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
Tuesday morning, late April in Chicago, a month of interruptions and manic changes in weather. I emerge from several weeks of a COVID haze, brought on by travel and events, and possibly by daydreaming about having time to do nothing. My neighborhood is in full bloom now, the trees bursting with new green leaves, the magnolias dropping their pink blossoms after a sudden snow. Flowers everywhere, tulips and double daffodils, and hyacinths. The spring winds blow trash from the alleys that litters the parkway and gutters. I walk up to the corner café for a bag of coffee beans and pass some neighbors cleaning the gutters and picking up stray fast food containers from their tiny lawns.
Morning is my favorite time now. I spent most of my writing life as a night owl, working into the wee hours of the morning. Now I wake at six-thirty or seven, brew a pot of coffee. I meditate with my dog on the floor between the bed and the wall. I do a few short sessions, rewarding my dog with a treat every ten minutes, myself with a sip of strong coffee. Zelda is an old girl now, nearly sixteen. She loves mornings as much as I do, lying beside me as I shift into an hour or two of writing. A bit of quiet for both of us.
I read a few poems. This is a new routine for me. I rarely get to the many books of poetry I buy, so I started reading a few poems aloud each morning. Sometimes I write one too, though I’m a terrible poet. This morning, I grab Jesse Lee Kercheval’s I Want to Tell You and read the first two poems. As luck would have it the first one is an ars poetica about the difficulty and mystery of writing a poem. The speaker resists working towards a pleasing, surprising last line. She compares such a poem to a hokey, predictable Methodist sermon, writes “What about everything this sermon /my poem has left unsaid? / About how we are dying all dying / how people I love are already dead.”
Does all art move in this direction? Towards this question of what is left unsaid… undone?
I set the book aside and open the novel manuscript I began a few years ago when I was supposed to be revising another novel. I wanted to make something in secret, to get back to the impulses I had when I was younger and wrote for sheer pleasure. I scribbled most of a first draft with a fountain pen for an hour or less each morning, before getting back to my other novel. Writing in ink and not being able to erase allowed the pages to accrue. It felt a little dangerous and old-fashioned to pen a manuscript that could be destroyed by simply spilling a glass of water on it. I filled a few notebooks, and then set the book aside until I could type up what I had and continue writing on my laptop.
This morning, I stay in my hidey-hole, as I’ve come to call it, and read aloud. The closeness of this spot helps me to tunnel into my work. It’s almost time for the London Writers’ Salon. Generally I write alone, but because there are so many other obligations lately, and because I have been spending too much time alone, I log onto Zoom and write for fifty minutes with this group of about one-hundred other writers from around the world. My printed manuscript is nearly 500 pages, though I had wanted to write a novella. I’ve promised myself not to revise it too heavily until I have read through the full book and devised a decent ending. Then I will let myself make more extensive changes. My desire for this book was to write something voice-driven and imaginative, to not censor myself, to allow the sentences to grow long and circular, if that’s what they wanted. When I’m writing short stories, I tend to whittle the sentences and paragraphs down as I go, to condense, condense. That impulse is murder on a novel, as I discovered with the last book, and can make the process last ages. So I am resisting revising too soon.
I have an office in the basement, but I remain on the floor until my legs cramp, leaning against the bed, the dog sleeping next to me. I read aloud, allow myself to make a few necessary changes to one chapter to submit to my writing group. Before I know it, it’s lunch time. The day is getting away from me, and I don’t know when I will have another day that is this wide open. I eat a sandwich standing at the counter, and then I take the dog out for a walk, and remind myself of how lucky I am to be doing this work and to have this time.
When I return, I go downstairs to work in my office for the afternoon. I’ve got a long list of tasks: answer e-mail, make a phone call, work on an interview with another author, create a handout for a workshop I’ll be teaching next week for the Off Campus Writers Workshop, a fantastic organization that offers inexpensive online and in-person workshops and craft talks, and that supports local writers. The workshop is on cultivating mystery in fiction, a subject I have been obsessed with for a while now.
I work for several hours, knock a few things off my list, and add several more. The afternoon flashes by and as evening approaches I’m plagued with the question of why I have spent so much of my life this way, sitting alone with my thoughts and my stories. What if I had invested all this time and energy into something more world-changing, more necessary? What does it all add up to in the end? These days that rush by, and so often resemble each other? I brush off these questions and go upstairs to get the dog out for another short walk. Outside the birds are chirping. We find the shell of a blue-green robin’s egg in the grass. The wind is cold, but the sun is out and soon the sky will be tinged with pink. My dog sniffs at the base of an ash tree and refuses to move. I’m impatient, but I stop, marvel at her focus, notice the yellow ruffles of a daffodil. Then we are off again, turning onto the next street. The automatic arm comes down at the El stop, and the bells clang. Zelda, “the Z” as we call her, has lost her hearing and is no longer anxious as we wait for the train to pass. Downtown commuters are returning home and a swell of passengers emerges from Rockwell Station. The neighborhood is energized again. Gone the sleepiness of winter. People are out on bikes and running, and a few optimists have donned shorts though the temperature is dropping.
We make our slow way home as I try to come up with something to make for dinner, and then it’s happening, I’m thinking about a screenplay I’ve been teasing out in my head for a while now. I race home to jot a few notes.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your writing life?
2. When you read a story collection, do you always read the stories in order?
- Usually, but not always.
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
- These days I’m less strange and obsessed, but I do love to take walks in the evening, and take pictures at night. I love the view of lights in the windows, the changing sky, elongated shadows, how light pollution can make everything a bit otherworldly. Sometimes I make recordings of sounds I hear—an El train rattling overhead, the cicadas, the rain, music from an open window, my boots striking the concrete. If I had another life, I would probably be a cameraperson or a sound engineer.