“Start where you are and see where it takes you” is the wise advice from blogger extraordinaire Kerry Clare for those times when you want to write but don’t know quite what you want to say, so here I am, trying to break through the inertia of not blogging by just blogging.
Sometimes I look back through the Novel Readings archive and wonder at how much blogging I did in periods of my life when I was much busier than I typically am now, when I had two small children who needed attention and care of all kinds, drop-offs and pick-ups at school and daycare, swimming lessons and library visits, homework and piano lessons and chess club, highly particularized meals (allergies, aversions) necessitating frequent shopping and endless packing up of safe snacks, appointments with doctors and dentists and orthodontists; in those years the demands of teaching, too, were greater, because I didn’t have an archive of materials to fall back on, or years of experience to give me trust in myself, belief that if I just showed up I could probably actually do just fine. I took on more then, more committee assignments and supervisions and all the rest of it; I say no a lot more now, partly because after my failed promotion bid I “quiet quit” (a term I hadn’t heard of back then!)—not completely, of course, and I try to still be a good department citizen especially, but it was a good reminder that (another catch-phrase I didn’t know then) the university will not love you back.
Somehow those crazy busy years were also my peak blogging years. Busy people get more done, they say, but I realize now, too, that blogging fed me—gave me nourishment, intellectual and eventually social—in ways my busyness, my business, wasn’t otherwise doing. I came to feel part of something, something I could reach beyond the constraints of my schedule, my remote location, myself. I enjoyed advocating for something I believed in; I could feel parts of myself expanding that had become cramped and anxious after the hard slog through graduate school and which I had not had, or made, time for in the intense early years of my job here, which were equal parts exhilarating, terrifying, and exhausting. Then came Open Letters, which I also somehow made time for in spite of, on top of, everything else (a mistake, perhaps, professionally speaking, but one I can’t regret).
There’s so much emptiness in my life now. It’s not just Owen’s death, although every day I confront the ongoing ache and mystery of his absence. Some of it is the ongoing isolation of our COVID-cautious lifestyle: especially as most of the rest of the world seems to be moving on, it feels worse than it did when we were all in it together. Being back on campus and teaching in person helps with that, but it’s not the same as it was: I’m in my office a lot, but mostly with the door closed, because masks are required in classrooms but not hallways and I like to take my own mask off while I work. It’s winter, so the outdoor visits that sustained me through summer and fall are less appealing, as are my long solo walks in the park, when I was alone but, somehow, never lonely. (I often think of Marianne Moore’s line “the cure for loneliness is solitude.”) I could be busier at / with work than I am. I will be, soon, as assignments start coming in, but even so I don’t expect to be even as busy with teaching as I was last term, just because of the nature of my classes this term, the easy familiarity of one and the high degree of automation in the other. There is other work I could be doing, even a writing commitment I should be doing. I can’t seem to summon up much urgency or energy for it, though, or for the book idea I still sort of believe is worth pursuing. I’m not even reading much. I can’t seem to concentrate on most books I try; I don’t seem to like many of them, and it bothers me, worrying that it’s me, not them, that’s the problem.
“Start where you are and see where it takes you.” I’m not in a great place, I guess, though things aren’t really so bad: another word for emptiness is spaciousness, and maybe that’s what I need right now. There are ways, I realize, in which it is a luxury, a privilege. Something I’ve heard a lot since Owen died was that grieving people should be kind to themselves, so I have been trying not to judge what I’m doing or not doing, or how much I’m doing, or just how I’m doing.
Two things I did recently: a review of Emma Donoghue’s Haven for Canadian Notes and Queries, and a review of Toby Litt’s A Writer’s Diary for The TLS. My editor at the TLS thought of me for Litt’s book because it’s a novel that began as a blog, or at any rate as a Substack (which I realize is not exactly a blog, but Litt also has a WordPress blog). The novel was initially released one day at a time, like a real diary, but has now been released in bound book form: that change in form was really interesting to me, not least because (like many long-time bloggers, I expect) I have often wondered if there is a book here somewhere, and if so, how radical the transformation would have to be for it to succeed in another form. My conclusion about Litt’s experiment:
I wish he had resisted the temptation to republish A Writer’s Diary as a conventional book. He could instead have accepted the ephemerality that is a blog’s most defining quality, letting the posts scroll away as they first appeared, one day at a time.
Your comments on your current life do resonate with me. Retired from teaching now for 16 years, I’ve done all sorts of things, but have cut way, way back during the pandemic. At one point was facilitating five book/study groups, now down to two. In one of them, we just finished a two-part study of “Middlemarch” and “Fellowship Point.” Alice Elliott Dark said she wanted to write a 19th century novel, so we decided to see to what extent she has. In researching MM, I found your wonderful MM website which was extremely helpful, given that one hardly knows where to start or stop with MM sources! I wonder whether you have read “Fellowship Point.” Our little group of women in our 70’s enjoyed it very much; we spent several hours discussing the two novels.
I’m so glad you find the website helpful. I know what you mean about getting overwhelmed with sources. I have Fellowship Point on my watch list but it’s only out in a big and quite expensive hardcover, so I expect I’ll wait until it subsides into paperback to read it. I’m definitely interested, though.
I’ve been feeling like this too–what you say about “how much blogging I did in periods of my life when I was much busier than I typically am now, when I had two small children who needed attention and care of all kinds, drop-offs and pick-ups at school and daycare, swimming lessons and library visits, homework and piano lessons and chess club, highly particularized meals (allergies, aversions) necessitating frequent shopping and endless packing up of safe snacks, appointments with doctors and dentists and orthodontists; in those years the demands of teaching, too, were greater” articulates something I’ve been thinking about a lot.
After my early and forced retirement, I still have important things to do, but none of my friends are retired and there’s no one else who really gets the way I’m grieving the end of my career.
Grieving takes a lot of energy.
I can imagine that it’s really hard making that transition, given how our careers encompass (for better and for worse) so much of what we think of as our identities. I have a close friend who also retired recently and says it has been harder than she expected. Grieving is hard and also all big changes are hard. I guess the same advice I got so much last year still applies: it takes time, be patient. But that time itself can feel hard!
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I think what I mostly wanted to say, and am fumbling at, is I think you’re right to keep writing when you’re not sure what you want to say because there are always others who feel something of the same way but haven’t been able to articulate it. The relief of reading what you’ve been thinking is like in the old days when I used to pick out a greeting card at a store–the recognition of finding just the right one.
I appreciate this comment a lot, Jeanne, and I know what you mean about that relief, too.
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I appreciate you explaining how hard it is to write; and thinking about the loss of Owen. As another has said time is a healer but; you never forget.
With your trouble writing I think of Kipling’s If because it’s make life better if you try them.
Thanks for your continued blogging you inspire me to read other authors not just the obvious classics. Thanks again.
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It’s interesting to look back at what we’ve written and why. At the start of the year, I mentioned how my blog was an integral part of my life, something to lean on in bad times, but also how the danger of that is of its becoming a crutch. I do wonder sometimes what else I might have done had I not been spending all that time reading and reviewing…
I wonder that too – but then I remember what else I ended up doing, starting with Open Letters, which gave me both courage and practice as a ‘public’ critic, growing out of writing in public here. Whatever my doubts or regrets, I am glad I turned away from strictly academic writing.
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So much in this post resonated with me, Rohan. I look back at my younger, busier self with wonder, and struggle to summon energy to do things, even things I know would make me feel good. I tried to think of the early awful months of my separation and grief as “lying fallow.” I needed to replenish my nutrients before I could support new growth. I guess I’m telling myself I should be “over it” by now, but . . . I’m not. You reminded me of the need to be patient with myself. Thank you for writing this!
Patience and replenishment: I wonder if some of our difficulty in accepting or appreciating these concepts is our academic training, which is so focused on not just productivity, but very specific measures of it.
Although I’m a longtime reader of this blog I think that this may well be my first comment. If so, I’m sorry it has to be on such a personal matter. If you find it inappropriate, please take it down & forgive me.
My sister committed suicide when I was 24; I was the youngest by far in my family but in any family there is always one who copes & in mine it happened to be me.
The death of a sister doesn’t compare to the death of a child, I know, but nonetheless I feel able to say, it will get better BUT it will, as is often the case with convalescence, take far longer than you would think.
I also retired before I was ready and again it took time to get used to the person I’d become and stop grieving the person I was so used to being. That too took longer than I would have expected.
The trick, such as it is, is, as Queen Elizabeth the first once said, to ‘be content to let time pass’.
It will get better. All of it. You won’t be the same, life won’t be the same, but it will get better.
Helen, first of all I am so sorry for your loss. You’re right that it’s not the same as mine, but it is like my daughter’s, and I have learned a lot from her grief for her brother, grief I wish so much she did not have to carry. There is an absence in her life and also in her future that I know will always be there.
I appreciate what you say about how long it takes for things to get better. I think one of the oddities of the current “wisdom” about grief is that while it is reassuring to be told “there is no timeline” (and also to be cut loose from the widely disparaged idea of “stages” of grief), so you don’t judge yourself for the time it’s taking, it’s also disorienting. If there’s no timeline, then for better and for worse there are also no expectations or promises. There’s just whatever you’re feeling.