I feel a little bit like the Burgess Meredith character Henry Bemis in The Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last.” In that episode, Bemis, an avid reader, finally has time to read to his heart’s content when he – and the local library – are the lone survivors of a nuclear war. However, just as he reaches for his first book, Bemis drops and breaks the eyeglasses he absolutely needs in order to read. “It’s not fair!” he wails as the cameras pan out and Rod Serling begins his closing homily.
My situation isn’t so dramatic. There’s no nuclear war, just a stay-at-home order from the Illinois governor that covered all of April and will probably extend into May. It’s the same for many other people in many other states, and in many other countries.
I had expectations. I expected that I’d be writing up a storm. I saw myself channeling the collective angst and the overall weirdness of life-with-sails-furled into a low-key post-apocalyptic vibe into writing a story a day. At least. Rough draft, of course. But still.
And I’m not writing a story a day. I’m struggling to write a story a fortnight. I spend literally hours staring at a nearly blank open document. Or wander into the kitchen multiple times an hour to look in the refrigerator and sigh at the sink. Not writing. Not even thinking, really. The highpoint of my day is cracking a beer after the workday ends and sitting in a lawn chair watching the chickens.
I find myself unable to focus. It’s not the usual “one thought distracting another,” or starting one project and diverting into another project, or losing myself in a daydream. It’s simple. Thoughts trail off like mist from a lake, gone with no trace. I might sit for an hour with nothing on my mind. The few thoughts I have are like photos out of context. If it were meditation, I might be pleased, but it’s not. It’s retreat. I think.
I don’t feel particularly anxious, and yet my thoughts swirl around the future non-stop. How long before the indie artists and musicians (and their venues) in my area recover? Am I an asshole for filling a curb-side grocery pickup when I still have food in the house? Is my son following safety protocols? What about all those college seniors whose last semester was meant to launch them into a career and now graduate under a haze of uncertainty?
I’m reading post-apocalyptic books – a favorite genre. Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel), I am Legend (Richard Matheson), The Dog Stars (Peter Heller). I’m watching more TV than usual, series set in universes foreign but parallel — 1960s NYC (Mad Men) or millennial Canada (Letterkenny).
I’m dreaming. The whole world is dreaming. Which could be a sci-fi or magical realism or (post)-apocalyptic writing prompt – except that it’s not. It’s really happening.
And here I am, expecting to be surfing the angst wave to Storyland and instead watching chickens.
When everyday life is surreal, the surreal seems mundane.
But I’m learning about my writing process.
I need time to absorb a feeling. I’ve known this a long time. You know, that Wordsworth notion
— “(Flash fiction) is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Small liberty taken with the quote. But it’s true — live it, remember it, write it. Something like that, anyway.
But it’s playing out differently (and less conveniently) than I anticipated. Mostly because I don’t even feel like I’m feeling! How should I write about that?
I find I need interaction to recharge my batteries. It doesn’t have to be in-person, necessarily — recent online and Zoom-room readings have left me energetic and ecstatic. But it’s got to be something.
Now that the weather is nice, a socially distant hike, where a friend and I ooh and ah over the same rock formations/wildflowers/light-on-the-water, in real time, six feet apart, does wonders. It’s worth far more than the couple hours of walking — it’s having a shared experience, one that can happen only exactly when it did happen.
There is value, certainly, to the discipline of sitting down to write no matter what. The Muse, afterall, doesn’t visit the unprepared. She likes to be courted, and ass-in-chair is a pretty good pickup scenario.
And of course we should all live so we have something to say, to put what we read in a real-life context, to be of some use to our fellow humans.
But there’s also value in experiencing… nothing. The nothingness that comes from sitting there at one’s writing desk (or painting easel or lesson plan) with no inspiration. The nothingness that comes from staring into a bonfire or watching chickens peck and strut and mutter to themselves.
Yep, I had expectations. And they stalled me out. Cardinal rule: don’t edit while you write. Or live.