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 SARI WILSON.
This morning I woke early, at 6:45, buzzing with excitement. I had a great radio interview yesterday, and something in this act of communication with the interviewer—of being connected through my writing, my novel—still seems newly magical. It also leaves me slightly unhinged, a bit too excited, excitement tipping into anxiety.
I walk my daughter to school, practicing Spanish with her, still carrying a brimming, unfocused energy. Today I am not working my day job as an editor; it’s a writing day. So when I get back from dropping her off, I put on my sneakers and go for a walk in the park, a shrubby grass oasis with a concrete loop, raised up on a slight hill above the noisy boulevard bordering our apartment building. This park used to be a drug zone. Though no longer dangerous, it’s still pretty deserted. Now it’s just me and a few dog owners, someone doing tai chi, and oddly, wonderfully, a girl in a bright yellow fancy dress and black parasol reading in the early morning light.
For me, writing is a physical activity. I feel it in my body—when it is going well, and when it is not. So I have to work with my body in this kind of push-pull way, at once inquisitive and compassionate and sometimes firm. First I walk, then I begin to really move, my breath coming easier. Faster and faster, around the loop, my quick worried mind slows, and as action replaces thought, I can glimpse a different thought pattern, one that arises effortlessly, and the thoughts that now float to the surface are more porous and trustworthy, and when I can string enough of them together, I will feel I can start writing.
When I get back to my desk, I make some notes. I am not yet officially working on this material. Still, I feel a strong compulsion to get this down. This very early stage of writing is the most fun for me. It feels like a love letter to a future world, a future self, or a future reader. Writing in this stage can feel like dipping into a stream and pulling out a fish, wriggling, slippery, fresh, a bit wild—how often I throw it back in! Now there emerges a character I have been wondering about, he appears to be falling in love with his physical trainer—I am shocked at this thought. (After all, he is married.) What will this mean for the rest of the story…the rest of the (dare I say it) book…still years away? This is the kind of writing I have been doing over the past year in the midst of a thousand other things, cheating on my other tasks; I do it furtively, joyfully. My writer self stealing scraps of time from my author self.
So now it’s almost noon and my list of tasks still awaits, but I am feeling renewed by the writing time I allowed myself. The anxiety has shifted more into excitement, that balance righted for now. I dive into my list. I move each item easier today because of the play time I allowed myself, and also because I have the glow of the good interview in me. This part has been surprising. Before publishing Girl Through Glass, all writing was an internal process. Of course I had imagined readers—fantasized them—but even the fantasy felt blurry, not quite real, like an undeveloped scene that no matter how hard I worked on it never got any deeper. The future readers of my unpublished novel were linked with such hope, guilt, and shame, and a kind of blind willful act of faith. They were projections, ideas, ideals, that were totally contingent on my state of mind. But I am now interacting with real readers in so many ways—and it is a privilege. I also understand now that there is a kind of beautiful completion to this part of the publishing process and some part of me thrills to it. On the agenda is a long interview for a literary magazine–twenty in-depth questions for which there are no simple answers.
After I make myself lunch (arugula and avocado salad), I take it back to the computer and graze as I dig into the interview. This interviewer is a professional dancer as well as an editor, and she brings a professional’s knowledge to her reading and her questions. Each interview is its own adventure and this one brings out layered responses. As I try to answer her questions, I realize again the challenge and gift that publishing a novel puts before you—to fold back on an intuitive process that has me sifting through my memories, looking for signposts to analyze: had I meant to make Maurice a villain? These kinds of in-depth interviews, these deep readers, teach me about my own novel. It all makes the novel seem less like a static thing and more of an ongoing process.
I work on the interview deep into the evening, plunging again and again into memory and questioning, and only making good headway when I allow myself to be okay with the truth of this moment, with not knowing the answers fully. As dusk falls, I get a text from the parent who has my daughter for a birthday sleepover: a photo of my daughter painting a clay peacock at a pottery studio, where they were earlier in the afternoon. My daughter’s face is so absorbed and intent; it makes me smile. It’s strange and good to have this time today, to have all these rare hours, to be working so deeply. It’s almost 9 o’clock when I wander out to the living room and ask my husband, a cartoonist, still at his drawing table even as dark has fallen, if he’d like to get some dinner. I’m famished.
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?
- Tracy O’Neill’s The Hopeful. It’s the unflinching story of a girl who is obsessed with ice-skating to the detriment of all else. After a terrible injury ends her promising career as an Olympic-bound figure skater, we follow her psychic collapse and eventual healing. The rawness of the voice and the sheer emotional honesty of this novel left me moved and speechless at times.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Oh, the best advice anyone gave me was from Grace Paley. She said, “Just keep writing.” And that simple bit of advice has been so crucial over the years. Remembering it, and trusting it, even in the darkest hours, has taught me to trust the writing process over all else. So to move forward, sometimes blindly, is to believe that the process of writing has its own intelligence.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- Probably just that I move so much when I am writing. I pace, I stretch, I do yoga poses. But when I am really going, really in it, I can sit for a long time, which always feels like the greatest physical feat of all.
By Sari Wilson:
—Other Writers in the Series—
I love this interview. Great advice from Grace Paley (and seeing her name reminds me that she’s one of one of the mentors and teachers that my teacher, Dani Shapiro refers to). And amen to moving while writing!
Thanks, Lindsey–so glad you connected with it. I only met Grace Paley that one time–she came to Stanford for a few days and sat with the grad students–but certain things she said really have stayed with me. Another thing she said was that she had to wait for “the third voice” before she could write a story. She literally would wait–she would sweep or do dishes and wait. I’ve often wondered about this–what was the third voice? Was that particular to her process? I think she had a really unique mind and way of thinking about life and writing, nothing romantic really about it, yet…something mysterious…
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. It is so inspiring to read about the way writers go about their work and I agree, amen to moving while writing. I do it all the time too 🙂
I love the way you described the first steps of your writing process. It was both very natural and poetic.
Thanks for this comment. I’m glad to know that you move when writing too! And I’m glad you liked the post and descriptions of the process. It was really interesting to write, to try to stop and look at the moments in this granular a way. I really do love the first steps, filled with possibility and promise.
“I am not yet officially working on this material. Still, I feel a strong compulsion to get this down. This very early stage of writing is the most fun for me. It feels like a love letter to a future world, a future self, or a future reader. ” – What a wonderful way to describe this time in the life of whatever’s next, Sari. I’ve been calling it the period of “shitty-shitty-first-drafts-of-something-that-may-or-may-not-become-a-book-yet.” I love it because none of it has to be any good yet, we only have to get to know our people.
A wonderful essay and one that came at a good time for me. Thank you!
It’s been fun to go through first-time publication with you, Elizabeth…such a learning curve, right? I’m glad you responded to this essay. It’s a challenge to try to put words to the mixture of emotions and start-and-stop pulls in the period after launching a first novel…and I tell myself it’s okay to just put a toe back in the writing waters, and to be in that space of play…I loved your Catching Days essay too!
So happy to be catching up with Catching Days! This beautiful essay is so full of joy, I felt as if I danced through the author’s day with her. I love the descriptions of movement giving way to words. When I feel my writing coming to a halt, moving around is essential. That fresh first-draft writing is captured so poetically. “It feels like a love letter to a future world, a future self, or a future reader. Writing in this stage can feel like dipping into a stream and pulling out a fish, wriggling, slippery, fresh, a bit wild—how often I throw it back in!”
And a wonderful piece of writing advice, “to believe that the process of writing has its own intelligence.” Thank you!
I’m glad you found something in here, Sarah. After working on revisions for so long it’s really refreshing to be back in the beginning stages of something…when it could take so many different form. Possibilities. I guess there is a joy in that that I managed to communicate. Happy writing!
A great post! Thanks for the reminder that our bodies, too, are engaged in writing, and how to move helps us “glimpse different thought patterns.” Look forward to meeting you in Vermont, Sari!
Thanks, Jodi. Look forward to meeting you in Vermont too! Really enjoyed your post too–and I am HOOKED on Elena Ferrante as well (book 3).