Drawing The Wisdom Out

September 17, 2020 § 3 Comments

By Cameron Steele

At first, I thought I might be able to get away with romanticizing all the not writing I was doing during covid. After all, I reasoned with myself, almost no one wrote about our last great pandemic, the influenza of 1918 and 1919 that killed more people across the world than did all four years of the first world war combined. Unlike the explosion of narratives that have explored illness, human suffering, and pain in the centuries since, scholars agree those early 20th century writers didn’t have either the model or the impulse to make sense of pain the way writers have in the decades since the emergence of HIV/AIDs in the United States. “How to bring the [1918] pandemic and the narrative form together?” Ann Jurecic writes in the introduction to her book Illness As Narrative, “It is as if the project were unimaginable in the early twentieth century.” See? I thought to myself when I began Jurecic’s book in the late spring, it makes sense I can’t write right now. Those other writers couldn’t either. Ignoring the “flood of texts” since “those other writers” that have offered a path forward since then—offered ways to make meaning of, from, through, and against illness—I clung fast to the not writing. My body hurt, I did not sleep, my new baby was sick.

*

For a long time, my very small, very new baby was sick.

For a long time, I did not write.

Until I did, and here is how I started.

*

During the coronavirus pandemic, I, a woman living with mental illness, a mother with a new baby who appeared, by the accounts of his pediatrician and a battery of specialists, to be unfortunately, worryingly ill, have not been able to write.

Though I ostensibly have made my living from writing nonfiction about violence, illness, and pain, first as an investigative crime reporter in the deep south, and now as a graduate student teacher whose work examines those years against the backdrop of my own struggle fight diagnosis bulimia, (here the language always fails me, I don’t know what to call this thing I have been doing with food and puke and my body all these years or why the mind suggests it, even after all the books, all the rehab, all the medication, all the meditation, all the therapy, all the drugs), I haven’t managed to write a thing about covid since I locked down myself, my husband, and my new baby six months ago. The words fail me. The desire to read what other people are writing right now fails me.

*

What I read, I read out of obligation to my college best friend in Detroit.

She DMs me links to articles over Instagram and mails me essays clipped from her favorite magazines: Roxane Gay cooks through the pandemic, David Sedaris walks the footprint of New York daily, Toni Locy, our legal reporting professor from Washington and Lee University, rails against our alma mater’s mythologizing of Robert E. Lee in The Nation.

“I’m fascinated by how writers have been keeping themselves busy during this time,” she texts me. “And what they’ll have written at the end of it. I think it will be really important.”

“I totally agree,” I text back and feel anxiety and shame flame up against the mastitis in my left breast.

*

The baby shifts in his crib on the monitor. He’s finally started sleeping through the night, but his GI specialist in Omaha, during our last telehealth visit, was talking about feeding tubes, weighing the pros and cons of one down the nose (pro—it’s temporary, it doesn’t require surgery, con—it could actually make his reflux and feeding aversion issues worse) or one surgically inserted through the stomach (pro—less reflux and more sustained results, con—an invasive procedure requiring anesthesia and a hole in my baby’s stomach). I worry about karma, about his Virgo moon, about passing my own chronic mental health and digestive issues onto his new, perfect, tiny little body. I can’t write any more about this. It doesn’t feel good or enlightening or, to borrow a line from Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts when she refuses to discuss her baby’s early illness, “precious or rich to me.” But because my baby’s feeding struggle fight issue is truly the center of my life, the inflamed sun around which my days revolve, with no opportunity to meet up with friends, or escape to my office on campus, or even see my therapist face-to-face, this is all I can think about.

*

Also I think about a Twitter fight I observed with more than a little casual interest in my seventh month of pregnancy. Novelist Lucy Ellmann gave an interview in The Guardian where she laments the force of motherhood on new mothers, how the needs of the child winnow the mom’s attention down to only them, whittles away the capacity for focusing on much else. (“People don’t talk about how tiring, boring, enraging, time-consuming, expensive, and thankless parenthood is,” she said. And: “illness, worry, conflict, overcrowding, the relentless cooking, the driving, the loss of privacy, the repression of your own sexuality, the education dilemmas, the lack of employment prospects, and all the wretched insanity of adolescence – these are big deterrents”). So many women writers on my timeline were outraged—oh, the indignity of another woman saying that, what a retrograde opinion, I published three books while I raised my three kids under the age of five and got a divorce—that kind of stuff. I was frustrated then, reading the response to what seemed like an honest interview from a woman who’s done both her fair share of publishing and of having children. And now, during the pandemic, not writing anything, trying to raise a baby who’s been ill for the first four and half months of his life, trying to keep myself from relapsing into my own illness in isolation, I find myself living out Ellmann’s words, my attention narrowed down to a red breast, a baby scale, a hypoallergenic formula, a hospital bill, a tarot card and a few sentences scrawled out each morning to keep me sane, to keep me from feeling completely silent.

*

“Compassion can only flounder,” Susan Sontag wrote In Regarding The Pain of Others, when confronted with mass suffering like a pandemic, like a war, like state-sanctioned police violence. And yet, Jurecic argues (and models) in her book published six years after Sontag’s death, compassion can radically attend to the complexities and needs of intimate, everyday life. I want to say it was reading this, it was reading Jurecic that got me on the page again. But in truth, I had begun to write—more and more, every morning, for myself, in my journal—weeks before I encountered her book, and how it felt right and real to me. “Like any good book,” Lauren Slater writes when she encounters the work of philosopher Williams James in her own illness memoir Lying, “it did not teach me something new, but draw out the wisdom that was already there, inside me.”

*

The baby began to get better. The doctors disagreed over what went wrong. They still disagree about how to feed him, when to start solid food, what kind of weight he should gain to be healthy.

“I guess you can say this is where medical treatment is more of an art than a science,” our pediatrician told me. I guess so, I think I said, needing something more than that.

I hung up the phone. The baby cried, hungry and finally willing to eat, and I, finally willing to draw the wisdom out, rocked him, thinking : gotta start writing all this down later.

__

Cameron Steele is a writer and instructor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her essays and poems have appeared in SFWP Quarterly, Poets.org, Great Plains Ecotourism Coalition, Entropy, The Fix, Bluestem Magazine, Red Paint Hill Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. Her poems won first place in the Gaffney Award for the Academy of American Poets in 2019.

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This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.

Still Here

April 28, 2020 § 27 Comments

By Kristen Paulson-Nguyen

I was due to receive an award at the Boston Public Library on March 21. As I was fantasizing about my 15 minutes of fame, the organizer canceled the ceremony. I felt devastated, but I’m not alone. Other writers have contended with delayed publication dates, and worse, their book tours vanishing due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The words of Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh galvanized me: “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence.” Slowly, I’ve discovered new ways to show up.

Here are some ways to be present, for other authors and your own work, during this crisis:

  • Wave to a writer or send bouquets of hearts on Instagram during a Live gathering hosted by your favorite literary magazine.
  • Attend or hold a virtual reading.
  • Take a course. Multiple companies are offering deep discounts and scholarships and/or using courses as charitable vehicles. One editor pledged 50% of tuition to U.S. hunger-relief organization Feeding America.
  • Help someone with a book proposal.
  • Retweet others’ good news to share it with your followers. (Type “RT” at the beginning of a Tweet to indicate you’re re-posting someone else’s content.)
  • Hold your book club online. Invite your chosen book’s author to speak.
  • Shop on bookshop.org. As of April 20, Bookshop has raised $788,837.85 for local independent bookstores.
  • Invite a writer to appear on your podcast.
  • Organize a Twitter follow-back thread.
  • Compliment another writer’s work—especially somebody you don’t know.
  • Take the time to read essays online. Add a comment, a clap, a star, a thank-you.
  • Attend a virtual book launch.
  • Post a Goodreads review of a friend or stranger’s book.
  • Hold an Instagram benefit.
  • Read another writer’s first draft.
  • Encourage a less-experienced writer.
  • Thank a mentor for their support.
  • Volunteer to be a first- or second-pass reader for a local writing program.
  • Express sympathetic joy by congratulating a writer.
  • Search GoFundMe for bookstores that need help.
  • Share best practices and tips for Zoom.

The March 21 award ceremony, the BPL notified me, would now be held online on May 2. I wouldn’t get to meet judge Porsha Olayiwola as I’d hoped, but I would still read and discuss my work. I organized a Twitter follow-back for the alumni of my writing program. I kept writing at home, although my family was around more often, and my schedule now included homeschooling our 10-year-old daughter.

One early evening, my husband Vinh walked into our bedroom. I called from my supine position, “Hey, who wants to go to an Instagram Live literary reading with me?” He didn’t seem to have heard me. He went downstairs. At bedtime, Vinh, an amateur magician, returned to read Hiding the Elephant, a history of conjurers.

“Hey,” he said. “You should write a book that reveals magic secrets.”

“You wish,” I said. I know he’d like to disappear from my memoir-in-progress. We had a good laugh.

Some things, it seems, never change.

Add a link in the comments below to let the literary community know about an event or cause you cherish.

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Kristen Paulson-Nguyen is the Writing Life Editor at Hippocampus Magazine. Her work is forthcoming in The New York Times. Her flash nonfiction, “Neighbors,” won an award from Boston in 100 Words. Join her on the Boston Library’s Facebook Live May 2 to hear her read and discuss her work.

Ten Tips for Writing While Quarantined

March 18, 2020 § 15 Comments

Brenda, head shotby Brenda Ridley

Assuming that you are up and about during the COVID-19 pandemic, you could view this period of social distancing as an unexpected gift to your writing life. That’s the attitude I’ve adopted as I decide how to use my time while exiled from my job for two weeks.

Last week, Pennsylvania’s governor ordered schools state-wide closed to help contain the spread of COVID-19. The small independent school where I double as admissions coordinator and office manager complied. While the risk to our students of COVID-19 exposure is probably low, we could not in good conscience remain open while 99% of the schools in Philadelphia shut down. Ours is a very small school but, luckily, one with digital resources that teachers can use for online instruction. Most of my work time is spent on the phone, making sure that teachers have the resources they need, the office runs smoothly, and performing first aid in the absence of a school nurse. I have some online tools that I can use, but only a couple projects that I think I can finish at home. That leaves some open time periods during the day that I don’t usually have for writing. Here is my plan for writing while quarantined with some suggestions that you might find helpful:

1) Keep a schedule. It is so tempting to sleep in when you get up before six o’clock every weekday morning and now don’t have to. But if you don’t set up a schedule for the week, you’ll wonder where the time went and why that essay you started three months ago still isn’t finished. I’ll set my alarm for 7 a.m. and plan to start writing at 9, after exercise, breakfast, and kitty time. I have better focus in the morning, but you should create a schedule that works for you; just schedule your writing time no matter what.

2) Limit socializing. Life as I’ve known it has temporarily shifted. Everything is closed: my yoga studio, the public library, my writing group is on hiatus, even my church is practicing social distancing. Of course you can call, text, or email friends and family, but don’t do it all day. Your pen or keyboard needs you to propel it. Block out a social hour or two when you can catch up and commiserate with everyone each day.

3) Reconnect with your partner, your kids, or your pets. I rush out of the house early on workdays and don’t usually come home until almost six. I see the kitties briefly when I feed them breakfast, but there’s no time for cuddles and chatfests. My partner is still asleep when I leave. While my schedule is more flexible I can carve out some time for canoodling when I’m not drifting off to sleep and muttering incoherently. Imagine the boost some quality time can give to our relationships.

4) Eat well and rest. I enjoy cooking but don’t like to spend all day at it. When home for the day I usually prep dinner early so that at dinner time there is less to do. Doing most of the work early in the day makes it more likely that you’ll eat better instead of grabbing fast food or ordering a pizza.  And set a reasonable bedtime that ensures you get enough sleep. A poorly-fed, sleep-deprived writer might produce something, but is it something you really want others to read?

5) Get outdoors at least every other day. There is plenty of evidence that walking outdoors, forest bathing, hiking and other activities make you feel better. My attitude improves considerably when I’ve returned from a brisk walk.

6) Turn off your television. Too much news is not a good thing, and a lot of conjecture by pundits and talk show hosts isn’t news. All of the chatter about COVID-19 is increasing people’s anxiety. If you must know what’s happening with the virus on a daily basis, choose one reliable news source and limit yourself to 30 minutes of “information” per day. Your nervous system will thank you.

7) Put your writing house in order. I know I have two weeks before I return to work or am told to stay at home a little longer. I’m a writing newbie and don’t have tons of projects to work on, but I have at least three essays I’ve not been able to finish. My modest goal is to finish at least one of them and to develop a strategy for completing the other two. If I stick to the schedule I’ve set for myself, I think I can accomplish what I’ve set out to do.

8) Read. No need to say more.

9) Stay open and flexible. COVID-19 has made a fast and furious impact on everyone I know, even though none of my friends or family members have contracted it. All of the twists and turns science is taking in order to get a handle on this virus require us to think about how what we do impacts someone else. Stay flexible enough to shift with the tide of events and follow the lead of experts who know what they are talking about.

10) Finally, breathe and write; breathe and write some more. I came to writing as a late bloomer but quickly found it to be a practice that I can pour almost any emotion into. Some of those scribbles are just for me, not an audience, but writing helps me to clarify my thoughts and emotions so that I can get the junk out of the way and focus on what I want to say. So, breathe and write your way through if you’re quarantined. Appreciate the gift you’ve been given.
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Brenda Ridley is a Philadelphia writer who is always looking for ways to fit writing around her job and other obligations. This essay is her first submission for publication.

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