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 STEVE ALMOND.
Up at 5:45 am, ratcheted from sleep by our old friend, Amorphous Dread. The basic feeling is: I’ll never get it done, the it here generally being whatever awful novel I’m flailing away at, though old AD is nothing if not adaptable.
We’re one day off from the solstice and it’s all gunmetal through the shades. My wife Erin is still sleeping. A Monday, which doesn’t mean much of anything. It’s been two decades since I worked in an office. The days all blur together.
I don’t quite have the stuff to actually get up and head down to my office and start writing, because Erin and I were up until 11:30, talking about our impending trip to California, game planning, managing anxiety, silently panicking about death, each in our own way, like humans.
If I weren’t so fried, I’d head down to squeeze in an hour of toil before the kids get up, but that’s shot because I can hear Rosalie, our two year old, on the monitor. She’s singing the Chanukah blessing in Hebrew and asking if she can blow out the candles. Then Josie’s door bursts open and she leaps onto the bed. She’s nine. Next up: Judah, our seven year old. They breathe their dragony breath all over us and ask what day it is and want to know what’s for breakfast. Life begins.
I’m the breakfast guy in our house, so I lurch out of bed and do buckwheat pancakes. It’s all just chaos at this hour: trying to get them to eat and not fight and get dressed and brush teeth and put coats and shoes on. You become a growling vessel of containment. The water is your kids.
At eight, I walk the bigs into school, then jog home to kiss Rosalie goodbye on her cute little face. “I’m going to pre-school!” she says, a statement of fact that should not be fascinating, but the tone of her voice—the sense of wonder and possibility—makes me want to sit there on the rug and listen to her mouth make words for another hour. She’s the best narrator on earth, incapable of hiding anything.
By 8:30 am, I’m down in my basement office. It used to be the garage. It’s about 100 feet square. I should immediately begin working on my latest story, which is about a young girl who gets absorbed into a rich, screwed-up family. But I do that stupid needy thing—I check email.
I’ve got three deadlines coming up, a bunch of notes to respond to, a few pieces out in the world awaiting rejection. An editor at a big newspaper—last heard heaping praise onto the essay I sent him—writes to say his senior editor didn’t like it. “Best to just move on” is how he puts it. Being a freelance writer means never having to hear the word “sorry.” I owe a blurb. A student wants me to email a lecture. A radio station wants to talk about football. I need to send along evaluations for the fellows I teach at the Nieman Foundation.
I could spend all day doing this shit and feel, somehow, “productive.” But I manage to get offline and work from 9:30 to 1 pm. I don’t mean steady work. I mean little bursts of fifteen or twenty minutes when I’m actually with the characters, present in the room you might say. I have no idea if the story’s any good or not. That all comes later. I just have to show up and keep my heroine moving through the world and see if she can get herself into some kind of honest trouble.
A shade after one, I hear Rosalie upstairs and I race up there to hang with her before she goes down for her nap. I’m in love with the kid. That’s the simplest way to say it. We love all the kids. But Rosalie’s the first one we’ve been able to truly enjoy. Because we understand now how fleeting it all is—the era when they’re entirely available as human beings. I pretend to be a monster, sniff-snorting around, and she’s terrified and enthralled and she shrieks, “No!!!!” for like a minute. Then, when I stop, she says, “Be the monster.”
I spend the next two hours working on an essay, polishing the blurb, finishing the Nieman evaluations, buying a plane ticket to Canton, OH, where I have an event next month, emailing with Cheryl Strayed and Lisa Tobin, my ass-kicking, name-taking colleagues on the Dear Sugar Radio podcast. We have a three-day taping coming up, so we have to map out what we’re going to record, which involves reading letters (I do this later, at night) and coming up with possible themes.
At 3:45 pm I do a short radio interview with the good folks at Nine to Noon, a radio show that broadcasts on New Zealand’s version of NPR. I talk about the mania surrounding Star Wars and the Bernie Sanders “data breach.” I’m their U.S. correspondent. I have no idea how this happened, but it’s made Erin want to move to New Zealand. She looks at videos online and talks about it a fair amount.
At 4, I take Judah to karate. The kids giggle and chop and I catch up on emails. To the editor who rejected my essay, I thumb out a nasty note then delete it. Discretion is the better part of employment when you’re a freelancer. Judah breaks a board with his knife hand and brings the pieces over for me to hold. There’s a metaphor close by, but I try to remember how much I hate metaphors.
When we get back from karate, it’s time for dinner. Erin’s made falafel, which I fry. Rosalie clings to my leg and wants to be held. So I hoist her up in one arm and flip falafel with the other, hoping the grease doesn’t pop and burn her. Dinner is complete fucking chaos. There is no need to elaborate.
After dinner, I do the dishes while Erin does Rosalie’s sleepy time routine. Then I read to Judah until 8:30 and wrestle with him because he needs to get some boy energy out. I’m skipping a lot of micro-aggressions. Just fill those in yourselves. At 9 or so, I start reading this strangely beguiling novel “Lake Como” by the Serbian writer Srdjan Valijarević, and by ten I’m ready to crash. Erin and I spend a half hour talking about the kids, the trip, catching up. I’m mad to make love to her. That’s how it is with us. But she’s exhausted so I settle for snuggling up against her beautiful backside and rubbing the skin along her ribs.
It’s night time again. I feel, as I do most nights, that I’ve wasted a lot of precious time. The verb “squander” dogs me. But whatever. You don’t get points for regret. My wife and kids are healthy and mostly happy. We live under the aegis of unimaginable plenitude. There is a moral debt we owe to joy. My wife’s skin is smooth and warm. I want to kiss all of it.
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’m very high on “Lake Como,” the book I mentioned above, though I’m also LOVING Michelle Latolais’ new novel in stories, called She. Completely entrancing. And So Sad Today, by Melissa Broder. Really raw, exciting essays.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Just set the bar as low as you can. I don’t mean to write shitty stuff. I just mean: Stop judging what you’re writing. Focus on your people and telling the truth, not on the ego drama of whether “the reader” will like your shit.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- When I read to my kids, I have a habit of adhering to the text until, at a certain point, I get sort of bored, or I sense my kids have, and I just make up the prose, usually in a manner that abruptly kills off the main character with no explanation. “Then Curious George climbed in the window and picked up a paintbrush and he died.”
By STEVE ALMOND