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 Alexis M. Smith:
It’s an early spring day in Portland, Oregon, which means it’s raining. Actually, we’ve had a very mild winter, and I don’t mind the rain anyway. But just to give you a sense of what it looks like out my windows: gray sky, gray river, green fir trees, pink cherry blossoms. The radio announcer is promising sun breaks later, and possible thunderstorms.
My son and I woke up around 6:30. We usually do; we have synched internal clocks. He’s nearly five years old, and I’ve been a single parent for over three of those years. He stays with his dad, who lives just a couple of blocks away, two or three nights a week, so there are mornings when I get to wake up and have a quiet cup of tea and sit down in my nightclothes and get right into the novel I’m working on. But this morning is not one of those mornings.
Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, so we do it right: French toast and bacon, or egg-and-cheese biscuits, or steel-cut oats with marmalade and toasted almonds. This morning, it was leftover Marionberry pancakes from the weekend and one of these beautiful honeygold grapefruit that showed up at the grocery store this month. (Put the word “honey” in the name of anything and I will try it.) I went through a pot of black tea while we ate, he looked through a book about monsters and mythical beasts, and I made a half-assed pass through my email to see if there was anything I could quickly dispatch.
My son’s pre-school is a short drive over the bridge to the other side of the Willamette River. I dropped him off and went for a run in Forest Park, an urban wilderness area with hundreds of miles of trails. On workdays, I usually run a 35-minute loop that leaves me muddy and panting and grateful to be alive in such an agreeable time and place as this. I haven’t been running all that long—I was hiking and walking the trails before, but when you have a novel to write, you need more efficient workouts. So, last summer I started running. I’ve never been a runner, and it felt strange at first. You can’t bird watch when you’re running—not well anyway—I do catch sight of the brighter males of some species—varied thrush and blue jays—and you’re more likely to miss the fact that, say, the trillium are blooming like crazy. But I stop to rest at least once on my run, if only for a minute, to breathe and say a prayer of gratitude, and this makes up for my haste, I tell myself. The forest knows I appreciate it. I ran all through the winter months, in the drizzle, in the light snow, in 20-degree temperatures, and now that spring is creeping back into the trees and the birds are wild and chatty every morning, I feel like I’m being personally rewarded for my months in the soggy, cold forest.
I live in a 750 square foot condo with a narrow deck, which we have filled with pots of plants. My “office” is my living room. Though I have a lovely desk that belonged to my mother’s grandmother, I rarely sit there to work. Instead I sit in one of two thrift store armchairs, both of which have been somewhat eviscerated by my “assistants,” our cats, Junebug and Olive.
I’m well into my second novel now, a book that has been gestating for four years—all through the editing and publishing of Glaciers. I kept a notebook that whole time, jotting down anything that occurred to me. I tucked in clippings from magazines articles, wrote down the names of books for research and songs that put me in the mood of the book. When I sit down to write, this notebook is beside me, along with anything else I’ve been reading for research.
So after my run, I pour a cup of tea, sit down with my laptop, and put on my headphones. I’m currently having a love affair with a Portland band called Fort Union. One of their songs, “That Part of Me,” was on repeat so much during the early chapters that I decided to name a place in the book after the band. I understand that other writers can’t listen to music with lyrics while they write, but I like it. I like hearing the rhythm of the words set to music while I write, and music can evoke atmosphere with the tiniest gestures: a change in key, an unusual harmony, the lilt of a singer’s voice, a cello behind the guitars, hand-clapping. It’s something I think about when I’m trying to translate the story I see and feel in my head into words on the page.
I’m regularly lured away from the novel by email and social media, so I use the Freedom App to restrict my wireless access. I make sure my old dictionary is handy and dive right in. When I’m really absorbed, I consistently write about 500 words per hour. I studied poetry as an undergraduate, and in many ways I still write like a poet. I want each sentence to be a perfectly contained unit of thought and sensation. This means something different in a novel or short story than it does in a poem, and I’m still learning to accept that exposition can’t always be poetic. Right now if I can’t make the exposition poetic, I settle for economical. (Here’s what Margaret Atwood has to say about exposition; she says it so much better than I could.)
Is today a typical day for me? Not really. I’m trying to spend at least one full day a week just on the novel, but naturally, I have other writerly commitments. I spend time working for the Oregon Writers Colony, keeping in contact with writers and publicists for the program I coordinate–the Oregon Book Club. I write blog posts like this one (though rarely, and not even on my own website, which I can’t even be bothered to update) and answer email interview questions. I prepare for workshops or panels or readings. I look at my calendar and despair at how many engagements I’ve made and mentally tally how many hours they will take away from the novel.
I love meeting with readers and students, and though I’m sick to death of reading from Glaciers, I do enjoy the readings themselves, especially if it’s a group reading. I love the connections I’ve made with writers from across the country, and marvel at how many of us there are—how many talented, passionate lovers of words—everywhere. The world feels like a safer, saner place, knowing there are others like me out there, spending their days like this.
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?
- Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle: with a title like that, how could I resist?
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Start running. Especially if you’re working on a novel, or an epic poem, or any long project. Running has taught me so much about how to pace and sustain myself, how to measure time and space, how to get from one place to another by simply taking one step at a time. (Also: sitting on your ass all day isn’t good for your brain or your body and therefore isn’t good for your writing.)
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I compose in Garamond. Helvetica gives me hives.
By Alexis M. Smith:
What a wonderful post! Sometimes I worry about the way I spend my days and what they’ll add up to…Maybe I’ll start running too : )
I started Glaciers last night after a long weekend in New Orleans, so I didn’t get far. But I’m glad because reading this piece, learning more about Alexis, will deepen the experience for me. Since I love the cover, just holding the book in my hands felt good as I battled sleep.
Dear Alexis and Cynthia. This is another great interview. I really enjoyed reading about your running habit ( and your breakfasts!). Murakami wrote a book about his own need to run to relieve his body from the ‘poisons’ produced by writing. I can’t wait to see the Atwood link – for now Youtube in blocked. And yes, dictionaries, books of all shapes and kind and libraries. We have to fight to keep the experience of non-wireless ways of receiving and sharing and crafting words. Thanks for this piece.
PS Cynthia, this is my new book-writing blog.
A beautiful post – thank you both!
I loved this post. I like the methods and the last pic of the cat is precious. I bike when weather permits – the same process.
Thank you, Cynthia, for letting me share my day with everyone. And thank you for reading, everyone.
Well I must be very busy to be getting to this 6 days after the post. Mark me tardy, but I knew I wanted to save it for my Saturday pot of tea and I’m so glad I did. Thanks for the Margaret Atwood link, Alexis. And I want you to know that I am reading the same book, Mary Ruefle’s, which gave me a little shiver considering I am President of the Vermont Chapter of the Alexis Smith Fan Club. Just this week, we all wrote Amsterdam postcards and mailed them to one another. Cards came from Tin House. We drew names at Book Club.The rule was to leave space in the message for reading between the lines.
Unlike you, I am NOT sick to death of reading from Glaciers.
Have a beautiful week!