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.

The Music of Effort

I start paying attention after 17 minutes or so — the meter on the elliptical estimates that I am burning 24.3 calories every minute. I am about halfway through the current “run,” and I will burn through 720 calories in 30 minutes and well over 800 when I include the five minutes of cool-down time that the machine grants me at the end of the workout. I get pissed because the timer starts as soon as I start moving my feet, and the first 15 seconds are “slow.” I make up for it. After a five minute break, I jump on another machine that allows me to take longer strides, and run for 12 minutes, aiming for 7-minute miles. It’s a workout.

This is not about working out.

I listen to music while I work out. My playlist is a series of hard and fast (mostly) rock and roll songs. If you were in the gym with me, you would see me silently singing along. “Need a little time to wake up. Need a little time to wake up, wake up. Need a little time to rest your mind. You know you should, so I guess you might as well…” Or  “Save the strong, lose the weak—never turning the other cheek. Trust nobody, don’t be no fool. Whatever happened to the golden rule?” Or, “Touch me, take me to that other place. Reach me, I know I’m not a hopeless case. What you don’t have, you don’t need it now. What you don’t know, you can feel it somehow. What you have you don’t need it now, don’t need it now.” Or “We’re going boom, boom, boom, and that’s the way we live.” There are others.

This is not about the music I listen to while I work out.

When I was a swimmer—in high school, college, and after—there was no music in the pool—at least no music that wasn’t already in my head. I had a much shorter playlist then—just a four or five songs any given day that I played over and over again in my head while I churned through mile after mile. I had a little hortator pounding away, beat after beat, distracting me from the pain in my shoulders and knees, guiding me through the agony of hard work. When I took swimming back up, there was a waterproof mp3 player that took over that task, but by then, I felt swum out — besides, it’s hard to sing with your face in the water. Drowning.

Seriously, this is not about music and workouts.

Several years ago, I tipped my hat to loud music in a sermon that praised the virtues of Rock and Roll as a way to access the spiritual. I noted how Coldplay’s “Sky Full of Stars” worked up to and encouraged a communal moment of dance/rave. I pointed to U2’s “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” as a memoir about the discovery of the Ramones by someone “young, not dumb, and wishing to be blinded.”  It might as well be my memoir. Or yours. Rock and Roll has the power to blind us, the way a flash of lightning blinds us. There are times when we need to be blinded, when we need to erase all the sordid images of the day from our mind’s eye so that we can start fresh, and see with new eyes, hear with new ears, and feel with newly opened arms. Or something like that.

When I work out, I play music that beats back the exhaustion of the day, and that transports me into the steady hard effort that burns an extra few calories and raises my heartbeat to 170 beats a minute. I don’t want much—just a kind of blindness. And yet, I’m not blind to any of it. I feel all the effort—I love it—every ache, every heartbeat, every drop of sweat. The music helps me break through the “tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-lust of intentional indifference.” I sweat “with a decent happiness.”

I play music while I write. Listening to the same piece helps me reenter the dream with the same mood. Unlike Annie Dillard, who demands a Spartan silence while she works, I need the wall of sound. Maybe this is because I spent years with a sound in my head while I sped through the pool in repeated max-effort swims. I have an affinity for noise and the distraction of the world. After all, I am, always, writing about the world—how could it be a distraction? Yes, there are moments when the actual world fades, when the world made of words engulfs me, and when I get blinded, properly and completely blinded by the work.

I wish that experience for any and every writer. Whatever it takes to get you properly and completely consumed by the world that you strive to create, do it. If silence gets you there, find a quiet place. If noise and distraction get you into the state of mind that produces all the words, then find that noisy place and work it.

As I revised my novel, I discovered that my book needed a scene or two—how did I leave THAT out? (I know why. I wasn’t ready to write it, not yet.) And so, knowing that the magic of Gorecki’s Symphony Number 3 was not going to generate the energy that these scenes needed, I dug into the catalog and pulled out Led Zepplin’s “When The Levee Breaks,” because weeping and moaning were ahead. And, yes, that song is on the workout playlist. When it plays, I feel the story coming from the muscles in my arms and legs—not just my head. I breathe deep, my heart races, and the words flow like sweat. Fortunately, I like to sweat.

If it keeps on raining, levee’s goin’ to break. Let it break, I’m ready for the onslaught—bright and loud.


Hurt, Pain, and Agony (swimming and writing)

At the end of a day at work, I had a low grade fever on Monday, and so I had a choice to make—go home or go to the gym.

When I was in high school and college, I swam competitively. I was a good swimmer, not a great one, but I had made myself a better one and took pride in the effort. I enjoyed practice, in spite of the fact that practice hurt. The predominant swim coach of my youth was James “Doc” Counsilman. He prescribed—preached, really—the progression of hurt, pain, and agony as the single lane toward improvement. I gobbled up his Science of Swimming, and pushed myself into agony and better results. I never became an elite swimmer. I came to the sport too late and without the technical proficiency needed to excel beyond my willingness to work to the point of physical failure, but I did become a much better swimmer.

I hated to miss practice. I went when I had a fever. I went my my shoulders felt shredded. I went if I had the flu. I pushed my body hard enough to compromise my immune system, and plunged my body into a staph infection that ravaged me for a month. I kept at it.

I briefly considered quitting when I was in college. While Swarthmore was a place to be committed to study, most of the swimmers on the team joined to be fit, or to explore the sport. I was maniacal, and therefore, felt more often than not alone on the team. I missed the hard driven team of my high school. Also, I was not used to being out ahead of everyone else. This is not a boast, just the nature of the circumstance. There were other teams on which I would have not made the cut. I knew that.

I rejoined the team, refocused my effort, and pushed on.

So, I felt under the weather on a Monday. Let me put this into context. Nearly every day at my job, someone calls out sick; I have enough free time in my schedule that I am able to cover other people’s classes. I do not understand being sick and missing work. I know it happens—I have had migraines, back spasms, and bronchitis in the past fifteen years. I had knee surgery fifteen years ago (torn meniscus). I get it. Illness happens. I admit to being stupidly judgmental about this.

For many recent years, I worked seven day weeks. If I got sick, my body, as if on cue, waited until I had a break in the school year. And then, I somehow avoided being ill on Sunday; I worked for a church. It just happened that way. The little stuff—a headache, some intestinal discomfort, a low fever—was just part of the day. Buddha might have said that desire causes suffering, but it seemed to me that a small amount of suffering was simply part of life. Swimming had taught me that.

I claim that swimming taught me that lesson, but I am not so sure, because there were—are—aspects of my life that suffering has upended. While I could fight through a workout, or endure lengthy stretches of difficulty in a relationship or job (perhaps endure too willingly and for too long), when it came to my writing, I backed away from the agony. Agony for writers, I think, is a bit different from agony for swimmers. Muscle pain and, what? brain pain—I hesitate to call it heart pain—are different creatures. Physical pain ends—for most. Certainly the kind of agony I courted in the pool stayed mainly in the pool, at least until my knees needed surgery. Mental pain permeates the day—you can stop writing and still feel the agony of an unsuccessful scene—anything less than glowing prose. And when even the good writing does not find a reader, then the agony feels for naught.

Writing does not quantify the same way swimming does. More writing does not necessarily guarantee better writing (There is a correlation, but it’s more slippery) the way that more (more yards, more effort) swimming leads to faster times. Nor does it compare well with work, where improvement and accomplishment have monetary results. Does a higher salary indicate a job better done—or for that matter a more valuable job? I guess that depends on how you ascribe value.

Maybe because good writing—whatever that means—is dependent on the reader, if one seeks to write well, one either needs a fairly reliable ability to dissociate from the absolute creative process and read one’s own work as a stranger might, or have a reliable enough reader to sort through her—or his—work. But more than that, one has to engage the work almost without a thought for oneself. There is a second dissociation—and this is like swimming: one must be attuned to the pain and the pain cannot matter.

For instance—and this is an insight into my judgmental brain—I described a character whose skin turned browner while he worked for weeks and months outside as “brown as a berry.” This is an old cliche, and one that I first overheard in the British Virgin Islands while sitting at dinner. Some old man—I was 12 or 13, everyone was “old”—described me in his British accent as “brown as a berry.” I did not know then that it was a cliche, and the phrase stuck, because my experience of berries tended to berries of red and blue and possibly black—the blackberries that grew wild on bushes near my home. It felt foreign and I enjoyed that the phrase had some unexplained—for then—British origins. The phrase dropped into my work, and I knew it was hackneyed when I wrote it—a minor disaster, I suck as a writer—and when I revised, I took it out. I knew that I would. But I had to move on while I was writing, I could not spend five minutes, let alone twenty-five, figuring out some turn of phrase. In the end, I let it be simple: “his arms turned brown by the sun.”

Does that sound like agony? Sucking as a writer is agony. The realization that my work would not please everyone—and that I still had to do the work—was not easy to accept; secretly, I believe that the whole point of writing workshops is to learn to ignore critiques as much as to learn from them. How does one know when the work is “not good”? Or, for that matter, “good”? Rickie Nelson sang, “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself” (more hackneyed advice from my childhood). There is agony in those questions.

And so, on Monday, I headed to the gym. I shortened my workout, burning down 500 calories in 23 minutes. It was shorter, not less arduous. I was in various forms of discomfort through the first half of the week—my insides disagreed with something I ate. I kept at the gym anyway. And then—always and then—I read the first chapter of my novel out loud at an open reading on Friday, and sent off the first set of query letters to agents on Saturday. The book, for now, is done. I wrote this. And I started the next book.

I am prepared for the work, even if it hurts, even if I am in agony. I have trained for this all my life.

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.

Repetition, again.

Is it any surprise that repetition plays a significant role in my life? I came of age as an athlete knocking out sets of 30 200 yard freestyle swims. They were yardage eaters—a quick and dirty way to lay in 6000 yards of workout and buy time for rest of the yards that the coach had in mind. We finished them at intervals of 2:30, 2:20, and 2:10, which left 50 minutes for the rest of the practice—an easy pace for the two to four thousand yards to come. Pushing off the wall every two minutes and thirty seconds, there was time for conversation between swims. Leaving at every two minutes and ten seconds put a crimp on anything other than brief exchanges: “This sucks,” “Stop hitting my feet,” “I’m hungry.”

We did this day after day.

With my head down in the water, my eyes trained on the feet of the swimmer who left 5 seconds before me—chasing, always chasing. In high school I was far from the fastest swimmer on the team. I made myself a better swimmer. One summer I traveled to Iowa and a training regimen that increased the junior varsity’s load of 3500 yards in an afternoon’s hour long practice, to 22,000-28,000 yards spread over three practices every day. I lost whatever baby fat—and whatever other fat—that my 15 year old frame carried, crashed my immune system—catching a nasty staph infection that laid me up for days after I returned home—and sliced ten seconds off my hundred breaststroke time. No mean feat. I made the varsity team. Repetition was the way.

Years later, when I was a graduate student in English, I read books two and three times. I would attack most of the books for my classes in two weeks before the beginning of the semester, then again as we read them as a class. The initial reading with facile, getting the joys and traps of plot out of the way, allowing the words—and all the ideas in the words—to come to the fore when I read along with the class. If I wrote about a particular book, I read it again, and some passages, dozens of times.

Since I was in school to write, I wrote and rewrote some stories six or seven times. My classmates, colleagues, cow-writers, and teachers, shared the demanding mantra: “All writing is rewriting.” And we practiced what we preached.

As a teacher, I sometimes warn my students that this—and the years to come in college—are the best years, because of the preponderance of the new. Almost everything they learn is, will be, new. Each encounter with something new gives a new opportunity for mastery—another shot at sudden improvement and the giddy transformative moment of adding some unknown idea to the swirl of self.

I warn them because at some point there lives will bend toward repetition. Yes, the repetition may lead to a finer, hard-earned mastery. I think of all the miles that I put into the pool, and how it shaped and shapes my body (still). I think of the ways that great works give up new meanings after repeated shared readings, and how I became a more aware reader. And while I may not rewrite as much as I once did—obsessively, compulsively, debilitatingly—I know that writing begets writing—good, bad, or otherwise. The thing is to write, over and over, every day, without fear, even without hope. The words will bear you up. Push off. Go again.

Well do I know that repetition can suck the joy from the flower of life—making no honey, leaving all empty, colorless, scentless. I do not how how I managed all those laps in the pool, with nothing but the dull roar of water passing my ears, the steady ache and agony of my muscles, and the songs that played in my mind, setting an unimaginable pace. There was joy at the end of each 200 yards—“Good time!”—and these little victories provided enough of a goad to return to repeat success. Who determined what was a “good” time? I did, in concert with the clock—the cold but consistent arbiter of performance. Time, as opposed to opinion, never wavered. The clock was not making a comment because it had a good or a bad day. Go again.

I hope that my students will discover some place where they can demonstrate mastery, and change the long monotonous drone of repetition into a glorious repeated success. That they will find a way to insist, “Again, again,” holding on to that inner childlike joy. That in spite of how hard their task may be, that their arbiters are, if not cold, consistent and consistently challenging. I hope all this for myself as well.

The sweeping red hand of the clock on the wall flies past the black hashmarks: two minutes and one second; two minutes and two seconds, two minutes and three seconds. I breathe deep, and get ready. Here I go. Again.


I gave a quick talk to my congregation about Beltane this past Sunday and it felt awful.  I hope it did not seem that way to the people who heard it. I talked about the beginning of summer and moving the cattle to the summer pastures, and, glancingly, about animal generation as opposed to vegetable generation.  I commented that our animal lives need more intentional tending, and then connected the whole spiel to what kinds of things the kids (and congregation) do intentionally to help their households and the church.  We are, after all, in pledge season.

But this absolutely failed to address the deeper meanings and possibilities that Beltane has for me. I tend to see religion and spirituality in their most metaphoric values. Man, as meaning maker, defines the unknown (and even the known) world with stories; I am supremely interested in those stories.

As a story, Beltane contains so much that is vital.  It is driven by agriculture and animal husbandry. Half way—kind of—between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice, after the planting season has finished its first great stage and the buds have either burst, or are about to burst, the cattle is sent to the summer pastures.  Unlike plants, animals require direct contact to generate; no bees act as romantic intermediaries. Just as seeds would be blessed before going into the earth, the flocks received blessings on their way to the fields—so much relied on the herd and its health.

Beltane was not simply about cattle.  At its heart, and as it is celebrated now, it marks the joining of the goddess and the god—of nature and man.  Human generation was equally essential. Infant and maternal mortality rates were staggering.  Fertility was a bulwark against decimation and disappearance.

In Matthew, Jesus Christ counsels, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.” Nature, as opposed to agriculture, finds its own way. It is, if you will, in some god or goddess’ hands. Life waxes and wanes in (sometimes perilous) balance, but it is a balance that existed before us and without us.  When we began to organize the world to suit our needs, it behooved us to learn nature’s rhythms. Nowadays with food produced on demand and infant and maternal mortality rates reduced to be exceptionally and not ordinarily tragic, nature’s rhythms seem more distant. We can live as we please.  “Can live,” of course is different from how we do live.  We are caught in other less natural rhythms.

What strikes me about Beltane is the confluence of intention and nature.  Or, to put it another way, how we think about will and desire. Human sexual desire, or eros, if you wish, tends to be framed as an ungovernable facet of who and what we are. It is the part of us that is most of nature.  We talk about “chemistry” between people that leads to romance, and this implies some kind of arcane, mystical experience.  Our desire for love, for children, for sex, is baked into us.  It may be influenced by those less natural rhythms (I can only be turned on by movie star beauty), but desire is not a bus that I can drive. I am a passenger.

And yet, we, as people make things—homo sapiens, and homo faber.  We think.  We make. And making takes will and intention.  It seems to me that we fall back on inspiration—crediting our ideas to a muse or providence or some other source—rather than staking a claim to our own will.  “Rage–Goddess, sing the rage” begins my copy of Homer’s Iliad.  The goddess provided the song, and then like an amanuensis Homer put her will onto the page. Even Rilke’s” rope-maker in Rome” must have some ancient idea of rope, “formed over generations” that guides her hands.

Isn’t there something wild in creation, in making, too?  Isn’t there some aspect of it that is more closely (if, at times a bit mechanically) connected to eros?

I first learned of Beltane what seems like a million years ago, when reading George Frazier’s The Golden Bough (driven there by an interest in understanding Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; go figure, I was a movie nerd). I conflated Beltane and Bloomsday when I read Ulysses (there’s a paper to be written somewhere in all that), and made even more use of those ideas when I read Finnegan’s Wake. I am not the only one who has linked Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas of carnival with Beltane.  So I became more than a movie nerd.

Still, what always bothered me was the ritual, and the programmatic nature of the one day (Mardi Gras, Purim, Beltane, Bloomsday) that was meant to somehow contain the generative energy that the ritual pointed to.  It almost always felt that the ritual existed to cordon off all that energy to one safely wild day—or a week, in the case of something like Burning Man.  And I understand that, even if I don’t like it, because who can live with wildness every day?  Who can make love with the kind of reckless abandon that honors the goddess every single time? Who can tap into the discordant creative chaos of the subconscious each time he or she picks up a pencil, a palette knife, or a paint brush? Who would set himself on fire, over and over again, only to return, each time, more brilliant and more ready, once again, for the flame?

It’s just not a way to live, unless one has decided that it’s the only way to live.