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 Susanna Daniel:
The problem with writing about a recent day is this: there has been no typical recent day. My first novel came out in August of this year, and the months since then have been littered with activities related to book promotion, rather than book writing. This past month, I traveled to Miami, Chicago, New York, and Colorado. The time I’ve spent in my adopted hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, has been mostly spent packing and unpacking. The fact that I haven’t had a normal writing day in a month makes my stomach hurt a little.
I lead a pretty simple life, which is how I’ve designed it. Though I’ve flirted with the idea of renting a work space or starting a writers’ studio, I can’t really justify either effort. I have a dedicated office here at home. It’s a modest room, overpacked with sentimental antiques from my parents’ house and a large desk I made for myself in graduate school, and the closet is full of bins of old clothes and photos, my wedding dress, and Christmas gifts waiting to be wrapped.
My office could be a more meditative place, more organized, if I put a little effort into making it so, but it’s good enough. The walls are pumpkin and radish — energizing colors, as I think of them — and on the walls are photos of Stiltsville, the setting of my first novel of the same name, plus a watercolor of the Barola, Texas house where my grandmother grew up. The bookshelf is for research books and writing books, including a stack of People and Time magazines from the 1970s, which I bought off of eBay when researching my first novel.
On any given day — any typical day — I think about something the late Andre Dubus said in his wonderful essay collection, Meditations from a Movable Chair. He said that every morning when he rolls in his wheelchair into his tight galley kitchen, whether or not he remembers to get the milk from the fridge before moving past it to make toast and coffee can determine the tone of the entire day. If he forgets the milk, then he must either turn around in his chair, or back out and roll forward again — both terrifically frustrating in the small space — or forego milk altogether. If this happens, his day is pretty much shot.
I might be butchering the retelling of this story, but my memory’s version of it is woven into the fabric of my day, every day. Because in my life, as in the lives of many writers, I have only one overarching goal of the day: to write well.
There’s a certain magic to writing well, and I don’t know exactly how to cast the spell. All I know is that I have to be able to sit down at my desk early in the day, in a quiet and empty house, and have several uninterrupted hours ahead of me. No mid-day meetings, no fast-approaching deadlines, no piles of laundry that need attention. If I can do this, then maybe I can make writing well happen.
Every other daily goal — making it to the gym, spending quality time with my family, getting a wholesome meal on the table at a reasonable hour — is secondary. If I can write well and accomplish some or all of these things… well, I can’t remember the last time I did that. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s bliss when it does.
Of course I shouldn’t compare my daily domestic hurdles (getting my willfull toddler dressed and fed and off to preschool with all supplies needed for that day; cleaning up the vomit and/or urine left by my sweet, dying dog; finding lost laundry for my husband) to those of Andre Dubus. But still I think of him, if for no other reason than that he was a magnificent writer, and perfectly captured a relatable experience. He’s my Patron Saint of Smooth-Sailing Mornings.
On a good day — again, this is a good typical day — I’m up at 7:15 a.m., and my son and I are out the door with a minimum of tears (on both our parts) by 7:40 a.m. I’m sitting at my desk with coffee and oatmeal by 8:05 a.m. (I write weekdays, except for Thursdays, when my son is home with me.) I write until 12-ish, when hunger forces me to get up and make myself a sandwich, after which I will probably focus on other tasks, like meeting with my writing group or scheduling an interview or replying to email or working on an essay. I leave the house at 2:30 or so, to run errands and hit the gym before picking up my son at 4:15 p.m. Either I cook or my husband does. After dinner is my son’s bedtime, and after that is leisure time, which either involves television, or reading and a glass of wine, or some project (recently, a mosaic of my husband’s face, which he claims makes him look too pretty, and decorating for the holidays).
My daily life — the life I lead when I am not traveling or promoting a novel — would probably seem tiresome to many people. But I am so grateful for the ability to work at home, to do what I love as often as I can manage to do it. And I’m happy that the past month is over and the next has begun. It will be the first month in several when I won’t board an airplane even once. Come back to me, quiet writing days. I’ve missed you.
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- My writing group reads published work when we’re not reading each other’s work, and recently someone suggested James Hynes’ NEXT. It’s exactly the kind of book I would not choose for myself — it’s about a discontented middle-aged academic with a roving eye, looking for the next youngest thing — but I absolutely loved it (and I loved the main character, who turned out to be much more complex than my reductive synopsis). I’ve recommended it to everyone I know and bought several copies for friends.
2.Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- I try to think of myself as an actor as much as a writer. When I’m writing a scene, I’m also living that scene mentally. Like an actor, I have to imagine all five senses at play. Getting these sensory details on the page is what brings the scene into focus for me, and for the reader.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- My strangest habit is a new one, and I don’t know how long it will stick: I save each scene as an individual file on my computer. My hope is that this will clarify the structure of my novel as it progresses, and fix my problem of losing track of what exactly is happening inside a draft.
By Susanna Daniel:
A real treat today, Cynthia, to peak into the life of Susanna Daniel. I enjoyed everything about her novel Stiltsville: the women who remain friends even though only one gets the guy, Dennis, I believe. Sounded normal to me. In my youth, the same scenario played out more than once and those women and I are still friends. Even a few of the guys remain, a-hem, my husband for one. Lost one, kept one. It evens out.
You can’t beat the setting of Stiltsville either: a house on stilts in Biscayne Bay. I loved it. And the interview.
A new book for my list…
I like how this column you do introduces me to new writers. I look forward to it on the first of the month!
There is comfort in ordinary routine, and this comes through in Susana Daniel’s description of her day. Regular, simple routine is something I crave these days.
Thanks for what you do here!
Thanks, Cynthia and Darrelyn and Cherry! I have had a few people ask about Marse and Frances remaining friends, and for me it’s not a stretch — female friendships are much heartier than people give them credit for, in my experience. And I agree that ordinary routine really can’t be beat. Change is inevitable, for the good and not-so-good, so let me enjoy some predictability when I can get it.
I love this interview. No only do I want to read Susanna Daniel, now, but Andres Dubus. Thank you, Cynthia, and thanks to Susanna, for this bit of companionship and inspiration. Writers are so generous.
What a beautiful interview. I love this series, as well — hearing about the days of writers. I take so much from them, including titles of books I look forward to reading.
Congratulations on your book, Susannna. I hope you have a wonderful month!
Thank you also, Patricia and Christi! And Patricia, I cannot recommend Andre Dubus — the stories and the essays — enough. Authentic, moving, tender. “A Father’s Story” is a great place to start, but I love all his work.
The month is going gangbusters so far, ladies. Thanks again!
Cynthia, thanks for another interesting peek into the writing life. Sorry to be late to visit. I just finished the first draft of my WIP today! Still months of revision ahead of me, but now I can catch up with life. And breathe. Phew!
Susanna, congratulations on your first book! It must be hard to give up writing even for book promotions. I love the colorful simplicity of your office. I also work at home and require hours of uninterrupted time (while the kids are at school). Male writers of past generations could be more rigid in their routines because they had a wife looking after the kids and them. Great idea of using pop culture magazines for research. The details count.
Thanks, Sarah, and congratulations! Oh, to have a draft — a beautiful thing.