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 Roxana Robinson.
This morning, I woke up around 5:30. I never get back to sleep once I wake up, so I got up quietly in an attempt not to wake my husband. I checked my email briefly and skimmingly, (though I know I shouldn’t,) didn’t answer any, had my writer’s breakfast–granola and yoghurt–and then carried my computer and mug of coffee down the hall and into my writing room. This is not my study, but an old maid’s room, a tiny room behind the kitchen, with nothing in it but a chair and a bed and a night table. I shut the door and sit cross-legged on the bed, with my computer and the books I’m using for research. I like working in a small, warm, bare, enclosed space. On the wall are photographs of interiors in my grandparents’ house, and a watercolor my father painted, of the field by the house where I grew up. But I don’t look at them while I’m writing.
I work for two or three hours. I start out by revising, in order to work my way into that place, remembering the voices, re-entering the landscape, and then I begin to add something new. It’s like painting a floor, repainting the same area over and over to get the high gloss finish, then adding some new strokes of the brush on a bare part. At first it looks strange and awful, horribly new, and the wrong color. It doesn’t at all match the rest. But the next time you see it, it has taken on a comforting familiarity. Or else it looks worse, and you have to paint over it with another color.
I’m working on a novel now, but that’s about all I’ll say about it. I don’t talk about fiction while I’m writing it. I’ll admit that I’m doing research, though. Ever since my second novel I’ve become increasingly interested in subjects that require research. It’s odd, because one reason that I chose to write fiction was that I didn’t want to be trapped by facts. But I’ve become fascinated by subjects I didn’t know enough about–groundwater contamination, mountain lions, heroin addiction, military morality–and so now I’m used to working with piles of reference books stacked around my computer.
After two or three hours I take a break and carry my computer back down the hall to my study. This room has a desk, cable connection to the internet, phone, bookcases and so forth. Now I really check my email, and this is a risk. This may change my brain from the hazy dream brain, where I write, to the jazzed-up twitchy daytime brain, where I spend much of my other life. I usually can’t stay in the dream brain all day; after a couple of hours I usually get curious about the world and check emails. I can do this a couple of times and still go back to writing, but at some point I can’t go back to that state of mind, and then I’ve finished writing, and I start in on the day. Sometimes, when I’m at the end of a book, I can start in again after dinner, and write late into the night, but not now, not in the early stages. There isn’t enough of it yet.
This is Friday, so at noon we leave to drive out to the country. I can’t wait to see the garden. The house is old–it was built by my grandparents–but the garden is new, put in by me when we renovated. When we arrive it’s raining slightly, and everything is a fresh pale green. The tall ferns are still upright, this early in the season, regal and lordly. The fothergilla, the bottle-brush plant, is in bloom, thrusting its tiny cream fuzz up into the air, and so is the beautiful tiny magenta wild-flower, shooting star, or dodecatheon. You can feel everything drinking in the rain.
We carry our things inside, and then I go out and stand on the porch and look out at the garden. This is a wild, steep, rocky landscape, full of gray stone ledge and surrounded by woods. I’ve planted a lot of native plants, juniper and calycanthus, sweetfern and potentilla. They spill out across the slanting hillside, spring up between the rocks. Native wildflowers are scattered everywhere. The sweet little wild columbines, aquilegia canadensis, have always grown out of the stones, for as long as I can remember.
As I stand there I hear a crazy loud alarming buzzing, and I duck instinctively. It’s a ruby-throated hummingbird, zigzagging through the garden. He pauses, hanging magically in front of the pale white bleeding heart, which has just come into bloom, and glows in the misty rain. His wings shimmer, and he drives his beak deep into each bloom, then lifts his head, hangs still for a moment, then whirs busily off.
I love it here.
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?
- My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. I chose it because I was stuck on a layover in the London airport in the middle of the night. I bought an American book, and then I thought that, since I was in Europe (sort of) I should buy a European one. I’d heard Ferrante’s name somewhere and bought the book. I’ve now read everything she’s written, and I am breathlessly awaiting the third book in the Naples series.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Write from your heart, not your head. Your head will get into it anyway.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I like to read in chronological order, and when I bought the thirteen volumes of Chekhov’s short stories, I spent hours laboriously looking up the dates of each story (which are not given beside the title, but instead listed in the back of one of the later volumes) and setting them beside the title of each story, so I could read them in the order in which they’d been written.x
—Other Writers in the Series—
Oh, I’d like to read the Georgia O’Keeffe biography. She’s one of my favorite artists.
These were lovely photos of Roxana’s early morning writing room and her garden.
I love the quote write from the heart, not your head. I recently attended a workshop on intuition and the heart. We need to trust out inner voice for it’s that voice that will give us joy. I think that applies to our writing for if we’re trying (thinking) too hard, joy is taken out of the writing, we interrupt the flow.
This was a very inspiring post. Thanks, Cynthia for posting it and thank you Roxana for such an authentic look into your writing ritual. 🙂
Carol – Thanks for your lovely words – I’m always glad to hear from other writers. And O’Keeffe’s story is a wonderful one – she’s a favorite of mine, too. Thanks for your response –
It’s so fascinating how we, as individuals, find what’s comfortable for writing. Some hang in bed, others at a desk, there’s those who sit in a comfy chair or sit on a beach. Computer, notepad, whatever works.
Roxana, your spaces and rituals sound ideal. The “maid’s” room is the perfect place to write, I think—no distraction! And your grandparents’ country home sounds like the most lovely, inspirational, utopian place to be inspired and just…live. Thanks so much for sharing this with us 🙂 Btw, I prefer chronological, too, when I intend to read a line of books by one person or in a series.
And, as always, thank you, Cynthia. I hope everyone’s having a lovely Sunday!
Thank you for this response – I think all writers have their own rituals. And I’m glad to hear you share my need for chronology – maybe it comes from writing biography, and wanting the story to unfold logically. Anyway that’s how I want to read it!
Beautiful. The morning, the setting, the garden. Love “the hazy dream brain” and can relate to the difficulty of finding it after checking the day’s email. Distractions abound.
Darrelyn – So many writers I know have that difficult itchy relationship with the internet – can’t get far enough away – have to have it. The only way I can write is to get out of the room that it’s in, and into a room where it’s not. Roxana
I love this series. Thank you so much for this glimpse into your life. I am intrigued by your small writing room and by the fact that there aren’t distractions there. That sounds like heaven and the fact that I read it that way tells me a lot about what I need! And yes, I too need to check out that Georgia book. One of my favorite experiences in my life so far was a tour of her house in Abiquiu that my parents, sister, and I took years ago (my uncle is an art historian and student of her work and was a part of her family foundation). It was incredible – the bones on the windowsills, the light – I felt like I could feel her palpable spirit. Magic.
Lindsey – The small bare room is the one I want to write in. With the door closed. And I’m glad to hear that you went to the house in Abigui – It’s one of my favorite places. Lucky you. Roxana
Roxana, usually when reading this blog series, I’m struck by how different writers are in process, but your process sounds quite similar to mine. I liked your painting analogy and enjoyed the visit to your garden. I shall check out your books.
Cynthia, thanks for hosting!
And thanks for reading, Sarah!
A wonderful essay by Roxana Robinson on where she writes: http://www.vqronline.org/essays-articles/2014/07/away