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 MCCANN.
To my surprise, when I consider it, I do have a few daily habits. Every morning when I wake, for instance, I down about a dozen pills, including a small white capsule of Prograf, which, despite its numerous side effects—non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and skin cancers, for example, and renal insufficiency leading over time to end-stage kidney failure—remains my favorite medication. After all, it’s made from a fungus some scientist found at the base of Mount Fuji while searching for a cure for cancer. For that, the fungus proved useless. But it did turn out to be a powerful immunosuppressant capable of reducing a transplant recipient’s immune function and lowering the risk of organ rejection. I’ve been taking it twice daily ever since my liver transplant, now almost nineteen years ago. Nineteen years. In liver transplant terms, that’s rather like saying I’m a survivor of the Carboniferous Period 300 million years ago.
That’s what one might consider the first step in my “writing practice”: taking the pills that keep me alive. It’s hard to pull apart life and art, as it turns out, especially for writers like me, perhaps, who derive their art straight from their lives. I’ve been writing about the transplant, that is, immersing myself over and over again in an experience—an experience of trauma, to be accurate—that I often told myself, at least back then, I never wanted to have. Oftentimes, I approach these immersions with anxiety and dread, tricking myself into believing that I’m not really writing. I’m just jotting down a fragment or two, I tell myself, of something I remember—that’s all. I find myself back in the room where I was prepped for surgery, an anesthesiologist warning me as he inserts arterial lines into my hands and then something into what feels like my collarbone, “This is going to hurt.” Or I’m back in my hospital bed in the days after surgery, frightened by the hallucinations the many drugs have given me, as the practical nurse whom I like best—a large woman named Ruby, with a black pageboy wig and a pair of crystal earrings that bounce the light onto the ceiling—leans over me and takes my hands in hers, telling me, “Baby, hang in there—Jesus would never have carried you this far just to drop you now….”
Often these memories come quickly, and in only the last minutes of writing, when I’m about to rise from my desk. Like what some therapists call a “doorknob disclosure,” when the patient makes a difficult revelation at the end of a session, just as he puts his hand on the doorknob to leave. It’s safer to speak like that, standing in a threshold.
I put the fragments into folders, hoping that I’ll be able to arrange them at least into some kind of primitive narrative, though it often occurs to me, as I file them, that it’s the fragments, the residue, that matter most, more than any chronology I might cobble from them. The last thing I’d want to write, I tell myself, is a medical adventure, especially the kind in which the doctors are the only heroes. I write at home in a cluttered room.
I write at home at a paper-strewn desk, over which I’ve placed framed photos of Walt Whitman and Bette Davis—my spiritual parents, one might say. And there’s my imaginary sister, Jean Rhys, too, just over to the side a little.
As I write this now, however, I’m concerned that I’ve somehow misrepresented myself, that I’ve made it seem I have some sort of writing practice, however crude, that I daily follow. In truth, I have almost no writing practice at all, especially during the academic year, when I find myself lurching from task to event to task. Standing by the broken dishwasher, wondering why I ever bought a damn Kenmore. Why didn’t I buy something better? Hours waiting at the Social Security office downtown, trying to rectify some bureaucratic problem that’s become important now that I’m preparing to retire. An MRI of the abdomen. Lab tests, detailing my blood counts. The deluge of email. Letters of recommendation. MFA theses. What’s that line from Dickinson?—“and when I try to organize/ my little force explodes….”
For immersion, I need larger blocks of time than I can afford during the school year. Time to lie on the sofa and let my mind wander loosely until it engages with some detail that feels like it matters. Time to turn a single sentence for hours, until the syntax starts to feel true. Grace Paley:
I have a basic indolence about me that is essential to writing…. It’s thinking time, it’s hanging-out time, it’s daydreaming time. You know, it’s lie-around-the-bed time, it’s sitting-like-a-dope-in-your-chair time. And that seems to me essential to my work. Some people will do it just sitting at their desks looking serious, but I don’t.
And time for life, of course, with its pleasures and requirements. Here’s a secret: after the transplant, I had almost no desire to write about it. Instead, as soon as I was well enough, I took up white-water canoeing with my friend Bert, with whom I was in love. All I wanted was sunshine and buoyancy and rapids; I wanted simply to look at Bert’s naked back as he paddled in the bow seat before me, to gaze upon his naked back and the blue Virginia sky. I was alive.
Now that time has passed, I write about these moments piece by piece—I write slowly, in the summer, say, at Yaddo or lying by the pool. My practice on ideal days like these? First, a morning latte. Then write a thick paragraph or two. Take a walk, while revising and memorizing the sentence that I believe will come next. Have a second coffee at a street café. Look around at the passers-by, realizing how lucky I am still to be alive. Go back home and write stuff down—enough stuff to give me the confidence to keep moving forward. I take my meds. I try to stay, as the doctors say, compliant.
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?
- I’ve just finished reading James Joyce’s “The Dead” once again, my favorite story, which I read aloud to myself about twice a year. How did I choose it? It feels as if it chose me.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- The only way to move forward, as my friend Suzanne Snider says, is by moving forward.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I don’t know that it’s strange, but I revise as I go, word by word, moving forward only if I gain confidence from what I’ve just done.
By RICHARD MCCANN: