Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer Robin Black:
There’s an enormous window in my bedroom, so when I wake up, the first thing I see always is the day. Today, it’s rainy and doesn’t offer much incentive for getting out of bed though of course I have to anyway. My husband is away, working in Hong Kong for two weeks. My older daughter is here to help get my younger daughter to school since I have a back injury and can’t drive. But still, I need to be up and make sure that everyone has what they need – including Watson, the dog, who very much wants to be outside. That is, right up until he too notices the wet misery of the day, at which point he gives me the look that means: I’ll go if you go. So out I go, nightgown and all, into the rainy garden.
When I come back in, my daughters are arguing over something so ridiculous that I purposely try not to hear the details. A necessary mothering skill. And there’s still my youngest’s lunch to be made, still my own tea to drink, still – it turns out – the car keys to find, a task that takes longer than seems possible; but then finally, quite late and both grumpy, the girls are gone and I head back upstairs.
And now I start thinking about my work.
For better and worse, I often write in bed, still in my nightgown, a fact that embarrasses me. It sounds so slovenly. Though – as I remind myself on these mornings – what I choose to wear while alone in my house or on what piece of furniture I prefer to be immobile while I write isn’t actually a character issue. Still. . . there are days on which I throw on jeans and a shirt just on principle. But not today.
The work at hand is fiction. This is the first story I’ve written since finishing my collection a few months back and I’m enjoying the feeling, even the inevitable frustrations. There’s something nice about writing without worry over whether it does or doesn’t fit in with the other pieces. Something nice about having all those other stories out of my head. It also helps ground me into the actual business of writing, as opposed to worries about publication. By the time my older daughter gets home and announces that she’s going back to sleep, I’m deep into the worries of Ethan and Charlotte, my fifty-somethings who are visiting Mont St-Michel because she’s become obsessed with religious fanaticism and he is hoping that a trip might restart their non-existent sex life and so on and so forth – or something like that. I’m still at the stage at which I don’t really know what’s going on, surely don’t yet know who these people are, don’t understand why I’ve put them where I have, given them the habits they have – all of which is subject to change. And as the day passes, an hour, then a few more, I’m pretty lost in trying to describe the couple whom they encounter at dinner. My daughter reappears at some point, to tell me she’s awake again. I say hi, and think about making my characters older. Then wonder if I’ve given the other couple too great a role. And ponder whether it’s right to have this divided point of view; or should I focus just on him? Isn’t that the sensible thing to do? And then I notice that the dog wants to go out again and decide that I too could use a change of scene.
It’s stopped raining so with a bit of hesitation Watson is willing to step out into the yard ever so gingerly on his own while I scrounge in the kitchen for food. Scrounge, because with my husband away and me hobbled by my back, things have fallen off a bit. We’re pretty much down to tuna fish and leftover Indian food that requires too much appraisal, too much effort trying to remember what day it arrived. So tuna fish it is, as Watson, damp and smelly, returns.
When I settle on the couch with my sandwich, he takes his accustomed place up on the cushion behind me – draped over my shoulders like a living stole. I love this dog. I love that he doesn’t speak yet is so endlessly expressive. It’s such an antidote to the excessive degree to which I rely on words.
So I’m happily eating and snuggled by my dog as I dive back into the story and realize – of course! – that I’m done for the day. What is that feeling? That sense of it being gone? The words don’t catch. They feel just like words, a bit disconnected, and not at all like the charged and vibrant vessels of my deepest, most urgent . . . nope. Pretty much just words.
It’s about 2:00. My older daughter has disappeared again and the younger won’t be home for another hour and a half. And what I should be doing now is cleaning something. Anything really – everything could use it. I’m a terrible slob (though I despise that word) and there is always , always plenty of housework to be done. But true to form, I don’t want to clean and so, after a time on email, on Facebook, on twitter, on the Garnet Hill site, AND after putting on some actual clothes, I decide instead to read a couple of stories friends have sent me for comments. I’m one of those people who enjoys reading other people’s work and trying to figure out what they’re trying to do. I find it keeps me sharp and makes me think about my own writing. But I only have time to get through one story – a very strong piece which I’m not at all convinced needs my help – before my younger daughter rings the bell and the dog begins barking his head off, partly to guard us and partly to greet her.
With her arrival, the day takes on a different feel. There’s a certain timeless quality to the hours I spend alone, working. But now I want to hear about her day and I want to get her doing her homework. I also begin thinking about dinner which we decide will be take-out as there’s no food in the house. Cheesesteaks – about which my older daughter mutters with little conviction, “The diet begins tomorrow.” It’s an indulgent kind of evening, just the three of us eating too much and watching Say Yes To The Dress, a show that horrifies and mesmerizes in equal parts.
At around eight, my husband, twelve hours ahead, skypes me from the future and for about half an hour we attempt to talk, though the delay is terrible and most of the time we are either talking over each other or staring at one another in silence waiting for the other to speak. I have the sense too that a week into his Hong Kong trip, he’s already experienced more than can be conveyed over this kind of connection. I can tell he’s too much in the thick of it to want to describe it yet. As we writers like to say, he doesn’t have adequate distance. So with a sense that we’re putting off the real conversation, the one we’ll have for days and days when he returns, I tell him to have a good morning and he tells me goodnight.
I’m not quite done for the day with my other travelers, Ethan and Charlotte, off on whatever trip theirs is going to be. By ten, once the girls and I have said goodnight, I’m back in bed with the laptop on my lap. I don’t kid myself that I’m going to get any great work done – I almost never do at night. But I’m very conscious recently of how much of my writing takes place away from the keyboard, how much of what I do consists of puzzling something through semi-consciously while I do other things; and I want to read what I’ve written so far so I can keep it in my mind, maybe form some new impressions. It’s not always a pleasant experience. How could I have written something that syrupy? What on earth made me think people talk that way? And tonight is no exception, so with a certain part of my brain, I tinker and fiddle, changing abysmal sentences, striking unnecessary attributions in the dialogue. But that isn’t the real work, I know. It’s just busywork I do, while waiting. The real work is larger, structural – and will only come with time. It’s a conversation between me and the story. We’re negotiating – that’s the closest I can come to describing it. I suggest possibilities and it suggests others. Sometimes, it tells me I’m right. Usually, not. Back and forth, until we’re both satisfied. Until it conveys what it needs to convey.
That’s a long way off, though. And it’s time to put on The Daily Show now, though there’s no chance I’ll make it through. Really, it’s time to drift off, thinking about what I’ll be doing tomorrow, thinking about what my children will do, my husband, the dog. Those two characters suspended mid-action in France. All of us. All of it waiting to unfold over time.
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
- I’m going to duck the word “best” in part because I’m very conscious these days of the how subjective all that is. In a way, I’ve stopped believing that there’s any such things as “best.” It’s so much about appreciation and one’s own taste. Right now, I’m reading and very much enjoying The Brother Gardeners, by Andrea Wulf. It’s nonfiction, about eighteenth century botanists. I try to take breaks from fiction, both to stop obsessing over it and because it helps my brain (and my writing) to think about pursuits outside my familiar sphere.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- When you hear writing advice, keep in mind that the person is really saying: “this has helped me.” Try to be open to the idea that it may help you too, but equally open to the possibility that it won’t. The whole point of art is that it’s individual. That doesn’t start with the finished product; it’s inherent to the entire process. Be skeptical of writers who try to tell you there are rules.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I have terrible attentional issues and have had to find ways to contend with them. So I often have the TV on while I write – usually the news. And unless I’m very deep into a particular story, it’s not uncommon for me to jump around among as many as three or four projects in the course of a few hours. It’s a workable system for me – but note, when you asked for writing advice, I did NOT suggest that anyone else do that!
By Robin Black: