Writing through the pandemic with Ursula K. Le Guin

I spent the early reaches of the spring semester thinking a lot about academic writing. About pursuing an academic career out of a love of writing, and about how joyless academic writing can be. About academic writing reduced to a series of CV-enhancing products, and not as a valuable process in and of itself. Then a pandemic happened.

As cities locked down and universities transitioned effortlessly to virtual instruction/interaction, the online debates about productivity started. Isolation means productivity, Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantined. Short-term productivity is a delusion, worry about securing your home. I sat at home, watching the debate unfurl. I stared at screens and Word docs about as I often as I normally would, but I got less writing done.

I can cope without a pandemic-induced productivity bump. I don’t expect to do my best work at the moment. I might not even advance my dissertation very much. But I would still like to write quite often. I like writing, and I find it grounding. Writing through a pandemic sounds to me less like something you do if you are coping well, and more like a way of coping well.

For writing guidance, I come back time and again to Ursula Le Guin. Perhaps this is because Le Guin can think like a social scientist, but she doesn’t write like one. I want inspiration from someone who takes a blank page and constructs an entire world out of it. Someone who approaches the blank page with a compulsion to create and imagine, instead of imposing the same one template on the page over and again.

In a 1988 interview, reprinted by Melville House, Le Guin sketched out her ideal writing schedule. In trying to write through this pandemic, I am taking cues from this schedule. It probably doesn’t hurt that Le Guin was a colossal introvert, so aside from Zoom meetings her ideal schedule looks quite workable during pandemic-induced isolation. Le Guin’s schedule is not my own ideal schedule, but has got me reflecting on how to build a writing habit that I might just be able to stick to. I have even annotated the original, with five reflections for writing through a pandemic…

One. Writing does not have to take up all your time. Le Guin scheduled as much time for preparing and eating food as for writing. More time for writing is not necessarily better time for writing.

Two. Five hours of writing is a long time. I am not sure that I can do anything very well for this long (I have been working on this section of this post for the past 1.25 hours, and I am flagging fast). I can, however, sometimes trick my brain by writing different things in different ways. Often that means switching from a screen to a pen and a page. Sometimes – not nearly often enough – it means switching from dissertation to reflection, or to fiction.

Three. Reading is not writing, but it helps. Reading widely is pretty essential for all good writers. It is also a great way for a self-doubting academic to pretend that they are writing, or preparing to write, without every committing words to a page. Good reading deserves time of its own, instead of being a prelude to something else. Set aside separate time for reading.

Four. Errands need time, and that time needs to be limited. Le Guin set aside two hours each days for correspondence and household stuff. Two whole hours, and only those two hours. If she’d had an email address in 1988, that probably would have meant two hours in which emails could be sent, and 22 whole hours in which they could not be.

Five. Know when you are stupid and enjoy it. I struggle with this part, and tend to tell myself that any hour of the day could be a good hour for writing. But not all hours are equal, as anyone who has seen me try to sit quietly but wakefully through a meeting or lecture right after lunch will probably know.

If you are one of the lucky ones that hasn’t seen your income decimated by the pandemic, don’t forget to support independent bookstores and publishers.

A month of farfetching

During the winter break, while New York was shivering through a polar vortex, I slipped away to the City of Eternal Spring for a month of research. With Cuernavaca as much as one hundred degrees (Fahrenheit, calm down) warmer than New York, it was a rather good choice.

I equipped myself with fiction and non-fiction for this trip to Mexico. On the way there I started reading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, and The Spectacular City by Daniel Goldstein. I read the former for pleasure, without marking up the pages, and yet within the novel I found (and hardly for the first time with Le Guin’s fiction) an unexpected resonance – both with Goldstein’s study, and my own attempts at field research.

My priority for Cuernavaca was to conduct interviews, building up a richer understanding of what happened in the city between 2009 and 2011. During that time a military operation killed the most powerful crime boss in the region, leading to a very public power struggle among formerly aligned criminal factions. At times public life in the city came to a complete standstill, but in response to this insecurity a social movement emerged, that eventually marched to the doors of the national palace in Mexico City.

Beyond semi-structured interviews, however, I wanted to get a better sense of the city. Cuernavaca doesn’t get much attention in studies of insecurity in Mexico – these tend to go for the superlative cases, the “murder capitals” – and I wanted to better understand how a less remarkable city could produce the country’s biggest social mobilization against such insecurity.

Le Guin’s novel provided a rather nice encapsulation of this rather vague research agenda.

What one is after when farfetching might be described as the intuitive perception of a moral entirety; and thus it tends to find expression not in rational symbols, but in metaphor.

Goldstein’s ethnographic study of a town in Bolivia is an excellent example of farfetching research. The study centers on two events: a religious procession, and an attempted lynching. Goldstein posits a connection between these seemingly very different events, through the idea of the spectacle. Residents of the community, which is often rendered invisible to state recognition and support, use spectacles to make themselves visible and to demand recognition from the state.

I kept the idea of farfetching before me in Cuernavaca, as an example of open, exploratory, and intuitive research. I pursued interviews, but tried not to presume to know what I needed to take from those interviews. I read through piles of local newspapers, and kept daily field notes. I refused no invitation, and thus ended up in a first aid course for local journalists, sponsored by the Red Cross. I became a dummy for demonstrating the Heimlich manoeuvre.

Through this approach, I did indeed meet and interview a number of journalists. I learned new things and rethought aspects of my project. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the connections between the media and narco-messages came to feel more and more important. The most immediate yield of all the farfetching, however, does not tie directly into my dissertation at all. Throughout the month, the constant focus in newspapers and online was on oil theft, and recently-inaugurated President López Obrador’s aggressive stance against such theft. The discourse around oil theft was so rich and interesting that I ended up pitching and writing a short piece about it for NACLA.

Not directly related, but not completely unrelated either. This is Le Guin’s “moral entirety,” as I understand it: that my research is only as important or interesting as the bigger picture, of which the project is a tiny part. The ultimate idea is not to perfectly encapsulate a topic, reducing it to “rational symbols,” but rather to speak to something so big and so compelling that it cannot be neatly encapsulated. Work that resonates, but doesn’t reduce.

Light reading turned heavy

I brought one book with me, on my semester of research in Mexico City. This was an act of severe self-discipline, and resulted in me leaving a couple of half-read volumes on my shelf in Brooklyn. The book that made the cut was Francisco Goldman’s The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle. Goldman splits his time between New York and Mexico City (let me tell you, it’s a fine way to live); I figured that his book would still count as context for my research, but would also be an escape from the heavier topics of my dissertation.

The first chapters of the book were exactly this, and guided my wanderings through the city. My route to a local yoga studio had me tracing Goldman’s path through the opening pages of The Interior Circuit. As I wandered further afield I started seeking out locations that he describes, such as the bodgy David replica in Plaza Rio de Janeiro. Goldman’s fascination with the city is infectious, and his eye for detail brings a lot of curious corners of the place into sharper focus.

Goldman cut his teeth as a correspondent during the civil war in El Salvador, and it doesn’t take too long for his journalistic instincts to rise to the surface of what starts out as a charming memoir. He begins following the students protests, known as Yo Soy 132, in response to future president Peña Nieto’s proud defense of his actions as governor of Mexico State, when he deployed lethal police force against peaceful protestors. Later, Goldman becomes fascinated by a case in which a dozen young people were kidnapped from a local nightclub. This latter case occupies almost the entire second half of the book.

The Heavens nightclub case could almost be a standalone investigative work, except that there is no real resolution at the end of Goldman’s account. This is a curious feature of Interior Circuit; the author keeps digging into these cases of violence and corruption, but after a bout of investigation, moves on to another case. Towards the end of the book, Goldman shifts his attention to other instances of violence, such as the notorious disappearance of 43 students of Ayotzinapa.

This makes much of the book feel restless. Cases of violence cycle through the narrative, without ever being resolved. Eventually, there is just nothing new left to say. This is, however, no defect of Goldman’s writing. Rather, it demonstrates in action the approach of both president Peña Nieto, and the former mayor of Mexico City Miguel Ángel Mancera, to any press reports that might tarnish their images. Both figures focus on denial and obfuscation. Both leave writers and investigators like Goldman to work with scraps of information and hunches. Both prevent any kind of denouement, any ending or closure.

What does that leave? Goldman alerts his reader to important cases, and recurring themes. He can’t do all that much with them, but he won’t let them rest. He pushes back against government efforts to silence and suppress. And that makes room for those of us that come along later to continue the work, prying and probing, recording and remembering.