I’m not writing right now. I’m taking notes. I’m reading a lot, watching lots of bad TV after the kids go to sleep. I don’t mind not writing because it feels like part of writing to me. Because the world, right now, everything: I’m trying to take it in; I’ve been quite sad.
No one ever has to write a novel. No one has to write a second or a third, and, if they do, no one has to publish it. If it gets published, no one has to give a shit. It’s a strange thing to do, and to continue doing, knowing all of this. Sometimes, usually on a run, I try to hold that idea in my head, to roll around in it: what would it feel like, to just be quiet, to just listen, from now on.
It’s sort of extraordinary, to remember and then to try to make sense of that feeling of I don’t have to do this. That feeling that, each time I choose again to do this, it involves a level of insanity, of self-delusion, an almost obscene level of self-importance, that I can’t quite look at head on. I have to do this because it is my job, but my job is also teaching, it’s also writing about other people’s work, reading, talking to other writers about their work.
I think often about critics who started out as fiction writers, the ones who don’t write fiction any more, the idea presented by plenty of smarter people before me that an important and necessary step of Becoming a Writer is acknowledging how far your work is from the work you want to make and deciding whether you want to double down now that you know how impossible the work in front of you still is, or to just get out.
I don’t think that “getting out” is anything approximating failure. I think it’s smart and self-protective, and not in the patronizing, secretly doubting one’s courage or whatever bullshit way that might be read. I mean it truly. I think not writing, stopping writing, finding other ways of telling stories or creating intimacy, engaging with the conversation, deciding to be in the actual world instead, is a completely admirable and sometimes necessary choice.
It feels important to remind myself that this isn’t a thing I have to do, if only to appreciate the urgency I also feel when I feel again like I have to finish something at all costs. It feels important to find my way back to the place that, when I do make something again, it’s because it’s something I feel desperate suddenly to be making, that--and please know I recognize that this feels more spiritual or whatever than I am--it has to be about the thing, and not about whether or not anyone will ever give a shit.
Another way of saying maybe what I’m trying to say is, when I am outside of a project, the remembering I don’t have to do this feels important. It is a reminder too that I don’t just want to Make Something but I want to Make Something Good; it’s a reminder that I don’t often trust I can. I think it gets harder and harder, as one gets older, maybe in all things, to drown out the voices that might tell you that you will inevitably fail (I know already that I’ll always fail; getting back inside of something is largely finding a way to convince myself I might fail a little better this time around).
I’m not saying this in order that someone respond here and offer me encouragement. That’s a lovely impulse but I’m fine. I say this because I know a lot of people that I know and love are in a similar circumstance and it feels worth saying that that chasm is huge and mawing, sometimes it feels awful, but also, I think it’s just one of many necessary steps.
Anyway. Instead of writing, I’ve been reading. Often, reading is the way I find my way back. So much is so awful and one of the worst things for me has been the isolation. It’s felt like a pretty extraordinary gift in this particular time to be a person who gets to and loves to read, to get to hear from other people, to feel close to them, even as we can’t.
I thought I’d offer some of it down here; if I’ve been going on and on in this space (no doubt to the point that some of you have stopped opening these emails) about offerings, I think maybe one thing I feel up to giving right now is the particular gift of what other people have to say.
A friend of mine, Jordan Kisner, is also a brilliant essayist and journalist. Her collection of essays, Thin Places, came out a year ago, and comes out in paperback soon. It’s so sharp and deeply felt and I’m not sure I can recommend it highly enough.
This essay that Jordan also wrote, on Silvia Federici and waged housework I’ve had open in a tab for weeks, returning to and re-considering it: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/17/magazine/waged-housework.html
I love George Suanders and also love to be challenged with regard to the things I love and this Jennifer Wilson essay on the Empathy Industrial Complex felt so exciting and necessary and shifted something for me:
This Katy Waldman piece about the show Dickinson, which, after reading this, I started watching and am obsessed with:
This Namwali Serpell essay on the Pixar move “Soul” felt like a master class in thoughtful, lacerating criticism:
This Hannah Gold interview with Vivian Gornick:
Jessica Winter’s The Fourth Child; there’s so much about this book I love, not least the sentences, which pretty continually stunned me, but also the deliberateness and care with which it was built. I talked to Jessica about it for Lithub here: but also, you can just buy the book here.
Other books that came out recently and that I found to be pretty wonderful in different ways:
Justine, by Forsyth Harmon
What’s Mine is Yours, Naima Coster
Brood, Jackie Polzin
Acts of Desperation, Megan Nolan
I’ve been kind of obsessively reading books about and by writers and visual artists and some that were really wonderful, I thought, were:
Hold Still, Sally Man
Faux Pas, Amy Sillman
Sempre Susan, Sigrid Nunez
I read Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women years ago and wrote about it and clearly none of you read that because only now does everyone seem to be reading the book, so this is me re-upping on my belief that it is amazing and well worth the investment that its size demands.
The Power of Adrienne Rich, Hillary Holladay
The Woman Who Says No, Malte Herwig
Being Here is Everything, Marie Darrieussecq
The Equivalents, Maggie Doherty