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 Louise W. Knight:
Today I’m dealing with lists. I have my List of Book Events, and under each date, a list of things I must not forget to do: buy plane ticket, let my host know when my train arrives, find a place to stay on October 5th in New York City, send the book festival organizer a blog post of 350 words…. And I have my List of Urgent Tasks: add the chronology of Addams’s life to my author website, revise the Wikipedia entry for Jane Addams (it is full of errors), write my next talk about Addams and the history of women’s suffrage. I do this list work at my consulting desk, with my laptop. It’s where I engage the executive part of my brain — where I earn my living working with nonprofits and foundations, manage life’s pesky details, and, at the moment, organize my book tour. In this space, with its big, white door-table, and many file cabinets, I make quick decisions and act on them through emails and phone calls.
But where I long to be is sitting at my other computer in another corner of my study. It’s your basic machine, with a big monitor that sits on a glass-topped desk that has a built-in tray for the keyboard. This workplace, which is where I wrote my book, is nearly encircled by bookcases, a blank wall, which the computer faces, and, to the right, above an oak table, a window. I placed a curtain rod between two bookcases and hung a curtain behind me, and, voila – my writing cubicle. There is something about writing in this enclosed space, lined with books, that helps me concentrate, but it is not only that. For me, entering this space means entering the portion of my mind that writes. It is a deep, creative place that I have to inhabit fully to write a book; this cozy corner helps me get there.
And the reverse is also true. When I leave the corner and pass through the curtain, usually around noon, I leave that part of my mind and that feels good too. My creative brain goes dormant, out of sight, out of mind, until I go back behind the curtain the next morning.
Now, so soon before my book comes out, I’m not writing a book in my corner, but other things, like book talks and book reviews. I just finished and sent off yesterday a review about two new books on feminist intellectual Charlotte Perkins Gilman for the Women’s Review of Books. I was able to immerse myself in Gilman’s world for a while. I enjoyed it, although I also suffered from the handicap I suppose all biographers suffer from when reading other biographies – the desire to try my hand at shaping the life myself. Not an option, I told my creative brain as it tried to take over.
My creative brain is feeling a bit thwarted I guess because I’m spending so much time at my laptop, trying to figure out the logistics of speaking and travel. I don’t think I have ever had as crazy a two-month (now stretching into a three-month) period in my life as that which is coming up. The fretting has begun. What will I forget to take? Should I pack all my vitamins and mineral pills in little daily packets for the whole two months, since I probably won’t have time later? I started this morning making a list of such tasks to do ahead. What about my bills? Maybe I should switch to online payments so I don’t miss one. And I’m trying to start using my new smart-phone, with its digital calendar. Help! What if I screw up? I know I’m going to end up carrying around printed versions of my schedule, like a Linus blanket, because I will not be sure I can rely on the phone.
But part of me is also excited. Contact with readers at last! Though I am stuck today at my laptop, fussing with lists, I will soon go out into the world, to talk with people who are interested in what I wrote behind the curtain. Hello to all you readers out there! Let me know what you think!
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- I would have to say The Feminist Promise by Christine Stansell (Modern Library, 2010), which I chose because of my interest in women’s history. If you are curious to know what came before the Second Wave of the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s as well as to understand the Second Wave and what has come after, then this beautifully and intelligently written book, which covers the history of American feminism from 1792 to the present, is the one for you.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Edit your writing with generous, experimental abandon. Most of us are too careful when we edit, weighing each removal with intense scrutiny. Loosen up. You can always put whatever you take out back in. But I find I almost never do.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I cover the flyleaves and all available front and back blank pages of a nonfiction book with notes and page numbers while I am reading. I am re-indexing the book so I can take proper notes or find what I want later. Publishers who skimp on blank pages and put art on the flyleaves create big problems for me.
Books By Louise W. Knight:
I love this post because most writers talk about going into the creative space and not about the importance of leaving it: “And the reverse is also true. When I leave the corner and pass through the curtain, usually around noon, I leave that part of my mind and that feels good too. My creative brain goes dormant, out of sight, out of mind, until I go back behind the curtain the next morning.”
Also, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who fills the blank pages of a book. It’s embarrassing when I loan one to somebody and have been known to fiercely erase notes before I do.
I look forward to reading Jane Addams and filling any blank pages.
You got me there! I forgot to realize that the flyleaves of my own book would get covered with someone else’s notes! Fair enough! Thanks for seeking out the book…
It’s good to see real scholars correcting Wikipedia. I love how Louise has physically divided her office for her tasks, like hemispheres of her busy brain. My laptop, where I write fiction, also faces a wall. I loved that Linus simile. It was interesting to get a nonfiction writer perspective and to find it not so different from a novelist’s.
Thanks for your good comment. I think nonfiction writers divide into two groups — one group thinks their writing has nothing to do with fiction and the other group embraces the role, and the skills, of the storyteller. To do that, though, you have to make peace with the reality that no matter how determined you are to capture the truth, you are still in charge of all the shaping and selecting decisions that omit some of the reality from the reader’s eye.
I love the idea of writing behind a curtain, fully engaged with the muse, and then, when done, leaving that world behind the curtain and emerging.
Best in your travels and writing, Louise W. Knight. Connecting with readers, I would imagine, would be a thrill.
Yes, connecting with readers is like the ice cream on the cake of writing — especially because they continually surprise you!
what a wonderful post. I too enjoyed the part about going into and coming out of that creative space. I have a difficult time leaving it, although I think it’s so important to let the brain mull it for me. Something I am working on, leaving it behind willingly. Good luck with the tour!
Jennifer, I’ve benn mulling over your point about finding it hard to leave your writing (apologies for my delay). Is it a fierce discipline that holds you, or inspiration? My rule of thumb is to stop the moment “my gorge rises.” This is a sudden small feeling I have that I want to leave the cumputer. I is easy to override with a sense of duty but I don’t. Instead, I get up. This means that by the next morning, I am filled with longing to get back to the computer.
I love the idea of “Editing with Abandon.” It sounds so romantic. I’m going to try it! I’m getting out my red felt-tip right now! 🙂
Kimberly — Sounds good.. By the way, a pencil is sometimes good and makes you take more risks cuz you can erase it!!!