Late in 2020, finding myself with paid time off to kill, I decided to use it helping the Georgia Democrats in the December special election campaign. That highly rewarding experience (I both canvassed in Atlanta and served as a blue poll watcher on very red territory) is a tale for another time. But in mid-November, three days after I bought my ticket, I set down the opening paragraphs of the first entirely new fiction I’d written in almost 20 years, which eventually became What You Can’t Give Me.
As I was biking to the office that morning—we were still all-remote but I was going in twice a week to use the gym and get out of the frickin house—I was astonished to find myself writing in my head. This hadn’t happened since 1990, when the openings of at least half a dozen of the stories in my first collection, The Light of Home, came to me on my long walks to and from work. I’d never experienced anything like that before and assumed I never would again. But there I was 30 years later, riding along Memorial Drive and thinking “The most unusual thing about her, in some ways, might have been her three-legged dog …”. And so on.
Fortunately, at 62 I’d achieved sufficient basic wisdom to take the astonishing in stride. That first draft, I find, came to about 650 words, which seems like really a lot for a 10 minute bike ride (“oh yes, I bike 65 words per minute”) so I assume most of it was written sitting down. But I’m certain that at least the first paragraph was revealed to me in transit, and it led smoothly to the rest.
By the time I got on the plane a month later I had six pages of a story and absolutely no clue what came next. But I told myself (I guess the wisdom thing again) “I’ll finish it in Georgia” and that’s exactly what happened. The evening after my second day of door knocking in Sandy Springs and before my first shift at the polling place in Rome I set up the final scene, and a couple of evenings later, after several increasingly bizarre extended conversations with my affable Republican counterparts (well the one with the gun on his hip was not so affable), I wrote it to the end—an end I liked very much but could never have anticipated. And sat there thinking oh my god, I’m writing again.
Why did it play out this way? What got me going after publishing three books, having my career suddenly collapse, being humiliated by years of constant rejection into not writing at all for a decade, recovering to the point of revising and self-publishing three of my unpublished novels, and spending the last couple years thinking “oh well, maybe I’ll write another someday”? As 2021 rolled out and I found myself producing story after story, I realized that choosing to help the team in Georgia had been an intuitive attempt to fight my stress and dismay over the many Enormous Problems It’s Impossible To Do Anything About we were all so oppressed by even before the lockdown hit, an outgrowth of what has to be the most important and hardest-won wisdom of my latter years: the recognition that no narrative has ever lived that cannot be changed. Refusing to be helpless is powerful magic indeed. And recently, as I’ve readied the book for publication, I’ve been thinking about the strange and profound sort of helplessness we’ve all felt during the pandemic—many far more severely, for far more serious and painful reasons, than I and my fellow fortunate ones—and our infinitely varied attempts to keep it at bay long enough to reestablish some part of the life we remembered.
I did not set out to create “pandemic stories” or to convey how my protagonists saw the shared crisis; I was just writing what came to me. After I had accumulated a few it occurred to me that maybe they were stories about how these people saw themselves during that crisis. But I now understand that, terrible as the consequences have been for so many and surreal as the experience has been for virtually all of us, it’s ultimately the same old battle against helplessness—the helplessness of being persistently sick or in pain, of not having the rent money, of being mistreated and held back because of the way you look, speak, love, or see yourself, of feeling down or frustrated all the time and not knowing why, of grief and a million other miseries. In other words the unalterable nature of our existence, which is always about how we see ourselves, every minute of every day.
These are simply tales of people’s lives. The pandemic has served me well as a framing device because it slapped the whole world across the face, all at once, with a particularly cold, harsh, and stinking helplessness akin to a large dead fish, bringing into very sharp focus our ongoing disappointment in our inability to change so many of our circumstances. But if it’s not one reason to feel helpless it’s another; we all know that. These tales turn on unanticipated events that reach happy or sad moments just before they stop and are sure to change after, for better and for worse. The pandemic has been like that, yeah, but at the deepest and most meaningful level it isn’t anything new; it’s what we’re all faced with all the time, notwithstanding the illusion that we can know what’s coming, that we have any kind of grip on what happy and sad even mean.
The wonder of fiction is that it can take an often overwhelmingly opaque and unknowable experience, being human, and make it transparent and comprehensible, reassuring us that maybe we can get a leg up on it now and then. I have always loved short stories for the way their limits—believe me, the authors don’t know any more than you do about what happened before the beginning or what comes after the end—can cut life down to size, disarming it and making it, for a little while, easier to get next to and examine. Turns out entering utterly unfamiliar territory during an utterly shocking world-historical event to make a tiny contribution to a collective effort with an utterly unpredictable outcome got me started on them again. Which is a gift I don’t need to understand any better than that; it’s enough to be grateful, which I very much am. There is nothing I could be gladder to have than a fresh opportunity for you to read what I’ve written. And if you do, I hope you too will be glad.