Good day, book people! I’m finding it hard to believe that we are more than halfway through the month of January of 2021. Time during this pandemic seems to either fly or go slower than molasses up a hill backwards in the winter time (one of my dad’s favorite sayings). If you’re anything like my mother, you might be struggling with ways to keep busy during this quarantine. Her normal go-tos of reading, working crossword puzzles and jigsaw puzzles seemed to have failed her after a few months. She’s not big on watching television, other than the news, so even that’s a none issue. Others, like today’s guest, Reyna Marder Gentin, author of Unreasonable Doubts and the recently released My Name is Layla will be sharing with us another approach to the pandemic, school. I hope you’ll enjoy what she has to say about going back to class, add My Name is Layla to your TBR list (or to the TBR list of one of your younger bookish divas or divos). Thank you, Ms. Gentin for joining us today and sharing your pandemic experiences. The blog is now yours.
BACK TO CLASS
Some of my well-meaning friends have speculated that staying home during the pandemic must be easier for me since I’m usually here anyway, at my desk in my kitchen, alone, writing. Of course, there’s a certain truth to that. There are those hours in the early morning when I can still pretend that I’m not a captive to the virus restrictions–just a person who prefers the quiet of her home, a freshly brewed pot of coffee, limitless snacks (and their unfortunate attendant weight gain), and ample time to try to put something worthwhile down on the page without the distractions of going out, seeing friends, or attending cultural or religious events.
But try as I might to fool myself, I feel as trapped as anyone else. That’s not to say I don’t recognize the distinct advantages. I may be holed up at home, but there’s plenty of space for my husband and children to do work and school and not be on top of me or each other. We’re in the suburbs, where you can still take a walk and stay so far from anyone else that you can ditch the mask. And we count our blessings every day that the pandemic doesn’t take a health or economic toll on us. So it’s not that I’m not grateful that I work from home. My point is only that my need for routine, diversion, and company is no less real because my “usual” reality is solitary and home-based.
So how have I handled the isolation of this crazy time? Well, the evenings are the easiest. Like so many others, my husband and I cruised through The Queen’s Gambit and The Crown, very different programs but both enormously enjoyable. We also watched all of The Kominsky Method, which I found poignant and my husband found depressing. I watched the latest season of Fauda, the searing Israeli action drama, which could give the most hardened viewer nightmares, on my own. Now at bedtime, we’re haplessly choosing indie movies we know nothing about and that we turn off after 25 minutes when we can’t find their redeeming value and sleep is a better alternative.
Television as a method of escape works best for me at night, when it doesn’t feel indulgent but rather a reasonable attempt at relaxation. The days have been harder. Pre-pandemic, I gave my writing and my mind a chance to percolate by breaking up my schedule with volunteering as an attorney and taking writing classes. The clinic where I represent victims of domestic violence in Family Court went virtual in March. I tried to continue remotely, but the lack of interaction with my colleagues and the necessity of relying on electronic filings and appearances were too many new tricks for this old dog to learn. I’ll return when the courts reopen.
So I chose to go back to class, my reliable happy place, although even this took trial and error before I landed on something that works in the bizarre circumstances of 2020.
First, I signed up for a graduate level philosophy class being taught remotely by a local university. The topic was the binding of Isaac, one of the foundational stories in the Hebrew bible, in which Abraham exhibits his complete faith in God by being willing to sacrifice his son and then is rewarded when Isaac’s life is spared. Anticipating that the subject matter and readings might be over my head, I registered as an auditor, and reminded the professor that I would just be “sitting in the back” of the class, gleaning what I could. And, although the class had its fascinating moments, that’s exactly what happened. I took in the gist of the lectures, but missed a lot of the real substance, as my classmates bantered about the sources in their original Hebrew and left me in the dust.
Next, I signed up for an online class at The Gotham Writers’ Workshop. I chose a mystery class because it looked interesting, even though mystery is not my genre. Although I did some good workshopping and cranked out a first pass at 10,000 words or so, I discovered what I already knew deep down: mystery is (likely) not my genre. I don’t create puzzles, drop clues, or weave suspense. I put what I had aside, an experiment worth conducting but probably not worth pursuing.
And then I stumbled upon One Day University, the perfect addition to the pandemic lifestyle for the working-at-home writer. Let me explain.
For a small monthly fee, One Day University offers a lecture every day at 4:00 in the afternoon by a distinguished college professor in his or her area of expertise. Right off the bat, this scores two important points in my battle against Corona monotony. The class happens at the same time everyday, giving me both a routine that I sorely lack, as well as something to look forward to as the day wanes. And the variety of topics is perfect for my COVID-eviscerated attention span that only allows me to concentrate on any one subject for a limited amount of time. With One Day U, I get exactly 50 minutes of science or art or literature, and I make no further commitment. Perfect!
I’ll admit that some of the lectures have worked better for me than others. I love listening to one professor, a museum curator who’s taken me on an in depth tour of the Metropolitan Museum on one day, the Parthenon on another, and in one lecture demonstrated how she approaches setting up an art exhibit, down to how she picks the colors for those little signs that are posted next to the paintings. One afternoon I learned about sleep science, and was convinced to cut my usual 45 minute nap down to a 20 minute power nap to better accommodate my circadian rhythms. Another day, a film studies professor walked me through the mechanics of how Alfred Hitchcock created suspense in his movies with clips and behind the scenes stories. (Probably should have watched that one before my mystery writing class.) On the flip side, I was entirely lost in an astronomy lecture recently on how scientists look for new planets orbiting other suns, and another day I was intrigued by the life story of Albert Einstein but totally unable to follow the discussion of his various mathematical theories.
But the best part of One Day U comes in the last ten minutes of every program, when the professors answer questions posed by the students in the chat function during the lecture. I always try to come up with something to ask, partly because I want to know the answer, but mostly because when the teacher reads and answers my question, it’s an affirmation that our virtual connection is also a human one. We both exist in that moment, COVID, isolation, lockdowns, and social distancing be damned! We’re still teacher and student, engaging in something new, bridging the cruel gap that this virus has imposed on the world. And silly as it is, on the occasions when the professor comments that my question is excellent or important, that small moment of recognition is all the encouragement I need to continue with my solitary writing endeavors the next day, until 4:00 rolls around again.
My Name is Layla
by Reyna Marder Gentin
ISBN: 9781952816086 (paperback)
ASIN: B08D1ZM4FW (Kindle)
Publisher: TouchPoint Press
Release Date: January 19, 2021
School will never be the same…
On the first day of eighth grade, thirteen year-old Layla has a pretty good idea of what’s in store for her– another year of awkward social situations, mediocre grades, and teachers who praise her good behavior but find her academic performance disappointing. Layla feels certain she’s capable of more, but each time she tries to read or write, the words on the page dance and spin, changing partners and leaving her to sit on the sidelines.
Her new English teacher, Mr. McCarthy, senses her potential. When he pushes her to succeed, Layla almost rises to the challenge before making a desperate choice that nearly costs her everything she’s gained. Will she be able to get back on track? And who can she count on to help her?
Reyna Marder Gentin grew up in Great Neck, New York. She attended college and law school at Yale. For many years, she practiced as an appellate attorney with a public defender’s office before turning to writing full time. Reyna has studied at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, and her work has been published widely online and in print. Her debut novel, Unreasonable Doubts, was named a finalist for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association Star Award in 2019. Her first novel for children, My Name is Layla, was published in January 2021, and Reyna’s latest adult novel, Both Are True, will be published in October, 2021. Reyna lives with her family in Scarsdale, New York.
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