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 Lucia Orth:
While at work on edits of my first novel, I visited a French woman, a writer I know from our years in Manila. She has published novels, children’s books, and had a screenplay produced.
We sat in her beautiful garden.
Editing is endless, it’s like pulling weeds, I said.
Corinne said, Ah, I love the edit, it is the finish – like putting on perfume.
Corinne, chic and greyhound lean, riding dressage when she isn’t writing, must be a careful writer, I thought. She puts her words down and only needs a slight touch of a perfumed hand to set her piece in order. Whereas I plunge in, having only a vague idea of where the writing might lead, and what is left at the end is the result of chopping, pruning, and weed pulling.
This morning about 7:00 I look out our second floor windows. The sun reflects on the pond and glimmers the willow and maple trees, the stone paved walks are lined with catmint, salvia, yarrow, lavender, Siberian iris. Our driveway winds about an eighth of a mile down and beyond it and our orchard and acres of native prairie I can see the western hills of Lawrence, Kansas, about 7 miles away, and what I know is the edge of the university there.
But my attention is also drawn by what needs fixing or doing – the tire swing rope is splitting and needs to be replaced, the floating dock needs another coat of linseed oil, tiger eye sumac needs to be dug and moved, fences need checking — a neighbor wants to board her horse here over the summer.
My time spent in the rhythm of work outdoors, especially in summer when I’m not teaching at Haskell Indian Nations University (in the Indigenous and American Indian Studies department), is when I do much of the thinking about, or subconscious dancing around with, the writing. Ideas, problems, fixes, characters are all also at work, or at play.
This weekend is our anniversary, another of those Memorial Day Weekend weddings, ours after both graduating from law school, and during the time we’ve been together we’ve lived in England, Manila, Washington D.C., Beijing, and Trento, spent summers in Istanbul, and again returned to Lawrence. Berkeley of the Midwest, they told us it’s called, when we were considering a move here with our three children. Maybe. But now we’ve lived here in Lawrence longer than anywhere else, on these 90 acres, with these fields and woods, these flowers and orchards and gardens.
The novel I’m working on now is set in part right here – in 1898 young men from Lawrence signed up, volunteering to fight in the Philippine-American War, often called our first Viet Nam, in what became a needless, senseless war of imperialism. They walked the downtown streets, studied law at the university, left from our train station, had a send-off at the same historic Congregational church I spend some Sundays in, and where I helped lead the process to make the church the only one in town that openly, on our signs and in the service, welcomes our LGBT community.
So, say one of these young men in 1898, about 23, from a privileged family, had never felt he quite fit in here and wanted a way to leave his family and leave the town. Everyone says this war will be over before you know it – it seems the perfect way to freedom and his own life. He can travel, afterwards. He will go to Constantinople and on to Europe. His best friend since he was a boy is a worker at the local barbwire factory, and he signs up, too. So does a young black stoneworker. One dies. The other two find themselves on the serving end of cruelty and atrocities to the Filipino people.
This is the story that pulls me deeper into the town, its history, its geography, its place.
I know the soil – friable, crumbly, perfect. Our wooded hill to the south is said to be, by geologists, the most southwestern place where the glaciers ended. This morning, a blue heron again sits in the locust tree across the water, waiting, I believe, for the first light of morning to warm it. Then it glides down and walks the pond’s edge looking for the frogs that sing half the night.
Last night the frogs were joined in their music by a few whip-poor-wills, an endangered species in some places, whose cry at dusk and on into the night is charming until it repeats itself about 200 times in a row. A group of whip-poor-wills, I have heard, is called a seek.
Now I remember. During the night, I heard their calls, in my half dreaming, as Whip? – or Whirl? Whip? (work) Or Whirl? (dance). A choice. I think of the Sufi men we saw dancing in Istanbul, whirling, a constant whirling in their dance of faith, their work of faith. To work, or to dance? On the best writing days they become the same.
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- Ransom, by David Malouf. Based on one event in the Iliad – the day King Priam goes to Achilles to ransom the body of his son Hector. Malouf fictionalizes this account, adding the point of view of a wagon driver, who alone survives the war.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Not advice, but for me, reading poetry before I begin writing tends to ground me, helps keep the focus on words, rhythm, and strangeness.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- When I was growing up, my grandfather owned the only bookstore in Hannibal, Missouri. I was a voracious reader then, and this might be the reason I tend to read many books, fiction and nonfiction, concurrently, and also why I hold on to so many books I like.
By Lucia Orth: