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 Nichole Bernier:
Given the number of young kids in our house (we have five), it’s surprising that I’m almost always able to wake up on my own, before they do. It must be a survival technique somewhere deep in my lizard brain, a primal knowledge that I need a few early minutes alone to have a think with a cup of coffee. I leave a thermos on the nightstand before I go to bed so I don’t have to go downstairs.
Today my thoughts are gray, uncertain. I’m expecting medical results, and though I tell myself odds are high that all is fine, I have a sense of being suspended in my day. I pick up the galley of Dani Shapiro’s forthcoming book STILL WRITING, thoughtful reflections on the writing life. The tone of calm wisdom is a good start for today.
The 3-year-old wanders to the side of my bed, face and hair still half in yesterday. He is happily aware that his missing blankie was found in the night and tucked beside him on the pillow. His arms come around my waist in wordless gratitude, still clutching the ratty silk and flannel. He will turn four tomorrow, my youngest, and I know with an older mother’s bifocals of hindsight and foresight that while a day can be an eternity, the years are brief, and my days of blankie hugs are numbered.
There will be a sitter in the afternoon, and after dropping the 10 and 12 year-olds at their activities, I take the three younger boys to see if the blueberries have ripened yet at a favorite little-known farm. It’s early yet for blueberries, but it’s been wet and hot, so maybe.
We arrive at the farm with no name, and there aren’t any cars except the owner’s pickup truck. Four white roosters and a handful of speckled hens roam the overgrown grass, no people. But down the hill the doors are open on the shed that stocks buckets, a scale, and a cashbox. The farm operates on the honor system, an anachronism for pick-your-own. This, along with its come-anytime hours, is what endears it to me the most.
I love picking blueberries. I find it much more satisfying than apples (too big, too fast) and strawberries (too expensive, too low). With blueberries there’s a calm wandering and a slow accrual. You can pick quickly and strategically—three or four from one thick bunch, looking ahead to the next—or appreciate each one your eye lights upon. There’s a Zen lesson here. Don’t always reach for the plump clusters on the highest branch, picking seems to teach, missing the fine ones right under your nose.
We head home at noon to meet the sitter and I slip off to the library, where my favorite armchair is available by the window. I should be moving forward in my next novel, pushing the plot down the field. But the farm visit has got me thinking of a scene to slip in between two earlier chapters: my main character, who is doing time in prison, thinking back on an afternoon at a blueberry farm with her ex-husband and infant son. Her ex-husband’s picking style would be efficient and strategic, like a chess player thinking three moves ahead. There would be signs of something unusual about their listless child, creating a domino effect of discoveries that would eventually lead to the prison cell. There is a women’s correctional facility on the way to the blueberry farm, its high coils of barbed wire a striking juxtaposition to the free-range chickens on the other side. Seeing the closeness of the facility to the farm this morning seems to clinch the rightness of adding the scene.
My writing time passes in a blink, as contented productive times do, and I leave the library reluctantly to relieve the sitter. Before I begin making dinner, I take the phone to the back yard and dial the doctor’s office as instructed. I am put on hold while a nurse hunts for the results, and then again as she calls for the doctor to deliver them to me.
Time waiting for medical results does not pass in a blink. There is a hang time in waiting in which the mind, or at least mine, goes to the dreaded thing and looks it in the eye, takes it on and makes it one’s own. Not making friends with it, but letting it in like an unwelcome guest who might have to be grown accustomed to.
Years ago, one of these hang times ended in an unhappy ultrasound, no firefly heart blinking any longer where it should have been. Some people talk about silver linings, and say there’s a reason such-and-such happened. Well, sometimes life is enriched by an experience, and sometimes it isn’t. It’s such a Pollyanna thing to say, that some good can come of misfortune and loss. But it does add to your range of experience, and empathy. And it’s damn near impossible not to have it influence your writing in some way.
The doctor comes on the line. The results are odd—not the bad thing but not entirely good either, but at least benign, for now. I click off the call and make room for this new information, opening the door and letting it in. And then I turn to the kitchen to make dinner.
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?
- Cutting for Stone. So many smart friends had recommended it these past few years but I never made the time. It’s a gorgeous book, complex but beautifully simple on the sentence level. I found myself constantly wanting to underline for fascinating observations about human nature and big universal truths.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- You don’t have to write things chronologically, or even scenes in the order in which they’ll come in the book. Before I had any friends who wrote fiction I thought I was doing things all wrong, not going about it as real writers do. Later, I learned that there is no right way.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I wouldn’t call it a habit, but it’s something I have done when I’m really having trouble keeping my seat in the chair and eyes off the internet. I blindfold myself with a scarf and type a scene, forcing out all other stimuli. I’m a good typist (thank you, high school typing class) and can decipher even my oddly dyslexic typos. A misplaced “s” is usually an “l,” the fourth finger on the other hand.
— Other Writers in the Series—
Glad the medical news was pretty good, and thank you for this glimpse into your writer’s day. A perfect little essay. I love your line, “The 3-year-old wanders to the side of my bed, face and hair still half in yesterday.” Good luck with the new novel!
Thank you, Richard. When I proofread the first layout of this I found the typo “wanders to the wide of my bed,” and Cynthia said she preferred it that way. In hindsight, maybe I do too. 🙂
Agree with Richard about the medical news and sentence. In fact, all of your sentences are so lovely. I can’t wait to read The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
Thank you, Darrelyn! I really hope you enjoy it. I began it just after my third child was born, and finished when my fifth came along…truly my own finished work of blood, sweat and tears.
I can’t wait to read The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D! How did you come up with this title? Will you be coming to the San Diego area in the near future?
Thank you. You know, I first had several completely ethereal titles my agent said just wouldn’t fly. TO REACH THE KNOWING was my longest working title, and she said, Wheel of Fortune-style, “Can I buy a verb? A noun?” So I got concrete, and this came to me. The unfinished work worked on many levels: it represented Elizabeth’s unrealized dream of being a professional painter, her struggle to be what she thought was a good wife and mother, and the lost last journal that represented the end of her life. And the fact that so many of us are unfinished works in progress. I’d love to come to San Diego (and thanks for asking!), but the closest I’m coming in the near future is Portland OR and San Francisco. If you sign up for my mailing list on my website nicholebernier.com, I’ll let you know if my travel plans will take me there for this or my next book. (And I rarely use my mailing list — no spam worries here.) Thanks for your interest!
Thank you Nichole for taking your time to answer me. I can’t wait to get your book.
Just placed a hold at the Library for your book; looking forward to reading it.
Thank you! Love your avatar. We have two cat sweeties, too, who are on my mind today as we’re picking up a puppy….their first time meeting a dog. Fingers crossed!
Kind of you to say. Thank you.
I second Richard, the description of your three year old is wonderful! Thanks for the book recommendations.
Thanks! Hope you enjoy the books. I certainly did.
Wishing you peace as you manuever through the medical concern.
Love your writing, easy and free-flowing, while weaving us in and out, you allow one to feel as if they are a passenger along on your journey. I felt at home.
What a thoughtful thing to observe, and say. Thank you. And your screen name reminds me that I haven’t yet had coffee this morning.
I loved reading about your day! I’m looking forward to when I wake up before my children 🙂
I really identify with not writing chronologically. And I was very interested to read about your habit of writing in the dark, so to speak. I use that technique when I’m playing piano — if I can’t remember the way a piece goes, I close my eyes and trust that my hands will know where to go. And they do! Vision can be distracting.
Yes, exactly! Without using our eyes we’re forced to see and interpret in a new way using different senses. A whole new world behind the eyelids. I envy you your piano! Wish I hadn’t given it up as a teen.
I just wanted to add that I actually discovered this years ago, that in keeping our eyes closed our imaginations can soar. As soon as we open our eyes, we’re flooded with an overwhelming amount of visual info that begs for our attention. It was when, upon waking but still in that hypnopompic state that, if I consciously brought to mind an aspect of something I was writing that I hadn’t yet figured out, the road to solving it was wide open. I LOVE that state and take advantage of it whenever I have the luxury.
Then, of course, when I’m writing, and especially creating details in a fantasy world, I often close my eyes for this same reason—it’s much easier to focus and concentrate, only I often nod off! lol
Just found you (thanks to FP … and congrats on that!) Following now and will check out your books 🙂
Absolutely beautiful and honest, and I can’t point to a certain phrase that did it for me, because the whole thing was worded just brilliantly. Nichole, I have found a new writer to follow!
So kind of you to say. Thank you.
I love your pictures and your writing style, it’s so comfy and welcoming. Also, congrats on the lizard-braininess!
Currently reading “Cutting for Stone.” It really is a good book. I’m halfway through, entirely in love with Hema, although somewhat ambivalent towards Ghosh (sp?). Maybe he’s growing on me?
There are some others on my “Must read this month” pile on my nightstand. Includes “Anna Karenina” by Tolstoy and “The Hiding Place” by Corrie ten Boom. For now.
Ghosh grows on you. He rises to occasions in so many ways.
The nightstand is a towering and frightening place, isn’t it? If mine falls, it will do terrible damage to the toddlers and cats.
lol. fortunately my cat knows better. she loves to meow outside of closed doors but could care less about an open one. Past halfway finished with the book, and I’m finding myself rooting for him. Have you heard about the book “I am Nunjood, age 10 and divorced” ??? Just saw it at Target last night. Looks like a quick (but really powerful) read. I’m thinking about re-prioritizing.
Wow, first thanks for sharing your life. I think I can relate, with a 14 year old daughter, and 12, 8 and 2 year old sons. Those precious moments mixed with the “Is today over yet?” blend so quickly into years gone by. I enjoyed a brief visit in your world.
Next, the blindfold idea… that sounds like something very much worth a try. I so easily give in to distractors, but I can also type like I play piano – eyes closed, pouring out my heart. Wish I’d thought of it!
Give it a try! A whole new sensory experience. Just make sure the fingers get on the right keys. 😉
Thanks! What a wonderful exercise to write about a day.
I absolutely loved reading about your day. It’s amazing how many little bits of wisdom we can find in our daily activities, if we chose to.
So true. And lessons.
A beautiful day filled with life’s simple treasures, yet complex with big moments. Thank
you for giving us a glimpse. Glad I’m not alone with the morning java before kids wake up 😉
I’m enjoying mine right now! And my oldest children have just hit an age where they can bring me a refresher. If they remember and feel like it.
I’ve loved Cynthia’s series for a long time because of how it shows that all different kinds of people can become writers. And lately I am loving how it introduces me to new writers as well. I liked how you described going to the blueberry farm, and how that became part of your writing that day, Nichole. Wishing you the best and am excited to read your book – I just got it!
Thank you, Willow. Isn’t it wonderful how blogs can do that? I love this one too. Thanks for your interest in the book!
P.S. When are you coming to San Francisco? I checked your website and couldn’t find it… am excited to see if I can make it!
I’m attending the Portland OR literary festival Oct 5-6, and going to San Francisco first to meet my new twin nieces… I’m reaching out to Books Inc in Laurel Village about an event on Oct 3. I had an event there for the hardcover release a year ago, and the manager Ingrid was so wonderful! Stay tuned, and hope to meet you.
I LOVED reading this! I felt transported into your life for a minute there. So inspiring!
Thank you! You’re welcome to be transported into my life anytime. Particularly if you babysit.
Haha! Well I do love kids!
Beautiful. Fresh as the sensation of blueberries in your writing. You shared as if we were having coffee with you. Thanks!!! The blankie and blueberry scenes sold me to be a fan and go get your book and visit your website. And the healing light of comments is heartwarming. Raising a family is the most wonderous adventure. I love it too.
Thank you! Yes, adventure is an apt way to put it.
I love how you said “there is no right way to write a book.” That is so true. I am writing my first, and it is an autobiography. I get so many opinions and yet which is right? The one I choose will be the right one. How we spend our days….reflections….love it.
So true. I know writers who’ve reconfigured a work as fiction, memoir, first-person fiction, and so on…. as you say, there’s no right way. But you’ll know when you hit the right point of view, or voice. Good luck!
Loved reading about your day, although my children are grown up now I can relate to what you were talking about, brings back memories. Look forward to more.
Thanks. This is a great place to check in monthly for authors writing about a day in the life….Cynthia runs them on the first of the month, I believe. So fascinating, the glimpses.
Nichole, what a gorgeous library! You must be picking high bush as we have to squat to pick the low bush blueberries that grow wild in Maine. I’m sorry about your loss – I too had a late miscarriage when it was supposed to be past the risk period. I hope your medical problem resolves with a happier ending this time.
Cynthia, thanks for hosting and the intro to a writer new to me.
The bushes here in MA seem to all be the high variety….mostly taller than I am, though that’s not saying much. I’ve never experienced the sweet little low Maine variety, though I’d love to. I grew up on Blueberries For Sal, after all!
Thanks for the kind words, and yes, I love my library. Sitting there again now.
Nichole, after reading such a beautifully written essay, I’m glad to hear the medical news wasn’t bad, and happy I’m now aware of you. I’m looking up your books now…
What a wonderful phrase — “happy I’m now aware of you.” So poetic! Thank you.
I admire the peace of mind you were able to reach in order to concentrate on writing while knowing such a terrifying telephone call looms later in the day. Is it a form of compartmentalizing? Woody Allen swears by it when he works. I wish you all the best with your health and your writing.
Thanks, Jackie. I think it’s partly the kid thing: You learn to grab work time whenever you can, and not fritter it. But it’s also a tremendous relief to know whatever the results, it’s being caught early. And we all know so many people who are terribly surprised with advanced diagnoses. I wouldn’t say this under other circumstances, but it’s nice to feel watched.