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 GREG CHANGNON
Another family is moving in next door. They haven’t arrived yet, just the painters with their ladders and tarps and, strangely out-of-time, a transistor radio playing classic rock. They’re inside, painting walls, but I can hear them as they come in and out, laughing, complaining, singing along to Pat Benatar. As I settle in for a day of writing, I think about the family who will live in the house I can see from the window of the carriage house where I work. A newlywed couple? A dog that chases flies in the backyard? A mad mother-in-law who’ll move into the attic?
This is how my writing day always begins, with or without painters or the possibility of new neighbors: daydreaming about the lives of others. The love of characters (and a fascination with their various tricks and stunts) has always been what pushes me toward writing, toward reading, toward an obsession with stories.
Just before I disappear into the creative ethers, I check in with the people who surround me as I work. On the two walls at my side are twelve portraits by Alice Neel, the mid-20th century artist who captured her family and friends in intimate, boldly-colored paintings. (They aren’t real Alice Neels, which are huge and probably cost a fortune. I tore them out of an exhibition catalogue and had them framed at The Great Frame Up.) There’s wide-eyed Nancy, the artist’s daughter-in-law, in a green house coat, holding her huge baby Olivia; the Soyer Brothers, twin artists Moses and Raphael, who emigrated from southern Russia on the last Christmas of the 19th century and in 1939, collaborated on large-scale WPA murals; and the blue bow-tied Fuller Brush Man (Dewald Strauss) who, before becoming a door-to-door salesman, escaped Dachau only to return to Germany to fight as an American soldier at the Battle of the Bulge, winning both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
These figures, along with eleven others, stare at me throughout the day, reminding me that character, as author Patrick Ryan says, may not be the spark but “is always the kindling.” I get stuck often in my work; I’m stuck today, having written myself—or more specifically, one of my characters, a professional water skier in the 1950s—into a corner. And when I get stuck, I think about kindling and Alice Neel’s people and what William Trevor said about characters in fiction: “By the end, you should be inside your character, actually operating from within somebody else.” Whenever the sentence stalls on the page, I close my eyes and begin to imagine myself the character, a little bit of Method Acting mixed with mental improvisation, daydreaming in the guise of someone else. I do it today: I’m on water skies, the strings of my one-piece bathing suit tied across the back of my neck (my protagonist is a woman), a thin crowd in bleachers on the shore of the lake, paying no more than half-attention to the water show.
What is she feeling?
Why is she lonely?
Who is it that she wishes could see her right now?
When will she be happy?
Here comes the sentence. It’s back, newly formed. After she wiggled out of the left ski and lifted her leg into an arabesque, Shirlee thought of her brother, wondering if he was awake somewhere with his squadron in Korea, half a world away—dear God, hopefully safe!—maybe thinking of Shirlee now, seeing her being pulled across Lake Oconee, mastering the trick he taught her the summer before he left.
Music helps. I am someone who writes while listening to music. Nothing with lyrics or heavy beats but ambient, neo-classical music that emphasizes tone and atmosphere rather than structure or rhythm. Ólafur Arnalds and Peter Sandberg are favorites. Today, the playlist includes the work of Jonny Greenwood, the lead guitarist and keyboardist of Radiohead, who composed the elegantly precise original score for Phantom Thread, and Nicholas Brittel, the composer of the melancholic scores for Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. There is something about these lush orchestrations that works to loosen my own feelings. It greases the wheels, so to speak, of my emotional imagination. The music helps me now, as Shirlee, my character, yearns for her brother off at war and is soothed by the dynamic freedom of skittering over the surface of a lake.
It is just after noon, and my morning of writing is over. I have a couple of pages to print out and read over later, but not until the end of the day when the experience of crafting the words is not so fresh. Just after lunch, I start an afternoon of reading, getting lost in the stories of other characters not my own. I know there are some who avoid reading while in a writing phase, worrying that the words and the rhythms on the printed page will slip into their own drafts. That’s not me; I read constantly, eager to engage in all kinds of stories. I’m a nosy person who always wants to know what’s going on—with the family next door, with celebrities, with the characters in books, TV, the movies. Today, I’m in the final chapters of Maggie Shipstead’s adventure epic Great Circle, a novel full of richly drawn people and ambitious plot. It’s actually a re-read, my second time through. I’m trying to figure out how Shipstead did it, creating a century worth of drama and event in addition to crafting not one but two complex characters—one a female daredevil pilot, in the mid-20th century, on mission to circumnavigate the globe, and the other a world-famous, self-destructive actress in the early 21st century who’s cast in the role of the pilot in a Hollywood bio-pic.
Reading feels like time off for me, an opportunity to hang out and romp around with the characters on the page. It’s play, and play is important. In fact, my best writing is done when I’m at play, having fun with the words. There’s a basketball hoop just below the large window before my desk. If I stand up and look down, I can see the orange ring and the tattered nylon strings. It’s left over from when my kids were young, but I’ve kept it up to remind me to keep having fun.
At the end of the day, after some editing of the recent pages, I finish up by engaging with the wisdom of others. Before the light at my desk goes off, I browse through the pages of books about writing from some of my favorite writers. Tonight, it’s Alice McDermott and her new book on craft, What About the Baby? Here she is, telling me: “I expect authors to love their characters.”
I hope I always do.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your reading life?
- Prolific (I’ve got a side hustle, facilitating book clubs, and I’ve got to keep up and keep current.)
2. When you’re writing, is there something you return to again and again for inspiration?
- I have three objects on my desk which I tend to linger over when I’m in need of inspiration: first, a photograph of my mother in a swimsuit balancing on a slalom water ski in arabesque pose (the inspiration for the fictional Shirlee); the second, one of my daughter’s old, tiny tap shoes (the memory of her dancing on the coffee table when she was three is something I hold close, hoping to achieve the same kind of wild and fearless abandon as I write); and the third, a toy Ferris wheel, six inches high, a reminder that this work I do should always be play.
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
- With nearly every book I read, I cast the movie version in my head. (I’ve given both roles in Great Circle, both the aviatrix and the actress playing her, to Anya Taylor-Joy, who played the lead role of Beth Harmon in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit and was Emma Woodhouse in the latest Jane Austen remake.) Wishful thinking: I even cast movie stars in the roles of the characters I’m in the middle of creating. In the part of Shirlee, the professional water skier: Jessica Chastain.