Off the Page: Writing in Isolation

Elizabeth Foulke is a PhD student at the University of Rhode Island and the Senior Editor of the Ocean State Review. Her work has appeared in Grub Street Literary Magazine, Plainsongs, and Solstice Literary Magazine. In a former life, she worked as a middle and high school English teacher on both the East and West Coast. Her essay “Routes” appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of LPR.

For years, I’ve craved extra hours to devote to my writing practice. Now they’re here for the taking. Covid-19 has gifted me with a windfall of time, but along with the time comes a better understanding that it is only one needed component. More and more, I reflect on the shape a writing life takes when we step away from our desks. 

In her 2014 interview with Poets and Writers, Louise Glück revealed that, like many of us, she assumed a quiet life with no distractions would be the ideal environment for creating art, for shaping ideas on the page. But when given an abundance of time for her craft, she discovered that she couldn’t write poems. She felt that the siloed life keeps us from all of the stuff that occurs off the page, that which gives us the raw material and scraps of insight that yield an essay or a novel, a play or a poem. After two years of struggling to write, Gluck concluded, “you have to live your life if you’re going to do original work.” Once she started teaching, the words and ideas broke through.

When I stall and bumble around on the page, I know it’s time to rise, lace up my shoes, and take to the pavement. It’s inevitable that revelations and insights that can’t materialize when I’m sedentary come to me through movement.”

I keep returning to Glück’s pronouncement. How might I continue to live my life within the limits of a Covid-19 world? What will provide the substance of my writing?

 To continue with the act of living, I start by waking up the body.

In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes: “It is the movement as well as the sights going by that seems to make things happen in the mind, and this is what makes walking ambiguous and endlessly fertile: it is both means and end, travel and destination.” I think a global pandemic has made it difficult, in some respects, to live a life that is worthy of the page; it has also prompted me to walk more, to lengthen my walks, to seek out new routes, to set out in weather that previously kept me indoors. And these strolls reap rewards. 

When I stall and bumble around on the page, I know it’s time to rise, lace up my shoes, and take to the pavement. It’s inevitable that revelations and insights that can’t materialize when I’m sedentary come to me through movement. The walks stir and cajole. Sometimes, a memory will surface, and proves to be a bridge between two ideas that seemed hundreds of miles apart—the walk offers me a link for the fragments that I knew belonged in the same essay but had yet to figure out how or why. Other times, the environment itself generates a more poetic language. I reach for words to describe the inward shift that occurs when the sun descends and spreads a golden hue across brick and the mottled trunks of sycamore trees. Once in a while something happens on these walks that makes its way into an essay. On a late afternoon in June, a jay dove down from a branch and brushed my head with its beak. I used the oddness and unexpectedness of the bird’s attack to begin a new piece. 

Last April, when the days stretched on and we were all just learning how to be and not be with each other, I reveled in contact with those who also stepped outside. I took to wearing a sweatshirt with the name of the local high school printed across the front. It was an entry point. People called to me from their front porches, Did you go there? and we’d talk for several minutes. Chatting the way I imagine folks used to before our days were stuffed with work and the mindless distractions we partake in to come down from that work. With fewer points of contact, the temporal and tentative interactions become a new type of life. One that changes me and trickles down in subtle ways to find its place in my writing.

The quiet solitude of writing can be stunning. We travel without walking. But the insularity needs countering. Perhaps you already walk or have some other practice that complements and winds its way into your work. I think what matters is that we find outlets—habits or hobbies, people and stories—that ask us to expand. 

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