Finding Pluck: The Origins of “Who We Are Now”

The following is a guest blog post by Michelle Fishburne, author of Who We Are Now: Stories of What Americans Lost and Found during the COVID-19 Pandemic, which is on-sale today, everywhere books are sold.

Who We Are Now is a collection of 100 first-person stories about people’s lives during the Covid-19 pandemic, gathered as Michelle Fishburne motor-homed 12,000 miles all over the US between September 2020 and September 2021

I am often very naïve. 

You probably think “I am often very naïve” is an odd first sentence for an author’s blog about their book. In most cases, you would be correct. This case is different. Only a person who is often naïve could have written this book. Actually, let me rephrase. Only a naïve person could have put together this book.

I did not write this book.

Wow, another odd sentence for an author’s blog about their book, right? How many authors state “I did not write this book?” Not many. This case is unusual and that makes all the difference.

Only a person who is “often very naïve” would move full-time into a 14-year-old motorhome and travel 12,000 miles all over America during the first year of a global pandemic and stop along the way to talk with people at length, face-to-face, about their lives. Double-down on the “very naïve” part when you add in that I am a single woman and was 57 years old when I started off on the journey in September 2020. 

It was my “Run Forrest, Run” moment, not my “I’m going to write a book” moment. I had lost my job in the COVID spring and despite 86 customized cover letters, I still didn’t have a job by mid-July. I even offered my services for free, as a 57-year-old intern, and nobody would take me. I am not joking. To make matters worse, the lease on the post-divorce house was coming up on July 31 and my youngest was going off to college. On August 1, 2020, I had no house, no spouse, no job, and no kid to take care of. I had nothing.

Scratch that: I had nothing.

I did have my puppy dog, Buddy, and a 2006 motorhome that I had homeschooled my kids in for 10 months once and for four months another time. So, bingo, somebody to love and a place to live.

I also had tons of experience driving the motorhome all over the country and even up into Canada. I sometimes joke that I’ve driven from North Carolina to Yellowstone so many times that I could do it blind-folded. 

I also had lots of curiosity about how people were doing. Fortunately, Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York came to mind and I thought, “Huh, I will do a project taking pictures of people and recording their stories and put it on social media, like he did.” The only difference was that mine would be about people all over America during the pandemic. 

I had no house, no spouse, no job, and no kid to take care of. I had nothing.

The last thing I had was an uncomfortably embarrassing amount of free time since nobody would hire me. So, I just started driving and trusted that everything would turn out okay. Fortunately for me, it did. Now you understand the “often very naïve” comment.

You also probably now understand why I said at the beginning of this that I “did not write this book.” This book is a collection of first-person stories. I recorded each story on a transcription app on my phone. I am the collector of the stories.

I can guess what you want to know next: “How did you find the people to interview?” Umm, did I mention I am “often very naïve?”  Yep, I had not thought that through when I turned the ignition and headed west. When John Steinbeck did his 10,000-mile journey in 1960 with his dog, Charley, there were tons of people everywhere for him to meet. Me, though, I went out during a pandemic. I will never forget standing on the bridge between Cincinnati and Kentucky during morning rush hour, right there in the middle of it, trying for about five minutes to get a decent selfie. Only a couple cars drove by during that time. Because of that experience on the bridge, I asked UNC Press to please put on the cover of the book a photo of an empty highway leading into a major city. 

I did figure out, eventually, how to find people to interview. The key was to use Facebook to learn more about what was happening in towns coming up along my route. I did this for the first time when I was getting close to Cheyenne, Wyoming. I couldn’t quite figure out who to interview, so I looked a little to the east of Cheyenne and found the tiny town of Pine Bluffs. I went onto Facebook and, lo and behold, they had just hosted a kite festival. Now, that might not seem like a big deal to you right now, but if you were living in a metropolitan area on the East Coast in 2020, you know there were no kite festivals or anything like that at the time. So, I drove to Pine Bluffs and met with Sonja, at the recreation department (yes, she is in the book), about the kite festival. Sonja then connected me with others in town. And that’s how I got my mojo on, so to speak. 

Another question you may have is: “This was during a divisive year for the country politically, with news networks spinning each side up like the boxers in that old game, Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots. Did a lot of people want to talk about politics?” The answer is no. There was only one question that I asked each person, and they often answered it in one, long monologue that lasted between 30 and 45 minutes. The question was: “It’s January 1, 2020. What was your 2020 supposed to be like and what did it end up being like, up to the present?” And you know what? When you ask a person a question about their life during a really difficult time, they focus on what matters most to them: family, friends, work, and community. 

After the interviews wrapped up, the vast majority of the people would pause and ask me, “How are people doing out there? Are they okay?” And sometimes they would add, “I wish the news organizations would go away. They are just pitting us against each other, trying to get us to hate each other, all for the sake of profits. I wish we could go back to the way it used to be before all this social media and stuff.” True.

Some people ask me if the wide diversity of people in the book happened by chance or whether it was deliberate. Well, I was raised by a social scientist and a rocket scientist, so it will not surprise you that I had an ever-evolving grid that included community density (cities of various population sizes, suburban areas, rural areas), sections of the country, states, gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, LGBTQ+ identification, and jobs. It was important to me that this book be a serious effort to collect a lot of different voices and experiences. 

I just started driving and trusted that everything would turn out okay. Fortunately for me, it did.

There are three more questions that most people ask.

First, whether there is a particular story that is my favorite. That’s like asking which of my children I love more. I love them all equally. In any event, even if I had a favorite or two, that is irrelevant because the purpose of offering up these hundred stories is to let each reader process them for themself and take away from the stories what they need as their own unique person going through life.

Second, why I did not include photos in the book. This answer actually relates to what I just said above. I want each person to really hear, really listen to the stories and then take from them what they need. If we saw the photo of the person whose story it is, we wouldn’t be able to see ourselves in it as well because it is “someone else’s story.” When you read just the words, you often find a part of yourself in each story.

Third, whether I have a parting thought about what I saw and experienced as I interviewed hundreds of people all over the country. Yes. When I headed west in September 2020, I thought I was going to find a country that was despondent, depressed. What I found, instead, is pluck. “Pluck” is a word we don’t use much anymore. It means “spirited and determined courage.” That’s what I found, even with people who had lost a loved one or who had transmitted COVID to someone who had died or whose business was close to bankruptcy. Pluck. We pick ourselves up and we keep going, and the people around us come by our sides and prop us up and love us and hug us. We are truly all in this together.

Michelle Fishburne is a full-time digital nomad, splitting her time between her 2006 motor home, Airbnbs, and the occasional house-sitting gig.