The Grim Milestone of Barbados and Guam
Reflections on how the advice of famous writers can inspire us during difficult times
500,000 is a huge number. It’s about the population of Sacramento, California, or the combined populations of Barbados and Guam.
Even though recent trends are favorable rather than calamitous, epidemiologically speaking, we nevertheless mourn today the deaths of half a million Americans, or about as many combat deaths as what we suffered in the Civil War and World War II, combined. The current war against a disease has visited every community in America. We all know someone who has lost an elderly relative to Covid. For example, you know me.
Unlike faraway wars, to which the brave and perhaps the unlucky are dispatched, the pandemic affects all of us, our daily habits as well as our attitudes. But are we taking full advantage of the perhaps extra time we have been allotted by our home-bound isolation, what for many of us might be called an early and temporary semi-retirement? I wonder if thought workers and creatives will look back on the Covid era the way that partisans look back on a time when they controlled both houses of Congress and the Presidency, thinking that they should have done more when they had the chance.
As a writer, in some ways I have appreciated the shift towards reflection and time savings that comes with relative seclusion. Rather than rushing off to the movies, to retail stores, to dinner, or even to host a Pub Quiz, I try to live the life of the modern literary recluse: I’m reading books, participating in conversations with thought leaders on Clubhouse (where I can be added at “andyojones”), and taking long walks. This past weekend, I walked 30 miles (if you include Friday). Today my legs are complaining about the treatment.
When I told a friend that I aspire to walk 2000 miles this year, he said that a related impressive feat would be to drive fewer than 2,000 miles this year, that is, to walk more than one drives. I might just be able to pull that off. While Kate and I used to take monthly trips to Sacramento to see plays at the B Street Theatre (where Dave Pierini is one of our favorite director / performers), this year my only trip to my former hometown has been to get a vaccination shot at The MIND Institute. The mileage on our new (used) minivan is pretty close to where it was when we bought it this spring. We thought we would use that van to visit family in Los Angeles, but in the garage it stays as we try creative alternatives – Zoom and Marco Polo, for example – as alternatives to actual family reunions. As Erich Fromm says, "Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties."
If we are working on creative or writing projects, this past year of Covid requires that we call upon our strengths, and consider what discipline we can call upon to make progress despite the indeterminate boundaries of our strange and potentially immobile commute-free lives. We need systems of rigor in order not to give in to what James Clear calls “the ease of distraction,” or to what Toni Morrison calls a “time for despair.” As my vaccinated centenarian UC Davis colleague and famous artist Wayne Thiebaud says, "Discipline is not a restriction but an aid to freedom."
The day, the year, is shrouded in loss. We have all lost something, but as G.K. Chesterton says, “How you think when you lose determines how long it will be until you win.” While I have lost opportunities to travel or to spend time with friends, I’ve gained some time to work on book projects. For example, I’ve been researching and curating a collection of bite-size advice from and for writers. It could be said that I’ve been gaining inspiration from the encouraging thoughts of great writers while compiling what I research into a book that presents such advice. Consider these 14 examples that focus on a writer’s determination, perseverance, and courage:
“Most men fail, not through lack of education, but from lack of dogged determination, from lack of dauntless will.” Orison Swett Marden
“It is not brilliance or facility that is necessary, but the determination to bear and even enjoy the dull process of wading into one's own bad prose again, and one more time, and then once again, with the utmost concentration and taste, looking for opportunities to mine deeper.” Stewart O’Nan
“I keep on making what I can’t do yet in order to learn to be able to do it.” Vincent Van Gogh
“Inspiration may sometimes fail to show up for work in the morning, but determination never does.” K.M. Weiland
“It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.” Virginia Woolf
“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.” James Baldwin
"A deadline is, simply put, optimism in its most kick-ass form. It's a potent force that, when wielded with respect, will level any obstacle in its path. This is especially true when it comes to creative pursuits." Chris Baty
“Writing is sweat and drudgery most of the time. And you have to love it in order to endure the solitude and the discipline.” Peter Benchley
“Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time.” Leonard Bernstein
"Greatness is more than potential. It is the execution of that potential. Beyond the raw talent. You need the appropriate training. You need the discipline. You need the inspiration. You need the drive." Eric Burns
“Success usually comes down to choosing the pain of discipline over the ease of distraction.” James Clear
“Writing requires more than anything else, tremendous discipline. At the end of the day, whilst there are times when it is wonderfully creative and fun, a lot of the time it is just a job. And that means showing up whether you feel like it or not. It also means you write, whether you are inspired or not, and the only way to unlock your creativity is to start writing.” Jane Green
“Take a chance on making mistakes to create something you haven’t created before.” Dave Brubeck
“To be a serious writer requires discipline that is iron fisted. It's sitting down and doing it whether you think you have it in you or not. Everyday. Alone. Without interruption. Contrary to what most people think, there is no glamour to writing. In fact, it's heartbreak most of the time” Harper Lee
I will close with some words from Toni Morrison, whose birthday many people celebrated last Thursday. She passed away a few months before Covid 19 was discovered, but her wise words, about the necessity and resilience of art and artists, can offer us guidance with regard to the difficulties we have been facing, and that we face today, as we all take a moment to remember the half-million who have died: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” Let the healing begin.
What a joy it was to run into a member of The Outside Agitators while I was on one of my walks yesterday. The Agitators recently upgraded their Patreon membership, as they share Pub Quiz content with their entire team. Please support these newsletters via Patreon. Furthermore, if you have more than one person benefitting from your sponsorship of the Pub Quiz, I recommend you also consider upgrading your membership. Then you could join the teams Quizimodo, The Mavens, and Bono’s Pro Bono Oboe Bonobos.
See below for three sample questions from last week’s quiz. Stay healthy and creative!
Books and Authors. Who wrote the books V, Gravity’s Rainbow, and The Crying of Lot 49?
Current Events – Names in the News. What actor and fighter has been dropped from the Disney+ TV show The Mandalorian because of her posts on social media?
Sports. Born in South Africa, what Canadian former point guard and two-time NBA MVP is now the coach of the Brooklyn Nets?
P.S. Our next fortnightly poetry event, featuring Davis author Andrea Ross and former Sacramento poet laureate Indigo Moor (both of whom have new books out) will take place on March 4th at 8 PM. Plan to join us! Details to come at https://poetryindavis.com.