Reading and writing my way through uncertain times

These are anxious times. It is easy, if you think too much, to wonder about the value of putting pen to paper with an atmosphere of doubt lingering so heavily in the air. But then, if you think a little further, wavering gives way to urgency. Reading and writing become acts of resistance, distraction, and revitalization. Or, that is what I remind myself.

I don’t want to venture too far into politics, but it would be naïve to pretend that we are not facing an unpredictable future. This uneasiness has been heightened for me over the past few weeks by an unproductive job search and increasing concern about my financial security as I’ve watched my cash buffer dwindle. The truth is though, with a will awaiting grant of probate, I stand to eventually find myself in a much better financial position than I had ever could have imagined. It doesn’t mean I won’t have to secure some outside income, hopefully some of that ultimately coming from writing related services, but I do dare to dream of finally having more freedom after years of struggling with identity, mental illness, and the challenges of a state of single parenthood that has extended far beyond my expectations.

2015-08-09 17.37.38So, world affairs aside, what right do I have to be anxious and insecure about writing? I suppose it’s enough that I am human, but I am also plagued by the unshakable feeling that I’m an impostor. All my life, the only thing I ever really wanted to be was a writer. And no matter how difficult writing is (and always has been), I still feel deliriously guilty to have been afforded, over the past two years of stress leave, the time and space to connect with writers, readers, translators, and publishers. It is a gift I am not ready to give up, rather I want to mould a life that will allow me to continue to read, write, edit, and grow.

And yet, every time I sit down with a pen and paper, or open a blank Word document the same fear that I will never write another solid review or creative essay sets in. Impostor.

I have two longer term projects—an extended personal essay/memoir and a constraint-driven experimental piece—in the early formative stages. Consequently, much of my present reading is directed towards exploring the ways ideas can be developed and stories can be told.  But every now and again I come up against a work that triggers my insecurity.

loiteringCase in point: I am slowly making my way through Loitering by American essayist and short story writer, Charles D’Ambrosio, and after each essay I feel temporarily overwhelmed. I can easily see why the friend who kindly sent me this book speaks of it so highly. Rather than attempting to review the entire collection at once, I want to pull out and look at some of the individual pieces along the way. They are that good.

First of all, D’Ambrosio notes in his Preface that, for him, the right to doubt is essential to the successful personal essay. “Loitering,” the title piece, is a perfect illustration of how and why this works. The setting: The middle of the night, outside a residential complex in the Belltown district of Seattle. Yellow police tape cordons off several blocks, while a large contingent of policemen and a cluster of journalists and TV news reporters wait in the rain. D’Ambrosio arrives at the scene around 2:00 AM, drawn by the reports of domestic violence and a possible hostage taking. With a Hollywood-tinged sarcastic romanticism, he imagines the scenario:

This guy—the Bad Guy—apparently thought he was just going to drink a few beers and bounce his girlfriend against the walls and go to sleep, but instead of a little quiet and intimate abuse before bed he’s now got major civic apparatus marshaling for a siege outside his window. No sleep for him tonight, and no more secrets, either, not at this unholy intersection of anomie and big-time news.

The clichés he arrived with quickly fall away as he joins the vigil. Quite frankly he is in rough shape himself. One of the key drawing cards for D’Ambrosio on this night is simple lack of human contact. A recent fishing trip has left him with severe atopic dermatitis due to contact with neoprene and he’s just spent a week isolated at home—his fingers, neck, feet, and legs swollen and covered with weeping sores.  Medication and the constant tingling sensation prevents him from sleeping, crackheads have stolen his duffle bag from his truck leaving him without a belt or a raincoat and now, armed with file cards and a pen lest he find a story, he is standing in the dark, soaking wet with his pants falling down. Nothing like setting a memorable scene.

As the night wears on he spots a man, angry, looking a reporter, someone to listen to his story. He makes his way through the crowd of journalists but no one wants to hear him out—a wretched resident displaced by the hostilities unfolding in his building, he is not on their agenda:

He’s now caught in between, trapped in some place I recognize as life itself. It’s obvious he hasn’t been sober in hours and maybe years. If it could be said that these big-deal journalists have control of the story… then this guy is the anti-journalist, because in his case the story is steering him, shoving him around and blowing him willy-nilly down the street. The truth is just fucking with him and he’s suffering narrative problems. He began the night with no intention of standing in this rain, and his exposure to it is pitiful. As he moves unheeded like the Ancient Mariner through the journalists I feel a certain brotherly sympathy for him, and I’m enamoured of his utter lack of dignity.

Our hapless would-be reporter knows the man will be back and knows that he alone will listen to him. And so he meets Dennis, a vet, and his friend Tom, a Native American man. Through them he will learn more, in so much as anyone knows anything about the armed man holed up inside in one of the sparse low-income units, and the story, through the eyes and words of this most astute and sensitive observer becomes one of the tragedy of the poor and dispossessed rather than a dramatic shootout and fodder for the six o’clock news. After years of working in human services, the tableau D’Ambrosio paints of the evacuated residents relocated to a city bus to wait out the proceedings rings true—a scene that could easily be played out in my city, or any other North American centre for that matter:

Inside this bus what you see is pretty much a jackpot of social and psychic collapse, a demographic of bad news. Everybody in there’s fucked up in some heavy way, dragged out of history by alcohol, drugs, mental illness, physical decrepitude, crime, old age, poverty, whatever. Riding this bus in your dreams would give you the heebie-jeebies big-time. There are maybe ten or fifteen people on the bus but between them if you counted you’d probably come up with only sixty teeth. In addition to dental trouble, there are people leaning on canes, people twitching and barefoot with yellow toenails curled like talons, gray-skinned people shivering in gauzy nightgowns, others who just tremble and stare. They’ve been ripped out of their bedrooms and are dressed mostly in nightwear, which is something to see—not because I have any fashion ideas or big thesis about nighties and pj’s, but rather because, this surreal dawn, the harsh, isolated privacy of these people is literally being paraded in public. The falling rain, the bus going nowhere, the wrecked up passengers dressed for sleep, the man with the gun—these are the wild and disparate components of a dream, and I haven’t slept, and it’s just weird.

This passage, in fact the entire essay, left me breathless. This is not beautiful. It is raw, honest and real. In telling the story D’Ambrosio allows himself to be vulnerable and despite flashes of humour, one senses he is defeated by the sheer sadness of the whole affair. The reporters will head off to other stories, but he will be left on hold, filled with doubt, open to questions. Upon first reading I felt a sense of writerly inadequacy descend on me; returning to write about it and copy out significant passages I feel re-invigorated, inspired even.

I don’t know when this essay was originally published but it doesn’t matter. It contains a certain urban timelessness that stretches back through the twentieth century, yet is especially relevant today, with the pending threats to affordable healthcare and Medicaid in the US under the new administration. And so, I’m back where I’m started… uncertain times…

Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio is published by Tin House Books.

19 thoughts on “Reading and writing my way through uncertain times

    • It is so difficult to pinpoint what makes his writing so powerful but so far each essay I have read has been a joy. I am parceling them out slowly, but will write about others that seem especially striking. It seems that collections like this that span a range of an author’s work may be best read and written about selectively. I’ll see how that works.

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  1. Those first four paragraphs describe almost exactly what I am going through at the moment, so I can empathise endlessly with you, even if that doesn’t exactly help! So I am tempted to seek solace and inspiration in this collection of essays… which I doubt is available at the local library.

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  2. I dare say there are few ‘writers’ (published or not) that don’t share your queasy sense of uncertainty that one day someone is going to figure out they’re just guessing their way through it, scraping each word together day by painful day. I think you are a writer 🙂 The essays sound interesting, and always good to read something that gives us permission to doubt. Perhaps doubt deserves more attention and respect, because the alternative is staring us all in the face right now and it’s terrifying. Uncertain times indeed (as they always are).

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    • I suspect we all doubt but are afraid to admit it. In his preface D’Ambrosio also talks about saying “I don’t know.” At the end of his essays you have the sense that he doesn’t necessarily know more than he did at the beginning, or that what he has learned have made his questions seem foolish. I think that in fiction and nonfiction there is this insistence that the author or protagonist learns, grows has an epiphany of some kind. But life isn’t like that, sometimes we end up with even more questions the more we know, and certainly once you think you have the secret, life pulls up the carpet and trips you again!

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  3. For myself, there is simply no escaping what is happening in the world. The world has become a dark place. My new novel came out in December, and I have trouble even remembering it, promoting it, focusing on it. I used to write a weekly humor post on my blog, and have turned it toward serious discussion of politics. I have given up trying to pretend to neutrality. Count me as part of the resistance. Nothing else seems as important.

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    • So many of my writer friends have found themselves writing or tweeting about politics more than ever (a few, however, have found that the need to limit time with social media for the sake of sanity has greatly increased the time devoted to their writing projects). Watching from outside the US and UK but connected to both (I’m in Canada) there is a sense of helplessness. We have no say in any of these events but the impact is global and potentially dire.

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      • I feel pretty helpless here in the U.S.. But…standing on the sidelines is simply not an option. I am pivoting rapidly from writing to activism. The one thing non-Americans can do is urge their own governments to speak out forcefully, and prepare to take action against the Trump administration if needed – even if it could cause an economic backlash. Economic backlash is something we will all survive. The end of Democracy in the U.S. – not so clear. Trudeau has been great so far. Hope he keeps it up.

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      • I suspect that hitting the US in the wallet may be the best we can do from outside. I am old enough to remember the sanctions against South Africa in the 80s. It will be short term pain on all sides but it seems to be the only language Trump and the cabinet he has chosen speak. Sadly though it is those who can least afford it—the ordinary person—who will fit the bill.

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  4. I am completely with you on the importance of reading and writing through these uncertain times. These are the ingredients of empathy, something I think it has never been more necessary to foster. I can also empathise with your imposter syndrome, but honestly every writer and academic I know has professed to the same feeling – I think it is rather par for the course, and paradoxically shows that you are, in fact, already a real writer!

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    • This morning I was out at a book club meeting for the first time and when I said that I tend to read a lot of works in translation, I was asked why. I explained that the literature of other countries opens you to ideas and experiences from a different angle. It is so important.

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  5. I’ve heard good things about this book and it is on my TBR list, but wow! I think I am going to have to move it up towards the top! I can see how writing that that can put you in a state of doubt. But you know. I’ve read pieces you have published and it is good stuff! I would be surprised if there was any good writer in the world who never had doubts so just think of yourself as being in good company 🙂

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