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 Oliveira:

I have let myself sleep in past seven this May Monday morning, the regrettable result of this season’s endlessly gray Seattle spring. Monday is usually the day I find myself propelled by a wild energy that comes from having taken the weekend off. But this Monday, in addition to the drear, I am also awaiting news of a friend’s medical tests to determine the extent of his newly-diagnosed cancer, and so this day is tinged with sadness. But in any case, I am in no hurry to begin writing. 

I am in the process of writing my second book, and I only now feel free after a year of hoopla after the publication of My Name is Mary Sutter, a year in which, after years of writing sans any expectations except my own, I have had to meet article deadlines, fulfill myriad requests from my publicist, editor and agent, travel across the country for appearances on television and radio, give lectures and readings at libraries, bookstores and conferences, and generally become a public person after years of cultivating a very private life.

When I was writing Mary Sutter, no one cared that I was writing it, no one was waiting for it, and no one had anything to say about it. Back then I raced to the computer every morning, eager to set down every word. Now I am stymied by the pull of two projects and their individual demands: the novel I wrote and the novel I want to write. Somehow, this has manifested itself as dragging my heels, which, I worry, means that I have nothing to say in a second book and that failure is certainly right around the corner. (Oh, the myriad ways in which I am capable of scaring myself.)

Why on the second book I suddenly fear failure is a puzzle for a therapist, a professional I don’t have in my stable but who nonetheless would only tell me what I already know, that the fear of failure can keep you from doing anything, even something you love, even something at which you’ve already had some success. I don’t think this second-book anxiety is mine alone. As I criss-crossed the country on my paperback tour, other writers asked me in hushed tones about my experience of writing the second book. It’s about as much fun as chewing broken glass, I say. I’m so glad to hear that, they say. Mine was hard, too. 

So, at eleven in the morning (too late!), after managing to drag my heels by setting appointments, answering non-urgent emails, checking Garance Dore’s Web site to read her colloquial French out loud in order to resuscitate my college-level ability, watering the flower pots, drinking two espressos, and reading the NY Times, especially the Metropolitan Diary, which I love—I am here, at my computer, thinking of writing, and pushing away the haunting concerns for my friend.

But as usual, when I finally give in, I’m lost in the world of my new book, writing and researching and dreaming about my characters. Hours fly by. I had intended to go to the gym in the afternoon, or at least hike up the mountain behind my house when I was finished, but the writing, as always, has eaten up the minutes and hours, and it is dinnertime, and I am ruing the earlier wasted minutes of flower-pot-watering and language instruction. 

As evening dawns, I receive the awaited email that my friend has weathered his battery of tests but must now wait a week for his results. How he will spend his summer—the length of chemotherapy, the possibility of radiation—will be determined by those results. He is a loving father to his sons and devoted husband to my dear friend, already someone who celebrates the minutes and hours of his life, but my bet is that he will never procrastinate again. Not in the smallest things, like heading outside to enjoy the Seattle sun if it should ever arrive this year, nor in the most important, like saying how much he loves the people in his life. 

And I suspect that if he had a book to write, he just would sit down and write it.  

Held in relief against this reminder of mortality, my minutes and hours spent worrying and resisting, are…I don’t want to say shameful because that is too harsh, so instead I’ll use the descriptor instructive. Virginia Woolf, beginning to reach a point where she could no longer stand the unbearable press of time, wrote the words time passed in To the Lighthouse, a novel whose theme is the ineffable nature of life and love. I don’t know why I fail to acknowledge the irrefutable fact of mortality until the great hurdles of life and death knock me upside the head. It’s not as if I don’t have a watch, or that procrastination is the great sin, or even that its unexpected advent in my life is so alarming. The hours tick by right in front of me. Mortality is not a well-kept secret. 

Time passed. Revelation, one could say. Just as the day closes.


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

  • Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Hands down, the best book I’ve read in a long time. I chose it even before it won the Pulitzer because I’d read a chapter in the New Yorker a year or so before, and because I’d heard about five people rave about it. Also, it promised complexity in the title. The Goon Squad? What was that?

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

  • Write complex sentences. Find the contradictions and complexities in the character and infuse that into the sentence itself, in dialog, description and thought processes. Complex syntax and precise diction make the difference between a boring run-of-the-mill sentence, and one that carries two, three, four meanings at once.

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • I write in different rooms depending on the draft I am working on. I finished My Name Is Mary Sutter in my dining room, where I camped for four months writing the last draft. Also, when I’m really stuck, I hop in the shower. The running water releases something in me and helps me to solve writing problems.

By Robin Oliveira:

My Name is Mary Sutter