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 HELEN PHILLIPS.
1:09 p.m. on Thursday, August 13, 2015, at a shared workspace in Brooklyn, New York. Now my computer screen is in “focus view,” so all I see is the blank page surrounded by blackness. This is my favorite moment of the day, the moment when I get to write. Usually I try to arrive at this moment long before now, ideally by 9:00 a.m., but my novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat launched two days ago, and I have a book release party at BookCourt in Brooklyn tonight, and it’s a heady time, and plenty of non-writing business needs attention.
This publication phase has me reflecting on the dual and contradictory roles of a writer. Firstly, to spend years creating something in almost monastic solitude, to separate oneself from the chatter of the world, to pursue one’s inner vision and oddity to the maximum. And, secondly, to transform into an entrepreneur, a social creature, a public storyteller, in the months (and especially the days) surrounding publication. I, along with many (most?) writers, feel less at ease in the latter role. But I honor its importance; though there may be an early stage of any project during which I feel that I am just writing for myself, to explore my own questions and darkness, the ultimate desire is to connect one’s mind with the minds of others, to engage in a collaboration of sorts with one’s audience, to lessen one’s essential loneliness by using language in precisely the right way that a reader may say, “I, too, have felt that very thing, though I never thought to put it so.” This is what I take away from the books I love most, and my greatest ambition is to try to offer this to my readers.
I spent the first two hours of this dizzying book party day with my three-year-old and my eight-month-old, getting them fed and dressed, diapered and pottied. It’s staggering how many highs and lows there are in my home before 9:00 a.m.—tears and laughter, tumbles and leaps. By the time the babysitter arrives, I feel like we’ve already had a full day, complete with moments of total frustration and total joy. And the kitchen sink is leaking.
My husband (an artist/teacher) and I are able to leave the apartment together today and stroll together to our respective summer workplaces (he to a café; me to the life-saving shared workspace in our neighborhood). We cover about seventeen different topics in our fifteen-minute walk. One of our jokes about parenthood is that the most basic things, things we used to take for granted, feel wildly luxurious—we got to walk together and talk together, a morning mini-date.
When I’m working on a book, I avoid checking email/internet/social media before I start writing, but in this book launch week, that’s where I begin. A lot of thank-yous to send to all of the friends and family and colleagues who have been attending book launch events and expressing their support. I think of these thank-yous as a writing project unto themselves. Then I remember to call the plumber, which seems like a great accomplishment. I talk with Emma Komlos-Hrobsky of Tin House to brainstorm about the craft class on flash fiction I’ll be teaching for them in the fall. I text my husband to see if he can relieve the babysitter at 1pm so I’ll have some extra work time (I’ll swap him for some work hours for himself this afternoon, the never-ending see-saw).
And now, the rare pleasure of catching this day, of writing this all out, of creating a time capsule of this moment in my life.
In a few minutes, I’ll pack up and head home (don’t let me forget to pick up those things at the grocery store on the way). Arriving home, seeing the kids: my other favorite moment of the day. May the magical plumber arrive at three as promised, may the babysitter arrive at five as promised, may I figure out something to wear to the book party tonight (have I worn that black jumpsuit a few too many times?), may I feel tranquil rather than jumpy as people arrive at BookCourt, may I take my parents’ advice given to me throughout my childhood before any public performance: “Just pretend there’s nowhere you’d rather be.” But today, it’s easy, because I don’t have to pretend: There’s nowhere I’d rather be.
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?
- The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. I was fascinated by her book Bluets and have been awaiting this one. I love The Argonauts even more than Bluets. It’s an important, courage-giving book, and I will definitely return to it over the years.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- It’s a cliché but I can’t top it: Samuel Beckett’s “Fail again. Fail better.” I think about this on good writing days and on hard writing days, and it always helps—takes the pressure off, paves the way for risk.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- My strangest habit is the neurotically detailed daily planner that I keep (paper, not digital). I’ve been keeping these planners since I was in about third grade. For many years, I would erase each task as I completed it, which provided me with a sense of tranquility; by the end of the year, the planner would be blank again. But the week I turned twenty-five, I realized that it was such a loss to erase my days, and I switched to crossing out instead. So now I know exactly what I did every day of every year for the past nine years. I keep track of what I’m writing and what I’m reading, people I saw and events I attended, milestones in my kids’ lives (first tooth! first joke!). This is my little bulwark against the passage of time and the unreliability of memory.
—Other Writers in the Series—
This may be my favorite post of all on Catching Days. Can’t say why, just a feeling. Maybe it’s the noticing and the joy felt in everything, from husband to tree to shared neighborhood space to kids coming in the house from school. Great “same 3 questions” answers, too. I sense great heart in those. Love Maggie Nelson. Love the day planner story. Love the book jackets. I wonder how many writers can say they scored on 3 out of 3 book jackets,
I like this essay too, Jodi. All of its smaller parts and details seem to whirl together to create something bigger than the words on the page. Thanks for reading and for leaving such a great comment : )
I had always meant to leave a comment after reading this beautiful essay. I especially enjoyed reading about Helen’s thoughts on/grace with shifting between the (typically) “private” writer’s world to the more public sphere necessary for promoting a book. And I loved her parents’ advice – fitting for many situations. I also liked hearing about the evolution of Helen’s daily planners…I think a record of one’s days is worthwhile on so many levels. The columns of crossed out lines must be a lovely (and satisfying!) sight…
Lisa, thanks so much for taking time to come back and leave a comment. I also noticed the grace with which Helen navigated between the private and public aspects of a writer’s life. And I could really feel the way all the separate parts of her day added up to a lovely whole. And the planners–I save those too : )