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 Dan Chaon:
You know those movies that start with an alarm clock going off, and then the main character rolls out of bed, yawns, puts his bare feet on the floor, goes to the bathroom, brushes his teeth, takes a shower, then has a delicious cup of coffee and a good breakfast while reading the newspaper?
I hate those kinds of movies, and I have vowed never to subject anyone to those scenes.
Besides which, I hate waking up, and I avoid it as much as possible. I have actually built my entire life around not doing it. I have arranged my teaching schedule so that I don’t have any classes until afternoon, and I have trained my dog, Ray Bradbury, to ignore the rising sun and the ringing of neighborhood church bells and the chirpings of nasty little birds.
Usually, around the time that most people are beginning their day, I am just crawling into bed. I am kind of a night person to the extreme. I even wrote a book about it, called Stay Awake, which is militantly anti-morning.
When I was a young writer, I remember being fascinated by the question of “how a writer spends his days.” I think I thought there would be some key or clue to how to conduct my own life as a writer, some secret, maybe.
One of the very best books on this subject is Becoming a Writer by Dorthea Brande. “First of all,” she says, “becoming a writer is mainly a matter of cultivating a writer’s temperament.”
On the one hand, the writer must keep “the spontaneity, the ready sensitiveness of a child … the ability to respond freshly and quickly to new scenes, and to old scenes as though they were new; to see traits and characteristics as though each were new-minted from the hand of God instead of sorting them quickly into dusty categories and pigeon-holing them without wonder or surprise; to feel situations so immediately and keenly that the word “trite” has hardly any meaning for him…”
On the other hand, she says, “But there is another element to his character, fully as important to his success. It is adult, discriminating, temperate, and just. It is the side of the artisan, the workman and the critic rather than the artist.”
This is how, I think, most writers try to figure out their days and parcel them out. For me, the coffee-drinking, temperate side comes first, usually in the early evening after dinner; the spontaneous side comes at night, often after midnight, when the rest of the world is asleep and I can pretty much be guaranteed that I won’t have any interruptions.
But it’s also a conscious decision to make a break from the world of the living. To cancel out the “morning world” and find a way to get by without it for much of the time. The real secret to a writer’s day is how much time you’re willing to be alone, how much you like being lonely, how much you crave it.
Some mornings, when the dog Ray Bradbury nuzzles me awake, I’m embarrassed by the morning I’ve missed; I’m aware that I’ve made weird choices, and that part of the world is going on without me. But I’m also strangely glad that I have found a way to live in an alternate universe. I’ll touch down in the real world with my classes and my students, at the supermarket and the dry cleaners and so forth. But I love the idea that my own personal cave of nighttime is waiting for me at the end of the day.
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?
- I just started reading Oliver Sach’s new book, Hallucinations, because I think my new novel will have some in it. I just finished Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, which is a very erudite and beautifully written exploration of the hemispheric functions of the brain; and Victor LaValle’s wonderful new novel, The Devil in Silver, which takes place in a mental asylum. Strangely, I didn’t realize how closely these were connected until I wrote them down just now. Yikes.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- As a teacher, I’m always most excited when my students are not only writers but voracious readers. To me, the two things must go hand in hand. My best writing advice is to read everything you can get your hands on, in many different genres; and furthermore, to give yourself permission to stop reading a book that isn’t working for you and move on to another one. You’ll never read all the books you want to before you die, anyway, so there’s really no shame in not finishing.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- As mentioned above, I tend to read in bites, and I probably finish maybe a tenth of the books I start. It’s the same for me with writing. Most of my time is spent generating fragments of stories and novels, most of which get put aside and never used. It’s only when I find myself going back to one of these fragments over and over that I realize it’s time to commit. I know this makes me sound like I’d be a very bad boyfriend.
By Dan Chaon:
Dan Chaon is one of my absolute favorite authors. He’s brilliant. I didn’t know about “Stay Awake;” I’ll be looking into that!
“Militantly anti-morning…” Love it.
I’ve come to realize that writers are fascinated withother writers, especially about our work habits. Maybe it’s because we work in isolation. Regardless, most of us spend our time very differently from the rest of the world. People don’t get it, but I don’t care.
Thanks to you and to Dan Chaon. Great interview.
I thought my husband hated morning more than anyone. And he’s a horseman, a farmer. I often feed his colts and fillys and mares in the wee hours so he can spend time with his mistress: sleep. But I’m happy to do it. He’s a good man. And I plan to read Dan’s piece aloud to my nocturnal beloved this evening when he’s fully awake.
Strangely charming, because honest. This makes me want to become more familiar with Dan’s work, because he’s up to something, deep in the night.
Dan, I loved hearing you in College Hall at VCFA and subsequently enjoyed reading ‘Await Your Reply’ and a sampling of your short stories. I could hear your voice in this post. I appreciate the enthusiasm for not waking early and the permission to drop a book unread. And that you named your dog after a famous writer. My dog is named after Huck Finn. Boy, what a mistake that was, the little mischief maker.
This was really great. I want to have a pint with Dan, no doubt. (And on his schedule.)
I like how he operates so differently than I do as a writer! This was a fantastic line: “But I’m also strangely glad that I have found a way to live in an alternate universe. I’ll touch down in the real world with my classes and my students, at the supermarket…”
And I loved his advice that folks read in many different genres. Good one.
Hello Cynthia. Longtime no write. Feel like I’ve not commented here for far too long. Been blown up and away by all manner of things. great to stop by and read this post. Dan you made me smile. I loved your description of a writer as needing to be spontaneous, wild and then also an artisan, oh yes, yes, yes, yes, I am with you!
Hey June, I am also militantly anti-morning : ) Darrelyn, hope your husband enjoyed the post. Richard, I suggest starting with Await Your Reply–terrific narrative drive. Jodi, I think I was sitting next to you while Dan was talking. Dave, Dan’s writing advice validated my recent decision to jettison books that didn’t totally captivate me without finishing them. Susanna, great to hear from you! I’m also behind in visiting my favorite blogs. Thanks to all of you for reading and commenting!
I enjoyed Dan’s candor and humor. I’m not at my best in the morning either. You have to like a guy who names his dog Ray Bradbury and trains him to sleep in. Good advice on not finishing every book you start.
I’m definitely at my worst in the morning, Sarah. And about books, I’m getting ruthless–just read one book to page 100 and abandoned it, read 20 pages of the next one, then 10 pages of #3. But #4 is a winner–The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers.