Author Maria Mutch. Photo: Robin Wilson
Maria Mutch, Interrupted: How the Pandemic Changed the Solitary Life of a Writer
The Canadian author of 'Molly Falls to Earth' reflects on impermanence and the mystery, and sometimes terror, of everyday existence / BY Maria Mutch / May 3rd, 2021
Many people who once worked in offices and now work from home have discovered what a breezy commute and loose pants will do for their productivity. The secret ingredient, though, is solitude, which tends to get sparse airtime in an extroverted culture. If anyone knows its value, though, it is writers, but for those writers who live with other people the game has changed somewhat. I finished my novel, Molly Falls to Earth, before our COVID-19 era began, and wrote mostly in a study on the second floor of my house. I rose in the dark to begin writing before my husband and sons got up, and continued after they had gone out into the world. It seems hard to believe now, but I was once solitary during the working hours, writing about an unconventional woman with a mysterious existence, in an office that had not been claimed by somebody else for Zoom meetings. In the Time Before, I might have swanned around without clothes while mulling a scene, and the fact that I didn’t now causes me a little regret.
The desk where I currently write sits on the main floor in a doorless room, which is my older son’s favourite place to be. Gabriel is intellectually disabled (also the wisest person I know) and, though he is in his twenties, still deeply enamoured with children’s programs. He sits nearby and summons Wiggles shows on his iPad. The cats are here, too, two large fluffed beasts of the talkative variety. At 7:30 a.m. my husband, who starts his day in his makeshift, living-room office, gets on calls with coworkers in India and France (‘Hey, Everyone!’). My younger son, Sam, a freshman in university, floats through on his way to the kitchen and stops near my desk, because, well, the cats. And there is something else to add to this array. On account of the closing of Gabriel’s adult-day program and needing more space for him and a caregiver, we made the decision to have the basement renovated. True story. And while this project went on, the men working on it began each day at 7 a.m. I’ve learned something during this period: in spite of hammers and saws, meetings, meowing, the Wiggles, and skulkers on the way to the fridge, the show still has to go on. And noise-cancelling headphones are a godsend.
Many good surprises have turned up along the way (my husband began yoga!), and for the most part, I enjoy, deeply, having my family around. It helps that they are hilarious, often unintentionally. But – and you knew it was coming – this is also a time prone to emotional extremes. Even in the midst of laughing we can sense the anxiety and grief that were here only a moment ago. For those people who live with others (even if those others are beloved) and who, by employment or temperament, require solitude, I would venture that the longing for another time has been fairly acute.
Looking back to the golden aloneness of writing Molly Falls to Earth, I realize that I was riffing on the idea of interruption, having no idea then just how familiar we would all become with upended plans. Molly is a dance choreographer who has a seizure on a wintry Manhattan sidewalk; people gather around her as she experiences the rush of her past and present, mysteries, secrets, and old love, contained within seven minutes of kaleidoscopic brain activity. She is interrupted mightily by this strange dimension, the sorrow and beauty she discovers there, and the questions that haunt all of us, especially now that our entire world has changed: Why are we here? What’s it all mean? The people who crowd around Molly are likewise interrupted – a day begins one way and ends another. We have no idea, of course, how life will be in any given moment, whether we will be a participant or an onlooker to what unfolds, which is part of the mystery, enjoyment, and sometimes terror, of everyday existence.
Those of us who work at home may not always register the breadth of feelings, knowing that there are legions of hospital workers, as merely one example, who toil in oppressive conditions and for whom working from home – maskless at that – must seem a luxury. Yet, sorrow can sneak in alongside gratitude. One day last spring, when this whole arrangement was only a few months old, I felt like an overwrought caregiver, not a creative writer; it was finally warm enough to escape the house and everyone in it, and I found myself alone on a beach at the end of a trail I hadn’t even known existed. With not another human in sight in any direction, I was so overcome with both grief and joy that I burst into tears and heard myself say to the sea and the sky, ‘I’m so happy to see you!’
I eventually got the hang of our new conditions. I remembered watching a documentary that featured reporters at The New York Times working in a room filled with considerable mayhem and noise, not to mention each other, and it occurred to me that maybe they had just learned to concentrate. Indeed, in spite of everything, I have managed to write, teach workshops and complete various other projects. I’ve also let certain things go; sometimes the world around me is bedraggled or eccentrically arranged, or sometimes I’m the pajamaed one.
If nothing else, there is a thread of continuity that pulls us along, and we muddle through, getting things done, and maybe we even begin to accept this new pattern. Though that last part is not very sexy, is it? Acceptance is the Marmite of achievements, lauded in certain places, and loathed or untried by everyone else. Whether we attempt acceptance or laugh off the very thought of it, one thing is certain; we’re sure to be interrupted while doing so. Even as I’ve been writing this paragraph, and as if on cue, my husband, two sons and both cats have all come to congregate on the other side of my desk. Unbelievable! When I point out that every living soul in the house is gathered before me just as I’m writing about being interrupted, they demur. They are only being helpful, they say, and providing me with inspiration.
Molly Falls to Earth by Maria Mutch was published April 27 by Simon & Schuster Canada.