by Rita Dragonette
I know many of you are boldly running outside, arms outstretched, gulping in freedom, communal drinking, hugs and… kisses. (Can we kiss yet?) You’re waving the synopses of the three novels you finished during lockdown, the reams of poems and short stories that have sprung from your morning pages. I see you out there through the same windows I wanted to jump through last winter. I seethe. But, of course, am extraordinarily happy for you, really… REALLY!
Others of us (even if naturally extroverted) are emerging more cautiously, peeking out, weighed down with guilt about nothing to show from the lockdown but atrophied conversational skills, split ends, pandemic pounds, and fragments of still-in-progress projects littered over every available surface. It’s embarrassing, you know? On behalf of us wastrels, I’m tempted to ask for another month of stretchy clothes, meals and naps at whim, no consequences for blown deadlines. If granted, I promise I’ll get me and my eternally unfinished novel all cleaned up and ready for prime time.
I know, it’s hard to believe that after a year of caterwauling about the confines of the pandemic in these posts, I’d be facing an approach/avoidance conflict about it ending. But there is no turning back. With the blessed vaccine we are reentering the time of no excuses. We will get questions. They will all sound like “How’s the book (enter the name of your project here) going? Which really means. “You’ve had so much time I assume it’s done, right?”
Are You Ready? (i.e., to even begin to think about how to explain how the book is doing.)
My pandemic catch-all answer to people who relentlessly ask how I have been is, “I’m bored.” For a year, responses have been sympathetic nods of agreement, end of conversation. Today, this answer shocks. The questioners quickly tell me how busy they are with work restarting, “consuming content,” renewing their walking, biking, (nada-nada) programs. When they’ve finished unleashing their activity bona fides, I quietly add (through my teeth) that I am also “busy,” that I am in fact still writing a novel—I leave out the “could be/should be” part—but still bored. The sameness, you know? (Expecting another nod that doesn’t come.) They back up, as if I’m a refugee from a prison camp from which they have escaped. End of conversation.
And, now that we’re coming out of the woodwork, I’m also hearing from more and more people who are looking back at the “time off” (how can they say that about more than a year?). They are all smug about how they were able to jazz up that lake house, decide to seal or break up, squeeze in that minor cosmetic surgery, make real estate decisions. So it’s begun. Have you noticed? The competition. Words like appreciate, gratitude, mindful, evolutionary, transforming. There is a giddiness not only about the future, but their new, improved selves, the product of their sequester suffering.
Languish is the New “L” Word. (i.e., how’s the book REALLY doing? How are YOU doing with the book?)
I do not begrudge those who have developed deeper relationships with partners, or learned to find their Zen space, but they are driving me crazy and probably you as well, so I’ve developed some sure fire language to enable you to appear to have emerged from the pandemic triumphant and productive. It works, trust me.
I’m happy to share.
I love that there is finally a cool word for what I experienced during the past year. You, too, I bet. And the word, according to the New York Times, is languishing. Check out “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling.” I adore the definition: “the neglected middle child of mental health.” In a nutshell, it means “dulled motivation and focus. To feel joyless, aimless, with a sense of muddling through your days.” Yes! That’s it. So much better than the word I’ve been using, malaise, which sounds like an icky, possibly terminal, skin disease. Languish is clearly temporary. It also characterizes all the hope I can muster some days, really. And, I must admit, even with masks off, I have not yet shaken the feeling.
However, I’ve learned if you’re stuck in the cycle of the past year you will no longer get any sympathy. It’s become boring to say you’re bored. It’s so much sexier and unexpected to say you languished. Let the word trip leisurely off your tongue. “How’s the book going?” “Languishing” is a perfect response. Say it slowly. Laaaaaaanguish. Try it.
It’s very Tennessee Williams, your psyche a loose flowered dress/white linen suit (take your pick) laying full out in a porch swing with a crystal flute of sweet tea, perhaps mulling the velocity of the sweat beads on the side of the glass as they dissipate and flow into a water ring. Your muse, hovering behind you like a waiter holding a tray with a pitcher, willing to refill but also straining to catch your eye and give you that look of “haven’t we had enough of this and now isn’t it time to get back to work?”
“Not quite yet, I want to languish a bit more.” Those who query either again nod in empathy or don’t really know what you mean but are impressed that something interesting is going on.
“Are you happy with how your novel is going.” “It’s lovely. I’m just taking some time to languish a bit with the plot, you know?” “Oh yes, that’s so smart of you. Don’t rush it.”
“What has been the best/worst part of the pandemic for you?” The languishing. “I KNOW.”
It’s a great word, use it liberally.
Practice Positioning. (i.e., diverting – but not actually untrue – ways to talk about how the book is doing.)
My PR roots are showing. Whether or not people think you’ve been productive is all about context. Let’s take the Zoom call as an example.
Very quickly the tone of these calls has shifted, right? People only want to hear good things when they ask presumptuously “Tell us what fun things you did this week?” They don’t want to hear, “I do the same FIVE THINGS every week and you’ve heard them all before.” This would reveal you as the loser you are, and make everyone else nervous. Believe me, they don’t want to feel bad for you just as they are beginning to feel really great about themselves.
I’ve lately taken to pre-planning three things that vary from the week before so I don’t reveal what a complete productivity loser I really am. I expound upon the article I just read, the nonfiction book I finished reading last night, in the tub, the Amazon review I wrote, the novel that gave me an idea about how to handle the overlong introduction of one of my secondary characters. Tell your Zoom callers as much as you can about each of your three phantom “fun things” and use a lot of detail. It will appear that your mind is still operational and will provide the verisimilitude of things really happening. Do not use a Netflix series as an example, you will give yourself away—stick to print.
You can do this. If you were raised Catholic, remember you did this before in weekly confession. You were too young to do any serious sinning unless you are a sociopath so you came up with a mental list of things you must have done: lied to you mother, talked in church, and the most intriguing, thought impure thoughts. Still engage in the latter, but refrain from details over Zoom. Just hint. Again, verisimilitude.
I recommend picking an exaggeration milestone about which you can sound very excited. l now tell people that I have NEARLY 100 PAGES of the manuscript of my novel done, pretty sure they won’t remember that I told them it was 90 pages in the last call, and the call before, and the one before that all the way back to late February when I hit THAT scene, the one from which I haven’t progressed, the one that shall not be named, the one that made me realize I was cheating and may have to (dare I say it) start over, thereby shrinking my true manuscript length to single digits.
By using this advice you are positioning how you want them to feel about you and your project. You will get applause and lots of atta’s on the back, right through the Zoom screen. Again verisimilitude. You will appear to be fun, exciting and successful with a book handily steaming towards the finish line, and they will feel good enough for you not to feel guilty about how good they feel about their new fresh-out-of-lockdown active selves.
Cutting off UnWanted Advice. (i.e., she doesn’t want us to know how the book is doing.)
Let’s face it. Your friends love you and want you to feel as happy and fulfilled as they hope to be, and they want it to happen on a matching time frame. So if you give too many details about, say, how the book is doing, you will, without really noticing until it’s too late, cross the Rubicon and open yourself to suggestions. Lots of suggestions, most unapplicable, virtually all previously considered.
I get it. My friends are type A like me and wired for fixing things and offering solutions. I used to be a consultant, therefore most of my life has been as a fixer. As such, I KNOW what to do, I just haven’t been able to rise to the level of my own suggestions, or my book would be, you know, done. The pandemic has shown me how annoying the endless list of all the things you should do, try, put into practice, etc., really is. My advice to avoid the list without actually hurting any of these friends is simple.
When you start to get suggestions, don’t try to justify yourself by explaining why they won’t work, haven’t worked, etc., (they’ll think you’re in denial), just say,
When they persist with details of the downside of not doing all they recommend, just repeat, “I’m comfortable.” They will stop after you’ve said it three times. If not, they are not your friends. Or, rather, they are too dense to deserve to be one of your friends. They may act a bit annoyed, but really, they’ll be impressed that you’ve drawn a line in the sand. And, they know they are on the record if in fact later it turns out they were right.
Offer One Authentic Answer. How Did You Fare During All of This? (i.e., level with me, how’s the book really doing?)
Despite all the recommended subterfuge of the suggestions above, there is one instance in which you can and should feel free to just let it all out and say the only reasonable response to the past year and how it affected you.
This is the only true answer to all questions resembling “How’s it been for you?” Be authentic and just say it. Don’t try to dress it up with fancy language (i.e., “I’ve misplaced my joie de vivre.”)
“It sucked,” is exquisitely concise. This response will shut down all further questions about the details of your ordeal (which are too boring to endlessly recount and would send you and the questioner into an eternal rabbit hole of “yeah, but” and “if only”). The questioner will be slightly taken aback, or laugh. My “research” has shown that at least 50 percent of people will drop all the woo-woo, higher-self stuff and just release their own pent-up frustrations in a single matching phrase.
They will possibly use a saltier version of the same phrase. All bonding efficiently achieved. This is best followed by a clink of glasses. Since it can’t yet be a showstopping kiss or recommended twenty-second hug. We always and forever will have shared this. Enough said.
And, no one will be thinking about how your book is doing.
One Genuine Answer to the Author. Fess Up. (How’s the book really going?)
IT’S NAME WOULD BE “NEMESIS”
It’s going. I’m 127 pages in and have halted to languish a bit (or, a bit more than a bit) over how to arrange the various arcs of my ensemble cast. I’m sure you agree I shouldn’t rush it.
Rita Dragonette is a writer who, after spending nearly thirty years telling the stories of others as an award-winning public relations executive, has returned to her original creative path. The Fourteenth of September, her debut novel from She Writes Press, is based upon her personal experiences on campus during the Vietnam War. It has received the Readers’ Favorite Award for Historical Era (finalist 2020), Best Book Award for Historical Fiction (finalist 2019) and Women’s Fiction (finalist 2019), National Indie Excellence Awards for New Fiction (2019) and Best Cover Design (2019), Beverly Hills Book Award for Women’s Fiction (2018), American Book Fest Fiction Awards for Literary Fiction (finalist 2018) and Best Cover Design (finalist 2018) and the Hollywood Book Festival (honorable mention 2018, general fiction). She is currently at work on three other books: an homage to The Sun Also Rises about expats chasing their last dream in San Miguel de Allende, a World War II novel based upon her interest in the impact of war on and through women, and a memoir in essays. She lives and writes in Chicago, where she also hosts literary salons to showcase authors and their new books to avid readers. To learn more please visit www.ritadragonette.com.