Walking composition

Droughts and wandering

“Above all, don’t lie to yourself.” —Fyodr Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

I’ve been out of words recently. Lost in wondering what the point of words on pages is. I believe in stories and the power of narrative, but not every word thought by every person needs to be out in the world or amplified, including mine. The world is a noise, which is so different from a sound.

This feeling, however, is also a familiar one, what I call a dry spell. There are writers who never seem to hit these droughts, and I envy them, but I also know this will pass. The first time it ever happened to me I was working on a mystery novel that I’d revised umpteen times, and I suddenly lost interest in it so completely that even picking up printed chapters to try to revise again resulted in itchy skin and my throat swelling up. I literally seemed to be developing an allergy to writing. I wrote a friend of mine, Becky Hagenston, who is one of the best short story writers I’ve ever read, and asked if she’d ever experienced this. She wrote something so funny back to me that I keep it on my desk at all times, and it made me realize that dry spells are just something I have to accept.

This time it’s mostly a wondering and feeling of pointlessness, probably triggered in part by the state of the world and the formlessness of my own days. Now, as I think of the funny thing Becky said to me, and how much I enjoy and admire her short stories, my mind wanders off to when we met, that writing conference in St. Petersburg the year before I got pregnant with my first child, walking the city’s canals for hours and hours, drinking vodka in the bar late at night when the sun never set, watching the World Cup with my uncle and cousin at their apartment across town, looking for the story points of my father’s childhood when the city was still Leningrad and the communal apartment his family shared wasn’t upstaged by a Lexus dealership next door. The strange tour that a faculty member gave of how St. Petersburg’s architecture and corners was reflected in Dostoevsky’s portrayal of his main character in Crime and Punishment.

I’ll just have to wait for whatever passes for a muse in my brain/mind/self to come back from vacation. In the meantime, I’ve got a big pile of research books to dig into, pictured below. The stack on the right are books I’ve read; the two on the left are waiting to be opened (there are more on the way but this is what I have right now). If you were curious about private property, the commons, and the history of ownership, where would you start?

(Thanks to Dr. Greg Davis for pointing me to Nick Hayes’s The Book of Trespass! I hope it’ll be published in the U.S. soon.)


Some stuff to read (no podcasts! I’ve been bingeing on the “Tides of History” podcast, so the rest are just piling up):

  • “Hi Ho Cherry-O,” by Becky Hagenston, in Witness. Just one of her many excellent, eerie stories.

  • I keep going back to reread Chris La Tray’s lovely essay “Ulm Pishkun” (published in High Desert Journal), about visiting First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, and trying to excavate the vague memory I have of visiting the place for the first time as a child. Was it a school trip? Or did my grandmother take me when I was visiting her in Great Falls? I can’t remember. This essay evokes so much sensory memory, though. We are all, indeed, a little lost.

  • I’ve been reading through my backlog of magazines, and had the delight this week of reading Will Hunt’s essay “A Pilgrimage on the Sacred Road,” about looking for and walking an ancient Mayan sacbe, in the Winter 2019 issue of Orion.

  • Shannon Mattern on a cultural history of Plexiglass, its role in a pandemic and its reflection of our expectations about a world where our safety and ease are paramount, in Places Journal.