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 ALAN MICHAEL PARKER.
Two mornings a day, that’s my goal. Since I’m a morning writer, even on a dark February morning, when I’m really in the writing groove and not teaching that day, I set my alarm to 5:15 a.m., get up, caffeinate, and begin. I work until mid-morning, stop and have breakfast, work until lunch, and then nap for two hours. After my nap, I do it all again. Repeat, rinse: I shower sometime in there, too, or go to the gym right before dinner. A drink and a break around 10, in bed with a piece of an Ambien by midnight, where once upon a time I fell asleep reading and now it’s sleep-by-Netflix, and up again at 5…
It’s obsessive, and stupid, and exhausting, and I can’t keep to this schedule all of the time (job, marriage, happiness), but I love it. So on days when I’m not teaching, I try the two-mornings grind, as I have done this week. Then, in the summer, I usually go to an artists’ colony for a month or so, where I can ghost. At a colony, I’m the mysterious writer, disappearing into my secret, superhero life, saving no one but myself. Where did he go?
Then there’s the nuttiness of my process. I have come to believe that my creative process aspires to an act of porousness, by which I mean the free and dynamic interchange of information across a permeable boundary. That boundary is the self. The information is the stuff in my head, the internal world and workings of my imagination and experience in some sort of fluid state, and the outside stuff is the page, the art-act, the poem. When I write, I’m trying to move information from my head to the page and back again. Yes, more obsessiveness.
I think it’s still February out there, but my desk faces a blank wall, the blinds are drawn, and silence is essential. I start by reading other people’s poems. Warming up to the intensity of the poetic experience, getting into “poem brain,” takes me a little time, especially at the beginning of my first morning of the day. I’ll read poems I love and also consciously read against type: that is, I read poems I admire and don’t like, to parse that peculiar combination, and find something different with which I might begin. (The Fear: imitating myself poorly.)
Then comes the itchiness, or some version of it: when a great poem I’m reading begins to be missing something, I know it’s my turn.
Writing a poem begins in longhand in a journal. But then the strangeness really starts: usually, but not always, longhand soon becomes too slow, and I move to my computer. I compose, muttering loudly to no one (although my partner reports that she can hear me from elsewhere in the house), print out the poem, read it aloud, and then copy it back into my notebook. The copying slows down the thinking again, so that I can see. Then the poem in Word gets revised on the laptop, printed out, copied into the notebook again, etc. In other words: I go slowly until I can’t stand it, speed up, slow myself down again, speed up, kill all of the trees.
In the children’s book I want to write, there’s an animal called a Porous. I haven’t decided if it’s invisible, but I know it’s prehistoric.
An alternative writing day, also from last week: I got up at 8, checked my email, read all of the hockey news, went on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, read the Times, wrestled with my dogs, assiduously marked no student papers all morning, dragged myself ruefully through some endless admin work, lunched, grumbled to campus to attend a meeting where my opinion didn’t matter but I offered it anyway. I then left work, pointed and clicked at the supermarket, and went home to cook. I love to cook. It’s not not writing, but it is.
Because a day off the page is of course not a writing day, but it also is. There I was, getting ready for the obsessiveness—okay, the obsessiveness is always there, simply sublimated—but there I was doing the stuff that needs doing, as the art-brain rumbled on beneath it all.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word describes your writing life?
2. Would you give us a little piece of advice about reading poetry?
- Something to try, although it’s by no means empirical or even reliable: consider the subject of the poem, and then re-read the poem with the word “love” substituting for the most important nouns. Try it again with the words “art,” “death,” “faith,” “people,” “power.” See if that helps open up your understanding.
3. What is your strangest habit or obsession?
- Going up, I don’t step on the third step on a staircase.