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 DEREK PALACIO.
Today will be an odd day because I’m going to be away from home, which means I’ll be away from my two-year-old daughter. The day begins as it usually does: my wife, daughter, and I have a quick breakfast before readying to leave the house. Daycare begins at eight thirty, which means that after rising from bed sometime between six thirty and seven, we usually have time to linger over a bowl of cereal or spend fifteen minutes getting dressed. This morning, though, my flight is early, so we move at a pace, and I find myself quickly and quietly waiting at a JetBlue gate for a flight that will take me first to Boston and then to Pittsburgh for a reading. It is not yet eight o’clock.
I’m married to another writer, Claire Vaye Watkins, and because of her tremendous talents and energy, she is called away from home sometimes, asked to visit such-and-such university, or to participate in any number of lucky-to-have-her reading series. When she is home, she is a dedicated professor in the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. Because of these achievements, and because I do not have a full-time teaching position, I have become the lead parent in our household, the one most often at home with our daughter, the one in charge of her day-to-day life.
I was fortunate to publish my first novel this past fall, and for a month or so after its release, I was on the road and away from home most weekends. I even had the opportunity to visit Cuba for the first time (my father was born on the island). Yet despite that brief and intense period of travel and professional engagement, I still find myself, today included, suffering an insistent hollow, a pocket of air where I expect a tiny, willful human to be. Traveling without my daughter is not traveling without my heart, as I am tempted to say, cliché as it is; better to say it is traveling without one of my lungs, the void an impediment, the absence of something slowing me down. I have grown more than accustomed to and wanting of her presence, and my assumption that my travels this past fall would lessen that anxious attraction—looking over my shoulder as though I have let her out of sight, mistrusting all silence, edgy with the energy I must usually divert to her care—proves untrue. I have lost the feeling, in some ways, for my body on its own, both happily and unhappily so.
This is slightly magical in certain ways. I know I won’t be waking up with her tomorrow, and that means I don’t have to consider what clothes she’ll wear in the morning, whether we are out of milk or cheese for lunch, or what errands I should do before picking her up from daycare. Consequently, on the plane from Detroit to Boston, I read eighty pages of Masha Gessen’s The Man without a Face, and I absorb it all. I experience a reading mind that seems (though I know this is not true) sometimes impossible under the circumstances of normal parenthood. My brain wants for diversion, maybe, or perhaps another kind of immersion, something else to pour its attention into. At the same time, there is too much time. Minutes often feel precious when I am with my daughter, certainly in regard to getting work done, but also during moments of intense joy, such as at night, sometimes, when we are putting on her footed pajamas and she wants desperately to squeeze the skin of my cheeks for no other reason than to enjoy the beardy feel of them. But now, away from her, the minutes seem excessive, unfillable. Or I have been given the wrong minutes, hours just for me when I am used to sharing them.
On the flight from Boston to Pittsburgh, I read more of Gessen’s engrossing book, and I tell myself that when I get to Pittsburgh, I’ll use my “free” time wisely. It’s Wednesday, and I won’t leave till Friday morning, but I have no obligations until tomorrow, Thursday. I can write all afternoon. I can write late into the night, go to bed and wake early, and then write some more. I can finish a new short story—really an old short story, one I started over a year ago and put aside and didn’t think I would come back to, about a Cuban baseball player who defects to America, who probably has to go home in the end—and then compare it to the other finished stories I’ve composed these past six years. I sit alone and wonder if together they amount to a collection, if I can convince my agent they undoubtedly are a collection.
My accommodations in Pittsburgh are lovely and luxurious. I have been put up in an historic mansion turned ornate bed-and-breakfast near The National Aviary. By the time I settle in and touch base with my host—the marvelous City of Asylum—it’s late afternoon. I take a drizzly walk to a local coffee shop and spend an hour there reading and responding to emails. I have that story in my mind, but I don’t open the document on my computer. I think about it, and I think about a writer, Lee K. Abbott, I’ve been rereading. The story is perhaps inspired by his own style, which utilizes a dynamic verbosity this baseball narrative is finding energy from. I wonder if I can keep up the same pace and energy that Abbott does in his work. Probably not.
I walk, along the edge of a park, to a Giant Eagle, and because I’m cheap when I travel alone—I don’t like to celebrate by myself, good meals and the like being pleasures I can only enjoy in the company of others—I buy a takeout salad and a Coke Zero. I don’t drink soda at home, so it is a kind of splurge. I eat at the antique-ish writing desk in my room, and I feel the urge to read the rest of Gessen’s book and forgo any writing tonight. These days I usually do my writing in the morning, and lately I’ve even been able to get up around five thirty and write before my daughter wakes, an endeavor that is sleepy and slow, but feels palpably ecstatic at the end, as though I’ve filched something from the universe. Usually it is just an hour, and I might attempt thirty minutes of writing tonight before I go to bed. I only demand three hundred words a day from myself lately, partially because it always seems possible, within reach.
This hope does not materialize, and I think that’s all right. I have spent the day learning to be alone again, and sitting still without a cause feels refreshing. There is nothing pulling me in any direction, and I can think about the story without putting words on the page. It can have the whole of my mind for the next forty-eight hours, whether or not that leads to “work.” And then I will go home, which I’m already looking forward to. I’ll very quickly see my wife and daughter again.
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?
- Masha Gessen’s The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. It’s a book that not only charts the authoritarian’s rise, but also illuminates with intelligence and urgency the condition under which he was able to consolidate his power. An enlightening and terrifying read, considering our current administration. I got the book after recently seeing Samantha Bee interview Masha Gessen and remembering how much I’ve been wanting to read her work.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- You can write a whole draft of a novel rather quickly on just 300 words a day, three or four days a week. No need to rush.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- In the past I had a—for a while unconscious—habit of needing to finish a story wherever I had started it. So if I began a story at my writing desk, I would have to finish it there. If I began a story at a coffee shop, I would go back to the coffee shop when I got to the end. This isn’t really true anymore, but every now and then I do return to the physical place where I started writing a piece, especially if I am dealing with a difficult narrative problem or situation. I don’t know why, but doing so can sometimes remind me what got the story off the ground in the first place, and where, as a result, to take it next.
By Derek Palacio:
This was a delight to read, thank you so much for sharing your day. I love this habit of returning to the same place you started a story in order to finish it. I tend to do exactly the opposite if I’m stuck in any way–I start shifting whatever I’ve been doing. I’ll go from keyboard to paper, from one room to another. But that’s an in-the-moment strategy. Now I’m going to try returning to the “birthplace” for a difficult revision (I’ve got several coming) and see if it helps. Good luck on that baseball story and with future moments of being alone.
Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts, Claire! I will say I don’t get to return to the same writing place as often as I’d like. I think this has to do with the family life and the flexibility that demands of my writing self now. I grew up Catholic, though, so rituals are a large part of my perspective on the world, and it is nice (and I notice a difference) when I sometimes get 2 or 3 days in a row to do the same routine in the morning, to approach the same desk or writing space. Something does click into place in my mind. Thanks again for your thoughts!