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: