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 LISA ROMEO.
Midday. I feel it before I notice the clock. Something shifts, a quickening, an itch, as I transition from one part of my work day to another. From busy-ness, reacting and responding, to listening to myself, musing, dreaming. From what I need to get done, to what I need in order to be.
Many writers devote early morning hours to the quiet pursuit of new pages, sinking deep into story, putting off the rest of the world and its demands until they’ve first attended to their writing. I’m in the opposite camp.
I must attend to the world’s noisy distractions first. I’ve never been an early riser. Except for the occasional (deadline-or insomnia-induced) blip, I am not a member of the write-before-dawn club. This is how it has always been, despite a few thwarted attempts at transformation. About five years ago, I decided to accept this natural-to-me ordering of my day, accept that it is only as the day ripens that I feel most ready to write. And now that my children are grown, the empty quiet hours last most of the day.
July in suburban New Jersey, and the three H’s rule: hazy, hot, humid. When I wake around eight thirty, it’s near ninety degrees so I ratchet down the AC temp even further. My twenty-year-old son, home from college, is still sleeping; my husband and twenty-four-year-old son left for work two hours ago.
Still in my nightgown, I slip five steps from bedroom to office where cherry red walls greet me. I close the door—more a symbolic shield: I’m at work now.
My first book was published nearly three months ago—a long-awaited milestone—and because so much of a book’s performance depends on the author’s efforts, my morning tasks now are related to book promotion. And so: emails. To bookstores. Libraries. Festivals. Reading series. Columnists, editors, reviewers. My publisher. And so: social media, giveaways, more. I mentally toss out hope and goodwill with every SEND.
The AC hum reminds me of younger days working in a cubicle for a PR agency in Manhattan, twelve miles to the east. Except now I have a room of my own with furniture and art I like and overfilled bookcases. I love my home office, where I work at a large black dining room table that floats in the center of the room on a geometric-patterned black and white rug. Where windows frame our trees and neighbors’ flower gardens and I keep a wing chair for reading.
Around ten, I dress and eat eggs and a sweet white nectarine for breakfast while reading from Sunday’s (print!) New York Times. Outside the kitchen window I spot three deer wandering the yard, not because we live in the country, but because uncontrolled suburban development has taken their woodlands. They’re so accustomed to humans, when I sneak out onto our patio to take photos, they don’t run off.
Back upstairs, I continue toggling between tasks, donning and swapping various hats. First, I fix a glitch on my website, then firm up overnight stays for book tour stops—one night with a college roommate, one at a cousin’s vacation beach house. A planned stay at a friend’s house falls through so I make a hotel reservation in a small collegiate town I’ve wanted to explore.
Next, I confirm when a client’s novel will arrive for editing, then respond to new coaching inquiries. I do a second pass on another client’s essay and add more feedback, write him a note and send it off. Lastly, I compose a blurb for a friend’s forthcoming memoir that I read last week, and email it to her, fingers crossed it will be helpful.
Finally, I push aside everything associated with the morning’s tasks, moving it out of visual range. I stand and stretch, in need of a break, but before I leave the room, I place next to my computer a (paper) folder for the afternoon’s writing work—symbolic physical measures to mark the end of the business-y part of my day.
Though I adore solitude and like being on my own, I try to leave the house each day, interact with the world. Otherwise I might stay in for a week. I’m off to the post office, a quarter-mile away, to mail my book to an author I admire, along with a slightly fawning note about how much her books have meant to me. I don’t really expect her to read my book, but I hope the note might please her.
I stop at the library to borrow audio books for that upcoming road trip, and while there I replenish the stack of my bookmarks the librarians graciously leave on the counter. This is my childhood hometown library, the place where books claimed me at age five, home.
Next, I drive eight miles down the highway to a branch of a chain bookstore, to see if my book is on the shelf. I find copies, ask if I can sign them, and when I explain the memoir’s local ties, the manager places them on the “New Jersey Favorites” table. I’m overcome with gratitude and incredulity and snap some photos.
Heading home, I pick up the take-out lunch I allow myself once a month—chicken salad with lettuce, tomato, and bacon on an everything bagel. Back home, Paul’s up and we talk while I eat my indulgent lunch and he cooks himself a far healthier brunch. Then he leaves for the Jersey Shore, an hour south. I watch him jump in a friend’s car, beach towel flapping, and I’m suddenly emotional—happy for him and also jealous of youth, of idle carefree days at the beach.
Yet, I’m also pleased to have the house to myself again. My afternoon can finally begin. The demands of the outside world slough off, the chittering list of to-do’s has faded, the quiet in my head takes over.
I open that folder I’d earlier placed next to my computer, which contains seeds—fragments, notes, possible scenes. Scraps of dialogue. Complete sentences, scribbled phrases. A postcard, a menu, a receipt. Some thoughts scratched on the back of a travel brochure, which could become a reflective passage. Or not. At this stage, I have no idea where I’m going, only that the stuff in this folder, and the related stuff in my head will eventually gel into—something. Sometime. I think it will be a longish traditional essay, about four thousand words. But I’ve been fooled before. The essay that’s really two pieces, or three. The long narrative that wants to be flash nonfiction. The linear piece that morphs into a mosaic essay. We’ll see.
I spend maybe two hours, first transcribing notes from the folder into the computer, then adding, riffing, plopping in this, remembering that. I look up dates and watch a YouTube video about the geographic locale I need to evoke. That sets me down a fruitful path, and I write two-and-a-half possibly good pages before growing mentally exhausted. On that piece, for now.
Suddenly I’m aware of the light changing, and rain pelts a darkening afternoon, thunder grumbles; for me, perfect weather for writing, daydreaming. I return to the big question vexing me lately. When Sean was born, everyone wanted to know when I’d have a second baby, and now that I have one book in the world—the fruit of eight years’ work—everyone is asking about my next book. I don’t have an answer.
I reach for the notebook I’ve optimistically marked “Book # 2”. Inside are three possible topics; each equally appealing on varying days. I write two paragraphs for Book Idea Number One, then add notes about Book Idea Number Two. I re-read what I wrote days ago for Book Idea Number Three but have nothing new to add, now. I’ll figure it out, just not today.
The rain clears and as evening descends, Frank and Sean both return and pile into my office. We talk about the weather, dinner ideas. Trivial maybe, but some of the best moments of my day. Then I toss them out so I can finish up. I’ve worked mostly at home for years and I like to bring the workday to a proper end, then close the office door. (Please don’t ask how often I violate this, how many evenings I find myself in here again.)
I hear Sean chopping vegetables and see Frank on the patio pulling the cover off the grill. The rainstorm halved the humidity, and I know he’ll suggest we drive the few miles to his mother’s house after dinner for a swim. But first, I make tomorrow’s to-do list.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. Is there a book you return to again and again?
- In recent years, it’s been Making Toast, by Roger Rosenblatt. There’s something about the way he creates a narrative that’s satisfying and rich, yet breaks it into varying lengths and segmented pieces, that I love and want to get better at myself. His imagery and specific visual details stay with me.
2. What is one thing you’ve been surprised about in the publication process?
- The giant machine of book PR, promotion, publicity that has to be fed from early on and kept stoked daily! This should not have surprised me, having spent 10-plus years working in PR myself. But it did.
3. What are your obsessions?
- The print Sunday New York Times. British crime series and period dramas. Dark chocolate. Great hotels. Sharp pencils. New notebooks. Old postcards.
By Lisa Romeo:
Lisa, love how you structure your days; I am not one of those “morning pages” people either. Seems a no-brainer to do the urgent work first, and make creative space for the afternoon.
I believe we all need to find our own rhythm, even if that’s different than most. Writing is so hard, why complicate it by trying to adhere to one that didn’t feel natural? Thanks for reading. Good luck with your own work.