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 Jean Thompson:

I get up when my dogs get up. I started out having dogs; now I pretty much live in the dogs’ house. Sometimes reveille is as early as 5:30, sometimes an hour or so later. And this time of year, it’s dark. One or both of them has to hit the back yard. You ignore such requests at your peril. The old dog likes to hang out there on dawn patrol. Sometimes, if the temperature isn’t too brutal, I leave the door cracked and go back to bed.

I’d say the first two hours of my day, whenever it starts, are spent going to the dog park and back again, feeding dogs – the old dog is very old and requires different medicines and special feedings – and playing spirited games with stuffed dog toys.  I also fill the bird feeders.  I’m not even going to tell you how much I spend on birdseed, especially when there’s snow on the ground.  Neighbors call this the Disney House, because of all the creatures that fly and flutter around.  I see wrens, sparrows, five pairs of cardinals, doves, juncos, jays, woodpeckers, and hawks, which have to eat too.  I’ve seen robins drinking from the heated birdbath this month, though I’m not sure what they find to eat when there’s snow cover.  We’ve had twenty inches in December, pretty close to a record.

Once everybody’s settled down, I can think about writing.  I’ve been retired from full-time teaching work for almost seven years, and if that sounds enviable, well, it is.  The trick is not to sabotage yourself by engaging in necessary but distracting household chores, or reading newspapers online.  I have reasonably good work habits and self-discipline, plus if I slack off or give my work less than my best effort, self-loathing sets in.  I don’t have a dedicated writing space.  The computer sits on the dining room table, but the yellow legal pads that I use for first drafts get dragged all over the house, and I perch (or recline) with them in different places.

I’m a brick-by-brick writer, that is, I have to make sure that what I’ve written previously is solid.  So I’ll usually begin by re-reading a story or a chapter from its beginning, making changes along the way, then I try to produce the next installment.  I think I’ve gotten slower but surer as a writer.  I may not get much new material done in a sitting, but I also don’t take too many bad steps forward.  I work for two or three hours, then I feel the need to get up and out of the house.  Midday is for going to the gym, buying more birdseed and dog food, meeting friends for lunch, dentist’s appointments, oil changes, and the like.

Sometimes I wonder how I ever managed to write books while I was teaching a demanding schedule, as well as tending to all the usual business of living.  I’m pretty sure I slept less.

In the late afternoon, it’s time for another episode of Dog World, another trip to another park, feeding, play, etc.  Then, if I have nothing else scheduled for the evening (or, to be honest, if I can avoid the siren call of the television), I’ll put in another session of writing.  I seem to need a steady sense of momentum with my work, and to keep in touch with it on a daily basis.  If you make your best conscious effort, as Graham Greene said, then your subconscious does its work and presents you with solutions.


1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?

  • I very much enjoyed Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD.  It wasn’t a question of finding it; all the attention around it made it pretty hard to avoid.  I admire experimentation of all sorts if it’s faithful to the core demands of storytelling: making a reader want to know what happens next.

2.Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?

  • Persevere.  You  do need to know when to hold em and know when to fold em when it comes to any given piece of writing, but sticking to your work habits will see you through most challenges.

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • I tend to re-read books I like over and over again.  The best ones always hold up, and reveal new pleasures.

Books by Jean Thompson:

The Year We Left Home

Do Not Deny Me

Throw Like a Girl

City Boy

Wide Blue Yonder

Who Do You Love