"People With Babies Are Often the Most Efficient People Around"

A Conversation with Irina Dumitrescu

This is a long one, friends, but we had to make it count. Somehow, across several time zones and via coordination of the schedules of two adults and four children, I managed to speak with Dr. Irina Dumitrescu, an essayist, critic, and professor of English medieval studies at the University of Bonn. Irina’s essays have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, shortlisted for the James Beard Foundation’s MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, and received the McGinnis-Ritchie Award for nonfiction. One piece was included in Best American Essays 2016, with others selected as notables in 2013, 2017, 2018 and 2020. Her work has also been reprinted in Best Food Writing 2017, Wine Reads: A Literary Anthology of Wine Writing (2018), and Longreads, among other outlets. She is currently obsessed with the positive uses of imperfection (a little on the nose for a newsletter for writers with kids but I’ll take it) and we had a wide-ranging conversation on motivational jealousy, post-childbirth writing blocks, and that voice in your head saying you need to work more.

Irina Dumitrescu

Lives in: Bonn, Germany

Lives with: My husband and son

Favorite place to write: At my grandfather's old wooden desk, carted over from Bucharest a year ago.

Favorite time of day to write: Late at night, but I rarely get to write this way anymore. 

What are you reading right now?

I always have way too many books on the go. The ones that come to mind without me going to check are Zhang Xianliang's Grass Soup, Daniel Kehlmann's Die Vermessung der Welt, and David Bezmozgis' Natasha and Other Stories. Also a few writing books, especially Annie Dillard's The Writing Life and Julia Cameron's fantastic The Right to Write. But the list of my shame is longer than this. 

What are you watching right now?

Repeats of The Crown, and an embarrassing number of documentaries on the royals. While I knit. I tell myself it's for "research." 

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I've long been an admirer from afar, so it's fun to actually connect and talk to you. I want to first ask about your writing journey. Your training is in medieval literature which in my extremely unbiased opinion is very cool. You're an academic, you're a scholar but you've also been doing a lot of public writing. Can you talk about that process?

I am not, I think, a typical writer if by a typical writer we think of the person who always knew that they wanted to be a writer and wrote stories at age 10, and sent out their first submission to a journal at age 15 and so on. In fact, I think it took a very long time for me to think of myself as a writer because I didn't follow that process. I was always more academic. I was actually more science-y growing up. I started university in premed-

Me too but not because I was science-y. Both of my parents were doctors and I didn’t know what else there was to do besides maybe being a lawyer.

Both my parents wanted me to be a doctor. They weren't doctors themselves. I am a child of immigrants, I am an immigrant too, and for me studying English literature was already kind of a wild and wacky thing to do, and really felt insecure in so many ways. I never would have even thought of writing as a career. I didn't think I could do it, and then the financials of it seemed really difficult to me. So I went down the academic route and now looking back, I realize I was always actually a little more playful than I was supposed to be. I remember I wrote a seminar paper on fake footnotes in 18th-century literature, and I filled it with fake footnotes. I did fun things in papers which weren’t really academic and my professors were kind about it. But then over time as I did my PhD, I really did get acculturated to the academic life. And I think I realized that I wanted to do something else because I was really jealous of people who wrote creatively. I was extremely envious. In a way I still am, but not in the same kind of way.

It's really funny that you say that. I wonder how prevalent that is. It's embarrassing to admit, but part of the way I figure out what I want to do is to ask myself, ‘What would I be so jealous to see somebody else do?’

That's exactly it. It takes a while. I think if you stay in the jealousy it's not a useful thing.

Right, it can have a utility in the moment to propel you.

As a pointer, as something that shows you what is important to you that you might not even know is important to you, then it's great. And then the only way to deal with it is just to do that thing. I remember, especially as I was finishing my PhD, starting my first job, I was just so envious of people who were doing a kind of public writing. I remember Elif Batuman’s book came out and I read it and I loved it and I was so envious of her. She did the PhD and then she went and wrote books that everybody read that were funny, and essays that were accessible.

And she really got academia, that undergrad period. So great.

Yes. So even then it never occurred to me to do the writing myself. I was just in the envy part of it. Here's how things changed, and this is a little bit of a story. I was working in Dallas and my husband was studying German Literature at Columbia. He was doing his PhD there. They used to get a newsletter with German cultural events around the states and he told me that there was going to be a Wurstfest, the annual salute to sausage, in New Braunfels, Texas which I had never heard of. I was sort of obsessed with the German obsession with sausage. I found it hilarious. I looked this thing up and I found out that they had been holding this sausage festival for 30 years in south Texas. So two friends of mine were coming, one from Seattle and one from the Netherlands. We all got dirndls and we got in the car and drove down there, but before we drove down there, one of my colleagues, Willard Spiegelman, who is the editor of the Southwest Review, said, "If you write about it, I'll publish it in the Southwest Review." So I had an assignment and I had no idea what that meant.

So you just kind of fell into it.

I fell into the dirndl and then I fell into the sausage festival! We went and we had a blast. I came back and I wrote something very short and satirical. And he gave me feedback which was very smart. It was not long and just said, ‘Who is this person? Why do I care about her perspective,’ and so on? I went back and I rewrote the whole essay and it became a meditation on being an immigrant, being out of place, the ways that Dallas reminds me of Toronto or Germany. And then he published it in the Southwest Review and I was so happy. I think I’d had a few blog posts before that, but that was my first writing in that mode that's a little bit memoir and literary. I had so much fun with it and I started doing more of it, but I was doing it on the sly. I didn't tell most of my colleagues about it because I was on the tenure track and I figured they would think I was unserious if I was also writing.

Ah yes, the unserious fear.

This was just a secret life that, obviously Willard knew about but it was a secret life that I had kept to myself and I also kept to myself when I changed jobs. But it took another step a few years later. I was in Berlin on a fellowship, but I was totally blocked. I had a new baby. I was unable to write after the baby came along really for two years. And when I say unable to write, I mean, like, a sentence. I could not write a sentence. That level of inability to write. It was just brutal. I was supposed to be finishing this tenure book and I had this fantastic fellowship and I couldn't do anything. So I signed up for a creative writing course just because I thought maybe it'll help me get over the academic writing block. After one of those classes, I went to lunch- I remember it was a Thai lunch because I always remember the meals associated with life events. And I started writing about my father's obsession with making his own wine. It just came out in a couple of days. I couldn't stop writing and it just came out basically in the form that it was published: “My Father and the Wine.” That essay had its own life and opened all kinds of doors for me. Then I started to take it more seriously and I started to take classes on how to pitch, and I started trying different things. I started telling people about it and making it more of my public life, as well. That's the story of how I got into it, but it was very accidental and I think obviously I really wanted this, but I couldn't even articulate to myself that it was something that it was something I wanted for myself.

It's crazy that once you're in it, it seems so obvious, but before you get there, it really, really isn't.

And now I'm envious of the people who started really young and I think, ‘Wait a moment.’

Oh, that can be painful. I had nine months living in my in-laws’ basement before I started my PhD program, nothing to do and few expenses. I could have written a book. But I didn't even know that I wanted to.

You also have to have something to say and some people have something to say at 22. Some people have something to say 30. Some people have something to say at 40. That's the tough part.

I am an impatient person and especially once I've decided I want to do something, I just want to do it all, right now. Obviously, I know writing takes so much time and so much patience so I have to keep reminding myself of that.

I'm the same way. I think partly my problem is that sometimes I can get there really fast. In a way, the single piece of writing that I have produced that has been the most successful by most standards, in terms of whether it's people who read it liking it, or even me liking it, or getting external recognition, that piece came out in three days. I was taking dictation.

That’s what it is, right? The first time I flew with my three kids by myself – it was by accident, actually, because we got to the airport too late and my husband had to stay behind with the bags – I'm sitting there on the plane holding a baby who's thankfully sleeping, and the other two are asking for snacks and I'm giving out snacks while somehow also writing an essay on my phone. I guess we need to be thankful when it comes easily like that.

Yes, but what's also interesting is maybe the thing to think about is there is something to be said for having a bit of obstruction, helping the process along. Maybe if that day if you had sat down at your desk and had five clean uninterrupted hours to write, you would have gotten nothing done, right? But you were-- I think sometimes being distracted enough kind of fools our inner critic a little bit so that we can actually just channel the words a little better.

That brings me to my next question, because when I think about my own non-academic writing origin story, it really starts with having kids. For some reason, I had a baby and then I was like, ‘Oh, I have a lot to say, and I need to say it, but not in this way. There's no room for that in academia.’ I needed to do it in a different way. You said you had your son while you were on the tenure track. Can you talk a little bit about the journey and the block, because that must have been terrifying.

It was pretty awful. I had him in a sense conveniently timed right after my third-year review. And I had fellowships so I had a lot of flexibility in the years following his birth. The birth was very difficult, in a sense, moving away for fellowship meant I had no supportive structure whatsoever. We did have childcare, which was a good thing because we were in Berlin. That was easy to get and it was major. I had a really rough first year psychologically, which is why I would go to the university every day, I would drop my son off at daycare, and I would go to the university and I would just sit there and stare at pieces of paper. I photocopied a lot.

Partly, it was this combination that was probably postpartum depression, with the general exhaustion with being out of place with not having a really clear structure that made it much harder to work on my book. Long-term, the difference has been that, as I've been a parent, and as my job has become more and more demanding, not just with teaching and research, but also with admin and grants, and all the things that are part of a European academic job, I have so much less patience for academic writing. I will say that openly, I'm quite comfortable saying that openly. I have very little patience for jargony writing, or turgid writing. Lucid academic writing, I love. It's like a cool drink of water. But the ‘I'm going to express this in the most difficult possible way’ prose is something that I have very little time or patience for. This also means I have much less of an interest in writing that way. So my academic writing has become more playful, too.

You said that it was the creative writing that unblocked you and you were obviously able to go back to academic writing. You published your book.

I did finish my book, yes. It still took me a while, but I did finish it and I wrote other things as well. The interesting thing about my book was, once it was finished and was accepted and everything, I went and did one more edit just as a writer, and really just edited as a creative writer. And the reviews have been interesting because some of them really like it, they found a very readable. Sometimes the fact that it's writerly is not as positively seen.

Readable can be a positive thing or a negative thing in academia.

Well, I have little moments where I'm playful. That's not always well taken, but mostly it's been well taken. Mostly I think the readers have been happy with them. At that point I was thinking of my academic writing also as something that's writing.

They're still two different voices, though, right? Do you find it hard to toggle between them or do you miss the creative when you have to be doing the academic, or vice versa?

They're not two different voices because in my creative work, I have a lot of different voices. I actually think one of the last pieces of scholarly work I drafted from scratch was very playful. I kept the creative writing element going all the way through. I really did it in fragments, and I had epigraphs from other literature, it was more of a meditation than a scholarly argument.

I also want to talk about a book you edited, which I haven't read yet, but I really would like to – Rumba Under Fire: The Arts of Survival from West Point to Delhi. It’s about what it means to create art in hard times, which seems like something we might be quite interested in at this particular moment.

That was like a passion project. I should spool back to 2000. In the summer of the year 2000, I went and worked at the Canadian Embassy in Bucharest. I had a basic little administrative job, and I translated interviews and so on. While I was there, I heard this amazing story from one of my coworkers whose in-laws had been students of literature in the 1950s. They had gone to jail, maybe political prisoners. They were both already had black marks against them and they figured if they married each other, they wouldn't ruin anyone else's life. They had this amazing marriage with lots of artists and writers in their apartment. The man had been in really one of the worst political prisons in Romania, where there had been a concerted program of torture and dehumanization. He had had a cellmate and the way they survived this was by teaching each other their foreign languages. The cellmate taught him English, he taught the cellmate French or Spanish. This man later became a translator of poetry from English. I knew the story, and there were other stories too from Romania about the ways first of all, that people in the humanities, people studied or taught the humanities were considered dangerous by the communist government in the middle of the last century, but also how people used these things to survive, poetry, history, stories, music.

That all along for me had been the reason I knew that what I did was not fluffy, irrelevant, or superficial. What happened around 2010 or '11, was that I went to a conference on post-humanism, and I got really mad, as I do. What always happens is I get mad about something and then something comes through that. And I got very mad because I thought I really don't like the rhetoric of post-humanism. I don't think we really have dealt enough with humanism.

Like, let's slow down a little bit.

Just get back to the basics. And because of my background, I have a kind of allergy to people who start to talk about getting beyond the human, because I think the last century has a lot of really good examples of what horrible things happen when people aren't considered human anymore, right? But the cool thing about the conference was they let me do a panel on my point of view and the organizer also ran this open access book project. She invited me to do an essay collection and I asked people who worked in different fields, all of them academics, but they could choose whether they wanted to do something academic or creative or write a poem or a personal essay.

It was really just something that meant a lot to me and that was a statement of why I thought the humanities were important. Even though it is an edited collection, it's still tied very deeply to something I believe in. It came out in the spring of 2016. I kept thinking it should have come out in the fall. If it had come out in November, people would have caught onto it.

It's still very relevant.

It's still very relevant. It's been very interesting for me because I had an essay in this book on prison memoirs. I went back and actually then read a bunch of published Romanian prison memoirs, some in translation, some in the original, and did a study of the kinds of things people did to keep themselves sane and human and hold onto their individuality in prisons. And lot of these things I'm seeing come out in a different way in COVID as people are not in prison, but certainly trapped in some way, in a very difficult situation, and in solitude. And they're turning to the same things instinctively as these prisoners did too.

What are some examples?

Telling stories, making art, teaching each other, sharing their knowledge, and their ability. Probably a lot of prayer, the prisoners I studied often talked about prayer is something that kept them going, learning things. The prisoners couldn't really cook, but they would remember good foods and describe them to each other. And there's a cultural tradition of people in various kinds of camps and prisons cooking with the mind. People now in COVID are doing this. Sometimes they're also doing it imaginatively. They're thinking about things that they can't cook because they don't have the ingredients.

Right. I find that the sharing of recipes, even when you're not actually cooking, the sharing of food knowledge somehow seems sustaining.

And it is actually a way for people to connect with each other and to affirm their own identities and their own culture and values. So it's not exactly the same because political prisoners have fewer things available to them, but I think it's the same instinct, right? We go back to arts, we go to craft, we go to things that we can share with each other. We teach each other. One of the really interesting things was, one woman talked about how she was moved at one point to a cell with older women. She was in prison very young, I think she was around 15 years old. And at one point she was moved to the cell with these older women who really knew what they were doing in prison and they had come up with a very strict schedule – when they did calisthenics, when they shared stories-

Do you see what's behind me? Those are early pandemic sticker chart schedules.

When we were in March, April, I actually went back to that material because I was like, oh my God, this is exactly what these women did instinctively in prison. They made a community for themselves and they made a communal schedule to keep themselves the sane.

Right. Humans, we are who we are. So how has the pandemic changed your relationship to your writing, the balance between writing and parenting?

If you ask me for my opinion, I will tell you it's been very hard, especially because there is this low-grade stress because I was very worried about my family because my child was home constantly for months at a time. But if I look at what I've written in the past few months, I have to say that maybe I'm lying a little bit because I've actually written a lot in the past few months. I'm not really sure how I did that because I was tired and stressed out all of the time! But apparently, I did. One thing that was for my life a positive – obviously one I would give up in a moment if it would bring people back, but as it was, it was a positive thing – was that a lot of writing courses went online. All of a sudden, all of these English language courses, be it in Berlin or Montana or Boston or wherever they're offered, that I would never have had access to from Bonn.

100%. I'm in St. Louis. There's not much here, so that accessibility has been amazing for me.

And I signed up for a lot of them. Whatever I could fit into my schedule, I did. Friday nights, Saturday afternoon, Wednesday night, it didn't matter. They didn't necessarily result directly in writing, but they allowed me to learn a lot and to also work through, I think, some of the issues that were coming up with COVID through writing. So, for me, that was amazing and I hope we don't lose that in the future because it's such an amazing accessibility. Obviously, also I've been to some of these writing courses in the past that are up of a set of stairs so also accessibility in that sense.

And the book events too. It wasn't just the classes for me, though I did a couple of those. When books are launching, the Q&As with the writer, usually they're at a bookstore in Brooklyn and there's obviously no way I'm going to get to that, but I've been able to go to so many of them and hearing-- one of my favorite things is to hear writers talk about writing. That can be helpful and generative on its own.

I found that fantastic. Again, I say that warily because I don't want it to make it seem like this has been such a great- I think the stress is always there but we're all thinking I'm also an educator, right? And I've been teaching my classes online and will do so in the winter as well. I would not have chosen that myself, but I'm learning how to do it and I think that is going to make my classes accessible to more people in the future. So I do think there's this learning process that's really positive for the arts and for education.

Speaking of work, you recently posted on Twitter about work and rest and how our own individual cultural contexts dictate how much rest we allow ourselves, or how much work we do. It got me thinking about how in academia, there's this culture of you should always be working and that whole unserious thing. When I got pregnant as a graduate student, there was that like, "Oh, no, everyone's going to think I'm not serious” because you can't possibly work all the time when you have a baby." So you’re automatically counted out.

Even though people with babies are often the most efficient people around.

Yes, I was very lucky to have an advisor who said, "You're actually going to work more efficiently." And that’s probably the only reason I kept going and made it through but there's this assumption in academia of constant work that’s hard to shake. When I was writing my dissertation, I got the advice of: ‘Touch your project every day’ and it sticks in my mind. I do think that it's good advice when you're trying to work on a long-term project to not let it go for a very long time because it just takes so much longer to get back into it, but at least for me, it's had this harmful aftereffect of like, ‘If I'm not engaging with this. It's just all going to fall away.’

I had a coach who gave me that advice, but she gave it to me with every week. Because you can touch a project every week without too much strain.

Yes, and touch can mean different things. Sometimes I'll edit two lines, and I'll be like, ‘I touched it. Good job. Go watch some TV.’ Because this is a newsletter about writing and parenting, I think it’s important to point out how it complicates things to know that at any moment, my kids' schools could close. So there's this extra pressure of, ‘I can work now so I need to work all of this time to make the most of it.’ I'm wondering if you have any wisdom to share about that or how it plays into this idea of let yourself off the hook: what if you run out of that time?

I'm talking to you post burnout. I had my burnout last year. It was not the worst kind of burnout. There are burnouts where you are no longer functional ever. It was a burnout that took me six to eight months to start feeling like myself again. I was ready to leave everything. I was ready to go. There were health issues too, the whole kit and caboodle. Which doesn't mean that I have a great balance right now. It just means that I'm a little more afraid of the imbalance. My irony is my child has gone back to school and they are having COVID cases and they've had classes sent home for quarantine for two weeks at a time. I know it can happen at any time, but also right now is when the fatigue of COVID is hitting me the hardest. So I'm trying to remind myself over and over again, that without rest, none of it is possible.

And there's actually a really good book on rest. The author is Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, and the book is just called Rest. It's a brilliant book and he talks about different intellectuals' working schedules. His point is basically that he's gone and done the research on how a lot of people who have achieved great things have done their work. Most of them don't do intellectual work for more than four hours a day. They usually do them in the morning, lots of them had servants which was convenient for them [laughs].

Must be nice. I’m the servant around here so…

Yes, I think it's a little trickier when you are the servant, but they did that for four hours and maybe they took a walk, and then they did administrative things, letters, and so on, but nobody can work a lot more than four hours of concentrated intellectual work a day. Actually, that's already very good. The larger argument is also that you do need rest, you need breaks. I've been learning for example, that sometimes when I'm sitting and knitting or just taking a break on the balcony, I need that space for the material to sink into my head. I'm becoming a little more aware of the ways that maybe I need to build in a night in between the outlining and starting to write a draft, or a couple of nights, and that's not a bad thing. I used to think of that as procrastination or delay. I always need a little more space and that doesn't mean I'm not working, just working on it at a subconscious level. By the same token, taking some time to cook, or listening to music and dancing to music, if you can do these more restorative crafty kinds of things, even just sit around and do nothing for a while, it does pay off, I think, in the writing. Maybe that's why I was able to write this summer, I don't know, because I'm behind on everything, completely stressed out but somehow, I also had more flexibility in my schedule so I could take more breaks now and then. I just don't think you can win this game by pushing harder.

That's been my instinct. It's nice to hear it.

If you were cleaning your house, you could win the game by pushing harder. You can clean more of your apartment in 12 hours than you can in six hours. Mental work is different, it's going to take more time. And the other thing is I started to pay more attention to what happens when I push really hard on one day, how many days it then takes me to get back to a good working mode. I have noticed, for example, that on Mondays I tend to push really hard and try to get everything done – for some reason, I've been doing this for years – and on Tuesdays, I crash.

Mondays are often shot for me. For some reason, I can’t get much done on Mondays.

It's funny, but then you know right? I start placing these questions like, if I know my Tuesday is going to suck and I'm not going to be an efficient person on Tuesday, am I going to sit and stare at my computer all day on Tuesday and feel bad about myself? Or am I just going to say, ‘I need to rest Tuesday?’ I'm halfway there.

It's definitely a process and one I'm obviously struggling with if I'm asking for advice, but I think all that makes complete sense. I'm going to get that book. It sounds like something I need to read right now.

I keep recommending it to people because I think we need this external validation to take breaks. It's perverse because, actually, breaks should be our right anyway and they shouldn't have to feed some kind of Protestant ethic, ‘I will be more efficient if I take a break.’ It should just be okay to take a break. The culture around you will make you feel guilty for that rest. I wasn't always a workaholic, but I lived in the States for nine years and it did work its way into me.

It really is hard not to let it slip in for sure.

There's such a positive valuation of making it work, of hustling, of pushing harder, of doing the impossible.

I had this and this and this and I still managed to do it.

Yes. You make it heroic and so on. We have this with children, too, where you play with your kid, and you wonder if you should be doing work. At that point, it is a very stupid set of thoughts that goes through our heads, right? When you think I could be answering some dumb emails right now instead of enjoying this precious moment with a human being who came from my body.

Right, but that also in itself is a different kind of work and it's draining. That time off from work is also work in a way. Obviously it's very different and I love being with my children, but it's just all very depleting. Sometimes I think, when does the rest come in?

On the positive days that can be flipped too. On the hard days, both work and the kids and the housework and all these other family and so on, they all pull you in different directions. I think on good days or if you get to a certain point, the children and the work can both also be the escape for each other.

Absolutely, and generative.

Yes, and generative. Probably the biggest talent and one I haven't managed yet, but that'll be a major achievement in my life when I do learn how to do this, is to set a time every day, at which point the work stops. I can do it some days, I have not managed-- Maybe in my career, it's not really that easy because sometimes we have evening things and so on. But I've noticed on days where I say, ‘Look, at five or six or four when my son comes home, I'm going to stop and I'm just going to have to deal with whatever I did until then and try not to think too much about what I didn't do.’ Then I notice I reach a peace that evening that I don't when I'm always thinking, ‘I could do one more email or I could do one more-‘

Right, and should I get back to this after bedtime?

Just finish that little thing.

Because I did a PhD with one child and then two children, nighttime was always a big working time for me. Put them to bed, get back to work. But lately, for the first time, because they are in school, I haven't been doing that as much and it's been pretty great. But sometimes it's still there, the feeling bad.

That's the big challenge, is how to not feel bad about it, like, how to feel you're entitled to just not working several hours that they-- Because, of course, that is the other thing, that as a parent, you have-- Anyone in a care position just has so much more work even in their free time. Right?

Yes. I mean, just the doctor's appointments and all that.

The laundry, just the laundry.

The laundry. Oh God, the laundry.

Just the laundry. The exciting thing about that with a writing career, that works better, as opposed to an academic career, is that we can incorporate that into writing in many more ways.

Right but I feel bad that I sometimes feel that that's a cheat. You know what I mean? Coming from academia-

Why would it be a cheat?

You know, turning the laundry into ideas when I was trained to turn manuscripts into ideas. It's an interesting dynamic, but it's one that I do enjoy…

I think a lot of really powerful academic work comes out of personal experience. It's just often translated in several ways that you can't tell where it comes from but in a book I reviewed by Carissa Harris, Obscene Pedagogies, she talks about personal experiences of harassment and how they've made her turn to the past to try to recover the voices and experiences of women in the past, especially powerless or less powerful women. That makes for such compelling scholarship when it comes out of these moments of frustration and feeling that something needs to be- a story has gaps in it and needs to be filled out. Right?

Absolutely. Speaking of, I always like to talk about medieval literature when I can. Do you have a couple of books that you recommend for non-academics who might be interested in the field?

I'm going to go ahead and recommend two really canonical and well-known texts. I'm not going to be trying to be fancy, but I think Beowulf really repays rereading this year because I have realized how much it is about bad leadership and bad kings and the psychology of bad kings, and what that means for the people they rule. I didn't used to read Beowulf that way, but this year I am and I think it's a really worthwhile read from that perspective. It’s been there all along, it is a political poem, but I think because we have a kind of simplistic idea of what heroic literature is about- as you know, most medieval heroic literature is about disaster and about the failures of heroes. People idealize these works but they really shouldn’t, they’re critical works, most of the time. The other one, which I know you know, is The Book of Margery Kempe.

I adore her.

She's so real. If you've ever been involved in a Twitter fight, you will find the way that gossip and reputation work in Margery Kempe very, very familiar.

And getting back to envy, there's a lot there.

Envy, friends, brand making, even preachers who are talking about Margery negatively without naming her, which is sort of the medieval version of subtweeting. It feels so real at every moment and, of course, for me as a mother too, I recognize some of the harder moments as well. God, unfortunately, has not spoken to me.