“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.