Woke up at five, began work. Before I begin work, I look at some Facebook posts from losers in publishing who never write anything and who whine and get up at ten now that they are home, who will not begin that novel, that story, that poem, who will do nothing and nothing of any consequence, because that is their nature, who they are, just as it is their nature to hate people not like them--rare though they may be--and to most hate someone who is their complete opposite, as I am, as is evidenced daily in these pages. And elsewhere.
Yesterday I ran three miles for the seventh day in a row. I returned from my run and, while still sitting in my sweat-soaked clothes, I proofed, a final time, "Shed." Yes, it is truly as good as "Fitty." I sent it to The Sun, where I have been hated for a long, long time--and I know exactly how everything gets published in there and have an entry ready to go here in the Drafts folder. I try to hold out. I truly give you every last chance before I expose. I give you every last chance to let it be about the work, which is better than other work, and I give you that chance because people seeing the work is what is going to matter most. Not me trying to take you down, though I can take you down with the information I have. I also sent it to the publicist as Harper's, because it is a story that would capture the imagination of readers beyond the literary, given the subject matter of the pandemic. There is no one who has a short story on this subject right now, written right now, pertaining to right now, because it takes these people forever to write anything, let alone come up with something great, and on their best days they are never going to approach a story like "Shed." I tweaked some of the language yesterday, some parts, and it's formal and structural design is impeccable, before we even get to what is happening at the level of every sentence. I also sent it to Stossel at The Atlantic, a person I really don't want to do a series of blogs about. You have to understand, that's not pleasant for me. Even though it's all true, it's unpleasant, it's stressful, it's not what I want to be doing with my time, any of my time, but if you take it here, if you leave me no choice--or, rather, my choice is to acquiesce to being suppressed, killed, buried, robbed--I am not going to take that option. I sent it to Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker as well, where I am truly hated, which should be completely irrelevant, as the only thing that should matter is the work. I'm hated because I say The New Yorker publishes bad fiction? I think they do. I think "She was as strong as stinky cheese"--a sentence from a recent New Yorker story--is howlingly, absurdly, patently awful. Yeah, I think that is as bad as writing gets, just about. So? (And if it is isn't, I challenge you, I defy you, to tell me how that is any good, give me a sentence saying how that is good writing. I'll wait. I could wait until the end of time, and there isn't anyone who can say jack shit, because it is horrible.) What does that have to do with anything? The story is the story. Publish the great story, I'll shill for it, I'll spread it around, I'll be happy, I'll be a good representative, I'll do publicity, I'll talk about it on the radio and elsewhere. I say where I sent a story like "Shed," so I can either later say, well, turns out, actually, that that went really well, glad to see such and such in the pages of such and such, glad to see the impact it's having, etc. Or, conversely, when you see "Shed" later, when you see "Fitty" later, you'll say, "Holy shit, those were the fucking people who wouldn't publish that story? That's how publishing works? This is the story they didn't rush out? But this other stuff is what they were putting out instead?"
I have this Stone Roses song, called "What the World is Waiting For," in my head a lot of late. It's my song these days.
I didn't finish the Pepys essay yesterday. I finished it this morning. It's called "De-Quarantining the Self: What the Diary of Samuel Pepys in the Plague Year Can Teach Us About Growth in the Time of COVID-19." 2000 words. Want a taste? (And want to play the Week Game? Let's play the Week Game! Wrote two short stories, "Shed" and "Sleepies," wrote a Tom Brady op-ed, talked on the radio, wrote many blogs, wrote this essay, ran twenty-one miles. And watched so many people who get hooked up, who do nothing, who write one shitty thing every four years, whine and whine and whine. Pussy is more than a kind of hat, as they say.)
His journal is his blog, what he sees in the streets of London his social media, and a more valuable form than ours, in that it confirms truth, rather than cultivates doubt. He never tries to out-hip, out-snark. We never know what to trust when we read anything on Twitter or Facebook. We are at the mercy of an additional pandemic that rides along with the coronavirus pandemic, and that is one of people who need attention attempting to out-frighten other people who also need attention in a competition to get the most attention—its own form of sickness.
Pepys was not like this. He viewed the plague, even if it was going to rub him out, as an opportunity. To hone powers of observation, to expand the scope of his thoughts and writings beyond the quotidian and the earthly. To become if not a metaphysical thinker, a thinker of increased gradations. He writes to find answers, describing his fears and anxieties, honestly, as a means to master them, which is quite different from quelling them. To master fear is to learn to better live with it, knowing it has reason to be there.
He goes about his life. He misses out on no business, be it work-related or pertaining to social matters, as when he oversees the courtship of a prospective couple, a kind of referee of love, in a time of death. As the plague ravages, he begins to regard death with a particularly Pepsyian form of insouciance, focused on his tasks—the Royal Navy continues to expand—and also realizing that the same people who have adopted, all of a sudden, a streak of piety, will likely jettison it as soon as this great scourge passes, should it ever pass.
Pandemics are always underfoot. They might not be as splashily obvious as the Reaper making his rounds, something which in Pepys’ time was denoted with a scarlet cross on doors—often with sentinels standing guard outside to keep people in lockdown—but they rend the fabric of society with a comparable level of efficacy, perhaps even a higher one, given their subtlety.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote of the “practiced eye of the commander.” He could have been referring to Pepys himself. We might say that the plague seasoned him as an observer, which is why he returned to locales that jeopardized his life. His family thought he was bats**** crazy to go, but go he did.
My feeling is that Pepys realized it was his own inner life that counted for vastly more than what might befall his body, thus justifying the risk. We all know those people who post online throughout the day about COVID-19, not out of concern, not for the dissemination of information, but because of their own internal emptiness. They want you to look at them, and to pull off that endeavor, they must cloak their intentions in something that seems salutary, humanitarian, though we know they do it for themselves, to try to counterbalance emptiness.
These are the same people who constantly tell us, as de rigor excuse for disconnection, how busy they are in life, and when they are afforded time—in quarantine—and may do as they wish, or at least with greater freedom, they do not start the novel, do not plan that new business they are always talking about, don’t read aloud with their kids, don’t reconnect with their partner. They say they are stir crazy, bored, and craving community, by which they mean “likes” coming their way on social media, perhaps the ultimate form of social distancing in that it’s true connection in reverse.
Pepys was on to these people, was on to a bigger strain of disease in his world and time, which I would say has grown exponentially in the centuries since. A friend comes to visit Pepys in his rooms, pulls up a chair by his nightstand. “Lay very long in bed, discoursing with Mr. Hill of most things of a man's life, and how litle merit doth prevail in the world, but only favour—and that for myself, chance without merit brought me in, and that diligence only keeps me so, and will, living as I do amongst so many lazy people, that the diligent man becomes necessary, that they cannot do anything without him.”
You can practically feel his soul sag. Even Pepys, as Pepys has the self-awareness to realize, landed his gig through luck, not skill, though it is the latter that ends up requiring him to do more work than his fellows, because it is he who can keep their operation running as it does. The realization is an enervating one, hence this long conversation, which I have always imagined going on for several hours. He increasingly values the stifling of the plague because he wants to be a better, more industrious man, wants to retain the chance to keep proving himself—and this is the rub, which is counter to so much in our age—to himself. Everything with Pepys, moving forward, will begin with that construct and radiate outwards, even as he mourns loss of life, fears for his family, and fears, too, of the life unlived, the life of mere existence.