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 JODI PALONI.
Ella, the rescue dog, stands by the side of the bed making sounds like a sea lion. It’s 6:43 am, raining, too early. I make sea lion sounds back. Technically, my day began post-midnight, reading under the covers, lost in Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name, the second book in her four-books series set in Naples. I’m captivated. For the past seven years, I’ve been immersed in the study of short fiction, and though I read ten or more novels a year, it’s been a long time since I have immersed in this way, letting everything else go, latching on to the protagonist, not thinking about what I’m reading as a writer, but enjoying myself as a reader.
Whenever I try to suss out why a book grips me in this way, in this case, a series, I eventually give up–no easy answers there. Yes, it’s about Italy, women, friendship, complexity. Yes, the characters are driving the story. But, what else? Something…Maybe John Freeman’s blurb on the cover sums it best: “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry & you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are.”
My favorite novels fill a special shelf in my office, ranging from slim, small press, literary gems, to doorstop-quality bestsellers. This morning, I want to revisit that shelf to remind myself what I love, but I avoid climbing the stairs to my office. What a mess! If I go up there, I’ll see all the ways in which I am behind, and it’s Tuesday, which means Art and Meditation class at 10:00. I’ll use the early morning hours to linger in the dreamy, lazy state I woke up in.
Coffee. I stare out the window. Ella roams the yard investigating her doggie stories through scent. What porcupine dared return? What neighbor’s hound is wooing her? I look up Elena Ferrante online and read until I find that articles and reviews threaten to overlay my reader experience, so I stop, but not before I’m taken by a reply she once wrote in a letter to her publisher, “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” I will honor that by keeping my nose in her book.
On the Way to Art Class
Here’s what I see on my seven-minute drive to art class:
~ Three salt farms with harbor views and fields that roll down to the water
~ Two waterfront cemeteries
~ One bald eagle crossing the road (something I see most days)
~ Dozens of lobster pots stacked against a garage
~ One woman stooped to pull weeds from the mud surrounding the post of her mailbox
~ Four crooked barns
~ An old school bus used as a dwelling
~ Five chickens lined up on a picnic table
Art and Meditation
There are two new women, first timers, in my Tuesday morning group. Joy, the facilitator, explains: “What we do here is go around and say our names. I ring the bell. We meditate for seven minutes. I ring the bell again. We work in silence.”
The Tuesday before, I almost stayed home, spinning the wheels of my novel-in-progress, but I thought that getting out of my funk could only help matters. I’ll go paint! But during the meditation, a different plan unfolded, a way to explore the stalled workings of my novel-in-progress that might shift my process from left to right brain. I skimmed through old art magazines and gallery brochures. When an image arrested me I ripped it out. I cut around it. I trimmed. When I came across words or word phrases, I did the same. No pausing. No judging. Keep moving. After an hour of this, I spread the pieces on my table. I fiddled, rearranged, as if working an open-ended puzzle: a portrait solidified in my mind of what a supporting character could look like, a phrase suddenly honed meaning, a series of nudes, sketches, paintings, women doing everyday tasks on a lawn became the big idea, the “why” behind the series of events I was looking for. With a thick black marker, I wrote lines, made notes. I felt the novel, which had begun to elude me, come alive again. I went home and wrote four new chapters. Plus, I’d developed a plan, a structure, three acts, a forward moving narrative.
Today, I return to the process and find more layers, a pivotal event, an underlying theme. I glue images over words over images, discovering that it’s the darkness in the story that slows me down, trips me up. I pull out a large sheet of black paper, rip it in half the long way down the center and tape one half to the other, creating a long linear space. Using glue and tape, I commit images to the paper. I make pockets, flaps, pop ups. I write key phrases, whole lines. I draw arrows. I circle and erase. The collage allows the abstractions of the writing to become a tangible representation, clearly a work-in-progress as is the novel that will grow and change as I draft. It’s now got physical moving parts.
After class, I do research. I’m looking for something. I’m not sure what. It’s my favorite kind of research, the kind I do from my car on long drives down lonely dirt roads where most of the houses are boarded up until summer. I find a road sign. Lockhart Lane. Perfect. I revisit an abandoned schoolhouse, the place I see in my head when I’m writing the difficult scenes. It’s just an old schoolhouse. I park my car, leave the engine running, leave the door to the driver’s seat open. I approach. I snap three pictures and run back to my car.
I have the rest of the afternoon free to write. Even though I long to flop on the couch and immerse in the perilous times of mid-century Naples with Elena and Lila, instead, I open my computer and the file, Heron House, working title, novel-in-progress. It’s the summer of 1976, a time I know well, the protagonist, a fifteen year-old girl. The setting is where I live now. I’m fueled by paper arts, field trips, a thrill, more coffee.
Post-rain pre-dusk walk.
Hours later, the sun appears. Ella’s tail bangs the coffee table–the tick-tock of the doggie clock–time to walk. We head down Old County to Ross Pond. We crunch the gravel of our dirt road, play ball, stir up last autumn’s leaves. Ella plunges the cold April waters. Silly girl! I toss a stick. She retrieves. I think about Heron House, Astrid and Zeke, Pastor Dave, Juniper. I think about how, for the first time, I’m taking more risks in my writing, amping the content–body politics, racism, misogyny, abuse–and the volume frightens me. I want to dive into the frigid water myself, submerge, and step out, washed clean of my writing.
Since the walk, I’ve edited forty pages and baked a cauliflower goat cheese casserole to share by candlelight with my husband. We hosted a neighbor dealing with difficult issues, issues not far from the ones in my novel. It’s been a full day, a balance of process and progress, real life and fiction.
It’s late, quiet in the house. I’m thoughtful. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t consider quitting writing forever. On the contrary, there isn’t a night when I settle into bed with a book–Ella nestled in her bed on the floor, and my husband deep in sleep–that I don’t feel certain of my path. Elena and Lila. I’m here. You’re here. What’s going to happen?
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?
- My Name is Lucy Barton. I’m a super big fan of Elizabeth Strout. I’ve grown as a reader and a writer alongside her writing. While Olive Kitteridge remains a favorite among favorites, My Name is Lucy Barton hones the art of the white space to do some heavy lifting in a manner I rarely observe in longer fiction. Plus, the content–the mother/daughter relationship, how what happened matters, the questions of how we face what we face and when we face it–that’s all real personal for me.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Let your writing do a bunch of other stuff, like dance and paint, or make a frozen blueberry, kale, and Swiss chard smoothie, or take a day trip on a train for the hell of it. I find that if I don’t let my brain out for recess, my characters just sit there like dullards, craving oxygen, vitamin D, and adventure.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- Maybe not strange, and I’ve alluded to it, but I play with the connection between word and image, make art that has nothing to do with visual expression but everything to do with freeing my brain to write. I paint wide sweeping blues and greys, embedding a line from a story in black, and it settles me down. I make collages of scenes. I stare at the images on Tarot cards, attempting to divine what project out of a half dozen should move to the front burner. I fold cootie catchers and make spinners when faced with tough decisions. Let chance decide. Let my visual impulses take over.
By Jodi Paloni: