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
I work in bed.
This isn’t a fact I tend to advertise because it sounds so decadent, like next I’m going to tell you I break once an hour for a massage and a smoothie. But my reasons are purely practical. For years I worked at a desk like a normal person, but I developed carpal tunnel so debilitating that I had to wear braces on both hands. Then, sixteen years ago, we adopted our son Luke, and overnight the tiny second bedroom of our Brooklyn apartment became the baby’s room.
Evicted by the baby, I bought a lapdesk and started working in bed—and, within days, my carpal tunnel vanished. Something about the angle of my hands on the keyboard changed when I moved to a lapdesk, and sixteen years later, I’m typing ten hours a day without the slightest twinge of pain.
So this is where I am at nine a.m. on a sunny Wednesday in July in Vancouver, BC: In bed with my laptop on my knees, giving feedback on student research papers for an online writing class I’m teaching. It’s summer so I get to sleep in, and Luke, now sixteen, is really sleeping in in the room next door. (My wife, alas, is posted in Washington, DC ten months out of the year. Long story, the short version of which is: There are no jobs in her field in Vancouver.)
I try to schedule my paid work in the mornings and my creative work in the afternoons when my imaginative brain is sharper. It hasn’t always worked this way. I’m the “mom” in our family, and for many years I squeezed both the paid work and creative work into the few short morning hours Luke was at day care or school. Needless to say, the paid work won out, and it took me decades to finish my first novel. But he’s a teenager now and can be trusted to sit in a room unattended without sticking a fork into an electric socket, so I have more flexibility.
While I’m online with my students, I’m also working on a story for Poets & Writers Magazine so I toggle between responding to student work and emailing with sources. These magazine stories are my research papers. I take on a subject I know nothing about, spend a few weeks conducting interviews and reading everything I can get my hands on, and then I sit down to write 2,000 words that sound like I was born knowing this stuff.
Sometime after noon, I close my laptop and set out for a walk along the False Creek Seawall. I walk every day. It’s my daily exercise, but it also clears my head. I listen to audiobooks, watch for seals in False Creek, and let my mind wander. I’m incredibly lucky to be able to do all this in central Vancouver. It rains every damn day between October and April, but the summers here are a miracle—sun-kissed and warm, without ever getting hot or humid.
On this day, maybe because I know I’m writing about it, my walk takes me to the Granville Island Public Market. The public market is a popular tourist spot, so the prices are too high for regular shopping, but, hey, I can write it off this time so I don’t stint. I treat myself to a dozen bagels from Siegel’s, a loaf of wheat-grain bread from A Bread Affair, and ginger-garlic chicken skewers from Armando’s.
Back home, Luke and I feast on the bagels, still warm out of the bag, and I’m back at my bed-desk with my laptop on my knees at two. This is a religion with me. No matter how many papers I have to grade or how pressing my next magazine deadline is, I try to be in bed, laptop open on my knees, at two. Of course, this is much harder—read: often impossible—during the school year when I’m juggling my classes, childcare, and a freelancing sideline, but it’s summer now so I have a fighting chance.
Still, it’s a battle. I love everything about writing except the actual writing part. So, I check the news. I check email. I scroll Facebook and Twitter. I check the baseball scores. I check email again. It’s a disease, this procrastination-by-internet, but it’s one I’ve been afflicted with for a very long time. Back in the dial-up days, I spent this same pre-writing time poring over roadmaps and playing endless games of solitaire. I seem to require a buffer between my real life and the life my characters live on my laptop screen.
The danger is that, if I’m not careful, this buffer can eat up half an afternoon. Which is why I now have the Freedom app. I swear, this one app, which shuts down all distracting websites for a set period of time, has doubled my creative productivity. Maybe tripled it. It’s not just that I can’t surf the internet for distractions; it’s that I know I can’t surf the internet for distractions so I stop thinking about it and get to work.
Activating the app is like stepping into a soundproof room. For two hours at a time, I can hear my characters talk and watch them wrestle with the obstacles I’ve set for them. When the two hours are up, my laptop pings, and I’m cast out of my soundproof room and back into the digital town square. I allow myself fifteen minutes of cyber cacophony before I reopen the Freedom app and duck back into my soundproof room.
Today’s a good writing day. I get through two two-hour Freedom bursts, and then because I’m on a bit of a roll I keep going for another hour until it’s time to throw those ginger-garlic chicken skewers on the grill for a late dinner.
After we eat, Luke and I watch a few innings of a ballgame before I climb back into bed to answer the emails I blew off that afternoon. The great thing about answering emails at night is that no one gets back to you till morning, so I can catch up on my email queue and settle in to read Colson Whitehead’s latest, Crook Manifesto.
Whitehead’s novel keeps me up late, which is cool because it’s summer and I can sleep in tomorrow.
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?
- Whenever I’m stuck, I print out the pages I’m working on and mark them up the old-school way, with a pen. I started writing on a typewriter, and something about words on a physical page gets my creative juices flowing. Back when e-books were new, someone said that reading a book on a screen was like trying to eat a candy bar through the wrapper, and I feel the same about writing. I work best with pages in my hands.
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
- Not sure how strange this is, really, but I’m writing a novel in which a gang of eco-terrorists descend on a Colorado ski town, so I’ve spent the last year obsessively reading about monkeywrenchers and listening to podcasts on the Earth Liberation Front. They’re fascinating people. Their crimes are nearly always against property, not human beings, and their goals are often laudable. But they’re also wildly self-righteous and unbending in their views, and they’re willing to blow up things to prove a point. I want to like them, but they make it damn hard.