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 LISA MCGUINNESS.
The early morning is all about a large mug of tea, yogurt, granola and a brief sojourn into the news of the day. After I take a quick peek at the daily brief from the New York Times, I turn to my work email to see what needs immediate attention. I spend my days with words and images—as we all do in different ways. For me it’s as a writer, editor and creative director of a fairly large indie publisher. Joining the words and images to tell a story (whether visual or with text) is part of my job as well as my personal creative outlet.
Through the late morning, I do one of two things: Most often I try to bang out as much of my regular work as possible while my brain is fresh and my east-coast work-cohorts are sitting in front of their computers. But I have to admit, on Wednesdays (and sometimes Fridays) I sneak off to play tennis for a couple of hours. Exercise and social time keep my mind and body engaged. The pandemic threw off my tennis escape for a while, but I’m back at it now. Today is a Friday, but tennis isn’t on the agenda for me. Instead it’s the editorial team’s bi-weekly brainstorm meeting. It’s my favorite meeting because I get to be part of a group of people who are free-flowing creativity, and it always leaves me energized.
Although the pandemic has been isolating, anxiety-causing (and has filled me with anger on occasion as I’ve watched the willy-nilly response from the top) I have been fortunate. I already worked at home, so the only adjustment I had to make was tidying up the dining room table a bit to make space for my husband to work at home as well. Our shared table plan was the picture of harmonious perfection for a good forty-five minutes until we both had Zoom calls. We simultaneously waved at each other frantically, hoping the other one would get up and leave the room. After the chaos of that, my husband, Matt, created a make-shift office in our bedroom to get some peace—a win for me. (My stacks of books, papers and general work detritus is now happily strewn back across our dining table.)
As the afternoon sun shifts and the light lengthens through the window, I switch gears to working on my novel. In the summer, making iced coffee as an afternoon treat cues the transition. In the fall and winter, it’s a sweet latte and something along the lines of a chocolate chip cookie. On this day, it’s all about navigating the marketing of Across the Deep without the fun and structure of in-person events. I’m especially bad at self-promoting, which is a true liability in the best of times and downright frightening in the isolated era in which we are now living, so the task is not something I relish. I have to push myself. A friend told me to do one thing to promote my book each day. I started by making a “to do” list and now have to buckle down and actually tackle it. Today I accomplished “make an appointment with the publicist.”
Instead of engaging in the marketing tasks I’m supposed to be doing, my mind turns to the writing process and my desire to be doing that instead. To a certain extent, writing feels as if I am simply documenting my character’s stories. If I am unsure of what comes next (never in a macro sense because I map my novels before putting the metaphoric pen to paper, but on a micro level I sometimes struggle with what they’re doing in the moment and how that will move the plot forward) or if I feel stymied on any given day, I lie on the couch and allow my mind to visualize the characters in action. If I can see them in situ, I can find my way back to the plot and move it in the direction I want it to go.
I always begin by rereading the last chapter I wrote and finessing the words until I’m happy and ready to move forward. It allows me to get into the zone. For the most part, I try to write full chapters before stopping. If my schedule doesn’t allow for that, I at least break off at the end of a scene. When my kids were younger, I wrote while they were doing homework. (I am fortunate enough to not be bothered by surrounding chaos.) Now that they’re in their early twenties and I’m no longer moving them through their day, I can write in uninterrupted peacefulness. To stave off loneliness, I have my “writing interns” by my side. My two dogs are always willing to talk plot twists and give me support if things are going awry.
Later on, my husband emerges from his make-shift office and we take the dogs for a walk or if we’re feeling restless up for a hike to open space until dusk. We spend time talking about our days, which are now spent merely steps apart.
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- The stress of the pandemic of covid-19 and the pandemic of racial inequality with the civil unrest it has brought of late has drawn me to read books that one would consider escape reads. My recent favorite was found in the New York Times book section that recommended the best beach reads of the summer. The book is appropriately titled Beach Read and is by Emily Henry. I enjoyed it because it was an escape, while being witty, well written, and engaging.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Pay attention to beautiful language. When I see a particularly lovely turn of phrase in novels, I often dog-ear the bottom of the page. I may or may not go back to it, but I think it allows me to drink in the level of writing I aspire to.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- When I need inspiration and feel like my writing is flat or less than I want it to be, I pull novels off of my shelf, go to the dog-eared pages, and reread them to help spark my mind to think more creatively.