One summer evening, not too long ago, our up-the-street neighbor was playing catch with his son while Cathy and I were out in our yard. At one point, a throw got away from them, and the ball came skittering down the street toward me. I chased it down and got ready to throw it back to the father. I’ve thrown a baseball probably thousands of times in my life, but I hadn’t thrown one in quite a while. Still, I thought, no problem. So I threw the ball and it ended up well-short of the father, and I was left to mumble an apology and to slink back to our yard, where I said to Cathy, “Well, that was embarrassing.”
Then this morning, on my walk, I saw a man and a woman throwing a softball back and forth with force. The slap of their leather mitts brought back memories of days when I, too, had been able to throw like that—days, when I’d thrown with ease, time and time again.
This isn’t a post about nostalgia for a time long gone, or a lament for passing youth. No, this is a post about what our isolation during this time of pandemic can teach us about writing.
Writing was so easy when I was young. I wrote and wrote. I churned out pages of poems and stories. Something caught my imagination, and I was off to the races. I was daydreaming on the page, letting my imagination go wherever it wanted to take me. Writing came naturally to me, and it gave me great pleasure to imagine while following the leaps my imagination could take. It was a snap. Like falling off a log, to use an old cliché, or like throwing a baseball. The writing, though, as I’d soon be made to realize, was untamed, was wild in ways it didn’t need to be, was without shape, without restraint, without artistic integrity. Taking writing workshops taught me all I hadn’t known, and, as a result, the words stopped coming so easily because now I was always thinking about what I was learning as I was writing. I went through a period of hesitancy because now I knew everything I was doing wrong, but unfortunately I couldn’t quite figure out how to do it properly. It took many failed attempts before I started to translate what I knew in theory into what I could do in practice.
We all have these flat times in our writing careers where we’re waiting for what we can do on the page to catch up with what we know in our heads, but eventually theory becomes practice. We internalize technique until we naturally put it to work in our writing. At that point, we’re able to indulge our imaginations while performing an unconscious check on places where our imaginations may be getting us into trouble. It’s as if we’ve internalized a quality control person, and that person is working in sync with our imaginations, telling us yes, or no, or maybe.
I’ll admit that during this pandemic, I’m having trouble concentrating on the writing. As the Wordsworth sonnet says there are times when “The world is too much with us.” That’s the sort of time we’re living in now, a period in which thoughts of COVID-19 and everything it threatens impinges on nearly every aspect of our lives. This virus is raging, spreading every day, running wild, and here’s what I propose for all writers. Let’s be as wild as it is. Let’s use this time to take chances in our work, to risk things we might not otherwise, to be bold with our imaginations, to return to those days when writing came easily because we didn’t know enough to censor it. We know enough now to always be able to return to a draft of something with a critical eye, trusting that our revisions will only enhance and improve and not destroy. Now is the time to be brave, to be playful, to be productive, to say whatever we want to say, to invent whatever we want to invent. No rules. Just the pleasure of expression. Such is the pledge I make to myself. I hope you’ll join me.