Pastimes for the Harried Mind

On the face of it, this pandemic has been business as usual for me. Well, aside from being away from our apartment, Mewon, and all of our things, that is. But I’ve been a remote copy and content writer for years. I’m used to working from home in my sweats with a cat on my lap and succulents as coworkers. And I’m the kind of person who quietly rejoices in canceled plans, rarely wears makeup, and is too lazy to style or dry her hair. Plus, I like eating at home because I’m bad at budgeting and $12 lunches stress me out.

In all of the chaos and heartache, much of the world is joining the freelance gig workers, slowing down, remembering what’s important, and taking stock. But in talking with friends, it seems that some of us hit a collective wall this week. We’re struggling in similar ways—and feeling guilty about it. Our neuroses are bubbling to the surface. We’re living inside our own private surrealities. But if we’re healthy, if our loved ones are healthy, we can and should count ourselves fortunate. Still, things are strange and sometimes hard.

For me, this weirdness is manifesting in my manic depressive symptoms. But because I’ve dealt with them since my early twenties (and looking back, almost certainly my chaotic teens), I’ve amassed some eccentric, hard-earned strategies and workarounds to keep me sane-adjacent right now. And I thought I’d share some of them in case they’re useful. As always, your mileage may vary.

Luxuriate in “brain candy.” Depending on where I am in my mood/chemical cycle, it can be nearly impossible to read a book for more than ten to fifteen minutes at a time. During these periods, it feels like my brain can’t properly process visual information; my mind makes odd connections in some instances and severs them in others. And as an avid reader and writer, these foggy spells can feel demoralizing.

But my time in therapy has given me some useful tools. When my “reading problem” inevitably cropped up last year, my gentle therapist Margaret helped me hatch a plan: I would give audiobooks some attention and quit trying to chip away at the literature with a capital “L” on my shelf. Instead, I allowed myself to lean into genre fiction, my first love, and return to cozy detective novels—“ones with more menus than murders,” she would urge. She also reminded me that there’s nothing inherently noble about being a reader. Sure, time spent in the interior lives of other people engenders empathy and enriches our lives, but that can be achieved through other means too. Other helpful cerebellum sweets include: crossword puzzles, foreign films with subtitles, YouTube spirals into well-documented subjects like the history of Europe’s royal families (don’t even get me started), or the changing fashion silhouettes of the 20th century. Also fun: deep dives into one artist’s work. I’m exploring Kate Bush’s discography right now and having a blast. The more wholesome, obscure, or tedious the activity, the better. (Shout out to my friend Joce and my therapist for introducing me to the term “brain candy.” Not to be confused with candied brains.)

Look to the past. If you can’t handle our current reality (and frankly, who can?), spend time in a bygone era. A friend and I are making our way through the Best Picture Oscar winners through the years, starting with the earlier black and white films. The transatlantic accents, flamboyant monologues, and lush costumes are providing such a welcome escape. Also, it’s nice to be able to tick something off a list.

PB&Js are okay. Seriously. If you can’t muster the energy to make dinner, embrace sandwich life with zero shame. Just try to add some fruits and veggies to your plate. You don’t need to learn how to bake right now if you don’t want to. I would rather sit here with my baby carrots, peanut butter, and Coke Zero playing Animal Crossing than make an elaborate dish. And I’ve made peace with that. (Animal Crossing on the Switch only allows you to inhabit one island per device, which means Greg and I are stuck puttering around the same small area, even in virtual reality, but we like each other so it’s okay.)

Don’t beat yourself up for not #selfhealing. I’ve become a bit disheartened by some of the big psychology accounts I used to follow on Instagram. At first, I loved the focus on agency and the actionable advice. But recently I’ve noticed that some of the pages with huge follower counts are veering into “good vibes only” and victim-blaming territory, even if subliminally.

I see this in in-person spiritual circles too: the idea that there’s one correct answer/practice/path, and if it isn’t working, you’re not trying hard enough. I’ve attended weekly meditation meetings for the past few years, and even though I find them hugely helpful, meditation has its limits, at least for me. Sometimes I need self soothing methods and distractions, not deeper excavations into my present consciousness, especially when I’m experiencing a flood of anxiety or a trauma response. Above all, I hope you listen to your heartttt. You’re the one who has to live inside your own head.

I hope you’re gentle with yourself this week. We’re flying back to France tomorrow. I’m anxious but I have brain candy and meds. And I’ll be reunited with my fur daughter soon. Talk to you on the other side. xx

Animal Crossing Pocket Camp Presents: Mrs. Dalloway

Adapted Scenes from Virginia the Wolf

Avatar Dalloway said she would craft the flowers herself. For the animals had their work cut out for them. Though what that work was, she wasn’t quite sure. Donning her fascinator, she burst open the Sakura windows and plunged into the open air. Around her, waves of cherry blossoms lapped at the chairs and tables, all meticulously arranged. The landscaping had been so expensive; 150 Leaf Tickets no less! But the price had been worth it; her campsite was distinctive; the air chill, sharp, sweet—yet solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen.

She woke to the honks of Sir Bill the Duck, though it seemed she never really slept. Or if she did sleep, it was a restless sleep full of dreams spent repeating her waking life: hustling to collect shells and fruit and fish for her increasingly demanding houseguests, all of whom had complicated dietary restrictions.

She never meant to cohabitate with a bevy of colorful animals. And yet, she delighted in the sounds they made as they moved about the campsite. The flutter of diamond-tipped wings; the snorts of disaffected alligators; even the sounds of Merry the Cat scratching at the koto strings filled her with pleasure. Across the room, Sir Bill stirred in his stained-glass bed (part of the ‘cute’ collection). Sitting up, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes and waved to get her attention:

“Thanks for letting me crash, friendo! I need a solid 10 hours. Say, you wouldn’t happen to have some fruit on you? Can’t neglect that Vitamin C, especially now.”

Dalloway rummaged through her knapsack to retrieve a Perfect Orange. It was worth 10,000 coins at least. She hesitated, then handed it to Bill. He rewarded her with 500 coins, some lumber, some cotton, and a few potions.

“If you crafted a Level 5 Harmonious Tent with these, it would really take our friendship to another level.”

Clarissa nodded, her smile not reaching her eyes. But then, it rarely did.

As she consulted her map and set off, it occurred to her that her only gift was knowing the other animals almost by instinct. If you put her in a campsite with someone, she swore she could see a bubble of desire floating above their heads; could tell whether they wanted red snappers or crucian carp or spring mackerels; fruit beetles or tiger butterflies; peaches or coconuts or cherries. What she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; Blather the Owl’s gambling parlor; OK Motors; Reece the Llama’s Re-Tail shop. Did it matter, then, she asked herself, crossing the bridge to Sunburst Island, that she must inevitably cease completely? That all this must go on without her—until the app was discontinued? Her world amounted to little more than a marketing tool designed to encourage in-app purchases, and, eventually, the real game; did she resent it, or did it not become consoling? The phones would obsolesce and return to glass, minerals, metal, fiber. And where would she be then? Somehow in the streets of Animal Crossing, on the ebb and flow of her stretch goals, here, there, she survived, Pelican Pete survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the orchards in Breezy Hollow; the cabin there, ugly, badly furnished; part of the animals she would never unlock. But what was she dreaming as she looked into the window of Timmy’s Fortune Cookie Shop, as she read a cross-stitched sign that said: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun. Video game characters don’t require sunscreen.”

“Avatar Clarissa Dalloway will see me,” said the dapper bird at the camp entrance. “Oh yes, she will see me,” he repeated, gliding past Beau the Buck, giving him a friendly nod. “Yes, yes, yes,” he muttered, cruising up the cobblestone path. “She will see me, alright. After five days at Lost Lure Creek, after zooming all over Animal Crossing, she will see me.”

“Who can—what can?” asked Clarissa, thinking it obscene to be interrupted at eleven o’clock on the morning of the day she was set to host a camp full of newly-unlocked animals. Now a figure came into view. Could it be? No! But oh how glad and shy and utterly taken aback she was to have Pelican Pete visit unexpectedly that morning. (Though she hadn’t opened his last parcel.)

“And how are you,” said Pete, his wings trembling, taking and kissing both her hands. She’s grown older in the past five days, he thought. Her face looked the same, and her pixels remained handsomely aligned; she gazed at him with the same expressive dark eyes, but they were rimmed with shadows now, and her hands were calloused from days spent harvesting fruit and scouring the shore for coral and pearl oysters. No, I shan’t tell her anything about it, he thought, for she has grown older and exhausted. Putting his wing in his beak, he retrieved a barred knifejaw fish and passed it between his wings. Yes, he thought, here she has been, sewing away, mending her clothes as usual; and not just her clothes, he thought, but those of the entire camp; a riot of tacky fabric; all this time I’ve been swooping all over the world, delivering packages, and she’s been mending and throwing parties and growing more and more irritated, more and more agitated, for there’s nothing in the world so bad for some avatars as marriage to a cabal of fuzzballs.

“Do you remember,” she said, “how the striped umbrellas used to flap at Saltwater Shores?” “They did,” he said, and he winced as he remembered delivering heavy packages and fishing and drinking mojitos alone. And Avatar Dalloway could have bitten her tongue then, for reminding Pelican Pete that he had proposed marriage to her at Saltwater Shores.

Of bloody course I had wanted to marry her, thought Pete; and it almost broke my heart too; and he was overcome with despair which rose like a cartoon moon looked at from a cartoon terrace, filled with cartoon furniture crafted for transactional cartoon friends—garishly beautiful and always the same.

“I am in love,” he said, though not to her but maybe to the ornate fountain. “In love,” he repeated, gathering strength, “with a girl from Lost Lure Creek.”

“In love!” she said, trying to keep her voice steady. That he at his age should be sucked under in his ridiculous post-bird’s hat by love! “And who is she?” she asked. “A married woman, unfortunately,” he said, “a beautiful elephant, the wife of a post-eagle.” She watched him and wished he would stop fiddling with that knifejaw fish. What an outrageous habit!

I know what I’m up against, thought Pete, running his fingers over the knifejaw’s scales. But I’ll show Clarissa. I’ll show all of them. I am not yet old. My wings are still steady, my beak finely polished. There’s still time for me. Not like these fussy animals wallowing away in their ostentatious garden. And then to his utter surprise, feeling the heavy bonus balloons of fate descend upon him, he burst into tears; wept; wept without shame until his plumage was soggy, and he collapsed on the polka dot sofa, animated tears running down his gossamer cheeks.

Just a Few Notes on Your Untitled 2020 Pandemic Script

Hi again!

LOVE the direction you’ve taken with your latest draft. So fresh and grounded! I was utterly transported. However, I have a few small suggestions for your script. Please find my notes below:

  • What if aliens engineered the virus? And this pandemic was Phase One of their terrestrial takeover? Like a reverse War of the Worlds? I could see opportunities for sequels.

  • Can we make the female lead a bit poutier? More ‘sexy disaster sweaty’ and less ‘sweaty disaster?’ Think Evangeline Lilly in Lost—with, like, a full brow but not a unibrow? Like a Lilly Collins brow? And artfully frizzy tendrils? No bra.

  • Some of the world-building feels inconsistent. Why would a Wendy’s be open in a pandemic?

  • The president is too broad to be believable. A world leader wouldn't whine about reporters being "mean" during an apocalypse. 

  • What if instead of making the hero a nurse, we made her a film producer in a loveless marriage who's writing Top Chef erotica? 

  • Does the cast need to spend so much time on social media? It doesn’t move the plot forward. Maybe you could invent a way to take down the power grid and simplify the narrative.

  • Can we make the landlord less evil? 

  • We need fewer scenes of her staring out windows and more sex. Like, they should have so much chemistry that they can't keep a six-foot distance, you know? 

  • What if the meet-cute happens in the grocery store, as they're both reaching for the last of the White Claw?

  • I get that the face masks create an atmosphere, but what's the point of paying for a big name if we can't see her face? 

  • We want a Kitchen Table Drama, not Puzzles at the Kitchen Table Drama. Literally nobody likes puzzles. WTF.

  • I feel like the nature of this particular virus is just… too sad and horrible for a feel-good family flick?

Wishing you the best of luck on your revisions!

Return to Plathland

Like many depressed, agitated, inward-looking girls, I found Sylvia Plath in high school and immediately felt seen. The Bell Jar articulated certain agonies I’d been unable to express, and I soon found myself reading Crossing the Water in Animal Behavior when I was supposed to be studying the anatomy of small amphibians and writing lots of grim, Plath-inspired poetry about winter and worms and death, etc.

Then I headed off to IU, where I was shocked and delighted to learn that I, a lowly undergrad, could sit in the Lilly Library with the Plath collection (you mean they just let you in there?!), sifting through her poems and diaries and spending hours poring over everything: her handwritten letters, her meticulously-typed drafts with their carefully spaced margins, her childhood drawings of girls in pastel petticoats. I felt as though I were conjuring a ghost. It was thrilling and eerie, and it was also terrifying. What would it feel like to have my most private thoughts and terribly earnest high school poetry preserved and handled by white-gloved strangers long after I could protest? Would Sylvia—by all accounts a perfectionist—have wanted this?

I’ve been back in Plathland this week because I’ve just finished reading Janet Malcolm’s brilliantly meta anti-biography biography, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, which is fascinating and masterful and unexpected in so many ways. Malcolm’s book is as much an indictment of the biography genre as a study of the Plath/Hughes mythology, and she uses the form to explore the cottage industry surrounding the literary tragedy—excoriating the voyeurism masquerading behind academic civility, journalism, and literary criticism.

The book brought up important questions I’d contemplated in the Lilly Library but had forgotten until now: questions about the public consumption of artists and the privacy afforded or denied the still-living players in a scandal. Also: questions about the reliability of narrative, especially when it’s being used for personal gain or notoriety. Narratives are slippery things. It’s difficult to divorce ourselves from the motives that inspire our investigation and culminate in our carefully edited dramas. It’s always a tricky business, whether we’re constructing our own narratives, or they’re constructed for us, or we’re constructing them for other people using what they’ve left behind. We create stories out of artifacts. We shape memories into art. It can be restorative. But it can also feel like nailing moths to a wall. Like pinning down living, breathing, transforming creatures and watching until their wings quiet. I went to the Lilly to meet a literary giant, sure, but I also went to soothe my own sadness and search for some indication that I, too, might possess some of Plath’s terrifying magic—that it was something I could achieve if I worked hard enough.

After reading The Silent Woman this week, I rented The Bell Jar and started skimming the first chapter, which has maybe my favorite opening line in any novel: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” It’s perfect, immediately establishing Esther’s voice, the social climate, her dilemma, the scene, the disquieting tone. The prose is sharp and crawling and yellow right out of the gate. And Plath will revisit electrocution when Esther Greenwood is hospitalized after her suicide attempt and undergoes electro-shock therapy. As the novel closes, there are glimmers of hope that the suffocating fog of Esther’s mental illness may be lifting. That she will breathe again.

Yesterday, I went to plug in my computer to work on this essay. As I did, I accidentally grabbed hold of the metal part of the adapter. I felt a horrible, burnt-from-the-inside, all-the-way-alive pain jolt through my body. I’d been shocked—at something like 220 volts, I’m told. For a few moments, I couldn’t let go of the wire. I watched as the sparks jumped from the metal to my shaking hand and felt a surge shoot through my chest, which continued to throb for hours. (I may have still been damp from the bath when I grabbed the charger? I don’t know.) Just to be safe, we drove to an ER in Switzerland. I felt overly dramatic and embarrassed, but the nurse took my vitals and whisked me back to a bed and performed an EKG. Turns out I was fine. My chest muscles had contracted violently during the shock. It was a bad cramp that needed to work itself out. The pain was lifting. I could breathe again. I came home and watched Murder She Wrote. And I vowed to bury my old journals.

Losing the plot. And my pants.

writing about writing

I’ve decided that a large part of writing involves releasing guilt over living with unwashed hair. Or forgetting to eat breakfast and lunch and scarfing down half of a frozen pizza while still standing at the sink.

Writing longform pieces transforms me into some kind of feral creature. Like a mole burrowing tunnels in solitude, emerging only for sweets and tea and bathroom breaks, blinking against the light.

In short: I’ve been prepping for NaNoWriMo 2019.

For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, and it happens every November. The goal is to write 50,000 new words, equating to roughly 1,666 words a day. (Written out like that, it almost looks like a hex, doesn’t it?)

“What are you planning to write?” asked no one.

Well, I have several stories kicking around in my head: a multi-generational coming-of-age novel that I started and abandoned a few years ago. A completed screenplay that I could deconstruct and salvage for parts. And a YA novel. They’re all unorganized, though, and perhaps a little navel-gazey. They each require more time spent staring out the window. The whole thing is a bit intimidating.

But the beauty of NaNoWriMo is that you can self-flagellate in a group of supportive, like-minded peers strewn across the globe, all of whom are rooting for one another and updating their progress and sharing tips. (If you’re considering participating this year, please let me know and we can be writing buddies, high fiving across the void!)

Naturally, I’ve been spending a lot of time jotting down premises and character sketches to determine which ones have legs. And I’ve been reading about novelists’ methods for completing manuscripts.

To me, writing manuals and lectures are fascinating. But I know it can get a bit too Inside the Writer’s Studio for some people, which is why I hesitate to write about writing. Like, who am I, some self-aggrandizing James Lipton character interviewing myself instead of, say, Angelina Jolie?

“What’s your favorite word?” “Yes.”

“What’s your least favorite word.” “No.”

(Always “no.” Never “influencer” or “streamline” or “debt.”)

But this blog is about what I’ve been doing, and I’ve been thinking about writing.

The NaNoWriMo community—and many fiction writers—divide themselves into two groups: plotters and pantsers. The plotters, well, plot. They outline and scheme and make spreadsheets and flow charts. They occasionally stockpile gel pens. One gets the sense that true plotters change their oil on time. Or even before the sticker date, which is outrageous.

Pantsers, on the other hand, fly by the seat of their pants. I include myself in this category. We’re Type B overachievers. We kick the ball down the field and watch our characters scramble. In theory, pantsing allows the story to unfold naturally, leaving room for surprise. I know I’ve hit my stride when it feels as though I’m bearing witness to my characters’ private fears and longings and mistakes—like I’m taking down dictation, almost inconsequential to the process.

But it’s doubtful that I can wing it for 50,000 words in thirty days without some semblance of a plan. I imagine I’d be paralyzed by choice, by the fear of “doing it wrong,” and be so intimidated by the countless diverging paths that I’d end up staring at a blank page, wasting time, stress shoveling chocolate into my anxiety mouth. And there’s far too much excellent Swiss chocolate for that. My blood sugar can’t take it.

So I’m going to create a rough outline, jot down possible scenes, and plot beats—all with the expectation that things will change as I go. Mix plotting and pantsing to become a… planter? A planter with no pants. Because I work from home.

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