Can't Write — I'm Writing

It’s lunchtime on Sunday on the East Coast, and dozens of people around the globe are thinking the same thing:

This from the man who asked, of the previous letter, “was it a slow week?” Forgive us if we’ve underestimated his enthusiasm for the project.

But about that project: for the last two weeks I’ve been participating in novelist Jami Attenberg’s #1000wordsofsummer and so I can’t waste any on you people.

I’m kidding. I’m half-kidding. Attenberg’s #1000wordsofsummer began a couple of years ago as a social-media accountability project and has now grown into a thing. It’s not a contest, it’s just several thousand writers agreeing to write 1,000 words a day for two weeks and check in on various social media to report their progress and cheer each other on.

Attenberg has turned the project into a newsletter, Craft Talk, from which she dispenses occasional advice and pep talks and, during the two-week period, sends out a daily notes of encouragement, often featuring author friends of hers dispensing their own advice, as in this recent bit from the writer Elizabeth McCracken:

“Another rule: I believe in assignments (like the 1000 words of summer) and above all I believe in harnessing the power of my own self-loathing. That is to say: I give myself a deadline and a goal that might seem impossible.” 

“Harnessing the power of my own self-loathing” is, to me, an extremely relatable sentiment.

This is all to say that I had a limited amount of time for writing this weekend, and the writing that I was doing was going toward my thousand-word quota, which goes toward my book project, which creating some structure around that project was the ostensible reason for this newsletter project in the first place.

I offer below some other things you can read, including a literary magazine in which I know 60 percent of the non-fiction contributors.

The Summer’s Hottest Hangout is Harvard Review

I was browsing (at long last!) at Porter Square Books the other day, when I picked up the latest copy of Harvard Review. As I flipped to the table of comments, I was greeted with that peculiar mix of pride and envy (prenvy? envride?) that can afflict those of us who are writers and insecure about it. Three of the five pieces under “Essays” are written by people I know and am lucky to call friends.1

Each essay is excellent in its own way (though none of the Harvard Review’s print content is online; why not order a copy?), with little on the surface to relate them to one another, but I wanted to draw a line connecting the three.

Megan Marshall — the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Margaret Fuller, The Peabody Sisters, and Elizabeth Bishop — writes, in Without, of a three-month sojourn she made in Kyoto in Fall 2017, as visiting faculty at a university there. She read Hawthorne, met with the school’s graduate students in American literature, and learned much about Komo No Chomei, “the Thoreau of Japan,” who went to live in his own little hut in the woods 600 years before Henry David pulled his stunt out in Concord. What Marshall didn’t know then was that those three months were also three of the last 20 of her partner Scott Harney’s life. Marshall connects her time in Japan with the forced solo isolation she confronted with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic less than a year after his death: “…Scott had selflessly given me a kind of food: a period of solitude in which to learn how to feed myself, although my time in Japan left him alone for three of his last twenty months in this world.”

Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, in Futurity, also deals in part with the isolation of the pandemic, though their narrative is in the context of gender transition. Again, I can’t link to this essay, but you can read Marzano-Lesnevich’s Harper’s piece (also a Best American Essays selection), Body Language, here. Or listen to them on the Harper’s podcast. (Or buy their great first book, The Fact of a Body).

I especially liked this bit from Alex’s Harvard Review piece:

“… But also: futurity, noun: a race for two-year-old horses into which they are entered before they are born.

8. As a metaphor for gender, maybe that’s a little obvious. But also: futurities offer some of the richest prizes in horse racing.”

The essay — in 50 numbered sections — gets at some of the fragmentation Alex is experiencing in transition (and their worries about what the future looks like), and also retains their playfulness with language.

Jennifer L. Hollis is the writer in this issue I’ve known the longest, and though she hates this joke it’s also true: she’s a literal angel. No, really: she’s a music-thanatologist, which means she plays the harp at the bedside of dying patients, bearing witness to grief and easing their transitions to whatever comes next. You can read about it in her book, Music at the End of Life, or read some of the media coverage of her here. Her essay, How to Find a Healing, deals mostly with a period of uncertain transition, during her move back to Boston from Montana, as she was between educational programs, and her father faced a scary cancer diagnosis:

“I used to think everything happened for a reason. Those reasons were difficult to see, but I thought ritual, prayer, and reflection could transform terrible events into a neat, meaningful narrative.

Now I don’t know anything. After twenty years, I know less than I ever have about suffering and its reasons….”

What I notice in each of these quite-different-on-the-surface essays is just what Jen gets at in that last sentence above: an embrace of uncertainty. Or, if not uncertainty’s embrace — at least its acknowledgment.

The thing I noticed was this: that each writer, in working toward this embrace, makes use of some Buddhist/mindfulness practices. Both Hollis and Marzano-Lesnevich reference the practice of loving-kindness meditation. With “May I be well, May I be happy,” Hollis learns to replace the “screaming football coach” in her brain with someone gentler. Marzano-Lesnevich offers the passengers in the ambulance — which she can spy regularly from her window during the height of the pandemic — the same mantra: “May they be safe. May they be happy…”

And Marshall quotes Chomei:

And so the question,
where should we live?
And how?

Where to find
a place to rest awhile?

And how bring
even short-lived peace
to our hearts?

1

And, at last check, subscribers to A Saturday Letter! Hey everyone!