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 JULIA PHILLIPS.
I wake up thinking about Chernobyl. For the past month, I’ve been on tour with my Russia-related debut novel and winding up in conversation after conversation about Chernobyl, the recent HBO miniseries. Because of that, last night, my first quiet night at home since the book came out, my partner and I watched the show’s first two episodes. Seeing the nuclear disaster dramatized kept me gasping with dread.
While we were in edits on my novel last year, my brilliant editor recommended Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices From Chernobyl, which I then read in an endless fever dream, alternating hours of revisions with hours of oral history out of Pripyat. I would recite chunks from Alexievich’s book to friends over dinner. I was obsessed. Watching the show now activates all those memories, those feelings, the words of survivors collected more than twenty years ago.
“That show triggered your trauma,” my partner jokes this morning. He’s brushing his teeth. I laugh. “Someone else’s trauma,” I say. “Not mine.” But after he leaves for work, I spend an hour reading on Wikipedia about acute radiation syndrome, nuclear dust, and liquidators. Good books inject into us someone else’s history. They bring us painfully close to people, places, and events we might have never otherwise known.
Finally I get up. Others’ experiences recede as my individual to-do list takes over. My life at this moment is—I am trying to recognize it while living it—pretty idyllic: I left my day job a few months ago in order to promote this book’s launch full-time, which means, for today, answering emails from the couch with the cat napping alongside. I eat a bowl of watermelon while I type. Our apartment windows are open to let the June air in.
Near the top of my inbox is Jami Attenberg’s newsletter announcing the start of her #1000wordsofsummer for 2019. For the next two weeks, she’ll send all her subscribers daily encouragement to write a thousand words. I mark the message as unread—that’s a bad habit I have, saving emails for some later point when I supposedly will have more time to attend to them. Then I open the message again. Then mark it as unread, then open it. It is time to begin, Jami’s email says. Fine. Fine. I grab my notebook off my desk and transcribe 1,000 words, handwritten over the spring, into the Book 2 document on my computer. It isn’t much to move the project forward, but it’s more than I’ve done for weeks. (Months.) Damn you, Jami, and thank you from the bottom of my heart.
It takes a long time to get those words down, because I’m tweaking and fretting over them as I go. Emails sit unanswered. Still, I shut the computer, gather my things, and rush out the door because I have a five o’clock meeting scheduled with a friend. This appointment is a mix of professional and personal; my friend agreed to interview me for a literary magazine we love, but when we met for that interview last week, I was coming off two straight weeks of book tour and speaking incoherently from exhaustion. He suggested we break for the weekend and try again today. So this meeting is a do-over, a chance for clearer conversation. I ride my bike down hot Brooklyn streets while practicing better answers in my head.
Here is the challenge of these days: the rapid cycling between reader, writer, and author, all these literary selves that engage with the written word in different ways. In the morning, I’m digesting other people’s art; in the afternoon, trying to make my own; in the evening, working to sell that product, performing confidence in what I’ve put on the page. Before that author part came into the picture—before last month—I had a pretty good balance going between reader and writer. But this new three-way split has thrown me. The author part wants to take up every waking minute, so I read a sentence and think of my just-released novel, I write a phrase and think of my novel again. It’s exciting, all-consuming. It turns bike rides into rehearsals for interviews and meeting with friends into tape-recorded book talks.
I don’t want this time to end. It’s the dream of my life to have a novel out in the world and get to talk about it with people. Yet I do hope for the reader-writer-author parts to come into better balance—for me to watch a television show without being flooded with memories of being in edits, for me to walk outside with a less publicity-focused mind. In the fall, maybe, that’ll be true. Soon this launch period will be finished, and I’ll have to find a new job urgently. Transitioning out of active promotion is going to force a new routine.
For now, these summer days, strange and emotional and book-obsessed as they are, are wonderful. What a gift it is to wake up reading. What a privilege to write, to reflect, to reach out. My friend and I chat at the bar for two hours, recorder running, before he shuts the tape off and a couple other writer friends join us. We drink and talk together until the bar closes. I spent this morning full of nuclear fears, deep in research, alone; how incredible to end the night in intimate conversation with people I adore.
Coming home in the dark to my partner, I feel lucky to be alive. I am grateful for all of it, start to finish, waking to sleep. To lead this particular life—to be surrounded by books to learn from and people to talk with and stories to share. To learn about Chernobyl, all the horror of it. To have had today.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What book are you loving now?
- Women Talking by Miriam Toews.
2. What one word best describes your writing life?
3. What is your strangest writing habit?
- Writing first drafts by hand.