Literary Hub

From One Writer to Another: A Letter to My Community

I have been physically away from my children since March 4 when I left the house for an annual writing conference, held this year in San Antonio. Since then, I have been in self-quarantine, first due to potential exposure at the conference, and then from ongoing potential exposure from various trips to the grocery store for supplies. My three year old daughter suffers from pediatric pulmonary hypertension and exposing her to COVID-19 would be devastating. And so I do the shopping, leave the groceries at the door where it is decontaminated, wave to the kids through the window, talk with them via Zoom, and then return to my self-quarantine in the home of my parents a half-hour away. None of this is special, of course.

Some of us are trapped away from our homes, others are trapped in them, and regardless of who are with we are worried about those we cannot reach (and indeed we are all experiencing what folks with compromised immune systems and/or chronic illnesses live with every day of their lives). Really what I want to write here is simply that I see you, that we see each other, and to beseech you, from my heart to yours, to please, please hold onto hope.

My community is comprised mostly of writers and it is primarily to you, my friends, that I write this note. I’m afraid for you. I’m afraid for us. I hear desperation emanating from us all, often via social media, desperation that is not only the gray wake of sadness but is also, I think, something more difficult to describe or define, a kind of ineffectuality in the face of real pain. What can we do, really, in the context of global pandemic? We are not essential in the way of frontline medical personnel, firefighters, truck drivers. We are not even as essential as Wal-Mart employees (may they remain at peak health). It is enough, during the current crisis, to make one feel as if they have nothing to add. Why did we not become doctors or nurses or firefighters, my friends? Why did we not become Wal-Mart employees? What hubris to decide to be writers when the world is falling apart all around us.

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Aria Aber, a poet I much admire, was recently given a Whiting Award. The ceremony was held online. The same poet celebrated a birthday just this week, during our state’s stay at home order. Two celebrations missed among a thousand others. Aber did not complain but I am, as pointless as that is, pointless and, I might add, selfish. People are literally dying around us, after all; nonetheless, in this community we understand that our celebrations, large and small, are, in a very real sense, our communion. I hesitate to use the word “religion” here but our activities do bear some similarity, the activity of our community being marked not by religious observances but by the timing of AWP and Bread Loaf and Sewanee, by MFA residencies, by the coming of new issues of literary journals, by the giving and receiving of awards, and by the appearance, large and small, of our own writing in print or online.

The importance—to us—of these observances has been disturbed because they have been, necessarily, minimized. What I want to see are photographs of this year’s Whiting Award-winners on stage, being presented their awards in person, but of course all we can hope for now are screencaps from Zoom. Those of us who are not writers, who are not poets, will not understand what this means, how the absence of our small ceremonies pulls at the threads that hold us together. Mixed in with our despair and impotence, is the guilt that, in the midst of this pandemic, we’re busily trying to convince ourselves that our work matters. Our observances are small by any measure but our own.

What does it matter if someone on social media thinks we’re practicing a dead art? Dead to whom? Irrelevant to what culture?

A few days ago, on Twitter, some idiotic pundit suggested that the novel was a culturally irrelevant art form, a point of view followed quickly by a second claim that the short story was likewise irrelevant. The responses from the writing community were immediate and earnest. Of course we want to defend ourselves from accusations that our work is pointless. Of course we do. And yet, fundamentally, what does it matter if someone on social media thinks we’re practicing a dead art? Dead to whom? Irrelevant to what culture?

The truth is, if we strip away all the nonsense, I believe that being a writer is not a job or an occupation or a hobby; it is a calling. I suppose some of us “choose” to become writers but when I think about my own path, I believe writing chose me. What does that mean? We write for a variety of reasons, often trying to describe states of being that are mostly beyond the limits of language: love, pain, grief, joy, sadness, heartbreak. These are all stupid words that mean nothing and yet do they not also mean everything? I am in the business of breaking hearts. Maybe you are too.

And yet we are in the time when all our hearts are broken. We feel alone, isolated, worried to sleeplessness. Some of us have suffered terrible losses, friends of the community, personal friends, family. I have wept for people I know and love and for people I do not know at all. And yet my calling continues to call. So what does that mean?

I’m not religious nor am I a practitioner of any religious system, but, perhaps paradoxically, I deeply believe in the divine, what Mircea Eliade calls hierophany, the manifestation of the sacred. For me every literary text has an element of the sacred for it pushes against the very edges of what is possible in language. Love, pain, grief, joy, sadness, heartbreak—these are place keepers for universal experiences that bind us together as human beings. Our role as poet, as novelist, and essayist, as short story writer, is to make sense of what it means to be. I’m not here to suggest that means empathy, necessarily—empathy is, I think, the lowest hanging fruit—or even that our roles are only to articulate some rarified emotional content but rather that, for me, we are tasked with presenting some aspect of the world via the single medium of language, a process by which all we struggle to order linguistic symbols in a way that will allow an experience or idea or state of being to arise in the mind of some hypothetical reader, someone we do not know, have never met, and cannot even imagine. Is that not an act of divination, my friends?

Yesterday, my mother began reading C. Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold. I can only assume she is being transported by that novel, as I was, as I am still when I contemplate its richness, its life. The process of that transference—that Zhang’s world is now manifest in my mother’s thoughts—is a sacred act, an act of trust and devotion and openness on both sides. It is hierophany.

My little stack of books here in Colfax, California, where I am in self-quarantine, include Solmaz Sharif’s Look, Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, Andrew Malan Milward’s I Was a Revolutionary, Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s The Merman and the Book of Power, Kerri Arsenault’s Mill Town, Sesshu Foster’s City of the Future, Paige Webb’s Tussle, and Faylita Hicks’s Hood Witch. Could any of these authors imagined me, a 48-year-old white cis-gendered male reader, in self-quarantine with his parents in a mountain town founded as a gold rush supply hub?

And yet I am Sharif’s reader and Lawlor’s and Milward’s and Farooqi’s and Arsenault’s and Foster’s and Webb’s and Hicks’s. And perhaps I am your reader too. Friends, I see you. Your words give me hope and life. You are essential to me. You are essential to the world. Let us make sure that we see each other, especially now, and let us remind ourselves that we recognize, even in our despair, even in our loneliness, that we are practitioners of a sacred, profane, and essential art. You give me hope. Don’t forget to permit yourself, in the midst of whatever else you’re feeling—grief, fear, longing, despair, perhaps even joy—to feel the mirrored reflection of that hope, for me, for you, for all of us together.

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