endless effusions from White House press conferences.

But it often feels that the more we fumble with each jigsaw piece, the harder it is to see the whole puzzle. That’s where fiction comes in.

This occurred to me one recent evening while I was, um, checking the expiration date on some tortillas. (The muses speak to us in the ways that they choose, OK?) Having ensured the tortillas wouldn’t kill my family, I picked up my iPhone and wrote this on Twitter:

“What’s the first sentence of the best novel that will be written about this epidemic?”

That tweet generated nearly 23,000 responses, some of which have in turn been liked, retweeted or responded to hundreds or thousands of times. Well-known writers like Michael Harriot, James Fallows, Katy Tur, George Conway, Margaret Sullivan and Rick Wilson got into the act.

But so did many brilliant authors with much smaller followings.

The responses divide into certain groups. Some are political, some are literary, some are creepy, some are hilarious, and some of them are all of that.

To memorialize this, I’ve pulled out those responses that hit me hardest. I also assigned (imperfect) categories, to give a sense of writers’ breadth. Many of those you’ll see below are longer than one sentence, but great writers break the rules all the time. Each Twitter handle is linked to the original tweet. At the end of this post, I link to my favorite response.

But before you dig in, please take a moment to donate to Direct Relief, which is providing PPEs and other support to medical workers. Or give to Feeding America, which supports food banks. Or another charity of your choice.

Here you go:

I. Four words or less

They died alone. (@ConnieSchultz)

She scratched her nose. (@KatyTurNBC)

II. Sounds and Smells

We carried it in our hands, laying it on doorknobs and cans of beans, there was no smell of death, no taste, when we brought it to our lips and thus unaware, we breathed the killer in, and out. (@gotaimnow)

There was a time when sirens served as a strange comfort to me whenever their shrill notes drifted up and into the tiny fifth-floor apartment I called home, their shriek piercing through the ambient noise of the city, a promise to straining ears that help was coming. (@HayesBrown)

It started with the oddest of sensations: her ability to smell and taste were gone. (@Wynnsworld)

Within a few weeks, the cheers and songs of the quarantine turned into eerie silence, punctuated only by the wailing ambulance sirens. (@yourauntemma)

III. The sweep of history

When a civilization falls, it longs to attach the cause of its collapse to some specific chain of precipitating events rather than face the truth that, having danced upon its own grave for generations, its downfall was as chaotic yet inevitable as lighting in a thunderstorm. (@mousdrvr)

The disease that would terminate a portion of disagreeable as well as agreeable men alike, was deemed as a trivial matter by the most influential of forces. And so the consequences commenced. (@MeligyRahmah)

The cities were crowded once, my parents tell me, with people working all together in these now empty sky rises, and gathering together at night in even more crowded spaces. But that was before. (@VividConfusion)

Not since the Mongolian hordes had invaded nearly all of Eurasia, it was so difficult to buy toothpicks. (@asknbid)

IV. Science and nature

Not understanding the seriousness of the phrase “asymptomatic carrier” was a stiff price to pay for zoning out in freshman biology. (@foggybreeze)

At first we noticed the birds. Maybe they had always been there, maybe it was just the spring migration, but in any case their cheery calls filled the space normally claimed by the metallic roaring of the morning commute. (@Myrmecos)

V. Love and Relationships

Of course I knew she was infected, but the course of true love is never straight. (@TheRickWilson)

In the before time we held each other close, kissed on both cheeks and shared our food, family style. In the before time, there were so many ways we showed our love through touch. (@DebbieDonsky)

Hoarding was his vocation. Silence his solace. Yet just when Ralph, the introvert, the agoraphobic, might exult in how his afflictions had prepared him to survive in this new world, he fell in love with Rosa, a 7–11 store clerk, who wore no mask and had ruby lips. (@JSchwada)

VI. Religious Themes

We emptied the pews and meet each other again in the cloud. (@quarkytea)

Prayers went up from makeshift basement bedrooms while great cathedrals stood empty. (@dianabutlerbass)

The list of names at shul this Saturday was long. Long enough that it made me rethink writing this down, that you might have to read and bear what I saw, like I recall the warm eyes of the people on the list. But remembering is what we do now if we weren’t in the habit before. (@broccoli1789)

VII. Trump and the White House

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks didn’t matter because the White House coronavirus press conference would never end. (@CarlosLozadaWP)

The president was undecided and his advisers were equally split on the next move. There was trouble ahead, and the right call had to be made. Six iron? Seven? “Seven,” he said. “A strong club.” (@ericgar62)

Even those who once claimed to adore him could see that this day, this week, this terror was far beyond the meager capacities of a minor entertainer — a has-been playboy elected only to gall the smug elites. Now he was killing them. (@douglasblackmon)

Trump sat quietly in the dock, no doubt reflecting on his actions that led to so many deaths when a year earlier he had sent millions of Americans back to work against the advice of scientists; the foreman of the jury rose to read out the verdict. (@PeterofArabia)

I was the President, and now I’m in jail. Yup, that’s me. I bet you’re wondering how I got myself into that situation. Well first off none of this is my fault obviously. (@ckjoneskevin)

The president was on the television screen, explaining how to spell COVID-19. “You know what that is? Right. Become a very famous term. C-O-V-I-D. COVID.” It was at precisely that moment that I began to sneeze.(@gtconway3d)

Jared thought he knew what he was doing. (@DemFromCT)

The construction of the Tennis Pavilion was moving ahead with a crisp efficiency that thrilled her. (@FilmmakerJulie)

As the guards unlocked the handcuffs from his chubby orange fingers, now stained by traces of the last application of bronze foundation he had applied that morning, we weighed our task; never before had a president been imprisoned on charges of negligent homicide.(@AmyW36)

VIII. Politics and the world

The Venn diagram of leaders who sold their stocks before the pandemic hit and the ones that sold their souls years ago was actually just one perfect circle, and some said that’s why the rebellion adopted it as their symbol. (@TeaWald)

Impenetrable walls went up on both the northern and southern borders in a matter of weeks, and at the time we did not know that they were meant to keep us in. (@rabiasquared)

At some point, he thought, the number of deaths must outpace the number of lies, but it seemed that point had still not come. (@pramsey342)

It is at once a beautiful and melancholy thing to see an empire fall; to wish for its demise and wistfully watch it crumble all around you — or rather wilt — while pretending you don’t want to cry…as you are crying. (@michaelharriot)

Many wondered, even in their final moments, how we came to be here. But the seeds had been planted and sewn and watered over decades of failures, of stubborn refusals to uproot the tares and bury the wages of the nation’s original sin. (@Sifill_LDF)

IX. Deaths and Funerals

Her tests results came on the day of her funeral. It was a bleak affair even as funerals go with the priest acting as the only speaker and AV specialist in charge of Zoom-grieving. As he welcomed her relatives, he wondered how many of them were actually wearing pants. (@AlexMLeo)

He walked into the hospital wearing a mask his grandmother had sewn for him before she died. (@carriemf)

Her last dinner out shouldn’t have been memorable; still, she thought about it longingly, even dreamt about it, until the day she died, which was three weeks later, in a Central Park tent funded by Billy Graham’s son. (@Sulliview)

At the reading of the will, the family on Zoom was shocked when it was Harold, the scapegrace son, who inherited the 79 rolls of toilet paper. (@MrWalterShapiro)

Silently in places he’d never visit, he could only think of a single thought: how many of those crying faces were even wearing pants. (@GodLovesUgly22)

“I swear,” she said, muting the TV, “if I die alone in the goddamn Javits Center, I’m never gonna rest, I’m haunting this city for all of eternity.” (@lkirchner)

A friend wrote this on Facebook: “I swear to God, if I die in the Javits Center, it’ll be the second worst experience I’ve had there!” (@RolyTonks)

X. Riffs on Famous Literary Openings

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a COVID-19 test, a reliable and prompt food-delivery service, a full Netflix queue, and a 48-pack of Charmin. (@rapoportmike)

It was in January, 2020, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in China; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Wuhan. (@JamesFallows)

Call me, Ishmael, because you know we have to social distance and can’t meet up. (@jcslattery)

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself confined indefinitely in his one-bedroom apartment. (@DanielGAlarcon)

Last night I dreamt I went to Mandalay again…and this time they had toilet rolls. (@Beany_1)

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to hoard toilet paper and hand sanitizer. (@miblogestublog)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, depending on whether or not you believed Fox News. (@DebraKirschner)

It was Be Best of times, it was Be Worst of times. (@grailsnail)

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of presidents (@NormOrnstein)

XI. The Macabre

He watched with sadistic glee as they died one by one, a pandemic he could have slowed, but instead chose to embrace. (@pattykazUSA)

She’d cleaned the White House family quarters for three presidents. This would be her final service to her country. She meticulously wiped each surface, making sure to use the tissues her son had discarded before morticians removed his Covid wasted body from their DC brownstone. (@ProfHolloway)

XII. Deprivation and Loneliness

Sure, he thought, I can get the toilet paper tomorrow. (@Pedernales150)

Ingrid had been working from home, usually isolated, for the past five years, so nothing was different, yet everything was. (@karencollinsnyc)

The bed he laid on rattled down the crowded hospital hallway as an army of fatigued nurses and doctors attended to the sick and the infirmed, the days and nights having long since blurred into one. He was dying, he knew that. And he was going to die alone (@EricBoehlert)

All of this happened, more or less: The masks, the sirens, the loneliness, the severe loneliness. She grew to depend upon the daily stop of the postal carrier, until that ended, too. (@dabeard)

It had been too long. At first the absence was welcome, a strange return to that paradise the old ones believed had once been but after a week the silence lost its wonder & among the gulls worried whispers began: where had the french fry makers gone? (@ellle_em)

Ah, toilet roll. I remember that cylindrical delight, that teasing promise of sanitation, that wondrous, plump, cushioning comfort like a dream you can’t quite recall but feel its essence. Thank God I never liked my curtains. (@flatpackcat)

XIII. Ominous Beginnings

She had chills, aches, a relentless fever. The baby was crying in the next room, indistinguishable from the sirens blaring outside. She wanted to pull the covers tight over her throbbing body, but instead slipped on her scrubs to go to work…she hoped, not for the last time. (@secupp)

The sidewalk was eerily free of debris. Metal grates sheathed all the storefronts. Those men who always talked too loudly outside the bodega at 10:37pm on a Monday were gone. No voices replaced theirs. Or noises. Except for ambulance sirens. Incessant sirens. And nothing else. (@lisaabramowicz1)

“It is a wondrous and joyous thing, this voyage that lies ahead for us,” Fred said to his wife as they boarded the Diamond Princess for the dream vacation that cost him most of his 401K. (@bgrueskin)

And the winner, in my analysis, is this one.

P.S. Remember to donate to Direct Relief, which is providing PPEs and other support to medical workers. Or Feeding America, which supports food banks across the U.S. Or another charity that provides some comfort during this awful time.

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Written by


Journalist, professor, Classics major, VISTA volunteer, failed oboist. Via Colorado, Palo Alto, Rome, Standing Rock, Bologna, Miami Herald, WSJ, Columbia

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +788K followers.


Written by


Journalist, professor, Classics major, VISTA volunteer, failed oboist. Via Colorado, Palo Alto, Rome, Standing Rock, Bologna, Miami Herald, WSJ, Columbia

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +788K followers.

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