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.

7 Comments

  1. KATY READ on March 23, 2020 at 3:14 pm

    Hi Lee,

    Here’s the predicament I’ve experienced when writing in the time of pandemic. I’ve been working on an essay, a researched cultural critique with a touch of personal perspective. I was excited about it and thought would be widely read and potentially included in my memoir. It’s about a problem that most people don’t even recognize is a problem, a phenomenon we’re all familiar with but mostly consider too trivial to examine. My essay argues, effectively I believe, that it’s more important than we think. Some years ago I wrote one viral essay (or whatever we’re going to call it now). This probably wouldn’t get quite as much traction but is on a related topic and has — or had — potential to get attention.

    You can probably guess my predicament. People are dying or losing jobs indefinitely, the economy is collapsing, the future is completely unknown, we may never go back to “normal.” If I were writing something light or fictional or a more personal memoir I wouldn’t worry so much about it. But who wants to read about this problem we’ve lived with for years and never considered important, even in the best of times? (It’s also, for what it’s worth, a problem that disadvantages women and benefits men.)

    Do you have advice, by any chance? Should I just keep plugging away in hopes that some publications would run it to give readers a break from COVID?

    (I should add that I’m also a newspaper reporter, a job that presents challenges of its own in the pandemic but at least is fairly secure for now. So my livelihood is not at stake, though my book dreams might be.)

    Thank you for any thoughts you might have a moment to jot down. (BTW, I arrived here at the suggestion of Sue William Silverman, who included an essay of mine in her memoir guidebook “Fearless Confessions.”)

    Katy

    • Lee Martin on March 24, 2020 at 11:30 am

      Katy, first let me say that any friend of Sue’s is a friend of mine. I adore her! Second, I appreciate your feelings about the piece you’re writing. It can be tough to do such work during a dark time in our history. That said, I have two thoughts. One goes along with what you said about maybe giving folks a break from all the virus stuff. Indeed, maybe someone would run your piece with that in mind. My second thought is we’ll someday come out on the other side of this mess we’re in right now, and that may very well make for a better market for your piece. Either way, why not write it, test the waters by offering it to a few places now, and then get a sense of whether you should keep offering it or whether you should save it for a later time? My inclination is to always do the work that we’re called to do with no thought of the marketplace, etc. We have to write what we have to write. I hope this helps. Good luck!

  2. Mel Weinstein on March 23, 2020 at 6:52 pm

    Thanks Lee, for very inspiring and helpful thoughts at a time when it’s hard to concentrate on writing (or anything other than the coronavirus). You’ve encouraged me to keep at it.

    • Lee Martin on March 24, 2020 at 11:24 am

      Good to hear from you, Mel. Yes, keep at it! It beats the alternative. Take good care, my friend.

  3. KATY READ on March 24, 2020 at 12:40 pm

    Thank you, Lee! That’s helpful. I went back to it last night and worked on it a little, and with your advice in mind I’ll dive back in with a sense of commitment. Coronavirus coverage is such a strange thing — we want to know the latest developments and new angles while at the same time we’re getting sick of reading about it. (Or maybe that’s just me.) Also, COVID news gets old really fast — I ignore almost everything more than a few
    days old. At least my piece will have a longer shelf life! Thanks again and take care. (P.S., Sue is wonderful.)

  4. Kathleen English Cadmus on March 26, 2020 at 9:52 am

    Thanks. Take care.

    • Lee Martin on March 26, 2020 at 11:27 am

      You, too, Kathleen.

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