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 PETER HO DAVIES.
It’s the second Friday of September.
Back to school month.
For me that means back to the U and my graduate and undergraduate fiction workshops–familiar classes albeit with new faces. But for my fourteen year old son, Owen, it means a whole new school: high school. Fortunately, he seems to be taking it in stride–has pals, likes his teachers (all of whom seem to be the age of my grad students, many of whom babysat Owen when he was younger, which is probably why he feels so at ease with them). I’m probably more anxious about high school than he is, and trying hard to disguise that from him. Certainly, he’s less nervous than I remember feeling at his age facing a similar transition (a source of some envy as well as pride), less nervous in truth than I still feel standing in front of my classrooms of new faces.
Those differences aside, though, we’re both still grappling with the new logistics: an earlier start to the school day, a longer commute. We fumble and grumble our way out of bed, and out the door.
Between me and my wife, I’m the morning person, and I’ve been getting up with Owen, fixing his breakfast and packing his lunch, for years now. Still, I’m struggling a little with this new routine and driving home after drop-off it’s a relief that its Friday, that the weekend beckons. In fact, Fridays, during the semester, are the weekend for me in some sense (my prep work for next week’s classes starts on Saturday).
Fridays, during the semester, also mean a weekly indoor co-ed soccer game with my MFA students–a tradition I started close to 15 years ago. Ever since, it’s been a great, fun way to blow off steam. Writers, of course, are inevitably competitive, and while our community is generally collegial and supportive, MFA soccer is a perfect outlet for that competition: something that doesn’t matter, and that we’re not very good at! To be sure, we’ve had some fine players down the years (readers might know Uwem Akpan from Oprah’s Book Club, or Chigozie Obioma from the Booker Prize short-list, but I’ve always been as dazzled by their footwork as their prose), mostly though our skill level could best be described as…enthusiastic.
On this particular Friday morning, I’m still in “recruitment mode,” nudging new students to join the game, drawing the spurious link between MFA soccer and future writing success. But hey, Kristen Roupenian was a regular before her New Yorker story “Cat Person” broke the internet last year. Coinky-dink? Failing that, I remind wavering students it’s their one weekly chance to kick a faculty member!
This gentle cajoling has been my September ritual for years, but this Friday it’s shot through with a little wistfulness. My son is a high-schooler (and an inch taller than me), my father passed away last spring (he would have turned 85 last week), and I turned 52 a couple of weeks ago. It’s getting increasingly hard to keep up with my students (average age around 25). I used to joke that my only hope was that they were writers and therefore mostly sedentary. I used to joke when one of them blew by me, “You should have seen me at 40!” I used to joke, “I stopped playing defense at 50.” But even the jokes are getting old.
It’s a lunchtime game, and I start to get ready by late morning. My warm-up routine of stretches and yoga poses lasts almost as long as the game, plus I need to wrap my ankles, pop a couple of Advil before I play, to get ahead of the pain. I used to ache until Sunday; last week I was stiff until Tuesday.
As it happens the game goes well–it’s well attended, high spirited, heartening to see new students and old coming together–and I don’t get hurt or hopelessly embarrass myself. And afterwards, at home, after showering, comes the best part of my week. You’ll have noticed there’s been no writing on this day. And in truth there’s not much writing during any semester, outside of email, departmental paperwork, comments on student stories, even as there’s a lot of thinking about writing, and the conditions which nurture it. What there is is the nearly constant gnawing guilt of not-having-written. Nearly constant, because in the exhausted, aching afterglow of soccer, there’s an hour or two when writing would be physically and mentally impossible, when I feel pain, but no guilt. Usually on the couch.
And then…Owen is home from school. I run him to his ukulele lesson, do a super-market-sweep style dash through the grocery store in the 30 minutes it lasts, drive him home, and finally bike to campus for the first student reading of the semester, followed by dinner and drinks with another colleague.
These readings–another, albeit slightly less regular, fixture of my Fridays for almost 20 years–are always slightly awkward affairs. And since they’re typically well organized and professionally run, I have to locate that awkwardness in myself. I’m nervous for my students, of course–for some it’s a first public reading–though I’m always touched by the presence of the family members who often fly in to support them. But I’m also nervous for myself. On the thankfully rare occasions when the reading goes poorly, I feel dismal, as if I’ve failed the student. But even when it goes well I find myself obscurely on edge.
Tonight, sitting in the darkened auditorium, watching a couple of my MFAs, both good soccer players, give even better readings, it comes to me that my nagging feelings of age, of mortality, aren’t only about physical changes, aren’t just about soccer, but also a sense of a younger generation rising up. That’s a cause for celebration, to be sure, but also, I confess, one of some personal unease (it reminds me of that mixture of pride and envy I feel for Owen’s smooth transition to high school). For all that MFA soccer may be a good way of sublimating my students’ competitive urges, maybe its also feeding my anxieties about whether I can still compete with them.
That’s a deeper ache, of course, one that’s going to require some yoga of the soul (and likely a longer essay), but one I massage for now with the consoling thought that writing, thankfully, isn’t a soccer game, and lasts a lot longer.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What writing advice do you give that you rarely follow?
- “It’s not a competition.” The truth is that while we hope to learn from our mistakes, much of the time I think it’s my students who learn from mine…which means its often too late for me to follow my own advice.
2. What would you change if you were editor of the NYT Book Review?
- My job–asap. I realized a while ago that writing fiction for me is about many things–questioning, understanding, humility–but not judgement. And reviewing, even at its best, eventually results in a verdict.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- My wife observed a few years ago that she knew I’d had a tough writing day when she came home and the house smelled like bacon. Her theory being that I made bacon to cheer myself up. There’s some truth in that, I admit. But she’s lately also found that the house smells of bacon when I’ve had a good writing day, and realized I’m also rewarding myself with bacon…hmm, and I wonder why I’ve lost a step at soccer!
By Peter Ho Davies:
Peter is a charming man. I love to hear his slightly self-deprecating but also self-knowledgeable and self-testing voice coming through so clearly in this guest post. I feel a little jealous of his students. “The Fortunes” was such an interesting novel that I immediately started telling friends about so that I’d have others with whom to discuss it.
Much obliged to you for spreading the word about “The Fortunes”!