By Teresa Pham-Carsillo
For as long as I could remember, I had a fantasy of being in a position of concentrated solitude, able at last to focus on writing without the pesky constraints of daily life. In my self-indulgent imaginings, I fancied myself a true writer, or perhaps even an author. I conjured a cottage set deep in the woods, with quaint but comfortable furnishings and no working cell signal. I believed that silence (the quiet that derived from the absence of other human beings, from the lack of pinging calendars and incoming emails) would open the door to untapped creativity.
This past year has been stupefying and overwhelming and anxiety-inducing in many, many ways. But in a cruel, strange way, it’s also fulfilled my wish. In the necessity of sheltering in place, hiding from an insidious virus that lingers in the very air we breathe, I have finally found the time to write.
This year has been one of my most “productive” as a hobbyist writer (if by productive you count the number of words written, virtual workshops attended, pieces submitted to unfeeling literary journals, etc.). I fill my days with reading novels, studying craft, and chipping away at fantastical short stories that previously only existed as nebulous ideas. Without the distraction of a social life, travel plans, or even my daily commute, I find myself alone with my thoughts, alternatively swimming and drowning in them. Isn’t that grand?
Another happy side effect of the pandemic: the shift to online meeting spaces has made it easier to connect with other writers. In the past year, I have kept up with two regular writing groups, both of which are populated by people I’ve never met in real life. Over Zoom, we drink wine, share writing exercises, workshop pieces, cheer on each other’s finished stories and publications, and email snapshots of the animals we encounter in our solitary lives. I feel unbelievably tender and protective toward these new friendships, these little pea shoots I’ve coaxed from barren soil.
I feel lucky to be nourished by my writing practice and newfound community. But there’s also an impatient part of me who just wants to meet her writing friends in person already. We’ve been exchanging first drafts and talking about pandemic fatigue for almost a year. We’ve seen each other through COVID scares and big life moves. It feels like we should be able to sit down for coffee, or clink glasses of mimosas over brunch, or hug, or well, anything really.
I find myself returning again and again to Tana French’s The Likeness, both because I find comfort in mystery novels (things are bad and confusing, but then everything wraps up cozily in the end!) and am a bit evangelical about French’s books. If you haven’t binge-read your way through her Dublin Murder Squad series with its beguiling cast of introspective yet self-sabotaging detectives, what are you waiting for?
Anyway, back to The Likeness. In the book, there’s a scene where a character named Daniel quotes a Spanish proverb: “Take what you want and pay for it, says God.” He then goes on to say: “What could be simpler, or more crucial? You can have anything you want, as long as you accept that there is a price and that you will have to pay it.”
In all my idle wishes for more time to write and more time for myself, I never considered that there was a price to pay. I did not imagine the days of crushing loneliness and boredom, or that I would sometimes want to throw my stack of library books across the room. It turns out that for someone with a tendency toward anxiety, there is such a thing as too much time spent alone on cerebral pursuits.
Lately, I’ve started doing something that is not at all related to literature or any writerly ambition. Despite my horrendous inability to stay on rhythm or coordinate the movement of my limbs, I’m taking an online dance class. There’s no set choreography, although the instructor does demonstrate some fun, sultry steps that you can try if the spirit moves you. Most attendees keep their cameras on, and it’s oddly comforting to see strangers bopping around in their living rooms or kitchens, some dancing with children or partners or dogs.
For one hour every week, I jump up and down and wave my arms around, and I am not stuck in my head. “We’re going to scream through the next song!” the instructor says. “We’re going to dance and we’re going to feel our feelings!” I watch women I’ve never met punching their couch cushions and howling in their tiny apartments. I do the same thing, letting loose an ungraceful kick.
If I scream while gyrating to a Rihanna song and nobody is around to hear me, do I make a sound? And if I write a story in my imaginary, secluded wooded cabin and nobody is around to read it, what happens then?
In these isolating times, what I am most grateful for isn’t the time to write, or any of the books I’ve read. It’s the people who continue to bear witness to my existence. Maybe sometime in the not-too-distant future, we’ll be able to meet in open air, surrounded by towering California redwoods. We’ll tell stories around a roaring fire and pour champagne into mismatched coffee mugs. We’ll laugh and hug without thinking of the breath that passes between us, without fear of closeness.
That’s my new fantasy.
Teresa Pham-Carsillo is a Vietnamese American writer who was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. After graduating with a BA in creative writing from the University of California, Davis, she became an office-bound marketer, stealing time in the early and late hours of the day to write short stories and poems. Teresa’s fiction and poetry have been featured or are forthcoming in several publications, including The Penn Review, Saint Katherine Review, Salt Hill Journal, and the minnesota review. She can be found online at teresaphamcarsillo.com.
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