I didn’t send Christmas cards a few months ago. I just couldn’t summon up that peace-on-earth, kumbaya, this-too-will-pass optimism in any way that was distinctive enough to weigh in. I’m privileged in all things, it seems, except motivation. In the time of COVID and seriously horrible politics, I’m in a writing slump. Insult to injury.
Please don’t ask me what I’m doing: MSNBC, Netflix, trying to write, failing to write. Repeat.
Please don’t ask me how I’m doing: I know you want me to say the novel is done, let me read a bit for you. It will be published on Thursday. I’m finishing up four more. Clearly, the pandemic has provided sufficient writing time for me to surpass War and Peace.
It’s not that I haven’t been searching desperately for my writing mojo as we continue to wait for life to resume. In fact, the literary blogosphere has been exploding with advice for how to tickle the muse and keep her talking. I’ve been quite busy assembling a running list of tips, meditations, prompts, etc., to get over the hump. I’ve been using them all, giving each the college try, really, I have. Are they useful? Or, are they, as a friend used to say, “cheap psychological tricks?” Either way, they make me snarky.
For example, if it’s in fact true that one can focus on any task for a 25-minute span and that a kitchen timer would be useful to keep you at your desk, writing away, I posit what we used to call a “story problem.”
GIVEN that Leo Tolstoy took seven years to write the 1,200+ pages of War and Peace to become the blockbuster bestseller of 1869. AND, that as an aristocrat, he no doubt had as much free and aimless time as we might have, you know, during a pandemic. AND, that though a literary god, he was human, and probably had writer’s block lasting, let’s say, a week, approximately once per month during that time (a total of 87 weeks). AND, that he had set what passed for a kitchen timer in his era (a gong hit by a serf?) once per day during each blocked week. WHAT would the publication date have been for the more rapidly written tome and, as a result, how many more copies would he have sold throughout the critical first 150 years since release? You have fifteen minutes.
This is where my mind goes these days rather than to my novel which stands, blocked firmly at 90 pages, though I’ve planned out everything that will happen, seriously. It’s just a mind fart. I know, just slap myself in the face and get on with it. Or, consider the more logical advice on my list of motivational tips by . . . WRITING SOMETHING ELSE!
How about a murder mystery?
I have notes for a short story that sprung into my head a few years ago about a normal person, with a complicated life—many roles, the number of tasks on her plate so demanding they required platters— who had taken multitasking to the limit. The demands on her were so monumental she could no longer stand the sound of her own name, Lisa, as it was always accompanied by “could you, would you, you need to,” along with its whining vowels. LEEEEEsAAA. You can relate, right?
Her remedy to manage the chaos is to become obsessively (soon manically) organized by making lists, herculean in both number and proportion. Soon her efficiency becomes her drug of choice, delivering near orgasmic highs when she crosses off an ever-expanding litany of to-do’s. And it works. Her career, home, etc., become blazing examples of extreme efficiency—results rack up in record time. She changes her name to Gretchen—just try and whine that one!
Soon, she has vast amounts of actual free time she begins to fill by imagining increasingly more complex projects that could be turnkeyed with the massive organization, perfect scheduling, and exquisite prioritization strategy of a good list. She is certain there is nothing that can’t be accomplished— constructing a building, leading a Fortune 100 company, even running a country. But these options would require long stretches of time before they’d reach the satisfying cross-off climax. She decides the ultimate test of her list theory will be to plan a nice little, beautifully managed murder.
Not to actually do it of course, but ensure it would be perfect by considering all steps, the proper timeline, etc. Start with an easy victim, then graduate up. You see where this was going. It was to be called—wait for it— The List Maker. You’d read it, right? I could see it as a movie starring someone impeccable like Kristin Scott Thomas, with attention to detail so quirky that on her list “trimming eyebrows” would be weighted equally to “identifying the perfect poison.”
I even envisioned the cover: a fountain pen poised over paper with a single drop at its tip—of blood instead of ink—all references to Hemingway’s definition of writing intended. Too much?
You can see why the untouched List Maker notes still sit on top of a cabinet in my office, its pages slightly curling at the corners. I’m looking at it as I type this, sitting at my desk which is covered by many pieces of paper carrying notes, arranged in messy piles that stare at me, demanding to be shuffled into shape and incorporated into the eternally “working” manuscript of my novel.
I sigh, thinking it just might take the murderously efficient effort of The List Maker to pull myself out of the paralysis of this phase of the pandemic, or at least to make it through the dark winter ahead. A debilitating malaise keeps me from finishing this ever-so-uncooperative second novel, my incomplete essay (let alone the planned collection), my LinkedIn update, my discarded Christmas letter, the answers to most of my emails—anything more consequential than viewing all back episodes of the five-year span of Breaking Bad within three days. Is it too late to catch up with others who’ve found closet cleaning and puzzles to be beneficial?
I, who in normal times do not even cook or play board games because I don’t see the point of putting that much effort into something that is immediately eaten or otherwise concluded, without a tangible “product” I can see, admire, or pet. I, who have nothing to show for my dedicated five+ hours of evening television watching. I, who in these times have lost my achievement moorings.
Why am I having such a hard time finding a new normal, or at least responding to the weekly kicks from my writing partner that worked so effectively until they lost their oomph sometime during the nonholiday season? This is perhaps no longer only a writing slump. It is possibly deeper. I would call my analyst, but like so many COVID couples we broke up. Which is probably why this post sounds like therapy.
Okay, I admit there has been some additional, troubling, non-writing behavior.
About a month ago, just when it was clear Christmas would be cancelled, I entered the elevator of my building to see a woman carrying a squirming toddler who reached for me. Without a word I grabbed it from her arms and hugged it all over, rubbing its tummy and relishing the sheer relief of feeling the skin of an actual warm body. And then I noticed the woman’s look of horror, and waited a critical several seconds before sheepishly handing it back.
It didn’t matter that it was a puppy, a labradoodle with curly auburn fur about five shades darker than my own hair. We could have been in the opening scenes of the original cartoon version of 101 Dalmatians. We belonged together. The fact remains that I instinctively yanked it from its “mother” and didn’t want to give it back. If the door had opened on my floor just a few seconds earlier, she’d probably have had to call the cops.
I scared myself, realizing that I hadn’t touched a living thing since March. That I could be adding kidnapping to my potential murder charge.
I’ve also had vengeful thoughts involving sharp scissors about a hair stylist who recently “trimmed” my pandemic mane of hair—which admittedly made me look like a country-western singer—back to a Buster Brown bob that resembles my emoji, but not in a good way. I don’t want to say it was bad, exactly, but my writing partner did recommend temporary hair extensions. Once 3-4 months of growth return, we will have a talk about what “shoulder-length” means. Or we will have to break up as well.
And, now that my television watching fills the length of a full working day, I tell myself its honing my sense of story. I can sharply zero in on plot holes, one-note characters, cliché dialogue, and more. I’ve become an unofficial critic of . . . well, nearly everything. Netflix series represent one of the few non-political conversation topics with my Zoom friends, but I feel those relationships may be in jeopardy. I’ve been relentlessly KO-ing their enjoyment of beloved programs by overanalyzing Outlander (gratuitous boobs and butts), or the latest season of The Crown (the characters, for whom up until now we had an odd affection, have ossified into repulsive whiners and seriously mean girls and boys).
Perhaps I’ve also become a repulsive person. You know, a critic.
A few month ago, my analyst, a Jungian, encouraged me to finally take the Myers-Briggs test. Somehow, in my past I’d escaped this, like most other evaluation tools. Consequently, I have never known my specific IQ or, apparently, personality. But I have surmised them, based upon qualitative evidence of my own experience. A basic introvert with strong extravert tendencies. A pull to be solitary, yet talks a LOT and, though a writer, thinks marketing is fun.
I believe she wanted me to take the test to better understand why I was climbing the pandemic walls to such an extreme extent. Or, she was tired of listening to me ramble on about how bored I was and wanted to give me a diverting task.
So I took the test. And the test talked back to me. It actually asked me, in a final question, what I thought. I chose “introvert.” It said I was wrong. And so I have to admit that I am absolutely a full-blooded extravert—a super-dooper one, a Commander! That answered so many questions. I get my energy from other people and living alone for the better part of 2020, there just aren’t any. It’s clear why I have or could become a loony, repulsive, non-writing critic with criminal tendencies.
I needed to sit with this information for a while and suggested to my analyst we take a break. She told me to reflect . . . I got nada. That’s when she broke up with me. People are so touchy these days.
Three quarters of a year into a pandemic is a bitch of a time to realize you’re an extrovert. I mean, seriously, what can you do about it?
I really don’t believe my friend who tells me he’s perfectly happy solo doing nothing but long-distance bike rides, trips to Whole Foods, and watching sports 24/7 on his gargantuan flat screen. Or anyone who is gleeful while deep into meditation, closets (though that’s pretty close to The List Maker, I’ll give you that), or mindful. Even The Economist thinks it’s ridiculous to focus on the moment of the confines of the walls closing in on you rather than your fantasy trip to Tuscany.
Meanwhile, since I’ve been “diagnosed” as an extravert in isolation, I will take inspiration from other writers who’ve been able to churn it out in captivity. Cervantes (Don Quixote) and Sir Thomas Mallory (Le Morte d’Arthur). Or, The Marquis de Sade, Nelson Mandela, Jean Genet, and Ghandi himself (speaking of mindfulness). I’ll even be inspired by my old buddy Leo T, racking up impressive word counts in the tundra of Russian winters. I see that I must make it all a welcome challenge rather than a daily objective I’m failing to meet.
My writing partner keeps trying to hold me to task and just switched strategies with a new text. “The universe is telling you to hunker down and dig into that glorious manuscript.”
Sometimes you don’t need all the tips. Sometimes a girl just needs the right encouragement at the right time. I wrote for three hours today. There will be a manuscript in my future. Stand by.
I can do this for another five months or more. I can, I know I can. I will embrace the creativity of captivity. I think everyone will be relieved. They may even send mouth gags that match my masks.
And so we beat on. But maybe I should also get a puppy?