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 BONNIE TSUI
In the morning: I get up in the pre-dawn darkness to squeeze in a surf before the world wakes up. The physicality of surfing combined with immersion in the vast ocean is the ideal cocktail for cleansing and quieting my mind and body. It gives me resources to draw on for the rest of the day. But in all honesty, I love surfing because it’s fun. It brings me pure joy. I look around in the water, and I see waves, birds, fish, friends. So few things these days are things we do for pure joy. And in the face of all the bad news we often feel, we can’t allow ourselves that joy—that somehow we need to be grim to confront what comes. But seeking joy is an act of resistance. And I’ll keep fighting the good fight for it.
At my writing desk: I’m back at my desk by 8:45 a.m., after a quick shower and tidy. My husband has gotten the boys off to school so the house is blessedly empty (though a little crumby). I drink leftover coffee and put on Debussy because my older son is really into playing “Clair de Lune” on the piano right now. Sometimes I’ll listen to Gregorian chant. This is all part of an everlasting quest for music to write to. Like many humans, I find it difficult to compose original thoughts while listening to music that is too familiar, or full of words—even the stray “ooh na-na-na” or “yeah yeah yeah” can be too much, a little snag that my brain keeps trying to seize upon.
I sign onto Zoom to record a conversation with a podcast in London—it’s early evening their time. I make sure my waist-up region looks decent before clicking on the link.
Oops—the meeting link they sent is “not valid.” Since it was arranged by my UK publicist, I have no way of contacting the podcaster. Oh well. I’ll keep puttering then.
On my mind: Yesterday I submitted a proposal for a new book to my publisher, so I’m feeling quite nercited. Nercited (nervous-excited) is a portmanteau my friend’s kid coined recently, and I love it. I spent a lot of time with that friend last week so the word has made it into my daily lexicon. I’m also waiting to hear back from an editor on a story I care about a lot. A lot of a writer’s life is waiting. Waiting is not easy. I’m terrible at it.
As I get deeper into distracting myself by reading the news, I realize I am doomscrolling. I decide that it’s enough, and as an antidote I go joystrolling around the block and treat myself to a bag of potato chips from the corner store. I notice the warm sun and the clear blue sky and am grateful for clean air today. I stop to say hello to my lovely neighbor with the long, flowy white hair, whose beautiful golden retriever is asleep in the shade on her front steps. My neighbor chats while holding a big pair of garden shears.
When I get back home, I pick up John Hersey’s Hiroshima and decide it’s time to re-read it cover to cover. This is the work I’m going to do today. This slim volume is a master class in immersive, meticulous reportage. And it still stands alone as an absolutely stunning piece of narrative journalism.
In the afternoon: I’m on school pick-up duty today, so I roll up to the library bus stop a bit before 4 p.m. I hustle Felix to a doctor’s appointment before ferrying Teddy to swim practice. In between pick-ups and drop-offs and pick-ups again, I find a few minutes to catch up poolside with my friend Jenny. We’ve known each other for twenty-five years—she was one of my college roommates. Our husbands were college roommates. Our older sons were born exactly a day apart; we had hospital rooms next door to each other. The nurses on duty said we were like a romantic comedy. It always feels good to check in with her.
The rest of the day runs away from me, propelled by the momentum of domestic life and dinner prep. The boys are chatty and full of stories from school. We have a tradition of “two highs and a low,” in which we share some combination of favorite moments and moopsy downers from the day. It’s a nice way to acknowledge the range of human experience. Some days there will be more of one or the other. Telling a story about it to someone else—making meaning from even the most mundane—makes it all go down easier.
I suppose that’s why I do what I do.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your reading life?
2. When you’re writing, is there something you return to again and again for inspiration?
- The pieces of writing I look at depend on what I’m working on. When I was writing Why We Swim, for example, I’d read Mary Roach, who is brilliant in animating scientists in scene (Stiff is a perfect example of this). But unless it’s specifically for research, or I’m trying to solve a tricky problem, I’d say ninety percent of the books I read are fiction. I just love to disappear into a story that has nothing to do with me or what I’m writing.
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
- I don’t know if this is strange or not, but I do have a strong potato-chip habit that significantly fuels my literary life.
By BONNIE TSUI