“I know that when I’m really writing, when I’m really, really lost in a sentence, I forget I have a body, I forget what time is. I forget to eat.”
The IncendiariesThe IncendiariesKinkNew York Times
Sari Botton: Shortly after the 2020 election, I noticed one of your tweets. I think this was after it was finally determined that Biden had won. You tweeted, “somehow writing remains difficult even now, seems rude.” It was very relatable to me, and I’m sure to many other writers, because so many of us had been freaking out through the entire Trump administration and even before then—through the election leading up to that. It put us in this anxious state that made it hard to concentrate. Then, even after Biden was elected, there was this right-wing campaign to overturn the result. What was it like for you to focus and be productive through all the recent political turmoil?
SB: One of the hardest things for me about the pandemic was that it forced me to close a small coworking space I had developed for writers in Kingston. We had ten writers, and we would leave our houses and go and work together. Then we would go get a drink together and we would talk shop. That was eliminated at the end of March 2020. I was suddenly just in my house by myself, well, with my husband, who’s wonderful and we get along wonderfully, but there were no writers around. I like that idea of the accountability group that functions over email and texts. I might try that myself because losing my writers’ community was one of the hardest things for me.
Where did the one-sentence-a-day thing emerge from? I’ve never heard of anybody, especially someone who’s a published novelist, doing that.
SB: So you set the bar low for yourself. Then it’s easy to succeed and not be disappointed in yourself and not feel like you’ve betrayed this lover, which is your novel.
ROK: It kept me from fully despairing during those months when I was barely able to write or read, because at least I knew something was happening. There’s also a beautiful New York Times piece by my friend Ingrid Rojas Contreras on self-mesmerism, where she talks about things she does to counteract intrusive thoughts. After I read that piece, I thought, This is genius, and I changed some of my writing habits. It’s really helped me have more focus. So much so that since I started doing that, there are times when I can write almost as much as I can when I’m at a residency, which is wild to me. Let me note, though, that I don’t have children, which of course can make it much easier to find space for this kind of focus.
She talks about how she devotes certain attire in a certain color only to writing. So now there’s a silk shawl that I wear while I write. If it’s on me, I’m not allowed to do anything else. I won’t even look at my texts, let alone reply. I definitely won’t look at my email or social media. I won’t look at the news. The only things I’m allowed to do when I’m wearing that shawl is work on my novel and read or look at art—which I know is feeding the novel. I can also get coffee or feed myself—like, the basics to keep myself going.
Oh, and stretching—that’s another one. I’ve been trying to stretch more throughout the day. All of that is to keep the machine of my body going while I work. Ever since reading Ingrid’s piece, I also have coffee mugs that I only use for writing. If I’m switching to answering emails, I switch mugs. I also change the lighting. When I’m writing, I turn off the overhead lamp and use a standing desk lamp with a much lower wattage. Ingrid explained it as creating a kind of holy ground on which work happens.
Anytime I’ve had my lighting and my coffee and my shawl, if I’m following the rules of my writing space, it’s never not led to writing happening. Even if it’s not as much or as focused as I’d like, it has always worked. That continuity has also been intensely calming. I’m sure you know about the terrible anxiety of sitting down to write and not knowing if anything’s going to come of it, or thinking, Am I just going to sit there and just feel sad at the end of it because I wasn’t able to do a damn thing? That anxiety is now gone. Knock on wood.
SB: That’s brilliant. You set these conditions that your brain then learns to associate with writing, and the writing gets done.
ROK: The other useful thing is my husband knows that this is my rule. If I’m in my shawl and I start talking to him about random shit, he’ll say, “No, you’re in your writing shawl, you can’t.”
SB: That’s so good that you got him on board.
I know that you’ve been very active with an organization called Field Team 6, through which you’ve organized textbanking parties with other writers. I was inspired to join you several times. It really helped me feel less hopeless—or more hopeful, to put it more positively. I think we might’ve really helped get out the vote! Can you talk about how you got involved and what that’s been like for you?
ROK: Thank you so much for having joined us for so many events. It was really so heartening that you were there so often and that you were helping us spread the word.
SB: Honestly, I needed it.
ROK: Right? Everyone I know who’s involved in community work and political work seems to find it’s also good for the people involved. I started getting involved with Field Team 6 and some other textbanking organizations after Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. I was a wreck, as so many people were. My friend Andrew Sean Greer emailed, “I’m textbanking tomorrow with some friends. Do you want to join me?” I was like, Yes, I want to do this. I couldn’t let the sorrow and rage just sit in my body. I needed to fucking do something with it. So I textbanked with Andy and with a few of his friends, including Ayelet Waldman.
We were just in a Zoom room together as we were texting. Pretty soon we were laughing and making fun of rude Republicans. I realized, Oh, wait, this is actually something writers can be good at. We like texting. We like making fun of rude Republicans. That’s something a lot of writers I know do on a regular basis. That was when I got in touch with Field Team 6 and I was like, what if we could scale this feeling of being in a room with people you want to be in a room with, and we could do this as a group? And then Ayelet and I organized a series of these events.
SB: Those textbanking parties were the best. I’ve volunteered a couple more times and I will continue to. Did it help you to get your work done? Did it help calm the anxiety and let you go into that ritual of yours?
ROK: Yes, it did. I’m curious if it did for you too, because I think what I realized after those first two pandemic months of abject misery was that part of the problem, at least for me, was that, when my anxiety was running high, I couldn’t let myself sink into the world of fiction writing, which is what needs to happen. One needs to forget other things. I know that when I’m really writing, when I’m really, really lost in a sentence, I forget I have a body, I forget what time is. I forget to eat.
I fully believe that art is necessary. It is not a luxury. There’s nothing self-indulgent about it. Books have saved my life. However, working for years and years and years on a book about invented people during a time of profound crisis, it did feel harder than ever. I did feel—even though I don’t believe writing is self-indulgent at all, even though I don’t believe making art is self-indulgent at all—like, what is the point of this when the world is collapsing? I found that the best preventative for this what-the-fuck-is-the-point-of-this feeling was to try to do something for other people on a regular basis.
I fully believe that art is necessary.
It was almost like bribing my anxiety with: Okay, well, we did this thing for others. Please, for the love of God, can we focus on writing for two hours now?
Did you find the textbanking to be useful?
SB: Yeah, I had the biggest deadline of my life looming, and textbanking helped. I turned in my memoir in June. I had been working on it through the run-up to the 2020 election, and then through the first half of 2021.
ROK: Oh my gosh, congratulations.
SB: Thank you. It was very anxiety provoking. It’s something that’s taken me a really long time to do because I never felt I had permission. It’s been this lifelong challenge and I finally got the opportunity—during the most fraught time in the world. I was in a state. My body felt like it was on constant high alert through the entire Trump administration. And then when the pandemic came along, my body started literally shaking all the time.
I would try to sleep at night but my limbs wouldn’t stop twitching. Then I would have to write during the day, and aside from being in a state, and exhausted, I also had to grapple with this feeling of why bother, who cares about my story?
It was very helpful to do something concrete, like textbanking. Especially when you texted someone who wrote back, “Thank you so much for reminding me that I need to register by this time,” etc. That helped ground me.
ROK: I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole notion of self-care, and about what Audre Lorde said about it. I’m writing a piece about this right now. There’s a widespread notion that self-care is purely about the self. It feels as though it’s become such a closed-in, individualist notion, and the self is more porous than that. We’re so connected to one another. For me, it was a potent form of self-care to be involved in community work. I think it’s actually not possible for my body to feel hopeless when I’m acting as though I have a great deal of hope. It’s amazing medicine.
Sari Botton is the author of the memoir in essays, And You May Find Yourself...Confessions of a Late-Blooming Gen-X Weirdo. She is a contributing editor at Catapult, and the former Essays Editor for Longreads. She edited the bestselling anthologies Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving NewYork and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York. She teaches creative nonfiction at Catapult, Bay Path University and Kingston Writers' Studio. She publishes Oldster Magazine, Memoir Monday, and Adventures in Journalism.