Carolyn Parkhurst: “It has never been the right time to write this book. But doing something is better than doing nothing.”

From an essay by Carolyn Parkhurst in the Washingtonian magazine titled “Writing Through the Pandemic: Novelist Carolyn Parkhurst on Making Space”:

When time becomes hazy and slippery, as it has for many of us during quarantine, when it stops being the primary force by which we organize our lives, beginnings and endings become harder to pinpoint. It changes our internal narrative structure.

We make lists. We write in bursts and fragments. We look for different ways to tell the story. . . .

During the first couple of weeks of quarantine, I didn’t write at all. We were all still figuring out the new rhythm of our days, I was helping the kids get used to the challenges of distance learning, I was anxious about the larger situation and reading news about it constantly. Plus we suddenly had a lot more dirty dishes, and I had to bitch about that. I was miserable, and that seemed just about right.

In the informal lottery that determined who was going to get which workspace in this new configuration of working and studying from home, I ended up with my bedroom. The problem is, I hate my bedroom. It’s a huge mess, and has been for quite a while. It’s like the picture of Dorian Gray, getting messier when the rest of my house gets neater, because it’s the place we end up stashing everything we don’t have a place for.

But I got tired of sitting there feeling unhappy about it. Doing something is better than doing nothing, so I started doing a tiny bit of cleaning and decluttering every day. There’s still a long way to go, but now I have a corner, a single tiny corner, that looks exactly the way I want it to, and I love it.

What would I write, anyway? In three years, I’d started and abandoned three different novels. Nothing was holding my attention, and when I got stuck, I had no idea what direction to take to fix the problem. I’d never had to deal with this before. . . .

There’s a project—a novel, though it’s so early that I hesitate to call it that—that I’ve had in my head for almost ten years. I worked on it for a while in 2010, but my editor at the time wasn’t convinced it was right for my next project. (She was probably correct. My thoughts about it back then were pretty jumbled.) I took it up again in 2016, but then the election happened and I stopped writing altogether for a while. (A lame excuse, I know. I can blame a lot of things on our current President, but my lack of writing output isn’t one of them.)

But this novel, or rather this idea of a novel: It’s a big sprawling mess of a thing, made up of interconnecting parts that may or may not make any sense together. You know that video of Lin-Manuel Miranda at the White House in, like, 2009, where he first introduces the ideas that would eventually become Hamilton, and everyone laughs uncomfortably because he sounds like a crazy person and there’s no way anyone could think a hip-hop musical about the country’s first Treasury Secretary is a good idea? It’s kind of like that. . . .

But for ten years, it’s been there in my head. I’ve loved it secretly and wistfully, like an unrealistic crush. When running errands, I’ve sometimes changed my route in order to drive past significant locations. Yet in the past three years, as I’ve started and then lost steam on those three other potential novels, it never occurred to me to return to this one. . . .

It has never been the right time to write this book, and maybe it isn’t now, either. But doing something is better than doing nothing. I went back to the novel and looked over what I’d written before. I started to read the research books again. And bit by bit, a tiny bit a day, I began to write.

Go easy on yourself. This isn’t a time for hard edges and stringent regret.

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