I thought, in passing, one October morning, that I would not write anything that day. This is rare for me, but I had nothing to say. I felt wrung dry and wordless. Alan was isolating due to Covid, and I’d been on my own for a while.
I was finding contentment in doing nothing, achieving little, going nowhere. There was discomfort and back-talk, but I shrugged it off and got back to less.
I didn’t know whether I would stick with not writing, or if the break would feed me later.
I drove to Peet’s for a pound of coffee – Garuda, ground for an Aeropress, a 5. Few people wore masks in the crowded cafe, and I was uncomfortable. What if someone ridiculed me? I planned to say, “My husband has Covid. I’m wearing this to protect YOU.” It brought me a self-righteous sense of satisfaction without saying anything at all. And then I felt silly. Of course no one said anything.
I stopped at the library to pick up my books on hold. My reading life transformed during the pandemic. When the library closed I bought books, but when they re-opened it was for hold pickups only, arranged online, which established a new practice. Even now with the stacks open I just go in to pick up holds. It was odd to see librarians unmasked and out from behind the plexiglass after so long. I could reach out and touch them if I wanted. Which I didn’t.
The pandemic is over for many, but with Covid skulking right there in my house, it wasn’t. Of course Alan got it by pretending it was over. Playing Grateful Dead music in a small basement with five 30-something guys for five hours. What could go wrong?
So I quarantined more scrupulously in case my sniffly nose or constricted throat could be precursors of the virus, or merely allergies. I didn’t want those to become famous last words. I tested negative, but stayed close to home anyway, masking and distancing – just as I’d done in the early pandemic years. Nothing had changed, and I felt somewhat trapped and hopeless. Easiest to do nothing.
From the library I crossed the street to Holly Farms Park, and a choice of benches in sun or shade. I sat on one, then crossed to the other. It was a day I wasn’t going to write, just read, and began reading Hillary Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. I’d never read anything by her, even Wolf Hall, her award-winning trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. 1800 pages sounds overwhelming and not as quick as my more recent Harry Potter book. A friend had recommended Mantel after she died, Mantel I mean, not my friend, and so on this day, a day when I wasn’t going to write, I began reading her book.
Reading an author who has such an incredible command of language was just too delicious to keep reading. I had to keep stopping to consider. Her precise words convey a scene, what’s behind the scene, the before and after, and what she’s thinking, feeling, remembering, all in one small space. I wanted to write like Hillary Mantel. I lapsed into reveries and memories of my own, and began making notes on my phone.
Like many writers (all?), I have notes like this all over, electronic and scraps of paper; passing thoughts while driving or walking or doing dishes. They float to the surface and sink back down; most remain submerged, some turn into something else. When the paper scraps threaten to topple over, I transfer them into more searchable electronic notes or throw them away because they no longer make sense. Certainly millions more thoughts have been lost by not writing them down. No matter, more will come.
Mantel gives us writing recommendations, though she says she does not follow her own advice:
“Trust the reader. This is what I recommend to people who ask me how to get published. Trust your reader, stop spoon-feeding your reader, stop patronizing your reader, give your reader credit for being as smart as you at least, and stop being so bloody beguiling: you in the back row will you turn off that charm! Plain words on plain paper. Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a windowpane. Concentrate on sharpening your memory and peeling your sensibility. Cut every page you write by at least one third. Stop constructing those pifling little similes of yours. Work out what it is you want to say. Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can. Eat meat. Drink blood. Give up your social life and don’t think you can have friends. Rise in the quiet hours of the night and prick your fingers and use the blood for ink; that will cure you of persiflage!”
Now I wanted to pick up my pen, or even to prick my fingers to write in blood, and also look up the word persiflage. And without thinking, I was writing.
That’s the thing about doing nothing; it creates space for something.
I cut this essay by almost a third, like she says, and it could stand to lose more. But I’m moving on. To something. Or nothing.
“I always forget how important the empty days are, how important it may be sometimes not to expect to produce anything, even a few lines in a journal. A day when one has not pushed oneself to the limit seems a damaged, damaging day, a sinful day. Not so! The most valuable thing one can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room.”May Sarton