Reading Relief

It’s no coincidence that the last blog entry I posted here was just before the inauguration. I came into 2017 with the best of intentions for creative output, and then the political shit hit the fan and ever since then I’ve had trouble producing anything. My journal entries have gone from three pages a day to perhaps a page every other day, give or take. I spend way too much time scrolling through Twitter, trying to keep up with the daily outrages coming from the new US administration. Intellectually, I know this isn’t healthy, nor is it ultimately helpful to simply consume outrage on a daily basis, but it has quickly become a habit I’m hard-pressed to kick. I am naturally a nervous, worst-case scenario person, so to be in the middle of such a tumultuous time, with such easy access to up-to-the-minute information and misinformation, is a perfect recipe for obsessive anxiety for me.

Needless to say, “obsessive anxiety” is not a mindset that is terribly conducive to creativity, or to productive focus of any kind. I find myself constantly wanting to do something, while having absolutely no idea what to do. With a pen in hand, it seems all I can do these days is fidget and sweat.

I’ve been able to compromise somewhat by focusing on reading. If I can’t produce, at the very least I can turn my attention to the creative work other people have produced, quite separate from the world of soundbites and Twitter feeds. In January I read seven books, which was a personal record for me, and I’ve already finished one more for February. I am turning to books as a kind of salve, a way for me to escape from present day events and to engage my mind even though I am having trouble producing words or ideas of my own. I am hoping that if I steep myself in other people’s prose, rather than the internet’s sputtering daily outrage, I will eventually reach some level of stillness and clarity once again. I’ll be able to order my thoughts. I’ll be able to write something more substantial than, “THE WORLD IS DOOOOOOOOOMED!!!!!!” over and over again.

For those who are curious, the books I’ve read so far this year are:

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  • Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham
  • The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
  • The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
  • The Sculptor by Scott McCloud
  • Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

I have enjoyed them all, despite their stylistic and thematic differences, and I want to continue my reading momentum, reaching out into different genres and subject matter as much as I can. I want to cope with the difficulties of the present day by learning as much as I can about as much as I can, and by engaging with as many diverse stories as I can. In a time when I have such a strong urge to do something but don’t know what, reading feels like a good start. It opens up worlds and possibilities that might not otherwise occur to me, and perhaps in doing so it will also suggest solutions to the problems that have been so rattling my nerves.

It’s certainly worth a shot. Now I just need a few more bookshelves…

Ode to a Desk

I have a desk here at home that gets far less use than it should, not just because I’m an avid procrastinator, but because I’ve always had something of an aversion to the traditional workspace of the desk. As a kid, even though I had a particle board IKEA desk in my bedroom, I’d usually do my homework at the kitchen table or in front of the TV. And I follow the same pattern today, though, let’s be honest, I gravitate towards the couch the majority of the time. It’s a comfortable, lazy way to work, and I don’t think it serves me very well, but I still do it.

Who could blame me? I spend eight hours a day, five days a week at work, sitting at a desk with nowhere to go but the bathroom, or the kitchen, or the copy machine that jams spectacularly half the time I use it, causing me to get on my knees and fiddle with the vaguely labeled, preposterous green levers and knobs in its belly for several minutes just to get back to work, my hands covered in scratches and smears of toner.

There is something romantic about the notion of sitting down at the desk with impeccable posture and a furrowed brow to do Big And Important Work, but in practice it can feel like being stuck on a boat in the middle of nowhere, bringing back those fidgety memories of endless school lectures from which you couldn’t get up to escape. Writing at a desk is, for me, like the idea of writing on a typewriter: charming, yes, but it would get old after a while. (Not to mention the likelihood of yet more ink stains on my hands!)

Still, I’m making an effort to look and feel more professional by sitting down at this desk today, doing my taxes, of all things. (I like getting my taxes done early, and since I am in charge of getting our W-2s processed at work, I am in full control of my tax timeline. I realize this is not a normal or sane position to take, but so long as I don’t actually owe the government anything, the whole process makes me feel mature and virtuous. Which is rare in the current political climate…)

This desk is in front of a large window that looks out on our balcony, and beyond that, the tall, bare trees with their gnarled hands stretched out towards me in either supplication or some kind of threat. Through the woods I can see the traffic out on the highway, which provides a near-constant white noise like ocean waves that I rarely notice anymore unless I’m listening for it. From here I can see the paved walking trail through the woods where I am frequently dragged along by our big, eager hound dog, and, as is usually the case when I’m out with him, there is no one on it. I can’t blame them; it’s damn cold, and the air is slightly thickened by a very fine curtain of snow, so light as to be almost invisible.

With the exception perhaps of the traffic, it’s a calming scene: a typical gray afternoon in mid-winter, the kind I can only stand when observing it from the comfort of the centrally heated indoors. But even the cars out on the highway sometimes capture my imagination. It’s a lazy, cold Saturday, but traffic is constant, everyone’s headlights switched on under the impenetrable cloud cover that threatens heavier snow at any moment. I find myself idly wondering where all these people are going in such a hurry, and I’m glad I’m not one of them.

On days like this, when I really let myself sink into my office chair and observe the world from behind the keyboard, I can actually start to appreciate the ritual of sitting down to work at the writing desk. I can appreciate the significance of carving out both a time and a place for creative work, separating it physically from the drone and hum of everyday life, from the screeching of the television and the crumbs of a midday sandwich. It feels different to sit here, even if I spend just as much time zoning out and staring into space as I do from the comfort of the couch. Even when I’m idle, here at the desk it feels somehow intentional, like the gears are still whirring somewhere in the back of my head. It is a different feeling from the quiet suffocation of the desk where I spend forty unimaginative hours a week earning a paycheck.

I’m not sure what kind of spell this faux wood, prefab Swedish piece is casting over me, but I appreciate it. I think, despite my reservations, I may just keep coming back to this desk, if only to see what dedication to a dedicated workspace can inspire over time. Writing advice consistently touches on the theme of “showing up,” and perhaps that showing up is a little bit easier when you know exactly where you’re supposed to be.