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 CYNTHIA NEWBERRY MARTIN.
On Sunday, March 26, 1995, with child #4 almost two years old, I had a moment where no one needed me. I’ve always been a reader, and during the years my children were young, books were my lifeline. And so, at 38, I made my first attempt at creative writing.
Flash forward 24 years to a Tuesday morning in September of 2019 when I wake to an alarm in the dark, my husband, Cal, asleep beside me. I swing my feet to the floor where they land on Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, this book a result of Ross’s year-long practice of writing an essay a day on something delightful. Tidal Flats was officially published the day before. A day when delight was everywhere—the morning signing, the evening party, the friends, the book cake—but so was nervousness.
Stand up, I tell myself. You have no extra minutes. I’m due at the Georgia Public Broadcasting station in Atlanta at 8:30 am, and there’s no way to predict the traffic. It will be my first interview and my first time on the radio. And it will be live.
Back in 1995, I ended up with three free moments, and in 1996, seven. Each time, I typed a few words into our family computer. In 1997, I had a little more time, and the more I wrote, the more I wanted to write. And before January was even over, I’d pierced through to a layer deep enough that the words began to pour out. I was writing about women and the different choices they made for their lives. And I couldn’t stop. From then on, I made time for writing.
It’s still dark at 5:45 am as my friend Karen Nelson, who flew from California to celebrate the Tidal Flats launch, and I climb into my car to drive the two hours to Atlanta. “I’m just going to concentrate on listening to what Virginia Prescott says,” I say, gulping coffee. “Being in the moment.”
For more than twenty years, I had one goal, one dream—to get a book published. With that mission accomplished, calm and confidence should be right beside me, but instead, inside the studio, my hands are damp and feel unconnected to my body. My heart and stomach are trying to switch places.
A producer comes out to show me the passage Virginia wants me to read. Virginia comes out to say hello. I’m taken back for a mic check. Breathe, I tell myself. I want this to be fun, as fun as it would sound if someone else said they were doing it.
For years, people would say, let me know when your book is published. For years, I imagined jumping up and down with excitement. Then, as more years went by, I began to imagine quietly sinking into a chair as Ed Harris does in Apollo 13 when he finally hears Tom Hanks’ voice after those long minutes of static-y silence.
In the sound studio, I put on headphones. The mic in front of me is so giant I can barely see Virginia sitting across the table. Music comes on and then the voice of Steve McCurry talking about the “Afghan Girl” photo. Then Virginia is saying my name and talking about Tidal Flats. What she’s saying is so interesting. Then she pauses and looks at me. A question. What was the question? But my brain kicks in, and just like that, the seventeen minutes are over.
During the last decade, I’ve done a number of projects, one a year long like Ross’s, all with the goal of “getting my insides out.” But there’s nothing that will get your insides out faster than being interviewed live. And I would be doing another live interview in a few short hours.
The night before, as I got ready for the launch party, Cal said, by way of encouragement, just be yourself. And I thought no, that’s not going to work. I want to do a really good job. For too many years, I watched Pam Houston do these things, always thinking if I ever get a book published and get to read at a bookstore, I want to do as good a job as she does.
Karen and I head to Stone Mountain for some exercise just like Cass and Ethan do in Tidal Flats. It’s a little over a mile to the top, and it’s 98 degrees and humid—much hotter than it should be even for Georgia. Why, I wonder as I climb, did I want a book published if it brought with it so many things I didn’t want to do? Except I do want to do them. I just want to be comfortable doing them. I want to be a writer who’s comfortable standing in front of a room talking about her book and herself.
After our hike, we drive to Westside Atlanta for lunch at JCT. Kitchen—where Cass and Ethan have dinner one night. Back in 2013, while I was writing the first draft of Tidal Flats, I often came here for lunch after Gyrotonics. I show Karen the dirt-red pedestrian bridge, where at the end of Chapter 10, Cass and Ethan pause, the old Atlanta Water Works smokestack in the distance.
I also pause on the bridge as I take a photo. I tend to separate things. Projects over there; life over here. However, despite my best efforts, things seem to be coming together. Real life giving me a little push. You know, a live interview could actually be fun. Being you is not scary. It’s easy.
After an unsuccessful attempt at a nap, Cal and Karen and I get ready for my fourth event in 48 hours—the Atlanta launch of Tidal Flats hosted by A Cappella Books as part of their Writers at the Wrecking Bar series. It’s thundering, and the wind is gusting. When I was little and it would thunder, I would hide in the back of the coat closet. At the moment, though, in a new black dress and new black boots, I look around at the swaying trees and my shoulders drop. I take a breath without having to remind myself to breathe. I feel as comfortable as if I had on pjs and slippers and was about to curl up in front of a TV movie.
Inside the Wrecking Bar, I meet Frank Reiss, the owner of A Cappella Books, and Alison Law of the Literary Atlanta podcast. Kim Ware of The Good Graces is warming up on her guitar. I get a glass of wine, people arrive, I listen to the music. My sisters and brother are here and two nephews. And so many friends—from French camp, from high school, from law school, Cal’s friends, friends of friends. I’m catching up with people I haven’t seen in ages, and when Alison asks if I’m ready, I’m almost surprised.
Frank introduces us, and we head to cozy chairs. Someone hands me a mic, and Alison and I are talking. At one point, Karen pops up from her seat and mimes for me to hold the mic closer to my mouth. People in the audience participate and ask questions, and it’s all so fun, more fun than I ever imagined possible.
Later that night in bed, I pick up The Book of Delights, stare at it for a minute, then place it back on the floor. Earlier in the day, as I had stood on top of the mountain granite where Ethan pulls Cass close and tells her that things have changed, that now he feels more himself with her than anywhere in the world, I had looked in all directions and felt all the space and all the possibility.
Looking around the quiet bedroom, my husband asleep beside me, although I neither want to jump up and down nor sink into a chair, it finally feels as if I’ve crossed over to the place I’ve been working toward for years and years, which perhaps wasn’t as much a published book as it was this feeling of being more myself than ever before.
*Thanks to Karen Nelson and Cal Martin for being my editors.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. When you’re writing, is there something you return to again and again for inspiration?
- Especially The Anna Papers but anything by Ellen Gilchrist. For her voice, her authority, her wildness, and her stories.
2. Do you write in your books?
- Yes, yes, yes. If I don’t underline, my favorite passages will be lost forever. I make notes too, like “amazing sentence–see how much work it does.” In Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, I underlined this: “I don’t keep a journal. My journals are the things I underline in books.”
3. Any obsessions?
- Pine trees that are all wiry and taller than the other trees so they stick out, different textures coming together, abandoned things and places, stairs and thresholds, rainy days and fog, sunrises and sunsets, doors and windows, trains and tracks, lines of laundry, row houses, fall leaves, a full moon, the ocean…