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 Paul Lisicky:
1. As usual, I’m awake hours before I need to be awake. I sleep with the shades up and that must have something to do with light. I must want to be present to my environment, though as soon as I say that it sounds pretentious. By and large I like having an hour to myself, before the world around me gets going. I like being in this in-between space, still in bed, eyes drifting about this new room, listening to what’s going on outside: birds, squirrels in the leaves, delivery trucks, a jogger’s shoes hitting pavement. I wonder if on some level I am writing in this state, though I’m never conscious of that.
2. Just at the point when I get restless, I look at newspapers online. This is the time when, among other things, I’m looking for stories about animals: animals rescued, animals in unlikely places, animals finding their way into the manmade. The bear, for instance, who recently made his way into a Sears store in Pennsylvania. The manatee who takes herself so far into the Everglades that she can’t get out without help. I post these on Twitter. People have asked me whether I have done some Google Alert thing, but no. There would be no fun in that. It is all very old school. In collecting these stories, I must be piling up metaphors. What else do I write about if I’m not writing about animals–literal or figurative–in unlikely places?
3. Coffee, of course. Oatmeal. Or cereal. A shower. This morning, as in any other morning, I can’t seem to write without taking a shower first, getting dressed. I remember once reading about John Cheever’s writing ritual. He’d get dressed in a businessman getup, just like all the other businessmen in his Upper East Side building, take the elevator down to the basement in his building, strip down, and write in his skinny legs, his boxer shorts. I’d never do something like that–How could I write nakedly if I was really naked?–but I do appreciate anyone’s ritual of writing and clothing.
4. If I were another kind of writer, I’d probably move over to my desk now. My first writing teacher told us, two thirds of the way through the semester, that you weren’t a real writer unless you were sitting at your desk for at least five hours a day. For years I was tyrannized by that. Even when I’d had a terribly productive day, I had a cloud of shame, pungent and a little thick, around my rituals. (If I were a real writer, I’d think, I’d be chaining myself to this seat, refusing food, only getting up to pee. Twice.) I’m sure it took me twenty years to get over that advice even after living with the example of my Ex, who is seen as prolific, but only writes sporadically, in a couple of bursts a year.
5. I need to get out. In a little bit, I’ll take a walk south on the boardwalk, which is just three blocks from my house, the house I moved into in Asbury Park this week. I’ll need to see people, see life happening around me: birds, arguments, skateboarders, sexy people, bored people, sighing people dreading a long hot day at the taco stand or their meetings with a parole officer. Once I go into the coffee place, down Cookman Avenue, I’ll look around for an open table, near enough to someone else so I can focus, far enough away so I’m not annoyed and distracted by the specifics of how long they ran on the treadmill that morning. In this way I’ll pretend I am not working. In this way I’ll pretend that I’m not John Cheever, though we are probably going about the same things in our different ways. There is a lovely study in my home, but that desk is only reserved for work when it gets past a certain state, when foundations have already been laid, when a structure’s already in place, a structure that might need to be smashed, disoriented, questioned.
6. I won’t sit at my coffee place if it’s noisy. I won’t sit with my notebook if nothing’s happening. Usually when nothing’s happening, I’ll take a walk. Sometime in that walk, a sentence will come to me. Or the rhythm of two sentences together. A walk is just another way to orient myself to my body, to my breathing patterns. Another way to connect myself to the street I’m on. Sometimes falling into the right two sentences is enough for one day. They can be gold, gold for another day, or even for later in the afternoon when I’m not trying to work. I want to say to that first writing teacher, look, I am writing all the time, in the midst of sending texts, preparing for class, looking for the next animal tweet, paying bills, shopping, running on the boardwalk, reading, going into the ocean, writing up syllabi, answering those obligatory emails–all of it. For me, writing can’t be something I isolate. There has to be some play about it, or it sinks into itself, sad, spent, inert. And I feel so much less alive when I’m not doing it.
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?
- Definitely Alison Bechdel’s ARE YOU MY MOTHER? It’s so associative, so structurally adventurous, working with so many lines of inquiry, Freud, Virginia Woolf, D.W. Winnicott. It feels impelled. Though it’s often hilarious, it has a life-and-death quality to it. There’s nothing crowd pleasing about it, and that might be the thing I admire most about it. The book is there for you if you’re willing to go along for the difficult, nourishing adventure of it.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- If you’re used to writing in a laptop, write something using the little notebook of your phone. If you’re used to sitting at a table or at a desk, write something in your head when you’re moving through space: walking or driving or sitting on a plane or train. Write in the situation when you’re least expecting to write: ten minutes before a meeting, or teaching a class. Allow yourself to change your patterns. You can have many rituals over the course of a life.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I love to read individual pages of the books I love out of sequence. A single page out of Joy Williams’ THE QUICK AND THE DEAD: yeah.
By Paul Lisicky:
I love this. Thank you guys!
Thanks, Patricia. Let’s get together soon! xo
I love your advice about changing up routine. I’ve been writing a story a day for three months, now, and I’m finding that the only way to keep going is to rely on one routine for a while, then switch it up. Lately I’ve been writing in parking lots. The husband will announce he’s going to the grocery store or something and I’ll grab my flip-flops and notebook and go with him, then sit in the car and write while he’s buying whatever. I love it but surely soon I’ll replace that trick with something else.
Lovely piece, thank you. And the world thanks you for the heads up on amazing animal stories!
Great report, Claire. Thanks for it. I’ve never tried writing in a parking lot, but I like having it as a possibility. Hey–the animals thank you! –if I can presume to speak for them.
Parking lots are great for observing, too. It’s amazing all the life that goes on in a parking lot–what you learn about people and their relationships as they go in and out of a business, the things they do and say while sitting in cars. Even seeing what they buy. Story beginnings and inspiration really are everywhere.
This is fascinating, Becky. Do you have favorite parking lots for watching–or do you not want to give that away?
Wonderful post. Living on a farm, long walks and animals inspire me, too.
Thank you, Darrelyn. A farm–that sounds awesome. Where is your farm?
South of I-10 in Louisiana, Paul. It’s a horse farm. Hot, humid, and buggy. But I love it here.
Bugs and humidity– they sound like a fair tradeoff. Horses!
“I must want to be present to my environment, …” great way to describe it. Now I have a nifty phrase to describe why I must have all the shades open when I sleep. Plus I love that your ex is successful writing in bursts. I too tend to doubt I can be a writer unless I write as long/fast/often as the pros do. I’m a burst girl in everything I do. It is very validating to read something like this. Thank you for sharing.
Hey, Tricia. Thanks. My gut feeling feeling is that some people are wired to be distance runners; others are wired to be sprinters. I don’t mean to be so neat about it, but I am pretty sure that duration doesn’t necessarily equal depth. Yes to your bursts. Take care.
I appreciate the honest quirkiness of this. That teacher who said five hours a day was an idiot to prescribe that precisely. Some writers rejoice if they get three good hours, which might be one to three pages if they polish as they go or one to five if they don’t. Others think it all out in bed the night before, pour it out in an hour at the keyboard, don’t revise as they go—how many hours do they “write?” One page every day is 365 pages in a year, after all. People write so differently. I am glad you prevailed and found your own way.
Thank you, Richard. In just about all ways that first teacher was wonderful–I should have said that. She was a big supporter of my writing, suggested I go to grad school, introduced me to the work of Donald Barthelme, Jane Bowles, Ann Beattie, others. Etc. I guess she wouldn’t be the first one on the planet to think that her way was *the* way. I wonder if I would have turned out to be a pronouncement-maker/taskmaster if my first teachers hadn’t been extraordinarily permissive. Probably not, but it’s fun to wonder.
I also love that in-between time of the early morning, when no one else is quite up.
I consider any time spent writing in a day to be a good writing day – wherever it may be. Five hours at once! That sounds like pure luxury. (and maybe also pure anxiety, now that I really think about it).
Welcome back to NJ!
Hey Nora! It’s good to hear from you. Five hours! I know what you mean–it sounds so externally determined. Should one be obligated to sit there for the whole five hours when one has written, say, five decent pages in two hours? This makes me think about the example of my youngest brother, the symphony musician. He’s pretty gifted, but he’s known as the guy who never practices his oboe. It sounds absurd, and yet I think he knows what he’s doing. Thanks for the welcome. It’s good to be back, NJ drivers license and all.
I too love the in between times of morning. Something is at work there, both in my brain and outside in the world. It feels like the Creator Spirit is out there, as Thomas Merton wrote, telling the birds it is time for them to be–and I have to be up and aware so I can get the message as well. Thanks for letting us in on your day, Paul.
Oh, you make me want to read Thomas Merton, Sophronia. Thanks for all your words.
You’re welcome! You want Merton’s “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” and the chapter that begins “How the valley awakes. At two-fifteen in the morning there are no sounds except in the monastery: the bells ring, the office begins. Outside, nothing, except perhaps a bullfrog saying “Om” in the creek or in the guesthouse pond. Some nights he is in Samadhi; there is not even “Om.” The whole section (and the book) is sublime.
Thanks for typing that out! I’m already smitten.
Me too. Copy ordered!