Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Days of Our Lives

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

That’s the guiding quote by Annie Dillard at the Catching Days blog, run by Cynthia Newberry Martin. The blog is built on a simple, beautiful concept: that by describing the activities of one particular day, writers will reveal deeper truths about themselves. Combined, the micro events of our lives add up to the macro pattern of our biographies. I’ve long been an admirer of what Cynthia is doing at Catching Days, and so when she invited me to contribute to the How We Spend Our Days feature, I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough.

The day I chose to write aboutFriday, May 27was typical in many respects: I rose early, wrote for a couple of hours, went to work at the Day Job, came home to make dinner, and spent the evening watching TV with my wife. I talked about my cat, the treadmill in my basement, a particularly tasty pork roast, and my favorite coffee mug:
     I am weird about my coffee mugs. Whatever I choose for the day greatly influences my mood. Nearly all of my mugs are book-themed: there’s the Banned Books mug, the “Read Harder” mug from Book Riot, the mug with Charles Dickens’ bearded mug looking out at me, and the mug I bought when I visited the Library of Congress, which has a quote from Thomas Jefferson (“I cannot live without books.”). But when I want to have a serious, crack-the-knuckles-and-get-down-to-it kind of writing day, I choose my William Faulkner mug. This is the one I’ve owned for the longest time (more than a decade at this point) and though there’s a worrisome hairline fracture along the top of the handle, it has somehow survived the near-droppings and over-caffeinated hard set-downs. I love this mug with the kind of affection people usually reserve for their pets. I can’t explain my romance with this ceramic cup except to say I think it’s because I like drinking out of William Faulkner’s head. Somehow, I’ve taken the notion that my coffee will be infused with his linguistic talent. Poppycock, of course…but try telling that to my heart.
     I pick Faulkner today. I’m on deadline to turn in a short story commissioned for a new anthology in five days. It is not going well. The editors need a completed draft of a story between 3,000 and 6,000 words. Five days before it’s due, I have 853 limp, aimless words that stubbornly keep bashing their heads against a concrete wall. I don’t have writer’s block—I can write plenty of words, goddammit—I have story block. This narrative doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up. I am depending on coffee from William Faulkner’s head to help me figure out this story’s identity.
The details of my “caught day,” however, were selective out of necessity. When I sat down to write the essay, I realized there were so manytoo manyother things that happened to me on May 27 that I would leave the maximum allotted word length in the dust long before I even reached 9 a.m. So, I had to pick and choose what to include.

A partial list of what you won’t read about at Cynthia’s blog: my choice of clothes for the day, my impatience when I got stuck behind slow drivers on my way to work here in Butte, Montana, commentary about all the interesting things I read that day (from online articles to the novel currently on my nightstand), the hour-long phone call with my editor to discuss my new novel, the snacks I munched on at work, the “conversations” I had with my cat (which involve tongue-clicks on my part and a cocked head on his), the way the house smelled of slow-cooked pork roast when I came home, and all the things my wife and I said to each other in the hours between “Good morning” and “Good night.” Nor did I mention the fact that May 27 was my birthday, and all that milestone implies (appreciation for all the Facebook messages balanced with the omnipresent gloom of mortality). There just wasn’t enough room to catch all of my day. And that’s probably a good thing because you would have been bored to tears if I’d somehow been able to catalogue 17 hours of activities. So, I just gave you a few glittering chips hewn from the day.

Here are highlights from some other authors who told Catching Days how they spent their hours:

I manage to get offline and work from 9:30 to 1 pm. I don’t mean steady work. I mean little bursts of fifteen or twenty minutes when I’m actually with the characters, present in the room you might say. I have no idea if the story’s any good or not. That all comes later. I just have to show up and keep my heroine moving through the world and see if she can get herself into some kind of honest trouble.
          ~Steve Almond

Our new home—for living, for my family—contains no place for me to write. So way back in September I bought an old camper-trailer, a 1959 Dalton, and put it down on the creek. Ever since, I’ve been trying to find time to get it in shape: run a line for the propane to the stove, build a rack for the solar panels, wire them to the batteries, fix the busted windows, build some bench seats, install a desk, jack the whole thing up on blocks. Now, a week before the New Year, there’s still a gas leak somewhere and the solar panels aren’t giving me a charge, but god it felt good to sit down, open my computer, pour some coffee into my mug, stare out the hoar-frosted window for a second, listen to the shushing of the creek, and start.
          ~Josh Weil

After my run, I pour a cup of tea, sit down with my laptop, and put on my headphones. I’m currently having a love affair with a Portland band called Fort Union. One of their songs, “That Part of Me,” was on repeat so much during the early chapters that I decided to name a place in the book after the band. I understand that other writers can’t listen to music with lyrics while they write, but I like it. I like hearing the rhythm of the words set to music while I write, and music can evoke atmosphere with the tiniest gestures: a change in key, an unusual harmony, the lilt of a singer’s voice, a cello behind the guitars, hand-clapping. It’s something I think about when I’m trying to translate the story I see and feel in my head into words on the page.
          ~Alexis M. Smith

I have seventy things to do, but one overrides them all: the copyedits of my new novel are due in three days. This is my last chance to incorporate any changes (beyond fixing typos) into the manuscript. I need to go over it with a fine-tooth comb and even change a last few major things for my editor. The novel is ninety thousand words long. I’m on page twelve. That’s twelve, as in one ten and two units. As in, three hundred pages away from the end.
          ~Rebecca Makkai

1 comment:

  1. David, thanks for these lovely words about Catching Days--and the quotes from the series! Thanks also for your contribution this month. I was so interested to read about what you left out--and I didn't realize you wrote about your birthday. Where was the cake?