Columnists

How to Keep Dreaming in the Pandemic (or, How I Finished the Third Draft of my Novel)

By Shazia Hafiz Ramji

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Living in a pandemic means that we are facing death every day. Thinking about death pushed me into survival mode. I was stressed and depressed to the point of migraines and insomnia. I stopped doing things I enjoyed: trying to finish my autofictional novel, for example.

I couldn’t imagine myself in the future. That, for me, is the scariest of the scary. It approaches suicide and self-sabotage. I had to be able to relax, to imagine myself in existence in the future, to remember that life is not normal, and to keep dreaming despite it all. To keep dreaming despite it all. To keep dreaming despite it all. To keep dreaming despite it all:

 

1.         Smoke Weed

Weed was the only thing that made me stop me thinking about death. Weed stopped my cluster headaches (a new and extremely painful development), insomnia, and death thoughts. But more than anything, it gave me back my ability to imagine and dream (no, I don’t mean tripping out). Vaping weed constantly for two months was one of the best things I’ve done for myself. I became receptive to my body, which I had definitely forgotten... I had forgotten how to make a meal for myself, to go for a run, to take a long bath, to call up a friend. Basics. Two months of puffs later, weed had subdued my anxiety and stress, given me back my head and sleep, and slowed down my life. I understood that I had to take care of my body. I understood that my body is sacred. I forgave myself for not writing every day – what I had set out to do for my novel.

 

2.         Make Your Body Sacred

I had already been struggling with death thoughts because of the pandemic, but to make matters worse, the third draft of my autofictional novel meant deepening the layers of confrontation with myself – “reliving” the ways that I had almost died because of drugs and clinical depression – even more deeply than I had in the second draft. So, more death thoughts.

Because weed encouraged me to put my body first, I was able to feel okay about what I wanted. I got off Twitter. I made meals from scratch. I went for two-hour walks and listened to podcasts and new albums every single day. I made music. I burned essential oils 24/7 and put oils on my entire body, just for myself.

And I did not write. And I felt great …

 

3.         Keep Notebooks (Plural)

The thing about the third draft is that you’re already too far in, whether you like it or not. My third draft was the most difficult writing I have ever done in my life – ever. It was very different from following the organic thread of cause-and-effect when writing the first draft. It was nothing like the magical pattern-making of the second draft. The third draft was hell, because I knew exactly what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go, but whenever I worked on it, I only saw how much more there was left to do. I finally understand what novelists mean when they say writing a novel is a “marathon.” The road ahead was long, dark, and potholed with many more death thoughts.

I had already forgiven myself for not writing every day like I used to. And I had stopped writing entirely. But I had not stopped working on the novel – though I didn’t know it then. So there I was, sitting in front of my laptop watching Zac Efron in Iceland (don’t judge), making notes in my “TV” notebook – notes about glaciers, food, descriptions – anything. And there I was on my two-hour walk, taking down quotes in my “podcasts” notebook in illegible and demonic handwriting, looking like a toad stooped in the middle of sidewalk.

All that note-taking was making me feel extremely guilty, as if it were a form of procrastinating. What I didn’t realize was that all the notebooks were sustaining the dream of my novel. 

When I turned to my novel, it was because the dream was spilling out of the notebooks. And when I referred to my scribblings, everything that I had watched, listened to, and eaten was connected to my novel! It’s so easy to forget that writing is dreaming. Writing is living.

I returned to my third draft very slowly, through many weed puffs for sleep, Zac Efron-inspired clumsiness, tenderness towards myself, burnt pad thais, bucketloads of essential oils, and questions gathered on my toady walks.

Completing the third draft was strange: I felt that I was giving something to my novel, and not the other way round. All I can say is that it felt very right.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.


Shazia Hafiz Ramji's writing has recently appeared in Best Canadian Poetry 2019, THIS magazine, and is forthcoming in EVENT, Gutter: the magazine of new Scottish and international writing, and Maisonneuve. Her poetry and prose have been nominated for the 2020 Pushcart Prizes by Poetry Northwest and carte blanche, respectively. Shazia is the author of Port of Being, a finalist for the 2019 Vancouver Book Award, BC Book Prizes (Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and winner of the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. She is at work on a novel.