The gift of fiction

"Although we might want to tell other people's stories, we always end up telling our own." -- Alejandro Zambra in Ways of Going Home

For my birthday this year, I gifted myself time to write. And so every weekday morning, shortly after waking, I Zoom in to a writing group and see the faces of over 100 strangers and tell them what my goal is for the next hour and then I shut my camera off and get to work.

It isn't something I would have thought to do at any other time. Writing is such a private act, a messy act, that I've come to find great joy in the solitude of the process. Yet for some reason, this group of strangers showing up day after day in their bathrobes and bedhead provides the perfect group setting for daily production. These morning hours have become an elixir in these pandemic times, a moment to look forward to even on days when there is little to look forward to.

For years, I have struggled to keep up a writing habit. Knowing that writing sustained me mentally and emotionally but ultimately, not economically, it was often the first thing pushed off my calendar. Finding time to write has been like trying to solve an algebra equation for z when neither x nor y will reveal themselves to me. By gifting myself this hour every morning, I am buying into my future self, an investment I'm surprised to be making in a year where we are stuck in a seemingly static, never-ending present.

This writing time feels a bit like stolen time, like I am sneaking something luxurious into my days and it feels even more like that when I look at my empty bank account, already drained by the pandemic; the months spent inside, parenting and schooling my child instead of my own students, the weeks of worry while in quarantine, the monotonous days and hours spent cooking and cleaning and entertaining having eaten up all of the time I would normally be devoting to earning myself the hours I'd later spend writing. It is an investment in an unknown and unknowable future and that is exactly why it feels so necessary to do now.

While writing, for many, serves as a catharsis, I ascribe to Roxane Gay's belief that it shouldn't: you should get yourself some therapy instead of trying to solve your traumas through writing. My mornings are not spent on Artist's Way page dumps, the time too valuable for mere head-clearing. I do not keep a diary nor do I try to make sense of this completely nonsensical state we are living in. Instead, I use writing as a means of escape, creating fictional worlds with fictional people doing fictional things. And I realize that returning to fiction is a gamble. No one will pay me for these words, at least not yet, not in this form. But it is also an investment in myself and in my future and it is one I take in hopes that someday, someone like Louise Gluck will meet these people of my imagination and they will stay with her longer than the stars; or at least they might make her feel less like a small dot among the infinite stars.

Because of all the things that have helped me get through this year, novels have done the most. Marguerite Duras has taken me to pre-war Paris, Celeste Ng to some dull Ohio town whose name I cannot remember. I took a train ride down the Thai peninsula with Rattawut Lapcharoensap. I dove into The Lost Children’s Archive, ultimately coming up for air before we’d reached the southwest because I needed a break from the bad news, not more of it. Fleishman is in Trouble painted pre-covid New York City so well I had to stop reading, my sorrow at missing something I never was a part of overwhelming me. Would we ever get this New York back? Do we need to? As Alejandro Zambra wrote, in his Ways of Going Home, the book that has stuck with me longest this year, “There is pain but also happiness when you give up on a book. It’s felt that way to me, at least: first there’s the melodrama of having wasted so many nights on a useless passion … We give up on a book when we realize that it wasn’t for us.” For those words, that permission to give up on a book, I’ll be forever grateful. For all of these books, these wholly unique, not completely real worlds, I’ll be grateful. They helped me to get through a tough year and to remember what the work of writers is. And we are here to do the work.

A WORK OF FICTION -- Louise Gluck

As I turned over the last page, after many nights, a wave of sorrow enveloped me. Where had they all gone, the people who had seemed so real? To distract myself, I walked out into the night; instinctively, I lit a cigarette. In the dark, the cigarette glowed, like a fire lit by a survivor. But who would see this light, this small dot among the infinite stars? I stood awhile in the dark, the cigarette glowing and growing small, each breath patiently destroying me. How small it was, how brief. Brief, brief, but inside for now, which the stars could never be.

What’s the story you’ll remember most from this year, whose characters are you missing?