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 PEG ALFORD PURSELL.
When I speak to audiences and the topic of my early morning writing schedule comes up, listeners often gasp. I tell them that it may sound virtuous—certainly, before I trained myself to wake and write before the demands of the workday take over, I wouldn’t have ever thought it possible that I could not only function at 4:30 am but that I would come to love this time. It’s quiet. There’s only the sound of the language in my head, language I capture and craft on paper, or the screen. It’s pleasure. And necessary. I’ve learned this is the only way that writing happens at this time in my life.
Today, with a cup of coffee I poured from the pot set last night to brew at 4:15, I’m working on my laptop, deep in revision of my novel manuscript I’ve been calling “Blow the House Down” since I began writing it in 2012. Early in 2013, excerpts of the novel-told-in-flash were published by Joyland magazine. I’m planning to show my publisher the final revision at the beginning of the year.
As is often the case with me, I need to let a manuscript sit for some time after completion before I can look at it again with more objectivity—once I’ve forgotten much of what I’ve written. In the meanwhile, I move onto other writing, and in the case of microfiction, prose poetry, and other short hybrid forms, I typically write by hand. I love the connection between hand and head, the physicality of shaping words by hand.
When I’m in this stage of revision, deeply immersed in the world of my novel, the characters—a sister, a brother, and a ghost—accompany me with their own perspectives on incidents and events as I move through my days, post writing session. I don’t always hear these characters in the moments, but their ideas show up on the pages when I’m writing.
The windows are dark and the house is still, but I don’t quite experience these sensory details. I’m in Shelly and Tommy’s world; today, they’re in a high school cafeteria with its bright overhead lights, din of teenagers’ voices, the yeasty smell of fresh baked rolls, their bodies tense and alert to peers’ assessments and proximities. Shelly is self-conscious about her crooked front teeth and finds it hard to eat when certain boys watch her bite into her roll. When the alarm on my phone sounds signifying it’s time to stop writing—it’s still dark, the house quiet, but now emptier, as my partner, a writer himself who gets and respects my morning writing routine, has slipped off, pre-workday, to the gym with his travel mug of coffee to gulp down on the way—I’m reluctant to stop. I remind myself that this is the best way to leave the writing, before I feel ready, and thereby eager to begin again the next morning.
Today is a particularly work-heavy day. There’s the work of my small publishing business, WTAW Press, and its reading series, Why There Are Words, and there’s the work of promoting my book, A Girl Goes into the Forest. Part of preparing for the tasks, to engage with joy and gratitude for the good work I get to do, rather than resentment for the intrusion into my writing time, means grounding myself physically in my body. This day, there’s no time to leave the house for a class or for the gym. I go up into the loft and use the yoga studio app on my phone for a challenging 45-minute session on the mat. I follow with 15 minutes of meditation, shower, heat up a quinoa dish for breakfast, and thus fortified, tackle my email inboxes.
Surely, others receive much more email than I do, and surely they must employ a host of techniques to deal with it. One day, I keep assuring myself, I too will know the secret to managing my inboxes sans the sinking feeling in my stomach when I spot the names of friends and colleagues who will have to wait for responses. The light filters through the windows over my desk. Though I’m not seated there but instead stationed at my standing desk, I nevertheless take time to look out at the daylight burnishing the trunk of the redwood outside. There’s been a boisterous raven in the neighborhood lately, and I wonder if the bird will come around today. Years ago, I used to begin my day running, and occasionally still mourn doing that no longer, despite the fact that my knees don’t. What I miss most is being outside first thing. As with most days, I promise myself to take a walk through the neighborhood late afternoon. It’s the carrot in front of the nose approach.
Within a few hours I’ve wrangled the inboxes. I’ve confirmed travel plans for my two book events in LA in early December. I’ve said yes to appearing at the Virginia Festival of the Book in March 2020 and made note of what I’ll need to do for that, by when. I gently turn down two requests to do readings in January: my partner will be on sabbatical from work and I’m taking some time off too. I agree to provide a blurb for an exciting book that’s coming out early next year and mentally calculate when I can read the manuscript. Three-thirty in the morning? I remember at a book event in September in Kalamazoo with short story writer Hadley Moore when she revealed that she is up writing each day at that time. I too was awed by the revelation and asked in our live Q&A what time she went to bed (9 pm).
Since I turned on my phone, texts have been coming in. My friend Lauren reminds me of our new plan in 2020 to make space for creative endeavors that we’re both missing—making things with our hands. We need to firm up our ideas: what day of the week, how long—a couple hours?—will we send one another photos of our progress, etc. Let’s talk this evening, I text back. And Sophia Shalmiyev texts, asking if I can move my time to discuss our craft talk we’re slated to give at UC Santa Cruz in a few days until tomorrow, and after a bit more schedule finessing we’ve got a time. Texts from my sisters in PA, concerned about our dad’s health, and I sense already where this is going: much more texting to come, grappling with fears and anxieties, worrying about whether I should travel there when he sees his specialist. What about the sabbatical and the break, my partner, the holiday season? I turn the sound off on my phone temporarily so I can move onto my work for WTAW Press.
Soon, I’ve filled out the remaining handful of entry forms for book prizes, printed them out, and will shortly go up to the desk in the loft reserved for all things WTAW and package the required books for each entry to take to the post office later in the day. I’ve checked back in with reviewers I’d sent books to: are reviews forthcoming? It’s time to return to reading manuscripts submitted for publication. This year there’s been a deluge during the open reading period that closed in the summer, and my goal is to finish and contact each author by year’s end.
I’ve answered the door and signed for packages. Sorted the mail, while water is heating for tea. A cup of peppermint tea and apple slices is the late lunch today. It’s my partner’s turn to make dinner, I’m pleased to note. Before the recent fires and utility company blackouts, we had a freezer full of prepared meals he could turn to. Now we’re back to square one, cooking double quantities of meals and freezing halves for the days we’re too rushed or too tired to cook from scratch. While the tea is steeping, I take a quick inventory of the refrigerator, write down a few ingredients we’re missing for salad on the fridge (it’s got a chalkboard exterior), take a picture with my phone, and text it to my partner to pick up at the store on his way home.
The afternoon is gone before I know it. I’ve finished reading a story manuscript, adding to my notes on it. Two amazing stories, a handful of very good stories, one that could be cut. Can the entire manuscript become amazing? Is the author up to it? There’s no good way to know the answers. My mind is full of thoughts and questions, trying to work through the possibilities, while I’m tying my shoes, putting on my jacket and scarf. The house key. In the kitchen. My eyes catch the overflowing bookcases on the way through the living room, and I feel tension collect at the back of my neck. One of these days, I’ll cull through them and donate to the local Friends of the Library, I try to soothe myself. Key in hand, I go out the kitchen and lock the side door behind me. The post office! It’s too close to closing time, I’ll never make it. I use an app on my phone to begin tomorrow’s to-do list and dictate mailing out the book prize entries before noon. For a few minutes, while I head down the sidewalk, I talk into my phone, adding tomorrow’s tasks onto the list.
The air is clear, smoke-free, the light filmy, the sky pinkening before sunset. I put the phone away and take it in. My neighborhood is lovely for walking and biking, with its symphony of trees, including redwoods. The gingkoes are blazing gold. I think Shelly, the child, would love the gingko tree, a species she isn’t yet familiar with. Up ahead waits one of the neighborhood’s three Little Free Libraries. I imagine how she’d love these—in high school, Shelly works as an assistant at the town’s tiny public library. Perhaps in the library she could help a younger child with a project about trees. The ginko, with its fan-shaped leaves, a living fossil she discovers, brought to this country from China, its seeds and leaves used in medicine. How would this add to the story overall? Another part of my mind whispers to stop, pay attention, be present.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What writing advice do you give that you rarely follow?
- I try not to give writing advice, knowing exactly how hypocritical a practice that could be for me. I do encourage writers to fit writing into their lives in a way that works for them, and tell them that once they’ve found a routine or ritual to be prepared for it to change, as all things do. But I’d have a hard time if my early-morning writing schedule changed right now. Fingers crossed that it keeps working.
2. What one word best describes your reading life?
- Overwhelming! Hoping this is a temporary condition as I’m underwater reading manuscripts for WTAW Press and my stacks of to-be-read books continue to grow, neglected, pining away.
3. If you find yourself with an extra 15 minutes, what do you do?
- Drink water, stretch, take tree pose or down dog or both.