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
—Other Writers in the Series—
It’s so nice to learn more about you as a writer, Richard, after getting to know you from your comments on this blog. I went to Camp Kenyon last summer. Loved it! And I found Rebecca’s positive energy so inspiring, though I did not work with her personally. I’m intrigued by your habit of dog-earring sections in books to observe structure. I am a big fan of the tangible approach to studying words on the page, highlighting markers, color-coded tabs, etc.. I’m going to try dog-earring next. And reading in bed in the mornings…Big fan of that, too!
Thanks so much, Jodi. Don’t forget: a morning book and an evening book, too. At least that works for me, a suggestion from Bill Roorbach. In practice my afternoon book is usually work-related. But I lose track of any more books at once than that.
Wonderful post, Richard. I’m in the midst of Shepherd for the second time and want you to know that my first reading caused a “aha!” moment for me in regard to a WIP. We never know what will inspire those moments of clarity and redirection. (I’m printing “proceed from pleasure” in large font and posting over my desk.)
I’m sure glad to have provided an “aha,” Sheila. I certainly love them, a symptom actually that you are in a fine groove of some kind!
Richard, Reminding me about Annie Dillard’s advice is so comforting to me. Thank you.
And as Rebecca McClanahan said several times this summer in our workshop, “Writing and publishing are two different things.”
Oh, the striving for balance can be torturous, but OH, so necessary! I feel your pain, Richard! lol And you know, I do think you could have a VERY interesting fictional piece if you figure out how to combind Freud’s couch (would have NEVER pictured it like that—but its luxury and comfort were purposeful, I’d think), and Kathy and her sister’s Barbie battle 🙂
Thanks so much for another great “day” in the life of a talented author, Cynthia and Richard! Hope you’re having a GREAT last weekend of summer 🙂
Ahh, yes, so many possibilities! Always found in the struggle for meaning . . .
Richard, I, too, adore Lee Martin’s memoir and have read it three times! I also love Shepherd and hope you’ll listen to the editor who wondered, “Who is telling this story and why does he care?” Show the editor and send it back to him, so I can read more of you. 🙂
I think I burned that bridge, Darrelyn! But thanks. Maybe I’ve recovered enough to try a different journal.
So much wisdom here, Richard, and pleasure. You already know that I’m a huge Patricia Hampl fan, and Blue Arabesque may be my favorite of her works. And I, too, have read and re-read To the Lighthouse.
It strikes me that maybe I think you’re wise because I so often agree with you, which begins to answer the question, “who cares?”
As much as I love poetry, I’ve had a lover’s quarrel with the direction it has taken post 1970’s, which is a rejection of persona rooted in narrative. Because, frankly, I can’t care about a structure built of words for the sake of their own textual connections, and what I really want from literature is persona rooted in narrative. Words, even ideas, are inherently uninteresting to me, when they are disconnected from human observations, emotions and deeds. They might be amusing or clever (like Sudoku puzzles or Bananagrams or even algebra), but they leave me feeling as if something important is missing. I crave meaning in the form of wisdom for living decently.
Who cares about our experiences? People who would be our friends–people with whom we might hold long, thoughtful, interesting, ongoing and stimulating conversations, the kind that broaden our insights and develop our capacity for compassion. And there are plenty of those kinds of people in the world, enough to justify not only writing, but also publishing. (The difficulty is in finding them, but that’s another conversation entirely; and alas, sometimes I fear the kind of people I might be able to establish real connections with are indeed a minority of humans, but that, too, is another conversation).
That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it.
This is so wise, Tracy. And so interesting—and I think that’s a key to answering So What? After I submitted my post for Cindy’s feature, I came across this quote by David Forster Wallace: “I am not, in and of myself, interesting to a reader. If I want to seem interesting, work has to be done in order to make myself interesting.”
Your ideas, flowing out of your long and steady engagement, are very interesting. Stir in some more persona here, and you’ve got yourself an essay. (Steal your reply for your blog, Tracy!) And your wisdom: the point about friends is crucial. Bill Roorbach advises to treat readers as your friends, or maybe as potential friends. Which really helps one take a stance and forge a persona that’s tolerable if not engaging.
In the end, who we really are comes through in our writing, I think. All this craft is to clear the underbrush, and to help discover, release, and share ourselves. Because in the specific is universal appeal. Some won’t like a writer’s persona or what they sense beneath it. Once in a while I experience that. But more often I like writers, deep flaws and all, if they are honest and aware, or seem so, on the page.
I love and agree with EVERYthing you just stated here, Richard. Thank you 🙂
As Dad used to say, That’s better than a sharp stick in the eye! Thanks for taking the time, writersideup.
Can I steal from myself? I’m thinking about it….
And I agree with you, honesty and awareness (plus craft) make me feel as if I’m in the hands of a writer I’m willing to spend time with, even when I don’t necessarily feel a deep kinship.
Wonderful !! Loved that line..’start from pleasure… and later you can be hard on yourself to be more disciplined’… I’m an amateur blogger/writer…. looking forward to write more using this golden rule! Thank you so much!
Glad you liked it! Thanks, Manali.
Thanks, ironbuttz (love that name!).
As someone just starting to get into writing and having the love and addiction develop this was a great read. I like your idea about the morning and night book and wonder if you’ve ever tried an audiobook ? I have tried a few and found that for anything heavy on content or technicality they are great supplementation but for pleasure an audiobook doesn’t give you the sense of excitement you get when reading from line to line.
Mazzer, I haven’t used an audio book in years because I drive so little and so irregularly. I liked them when I did, but take your point—you probably cannot appreciate the sentence as a work of art as much.
I agree with your words… great stuff!
Thank you, Stuart. I love your sig of the gambrel barn!
Love this post and your blog! Check me out! Any advice?
Thanks for stopping by! I look forward to visiting your blog.
nice blog thanks for post
Thank you for taking the time to comment.
Interesting reading habit! I have the same issue with digital galleys, when I’m working on a review and want to flip back to analyze structure. It was fun to see Freud’s couch – I took a Psychology seminar reading original Freud in translation in college just for fun. He’s quite a good writer. Your writing couch is nice too. Good luck with your writing projects!
Thanks so much, Sarah. From what I have read, Freud is indeed good with prose. Of course, HE read well himself, loved classics, or at least Shakespeare.
I just loved seeing the words Westerville, Ohio in your text… I must apologize, i have not read your book, although I have added it to my list to purchase at the book store next month when I go…. And then Old Bag Of Nails….. so many memories there… I grew up in Dublin Ohio and my brother went to school at St Charles Prep near Bexley, Ohio. Many a night spent at the pub after basketball games.
Thank you – i needed that dose of nostalgia to ease my home sickness. keep on writing; you never know who you might reach.
So neat. A Dublin (Ohio) native! Well. Yep, you never know who’s lurking. Thanks for the comment and the memories, MissFit.
Thanks for sharing some insights and your story in this post, Richard. I agree with you as well that Freud’s work and theories are very interesting to read on.
Maybe it’s a Psychologist thing but I am loving that couch lol.
Best wishes to you and your future projects!
Thanks so much, David. Yes, Sigmund’s couch was a smooth looking ride!
Truly excellent. Congrats.
Thanks for your comment, Christopher!