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 Heather Newton:
I leave my husband and twelve-year-old daughter sleeping and drive to my law office in downtown Asheville. Friday is my designated writing day but because of vacation and crazy work load this summer it’s been four weeks since I claimed an uninterrupted Friday for fiction. I lock the door, ignore the blinking light on the answering machine, and don’t respond to email, but there is one piece of business I take care of on-line before I get started: ordering tickets to the new Harry Potter movie for the next day.
I write at my law office because I’m conditioned to work in this place. I’m less successful at home, where the refrigerator and TV call, and my cats climb on my keyboard. The novel I’m working on features three main women characters. One is emerging beautifully. The other two, not so much, and in the past week I’ve figured out why–they are too nice to each other. My task for today is to introduce more conflict between them.
I wrote my first novel, Under The Mercy Trees, over several years, taking pains with each paragraph and letting the point-of-view characters emerge in long ribbons that I then wove together. With this new novel I’m doing some things differently. I’m using an outline, by which I mean a very long, detailed document with headings that say, “In this chapter X happens.” I start with the heading then glide into writing the actual scene. I’m also giving myself permission to write a fast and bad first draft. Fingers crossed that I’ll be able to go back and make the novel good with revision.
Around 11:00 I take a break to enter final grades for the “Such A Character” class I taught this summer for UNC Asheville’s Great Smokies Writing Program. It was my first experience teaching creative writing, and I loved it. I email a critique to one of my students then get back to my own work, with one more break in the afternoon to eat lunch, return client phone calls and help my secretary un-jam the copier with a pair of salad tongs from the office kitchen.
By 3:30 I’ve written all I can. I head home, with a stop at the library to return overdue books (I can never get them in on time). I spend the afternoon helping my daughter get ready for camp. I do laundry, locate long-lost flashlights, and prepare letters for her to open at mail call every day that contain little plastic objects from various dollar bins–erasers, a tiny bead kit, Silly Bands. She’ll be gone for two weeks. I’ll miss her terribly, but her absence will mean more writing time. I’m also scheming to stop taking new clients for the remainder of the summer so I can write two or three days a week instead of one.
My husband comes in from a day in his garden and we head out to the Chinese buffet and the mall. At Barnes & Noble I buy a copy of Jessica Anya Blau’s Drinking Closer to Home. I’m doing a Club Read event with her and other writers in October and am curious to read their work before I meet them . I also buy a pair of $10 earrings at Belk–66% off.
On the way home we stop at my mother-in-law’s house to change her porch lightbulb and check her medications, then drive the half-mile to our own house. After a week of temperatures in the nineties Asheville has cooled down enough that I need a jacket. The night sky is a beautiful blotchy blue. We send my daughter to bed, and I enjoy some time with my husband over a glass of wine.
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?
- Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, recommended by a friend. It’s a masterpiece, but writers should be forewarned. There’s something about the way Egan’s brilliant writing combines with the book’s exploration of how we get from A (young, full of hope and promise) to B (what we actually accomplish) that left me in despair because I know that even if I live another fifty years I will never write anything that good myself. My depression only lasted a day or so. I’m fine now, and grateful to Egan for writing such a perfect book.
2.Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- After you finish a piece, put on your “cliché police” hat and go through the manuscript eradicating any clichéd expressions. Pounding hearts, icy blue eyes, toothy grins, things that are “hard as a rock” or “work like a charm”–take them all out and find an original way to say what you mean.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I hate to admit this and certainly don’t recommend it to others, but when I’m in the middle of an intense writing project such as a big revision, I like to have a bowl of Crunch-n-Munch to chomp on. It’s a habit left over from my paper-writing days in college. It makes for a sticky keyboard but somehow helps me delve in to the work. Candy Corn also works well.
By Heather Newton:
Under the Mercy Trees