I jog on the gravel path along the train tracks. I readjust my surgical mask and stray off into the grass to maintain a two-metre distance from a cyclist. My butt throbs. Pain gives way to numbness. Hamstring nerve pinched. I’m out of breath. My lungs open up to the cool air, fortunate to be left breathless by exercise and not COVID-19.
I had spent the past three years in my own quarantine-of-sorts, sequestered in the near isolation of my office, hunched over a laptop. I had typed feverishly to complete the novel by a looming, yet self-imposed deadline and on the very day that I typed the last words of my manuscript—a novel about a future pandemic—my city, country, and the world at large, shut down.
The novel was complete, but my confinement was extended indefinitely. I wilted. In the years spent writing the novel I had slogged through the corrections of my students during the day and churned out my own words at night. My body had gotten idle and flabby. I had cut myself off from sensory experience. Going for a walk, family dinners, and conversing with friends were all detours from my goal. Everything was an obstacle to completing the manuscript. Everything. There was wine in my glass and the food on my plate, but I wasn’t really tasting it. I finally took notice of my person being divided in two as the distance between body and mind grew farther apart. My head might as well have separated from my body at the neck.
Can a commitment to making art ever be detrimental? How can trying to craft a beautiful or meaningful thing be anything but fulfilling? Plenty of films tell the story of a writer or painter, aspiring or established, enraptured and then swallowed by the object of his creation. You know the trope: the tortured artist. You have to suffer for your art, it is said. But does this devotion, if not tempered, stifle the artist’s productivity? Even a machine wears down if not properly maintained.
Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in lockdown from the Black Death. Frankly, I don’t care how productive old William was back in his day. I have little desire to write at the moment, and for the first time in as long as I can remember, I don’t mind not caring. The Top Ten Ways to Be A Productive Writer lists imprinted on my mind have vanished.
Despite the manifold tragedies this virus has unleashed and exacerbated, and despite the isolation of confinement, I have experienced a paradoxical freedom. Normalcy has been fragmented, interrupted for the foreseeable future, so why shouldn’t I seize upon the opportunity to approach writing differently? Not hit the brakes, but rather slow down and be more active in the experience of capturing the world as I see it instead idly observing from the distance of my office desk.
At a time when bodies are being destroyed by a new virus, I am slowly getting in touch with my own. Each step forward on the gravel path serves to reattach my head—so often caught up in the imaginings of a new story— to its place on my shoulders. What I want is to take the world in: the sidewalk lined with irrepressible dandelions, the graffitied brick walls of the neighbourhood, and the gusts of wind carrying the compost stink of summer.
My thoughts return to the jog, to being in my body, the physical me experiencing the stones under feet and the sweat dripping into my eyes. My King Lear can wait. I will get around to it when I am ready, but for now, I return to the rhythm of breath.
Joe Bongiorno is a Montreal-based writer of fiction and non-fiction. His writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in Canadian and American publications including CBC, Geist, Event, Freefall, Broken Pencil, Carte Blanche, and the The Antigonish Review. He was shortlisted for the 2018 Freefall Prose and Poetry Contest and he won Event’s 2019 Speculative Writing Contest. Joe is currently working on a novel as well as a short story collection.
Photo credits: Joe Bongiorno (header banner); Anne Guay (headshot)