J is for John Irving, Journalism, Job, Juncture
All summer long, I tried to read John Irving, but something else came up. There was a concert, maybe, or a thunderstorm, or I had to catch the train to New York. There was this guy named Crumps, or period cramps, or tax forms to sign. There was an apartment to pack up, books to pack in cardboard boxes to cart down the street to the storage by the river where the trains once ran, where I’d soon live and nurse a couple colds. And there was the new place itself, a lonely stone wonder on a tree-lined street, whose yearly summer inhabitants left boxes of bathing suits in the attic and a neglected piano in a dining room. Bathed in starlight, front porch frequented by cats who don’t belong to us.
All autumn, I tried to write about John Irving. More specifically, I wanted to make J an essay about his sixth novel, The Cider House Rules, a 560 page boyhood romp spattered with gruesome stories of Pre-Roe abortions – a timely (if brutal) beach read for summer 2022.
Protagonist Homer Wells is an orphan-turned-medical-assistant who assists with illegal abortions in a rural Maine facility. But when he realizes the fetuses he’s been helping disappear could have been him, he begins to have moral qualms. The essay I tried to write would have explored how Irving builds a true liberal’s case for abortion rights by centering Homer’s – or any doctor’s – “right to choose” whether to perform an abortion. In a society of true liberty, Homer’s right to abstain from performing abortions could be as dutifully honored as a pregnant person’s right to terminate their pregnancy. Choice is key – the Cider House Rules was written in the 1980s, after all, an era where Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose: A Personal Statement topped the nonfiction bestseller list.
But how does Irving’s tale hold up in an era where abortion-seekers can sidestep surgical procedure entirely through the use of abortion pills – and thus circumvent the conscience of any moral actor besides themselves? When self-administering a medicated abortion, a patient is also a provider – a third party like Homer Wells may no longer enter the equation. If The Cider House Rules was written in 2022, would Homer be a pill manufacturer instead? How does the contemporary fusion between patient and provider redefine moral responsibility, and redraw relationships of moral agency – both in real life, and in a narrative like Irving’s?
Though I’d really like to, I still haven’t finished the essay. So truthfully, I don’t know.
Maybe it was fatigue from rewriting the same sentences over and over, or maybe writing a Substack post about abortion didn’t feel urgent, though abortion itself is of utmost urgency to people seeking one. When the Supreme Court took a shit on the doorstep of dignity with the Roe reversal, abortion rights inflamed the national brain. By autumn, some people’s brains still thought about abortion – the brains of the right-minded, perhaps, whose steadfast advocacy for those in need has always withstood cycles of hype and holler. On the first day of my first day job (where I’d be writing copy for an art museum), I am told that the woman whose desk I’m taking over was one of those people – she departed the job I was about to start to write copy for a reproductive rights organization instead. “Important stuff right now,” said someone, probably.
A to Zeitgeist began with a resolution to tackle the “important stuff right now.” This newsletter’s original goal – to feature an essay every two weeks of 2022 about culture in 2022 – arose from a desire to pen longform takes on topics I discussed with friends and followers. I wanted essays to be topical —when the year was through, you could look back and see what had dominated the conversation. But what I hoped would be a public writing exercise and an archive of the year’s cultural questions turned into a vehicle for a perfectionism I’ve always struggled with. If every essay lived on the internet forever, attached to my byline (which I’d begun to lend out to bigger outlets here and there as I started freelancing this year), I wanted every post to be a definitive take that wouldn’t bring shame to my name and family. I wanted to write thousands of topical words in between so longs to my best friends and hellos to my 9 to 5 and how do you do to the rest of my life. I wanted no less than the Nobel Prize in Literature and a shoutout from beyond from Ruth Bader Ginsburg for a Substack newsletter with less than 300 subscribers (at press time).
These are okay things to want, but harder things to accomplish, and harder still when the topics are serious and intricate, which many topics worth writing essays about happen to be. Not unimportantly, I also began to freelance in 2022, and getting paid to pontificate felt sweet – I certainly prioritized paid opportunities over unpaid blogging as this year went on.
I’m bummed I didn’t deliver the alphabet you all deserved by the due date (tonight – happy New Year!). But I’m feeling exceptionally grateful that life, shoved to the side for a few years now, felt real enough again to get wrapped up in this year – even if sometimes, the “important stuff right now” that kept me from scribbling away was scary, weird, or new.
I’m working every day to grow more comfortable with compromise, setting healthy expectations for myself while making an effort to see things through. I’m hoping to continue chugging along on A to Zeitgeist in 2023, but finding a way to make it less of an added responsibility and more of a fun challenge. Maybe we’ll be email-only while I figure out how to balance my unpaid blogging with my freelance work – I’d love to use A to Zeitgeist as a sketchpad for new stories, a way to work through draft ideas for a smaller test audience.
That’s all for now – wishing you a safe and lovely New Year’s Eve, filled with affection and zest.