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 Richard Gilbert.
The essays I’ll work on this morning were drafted in response to prompts. One depicts my wife, Kathy, and her older sister playing Barbies as girls—and fighting for control of the doll’s activities. Kathy told me the story only recently, after thirty years of marriage, an amusing anecdote that illuminates sibling rivalry and her girlhood. The second essay concerns a photograph I found online of Freud’s famous chaise longue—I hadn’t known Persian rugs swaddled and surrounded it. The therapeutic stage of the severe-seeming analyst appears opulent and feels more Jungian than Freudian.
But first there’s fitness. We’re up at 5:30, Kathy’s alarm having roused us. This is a weight-lifting day. Our terrier, Belle, sees there’s no walk in the offing and slinks back to bed. Kathy and I amble outside. Birds sound absurdly loud at daybreak in the trees along our street. Westerville, Ohio, was once famous as a seat of Temperance foment but now is a placid bedroom community of Columbus. It’s only a couple blocks to the gym, part of Otterbein University, where Kathy is an administrator and I teach English.
After our circuit of the upper-body machines, we return home and eat a quick breakfast. While Kathy dresses for work, I climb back in bed to read. My morning book is actually a manuscript, a study by a colleague of Virginia Woolf’s education. I love reading in bed in daytime, a luxurious treat on a non-teaching day.
I think I rested my eyes—okay, I took a short morning nap—and must get cracking. My writing time can’t drift because I’ve got a lunch appointment. Downstairs, I settle on a leather couch surrounded by bookcases in our TV room. During the seven years and six different drafts it took me to produce a publishable version of my book, Shepherd: A Memoir, I abandoned desks. Probably because my desktop computer died and I switched to a laptop.
Last summer, with my book at its publisher’s, I began writing essays about emotion. At first, some seemed too autobiographical—having written My Story in my book for so long, I’m sick of me. And though I honor the self, its unveiled subjectivity and its unguarded yearning, the So What? question haunts nonfiction. Everyone has a story—why should anyone read my story? Craft is the answer, of course. Or so I’ve told myself. Art announces itself in form, so all aspects of form must be perfect.
But lately I’ve found myself wondering, How can I use my sensibility, like poets do? With personal events as just one aspect? When I wrote an essay last winter that verged on poetry, I wondered how a poet would tell it. I gorged on poetry, but saw that poets can ignore persona in a way that violates an aesthetic principle of literary nonfiction. When I showed my essay to a poet, he seemed irritated by the mere presence of my persona. Soon a journal rejected it because my persona was not well developed. “Who is telling this story and why does he care?” the editor wondered.
There was not enough me! Holy cow. What’s the balance here?
The two essays I’m now fiddling with began in June, when I attended a writing conference at Kenyon College. My teacher, Rebecca McClanahan, a poet and nonfiction writer, emphasized the text—the structural choices, the many rhetorical moves available, the places somehow pulsing with life. She often cited a maxim from Steven Harvey’s essay “The Art of Self”: “The enemy of the text is what happened.” Transforming what happened into art is an old issue. Emily Dickinson, in advising Tell it slant, seemed to be saying, Avoid the ploddingly personal.
My progress today consists of reading the Barbies piece and adding a bit to Freud’s couch, and feeling more certain there’s some link between these essays. Freud’s surprisingly plush sofa and my mental image of Kathy, age five, playing Barbies with her sister. Freud’s couch, repose from emotional storms: Kathy, battling her sister for control of Barbie’s emotional life . . .
“Are you Jim Bailey?” I ask a fit older gentleman entering The Old Bag of Nails Pub, a brisk walk uptown from my house, where I’ve snagged a booth.
“I am,” he says. I notice he’s carrying a copy of Shepherd.
My teaching colleague Candy Canzoneri joins us—she set up this lunch with Jim, who was a member of Otterbein’s English department for decades before I arrived. Candy was a generous editor as I worked on Shepherd, and after it was published she urged it on Jim. I thank him for his positive review on Amazon, including his warning that there might be too much sheep in it for some readers—a fair caution that lends credibility to his otherwise favorable rating.
Turns out, Jim is not only an expert on American literature, he was a genuine Hoosier farm boy. His parents raised vast flocks of chickens, he tells me. Now, in a suburb neighboring mine, he keeps four hens, two barred Plymouth Rocks and two black Australorps. He pulls out an old Polaroid that proves his agrarian bona fides: a skinny teenaged Jim stands beside a Ayrshire heifer he’s fitting for show; her lyre-shaped horns are polished; her spotted white coat glistens.
I sign Jim’s copy of my book, and run to a doctor’s appointment. After that, I plan to finish my weekly post for my blog, Draft No. 4, and buckle down to prepare for my classes.
A great day—and I still have my night book to savor. Rebecca McClanahan recommended Patricia Hampl’s Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime at Kenyon after I read my Freud essay in her workshop. A book as beautiful as its title, Blue Arabesque is Hampl’s inquiry into leisure, looking, and artistic expression. Of course, it’s about what strikes her as lovely and interesting. And here and there, and between the lines, it’s about her life—the prose not only inherently personal but stealthily memoiristic.
Ah, so. Like that.
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?
- From Our House: A Memoir by Lee Martin, about his growing up with a rageful father, maimed in a farming accident, and a loving but meek mother who couldn’t protect him. This summer’s was my fourth reading of it, one of a boatload of memoirs I read for instruction while writing my own. Like some other great books, it didn’t totally bowl me over the first time I read it. But it compelled me to return to it; the story, seemingly simple, possesses graceful narrative movement, an evocative setting, a fine balance of musing and dramatization. I love to reread such a book to savor it and to see how it works. I’m currently rereading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, one of my favorite novels for its interwoven omniscient layers that reveal its characters’ inner lives. Woolf’s insights and her artistry astound me.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- I agree with Annie Dillard: writing is about love, not discipline. The latter is a muscle you develop in your practice, not something you impose from the get-go. You’ll know when you need to be hard on yourself. In the meantime, proceed from pleasure.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- Immediately I dog-ear books at any section breaks. I want to see a book’s act structure coming and going, see how a writer broke the text and why, see the physical size of each act. This is my beef with e-readers—they flatten a work’s physical structure. Of course, when I’ve marked section breaks then I must dog-ear other pages at the bottom of the book instead of the top. This gives a weird dual dog-eared effect.
By Richard Gilbert