Writing, the pandemic, and distraction

Writing during the pandemic has been difficult. Each day I felt the tap-tap-tap of news on my shoulder. The muse grew silent and was replaced by an incessant whisper about infection rates, intubations, and death tolls. Sometimes the whisper roared into a press briefing, and I listened, wanting to know, firsthand, not trusting the arbiters of history to tell me what was what.

To be fair, since AIDS swept over the landscape, I have been virus-obsessed. I read about pandemics in the 80s and 90s. Diseases are one of the secret threads that weave in and out of history. When COVID-19 struck, I felt enmeshed in an account that I already knew, but that did not make me any less interested. I watched and listened as the tale unfolded, aware of the habits that surround such events. None of the rhetoric or the inaction surprised me, which is not to say that I hoped for better or despaired when the all too predictable happened. I take solace in the knowledge that it was not as bad as it might have been.

Still, it was a distraction. Add in the other distractions in my life, and writing has been difficult.

I have written about distraction before here, and about listening to the muse. Until the pandemic, I spent a day each week writing in noisier spaces—surrounded by art and people. Throughout my writing life, I have gotten much when surrounded by others. The presence of human voices and human effort inspires me. When I write, I am conscious of the conversation that surrounds my words, and I add my words to that conversation. Sometimes the conversation is less grand than a response to the announcement of Ashurnarsirpal II of his greatness. It may be a polite transactional response to the sale of a napoleon and coffee—the man at the counter has them waiting for me before I reach the front of the line—at the Courtyard Café in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Words—even these—are little more than transactions. We like to romanticize the expressive characteristics of language—the eternal “I am here!” Yet, even that is meant to turn a head or stop a step. Even the king, especially the king, wants to be noticed. Otherwise, why speak? The transaction here is less quantifiable. A friend once asked, “What do you see your work leading to?” It was a marketing question, and it’s a fair question. As a budding novelist, I am aware that at their hearts, novels are a commercial form—a grand transaction requiring the enduring attention of a reader. The request each word makes is: “Keep reading.”

Each word also requests, “Keep writing.” In this way, words are kind of tricky, and, if you will, like a virus, creating the conditions for their replication and spread. I’m not sure what the words actually spread (more words?)—the ideas and quality of the writing do not seem to matter so much (a terrifying thought to a writer who attempts something more). Of course, lousy writing will fail (mostly), and like a virus that cannot find a host, it disappears. I will not extend the metaphor; I have viruses on my mind.

Perhaps what writing creates is attention: the attention of the writer who creates it and the reader who what? interprets it? Consumes it? Well, let’s settle on: reads it. During the pandemic, other viruses have taken possession of my attention. Enough. It’s time to give into my original illness.

Shoulders And Work

Several months ago, my right shoulder started to hurt—not the dull pain of repeated effort, but a sharp bite. The trainer at my club diagnosed it as a rotator cuff injury. I was not surprised. Years ago, I tore at my shoulders when I swam miles and miles every day. Another trainer put a finer point on my struggles, telling me that backstroke (which had been a staple of my midlife training regimen) often drove swimmers out of the pool. And so, I tended my form, keeping my hands and grips in neutral positions while I pushed and pulled weight. Then I gave up the weights for a couple of months and added exercises to strengthen my rotator cuffs. Time has taught me to listen to my body more carefully. And taught me that old wounds can return decades later.

This past month, stuck inside during the pandemic, I started lifting again and welcomed the natural hurts that result from earnest work. It feels good to work and to bear with the pain. The endorphins from extended workouts help carry me through the barrage of news, which, much to my chagrin, I cannot ignore. Lift this. Watch the heart rate settle into the 170s. At least it makes sleep come more easily.

Not everything true for the body is true for the mind. Or the heart.
I also wrapped up a more extensive revision of one book while stewing over the next. The most recent update of Grammarly highlighted the more prolix passages of the old work, so even though images and scenes in the new book pile up, I felt the call to rewrite. Rewriting leads to re-visioning. The question, “How did I leave that out?” occurred more than I liked, and so I added connective tissue. I edited my more complicated impulses into simpler—and more direct?—chunks.

And revision, though inspired by some strange angels, does not require the same fiery vision as the initial draft. Without rooms of art to goad me (the DC museums have been closed since early March), it was easier to return to the old work. “Easier” is hardly the right word. The same way that I had to restart lifting below the peaks I had reached in December, I came back to the book with a diminished sense of it. In that diminishment, I found a new way in. I was no longer in love with the characters, or with myself as their creator. I was able to question my motives and choices in ways that I was unable six months ago when I made my first rattling revision.

Still, as much as I rediscovered and redirected in this recent edit, I felt as if I was betraying my new work. I have begun to dream about those characters. While others around me are infected with fever driven dreams of the pandemic, I have felt pulled to another vision—the anxiety churns a different sea. Just as I lift barbells in an otherwise empty gym—counting my reps out loud while Arthur Morey narrates Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct—this new work pushes me. It is familiar and different.

The ache in my shoulder is familiar and different. I know what to avoid and how to strengthen the weak places. The old wounds and old ways remind me of a past that I have lived, but there are new steps to take. My narrator welcomes me into her thoughts and reflections and challenges me to get out of my own way. A whole world opens ahead of me, dream-laden, and no longer bound to anything I have worked on before. There will be work.

Breaking Up with a Novel, Falling in Love with the Next One

So, your brain works like this when you begin a relationship: a steady stream of oxytocin lasts about two years and gets you through the infatuation stage. During that time, you are giddily in love, and you do the due diligence (or you don’t) that gets you to something more lasting, something, possibly, permanent.


Here’s the trick. If you are still working on a novel after two years, it is time to throw it overboard. No, seriously. Part of what gets a reader to pass into the dream you wrote is a similar flood of hormones. Reading requires infatuation. Yes, you can pack a novel with drama and with exotic wildness, but somehow, somewhere the depth of infatuation a writer feels for his or her work will emanate from the page and enchant the reader. Or it will not–keep in mind that each reader will be enchanted with something different. But we tend to fall in love with willing partners. Enchantment breeds enchantment.

Novelists are oxytocin junkies. We fall in love—or we fall in love enough—to write and write against all expectation of a result, daftly believing in what we are doing in spite of no promise of permanence. And then, when we finish, we move on—or try to. Some novelists visit and revisit characters, unable to move on. There are a number of reasons: security (this stuff was published once, so why not try again?); habit (I already know these characters, this time and place); anxiety (how will I find another novel to write? I’ll just do this again—sort of).

Great novelists work the same material over and over. Think of all the orphans in Dickens, or all of his switched and hidden identities. Or all the women negotiating lives surrounded by powerful if vision-impaired men in Woolf. Faulkner built Yoknapatawpha County and then inhabited and re-inhabited it again and again. Maybe J.K. Rowling knew that she was beginning a 7 volume world at the start, but how could commercial success not have impacted that world? I could go on.

I could just as easily line up novelists who produced one, maybe two books and then stopped. Might I suggest that they were not prepared for the jarring and harrowing experience of finishing a book—of feeling bereft, broken up with? Their lives were intertwined with that book. It had been the one (as it should be, as it must be!). Yet, once the flow of oxytocin stopped, that’s where they were. Done. And done.

Would falling in love with the process be a solution? You get the oxytocin for two years, it doesn’t matter what—or who—you fall in love with. After the infatuation, you have to learn another way to love. Something more indelible. Love your process like that. I have been writing every day for years—fits and starts, fiction and nonfiction. I used it as a base on which I found a more fiery, single love (that book). After finishing it, I crashed hard, but I also had the writing, some kind of writing, to propel me forward.

I will find another, brighter love as I go forward. Another novel beckons. Before I berate myself too much for the difficulty of beginning the next, I must acknowledge that I am still haunted by the ghost of the last. My brain misses the rush of turning to those words, those characters, those places. So to will your brain. Be ready. It’s just the oxytocin. Just.

And so, I revisit places—the Calders at the National Gallery of Art remind me of the value of clean lines, whimsy, and balance (always balance!). In spite of the heartache, there is beauty—beauty made by hands, not simply discovered in nature. Although that beauty too—the changing fall colors, the scent of the season even as I walk on the National Mall—fills my sails with new wind.

I take my iPad to bed and write as I imagine Proust did, propped up among the pillows. If only the cats would bring me coffee. I have a table in a library on which I arrange my materials, and where I make progress. I wait for the next rush of crust-breaking hormones, chipping away with sad hands until that day arrives—when the glimmer becomes a fire again. I am ready.

Vulnerability (sadness and happiness) and Writing

I have had long stretches of sadness in my life. Not depression, mind you. I dipped an oar in that black river at the end of my annus horribilis; I learned the difference. Sadness is not intractable. It will seem odd to hear this, but I cherish my sadness. I do not revel in it, nor do I valorize it, but when it comes, as it must, I do not turn away from it as from an unwelcome guest. There are good reasons to feel sad. This past year has laid a few at my feet. I have made decisions that would, at some point, along with a bounty of other emotions, cause me sadness.

Sadness passes. So does happiness. I am happy by default. I have a sleep app that prompts me to reflect on how I feel at the end of the day. I almost always designate “happy,” even on days that I also tag as stressful. Even on days when I have felt sad at some point during the day. However, I do not feel happy exclusively, nor do I adamantly cling to that emotion.

When I grew up, my mother warned my brothers and me away from things that would make us feel sad. She policed movies and television shows that grappled with serious and discomforting issues like nuclear war or actual (not fictional) crime. The ugliness never plagued me as much as the shutting off of truth did. Information—truth—drew me with powerful magnetism. Even now after watching the news of the day, I can let anger and sadness pass even as the information remains. There are rare occasions when the cacophony of information drowns out other, happier possibilities. There are times when the information mixes with personal challenges and setbacks. The personal is harder to overcome.

I fortify my day with opportunities for joy. I surround myself with students—people who are younger than I am. They have avoided the cynicism that adults wear too willingly. I go to the gym and lift weights, then charge ahead on the elliptical for 23 hard minutes (530 calories burned!). This summer, I took my place at the table in the school library and worked at my book. I go home, cook dinner (steak, broccoli, and brown rice with avocado), then read. I head to bed at a reasonable hour.

Sometimes, happiness—extreme happiness—is necessary. The first big push for a new writing project requires a kind of ignorant and unabated bliss. There are 100,000 words ahead, and no one may ever read them, but I am going to write them anyway. I began this past book in the bountiful throes of such exuberance. Boundless joy carried me into the first hundred pages of my book. Fortunately, when the cause for that joy left my life, the writing continued. I was writing—at last!—and that became the source of joy for me.

The Doctor on Horseback

Even now, writing this, I feel happy. I look at a photograph from a year ago: the doctor on horseback. I am ecstatic. The novel had not yet begun. As far as the horse carried me, the novel carried me farther—and further. It helps to know the difference.

When I was depressed in 2002, I sought out a counselor, and he advised me that happiness was, if not an illusion, then, at least, a particularly difficult aim. He made this suggestion because I was tangled up in feeling that I was mistaken for not being able to feel happy. My relationship of the past 6 years had ended. I was teaching in a strange place, and my friends were hundreds of miles away. My mother had just gone through a harrowing battle with cancer. My father had just died. Happiness was, at best, elusive. And, perhaps most damning of all, I was not writing.

Writing is difficult—for the reasons I pointed toward above, but also because it requires a kind of vulnerability. One must, at once, care and not care at all about the reader. One must care, and not care at all, about the outcome of the effort. One must learn to love the process above all. This is true of life as well, but writing lays this truth bare in ways that many other kinds of work do not. It is work, and it is, absolutely, not.

No matter what other happiness—even joy—passes from my life, this more vulnerable happiness remains. It was always there, waiting for me to find it, perhaps waiting for me to need it. Finding it, and needing it, I am vulnerable now—open to a more profound sadness—but also open to a deeper joy. I write and proceed.

500 pages

I graduated from SUNY-Binghamton with a Ph.D. in English Literature/Creative Writing in 1994. Before I went to graduate school, I did not know what I wanted to be. I had written a little earlier in life, and had taken a fiction workshop while I was an undergraduate, but my sense of myself as a writer was hazy at best. Still, I had done some work and I applied to writing programs in the spring of 1988. I was accepted at Binghamton.

While I was in graduate school, I wrote stories, a novel that I shelved, some poetry, and essays. I also wrote a slew of academic papers. Mostly, I read furiously and widely, delving into a world of literature and philosophy that had not existed for me before I began this turn in my life. I still have many of the books that I read in those six years and they are either a bulwark or an anchor. Now, they seem more like part of a wall that divided my life into the time when I did not write, the time I discovered writing, and the time I stopped writing.

That time ended in 2018 when I considered moving away from family and the jobs I held in Norfolk. I had been separated and divorced for four years. Calamity at one of my jobs resonated in my life. I was at sea. I needed to find a ground that was not defined by the needs and desires of other people. I needed, frankly, to be selfish and directed. I do not believe that it is a surprise (to me at least) that my colleagues sent me packing with the book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck when I left in August of 2018. Message received.

Because I did give a fuck — too many fucks — not just in my professional work and personal life, but in my writing. Unlike some of my one time classmates, I felt called to writing not so much because I had a need to express myself, but almost in spite of any need to exclaim, “Here I am!” I was obsessed with getting at some ineffable and intractable truth that existed outside my narrow sense of self. I wrote with an evangelical zeal. Can I say that art motivated by such a keening has little easy air to breathe? It does not. My stories, even when they were fantastic, needed to tread more often on the ground.

When I started writing this blog in 2014, I was in China to adopt my daughter. I started to write about simple human truths that were grounded in my simple human experiences. I hoped that my observations would have some resonance with others, but I wrote without too much of a concern for an audience. The work proceeded in fits and starts after that initial push. And then it flared into this—a daily practice of reflection and direction. That fire lit the flame of the novel I finished in August and has carried me into a second.

My writing projects since May of 2018 have produced over 500 pages of words. Some are good. Some are better. My nonfiction has been largely about my writing and writing in general. My fiction has just been a story about a Djinn, almost a retelling of an older—much older—story, with some of my preoccupations thrown in for good measure.

Writing (fiction and nonfiction) has felt revivifying. I have enjoyed the deeper reflection and playful invention. The writing has come more easily and far more consistently than anything else and at any time I have ever written. Ever. I have looked forward to the task and have left it—whether I write for an hour or the better part of a day—feeling replenished. More will—and does—come.

When I shared this insight—500 pages! More is coming!—with a friend, I did so with the proviso: “in spite of the past year.” She corrected me: “Because of it.” Perhaps so. Perhaps I spent the past year and a half knocking myself off my moorings just so that I could get this work done, just so that I could reclaim all that I had feared was lost.

I told another friend that I felt a kind of urgency to write. She worried that I was ill or distressed. Yes, I have been distressed. Old wounds have haunted me and focused my attention. I have allowed them the space to heal. And have used the writing to help me heal.

While the writing has helped me gird myself against that distress, it has also allowed me to wrap myself in joy. I feel that joy more profoundly now than when I was starting out some thirty years ago. The old uncertainties have fallen away. I do not ask, “Is it good enough? Will there be another? Do I have the right?” Instead, I take solace in a more durable method that suits my heart and mind. I go this way.

What’s next…

I am in between.

Leaving the world of one book for another—even though I was only in that other world for just over ten months—is a discomforting experience. I feel as if I have broken up with my old book. I have put away the music I listened to while I was at work on that book. No more symphonic Led Zepplin. No more Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. I wonder about the habits of place and duration that propelled the writing of that novel. Can I still go to my Sunday retreats? My place in the library? I’m not married—a blessing and a curse—but I can see how putting one book down would have seismic effects in my personal life. Fortunately—and unfortunately—those changes were already built into this project.

Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch

I spent an hour or so in front of the blue chicken in the tower display of the National Gallery of Art’s East Building going through songs to build a playlist of new music. I have resorted to familiar places—they are still full of energies that may urge this new project on. But “Monekana” by Deborah Butterfield will not call to me, reminding me what constitutes my magical horse, Bellapari. I will miss Bellapari.

Monekana by Deborah Butterfield

What I take forward is a method—because although Butterfield’s sculpture will no longer sing its mythic song full of infinite purpose, something else will open doors to vision that I have not yet seen. I recall that even the Gorecki that drove two months of writing came only after I heard a snippet of it in an episode of Legion. Gifts come from everywhere. Even my Emira untethered herself from her initial source. All that remained constant was my presence at a keyboard, and my presence will be what carries me.

I messaged a friend as I headed into the last chapters “How did it take so long?” That is a long story, and it feels sadder and more pointless on reflection than it was while I went through it. Maybe the years away will end up having whet the creative blades to such a point that I will cut through the next and the next and the next book with the same—if not ease, then precise and playful resolve.

I have loaded the playlist, and gone to visit the angels. Bring on the thieves.

Stevenson Memorial by Abbott Handerson Thayer

Why the Djinn?

A friend asked where I got the idea for the Djinn. Here is the long story.

I wrote poems when I was in ninth and tenth grade. They were lengthy works with regular rhythm and rhyme. They told stories. When I asked my school to allow me to do an independent study in poetry writing, I was turned down, but one of my teachers suggested working with him to write sonnets and other formal verse. Stung by early rejection, I refused his offer.

I started writing fiction in college, and was accepted into a workshop in my senior year. After graduation, I started writing an espionage novel that had something to do with Monet’s Haystack paintings in the Hermitage, in St, Petersburg. I started work on a story about a baseball player. I started something about two friends who decided to go to college and pretended that they were ten years younger than they were.

I had a sense of the novel, and novel length stories, but at this point in my life, I had only read a few hundred novels—and many fewer short stories. Even though I started writing with poetry—blame A.A. Milne and Dr. Seuss for the sounds in my head—I had been enchanted by folk tales, fairy tales, and mythology at an early age. I took out book after book of myths (Greek, American—Native American and regional folk tales, Indian, Chinese—I was only limited by the selection on the shelves) from my the local and then elementary school library. My other interests in the library were the Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock anthologies of horror stories, atlases and encyclopedias.

I did not start reading adult novels until I was in 7th grade and a friend lent me his copy of The Guns of Navarone, after which I read everything that Alastair MacLean wrote. I made a mad dash through Kurt Vonnegut in 8th grade. I read all of Ursula K. LeGuin’s books before 9th grade. All this is a fairly slim bit of literature. My parents were not big readers—we had collections of Reader’s Digest Condensed Novels on our few bookshelves. My mother did read to us, sharing Beowulf and Poe stories. But we were not a bookish family. My brothers and I found what we looked for with relatively little guidance.

I was an able enough reader in high school, but short of Billy Budd, little of what I read stuck with me. On my own, I read all of Neil Simon’s plays, and other plays, and took up with science fiction and fantasy (Asimov, Tolkien, and a little known writer named Zenna Henderson). I read and reread Robin Graham’s account of his trip around the world, Dove. Mostly, I spent long hours listening to progressive rock, watching old movies, swimming, and driving the family car as far and as fast as I could.

In college, I discovered William Blake, James Joyce, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Gustave Flaubert. It was also when I read all of John Le Carre’s spy novels, The Joy of Sex, and the only Daniell Steel novel that ever passed my way—The Promise. The main focus of English Literature courses was exposure to more—and I share the story of having a short novel assigned between a Tuesday and Thursday class with my students now. I read widely and gleaned what I could as quickly as I could. In my junior year, I switched focus to Art History (same deal: memorize as many works of art—in order and with an understanding of importance—as fast as possible), which, fortunately included a Cinema class that greatly expanded my limited knowledge of film.

So, what does any of this have to do with Djinn? I suspect that strains of all this—and of all the events of my life to date—appear in this work. Mainly, there is the myth, the early fascination with and appreciation of the fantastic as a genre, and the long interest in things that were away from here.

I encountered the djinn—as genies—in Sinbad and the Tales of the 1001 Nights. This book re-entered my life while I was in graduate school, in large part because of John Barth’s insistence on non-western sources of and for stories. But also because, once I encountered the djinn (or jinn), I was impressed by their wiliness and cruelty. I wondered—right or wrong—whether they had been mis-portrayed by the writer of the 1001 Nights. Why would such power need to be cruel? To refer back to Blake—“…what shoulder & what art,/ Could twist the sinews of thy heart?” I wondered. But I did not pursue the djinn, not yet.

I wrote in other ways. Although I have a set of prose poems set in Philadelphia that delve into the fantastic, I followed the realist tropes of my time. Perhaps this is what kept me from finishing—I was writing away from the story in my heart. Last year, when I dropped everything to take on new responsibilities—to myself and my work—I set aside the piece I had feverishly labored over for over ten years. During that ten years, I had written down a brief thought about a character who was keeping a secret (secrets will be something I grapple with forever). Five years ago, I was waiting for friends in a Mexican restaurant, and dashed out to buy a composition book, wrote a couple of pages before they arrived , and promptly forgot the book at the restaurant.

That story became the story of the Djinn.

I was dating a woman who shared my appreciation for the 1001 Nights—you have a copy too?—and that was enough of a spark to light the fire in this book, because the kindling, and the logs, had been waiting all these many years. Suddenly, I had a character whose secret was so closely held that he did not even know he was keeping it. He had forgotten that he was a Djinn.

There are other connections to other parts of my life and my studies that fueled this fire. Some of those will remain secret. Others are perhaps too obvious for me to mention here. For those of you who wonder how novels—or anything—gets written—by others or by your own hand—the short answer is that we tell the stories that enchant us. The shorter answer is that we sit down and write every day. No matter what. Perhaps because we are enchanted and under some infernal command—I wish that you write a novel, Djinn. So be it.


Every Sunday, save for one or two while I was traveling, since April, I have wandered through the various art galleries on the National Mall. I carried my notebook with me, and wrote. There was something invigorating about being in the presence of beautifully made things—whether a drinking horn from the 6th century BCE, or a bronze horse from the late 20th century. Bits and pieces of what I saw inspired my writing, which was about an entirely different time and place.

The routine gave me something to anticipate each week while I was in the middle of my project. The two hours—one spent driving in, another on the way back—were worth the result. I found favorite places and favorite works. Monet’s painting of the Houses of Parliament has been a touchstone on these trips. It reminds me of an early interest in his work, of travels I have since taken, and of an approach to work that I have come to appreciate more and more. Partly that approach means honoring the routine, no matter what.

Routine seems like it would be the antithesis of inspiration. Think of the ways we denigrate the grind or the slog of work. Or the way we quote Emerson: “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” However, I would point out that Emerson nails “A foolish consistency,” not all consistency. I would hazard that there is a wise consistency to be found as well. Like wisdom, it is hard-earned, and requires a kind of flexibility. For instance, when my daughter came to visit, I did not insist on making my weekly sojourn because other plans (a trip to see our family) interrupted my routine. Or last week, when I took a day off (my rough draft was done, and I felt spent), I granted myself some quiet time.

This week, I am back at it though. The sun is once more setting behind the Houses of Parliament, and I have walked about half the distance I will walk the rest of a cloudy day in Washington DC. And I am writing—this now, but the revision continues apace. My routine will be important in the coming months because school has begun again, and without some carefully delineated routines, schoolwork can too easily consume time. Teacher’s always feel as if they could do more—one more brilliantly placed comment on an essay, one more after school event, one more meeting, all while managing the daily preparation. I will get to the gym—the body work supports the brain work. And I will set aside an hour (more as needed) a day to write. I will guard my sleep.

And, I hate to admit this, I will do less of other things. Some were just distractions (Sunday Morning News shows), others (dating) brought joy with the distraction. Like it or not, the wise routine will preclude even delightful entanglements—at least until the process of getting to a final draft (agent, publisher) wraps up. And, of course, the next book is waiting.

I’m not sure what I will find on the way ahead. I know that I will rely on my routines to get me through the uncertain times. And I will seek wisdom, and a wise consistency as I go. Inspiration this way waits.