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 THERESE WALSH
Today is my daughter’s birthday, and at midnight I send her a text, and far too many cat gifs, to mark the occasion. She’s not with me —she lives and works in Michigan now—but this day is hers and one or another part of my mind is on her all day long.
I have a superstitious belief that if I use one of my book pencils—one for each work-in-progress—for anything else, then I’ll sap the energy out of that book’s potential. So I’m careful to keep a bunch of non-novel-related pencils around for this and that. Some old Staedtlers will work today, and I use one to create a to-do list for my upcoming conference. Pretty sure a dog had this in its mouth at one time or another; it looks battle worn but has plenty of life left, so it’s a go.
I sit at the kitchen table, though I have a beautiful office on the lower level of my home. Before me are the regular kitchen-table things—spices and napkins and coasters. But also baskets filled with information, one dedicated to birding and photography, and another to puppy rearing. I have a five-month old puppy here, who challenges and charms me on the daily, and a one-and-a-half-year-old dog with anxiety issues, who has the softest face I’ve ever felt. (And also two eleven-year-old cats, who wonder what they did to deserve this.) The table is also home to colored markers and six visible notebooks, all dedicated—at least for now—to something that is not my fiction. My fiction notes and a collection of colored index cards sit on a lower tier, a filing station half-shoved under said table. They’ve been asked to wait a few more weeks.
There is something else in my creative oven now.
I need to tweet, because there is just a day-and-hours left to sign up for my site’s conference: the Writer Unboxed OnConference. I’ve put on three in-person conferences, but this is my first online event. It’s challenged me, testing muscles I’m not used to using.
On Twitter, I see a few mentions and realize a good friend of mine—Harper Glenn, whose debut novel Monarch Rising comes out October 4th—has been featured in a podcast. Immediately, I click that link and listen to their interview on The Write Mindset. And smile. Because they’ve worked so hard, and here they are at the moment we all strive to reach. And there’s such a great vibe to this interview; the interviewer, Racquel Henry, who is also an author, can relate and shares their own stories. It reminds me of who I am. Suddenly I need to rewind the interview and relisten to something Harper has said: a reference to a time when Harper questioned whether or not they should write, whether the fire had gone out: “While I was hopeful…I’d also lost the joy for writing. I got into this space where I didn’t want to write anymore…The point is that it does come back. Once you figure out your worth as a writer, your worth and your work, the spark does come back.”
This resonates. Because the truth is, Reader, I haven’t worked on my novel-in-progress for a long while. I want to write. The stories are still in me. But the spark is missing-in-action. Hearing about others who’ve dealt with this lack and found that fire again means the world.
I tweet out Harper’s podcast link. I tweet about the conference.
I check in on friend Ann Mah’s new book release, Jacqueline in Paris, and am elated to see that it is currently #1 in Biographical Fiction on Amazon. A good number of authors and community members have helped to spread the word for Ann, who is currently unable to promote her beautiful new novel because of a medical emergency. I’m proud of our effort, of this outcome, and I hope that Ann is able to take in her good standing and feel joy over it.
I eye the clock. There’s a nine a.m. writing session that I could join on the conference platform. But would it be a cheat to work on conference-related materials during a sprint meant for fiction? I weigh. I have a draft of the Welcome note I’ll deliver in thirty-three hours that needs fleshing out. It’s something I can work on while continuing to listen to the podcast.
The nine o’clock group welcomes me and my non-fiction-related writing plan for the morning.
I lift my head. There are eight minutes left in the podcast.
It’s a rainy day. The birds—frequent subjects of my photography—are busy eating and hoarding in preparation for the cooler seasons. A downy woodpecker peck-pecks at the suet as Harper speaks of meditation.
This is my meditation, I think. The birds. Nature itself. The puppy at my feet. I’ve never been good at quieting my mind.
“Quiet the monsters in your head,” says Harper, right on cue. “Don’t listen to them.”
I turn again to the work.
The appearance of a squirrel on the deck leads to disruption, thanks to the unquiet attention of my dogs and their devotion to squirrel-chasing. It’s ironic—“Squirrel!”—as I have lived with untreated “under-the-radar” ADHD for most of my life.
The squirrel reappears, then miraculously scampers off without the dogs noticing. I give them each a chewstick and dive back in.
I tweet out the day’s Writer Unboxed post. I have someone helping with this in the short term, my assistant editor Vaughn Roycroft, but today is a bad day for him—and a great day; his cover art is completed, and his debut novel, The Severing Son, is nearly ready for unveiling to the world. But first, the mad scramble to get the art to the typesetter in charge of the cover copy, and then to the web designer, and then to upload everything everywhere. Because—tick-tock—there’s a very high-profile reveal and review coming in just three days.
It’s funny how after working on something for over a decade, it all comes down to a mad scramble of minutes. But it’s like that for almost every author. It just is.
I finish drafting my Welcome for tomorrow’s event and load a video to show attendees before the delivery itself. I grab more coffee, take the dogs out in the rain, then set them up with some doggy activities back inside.
I notice a rose-breasted grosbeak on my deck with mixed emotions. I love these birds. But they should be gone now, away, away, flying south, and instead they have been here for five days. I worry over them. What if they never leave? Do they have what it takes to survive a harsh New York winter? What would I—what could I—do to help them? I think about the parallel between a writer and her fire and the need to warm a bird body—how they both require work and planning, how both need protection and sometimes a protector. I think about how I’d keep them warm, the craziness of the idea, knowing I’d fail. I think survival of the fittest. I think not on my watch. I think everything dies eventually. I think I’m not ready.
And then I look again at my to-do list. It is noon.
Mozart calms the souls of humans and canines alike and filters in over my Alexa in the kitchen.
Today’s Writer Unboxed post by Kelsey Allagood is about too many ideas, and how to make decisions, and it speaks to me. I’d like to try this approach. I comment. I bookmark the post. I think about my dusty manuscript, which is in and of itself not unusual.
The characters I’ve been ignoring are still alive in me. I reflect on how yesterday my two protagonists had a conversation/debate in my mind. How their debate started in a flash—like the strike of a match—how it rose in a quick flame before it settled into reason. How the scene ended in poignancy and suspense both. And was filed away. This one wasn’t worth jotting down. It would find a way in, contextually, and if it didn’t then it wasn’t worth remembering.
I stop to think about it. Fire is chaos, and so is creativity. These little toss-away scenes are slender sticks on my fire. They keep the story alive, even if they are ultimately consumed.
The idea gives me hope.
It’s 1:20 when I read my Welcome aloud. It’s so important to do this; it’s one of my oft-repeated bits of advice for novelists-in-progress—speak what you have written. You hear so many issues that way, in terms of the flow of the words and of the logical progression of ideas. I make changes as I hear the need for them.
It’s raining again. I randomly think about the man I saw yesterday at a mail center. He had a wildly curly mustache—an out-of-time, character-worthy mustache. He doesn’t belong in my dusty work-in-progress, but his mustache does. This I won’t forget.
I pop back onto social media and retweet some mentions about the conference. I lose some time here; I always do. But I love this community of friends and writers, and it fuels me in its own unique way.
It’s mid-afternoon when I realize I haven’t eaten lunch. I choose a package of ramen soup that’s been lingering in the kitchen, add water to a pot, and set it to high on the stove. Then move to print some things I’ll need for the conference—my Welcome, the introduction of my first session leader, other random things. The printer doesn’t respond. It’s annoying and happens every day. I have to manually shut it down, turn it back on, but it gives me a reason to get up, stretch, and that’s a good thing. So up I get and down I go, into my office. I see it right away, beside the bins filled with notes for my work-not-in-progress: My puppy has somehow gotten past the barrier in the hall and left me with a wet spot to attend to. I turn off the printer, turn it back on. Reach for some cleaner in the bathroom and pre-treat the carpet. I eye the puppy, then head up to find the heavy-duty stuff—an enzyme formula that will “unmark” his scent from my space.
My space. Not his. For later if not for now.
Hey, you’re not using it, his eyes say, and I glare at him on my way back to the stairs. As I reach the top, I realize the water has been boiling furiously.
I write. This time it’s a platform-wide notification that the event is about to begin—something that will be sent to all attendees soon. Brief, but precise.
The puppy nips at and chases one of my cats, and because of that, I chase the puppy; it’s the puppy playpen for him. He knows this is the outcome of harassing a cat, but he’s quick and clever, and scrambles onto the deck. I follow, my socks immediately soaked through. I nab the naughty adorable one and place him in timeout. And change my socks. And get back to it.
When he begins to cry, like a ridiculous little goat baby, I wait a few beats for silence, wait a few beats more, then unzip the lid to his pen. I kiss his scruffy face, the black spot at his temple. My dusty manuscript involves a few goats. He noses the wet socks I’ve left at the top of the stairs, and so I carry them down to the laundry and let the dogs outside again. Sigh. Remember my uneaten soup. I eat bloated ramen with a fork out of the pot. At least it’s cooled.
Which is when I realize my dogs haven’t eaten their midday meal either. And I wish I had a zip-up timeout pen to climb myself into. I feed them. I share what’s left of my noodles. And decide to take a break that’s of my own choosing—because puppies aren’t puppies forever. They need attention and training and playing with and positive reinforcement for not eating the cat, and none of that can be done from a chair in the kitchen.
Two mourning doves strut along the rail as a downy woodpecker pecks away at the suet. A goldfinch, wearing its fall-dulled color, leaps from a post to nibble from a platform feeder full of seeds. The rain has stalled. My puppy is asleep again at my feet. Beside him, my cat plots his murder.
I amend a “you’re registered!” email for a new attendee, and stuff it full of information they’ll need to participate in tomorrow’s first session. We lose power briefly and, a small miracle: Nothing is lost.
Another grosbeak looks at me from just outside the window.
After dinner, I join my family for a video meetup. We share stories and laugh together—our superpower—and celebrate my daughter. The reality of my empty nest gives texture to my worry over the fate of birds and my choice to live with teething, trying puppies who require playpens. I love and need this energy, this chaos. This fire.
I am superstitious. I recognize it’s true as I notice one of my pencils on the ground, dog-chewed. I reach down, pick it up, but it’s just the Staedtler. I use it to cross “write activities page” off my list.
I read through everything I’ve written here, tweaking for clarity and flow. I see myself and life from a new vantage point—the placement of my work-not-in-progress on a low cabinet, below the chaos on my kitchen table. The metaphor of it. How I spend energy and how I reserve it in special pencils and unused office space. How I don’t want to use the fiction sprint table for anything other than pure fiction but choose to anyway. Because that’s what this moment is about for me, that’s my now, and I want to hang onto my identity as a novelist even if I feel the connection to it as a gossamer strand.
Tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow my conference begins.
I order more pencils.
I am not writing. Yet I have written thousands of words today.
And I will write on.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your writing life?
2. Please give us a few sentences about a book you love.
- I recently read a novel involving a character who has a condition known as ‘synesthesia,’ which I gifted to one of the characters in my last novel, The Moon Sisters. This novel, The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar, was a brilliant weave of a story. The characters felt authentic, the setting and substance of story was ambitious and well-delivered. The author’s use of language was lyrical and so lulling that at times I felt lost in its sound and had to skip back a minute to really absorb the meaning. It was tragic and it was beautiful, and I recommend it with all my heart.
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
- I think we cover this in the diary of my day; it is, perhaps, pencils.