Waiting for Stillness

A boat out on the water
Verkur (2016)

Dear Reader,

If I don’t write, I don’t know what I think. But if there is no shape to my thinking, no shadow of a thread or arc, I cannot write. For the past few months, this is where I’ve been. Thoughts fly about in my head all day long but there’s not a single wire on which to land. It’s like the freezer’s malfunctioned and the water won’t freeze; worse, there’s no cup or bowl or any kind of receptacle in sight and it’s just puddle. I’m all water but feel no zen.

To ward off the terror, I’m doing the kind of writing where very little writing actually happens. Normal people call it reading without purpose, or listening to podcasts while gardening, or slacking off, but writing is part of my job so I have to tell myself it’s “pre-writing.” Despite it not being a thing, when I was younger and there were fewer demands on my time, this was in fact how I wrote. Pre-writing while middle-aged, like doing burpees while middle-aged, is humbling. Your body holds the memory of having done it, has faith that it will be okay, but your mind knows that many of the conditions that made it okay no longer hold.

The kind of writing I do is about order. It is about putting things in specific places—I set this up here and that there and this before that and that before the other so that it all adds up to a frame where the light comes in from a certain angle and casts some things into full view and other things into shadows. I want the reader to see a scene as I see it.

A pandemic is disorder. There are components but it is unclear where they belong. There are things I have seen before but now they look slightly off-kilter. I cannot conjure a frame for others if I do not myself have a handle on what I’m looking at.

So I wait. The coffee table piles up with books. The plants flourish before the next cycle of neglect. I hold out for stillness, a sliver of clarity, faithfully waiting for an opening that will allow me into the kind of writing where writing actually happens.

If you too are "pre-writing," here are my recommendations:


  • Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo
  • Humankind: A hopeful history, Rutger Bregman
  • How to do nothing: Resisting the attention economy, Jenny Odell
  • The Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante (I’ve been recommending this quartet for years; now you can go ahead and watch (half of) it on TV to complement the books)
  • Intimations, Zadie Smith (while you’re at it, the magnificent Feel Free)
  • Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene, edited by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson

  • Reasons to be Cheerful with Ed Miliban and Geoff Lloyd
  • The Ezra Klein Show
  • City Arts & Lectures (especially: Ocean Vuong; Miranda July; Zadie Smith)
  • The Last Archive, with Jill Lepore
  • 99% Invisible, with Roman Mars (especially: ‘Articles of Interest’ series)

Teo You Yenn

(From August 15, 2020)