Dear Fellow Pandemic-Related Shut-Ins

How is everybody?

I know I’m not the only one who finds this whole situation deeply surreal. I work from home. Spouse works from home. I’ve spent many days home with The Kid, from weekends to holidays to days when she’s under the weather.

But now we’re all here because we must be, and it’s…weird.

Up-front confession: my household is extraordinarily lucky right now. For one thing, we’ve always had the inclination—and the space—to stockpile mundane necessities. We’re good on toiletries; we were before all this started. We’ve got a nice set of herbs and spices, and grains for soups and stews. Spouse is a canner; we’ve got fruit and jam. All our meds got refilled shortly before this all began.

None of us are sick. None of our loved ones are sick. So far.

I worry about my parents, as one does. So far I’ve been happy with how their assisted living facility has been handling all this; these are good people, working hard to keep the residents (and themselves!) safe. Spouse’s parents, who still live in their own home, seem to be behaving sensibly as well. Fingers crossed for all of them.

My dad doesn’t understand, not really. He understands something’s going on in the world, but because they’ve had no illness where they are, he doesn’t really get why it means things have to be different for him. It’s difficult to answer his questions when he can’t articulate what he’s asking. He’s jamming together puzzle pieces without understanding that the pictures don’t match.

The Kid is doing schoolwork—nothing new, just longer-term projects that were assigned before the school was closed. Spouse and I have strategies for what to do if things go on longer than currently expected, which they will, because of course they will. But I don’t know what happens to the kids if the schools are closed for the rest of the year. I don’t know what happens to their academic records, to their ability to head to the next grade.

Oddly, the fact that nobody knows is a comfort to me. We’re all in this together.

We’ve been patronizing local restaurants for take-out. Sensible? I don’t know. I want them all to stay in business. I don’t want to give them anything from my house. I don’t want to get anything from theirs. We are careful. They are careful. What more can we do?

I’ve been buying way more books than I have time to read. Folks on Twitter are posting sales and freebies, and why not? I’ve bought hardcopies of books I’ve had on my wish list for a long time—we don’t have any indie bookstores around here, so I adopted Bear Pond Books in Montpelier. I did a reading there, back when I was hopeful, and they were absolutely lovely, so they get all my hardcopy buying for the foreseeable future. I don’t buy a lot of hardcopy books, but I picked up a few non-fiction titles I’ve had on my list for a while, and I have a bunch of drawing books on my wish list. Drawing books, because they’re illustration-heavy, don’t often do well in ebook format.

I’ve been drawing. Those of you who follow me on Instagram have seen my meager efforts, but for the rest of you: well, here they are:

Eye, hand, lips, ear. The ugliest ear known to humanity, actually.

Super-proud of that hand, but as you can see, I have a lot to learn. Turns out a tremendous amount of drawing is just…practice. Practice with the basics, like shading, blending, which pencils work best, how to wrangle a soft eraser. Practice with composition and shape. Practice with size, proportion. Lighting.

It’s all fascinating, but actually doing it? Work. It’s work. Like any skill, the vast majority of what you’re going to be doing is actual, for-real work, without that ethereal feeling of otherworldliness we all seem to think possesses us when we’re making Substantive Art™️.

You know, fuck Substantive Art™️. Make what you’re gonna make.

Because I’ve been writing all my life, I have an awareness of some tiers of skill that make up a writer. There’s the Language Newbies, who are still working on their English toolbox. They make basic grammatical mistakes, they mess up their homophones, metaphors and tropes are clumsy and often used incorrectly. There’s the Story Newbies, who’ve mastered the language, but have trouble understanding issues of narrative and pacing. There’s the Polish Newbies, who’ve got all the pieces they need, but are still working on getting over that last hump that makes their writing read smoothly and effortlessly. (Interestingly, I see Polish Newbies get published all the time; editors help them, but it still comes through a bit. And their books do fine—better than mine—so I take them as a WTFDIK? lesson.)

All of those skill levels are necessary stages through which every writer has to pass. Just like drawing, every writer needs to learn how to use the most basic of tools before they can start playing with different media, figuring out which methods of expression feel the most natural, the most fulfilling, to them as individuals. Every writer needs to figure out how to pace and shape what they’re producing; even the shortest poem has peaks and valleys, shading and lighting. Every writer needs to figure out how to polish, trim, redo their work as often as necessary to make it clearly communicate its message.

Sometimes learning that stuff is a slog. Sometimes it’s supremely Not Fun. I draw circles now, to hone my fine motor skills, and I’ll tell you: circles kind of suck. But if I want to be able to draw the way I draw in my head, I’ll draw the damn circles.

I’m drafting a book again. I’ve probably mentioned I haven’t finished a draft since the Before Times. My confidence is shot to hell. I have no belief that anyone will even want to read this thing once it’s done.

I have, thanks to my little book of short stories, found a book designer that I can believe in. He’s a pro, and easy to work with to boot. I’m a pain in the ass, and he totally rolled with that. So once the thing is done, I’ll be able to make it look as lovely as it can.

But is that going to matter to anyone but me?

Does that matter?

When I draw, it’s just for me. I like posting pics on Instagram, but I think of that as solidarity with my other learners, with other artists who’ll never have consummate skill, but who get a kick out of making something they personally like.

I used to write like that. I’m trying to remember what that was like. In the spirit of Instagram, here’s a bit I wrote a few days ago:

He was frowning, and damned if that didn’t work for him, that furrowed scowl that would have intimidated the hell out of ensigns, maybe even others, while at the same time making you want to get through to him, make him look at you again, make him proud of you. Stupid. He wasn’t her superior officer, or anybody’s superior anymore, he was just a man standing in a garden, and some part of her barely acquainted with old myths wished for a moment that she had an apple.

Needs some polishing, but it says something about this POV character. She’s a one-off for this book, and I’m still getting to know her. I’m still working on her shading and lighting, but I’m starting to understand her shape.

I don’t know how long we’ll all be stuck on our own. All of us here are temperamentally suited to isolation, but even with us it’ll lose its charm. And we’ll know people who get sick, even if we don’t get sick ourselves. Right now feels like standing on a cliff, or maybe riding a roller coaster: all this is the clackety-clack of the rig cranking us up the hill waiting for the drop.

I don’t like roller coasters. But once you’re strapped in, all you can do is hang on to each other and go.

Stay safe. Stay separate. Make your art, whatever it is. I’ll be here, doing the same.

3 thoughts on “Dear Fellow Pandemic-Related Shut-Ins

  1. It does feel surreal. It helps to keep things in perspective and count our blessings like you are doing…and to support one another. I admire you for supporting your local businesses.

  2. Dear Ms. Bonesteel:

    “I’m drafting a book again. I’ve probably mentioned I haven’t finished a draft since the Before Times. My confidence is shot to hell. I have no belief that anyone will even want to read this thing once it’s done. ”

    For what it’s worth, I came across your blog when I was trying to find out if you’d written anything new lately, since I enjoy your books. Let me but it another way: I WILL want to read your next work if/when it gets published.

    I’m also really fond of the work of Martha Wells, who about 10 or 15 years ago was in such a slump that she had just about decided to stop writing altogether. She’d started out strong with a couple of early award nominations, then because of publisher issues and the like stopped selling books, and then got dropped. After writing what I at least thought were 7 great novels over a 12 year stretch, she published nothing for 6 years. Frankly, I forget the details, but it sounded brutal. And then she wrote and ended up selling the Cloud Roads. And then the Murderbot stories came out and she won awards galore for the latter.

    Long way of saying please try to keep writing if you can. Know that there are others like me who love to read your words, and look forward to doing so again. Thanks.

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