What We Found in Writing

Poets & Writers Magazine|July - August 2020

What We Found in Writing
ON THE evening Denver went into lockdown, I was fishing. The South Platte runs right through the city, and if you’re into urban fly-fishing, you can cast for huge carp among the wrecked grocery carts and old tires.

But just twenty miles upstream, where the river emerges from a cleft in the foothills, the water runs through wild, old cottonwoods and pushes gravel bars into the bends, and there are beaver dams and circling raptors and mergansers and other ducks drifting in the pools. It was late March. Remnants of the last snow melted in patches along the river trail, the trees were leafless, but the afternoon had been warm, and the sun descended out of a band of clouds and balanced on the ridge of the divide. I parked my truck and biked up the river with a rod and pack, and when I was well past the last of just a few fishermen, I stashed the bike in the trees and waded into the current and began to cast.

I felt, strangely, like I was wading into my first novel, The Dog Stars, about a man from Denver who has survived a flu pandemic that has killed almost everyone. His wife, his friends, his unborn child. He has his old dog, Jasper, and a love of fishing, but the warming that has killed so much of the forest has also killed his beloved trout, so when he fly-fishes for suckers and carp, he pretends. He wades and casts and imagines he is in his old life. He appreciates the light on the water, the colors of the stones, the big carp that make a meal for the two of them.

I felt like that now. I focused on what was in front of me. I waded and fished. I saw a beaver swim out from the willows and add a stick to its dam. And the mayflies called blue-winged olives drifted off an eddy and sparkled in sunlight. And I smelled the thawing earth and cold stones and saw the raindrop ring of a trout feeding in still water. I thought, “Each according to her nature.” But despite the peace of the evening, my heart was breaking. For those who were sick and scared and those who had already died. For the ones who were working furiously in hospitals and the ones who took terrible risks to support us all because they needed the work. People everywhere were unsure of what to do or how they were going to live, and the fear in all of it was palpable in the nearly empty streets, the unmanned ranger booth, the half-waves of the few people in the park.

But I fished, just as my protagonist Hig had done. And I prayed for all of us that this would bring out the best in us, that our own true nature was courage and kindness.

It is strange when life mimics art. Or when the darkest fears manifest. And you have to challenge yourself to stay open and connected to the things you love, the people and the work. I am writing every day now as the lockdown continues. I have no idea if people in the near future will have the wherewithal to buy books, or the energy to read them. But I write and do not feel like I’m playing the violin on a ruptured Titanic. How I love to be transported when I work, and when I write I am simply going toward love. It’s all I know how to do. And put one foot in front of the other and cast into the current beneath an overhanging willow and thrill to the sudden tug and quiver that I know is a trout. And feel the tremor of joy and love that I know no virus, no fear, can survive.

Peter Heller, author of the novel The River (Knopf, 2019), in Denver, Colorado

When the pandemic began, like many I found myself careening from deep despair to terrifying fear. And, as it turns out, neither fear nor despair allows me to write or create in a meaningful way. Still, I think creating during these unfathomable times is both impossible and necessary for me. After a month of reading and crying and intense self-isolation and some illness, I was finally able to return to the page. What struck me, almost immediately, is that fear was more incapacitating than despair. I could surrender to a hopelessness and still make something. Even if it felt like a last gasp of my own humanity or love or tenderness, I could still write it. However, if I focused on fear, I was always silenced. Perhaps it’s because fear is imagining a present and future that is worse and keeps getting worse. It’s imagining myself or loved ones ill. It’s chaos and panic. It’s an emergency. It’s without breath. I cannot write during an emergency. Where is the breath in an emergency? Whereas despair almost has a sense of surrender to it. While it can still be awful and tragic, it acknowledges the present in a way that’s almost a release. Life is awful, and here is my awful poem. There’s abandon in that. There is some breath, some distance, maybe there is even a sense of possibility in despair. It does not require action; it requires reflection and attention and a diving in deeper. Of course, I’d rather write toward hope or toward joy or grace or anything that keeps me out of the well of sorrow. But maybe hope is next. Maybe there’s an order. As Robert Hass says, “First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing.”

Ada Limón, author of the poetry collection The Carrying (Milkweed Editions, 2018), in Lexington, Kentucky

It was on a Thursday that things in New York began to deteriorate by the hour. Because memory is grief’s first victim, even now, six weeks later, as I write this, I don’t remember which measures were taken that day: the state of emergency, offices sending everyone home, hospitals canceling surgeries, only that this was the day I understood everything would change. The next morning I went into my office, closed the door, and wrote for longer than I had in months. I knew disaster was gathering. That I needed to buy food and ready myself either to remain in my apartment for weeks or get out. But before I could accept any of that, some part of me insisted I ignore it all and work. Writing is a form of dissociation. In the hours of real absorption, you leave behind your room, your body, even the mind you imagine as your own. I needed badly to experience that freedom precisely because I sensed how long it might be before I would have it again. As it happened, I was beginning a scene set in New York not long after 9/11. A character in a city in the wake of siege. Now, on the days I am still able to write, I carry the brokenheartedness for what is happening to this city of ours with me into the past, trying as writers do to assimilate the inassimilable. To create meaning in the face of death. This was the task before. It’s gotten harder. But it’s still the task.

Adam Haslett, author of the novel Imagine Me Gone (Little, Brown, 2016), in Brooklyn, New York

The pandemic has changed everything in my life. I spend a lot of my weekdays helping our students at Antioch University and trying to figure out how to support them emotionally, financially, and academically. This might not seem connected to my writing, but it makes me realize how different writers are even though we often clump ourselves together. Some people seem to be able to write a lot right now. Others not at all. And all of it is okay.

The state of the world and the virus has been a kind of invisible stitching throughout the poems I’ve been writing in the same way that it’s always around, but sometimes it’s not. I’ve also been reading a lot of older poems by W. S. Merwin, Jack Gilbert, Czeslaw Milosz, Louise Glück, Li-Young Lee, and Robert Kelly, and find those poets to be so wise. I find writing poems at this time to be a great form of distraction from all the worry and stress. The focus that it takes to work on a poem is immense. I don’t knit, but I imagine that’s what knitting is like.

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July - August 2020