How Your Health and the Pandemic Shapes Your Creativity

A conversation with author Mary Morris.

Posted Dec 07, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

I first met Mary Morris through her first novel The Waiting Room, which impacted me so deeply, I set out to find her. When I did, we quickly became friends. Before the pandemic, we had “our place”—lunches at Knickerbocker, where we knew the waiters, and we could sip wine and eat omelets and have two-hour gabfests. We can’t do that for a long time, but right here and now we’re about to have one of our conversations.

Courtesy Mary Morris
Tigers! No Lions or Bears!
Source: Courtesy Mary Morris

Mary’s the author of 16 books—eight novels, including, most recently, Gateway to the Moon, three collections of short stories, and five travel memoirs, including All the Way to the Tigers. Her stories have appeared in “The Atlantic,” “Ploughshares,” and “Narrative.” The recipient of the Rome Prize in Literature and the 2016 Anisfield-Wolf Award for Fiction, Morris is on the writing faculty at Sarah Lawrence College.   

CL: Writers write, even with a broken ankle or a broken heart, or recovering from PTSD. But we both published books during the pandemic. Plus, we have been slammed with an election and economic lunacy. How do you feel about publishing a book in these tough times? Are you able to write, Mary? Has your process changed at all? And do you feel the need to write about the pandemic?

MM: This pandemic is forcing us all to reinvent ourselves. It’s a very tough time to publish a book, but then it’s a very tough time to own a restaurant (my daughter’s closed) or have kids in school. At least, as writers, we can keep writing, and reading is something people can do during a pandemic. 

Part of me keeps wondering what stories are going to be relevant after all of this is through. I do feel lucky in that I have a contract for a book, but under the best of circumstances it’s a difficult topic and normally if I’m feeling stuck, I’d go to the NYPL to work, but I can’t do that now. In fact, we are living in a cabin in the woods and it’s pretty isolating, which is supposed to be a good thing for a writer but I remember that when Shakespeare was behind with a play, his friends locked him up at home, but he couldn’t do a thing. He needed to hit the pubs. 

Courtesy Mary Morris
Mary at her desk
Source: Courtesy Mary Morris

My godsend has been my journal. I try to write in it every day. A lot of it is random scribblings but there are notes for stories, essays, plot points, character details. I am calling it my “Covid” journal and while different from, say, my Paris journal or India journal that I kept when writing All the Way to the Tigers this journal has become my trusted friend. 

CL: I personally don’t write about the pandemic now, because it isn’t over, and because I don’t know how I am going to feel about it. Or maybe I don’t write about it for the same reasons I don’t write about 9/11. I lived through it. We saw the towers fall, smelled the odd mechanical smell for months, and our son, then 5, saw it through his kindergarten window. We have photos that we have never developed.

But I do feel a sense of urgency now, that anything I need to do, I had better do now because we can never know the future.

MM: Actually I am writing about the pandemic mainly in the form of short stories and also poems. I wrote one Covid story called “The Paper Boy” based on something that happened to my daughter when she was pregnant and this newspaper kept being delivered to her mountain house at four in the morning. Mainly, I’m focused on this novel, but when I’m stuck, which is happening more often than normal these days, I look into the journal. 

Caroline Leavitt
Mary with Leon, Caroline's robotic cat.
Source: Caroline Leavitt

In the light of having gone through physical mishaps and illness, did the pandemic jumpstart new anxiety for you?

CL:  For me, of course it did. I have a glitchy immune system and my husband and I are of that “certain age.” But what really got me was that a man who has been one of my best friends since he, I, and his wife were 17, a very healthy runner who walked 15K steps a day and was slim and athletic, died very suddenly of a massive heart attack. That brought it home for me, how things change in a second.

MM: Oh I have enough free-flowing anxiety.  Not sure that the pandemic jumpstarted any new supply for me. I am very sorry about your friend and losses like that are terrible. But I don’t think much about mortality. I think a lot about where my next story is going to come from.

What do you do for that anxiety?

CL: For me, anxiety’s become a way of life that I do battle with every day. I do yoga breathing. I remind myself: This is just now. That it is an extraordinary gift for all of us to have that now and we should be respectful of that, even as we work for change.

MM: I am finding that swimming in a freezing lake is a great cure for whatever ails you. And a hot toddy helps, especially after my swim. 

Has it changed your writing?

CL: Only in the sense of urgency I feel to get things done, to encourage empathy in my writing, which I think is the greatest gift authors have to give.

MM: Not really. I find that my process and concerns are pretty much the same as pre-pandemic. The beauty of being a writer is that we can get up and do our jobs every morning. 

When you think of 2020, what emotions come up, and how does it impact your physical being?

CL: I know you swim, Mary, which is wonderful. Jeff and I have been taking hour-long walks every day when we can, though we also have a minitrampoline, a stationary bike with weighted pulleys, and an elliptical trainer. I know for me, as a writer, it’s easy to stay inside, especially with Jeff being inside with me 24/7 as usual. But I also know if I don’t exercise every day, I don’t feel right. And I can’t tell myself that just climbing our two flights of stairs inside our house is enough. (Though I would like to.) I will say that now that the days are darker and colder, I feel the roil of depression starting, something I’d very much like to stop.

MM: Well, as has always been the case for me, I keep moving. I mean I’m obviously not traveling. In fact, instead of being in Paris this fall, I bought the wetsuit I wear when I go into the lake. (Though truthfully I’m not sure it helps all that much.) But every day we take our dog for a long walk either on the dirt road (and that’s a euphemism) where we’ve living or to a nearby reservoir. Also, almost every day just before dust, I go kayaking for about half an hour. And then yes there’s the swimming. It’s crazy but I’ve embraced cold water swimming. I even bought a wetsuit. I am following the technique of a guy called The Iceman. Oh and Larry found an exercise bike by the side of the road and installed it on our desk. I find that if I am not active, I go stir crazy. 

On a slightly more mundane level, my daughter told me that studies show that even small household tasks like making a bed release serotonin. Even doing the dishes can help.

Just for context, in March my husband and I decamped to a lake house owned by a friend. The friend lives overseas but the weird thing is that her house is on the same road our daughter lives on in a very remote part of the Catskills about seven miles apart. The fact that this cabin is here and owned by a friend and is down the road from our daughter, well, it’s just a twist of fate. Still, it’s very isolating. At times I have difficulty with that. And yet it is also a strangely familiar place to be. Though I have lived in New York City and in other cities for decades, the weird thing is that where we are, in the woods on a lake,  reminds me of Illinois where I grew up. 

What are your secret wishes for 2021?

CL:  Mine are not so secret. Finish my novel, which is due next October. Have a vaccine for the virus. Have a new government that truly is of and for the people.

MM: I would say, dear Caroline, that, as is often the case here, we are on the same page. 

The Holidaze are coming. Wanna buy our books? Here you go:
All the Way to the Tigers by Mary Morris

With or Without You by Caroline Leavitt
https://bookshop.org/books/all-the-way-to-the-tigers-a-memoir/9780385546096