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 JEFFREY J. HIGA
PRIME (generally first hour of sunlight, about 6:00 a.m.)
I wake up early because I am nervous about my upcoming participation in the Sewanee Writers’ Conference this year. I have never attended a writers’ conference or a residency, mainly because as an introvert, large gatherings—hell, even house parties-drive my anxiety and nerves into the stratosphere. But since I published Calabash Stories last year (my debut short story collection), I’ve been trying to shoehorn myself into the larger literary community. The reason I chose Sewanee, aside from its reputation, was the number of fellowships to the conference, which pay for all the fees. I happened to qualify for one of them—Asian-American, first book, etc.—so completing that application became my weekday task for a couple of weeks. If I have any superpowers as a writer, one is my ability to submit/apply to things and manage my expectations by not thinking about them after submission. Much to my surprise and delight, I was awarded the Kundiman Fellowship in fiction to the conference. As a fellow, I have been offered the opportunity to lead a “special topics class,” a one-hour gathering for about fifteen attendees on a topic of my choosing. The deadline is coming up and I have generated three special topic ideas:
1) Writing and publishing as older writers: My idea is that I am living a life that is never discussed in the hothouses of MFA programs: How to survive and publish as a literary writer in the long term when I’ve seen many of my creative writing cohort from the 90’s eventually give-up through the years. Is this one relevant enough for Sewanee? Do they admit a lot of writers over, say, 40 years old?
2) Dante’s Inferno for prose writers: One of my lifelong obsessions has been Dante’s Divine Comedy. I am only able to read it translated, but I’ve found that it illustrates and offers writing guidance to writers of prose that may be different from the needs of poets. Is this one too esoteric and of limited appeal?
3) Silence and Asian-American memoir: A more typical literary-critical type of idea. I’ve recently finished reading the memoirs of two contemporary Asian-American poets, Victoria Chang’s Dear Memory and Garrett Hongo’s The Perfect Sound. Their family’s silence about their immigrant past is a situation that mirrors my own. It also surfaces fairly frequently in Asian-American work in other genres. I wonder if I still have the lit-crit chops to generate an hour of discussion on this kind of topic?
I have to come up with a title and description. I use my writing notebook (a version of which I’ve kept since I decided to start writing as an undergraduate) to generate as many notes for each topic as I can. By the time that is done, I need to walk the dog, so I decide to use the dog walking time to think about my notes and make a decision.
TERCE (about 9:00 a.m.)
After dog walking and breakfast, I decide to go with the most autobiographical option #1 and pray the topic gets accepted. Sewanee Writers’ Conference accepts 150 writers per year, so I’m gambling there are at least 10% who are not young hotshots and will fit in the “oldies” special topic. As usual, it takes me longer than I think to come up with a snazzier title and compelling description. I finally settle on “When Life Gets in the Way: Writing and Publishing over 40”. For the class description, instead of the standard description (“In this class we will discuss…”) I go for a marketing-type pitch to boost interest: “Are you tired of hearing about the ‘Top 20 under 20’…In this game of literary dodgeball, do you feel like the last one picked because you are too old or too slow?” The whole thing takes me about two hours for something that, I can’t help thinking, would have taken most writers an hour.
SEXT (about noon)
My wife is taking her mother out to lunch, so I will have uninterrupted time until about 6:00 p.m. It will be the largest chunk of my day, so I will start and/or continue a writing project. As I often do, I start by creating a positive headspace for writing by reviewing the rejections I received this past week. It sounds oxymoronic, I know, but my other writing superpower is to not be bothered very much by rejections. I usually print the emailed rejections out, tape them into my daily planner on the date they were received and write a note about the rejection: sometimes an indifferent “oh, well” or a rant, like this week’s two paragraphs about the stupidity of the editor from that publication. Then in the most important step, I turn the page and think about it no more.
I spend the next five and a half hours working on my latest short story. In my collection, I wrote a story called “The Shadow Artist” that was very different in tone, language, and voice than the rest of the stories. When I’m feeling negative about it and myself, I think of the style as “turgid.” Yet, “The Shadow Artist” is the story that draws the most attention from readers, editors, and writers. The language is a bit elevated, tends to use a wider vocabulary, and is stronger in authorial surety. Although I didn’t plan it, the story that I work on this day uses the same style. It tells the story of a remote village from the viewpoint of children using a first-person plural (“we/us”) point of view. I don’t finish the story in this sitting but can see clearly by this point that I will be able to finish it and that it contains sufficient quality to be publishable.
COMPLINE (evening, before going to sleep)
After a late dinner with my wife, I go back upstairs to review the story I wrote today. I am too tired to create new sentences and complete the tale—that will have to wait another day. Instead, I use the time to confront my thoughts about the story, examine things I didn’t want to worry about while I was in the act of putting together words. It’s a kind of editing, where I do some light copyediting while simultaneously examining the larger fictional and thematic ideas of the story. For the next three hours, I reread my story and decide that while I have the events in the narrative spilling out well for the characters in the story, I seem to be avoiding what those events could mean to the reader. In the words of a former creative writing professor, if the story is a train, what am I delivering?
I think about the most intellectual fiction writer I know, a woman with a Ph.D. in science and a strong philosophical mind. I find areas in my story that could benefit from more rigorous philosophical rumination and think, “What would Ms. Ph.D. want to discuss at this moment in the story?” In my writing notebook, I pose the questions to myself and try to come up with answers that are consistent with the characters and the tone of the story. I go back and forth from my story to my notebook writing in longhand. It is late by the time I end this exercise, but I have managed to sketch out a vision for the end of the story. I have also come to the realization that I am not smart enough to answer the questions I have raised. I decide this is okay, that as a fiction writer, maybe all I really need to do is raise the questions.
A note about me: I’m a writer who has had a full-time job since I graduated from college. Currently, I work as the News Editor for the local carpenters’ union, where I write, photograph, design, and layout all of the union’s print publications. Like most print publications, it is a deadline-driven schedule, so the workflow is fairly predictable. When I started this job, I promised myself that I would do at least one thing every day that related to my literary life. Sometimes, it is a small thing like submitting a story through Submittable; sometimes, it might be something more substantial like taking time to write a few hundred words. Weekends and holidays, therefore, are quite precious to me, as they are the only days I can devote dedicated blocks of time to my writing.
A note on form: Although I consider myself an agnostic, I have a fascination with the monastic and mystical life of the Catholic Church, especially novelizations of that life (see Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy). So, although I don’t live my life by the canonical hours, it proved useful as a framing device when writing about this day.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your reading life?
- Binge-y (as in “to binge”).
2. When you’re writing, is there something—a book, a place, music, art—you return to again and again for inspiration?
- When I am feeling really low–it could be on ideas, methods, ways of looking at the world–I’ll pick up a novel or short story collection by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I rarely finish the entire book before something expands in my mind and spurs me to the writing desk again.
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
- I think I have an obsessive-prone personality/disorder. If something catches my attention, I’ll research it and obsess about it to exhaustion. Once, when I complained to a professor about this, he said, “Nah, that’s just being a writer. Writers are people who are interested in things.” My latest obsession is probably my journals. In addition to the writing journal I mentioned earlier, I keep a daily journal and a five-year journal to record progress toward my five-year goals. I started the journals during a period when I was looking for a method to change my life, and it has developed into an obsessive need to document my life. Also, don’t get me started on the tools I need to keep up this practice, from notebooks to pencils to pens to glues to tapes, etc. They all get their lavish, highly-curated, special attention.