I have recently finished reading Zadie Smith’s new book of six essays, Intimations, musings during the time of the Coronavirus. The most moving for me of the six essays is called Something to Do. Smith starts the essay by noting that many writers (including herself) have written books or articles about how to write or why write. She finds most of them to be somewhat self-aggrandizing and not very helpful to the aspiring audience for whom they are meant. She goes on to say that writing is “something to do.” Of course. But if it were only something to do, Smith and many other fine writers probably wouldn’t get published. Perhaps their great-grandchildren would find a stash of their journals and likely, after reading a few, pitch them in the trash.
What sticks with me about this essay is that Smith compares her novel and essay writing to baking banana bread during the pandemic. That, she says, is also something to do, something that might have been lost in a busier life or given up as too time consuming or too difficult when time was preciously allocated only to the most essential things like feeding your children cold cereal, catching the bus to work, or putting a few simple ingredients together and calling it dinner at the end of an exhausting day.
Something to do has taken on a new importance in this time. Kids who can’t go outside need something to do. Parents and grandparents, tired from juggling childcare, jobs and teaching responsibilities need something to do in whatever downtime they have. In the August 2 issue of the New York Times, Rebecca Ackerman finds making tiny clay food (the pictures are astonishingly realistic and mouth-watering) her something to do when actual cooking fails her.
Many of us have tried something new or renewed in this time. I’ve cycled through cooking elaborate meals, reading many more books, and taking online art classes. The combination of ennui and anxiety are powerful motivators for me to do something. Having very little energy but overwhelming anxiety about how our government is handling this scary disease, how long it will last, and how we will eventually get over it, spurs me to grab my boxes of art supplies and lose myself in cutting up little pieces of paper for a collage, or making another loaf of banana bread.
Smith’s final sentences reproduced here are:
Watching this manic desire to make or grow or do “something,” that now seems to be consuming everybody, I do feel comforted to discover I’m not the only person on this earth who has no idea what life is for, nor what is to be done with all this time, aside from filling it.
I’m not going to write the great English language novel in this or any other time. Some are doing that now, I hope. But I am finding something to do that lessens the feelings of loneliness, anxiety and frustration. For now, that is the best I can do, to do something.