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
It’s Sunday, and I wake up in my own bed for the first time in a week. If my math is right, this is the fifty-seventh residency I’ve spent with my low-residency MFA program, first as a student, now as staff. I’ve been helping run these gatherings—literary bootcamp, I’ve heard them called—two or three times a year for more than twenty years. Part of my job is to support the alumni connection. Not to fundraise, but to keep the family close.
Before I found my MFA program, I’d walked the earth as a weirdo. Where other people conversed about the concrete (sports! cars! sportscars!) I’d wander off into the world of imagination: What if that guy is so uptight because he caused a tragedy with some long-ago careless act? What if the floating garbage island in the Pacific Ocean became a tourist destination? Conversational partners looked at me sideways. I thought I was defective.
Once I found my people, those odd looks stopped.
I open my eyes to a whirring ceiling fan. Our calico cat lies curled next to my head; my husband sleeps beside me. I’ve returned home happy: replete with learning, enriched by conversation. It’s been good to spend time with students blazing with creative passion, with faculty members and alumni I’ve known for years, even decades, now. Our friendships have grown deep over years of periodic reunions at residency. This week has felt like a rebirth.
The pandemic hit nine months after my debut novel came out. The book tour came to an abrupt halt. The first months of 2020 had marked the beginning of a hard season in our home life, the hardest my husband and I had ever experienced, and now we had become each other’s only, inescapable companions. One day we fought because I wanted to go to an art museum and he thought it was too risky. I stayed home. Lockdown and its long, lonely aftermath turned me to dust. What seeds fell into my life did not germinate.
I stopped writing.
Scratch that—I wrote a lot in my work life. But creatively? Nothing.
Alums sometimes stay away from our community when they’re not writing. But my job doesn’t allow me that option. When we returned to in-person residencies in 2021, I spent those weeks dreading the “what are you working on” question. My friends offered stalwart support, but I also saw the confusion in their faces. As for me, I was just as confused. The long dry spell shook my identity: could I still call myself a writer if I wasn’t writing? I bore those conversations with shame, even as I loved my friends for caring.
Writing friendships are acts of celebration, sustenance, and support. You see all three at residency. We stand in line to have our friends sign copies of their new books. We give each other prompts and deadlines and pep talks; we hash out story problems; we cook up plans for writing retreats. We urge one another to keep going despite the abrading force of rejection.
The conversations have grown more expansive over the years. At residency, I spent time with a friend who recently lost his dad and came back to Louisville to be with his writing family. I held a faculty member’s new baby as he spoke about how fatherhood was showing up in his poetry. I talked with an alum whose husband, not a writer, had come with her to residency. He sat at her side through hours of lectures and readings, both of them looking unaccountably happy. “He likes the way I am when I’m here,” she explained. “I’m more alive.”
A breeze touches my face. I must have drifted off again because my husband is no longer in bed. I come downstairs to find him reading on the back porch, his breakfast dishes around him. We talk for a bit; then he goes to the fridge and pulls out a plate laden with diced yellow pepper, chopped kale, and two uncooked brown eggs. He takes a small skillet down from the pot rack. It’s been a long time since he last made me an omelet, but the first day back from residency is special. I savor every bite.
After breakfast we make time for errands. My first task: a Costco run. Putting away groceries is a humble pleasure. I love creating order out of chaos. It’s one reason I write: to make the world more manageable. Another reason—the biggest reason—is to face life’s mysteries. To explore the questions that used to make conversational partners look at me oddly, before I found my people.
On the countertop I set out three pounds of heirloom tomatoes, a cucumber, green pepper, serrano chili. Red onion, two cloves of garlic, a slice of good-quality white bread. The gazpacho comes out silky-smooth and beautiful, a creamy orange hue.
While the soup chills, my husband and I take our goldendoodle, Lizzy, to the dog park bar in our neighborhood. It’s our first visit. We walk in to find a Pride brunch going on. A DJ is spinning disco. There are rainbow flags everywhere, people everywhere, dogs everywhere. A pug in a dress, a French poodle with a magenta-dyed mop top. Lizzy trots around off-leash, happily confused, her plumy tail waving as she keeps one eye on us for security.
This spontaneous outing is a seed. Recently we bought last-minute tickets to the touring production of Hadestown: another seed. The gazpacho, another.
The pandemic brutally showed me that I need art in my life. I need beauty, pleasure, people. The buzz of a spur-of-the-moment decision to try something new. To experience a moment unfolding on its own surprising terms—it’s live-giving. Writing is like that for me. It’s the discoveries, the connections you see only after you’ve written them, that give life its zest.
We return happy from the dog park bar. I sit down to write—only for a few minutes, but it’s the doing it that matters. The essayist Margaret Renkl offers a simple solution for warding off drought: keep your laptop nearby. In free moments, instead of opening social media, open your document and start adding words. Fifteen minutes a day is plenty. You’ll be amazed, she said, by how quickly the pages pile up.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your reading life?
2. What one word best describes your writing life?
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
- My book-buying. If I know the author, I’ll buy the book. If I don’t know the author, and especially if the book is a best-seller, and ESPECIALLY if the publisher is one of the megaliths, I’ll check it out of the library. I’m not 100 percent faithful to this system, but for the most part I am. After twenty-plus years with the Spalding MFA program, it can seem as if everyone I know is a writer. So I have to be judicious.
By KATY YOCOM