How We Spend Our Days: Bruce Machart

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 Bruce Machart:

For the past seven years, I have lived a tad more than 1800 miles from the woman about whom I care most, my fiancée Marya.  This is not the set-up of some lame, testosterone-laden joke in which the success of a relationship is attributed to distance. The time zones between us are most assuredly not the reason why we are still together.  Rather, that distance was the elephant in the room (in the hemisphere?) for years.  Now, we are quite vocal in our loathing of this damned pachyderm. But the facts remain the facts:  I have a job and a child in Houston, Texas, and Marya has a job and two kids on the North Shore of Massachusetts.  Simply put, I have two homes.

desk in Houston

After three hours of cramped, shuddering air travel, I flinch as the plane slams its tires down onto the runway and taxis to the gate.  When I turn on my cell phone, the thing sounds like a carnival on amphetamines.  I have voicemail.  I have text messages.  I have email.  If the damned thing could tell me that I have a bad case of self-consciousness, I’m sure it would.  Before I disembark, I find the messages I am looking for–one from Marya, welcoming me “home,” as she always does, and one from my older brother, Chris, who has flown with his wife to Boston for the first time.  The plan is this: Chris and his wife will sightsee in Boston for the day; I will take all the luggage via commuter rail up to Marya’s house; Marya will finish work and then meet me there.  Later that night, Marya’s parents will arrive.  Tomorrow, my editor will come to town from NYC, and we will celebrate with three or four dozen friends and neighbors at the publication party for my novel.

But now, after the crush of bodies on the T, and after hugging my brother the way I was taught, so many years back, by that wonderful Philip Levine poem, I’m once again traveling on my own.  I’m on the commuter rail.  God, how I love trains.  The conductor announces each stop, and I lean my head against the window as the world works its way by, thinking, as I do, about the character in my novel who leans his head against the window on his way out of harm’s way.

I am in Boston.  Then I am in Chelsea.  Then Lynn…then Salem…North Beverly…but I am a hundred years back in time, living the life of a young man who never breathed air as a human being except within the pages of my book, except within the heartwood of my imagination.  In the next three weeks, I will give more than a dozen readings in more than ten cities.  I will meet and greet and read and teach, and I will call Marya and say, “I miss you, love,” and she will be strong, and she will wish that she could see what I see, hear what I hear, feel what I feel.  And I will miss her all the more for her empathy and for her patience, for the myriad desires for which I can offer no immediate satisfaction.

But that is all in the future.  Right now, I am a man on a train.  I am going to see my beloved.  I am a novelist.  I am a father.  There are people in the world, most of whom I will never meet, turning the pages of my book.  Some of them will feel compelled to pass judgement on what they find inside.  Some will print those judgements in newspapers or on blogs.  Some will love the book, and others will hate it, and it’s unsettling for me that, most of the time this happens, I will have no idea whatsoever that it is happening.

Outside, the leaves are turning to show their favors to the earthbound before they flutter with their helpless, final fanfare to the earth.  The windowglass is cold against my temple.  And then the train lurches into a short tunnel, and when I emerge from the darkness…it will only take seconds…I will know, with an unexpected thrill and novelty, that I am exactly where I am meant to be.  I am home.

AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?

  • Peter Geye’s Safe From the Sea, which I’m actually right in the middle of right now, but I can already tell that this is a special book.  Lyrical, loaded with compassion for its characters, one of which is this arresting, dangerously alluring coast of Lake Superior.  This is a gripping wonder of a book.

2.Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?

  • Description is transient, not static.  We don’t look AT things.  We look from one thing to the next.

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • I’ve never written a full rough draft of anything in my life.  I revise every day, page by page, as I move forward.  It’s a terrible, inefficient way to go about it, but it’s the only way I know how.

By Bruce Machart:

The Wake of Forgiveness

21 thoughts on “How We Spend Our Days: Bruce Machart

    • Crystal,

      Thanks for the kind words. I hope that you are right. We shall wait and see, but for now I’m just having a delightful time on tour, reading and meeting some wonderful people along the way.

      Cheers,
      Bruce

    • I hope you enjoy it, Richard. I really do. Do I detect a Michigan fan on the blog? One of my good friends from Boston did his undergraduate work there (I did my graduate work in the Buckeye state), and we’ve had fun over the years betting a book on the outcome of the game each year. While it is true that I’ve come out on the winning end the last few years, and that I love my team, I am, quite frankly, simply in love with ALL of the Midwest, especially the college towns. I wish you the best…no matter your affiliation!

  1. Bruce, wow, that does sound like a busy life. At least writing allows more flexibility than an office job. You capture well the pleasure of rail travel. I loved your observation on description – the transient, as opposed to static, nature of experience. I notice that in art too. Best of luck with the debut!

    Cynthia, thanks for the introduction to a new author!

    • Sarah,

      That is so true! The academic schedule (and the fact that I don’t teach on Fridays) makes it possible for me to travel as much as I do. I am glad that you saw some truth in the bit about description. It seems to me that static description (showing something without getting into the characters to see how they see it, what they think about it, how it makes them feel, and what these things compel them to do next) is one of the most common problems with prose written by beginning writers.

      My best to you,

      Bruce

  2. Such a lovely post. And I agree with the other comments. This blog post is so beautifully-written, I will definitely read The Wake of Forgiveness. If I’m really lucky, I’ll savor it on a train. Also, my favorite way to travel.

    • Darrelyn,

      I hope you like it! And I hope the wheels are turning beneath you when you do! What IS it about train travel that is so endearing? Is it nostalgia? Is it the mythos of the American frontier? Or do we just love with particular verve what is novel and infrequent in our experience?

  3. “heartwood of my imagination”, what a wonderful phrase! A wonderful point too that “We don’t look AT things. We look from one thing to the next.”. I read it and then looked up from my computer and noticed how my eye went from one thing to the next.

    Looking forward to reading The Wake of Forgiveness….

    Thank you, as always, for this lovely series Cynthia!

    • Thanks so much, Cherry!

      “the heartwood of my imagination” is, I’m afraid, an example of a writer stealing from his own material. Something very much like that line appears in the novel, and perhaps the fact that I’ve used it again here is proof of my self-consciousness, of my pride, of my egocentric tendencies. But these, too, are uniquely human traits, and I own them with self-awareness but no particular regret.

      I’m glad you found something to which you could relate in the post, and I hope you enjoy the book.

      Bruce

  4. Bruce,

    I forgot I was reading a blog post. I wanted to turn the page to see what happened next in this lyrical tale of love traversing borders. How deftly you travel from woman to story, from family to life.

    I got snagged only once, to re-read your words about description. Those thirteen words grabbed me and won’t let me go.

    More advice along these lines would be well-received.

    Best wishes,
    Jodi

    • Hi, Jodi,

      What I mean by transient description is really twofold:

      First, beginning writers often assume that they need only to add as much detail as possible to make a scene come alive. This is a common enough misconception but a misconception nonetheless. It often results in a compounding of unactivated modifiers. In other words, the narrator is simply describing one thing, and then another, and then another, and there is no movement between them. For instance, we see a living room, and the inexperienced writer will show us the couch, the curtains, the persian rug, the dusty doilies. But the room doesn’t come alive. A more experienced writer will show the room in relation to the character in question. In other words, the things in the living room don’t exist in a static state for the purposes of fiction. Rather, they exist as the character comes into contact with them. This can be A) physical, or B) emotional/psychological/mental. When we look at the world around us, we most often see the parts of that world that pertain to us, that resonate in the heart, body, and mind. In this way, a vibrant, realistic scene is most often built of transient description in that the descriptions either move from one thing to another to another based on how the character is physically interacting with the space, or the description moves from on thing into character consciousness/body, which triggers an action, which may include more intake of physicial/environmental stimuli, which move the reader back into consciousness/body. Etc.

      Cheers,
      Bruce

      • Thanks. A lot. I knew I wanted more.
        I have been thinking about tackling this topic for my upcoming graduate lecture at VCFA, and there you were, commenting on it.

        I hope you had/are having a successful tour.

      • Thanks so much for elaborating! I have been groping toward those principles, and you have just saved me a lot of time. In the memoir I am writing, I’ve noticed I will often over-describe a new scene or even person at first. Then when either makes a reappearance, I am apt to not describe at all! There is psychological truth in what you advise: not everything can or does strike us at first, at least not consciously, so 360-degree detail is the result of repeated encounters—and makes a lie of initial over-description. And we do notice what we notice in each instance for various reasons. A narrator does not see like God but like a human.

        Per my previous comment, I do root for Michigan, where my wife got her doctorate, though we live in Columbus and met at Ohio State. And each of us has a degree from OSU. I got bitter when I was marketing manager of Ohio University Press and half the time reviewers would praise “a new book from Ohio State.” Now, at little Otterbein University, the gorilla just galls me on general principal. Okay, a bit of jealousy. All the same, I admire the mindless mania of Buckeye fans even as I hate it.

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