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 Dylan Landis.
I don’t believe in ritual—I have no lucky pen, no necessary candle—but the cat must be fed before the meowing gets raucous, and there must be caffeine. I wake before seven, do the ablutions, come back to bed with two coffees and The New York Times.
The radiator clicks and hisses. It smells a little like wet wool, a comforting smell straight from my childhood on the Upper West Side. I live in a Greenwich Village apartment now. I could walk the distance, if I felt the tug.
Two pillows behind me, and one on my lap to raise the laptop. Sun filtering through pleated paper blinds. The black quilt pulled back up over me—I always wanted black bed-linens and finally I have them. My husband, waking, says, “Good morning, sweetie.” I say, “Hi, baby.” He opens the paper. It rustles. But nothing distracts me now.
This is my office: a queen-size bed, shared with a journalist and a cat. I’d love to say that I start writing immediately, while still close to the dream-state and able to tap into my subconscious—what my writing partner, Heather Sellers, calls the basement. But I don’t. I check email first. I check Facebook. I might post something, if I find a good quote on writing.
Today I’m working partly from a printed manuscript, single-spaced, double-sided, and coil-bound at Staples. The cover is palest pink and the back is sky gray. I edit by hand, and when I come to a placeholder for a scene, the rule is that I have to stop and write it. “Insert Linda scene,” the last placeholder said. “Some fear about the consequences of leaving. What’s his hold on her? Re-tune for sexuality and girlishness. Need some triangle for the bedroom part. Something dark and difficult.”
Yesterday I spent hours building the scene, then emailed it to Heather. In this morning’s email I receive her notes. We read quickly for each other. Her comments, written throughout the text, are detailed and say things like, “Stay here another moment? Add a visual—her action? Her posture relaxed?” And: “I wonder if his language is more gentle, more spiritual.”
I set the laptop on a small pillow, like a Pomeranian. This is an ergonomic disaster, and I have hand problems and nerve damage that’s controlled by stretching and a wonder drug called Lyrica. With no real pain this morning, I push through the revision.
At the foot of the bed, the cat licks her paw, washes her face, gives herself a bath.
Because it’s Saturday, my husband and I go to the gym after I’ve worked close to three hours. While I do the cable row and lat pulldown—back exercises help stave off typing pain—my mind goes to other projects, like a piece Heather and I want to do on collaboration, and a close read I’ve promised a friend on her memoir. I am not the most focused client at the gym.
At home I put on a skirt and top and tights. Dressed, I return to the office: my bed, now made. Via email and Facebook, I reconnect briefly to the world, then work a while on this piece, which has me thinking: why bed?
When we moved here I worked at the dining room table, which happens to be in the living room. (It’s a small apartment, no room for a desk.) We used half the table for eating, and apportioned half to me. I made it gorgeously ergonomic, with a raised stand for the laptop and a wireless keyboard, and over a year it got quite messy: index cards on which scene notes are jotted, pens, Post-its, bookmarks, a stray battery, a chaotic halo of printouts and papers surrounding the laptop stand.
At some point, I don’t know exactly why, I retreated to the bed. It may have been around the time I discarded a 264-page draft and began again from page 1.
This afternoon, with snow blowing sideways outside and my husband reading beside me, I go back to work on the coil-bound manuscript, with a black Sarasa pen. I’m on page 55. My protagonist doesn’t know that her mother is going to call after fifteen years of silence.
There are still many scenes to be written—perhaps fifteen, marked by pages that say simply “Insert scene” with a few notes—and I feel like doing something lighter before I start the next. So today, seeing one up ahead, I hit command-f, search for the word just, and remove it from the manuscript thirty or forty times. Then I make a note on the last page of the printout to do the same thing for very.
The snow falls straighter now, and softer.
I revise two chapters, pen to paper. Seven pages flow slowly by.
Snow turns to rain. I hit the placeholder. Linda scene here. She is waiting for an answer from Paulette.
I open the laptop. It’s time to write.
At the foot of the bed, the cat gives herself another bath.
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?
- For the last few months I’ll go with My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan series by Elena Ferrante. My friend and mentor and former teacher, the novelist Jim Krusoe, suggested it, and every book he recommends is a personalized prescription, something I need for my own writing at that moment. Ferrante’s Neapolitan series follows a friendship between two girls into womanhood with frankness and exactitude and a sometimes coarse beauty.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- She who stays in the chair longest, wins.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- Working so closely with a writing partner that I sometimes can’t tell where her editing suggestions leave off and my own writing begins—but I know she would say the exact same thing.
xBy Dylan Landis