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 RAMONA AUSUBEL.
It’s Monday, one of three days a week that both my kids are in school. It’s cold out and everyone is up early because everyone is always up early so we put on slippers and make tea (licorice for my kids, who are six and nearly three, black for me and my husband). Between six am when we get up and nine, when everyone has been dropped off, we make and clean up first breakfast (cereal) and second breakfast (eggs). We pack lunches and get everyone into clothes. Our drive is toward the Flatirons, past farms and fields. There are a few golden leaves hanging onto the cottonwoods but the branches are mostly bare by now. The mountains are clear and bluish and there is a cap of mist at the top.
The list on Monday is always long. I try to write first, before the flood of emails and tasks to be managed takes over. When I get home, I make another cup of tea and some eggs and go out to the studio in the backyard. We moved to Boulder this summer and looked at many houses, made offers and lost out, for months. And then this house appeared—a simple ranch, small but nice—and it had a 200 square foot studio in the yard and the moment I saw it on the internet, my heart raced. I’ve never had a dedicated writing space. A desk in the bedroom, the bed itself, the couch, the kitchen table, the library. It still feels weird to have a whole room, but it’s the best kind of weird.
I sit at the old-fashioned school desk and look out at the yard. I’m working on a new novel, just starting, and I’m going back and forth between research and creation. For three weeks I wrote 1000 words a day, but I’ve gotten stuck because part of the book revolves around science that I just don’t know. So today I go back to my notes and pull up a video of an evolutionary biologist talking about the different strategies people have considered for de-extinction—that is, bringing species back. The book will hinge on this. The passenger pigeon, the woolly mammoth. It’s a ninety-minute talk and I have ten pages of notes after.
I watch a squirrel work on one of the pumpkins we never got around to carving. The squirrel has managed to roll the pumpkin from the deck to the grass and is now standing on it, gnawing. He’s fat and happy.
I go inside for snacks (a persimmon, some peanut butter pretzels and two clementines) and then write for half an hour about a particular character. She’s one of two teenage sisters in the book and I haven’t figured her out yet. I know that everything I write in this first exploratory draft will change. Settings are not fixed yet, the plot is still bending and shifting, the characters are sketches. I also know that the only way to find out what I need to know is by writing through to it. After five hundred words, I have to stop because the to-do list is buzzing from the back of my mind.
I correspond with students in the low-residency program where I teach, I change a doctor’s appointment, I plan for a class I’m getting ready to teach, I book a hotel. Time zips along. It’s already one and I have just an hour and a little bit before I have to go pick kids up.
On research days the best, most helpful thing I can do is go for a walk after absorbing a lot of information. I do my best big-picture figuring on foot. There’s a path near the house that goes through a big field with huge cottonwoods and tall, silvery grass. I think about people trying to reintroduce mammoths and I think about my characters and the plot I’ve got so far and I adjust the timeline in my mind like it’s on a slider. What if everything takes place over one winter? What if it all happens much later than I’d been thinking? What if, what if, what if?
I walk fast in order to get home in time to make some notes, eat a hunk of cheese and an apple.
My daughter is asleep on her nap-mat when I get to her preschool and after gathering her lunchbox, snack box, water bottle, jacket, hat and shoes, I scoop her up and she dozes on my shoulder. We drive to my son who has three new paper airplanes to show me. We get groceries, discuss the speed of a cheetah vs. the speed of a falcon, drive home calling out any animals we see. “Horse alert! Mom’s window!”
Since having children, I’ve tried to find ways to keep my writing awake and alive even in the many hours I’m not working on it. I give my brain little tasks to chew on while I go about my day. As we drive, I’m thinking about the puzzle of a space of time in the book where everyone is just waiting, which is not an interesting thing to read about. Other events cycle through my mind. Something about a horse? I wonder, looking at black and white paint.
It’s always hard to elbow out the time to write but once I’m in it and as long as I keep coming back a little every day, my whole life shifts in that direction like a flower turning toward the sun. I notice things everywhere that change the book or belong in the book. My job is to keep watching and living.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What book is on your night table now and why?
- New American Stories, edited by Ben Marcus, which I’m teaching from.
2. What one word best describes your writing life?
3. Any obsessions?
- Birth, death, and the crazy magic heartache beauty in between.
By Ramona Ausubel:
What’s not to love? Or rather, all there is to love: The tiny house studio, and of course, I want to see inside! The line about the few golden leaves, love, and a squirrel in any post gets my vote, and imagining the shopping trip with the three-yea-old warms my heart. I get a tingle when a pending novel will teach us about evolutionary biology. This snippet particular speaks to me… “It’s always hard to elbow out the time to write but once I’m in it and as long as I keep coming back a little every day, my whole life shifts in that direction like a flower turning toward the sun. I notice things everywhere that change the book or belong in the book. My job is to keep watching and living.” Thanks to you both, Cynthia and Ramona! It’s snowing in Maine again and I am sitting by the fire encouraged to write 1000 words today. <3
This makes me so happy, Jodi. I love thinking of you in snowy Maine with your words. Thanks for being in the writing woods with me!