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: