I am the kind of novelist who likes to toil in secret, privately, for a very long time. Smart things don’t tend to come gushing out of my head whenever prompted. Smart things, if they come at all, come slowly, in bits and pieces, over many drafts and revisions, shaped and molded and nurtured for years.
“These days, when I sit down with my notebook to write in the morning, the temptation to check my phone for COVID updates is overwhelming.”
That’s what I told an editor, anyway, just last week, when she invited me to write something for her European readers about our current global catastrophe, a view from America, an essay on the pandemic and the quarantine and What It All Means. I said I was finding it enormously difficult to describe what all the pandemic means, since we’re unfortunately still stuck in its terrifying first draft.
“It’s too soon to know,” I said, the novelist’s convenient alibi.
But there is also, I confess, a problem of focus. The amplitude of my days seems, lately, to have radically narrowed. It’s a paradox: I’ve never had so much time to be productive, yet so little will to produce.
My prepandemic schedule seems to me now like an amusing and whimsical daydream: write five pages in the morning, exercise hard, answer all new e-mails, read a novel. These days, when I sit down with my notebook to write in the morning, the temptation to check my phone for COVID updates is overwhelming. Instead of real heartrate-provoking exercise, lately anything more than a leisurely bike ride seems entirely too taxing. When I’m at the computer intending to answer email, I often find myself online just sort of aimlessly clicking, hopping from this news source to that, a leaf blowing in the wind. I’ve found that the time of each day’s happy hour keeps drawing earlier and earlier. Last week my wife and I poured a couple glasses of wine and literally, unironically, toasted to drinking a little less.
It’s like I’ve just had to take the difficulty level of my whole life way, way down.
I’m aware that other people are not having this reaction.
I scroll through Facebook and see certain friends doing amazing things and what I feel, often, is envy. I can admit to this. I can accept that sometimes, in weak moments, I’m a small enough person that seeing the excellent creative work my friends are doing during quarantine makes me feel a little envious, a little dull in comparison, a little blobby. I don’t envy their work, per se; I envy their capacity to do it. Like, I have a cellist friend who is currently making his way through the most difficult études in the entire cello repertoire and putting them all online. I have a friend who plays the trumpet for the New York Philharmonic who nightly serenades his whole Chelsea neighborhood from his rooftop. I have a violist friend who recorded herself playing all five parts of a certain Rigadoon arrangement. I have an artist friend curating elaborate and fabulous Zoom costume parties. I have friends writing poems to each other, making art for each other. I have a friend who is right now starting a whole new goddamn magazine focusing on post-pandemic arts. This kind of stuff is all over social media: creative people being incredibly, profoundly, intimidatingly creative.
In my big-hearted moments, I find it all so inspiring. But in my weaker moments, it feels kind of oppressive. Sometimes, when I’m at my bitterest, I’ve taken to calling it the Covid Creative Industrial Complex. I feel exasperated by my friends’ focus, their drive, their fortitude to do difficult mental work during a crisis. I’m not proud of this feeling.
I have not lately felt such focus and drive. For me, amidst all the anxiety—the horrific stories, the compulsion to check for news updates every ten minutes, the worry I feel for the future, the concern I have for friends currently managing infections, the concern I have for friends with underlying conditions who must avoid infections—I’ve found myself changing my definition of a good day’s work. Instead of my usual five daily pages of writing, now I call it good if I can manage just one. Instead of being a fastidious emailer, now I’m letting it linger. Instead of reading full novels, now I’m rereading just bits of my favorites.
There was a passage I came across yesterday in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, about a man who mowed his lawn in a very strange way. Instead of mowing the whole lawn all at once, he did it in seventeen small discrete zones, seventeen little patches and strips that he would individually mow over the course of a week or two. He did that because he liked the feeling of accomplishment, and he wanted to spread that feeling out, to experience seventeen small victories instead of a solitary larger one. Wallace described it as a “solid little feeling,” knowing you have a task to finish and then successfully finishing it.
This, I realized, is basically how I’m managing not only my creative work during the pandemic, but my whole quarantined life, focusing on those solid little feelings: writing one page of a new novel, or trying a different and exotic recipe, or planting some seeds and watching them sprout, or talking with friends and family, or cleaning the kitchen, or watering the grass, or going on a bike ride where my average speed is fractionally faster than my previous bike ride’s average speed. This stuff is not heroic or grand, nor does it answer big questions, nor is it all that worthy of online broadcast, but it does produce a solid little feeling, and I really recommend it.
Nathan Hill is the author of The Nix, which won the 2016 Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction from the Los Angeles Times. The Nix was also named the number one book of the year by Audible and Entertainment Weekly, as well as one of the year’s best books by the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, Slate, and Amazon. Hill’s nonfiction has appeared in Wired, ESPN the Magazine, and the New York Times Book Review. His short stories have been published in the Iowa Review, Agni, the Gettysburg Review, Denver Quarterly, and Fiction, among other outlets. Born in Iowa, Hill lives in Naples, Florida.Thumbnail: Michael Lionstar