The Writing Life - Let's React Less, Contemplate More
I’ve seen lots of social media posts lately that put writers into two camps during this stay-at-home time: those who are producing more than ever, submitting like crazy, and those who are struggling to focus on anything at all.
I have a foot in each camp.
Here’s what happened this past week. I worked on revising a poetry manuscript, pulling up the individual poems to go over them again with fresh eyes. It’s been several months since I revised these pieces, several months since I organized the first version of this particular manuscript. Now it was time to shorten it up, expand publication options; I decided it was also a good time to re-read everything and think about whether it could be improved.
That was the scheduled writer in me, the one who knows there are plenty of things to get done.
But revising work that was written pre-pandemic had a surprising effect on me. I was hit with a massive wave of grief as I worked through these pieces, called up images from different parts of my life and realized that life was gone. This life, this restricted-for-safety existence, does not include some of the things that produced poetry for me in the first place. Things like road trips, crowded bars with live music, Sunday mornings at our neighborhood bagel place, meals shared with people I love. These missing pieces were where I connected with others, meandered through unscripted conversations, shared experiences, and made room for awe. Who knows when it’ll be safe for these things to happen again? And what will that look like? How many of those we love will be dead by next year?
Dipping into revision and stumbling over that unexpected grief stopped me cold. I thought I was managing fine, thank you, fully aware of my incredible luck that I am able to weather a stay-at-home order for a good long while. And then I wasn’t fine.
I still haven’t finished revising those poems. I made some headway, then set them aside. All the chatter on social media about using this time to get stuff done doesn’t sit well with me. Our world has shifted, we all know it, and yet we act as if we’ll just get on with things without any accompanying introspection. Just work on that vaccine and get the economy restarted. Mask up. No time to waste.
In thinking about all that, I had another unexpected thwack on the head. One of the things that drew me to writing when I was a kid was how being a writer meant comfortable solitude among ideas and contemplation. I was reminded of this in a big way as I read Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums this past week, too - one of my ways of redirecting my head. I sunk into those passages about hiking in the wilderness, relished the idea of being in a cabin on top of a mountain, far from everything. Being a writer means there must be time to just think. It's essential, in fact, to have that time to make work that means something. There must be time to open the door to feeling a full range of human emotions and making something of it. But that isn’t always the reality of a writing life now. Social media, Zoom meetings, continuous access to nonstop news and chatter surrounds us. Even as we stay at home, minus the distractions (and fun) of in-person social interactions, that noise is there as soon as we wake up and look at our phone to see what time it is and what the temperature is outside. Pay attention or we might miss something important. It’s anything but contemplative.
Isn’t it odd that our chance at being just that - more contemplative, more introspective, and better writers as a result - is blown to smithereens by the need to know what’s going on out there? We are missing something important by trying not to miss something important: deeper thinking that offers insights we cannot piece together by staying on the surface of everything.
On Tuesday afternoon, as I worked on this very post, I ignored all the “you can get so much done” messages out there for now, ignored all the “keep moving” admonishments. I wrote a draft, then walked away from the computer to take a two-mile walk with my husband. We talked about his work, my work, how people we know are adjusting. When I came back to these pages, I decided to redefine what my writing life looks like going forward. More stillness. Less chatter. A pace that invites unformed ideas to rise like yeast bread, get kneaded, rise some more. You go right ahead and keep moving. I’m going to take some time to think and revise.