Pandemic Habits: Quarantine Reading, Quarantine Writing

I. Quarantine Reading

It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I wonder sometimes if my post-college life has just been one long struggle to re-learn how to read. When I say this, I’m not talking about the mechanics of reading or basic comprehension. I mean that it’s been hard to find ways to integrate reading just for the sake of reading into my daily life. Over the past 20 years, I know my eyes have done plenty of work: emails, work documents, news sites, social media, and so on. But for long periods of time, I would feel so mentally and emotionally drained at the end of the day that the last thing my brain wanted was to focus on any reading, even if it was for light entertainment.

Oh, I would try! If the topic held my interest, sometimes I would make headway. Weekends were easier, but then the work week would interrupt, and I would lose my focus. Or I’d press so hard to stay engaged that I wouldn’t retain much of what I took in. It was like my brain was just overstimulated with all the other necessities of life. Case in point: last summer I decided to re-read Michael Pollan’s bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I’d started many years ago but never finished. The bookmark I found on the page where I left off? A receipt dated May of 2008. Ouch.

Fresh Eyes in the Morning, Pages Keep Turning

Starting a Doctoral degree actually provided some relief, believe it or not, because I could make it my main job to do heavier academic reading and writing. Early on, I learned that if I wanted to successfully read a 500-page book every week (no exaggeration), I needed to hit it while my mind was fresh. So, I flipped my schedule and blocked mornings for the more intensive work. This proved to be pretty helpful, but as time moved on and I got past the written exams, that habit drifted away.

Since graduating in mid-2015, I’ve done a lot of reading related to my work: textbooks, journal articles, archival documents, and enough student papers to haunt my dreams from now to eternity. It’s been hard to keep a partition, however, between reading for work and reading for pleasure. If it’s something that might have bearing on the content of my book, I want to take notes, which means I have to follow the narrative line by line, check its sources, corroborate accounts, and so on. Reading for pleasure should be, well, more pleasurable, but the eyes and brain weren’t having it when I’d try to pick up a book in the evening for the fun of it.

In that sense, the COVID-19 pandemic, despite its dispiriting and disruptive duration, has provided a small silver lining for me. Early on, I made a decision to devote 30 minutes every morning to reading that’s not specific to any other work. That doesn’t mean the material doesn’t bear some relevance to those interests, since I tend to enjoy creative nonfiction and well-written history, especially involving LGBTQ communities. Half an hour isn’t a great deal of time, but it’s enough, especially when setting aside the glowing computer, phone, or tablet screen, to knock out a few pages. Moreover, it means that I get to sit with the same book for weeks at a time, rather than speeding through it to get to the next title. Somehow, I feel like that’s helped me find a longer-lasting familiarity with the subject matter.

A sampling of my quarantine reading.

II. Quarantine Writing

For an author, the two most immobilizing words in the English language must be these: “Write something.”

In the years I’ve spent developing this book, I’ve mostly stuck to the same formula. First, I would try to get all of my other work done for the week. Then, I’d block off the rest of my days for writing (or research, depending on what was in front of me). This preference was a major reason why I didn’t pursue a full-time position after finishing my Ph.D. I wanted more freedom and flexibility to set my own schedule, with fewer obligations like advising students or attending committee meetings. Until last year, this was mostly working pretty well, except for a few prolonged battles with writer’s block.

Now, you’d think a global pandemic that forces people to shelter at home would be a boon for someone like me to hunker down and churn out page after page, chapter after chapter. For a myriad of reasons, the reality has been a bit more complicated. From about mid-2020 onward, I was noticing that my cherished blocks of writing time were being nibbled away, slowly but steadily, by a variety of demands on my attention. So, I made a pact with myself this past New Year’s (I hate calling them resolutions), to make a small but necessary change to my routine. While I would still try to dedicate as many full days to working on the book as I could, I promised myself that, at a minimum, I’d spend at least 30 minutes a day on it, no matter what.

The idea was based partly on the success I had with adding the half hour of reading to my mornings, which I described above. Usually I do this right after lunch, so that Randy gets my energy and attention before I hit any afternoon slump. It also gives me a chance to capture any fresh ideas that may have popped into my head while sleeping (which has happened), showering (which has definitely happened), or working out (less likely, but yes, this has happened, too).

Believe it or not, this has been a pretty decent habit! The downside happens on days when I get on a roll, but absolutely have to set it aside and get back to grading, meetings, or working on grant proposals. On those days, the 30-minute window feels like I’m scrambling to finish a timed exam, with stacks of books on either side of me, laptop or notebook balanced on my knees, jotting down every remaining note so I know where to pick up my thoughts at the next opportunity.

To be blunt, having to quickly change gears and redirect my attentions makes me pissy. Since I love making a deep dive into my thoughts without interruption, I’m beginning to better understand why certain creative types of people get a reputation for fussiness. The challenge is in keeping myself from getting too frustrated, and remembering that even one little thing – say, jotting down a couple pages of ideas in a notebook – moves me further ahead.

How my lap looks on any given afternoon…

Great (But Realistic) Expectations

For me, the key has been to focus on what, specifically, I want to accomplish, and making it realistic for the time I’ve given myself. If I’m stuck in the narrative, I like to write out my thoughts by hand with a notebook and pencil, which is perfect for a 30-minute time limit. I’ll also use that time to review interview transcripts and pull quotes that will add exposition or color to the narrative, or to edit passages that I’ve recently written. While it’s still easy to get frustrated and wish I were further ahead, I keep reminding myself that every little bit helps, that it all contributes to my overall productivity, and that these blocks of time will make the days when I can devote hours to writing much more fruitful.

Has it worked? Yes, but with somewhat different results than I was used to with my old writing patterns. I’ve learned to be okay with this, however, because I’m also at a point in the story – Randy’s research and writing of And the Band Played On – where I feel like there’s a lot of complexity to sort through. The risk, especially with diving deep into the material for long blocks of time, is getting so lost in the weeds that I lose sight of the central, underlying narrative, which for my purpose is his intimate life story.

These daily, time-limited sessions have been great for forcing me to pause, look back on what I’ve just worked on, and think through any contradictions or counter-narratives I need to address. They’ve also pulled me back from those riskier “deep dives,” where Randy disappears entirely in the swirling environment of political gamesmanship and scientific rivalry he was trying to portray.  Plenty of other writers have covered those fights; my job isn’t to re-tell those stories, but use them as the context for the tale I’m trying to tell.

Self-Study, Lessons Learned

As a general rule, making changes in our lives begins with identifying what we want to change, figuring out our plan for doing it, and deciding what we’ll accept as satisfactory results. Ultimately, the audience for our efforts is exactly one person, which is why I tend to be hesitant at offering one-size-fits-all suggestions. I also have some built-in advantages in my life, in that I more or less control my own schedule, and I have a home work space where I can sequester myself from other distractions. But for anyone trying to change their reading and writing habits, my advice would be to:

1. Make it a realistic amount of time.

2. Don’t create extra expectations, like number of pages per day or per week.

3. Give yourself leeway in what you choose to do, and give yourself permission to adapt to what you’re experiencing on any given day. For me, the more “oughts” and “shoulds” I try to create, the more futility and frustration I feel.

4. Honor your accomplishments, and use them to develop realistic next steps.

For me, this has made the extended period of time, in which our social patterns have been so disrupted, a bit more productive. I can’t say that these habits won’t change as communities re-open, but I’ve learned a lot about what I’m capable of doing with the time and resources available to me.

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