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 Rebecca Makkai.
I’m writing this from Ragdale, the bucolic artists’ residency in Lake Forest, Illinois. I’m not writing about Ragdale, though, but about a day two weeks ago—and about why I need to be at Ragdale right now. Why, without one or two colony visits a year, I’d have no writing career at all.
The day starts with my daughters, newly three and six, screaming about a balloon they’ve both laid claim to. My husband has fed them breakfast, and as I emerge from the shower, he drops them in our room so he can head to work. They decide they want to “do the twist” on the bedroom rug, as they did yesterday. The problem: yesterday I sang them the Sam Cooke song about the twist—but now, as I search the closet for something to teach in, all I can remember is “Let’s Do the Twist” and “Let’s Twist Again,” neither of which is right, I know. And my kids know it too. I manage to dress and locate a Sam Cooke CD and load the girls into the car. We find the song (“Twistin’ the Night Away”—of course!) and I get a moment’s peace.
I have seventy things to do, but one overrides them all: the copyedits of my new novel are due in three days. This is my last chance to incorporate any changes (beyond fixing typos) into the manuscript. I need to go over it with a fine-tooth comb and even change a last few major things for my editor. The novel is ninety thousand words long. I’m on page twelve. That’s twelve, as in one ten and two units. As in, three hundred pages away from the end.
But right now I have just enough time before class to grab a coffee and do the class reading for Monday so I don’t have to worry about it over the weekend. After I drop the girls at school, I spend a half hour perched in Starbucks, reading Louise Erdrich’s amazing story “The Years of My Birth” and eavesdropping on the rich people who have some kind of daily three-hour coffee club. I’m obsessed with this group in a writerly way, especially with how the women (all young and beautiful) fawn over the men (all older and not so beautiful). I’ll write about them one of these days.
I teach class—undergrads, intro. We’re moving from poetry to fiction, defining prose (I have a weirdly hard time defining prose, which might speak to my mental state), and today I’m being observed by my department head. I’m an adjunct—this is the only class I teach—and I do want to be asked back. After class, he chats with me. The class went well, but I need to put my students on the spot more. It’s true. I tend to want to rescue them from flailing.
At 11:30 I get my three-year-old and head home. After lunch, two high school students come to interview her for their child psychology class. We live on the campus of the boarding school where my husband teaches, and although the timing isn’t great (I’m still on page twelve. Twelve!) I love that my daughters are growing up surrounded by intelligent and diverse students. Their project is on gender, but I don’t think they’re getting the answers they expected. (My daughter answers that her best friend is named Gino, she wants to be a bumblebee for Halloween, her favorite book is Curious George.)
My daughter naps after this, but before I can edit I have to send in a report on a student I’m concerned about and help promote something I’ve written for the Ploughshares blog. Finally I sit with my manuscript and a massage pillow and a cup of decaf. I’ve been off caffeine for three weeks now, because it was messing with my heart. I miss it dearly. In half an hour, I edit eight pages.
I spend the next two hours changing a poopy diaper, getting my older daughter from school, and peeling potatoes with the girls. My husband comes home (marry a teacher, people—they get home at 4:00!) and I take off running—literally, running—to my car.
I could go to the library, but there’s a guy there who picks his nose and a businessman who loudly chews gum, and at this hour the place will be filled with tutors. So I head to the wine bar, where I discover no free table. I stand there vulturing for ten minutes before a woman glares at me and leaves. Finally, I have my wine and some crackers and my pen, and about three hours before my fatigue will catch up with me. I edit at eighty miles an hour, thinking that if I had more time, I’d make the one edit that would change a bad review into a good review, the one edit that would elevate the book or win me a prize or save me from embarrassment. I’ll never find out. And I can’t put that disclaimer in the back of the book: “It would’ve been better if it weren’t for the poopy diaper.”
Fast forward ten days: Although I miss my kids, I’m in a beautiful room at Ragdale, overlooking a prairie. My edits are done—I could’ve used this residency two weeks ago, but maybe that’s for the best. Now I have three weeks of time to write, to think, to get a full night’s sleep.
It’s going to be amazing.
I have no idea what to do with myself.
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?
- The Virgins, by Pamela Erens. I didn’t choose it—I was asked to blurb it. When you agree to something like that, you always try to stay noncommittal, in case it doesn’t quite capture you, or in case your own projects demand your time. This is a brilliant book, though, intense and haunting and sexual and lyrical and important. I dropped everything and read it. I played hooky and finished it on a cold day at the Lake Michigan beach.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Vitamin B. No kidding. Large doses of Vitamin B. It gets you alert and focused, and you’re able to keep the details of your project in your mind without losing sight of the whole. It increases your IQ by about twenty points.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I can’t sit normally in a chair. Right now, my legs are folded up so my knees are right under my chin. This is my most human way of sitting. Most of my seated postures are a bit more simian. Basically, on any given day if you snapped a picture of me writing, I’d look like someone who got struck by lightning while doing yoga.
— Other Writers in the Series—
I really enjoyed reading about a day in your life as writer/mother/wife/teacher, Rebecca… And by the time I got to your answer to the third question I was laughing out loud—and just had to read it out loud to my teenage daughter (who’s sitting next to me working on Day 1 of her NaNoWriMo novel). I’m off to look up your books before getting back to NaNo. Enjoy the rest of your writing retreat & buon lavoro…
And thank you to Cynthia for this wonderful “How we spend our days” series. I don’t often make it over here on the first of the month, but always enjoy catching up when I do.
Thanks, Lisa! I should have included a photo of myself sitting at a desk for one of the illustrations, but it might have been mildly disturbing… Sending good mojo to you and your daughter for NaNoWriMo! (I am, ironically, devoting the month of November to short stories. It’s my novel detox.)
Actually, Rebecca, I’d prefer a pic in one of your “lightning-struck yoga positions than at a desk 😉
This was really fun to read, though I kept getting anxious! It was actually VERY suspenseful wondering WHEN you were going to get to your edits! lol I’d like to make a small suggestion though: if you’re looking to ward off fatigue, wine is NOT the drink of choice 🙂
And, btw, thanks for the mention of Vit. B! I’m typically low with that (I have all kinds of lovely health issues) and haven’t supplemented with extra in way too long a time. You reminded me of why I REALLY need to take it 🙂
Great stuff, ladies! Thank you 🙂
Yes, I suppose my day had an accidental story arc to it… I didn’t mean for it to be such a suspenseful day! Vitamin B is so amazing. I think I’m low too… I can physically feel when I haven’t had enough.
Yes. Exactly. Cosign.
I had to look up what you might mean by “cosign” — I was worried it had something to do with geometry — but now that I understand, thank you!
I love this! And the Vitamin B – best thing I ever discovered 🙂
Thanks! (And isn’t it great? I just keep it on my desk now because I never think of it when I’m in the kitchen or bathroom. I think of it when I’m staring at the screen trying to think straight…)
Looking for my Vitamin B as I unpack from a few days in and out of the state library in Baton Rouge. My days were spent with delightful librarians, and so were my nights as I read The Borrower in my hotel room. (Cynthia, your timing is impeccable.)
Loved your novel and this post, Rebecca. I look forward to reading more of your work.
Oh, thanks for reading both!! It’s so nice to know that my first novel is out there doing its thing while I’m sweating out the next one. It’s easy to forget!
So glad you find time for yourself to write. It’s quite a balance to be a mother and to try to be anything else. So great that you are flexible. Pun intended.
I love the idea of you sneaking off to read a good novel as that is exactly what I did with The Borrower.
Thanks…! What I’m wishing for now is time to read something that I don’t also have to grade. I can dream…
Thanks, Rebecca, for so artfully sharing your “day.” Lots of wisdom for the buck. I could feel the pent-up desire to tear in and finish, yet balanced by the knowledge it was going to get done. Nice.
And it did get done, I’m happy to report! (I’m a little terrified to see the galleys and find all the typos I missed, but I’ll be thrilled to have one more pass at the thing.) Thanks…
Rebecca, balancing career and family is never easy. My kids have grown up on a college campus, and it can be noisy, but it’s a wonderful, stimulating environment. The wine bar edits sound fun! I love how you were “vulturing” for a table.
Cynthia, thanks for hosting!
I have no shame in staking out tables. I’ve been known to do the “Hey, can I put my purse down here as you gather up your stuff?” act. It’s obnoxious, but then I’m often desperate…
I have to tell you, Rebecca, (and anyone else reading this) in my reading this again about the “vulture” behavior cracks me up. I was tempted to post this the first time I read your guest blog here, but didn’t have the time. I’m now going to take that time so you know you’re not that bad lol
For years (easily 8) I virtually lived at my local B&N. Once I made the move down to the cafe, I eventually determined which tables were the best, at least for me, but one in particular. As you can well imagine, I got to know most of the other “regulars” at the store, but also the majority of the working staff—from management to booksellers to cafe—and they got to know me. That “particular” table became known as “my” table. If it wasn’t available when I got there, I would sit in the best spot to grab it as soon as it became available. It became a running joke, and I even ended up with cafe staff offering to do things to save it for me, along with hanging a plaque on the support post, a sign on the table that said “reserved” or a life-size dummy to sit in the chair to occupy it till I arrived lol
There was one time when this girl was sitting there, the store was really busy that day (I think it was the holidays and there wasn’t another table available out of the 40+ that were there), and I was getting truly aggravated by her. I was hanging out at the end of the cafe counter by the coffee maker, and Jordan says to me, “Donna, why don’t you just TALK to her? You talk to EVERYbody else!” And I had to actually stop and think why I didn’t or why SHE, specifically, was irritating me like that. It was to an extreme, believe me. I then recalled that it wasn’t just that this was the same girl who’d occupied “my” table another time recently, BUT, the last time she was there, she kept packing and unpacking her stuff, at least 3 times over the course of a couple of hours, making me think she was leaving, then she’d just sit there and text on her phone, then pull out her computer again, then pack it up, then get a coffee, then unpack it again, etc. She did it repeatedly and drove me out of my mind that day ’cause I couldn’t get “settled” I mean, her indecisiveness actually made me anxiety-ridden! lol Another time down the road when she was there, I sat next to her and, of course, DID talk to her and we had a nice conversation. We talked about what she was in college for, etc. and I also confessed to her my little “table” thing. She offered to move, but we both just stayed put and enjoyed the talk. I’ll NEVER forget that! lol
Anyway, I no longer “live” at Barnes and my possessiveness is gone. My heavy involvement organizing a writer’s conference took over my life for over 8 months back in 2012, and that level of work and weighty responsibility kept me home and constantly working on it, plus I was afraid to get sick, so that kept me in more, too. That effort practically killed me (seriously), but there were things about it that were beneficial for me, too, (not just the 300+ attendees and faculty), and one of the benefits is that it truly broke my B&N addiction 🙂 I had started going there about 10 years ago, specifically to write since it was away from all the distractions at home. Over the years that became an inverted situation ’cause I knew too many people there, so RARELY got work done. Now I just go in spurts, usually to try to read (but I STILL know too many people for that to happen most times!) or do research or just be in there for the ambiance and be surrounded by books (sorry, but I NEED that!).
So, that’s my story. I hope it helps you realize you’re not quite the vulture you thought you were 😉
Oh, how wild! I think there’s something wonderful about working in a cafe-type situation (out in the world but detached)… But it so often winds up being stressful. There was one coffee shop I had to stop going to because the same man would always come up and ask what I was working on, even if I was wearing earphones. The bookstore cafe is just about the perfect writing spot… When I’m bored I walk to Fiction and turn all my friends’ books face out on the shelves.
I agree—I discovered that I liked the random and diverse noises and voices (that I call “back-fill”) as I was working. Occasionally they would be distracting if certain conversations were too loud, etc., and sometimes the distractions were nice, like adorable children nearby, etc. I loved that I could usually find good books when I needed to research as I went along, right at my fingertips, and from “my” table, before they removed some shelving, a measure of privacy yet still had the perfect view of the store, including the murals in the children’s dept.
Just as you mentioned the man who would disturb you even when you were wearing earphones, that was pretty common for me, too. I didn’t wear phones, but when a person is obviously busy, someone shouldn’t bother you more than a “Hello, how are you?” kind of thing. I am sincerely interested in people, so I also became, to quite a few people, much like the local cafe “therapist.” It did become too interfering, and often inconsiderate, but I can’t blame other people for all of it. I enjoyed many of the friends I made there, too, soooo…
Anyway, I write (though have barely been really writing in years) under different conditions—sometimes in complete silence in an uncomfortable position laying on my bed when something “strikes” me hard, or I’ll play mood-setting music, or there was the cafe. I often had dreams of having enough money to have my own house with my custom working space and wondered how I could somehow have cafe sounds in it 🙂 Then, guess what?!!! Just recently, someone I know posted this on their blog! http://coffitivity.com/ It’s not quite the same ’cause this is a cafe with a pretty noisy din, but turned down to the right volume, it has a similar effect 🙂 I was thrilled she posted it! 😀
And I love that you turn your friends’ books face out! I’ll bet the booksellers get annoyed, but I actually did that a couple of times, not ’cause I was bored, but because I saw them during my typical Barnes Browses and was compelled lol Of course, most times my friends’ books are face out when they’re new releases, and that always makes me smile 🙂 I’m such a “cover” person, and I think most people are which is why it’s such a big deal for sales! I can’t resist picking up a book with an appealing title and beautiful cover!
Loved this interview – I just listened to a podcast with Rebecca Makkai from the NEA and I love how she phrased short story writing – it is akin to painting a picture on the head of a pin… a well-butchered paraphrase, but the image stuck with me!
Thanks so much for leaving a comment here, Adrienne. It’s nice to know this essay lives on. And here’s a link to the NEA podcast that you mentioned in case others might be interested: https://www.arts.gov/audio/author-and-2014-nea-literature-fellow-rebecca-makkai.
Thanks for this wonderful window into a day in your life. I was doing some research so that I could give a more fleshed-out presentation to librarians of “The Great Believers” when I stumbled on it. I am heading for the Vitamin B! And “The Virgins” because I trust your taste!
Thanks for reading, Liz!