Supposedly, Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Macbeth during the bubonic plague, and Isaac Newton was thought to be so productive during the plague that this stage of his career was dubbed annus mirabilis. During his so-called astonishing year, Newton had the opportunity to retreat from the close confines of the city, where the black death spread more easily. In the countryside, in relative but not complete isolation, Newton is said to have watched an apple fall from a tree and wondered why in the world it fell straight down, not something most of us think much about. The answers he proposed are the laws of motion and universal gravity. So, as preposterous as it is that anyone will or should use the current global emergency to do their best work, what I glean from social media posts is that this pandemic and its resulting stay-at-home order should provide me every opportunity to finish my novel.
John Dos Passos was in his early twenties and seriously ill with influenza, yet barely mentioned it in his fiction. Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald said next to nothing of [the flu pandemic of 1918]. . . . the relative lack of impact it had on literature may not be unusual at all. — John M. Barry, The Great Influenza
According to the calendar, there has been plenty of time for me to write in these past many weeks, at least as much time as there was when I planned this writing season. In the past, the calendar has told me how much time there exists for the taking, and that’s how I mapped out my plan to get where I thought I wanted to go. The calendar has not changed, nor has the clock. There are still twenty-four hours in a day, and seven days in a week. But consulting calendar and clock, which had always seemed ideal ways to understand time and therefore my goals, doesn’t make the same sense it did a couple of months ago. Time seems to stand still. I am un-calendared.
I have proof that the days are there, one after the other—and I’ve jotted evidence on this calendar that something or several things happened on this or that day. Planning and goal-setting, however, have been lost. I have trouble imagining what to expect; I have no confidence that I’ll write or read or exercise tomorrow. The calendar is no longer a map into the future because the connection between what I do now and what will happen tomorrow or a month from now becomes more tenuous every day. Time’s meaning is no longer linear, and that makes me wonder whether it ever really was.
I start to recognize new patterns in tweets: Is anyone else tired? Has anyone else forgotten what day it is? Is anyone else having trouble focusing? Is anyone else struggling to adjust? I don’t know who needs to hear this, but . . . Of course, of course, of course, of course, of course. I’ve begun to think that productivity is not a problem of time. It is a problem of plot. Cause-and-effect is what moves a story—or a life—forward. These pandemic days and weeks lack this day-to-day if-then.
Between this past and this future there is an interval that is neither past not future and still has a duration [. . .]. The idea that a well-defined now exists throughout the universe is an illusion, an illegitimate extrapolation of our own experience. [. . .] Time is only a way of measuring how things change, as Aristotle would have it—or should we be thinking that an absolute time exists that flows by itself, independent of things? — Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time
About a week ago—or whenever that was—I started taking two showers a day, one to wake myself up and the other to relax before bed. I live in roughly twelve-hour increments, but they could be longer or shorter because their duration doesn’t matter. What have I done today? I took a shower. What do I plan to do today? Take a shower. In between my twice-daily ablutions, there is an interval, a present time between the last shower and the next. This interval has a duration, which shouldn’t be mistaken for time flowing independent of me. My ritual, like many rituals, is a sequence of gestures that a person can use to measure time in order to know how the now is related to then.
The word productivity comes from Latin for bringing something forward, and the shower brings me forward in time. Ritual is not the only way to understand time in a global pandemic, but it’s the what I’ve come up with. I’ve been finding, in practice, that the stay-at-home order isn’t as productive for me as it seems to have been for Shakespeare and Newton. To begin writing again, I turn to neither creating high drama nor solving universal problems but, instead, embark on manageable pieces. Time management experts call this chunking. Theses pieces are short enough that they can make their sense by allowing each sentence to be the if for the next sentence’s then.
–April 18, 2020
Anna Leahy is the author of the nonfiction book Tumor and the poetry collections Aperture and Constituents of Matter. Her work has appeared at Aeon, The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, The Southern Review, and elsewhere, and her essays have won top awards from the Los Angeles Review, Ninth Letter, and Dogwood. She directs the MFA in Creative Writing program at Chapman University, where she edits the international Tab Journal.
Leslie Lindsay has a deep interest in place and how it shapes us, as well as in the connections among family, dysfunction, and nature. As a visual artist, her focus is often on deteriorating architecture. Designed to be permanent, these structures are continually being challenged, destroyed, and forgotten. She is the award-winning author of Speaking of Apraxia (Woodbine House, 2012). Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 authors on her series, Always with a Book. She is a former child/adolescent psychiatric RN at the Mayo Clinic.