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 Dawn Tripp:
This morning I woke early–just after 4:30–the result of a promise I made to myself last night. There is a new scene in my novel I want to pour myself into. I could feel it yesterday, crackling around under my skin as I was driving my boys home from school. It’s a long drive–a single lane highway–and my mind gets loose and free, and things often hit me that I want to write down. But then we are home, into the crush of dinner and homework, brushing teeth and bedtime stories, and I often don’t have the chance so I just have to hold those bits of inspiration in place–waiting–like a kind of glow at the edges of my mind. And so I promised myself this extra hour and set my alarm for 4:30 a.m.
When I come downstairs to write, the windows are still full of night and the rest of the house is asleep; the heat has not yet kicked on, and it’s just me, my coffee, and the page.
I am deep in the revision of my fourth novel. It has already sold, and in early January, my editor sent back the 465-page manuscript with notes for a shift in structure, some suggestions for cuts and a few scenes to add, plus line edits. We agreed that the book is essentially strong, and that this would be my first, and last, revision.
There is a certain pressure in that agreement that thrills me. To me, revision is a deeply creative act. It’s not simply rewriting or tidying up–it is a dynamic re-envisioning–a reassessment of every scene, every turn in the story, every line. Even in a small revision, there is a ruthlessness to the process that I adore. I love being able to go back into a manuscript and rearrange a few bones of it to sharpen the narrative arc; to cut whole sentences, paragraphs, even pages to quicken the pace; and in certain key places, to slow down a moment or unpack a scene so the reader can experience a crucial revelation in a more visceral way.
In the early stages of a novel, I am primarily conscious of my solitude–and how necessary the freedom of that solitude is to the voice of the story. But during revision, my principal relationship is with the reader–unknown, unmet. It’s that relationship that drives me as I work back through a manuscript, and this morning at 5 a.m., it is the reader who is with me, in the chair beside my chair downstairs at the kitchen table in the half-dark of the house. As I begin to write into this new scene–an exchange between a famous artist and her sister–I am keenly aware of how I want the reader to feel the intent behind the moment I am drafting. It’s oddly exhilarating to write this way. You are fiercely determined to move this stranger who you have not met, who you might never meet, to lead them through your vision for a story, and to bring them to see, to feel, to be moved by these lines of pencil or type on a page.
At 6, the clock chimes and, as always, it’s a small struggle to put my mind back together, and shift gears. I wake up my boys, fix breakfast, pack lunches, glance at the news, get the kids dressed and wrapped in their coats and out the door to the truck. The little one demands a last kiss–there is always one more kiss–then off they go. My husband will drive them to school. And my mind is a little unhinged, not as sharp and clean as it was during that first hour–and there is a sinking kind of sadness that I feel–so familiar–the awareness that I am too driven as a writer to ever be as fully present as a mother and wife as I would like to be. I have known this about myself forever, but looking at it clearly does not make that feeling easier. When I am in the world of a novel, I am half in that world all the time. I am lucky to be married to a man who understands that this is how my psyche is wired, but I often wish that I could be more in this life.
I go back inside, glance over the scene in my notebook where I stopped at 6, mid-sentence, just to know where I need to pick up again. Then I slip into my sneakers. It’s low tide this morning. I run the beach, down to the end and back. I don’t run for time, speed, or distance. I don’t run to stay physically fit. I run to find a clearness of mind. It’s desolate here in dead winter, so cold and, to me, the most indescribably beautiful point of earth. My life has played out on this beach–it’s where I grew up, built sandcastles and learned how to swim, handle a boat, fish, dig sea-clams, body surf. I’ve gotten horribly burned from spending too many hours in this sun. At one very dark point in my life–after being away for six years–I moved back and bought a house, because my passion for this place was the one thing I knew I could commit to. I have seen this sea through every season, in every mood–rain, snow, blinding heat, sunrise, sunset, sou’west wind and gale; I have watched the light change on the water, I’ve watched sheets of slush ice wash together in the deeper water between the bar and the shore; I’ve seen buffleheads, snow geese, fox and seals, and mako sharks; I’ve seen deer wading in the shallows; this is where I was caught in a rip tide; went night swimming; where I fell in love and watched the moon rise; I’ve taught my boys to swim and surf in this same water; I take them sledding in the dunes after every good snow.
This particular place is integral to that whisper-slight fiery thing I am–let’s just call it ‘soul.” I am on this beach at least once a day. Because there are so many memories tied up here, it has a certain power to evoke a range of feeling–in fact, any particular feeling I need to call up in a piece of writing I am working on. This morning, it’s a sense of loss–a revelation of loss that my main character, the artist, has when something she has not been able to look at head-on suddenly hits her in spades. I think about this as I run this morning, I think, and more importantly, I feel–I let her feelings rise up in me, I look out into the open sea, to that very uncertain line where it hits the sky, and I keep my attention on what she is feeling–that woman in my story–the threads on the sofa she has noticed in her sister’s house, the uneven warp between two boards on the floor, a doll her little niece has left in one corner of the rug with its arm folded under itself–I watch her notice these things as she feels that tiny heartbreak begin to crack into something larger, a more clear and definitive grief that will make her change her life–as I run the beach this morning, I think about her, feel her, inhabit her until I am her, and words come.
Then, I turn and start home, back to my kitchen table. I walk into the house, pour a fresh cup of coffee, and come back to my notebook, my pen, my scene, my famous artist with her sister in that beautiful and terrible moment when she realizes what she has given up, what she has lost and what she still needs, and for the next four hours, I write into that scene until it is done.
Every morning I go out and run for this precise reason–to find my way deeper into a character’s self, some key turn of a story, to find that certain edge between intellect and free creative thought, to feel that shift in consciousness that allows me to write well. It’s not a state I can simply sit at a desk and think myself into–though many writers I know can. I have to be outside. I have to move. For me, it is that experience of the world–when I can breathe in the wind, the sun, the heat, the salt smell, the cold, and the light until the floss is stripped, and I am right there, in the pulse and life of a separate and entirely real, fictional world.
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 am reading a first novel right now that is unthinkably good. A masterful debut, pure genius, so lovely and brutal it feels like a dream. In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is a stunning work of fiction–it has the innovative, mind-bending power of Borges and Calvino, but it is like nothing you have ever read before.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Write. Trust your own voice, your own instincts. Learn your own process. Write. Learn what works for you and trust in that. Writing takes a certain force of passion, and it is also a discipline that takes persistence, hard work, and drive. Write. It is about working and reworking a passage, a page, or the arc of a story until it breathes.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I write a great deal of my early drafts in notebooks–and I will only use a certain kind of notebook that I order from a small press in New Jersey. I also only use a certain kind of pencil. Palomino Blackwing. It’s like the Harley Davidson of pencils…
By Dawn Tripp:
Thank you for this piece, Dawn–and for sharing such heartfelt thoughts about your process. I too am keenly aware of that divide we often feel as writers trying to force our creative work into the drawer while we are in the moment with our families who are our everything–which can be especially challenging during that period of heaviest revision. The characters and the scenes tug at our sleeves, begging our attention–and yes, the revelations so often come at the most inopportune times!
Wishing you all the best–and I hope spring arrives for you all soon. It seems it’s been such an especially bleak and long winter.
Erika, I am so glad to hear the piece resonated with you. To be honest, it was a strange thing for me to write those words – about feeling how my work as a writer keeps me from fitting neatly into my life, but when I wrote them, I could feel how altogether true they were and I knew they had to stay. It has been a long winter – I have to say though, sometimes I love that desolation of the beach exactly that way.
Dawn, strength of voice is one of your enduring skills as a writer and a person. The addition of life experience, that self-awareness and self-knowledge that the emotional landscape of our lives develops in us breathes such warmth and character into your work. The way you find beauty in your surroundings, capture it with words, and infuse it into your pieces creates ethereal, somewhat “other-worldly” work that is at once engaging, moving, provocative, and inspiring. Beautiful piece here and I look forward to experiencing your fourth novel!
Debi, Thank you so much for these words. This matters to me so deeply – what you write above. That question of emotional landscape really speaks to me. I know that in Game of Secrets it was something I wanted to really understand and capture – not only the emotional landscape of a character, but the emotional landscape, the human landscape of a place – a place that is beautiful – at times with a beauty that approaches the ethereal – but a place which also has a very closed, raw, dark element seamed through it. Those two aspects – the beauty and the dark – to me always co-exist, and I sit with that often – thinking it through, feeling it – while I am working on a piece. Thank you again for your words. Thank you.
Very beautiful – I can feel you talking through this. If I come and run with you, will I write like this?
Thank you. Occasionally, I do run with someone else – it’s altogether different, but sometimes it can be a wonderful thing – to share that space and time and silence – I don’t run fast, and I tend not to talk when I run – because it’s the silence and the solitude I’m want to approach. If that makes sense. Some people I know can find stillness by sitting still, I find it by moving through space, outside. It’s the stillness that allows me to write well.
Thank you for this post. I’ve just been introduced to you through Catching Days and can’t wait to look into your books. You created a whole world just in this short piece about your day. I can only imagine what you can do in your novels.Your thoughtfulness– about how each movement, space, and goal impacts your work at the kitchen table–inspires me.
“Every morning I go out and run for this precise reason–to find my way deeper into a character’s self, some key turn of a story, to find that certain edge between intellect and free creative thought, to feel that shift in consciousness that allows me to write well.”
And, I love the notebooks!
Thank you, Jodi. I feel there is nothing that means more to me as a writer than to hear a reader say that they have been inspired by something I have written. This was such a meaningful piece for me to write. Although my novels are strung through with observations of the natural world and our place in it, I rarely – almost never – write about my personal experience in such an open, direct way. So for me, to have the chance to write this piece – to really go into my day – and contemplate how those observations and experience of the world around me are inimitably linked to how I enter and deepen the emotional life of my characters – that process itself was a gift to me.
Dawn, with this an eloquent and peacefully passionate (is that an oxymoron?) piece you have given us a glimpse into the intimate world of a writer. I love your novels but this makes me crave an autobiography from you–not so much what you did with people but what you experienced in nature. You describe life by the sea better than anyone I’ve read. You come close to the transcendent.
I love what you write above. I have always said that the one book I could not write is a memoir. I find it usually so difficult to write from the place of intimate personal experience. One of the reasons I feel I have always been drawn to write novels is that, in fiction, there are so many places to hide. You can feel or experience something in your life – intensely, deeply, passionately – and then you can twist a few details, change a few bits – and give that feeling – no matter how dark or unwieldy or strange – to someone else, and allow that person, that fictional character, to bring your feeling into a new life and fate on the page. That said, I have to admit that writing this piece for Catching Days shifted something in me. I actually felt it could be possible to write that very different kind of book – a memoir – some larger piece of personal experience. I am still sitting with that feeling – because to be honest, it was nothing that had ever struck me as a possibility before. It is interesting to me – though not surprising – that you intuited that feeling from this piece.
It’s comforting to read other writers torn by family duties. Shifting gears is difficult. Even though my children are grown, I now have grandchildren and an elderly mother to care for. The pull from my writing is always there. I don’t run, but I live on a horse farm and my time outdoors around animals and walking my blind dog is my favorite time to burrow into my thoughts or clear my head to make room for writing.
Like Jodi, I really enjoyed your piece and look forward to reading your novels. And perhaps your memoir one of these days.
Darrelyn, I have taken some time to respond to your comment, because I was sitting with what you wrote above – and what your thoughts brought forth in me. Shifting gears IS difficult. The sense of being torn IS difficult. I find that when I am deep in a story, deep in the space of writing, I am living in the world in a different way, I am more open, more porous – Robert Lowell described it as “seeing too much, feeling too much, with one skin-layer missing.” That openness, I recognize, is key for me to write well. But then some ‘real life’ event or conversation or demand or personal conflict might arise, and it’s almost overwhelming, because I am in that open state, my mind is not yet put back together, my ability to process in more compartmentalizing ways is just not functioning, because when I am in my art, my writing, I don’t compartmentalize – I breathe. I am open. I am in that heightened state of feeling. And while I want to be able to hang out in that state for the sake of my work, my spirit, my art, it can make it challenging to function ‘normally’ in the ‘real’ world. I don’t always feel that I manage it with a clear-cut grace. It can be a very messy feeling. It can be visible, apparent to other people in my life who may or may not understand it, who may or may not be able to hold space for it. What you write about care-taking also struck something deep in me. The demands of taking care of others does require a certain additional piece, because you have to be present, you have to be able to be that person who is reliable, dependable, who is not lost to some vision in your head you crave to have the time and long free hours to set down to the page. The sense of guilt is sharp, acute. Particularly when you feel that pull, that sense of being torn. I have to admit: I often feel that I fail both ways. I fail in my life, and I fail in my work because I have one foot in each – and I am unwilling to choose, so I don’t do either as well as I could. It’s a humbling feeling, but what I have done with it is that I have actually begun to use it in my work. I’ve begun to write into it, to allow a female character in the novel I am working on to have that same sense of being split, being torn, that same sense of occasional despair of not being able to be all things to all people. As I move on in my career as a writer, I have begun to realize that every feeling – even that sense of failing those we are closest to, even that sense of failing ourselves – is an emotion that can allow me to move closer to what it means to Be In This Life. I’d love to continue this conversation with you, if that’s something you would like to do, either via messaging or email email@example.com. Thank you, Darrelyn.
Wow, your piece is wonderful, and was exactly what I needed to read tonight, thank you Dawn! There is so much in it that resonates for me. Your description of what it’s like to find that stillness by moving is how I feel about taking a walk by myself. And the way you talk about the creativity in revisions invites me to embrace revisions in a different way.
Thanks, as always, for this great series Cynthia!
Willow, I am glad that what I wrote resonates with you. I have to say: I love revisions. I feel there are opportunities in revision that I simply don’t have in an early draft when I am still carrying a certain angst and pressure to get the whole of a story to the page. The sense of freedom I feel in revision comes out of a feeling that, in revision, I have the chance to really work a line or a moment in the story in such a way that will allow the reader to feel and experience my vision for that moment, or that scene. There’s a kind of joy I feel when I really know – in my gut, in my heart – that I’ve done that. In many ways that joy is an echo of the joy I feel when I’ve arrived at that clarity of mind I describe that I come to on the beach when I run.
This is a lovely, poignant, searching piece. (I’m glad I stopped my Facebook news feed (of all places) to click over here.) I miss the beaches that I grew up on for all of the reasons that you committed to staying. I might envy that except for the fact that I “lucked out” rather haphazardly when I moved to the Finger Lakes region of New York over 20 years ago and over the years, grudgingly transitioned over to a love for fresh water lakes. That feeling of settling in your bones – of knowing that your spirit has come home – is here for me as much as it is for you on your beloved beaches. But there are days when I miss the tang of the salt air and the roar of the surf!
Kathy, Thank you for your comments. Water is water. That’s what I feel – and I love water in its different incarnations. Although I’ve never lived near a lake, for the last two summers, I’ve spent time at Lake George, researching my current novel-in-process. Lakes have a stillness – the woods around them, a sort of lovely shadowed solitude that is very different from the solitude of the ocean but altogether beautiful on its own terms. Landscape is such a driving force in my writing but I sense that’s because it’s a driving force in my life. If that makes sense.
Loved this piece, Dawn! Especially your love of rewriting. I agree. There is nothing more delicious. I’ve been living vicariously through your life on that gorgeous beach. (Oh, the photos!). Don’t fret about what you give your children. I’m sure you give them plenty of love. And no doubt you show them that passion for one’s art is a precious thing. You can’t know it yet, but trust me, I see my grown daughter pursuing her own great dreams now and know that seeing me pursue mine was a beautiful gift.
Jennie – I love what you say about the gift of showing a child “that a passion for one’s art is a precious thing.” I love it so much that I am copying it down and I will keep it with me near my desk. It happens so rarely, but sometimes it does happen; on occasion I will receive a gift from a friend – like the words you write above to me. A woman who has moved through more of her life than I have and has that gift of wisdom, will say to me: “You can’t know it yet, but trust me….” but will say that thing in such a way that I can hear it, now. As you just did, Jennie. Thank you.
You have no idea how much your reaction touches me. I’m so glad I could share my experience with you. Believe it.
Dawn, I love your observation about writing a first draft in solitude but revising for the reader. I also exercise to write; it frees the mind. Best of luck with your revisions!
Cynthia, thanks for hosting!
Thank you, Sarah. I am glad what I wrote resonated with you. I was on a panel at the AWP Conference this past weekend, talking about structure, and in my presentation, I spoke about something that is similar, but slightly different, from the point in the essay you highlight above. I talked about how writing may not be a linear experience, but reading is. In other words, while I build my novels in a mosaic way – piecing together disparate aspects or elements of a story, a reader experiences a novel in a linear way, i.e. picking up the book, starting on page 1 and moving through, and so it is crucial, always, for me as I revise, to remind myself that the story arc and voice of a piece do have to have a certain linear drive to draw the reader through.
Thank you for this window into your daily routine. I, too, rise early and struggle/triumph in the dark of the morning with many of the same revision issues you described. I don’t have an ocean here in Montana, but maybe I should go out for early-morning head-clearing walks in the mountains (oh, if only I had time before I had to report to my Day Job).
Thanks again for this truly lovely, inspirational piece of writing.
Thank you so much for reading this piece and for your comments. I am glad it spoke to you. The revision of my current novel has been a challenging one for me – not in terms of time or work – but a strange kind of resistance – again not to the work, (I love to work) but to a few scenes in the story that I have been simply not been able to find my way with. I keep avoiding these few chapters, saving them for the end of the revision, and that end has now arrived. The novel is a biographical novel about a female artist, and I have always thought of the story as one that is at arm’s length from my own life. I figured that was the resistance I was feeling. What has been curious to me is that the few readers who have read the book have not felt that way at all – in fact, they have felt like they were right on the edge of this woman’s mind as they were reading. What I have only just started to realize is that those few scenes are challenging not because they are removed from my experience, but because they are too close. They echo elements of my own life, my own past that I have been unwilling to look at head-on. That may sound overly easy, or hokey, but it was so startling to me – that I had been able to write the entire novel without consciously seeing the link, and to write it in such a way that its readers have felt the emotional link. If I had recognized the connection, would I have been able to write it that way? I wonder this. Or would I have been stumbling around, tripping too much over my own experience to write hers well?
It was a good friend of mine – a writer-friend – who pointed out the connection at lunch several weeks ago. It was a very casual remark. I told her I was having trouble with the revision of one section, and she said, “Well that scene is so much like when XYZ happened to you – don’t you think?” It was one of those fall-of-the-cliff moments, and I realized that I had known it all along – I had known it – but not with my daylight mind. We often think of revision as something that is done intellectually, analytically, in that cool clean light of day, but revision can have a strange, deep power that accesses those other parts of mind and heart that we might have skimmed over, penning our way quickly through a first draft.
I love that struggle/triumph you describe. It is both, isn’t it? Always.
This is gorgeous. I was lucky enough to attend my first AWP and attend two panels featuring Dawn, one on voice, another on novel structure. She blew me away! Thoughtful, insightful, articulate, brilliant. I immediately noted I must seek out her work. How wonderful to find this essay so soon after and see, yes, indeed, her writing sparkles. I look forward to reading her novels.
Thank you Dawn and Cynthia!
Thank you so much for your words! I am so happy you enjoyed the essay and happy too that you were able to be there – at the two AWP panels, on voice and structure. I have to say: those panels were a true joy, not only because I learned so much from my fellow panelists, but because I felt that the conversation on each panel was so dynamic, so passionate and honest that it really created the opportunity for all of us to see how many different ways there are to approach the writing process, and how many different ways there are to approach revision, voice, structure, story. I loved that. Please keep in touch, Sion – either via email through my website or via Facebook.
With every best wish,
Dawn I have enjoyed so much reading not only your wonderful essay about your process of living and writing but your incisive and thoughtful replies to the various readers comments. Thanks, Cal Martin
Thanks, Cal. To me, it matters that readers – many of whom are also writers – have taken the time to read and respond to what I wrote. As I mentioned to a friend recently, this was a deeply personal piece for me. I tend to be extremely private, almost to a fault, about my life and work – or if I do write about it, I write about the process in more general, less personal, ways. I have another piece coming out later this spring at the Virginia Quarterly Review that, like this one, cuts into what drives me in my process and in my work as a writer. But this piece on Catching Days has a certain tone and honesty that I have just rarely made public, and I am grateful to Cynthia whose blog I believe makes that emotional honesty possible, and I am grateful to those who have read the piece and responded as they have. That matters.
Dear Dawn and Cynthia. This piece of writing is very moving. It’s amazing how this interview has echoed with so many readers and writers, particularly the experience of being half-present, living in and outside of the page. How do we juggle writing, work, being mothers? When I had my second daughter, I knew I had to pursue my writing, as I wanted them to live with someone was carried by passion and followed her dreams, climbed mountains as well as folding their laundry (another kind of hill to scale and explore!). And even though they have to live with me being attached to my laptop and my notebooks, they are so proud of my work. I also loved reading about your sense of place and it made me think of the writer Oran Pamuk who has lived in the same house in Istanbul for all of his life. It’s fascinating those of us who chose and need to travel and those of us who are rooted to a piece of land…
Thanks so much for your words,
Thank you so much for your comment above – it speaks to me so deeply, what you say about knowing when your daughter was born that you had to pursue writing. I remember so keenly when my first son was born, how I felt that i would not have the long span of time in a day to work, but what I discovered was that his presence brought me into such an intense keen relationship with being and with the world that completely transformed my writing – deepened it – expanded it – made it altogether more relevant, and more necessary. I love Pamuk’s work. Place has always driven my stories. Although my first three novels are set in the town where I live, my fourth – which I am finishing now – is set in an altogether different landscape, but it still has that same strong sense of place. To me, place drives story. It is this element that is around us all the time – that impacts our relationships, our sense of self, our life. I love that.
I read this when it first posted, thoroughly enjoyed it, and promised myself to return to comment. How fun to see so many comments here. I’m up at 3 a.m. in quiet house to work. I appreciated the idea of revision as a “deeply, creative act.” Though I get it, I certainly drag my feet to do it! But really appreciate, Dawn, this comment, and hopefully it will inspire. I think, for me, it’s the later revisions that really mean a lot–like those you speak of when you really “sharpen the narrative arc.” It’s that Round 2 Revision I despise, which kicks my ass. Like other writers here, I also so very much related to the “half in the world / half out” feeling. I haven’t heard that spoken of a lot and I appreciated your candor about it. Cuz it ain’t easy. Thanks for sharing your amazing day.
Thank you, Dave. I am so glad that the piece spoke to you. The Round 2 revision can be challenging – in the sense that you have worked all the way through the story so it can be easy to assume that there is nothing left to discover. And yet, when I go back in for that Round 2 revision, I really work to let myself stay open to some some turn in the story, some unexpected exchange that reveals a character in an altogether different way. I guess that is what I meant by a “deeply creative act.” It’s not simply about using the edge of my mind to sharpen or polish or hone. It’s continuing to dig – and to allow myself to remain open – in that “round 2” I can still be knocked over, thrilled, overturned. I am going away for five days next week on a solo writing retreat, which I should really call a solo revision retreat. I need that space away to immerse myself in the world of the story, not for the purpose of rewriting it – it is already completely written – but for the purpose of re-envisioning a few critical passages and scenes. I feel like every stage of the process has it’s challenges and as well it’s joys. I love the early stage of a book when it’s like open water, every possibility extending out in all directions; I love that final phase, which is about sharpening, honing, and really stripping sentences until they gleam. But it is in that middle phrase, that “round 2” where something truly magical can take place – you have all that wild raw gorgeous energy of a first draft – a little messy perhaps, but so ALIVE – and you are finding those few places where you can still unpack a moment, a scene, where you can allow some unanticipated twist of the story to take shape. To me, that is exhilarating.
What an enjoyable post to read, Dawn. I especially liked what you had to say about revision, how it’s a creative act for you. This was very insightful information as was your advice of trusting your voice.
Palomino Blackwing. It’s like the Harley Davidson of pencils. Very cool!
Cynthia…I keep forgetting to come back to your blog to read this fantastic series and then i check out your blog and say, oh yes, she’s the one who has that series How We Spend Our days that I find so interesting. And I read another writer, such as Dawn on this post, and am so happy that I stopped by, not only for the discovering of a new writer but also for the motivation reading this series brings me. 🙂
Thanks so much, Carol. I love thinking of people reading through the days of these writers. Glad you found Dawn’s post. I believe she just completed a new novel–so we have that to look forward to!