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 SARAH SELTZER.
Today is a day I over-scheduled, right in the middle of a week I over-scheduled, so naturally my subconscious knows it, and I struggle to wake up when my alarm goes off. My bedroom windows in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood face south so if it’s sunny I’m usually up right away, but on overcast days like today, forget it. Instead I’m lost in wishful dreams about the day ahead, specifically about an interview I’m doing. During the dream I come up with amazing questions and the interview goes brilliantly, but also at the same time the interview gets put off until another day, and I’m incredibly relieved. Sometimes it doesn’t take a brilliant Freudian mind to interpret our dreams.
I am almost exactly 31 weeks pregnant (on my app, baby’s size will morph from “butternut squash” to “coconut” tomorrow), and I have a big deadline for a draft due at day’s end. Already, I know that my writing today will be a challenge. These days, to be honest, my work on my novel second draft, short stories, essays and even my journals is taking a backseat to attempting to stay awake all day and getting my work writing done for Flavorwire. The good thing about writing for a living is that it’s writing; the bad thing is that it’s also the same stamina-based labor that everyone experiences. At the moment my energy is being expended to its very last drop between that work and the work of building a tiny human in my abdomen. When I think about my more lofty literary ambitions, I try to accept that I’m playing a waiting game to see if my inspiration and drive shift focus or ramp up after my child’s birth. I know that just as I plan to rebuild my body after birth with longer and longer walks, then yoga, then the gym, I will have to rebuild my writing life too.
But that’s a few months in the future. Today once I get up and have my bowl of cereal, I get started writing. I’ve been putting together an article on diversity in children’s books, particularly two recent controversies around picture books that depict smiling American slaves. Critics have claimed that those books erase the true experience of slaves, and that has prompted an interesting discussion in the literary world. My job with the article is to synthesize what’s happened and to talk to some experts on how to move the discussion forward. Yesterday I spent a long, long time retracing every step of the two controversies so I could make sure all voices were heard, and then choosing the best quotes from my interviews to add to the piece. Now I start to weave it all together, writing in a way that will ease an unfamiliar audience into the topic.
Today I am so busy I’m working from home instead of our SoHo office. I try writing sitting on my couch, which is due to be replaced by a new couch (with room for three!) on Friday. To be more comfortable, I have a yoga bolster behind my back and a yoga ball under my feet. I work all morning until I need a snack, which is cheddar cheese and Triscuits, and then a yogurt, and then I keep going. Between 11 and noon I get dressed and put my contact lenses in and after that, I make sure I have my questions ready for my first interview of the day, on the phone with a young MSNBC reporter. It’s a light chat about what life is like on the campaign trail during election season. I used to love doing volunteer campaign work when I was younger, but right now it makes me tired just thinking about the idea of following a candidate around. I can feel the fluorescent lighting, the hotels, the coffee coursing through my veins. I shudder.
The interview goes fine, and I consolidate my notes, and then get ready to go out for my next interview, which is at a coffee shop about ten minutes away. It’s a place I used to write all the time, one of those cozy-shabby-chic spots filled with foreign grad students and earnest freelancers hiding behind their laptops. I will be talking to Carole Saltz, who runs an educational press at Columbia Teacher’s college, about the children’s book article. She’s sort of the last piece of the puzzle and will make my reporting feel complete.
I’m looking forward to this meeting so much that I forget to check the weather, and when I step outside it’s sleeting, with terribly high winds. I had no idea! After struggling for a few blocks, I jump into a cab, to my shame, and pay the five dollars to get half a mile away. Inside the cafe, fortunately it’s cozy. Carole is helpful and the atmosphere calm. I feel energized enough after an Earl Grey and an hour of conversation to walk home in the lashing rain. The walk clears my mind. Since the weather got wintry of late, I’ve missed my usual forays into Central Park’s North End, a restorative and stimulating part of my creative life. After battling the elements, I stop off at the grocery store and buy a few necessities for dinner, and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. It’s actually the first ice cream pint I’ve purchased since I got pregnant. Why did I wait so long?
I integrate some of Carole’s quotes into my piece and at last have constructed a very rough version of a rough draft, and then my husband gets home just as I’m drifting out of focus and looking at strollers online. We have a quick dinner and chat for an hour; then he turns around to go to a concert downtown while I take a 30-minute power nap. When I wake up, I return to the couch to keep writing and honing my draft until he gets home again, this time around 11 pm. This is rare for me; I usually confine my Flavorwire writing to work hours, but once in a while circumstances call for a late night. Particularly since I’ve been pregnant, I’ve found myself working when I’m awake and focused, which can be really at any time during the 24-hour cycle. Tonight, I put the final touches on my draft, email it to my editor, and crawl into bed after midnight.
I get as comfortable as anyone with a basketball-sized belly can get. Tomorrow we have an OB appointment early and farewell drinks with my husband’s officemates late. This time I check the weather and see that the torrential rain is due to continue into the following night; I already know it’s going to be another very long day, in a long week, in a long two months until my due date.
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 wish I could say that it’s Henry James’ The Ambassadors but that would be a lie, as that book is mostly functioning as an insomnia cure. Instead, I’d probably say The Essential Ellen Willis (compiled by her daughter, Nona who is a peer of mine in journalism). Willis’s writing on music and feminism is clear and cogent and bold; she seems to be moved by a great inner conviction that’s hard to find today when the internet makes so many of us too jumpy and hasty and afraid of offending.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
Writing is like working a muscle–your strength atrophies without practice, and you practice to get ready for the moments when inspiration strikes. I have found this to be individually true for each form of writing I do (essays, stories, journalism, op-eds, criticism). Each form is like its own muscle group that’s separate from the rest, so being a seasoned journalist doesn’t mean an easy transition to fiction, and new forms are going to feel difficult and heavy at first. But the good news is that practice helps a lot, and an extended period of writing in one genre makes a huge difference, while discipline (forcing yourself to do the work) translates whether you’re writing dirty limericks, epic poetry, or a diary.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- With both reading and writing, I tend to do best when I juggle multiple books and projects. That way, when I hit a dead end with one, I can swiftly move on to another. Or I can read one book on my phone or e-reader and one in a paper copy. This, in part, helps me contend with my massive pile of unread books without getting too overwhelmed.
You can read SARAH SELTZER‘s writing here: