I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
January 1, 2021: Lily King
Lily King’s Writers & Lovers was my favorite book of 2020. Here’s the opening paragraph.
I have a pact with myself not to think about money in the morning. I’m like a teenager trying not to think about sex. But I’m also trying not to think about sex. Or Luke. Or death. Which means not thinking about my mother, who died on vacation last winter. There are so many things I can’t think about in order to write in the morning.
At the beginning of the book, Casey has no mother, no book, no money, no boyfriend. But she does have a garage apartment, a waitressing job, one writer friend left who’s still writing, and the geese.
I love these geese. They make my chest tight and full and help me believe that things will be all right again, that I will pass through this time as I have passed through other times, that the vast and threatening blank ahead of me is a mere specter, that life is lighter and more playful than I’m giving it credit for. But right on the heels of that feeling, that suspicion that all is not yet lost, comes the urge to tell my mother, tell her that I am okay today, that I have felt something close to happiness, that I might still be capable of feeling happy. She will want to know that. But I can’t tell her. That’s the wall I always slam into on a good morning like this. My mother will be worrying about me, and I can’t tell her that I’m okay. [page 5]
Notice how Lily starts with the concrete, moves to a physical sensation, then to the abstract, then back to a concrete physical action, again to the abstract, and finishes with the concrete. The abstract is woven so tightly with concrete physical actions and sensations that we will remember this cycle of feeling. Every time we see the geese.
Possibly my favorite line in the whole book is this one: “I don’t write because I think I have something to say. I write because if I don’t, everything feels even worse.” [page 3]
Now let’s go back fifteen years to 2005 when I read The Pleasing Hour, Lily’s first novel, which won the Barnes and Noble Discover Award. I’ve always remembered it–how much I loved it and how it took place in France. When I opened its yellowed pages a few days ago, a newspaper clipping fell out, a first novel profile. To the question of where and how she writes, Lily answered that she wrote “in her study in the morning, usually for three hours or so. When I was writing The Pleasing Hour, the location of my study changed at least nine times… but my routine remained the same.”
Here are a few lines I underlined way back then. This metaphor. “I hadn’t spoken English in public before. Amèricaines, I heard someone say, and I felt myself being dropped into a small disposable bag.” This line on growing older. “Though growing older had always frightened her, remembering the past was a pleasing sensation.” Even then, I was fascinated by the glimpses into marriage that reading could give me. “The loneliness of married life astounded me.” And when Octave was leaving for the war: “He knew he was giving her her freedom now, though he didn’t know in what ways he’d stolen it from her.”
In The English Teacher, winner of the Maine Book Award for Fiction 2005, it was the descriptions I noticed. This first one is of fear, and notice how Lily takes it deeper than the abstraction by beginning with physical sensation and then adding a layer of metaphor.
It began so small, small as a pinprick, in her chest. It was the familiar sting of fear but then it spread, its great wings opening all at once, her breath gone, her mind seized like an animal caught in a trap. It was the terror of the mornings and the terror of dream—a terror that had never ever visited her in her classroom before.
Father of the Rain, winner of the Gland Book Award for Fiction, is divided into three parts. Daley as a child, Daley about to be a professor at Berkeley, and Daley married with two kids. In part one, the mother leaves the father, taking eleven-year-old Daley with her. When they return, Daley listens to her parents fighting about their life together as a family and thinks, “I never suspected we all weren’t having a good time.” Daley visits her father and his new family in her old house, and things are awful. Still, she doesn’t want to leave, which was such a telling detail for me. Later, she returns to her hometown as an adult. “At the back of the store, Brad Goodale is behind the meat counter, just where I left him in the early eighties.”
Euphoria won the Kirkus Prize for Fiction 2014 among other awards. It was inspired by Margaret Mead’s 1933 field trip to New Guinea with her second husband, when they worked together with an English anthropologist. In the Acknowledgements, Lily writes, “I have borrowed from the lives of these three people, but have told a different story.”
In the novel, it’s the English anthropologist Bankson who tells this story of his love for Nell. And we’re able to get inside Nell’s head by way of entries from her journal. “I want too much. I always have,” Nell writes.
Take a look at this instance of showing and telling, where the telling is key in letting us know that Nell is aware of what she’s doing. “‘It’s all a jumble in my head still. I never know anything until I get back to my desk in New York.’ She was aware of her own impulse to compete, to establish dominance over these clean, pretty women by conjuring up a desk in New York.”
In Euphoria, we get another glimpse into marriage from Nell. “Certain people bring out certain traits in each other. Don’t you think? If I had a husband, for example, who said, ‘Your typing makes my brain work better,’ I would not be so ashamed of my impulse to work. You don’t always see how much other people are shaping you.”
Lily King grew up in Massachusetts and went off to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After grad school at Syracuse University, she took a job as a high school English teacher in Valencia, Spain and began writing her first novel. She and her husband have two daughters and two dogs and live in Portland, Maine.
Stay well and…
Come back on JANUARY 1st to read how LILY KING spends her days.