Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Year in Writing ... and Surviving

Each year, I write a post about what I’ve accomplished in writing (and also literary translation) over the previous 12 months. And even in this apocalyptic year of 2020, I have made some (SOME!) progress in my efforts to be a consistently-published writer and translator.

But I’ve also struggled, and I don't have a long roster of accomplishments to boast about this December. When I post my Year in Writing roundup every year, I ask other people to chime in with their successes. I suspect this year many of us don’t have much to report or don’t feel like celebrating.

We may have accomplished some things in 2020, but chief among them may simply be surviving a blockbuster year in heartache, conflict and troubles.

I have admitted to my students that our current learning model – and our current living model – is falling short. To be sure, we are doing the best we can. We’re all masked up and practicing social distancing and engaging remotely with whatever endeavor we’re involved in.

But what are we missing? What are we silently forgoing, without necessarily acknowledging the void produced by never seeing friends and family? What are we silently forgoing, by never lingering after class to chat? Never impulsively stopping by a friend's house or visiting a museum or catching a movie on a Tuesday afternoon.

What aren’t we admitting?

This isn’t an easy question to answer because Covid-19 in some ways exacerbated existing trends that take us away from pure lived experience. We were already way too much online, and now more so. We were already meeting each other digitally  -- via email and text -- way more than in person. I know that many introverts have welcomed the cancellation of events, the wholesale nixing of keeping-up-with-the Joneses socially. But Covid-19 has given us permission to look at Twitter (or insert your preferred point-of-scrolling here) instead of the world around us. 

There will come a moment perhaps when we reckon with what's been lost. Of course, for those who have lost family and friends to Covid-19, that moment has already come. One more way we are divided, as a nation.

Oddly, what I did manage to accomplish in the world of writing this year is almost completely tied to these Coronavirus Times. Namely, I published three short essays with the Brevity Nonfiction Blog that all sprang from the Covid-19 era’s new routines.

The first, in April, described the sudden move to teaching remotely, and the small silver lining afforded by the shift, inasmuch as I used the moment to inspire my students to take journal writing seriously. My students wrote about their new lives of sweatpants, screens and snacks. As I mentioned in a previous post, the tenderness, loneliness and fear embedded in their posts made them seem less like grad students and more like high school students (and I said it as a compliment because they didn't hold back). 

You can read “My Students are Finally Keeping a Journal” at Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog here:

The second – about my ailing father who has multiple myeloma -- speaks to the ways Covid-19 has complicated caring for loved ones, and also how the virus has underscored the fragility of our world. 

"One small pleasure these days? Saying the word ‘apocalypse.’ A-poc-a-lypse. Apocalyptic is even better. Not only because the bread aisle is barren, but also because the father who was intent on not going ‘gently into that dark night,’ to quote his favorite Dylan Thomas poem, may wind up going gently after all, nestled as he is under an avalanche of blankets on the couch in the living room, where he remains day and night.”

You can read the whole essay, “What I’m Not Writing About,” at Brevity here:

And in the third essay, published just last month, I wrote about the dog we finally adopted because heck, we were going to be home all the time anyway, so why not hole up with something furry? It's forced me to discover all kinds of things, but perhaps the best thing is the sky. 

"The sky is always there, isn’t it? There above me now, like every moment that’s come before. But forced to spend hours under its shifting gaze, I feel as though I am only now noticing that it’s a chameleon, a compass, an all-weather friend. You could hang it in a museum, so compelling is its composition."

Even the few other publishing world accomplishments I managed to notch that were not tied to Covid-19 restraints seem to nonetheless evoke the apocalypse. For example, I published my translation of four poems by Holocaust survivor and Italian transnational writer, Edith Bruck, in Asymptote Journal, including one that asks if the list of men who count in life can be pared down to one: "The father who is missing." You can read those poems here (you can also hear Signora Bruck read them in Italian):

As always, there is so much I didn’t accomplish. Some of it was out of my control! Like I didn’t have the two-week fellowship I'd won at the New York Public Library because like everything else, the library shut down, and has been re-opening very slowly. And I received dozens of rejections.

Maybe I will just conclude this roundup by saying if you don’t want to share what you’ve accomplished, maybe share what you’ve given up and how much you miss it. I think we owe it to ourselves to admit we’re not living in a normal way.

After publishing the essay that touched on not wanting to write about my father's illness, I began to force myself to record almost every word my father said. In my diary, I wrote about how he coughed, and it was his cough. The way he has always coughed. He almost never speaks now but the cough? It "sounded like him." Another day, I pointed out the blossoming pink roses outside of the dining room window and Daddy said, “Yes, I’ve been watching them for weeks.” Golden. What else is he contemplating?

Writing my way through this brutal year. Well, look at that -- I am ending this entry on a positive note. I hope that writing is seeing you through -- writing or painting or cooking or running or reading or whatever you can lose yourself in, without losing it all.