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 Cheryl Strayed:
There are some things I miss even before they’re gone. The sound of my children’s feet against the wood floor as they run from their bedroom at one end of the hallway to the bedroom I share with their father at the other end of the hallway is one of them. It might be six-fifteen in the morning; it might be seven. No matter the hour, that pitter pat of two pairs of childfeet is the way I begin most days.
On this day, like all school days, the four of us rise and scramble through the dress-eat-brush teeth-locate books, backpacks, snacks, and coats routine in various states of calm and agitation, rancor and love. By 8:25, I’m walking my children to school. It takes about ten minutes to reach the big brick building where my son attends first grade and my daughter kindergarten. I hug them one by one in their separate classrooms, and then I walk solo down the hallway and out the side doors into the cool December air and I’m free.
It’s 8:45. Time to work.
Sometimes it seems as if there’s a giant kitchen timer installed permanently in my momhead that begins ticking the moment I push through those school doors. I know precisely how many hours and minutes I have before the bell will ding.
I pull out my iPhone. I want to be the sort of woman who walks down a sunny morning sidewalk without checking her email, but I’m not currently that woman. I scroll, I skim, I almost break my ankle tripping over uneven chunks of sidewalk while I read the tiny text on my screen. By the time I get home I know who I have to answer first and I do that while drinking the coffee my husband Brian has kindly made for me, even though he doesn’t drink it himself. He’s an artist too—a filmmaker—and we chat briefly before he departs for his office a block away from our house.
I don’t have an office. I’ve tried in the past, but an office hasn’t ever been terribly productive for me. I’m not a desk person. So instead I currently work in my bedroom while sitting on a blue velvet chair I bought in a thrift store when I was pregnant with my first child and revising my first novel. My cat Gulla sleeps on the bed nearby. Every couple of hours she rises and comes to sit on the wide arm of the chair and lick me before stretching and returning to the bed.
I answer email. I tool around on Facebook for no good reason. I open the calendar on my computer and see today is the day by which I’m meant to send my publicists the answers to a Q & A they plan to use in promoting my forthcoming memoir, Wild.
I open the document and begin. It’s more challenging than I thought it would be. I wrote the book. I know the answers, and yet I have to craft each one carefully. I try to be entertaining and intelligent without repeating myself. Soon, I understand that this thing I thought would take half an hour will take most of the day.
In one question my publicists write “…there’s an almost Homeric feel to your journey…” and I have to Google “Homeric” so I can answer the question, but when I type the word into the search field my overly helpful computer changes it to “homoerotic” and so I end up spending a good twenty minutes reading about a long-dead Italian painter named Carlo Saraceni who made a painting called “Saint Sebastian,” which depicts a young naked man with an arrow shot into his lower abdomen/upper groin. Eventually I realize I really do know what my publicists mean by Homeric, so I return to my document and answer the question.
After a while, my iPhone makes a little sound: a text from Brian. Do I want to have lunch and then take a walk with him? he inquires.
I do. I’m too busy to do this because the great kitchen timer in my head is ticking ever so loudly and I’ve gotten distracted by an early-Baroque Italian painter, but I say yes.
He comes home and warms a pot of soup and makes kale salad and slices an apple while I shout to him from the blue chair in our bedroom that I’ll be right down. We eat. We walk. I don’t ask him what Homeric means. He goes back to his office and I go back to my blue chair.
Can you introduce us to Monster? My publicists want to know when I return to the document open on my computer screen. Monster is the name I gave my backpack on the long hike I wrote about in Wild. It’s basically a character in the book. I begin to describe it, but then I decide it would be better if I had Monster sitting right beside me as I wrote my reply, so I go down to the basement to get it and instead I see a mountain of laundry near the washing machine, so I sort and start a load, and return to my blue chair empty-handed, remembering only when I reach it why I left it.
I email my publicists to ask if they really, truly need this Q & A by today. Within minutes I’m given an extension until after the holidays.
I answer more emails. I make comments about people’s status updates and photographs on Facebook. I text Lidia. I text Sarah. I text the other Sarah. I text Brian. In an hour and a half he’ll get the kids from their after school class.
I open a folder titled Novel and then a Word document titled Emily and I read what I wrote the last time I wrote anything in this particular document and I feel sort of excited about it and I feel sort of sad too because it’s a new novel that I’ve begun ever so slowly to write knowing I don’t have any business starting a novel right now because I’ve got other writing commitments on the burner and my soon-to-be-out book to promote, but I start messing around with a paragraph anyway and pretty soon an hour and a half has passed and I hear loud footsteps on the porch below me—Brian and the kids—and though the day isn’t over and there is what-are-we-going-to-have-for-dinner and having dinner and play time and bath time and out loud reading time and zapping off quick emails and texts on my iPhone in between all those times—there is a way in which the day is done and the front door opens and my kids yell, “Mommy! We’re home!” and the great kitchen timer in my head goes ding.
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?
- Pam Houston’s new novel Contents May Have Shifted, which will be out from W.W. Norton next month. She’s so perceptive, so intimate and intelligent on the page. I felt known by this book, like I do by all of her books. I got an advanced reading copy when Pam and I were interviewed on stage together at an event at the Mountains and Plains Independent Bookseller’s Association Trade Show in Denver a few months ago. I gobbled it up immediately and have been waiting impatiently to share it with the world ever since.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- My first bit of advice is to take only the advice that works for you. Writers have different processes, different approaches. There aren’t rules. Having said that, I’ve found it helpful to read every word I write out loud at least twice, but more like three or four times. There’s something I can’t seem to know about my sentences and scenes until I’ve heard myself say them.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I take walks by myself when I’m deep in my writing. The walks aren’t breaks, but rather an important part of the writing process. Something I can’t get in a chair always clicks into place when I’m walking alone. I don’t think it’s strange, really. A better way to put it is that a strange thing I’ve learned about writing is sometimes you have to not be writing in order to get where you need to go.
By Cheryl Strayed:
I started this wonderful post feeling sad because I so miss the pitter patter of feet. But when Cheryl was “distracted by an early-Baroque Italian painter” I got tickled and can’t stop laughing. My husband thinks I’ve gone round the bend. Love!
Loved the glimpse into the workday of an artist: the blue chair, the cat, the rabbit trails… And the encouragement that there are no “rules”, no formula for successful writing other than what works for the individual.
I happen to be reading Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit, which was inspired by having just finished reading The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau, which was inspired by watching the film, The Way, by Emilio Estevez…
Cheryl’s comments about writing and walking in answer to the last question reminded me of something I read in Wanderlust: “Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of a heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing, It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals…”
“There are some things I miss even before they’re gone.” This one line from your post says so much about the way a writer reveals a sense of personal aesthetic via her writing process and vice versa. Thank you for bringing your beautiful family to the page.
Love this, especially: “…a strange thing I’ve learned about writing is sometimes you have to not be writing in order to get where you need to go.” Me too.
I love this, Cheryl. You are so much more benevolent in your response to the two pair of pitter-pats than I feel in response to mine many mornings…but I try each day to be more judicious in the juggling act and more appreciative that I have both two balance. Also: “Something I can’t get in a chair always clicks into place when I’m walking alone.” Yes. Can’t wait for WILD!
I, too, get the Mommy-timer and the need for walks in order to “write.” I love your advice on writing advice. So often I’ve berated myself for not doing things the way other writers do instead of honoring my own process. Lovely glimpse in to your day. Thanks for sharing.
I love the honesty in this post. Looking forward to reading Wild.
Thanks for your very kind words, everyone! I really appreciate your responses. I’m also grateful to Cynthia for creating such a great series. I’ve had lots of fun reading the archives. Happy 2012!
Thank you for this glimpse into your day with young children. (And thank you, Cynthia, for this series!) Love that you write in a blue velvet chair! I am a huge fan of your essays The Love of My Life and Heroin/e and cannot wait for “Wild.” You write with a rare intensity and emotional honesty.
Cheryl, yep, I work the school hours too. I also take working walks. It helps to have a dog because then people think you are muttering to her. How nice to have your husband as a partner in childcare and creativity. I loved that sound bite of pattering feet on the floors.
Cynthia, thanks for this glimpse into the writer’s life. I reviewed a book today that you would love, The Last Nude by Ellis Avery. Happy New Year!
Teresa, I love that chair too. Good to hear from you. And Sarah, you’re right. Fascinating interview with Ellis Avery. Happy New Year to you both!