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 ANNE KORKEAKIVI.
During the night, a friend has sent a poem she wrote about an island off of an island we visited together. For a few moments I am there again, feeling the pooling light on my wet shoulders and tasting salt in my mouth.
But I am not on that island. I’m in landlocked Switzerland, hemmed in by snow-frosted mountains; a very different, virtual island formed from a combination of disease and work life. The city of Geneva, where my husband has been posted at the U.N., last week became the global hotspot for COVID-19.
My husband is already downstairs. I can hear his baritone murmur as he begins an early Zoom meeting; the pandemic has gifted me his company. I read through the nighttime banter of my daughters on the other side of the Atlantic, on our family group chat. I glance through the emails that came in while I was asleep and America was still awake. Today’s edition of the New York Times won’t land until 10 a.m., but I make my way through the latest “Breaking News.” Another non-masking political figure has become infected.
I decide I’ll go for a forest run before lunch and dress without showering. It’s now nearly 9 a.m. I go straight to my office, a tiny spare room whose walls I’ve decorated with a smattering of photos and poetry, a bark painting from Zanzibar, a poster from an event for my first novel, a mythological print given to me by my Finnish sisters-in-law, and a painting of a ship that reminds me of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, my childhood favorite from the Narnia series. This last may have been a harbinger of the peripatetic life I’d lead as an adult.
I don’t drink coffee or black tea, which frees me from having to go immediately downstairs for breakfast. I am not a creature of habit. I don’t like routine, and I don’t like dependencies. Still, being a novelist requires the steady discipline of the freelance journalist, something I used to be. You cannot write without writing, and you cannot complete a project without putting in the work.
Are we ever entirely satisfied with our creative output? I’ve tried the thousand-words-a-day writing regimen, but the same process doesn’t necessarily fit every book. The one element that remains consistent for me is the need to construct a living breathing world and living breathing individuals within it before I start writing. I need to be able to step right into that world and its people.
This process repeats itself in miniature every time I open my computer. Today, I leave the island off the island and my little house in Switzerland, and take a minute to transport myself mentally to balmy Miami, where the section I am currently writing takes place, and into the body and mind of its spirited POV character.
The pages accrue fairly quickly, partly because the people in this section of the book are chatty and partly because these days I’m trying not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, or anyhow existent, in my early drafting. I’m assembling a mass to refine later.
Around one p.m., I pull on my running shoes. Thinking through story while on a run works well for me. Motion begets motion. Also there are no emails or chores to distract me on a run, nor, importantly nowadays, the possibility to check the New York Times and the Washington Post for more news updates.
I carry my phone to speak notes into. Huff huff huff… A mother and daughter walking their dog say bonjour from a safe distance. I run up a hill and then down another. The arms of the plane trees are barren. A magnificent California sequoia, planted in the wake of a botanical fad here in Europe during the 1850s, looks all the more resplendent. I will be careful to erase these panting notes once I’ve used them.
Before the pandemic nothing would have gotten between me, my running notes, and my computer, but having my husband home has made me less feral. I wash my hair and have lunch then do some house chores. I have to place an order at the grocery store today because, with the Council of State instructing everyone to stay home as possible, outdoor exercise exempted, deliveries have become backlogged a week.
I respond to a few emails and start putting together the handout for a workshop I’ll be teaching next week on how journalism can inform creative forms of writing. It’s a topic dear to me. My younger daughter launches a group call that my older daughter misses because she’s in class. My older daughter responds with a group call that my younger daughter misses because she is at work now. My husband is in another meeting and ignores all of us.
More Breaking News comes in. The current administration has not yet put on its big boy pants. I normally try to make distress feed my creativity rather than staunch it, but today I have not managed to get back to work on my manuscript.
The afternoon starts to disappear. Via Zoom, three friends from college fill me in on the word from the ground in Maine, Massachusetts, and North Carolina. My eldest sister emails regarding some family business. While roasting butternut squash and Jazz apples, I read today’s newspapers and spend a moment on Twitter.
I’m not panicked, because I have those notes in my phone. In earlier days as a fictionist, I found it more difficult to weave between worlds. For a time I even stopped reading English-language novels while first-drafting. But increasingly I’ve become adept at mental teleportation.
After dinner and a dose of CNN with my husband, I squirrel myself back in my office. I listen to what I recorded earlier and transcribe it. The new material expands on the screen as I type, words birthing words. It’s a bit of a mess, but tomorrow I’ll hone it. Later I’ll sculpt it still further.
An owl hoots outside the window. The line of the Alps is faintly visible, gray on charcoal. It’s almost midnight. I shut my computer. It hasn’t been the most productive day nor has it been the least. I crawl into bed with the book I’m currently reading. Someone else can do the work now.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. Are you a one book-at-a-time reader?
- One book at a time! My life feels fractured enough already without splitting myself in two as a reader.
2. How did you get the idea for whatever you’re writing now?
- A few years ago, my younger daughter and I visited sumptuous Vizcaya Museum, former estate of farm-equipment tycoon James Deering, in Miami. The visitor’s guide mentioned a hidden bar behind its pool, installed in anticipation of Prohibition. I couldn’t stop thinking about how privilege can allow the few to circumvent rules that govern the many, even when those few may have been the very ones to create the rules. That was the seed for the story, but as always happens it has grown into many directions.
3. If you find yourself with an extra 15 minutes, what do you do?
- My husband gave me a guitar, an instrument I’ve never played before but am now exploring. The joy it brings me borders on ridiculous.