I’m ready to go!
Thomas grounds the story of this long-ago Christmas in real details–snow and fire brigades and uncles–and yet he tells it as if it were a fairy tale.
The ending: “I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”
My writing group just finished reading Colm Toibin’s collection, The Empty Family. Although some people in the group loved it, I didn’t. I’ve started giving away the books I know I won’t read again, and this one will be sent on its way–hopefully to a new reader.
Still, some of Toibin’s passages took my breath away, like this one from the title story, with its building of emotion by the use of repetition and the cadence of the words:
And all I have in the meantime is this house, this light, this freedom, and I will, if I have the courage, spend my time watching the sea, noting its changes and the sounds it makes, studying the horizon, listening to the wind or relishing the calm when there is no wind.
And from the same story:
It came to me then that the sea is not a pattern, it is a struggle.
I’ve come back to this line several times–the ocean as a struggle.
***Actually, if anyone would like me to send the copy (a hardback with my marginalia in pencil) his or her way, just leave word in the comments before I head to the post office on Monday, and I’ll email for your address.
A week ago, I was so struck, as I came up over a hill, to actually be able to see the end of the storm–see it in the sky. At its source. Rather than notice the rain had stopped or it was getting lighter outside.
Sometimes it’s easy to see the endings of things. But sometimes you don’t know it’s the end until you look up to see the next thing has started.
One morning recently, I woke to find bare branches. And I thought, so fall is over just like that.
We’re nearing the end of another year, and I’m looking around trying to see it happening.
I’m writing from the road, I had to see,
and not just know, to see clearly
the sights and fires of a single world…
~from “To See” by Adam Zagajewski
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 Daniel Torday:
There’s this idiosyncratic little thing EM Forster says in Aspects of the Novel I’ve always loved. It goes: “The main facts of human life are five: birth, food, sleep, love and death. Let us briefly ask ourselves what part they play in our lives, and what in novels.” It seems apt for considering a day in my writing life to ask those very questions. To the schematic:
1) Birth. Life: My two-year-old Abigail goes to daycare at 8:30am. My wonderful perfect assiduous wife has already left for the hospital, where she’s a psychiatry resident. I get Abby up, feed her, negotiate her into clothes, make her lunch. The chronology of these things is unclear, but at some point complete. At some point she is at daycare.
Novels: During the semester I don’t have headspace for generative work. I find an hour in the morning to check in with a manuscript. I’ve been at work on a short novel about a guy who makes a brother out of duct tape for long enough that I started before I had a kid. Now I’m revising. Today I layer some parenting stuff that the pre-parenting me didn’t have in his coffers. I take a moment to feel grateful for wife, child, layering.
2) Food. Life: After my hour of revision, in which today I realize that my first reader was right and this thing sure doesn’t need an epilogue and I fold the language from the epilogue into a late chapter, I eat turkey-and-swiss-on-a-croissant-with-dijonnaise. I’m a big fan of compound words. I’m a bigger fan of compound condiments.
Novels: Because who needs an epilogue? And about this language-salvaging instinct. It can be dangerous. It can mean you’re too attached to the sounds or the images or the place you were in the moment you wrote it. In this case I feel convinced there are ideas from the epilogue that need to stay. I’ll keep them for now. In a week or two, we’ll see.
3) Sleep. Life: Five, maybe six hours.
Novels: Sounds boring.
4) Love. Life: I love my wife and my kid and having a kid allows me to focus on both. That said, by far my favorite thing in Forster is his wry (the wryest in all of western literature?) description of love, which I take as a really good joke but fear Forster took seriously: “Some years after a human being is born, certain changes occur in it, as in other animals, which changes often lead to union with another human being, and to the production of more human beings. And our race goes on.”
Novels: Part of me just wonders: why didn’t Forster put “love” under “birth,” then? As for my writing, I’m actually a fan of the sex scene, but novels about brothers made out of duct tape definitely don’t need sex, duct tape or otherwise.
5) Death. Life: At the end of my day I host a reading by one of my favorite short story writers. At lunch we talk about a colleague who’s been diagnosed with cancer. We wonder what it must mean to live over that abyss. We’re writing nerds, so we talk about what that meant for Chekhov (TB), Flannery (lupus), Dostoyevsky (epilepsy), Kafka Keats Orwell Thoreau (TB TB TB TB). We talk about that thing from “Gooseberries”: “Every happy man should have someone with a little hammer at his door to knock and remind him that there are unhappy people, and that, however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show its claws, and some misfortune will befall him— illness, poverty, loss.” We thank the Lord for our health. Later we go say things about or from books in front of people.
Novels: The novel I was working on in the morning is about a kid who makes a brother out of duct tape. It’s also about the brother’s chronic illness. And about living with chronic illness. And ooh—after I give the audience my introduction, as I sit in the wash of language as one of my favorite young story writers reads on stage, I hit on this: that “Gooseberries” thing might make a good epigraph. Or a profoundly bad one. Only one way to find out.
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- Adam Levin’s The Instructions. We just kept making eye contact across the bar. I’m glad I finally took it home.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- I’m an inveterate perseverator, so here’s my favorite thing to tell my students when they’re having a hard time revising: In life, it’s important to make good decisions. As a writer, sometimes it’s better just to make a decision, and not worry if it’s a good one. Or, to put it another way: in writing, unlike in life, there’s always OpenApple+Z.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- Candy. Lots of candy. Often Good ‘n Plenty, which gets strange looks at the movie theater but only plaintive sniffs from the cat in my home office.
By Daniel Torday: