Last week, an old friend and former coworker called me: he was working on a story, he said, about how reporters will do their jobs if they can’t leave the house. Specifically, he was interested in how people who write profiles—something I do often—were going to manage. I didn’t have a great answer for him then. I certainly don’t now. But I’ve been thinking about the question ever since.
Even at their most successful, profiles are a strange and ephemeral form of art. You spend a bunch of time with someone. You describe what they look like, what it’s like to be around them, what it sounds like when they talk. I often like to reprint sections of our conversations verbatim, so a reader can watch their mind work in real time. This is not the kind of thing I would normally allow myself to write down, but I tend to think of the work as empathy in action: you try to get as close to the way another person sees the world as you possibly can, then relay it. And in doing so, maybe we all become a little less mysterious to each other.
Newfoundlanders have a curious, endearing, and no doubt maddening habit of giving directions by landmarks that no longer stand or have since changed into something else. Take a left where St. Pat’s school used to be, you might say, go past the old O’Brien house a good ways, and then turn right.
While this method of navigation may prove useless to anyone unfamiliar with the recent and sometimes distant past of the terrain, it’s worth considering what it says about the people who employ it. Situating oneself geographically in relation to things no longer extant can be a politically charged act of reclamation. The passage of time may have taken the last of the O’Brien clan some while ago, but it hasn’t taken the memory of their having existed, of their connection to that place. Such a historically sensitive lens is evidence of not only an awareness of lineage but also a commitment to maintaining continuity with the past, inviting it to inflect the present.
The writer Patricia Highsmith once said that she was rarely short of inspiration; she had ideas, she said, “like rats have orgasms.” I cannot make the same claim. I don’t think writers need ideas so much; what they really need is time.
Or, more accurately, the need is for those conditions of work, the meeting of place and habits, that allow the right words to emerge. I have on my desk here a book called Daily Rituals. It offers short accounts of how writers and artists work. The quotation from Highsmith is something I came across in that book. And the detail that Highsmith, probably in an effort to keep distractions to a minimum, ate the same food every day: American bacon, fried eggs, and cereal.
The challenges and anxieties of authors shepherding books into the world pale before the ravages of a global pandemic. Nothing puts a professional disappointment into perspective like worrying about the health and safety of your loved ones. Still, the writers I know — in between calling their older relatives and fetching groceries for immunocompromised neighbors — are reeling in reaction to canceled book tours and the grief of knowing that something you have worked so hard on may miss its chance to find an audience. There is uncertainty about the future of our industry, and all industries. Strangest to me is finding myself at home still, pacing the same old floor, now joined in this stationary, solitary routine by everyone I know.
Considering the turmoil of the present moment, there could be no better time to read best-selling, Hugo Award-winning writer N.K. Jemisin’s sprawling and provocative new novel, “The City We Became,” in which New York City and its denizens battle an alien force intent upon eradicating them.
O misery. Imperfect
universe of days stretched out
ahead, the string of pearls