As I write these words, I am alternating between my word processor and my browser, where I’m obsessively reading and re-reading the treatment and recurrence profile of pericarditis. I recently had a booster dose of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, and subsequently took my place among the very small cohort of people who have had a heart complication following vaccination. Two days after getting the jab, I began to experience chest pain, exacerbated by frivolous activities such as swallowing and lying down. After visiting a GP and yielding an abnormal result on the clinic’s electrocardiogram machine, I was told to go straight to the hospital. I drove, one hand on the wheel and the other on my chest, and somehow arrived at the emergency room for blood tests, an X-ray and the application of many cold electrodes on my skin. I stumbled away with a diagnosis of pericarditis and a prescription for three months’ worth of medication.
Pericarditis is, essentially, swelling of the tissue around the heart. A little sac-like house for a vital organ, the pericardium is there to protect the heart, keep it stable and separate it from other organs. It’s an excellent thing to have until it becomes inflamed, and then it’s a bit like your house is on fire—if that house was trapped behind layers of skin and bone and muscle, and you had very little agency in putting out the flames.
To be clear, I don’t regret getting the vaccine. Vaccines have saved countless lives, and I am aware that the risks of being unvaccinated far outweigh those of post-vaccination complications. I happen to be in the high-risk group for pericarditis post-vaccination, so I’m exceptional, but in the most unappealing way. I resent the timing (only a few weeks from the release of my debut novel, Gemini Falls) but these things rarely keep to an ideal schedule.
I bring this up because I’m reminded that writing is fundamentally about exploring and imparting meaning. We are, as a species, always searching for meaning. From our earliest days, we look for meaning on the faces of our loved ones. As soon as we can express it, we ask ‘why’ in whatever language we have. And once we can read, we search for meaning in the marks on page or screen. I currently have a need for meaning about pericarditis, and I went searching for it online. I’m grateful to have access to fast and reliable information on reputable sites, but not so grateful for some of the speculation I found in places like Reddit. Selection of what to read is just as important as the act of reading itself.
And so: here is a selection of some other places I’ve found meaning.
I’m a fan of books on writing craft, the often-idiosyncratic instructions passed down from writer to writer. Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is a classic, written when the bestselling author was recovering from a horrific car accident. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is another favourite. The title comes from an anecdote about the author’s brother who, at ten years old, was trying to complete a school project on birds. The boy had been procrastinating for months and had a single day to complete the report. He was close to tears at the magnitude of the task. Finally, his father sat next to him at the kitchen table and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’ It’s a handy mantra to repeat whenever a manuscript seems too heavy to handle.
I’m currently reading another craft book, one that was recommended on a screenwriting podcast. Writing from the Inside Out by Dennis Palumbo is a highly personal, almost confessional, craft book by a former screenwriter turned psychotherapist. Far from simply a book for aspiring screenwriters, the work has helpful advice for all writers on confronting crippling fear, seeking joy in the creative process and coping with rejection. With chapter titles such as ‘You’re No John Updike!’ and ‘Lately, I Don’t Like The Things I Love’, it’s an honest and funny take on how to be both a better person and a better writer.
Books like these are an arm across the shoulder, a comforting embrace that lets us know it’s going to be okay. We all experience doubts. We all feel like imposters. We all get confused about how to do this wonderful thing called writing. To switch metaphors, these books are a lantern held up in the dark, showing the flattened blades of grass, the hardened dirt stretching out ahead. They’re a light shining on the path formed by other writers walking the same way as us, the people who are also trying to get to that difficult but not impossible destination.
I don’t read much book-length non-fiction these days. A nine-to-five job mixed with a writing practice leaves little time for reading, and I tend to favour the imaginary over the real. I mostly read shorter non-fiction from places like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Aeon and The Conversation. I save everything that catches my eye to an app called Pocket. It’s become a wonderful repository of the articles I’ve read. It’s also a frightening digital TBR pile that can quickly enter the hundreds if I don’t give it my time. A stroll through my archive will take you past articles about climate change and social commentary and philosophy, but also detours around features on the debatable benefits of fish oil and how to pack a ‘go’ bag in case of an emergency.
When I started trying to write fiction around twenty years ago, the way I read fiction changed. A musician friend once told me he can no longer get lost in songs. He doesn’t hear the song as a complete work, as something immersive, something that has his undivided attention. His attention is divided. He hears the components—the guitars, the drums, the piano, the voice—and he tries to understand how each part works to create the whole. He listens to the reverb on the snare, the distortion on the lead guitar, the sustain on the keys.
When I read fiction, I try to break it down. I read the way a watchmaker must examine a wristwatch: trying to find out how it works, how the wheels fit together, how the springs drive the momentum. I can’t get lost in a story because I’m always trying to understand how to craft a story. And so, I gravitate toward works that can teach me something. One of those is, fittingly, the short story ‘Break It Down’ by Lydia Davis. It may be my favourite short story, a near-perfect example of narrative voice and rhythm. I often return to it when I want to remember what is possible. Other favourites include William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, for the deft handling of multiple points of view and the opening pages of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. The first paragraph is perhaps my favourite example of mood and scene setting:
See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.
The last contemporary novel I remember blowing me away was A Burning by Megha Majumdar, a distinctive work that expertly blends the personal with the political. Another recent favourite was How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang. It’s a work that balances brutality and tenderness, and evokes place like few other books I’ve read.
Lately, I’ve been enjoying the short stories in Everything Feels Like the End of the World, the debut collection from Else Fitzgerald. Short stories could more accurately be called story fragments. They don’t have a complete story arc—they start after the beginning and finish before the ending—but within that fragment, there are a lot of opportunities. The best short stories are epiphany machines. They give us a glimpse into some truths about the world, about ourselves, about each other. River, the first story in Fitzgerald’s climate change speculative collection, hit me in the guts with some of that truth. Another favourite, ‘Fibian’, set in a future Melbourne flooded by rising seas, left me wanting more. I could have stayed in that world, with those water-dwelling characters, for three hundred pages.
And so, as I try to recover from this swelling around my heart, it seems appropriate to reflect, finally, on the importance of stories. Something happens to us when we read them, something that has us reaching for metaphor. Stories can be a balm, an antidote to some of the poisons in the world. They’re often credited for healing a wounded heart. That seems mighty attractive to me right now. So, over the next few months, I’ll be sticking with my course of prescribed medicine, but I’ll be mixing the pills with an ample dose of stories.
Sean Wilson is a writer, playwright and communications professional from Perth, Western Australia. His short stories have been published in Australian and international journals, anthologies and literary magazines including Island and Narrative, and he was previously shortlisted for the Patrick White Playwrights Award by Sydney Theatre Company. He now lives in Melbourne with his fiancée. Gemini Falls (Affirm Press, 2022) is his first book.
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Margaret Fisher Fund
Copyright© Dario Robleto