How We Spend Our Days: Alan Heathcock

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 Alan Heathcock:

My day starts off by wrangling my three kids out of bed, into clothes and breakfast, and out the door. I drive my fifteen-year old son to school, while my wife takes our two daughters to their schools. Then the day is mine. Back home, I grab some tea and head out to my office, which is parked in my side-driveway—I work in a 1967 Roadrunner travel trailer that was once an Idaho state police surveillance vehicle, but is now my writing studio (a.k.a. the VOLT-mobile).

Being a writer has ruined me to reading. I don’t really mind. I’m ruined because I always hold a yellow crayon while reading, and as I read I highlight any passage I think has value. I might highlight a great line of dialog, a great image, a great noun or verb, an interesting mannerism, whatever. I start off my writing day by going through what I read the day before and hand-writing out every newly highlighted passage into a composition notebook. The idea is that I’m training my brain and eyes and hand to write at the same high quality as the highlighted passages. On this day, I enter passages from Robert Musil’s novel, Young Torless.

Next, I decide my task for the day. I don’t believe in demanding a word count for myself, and instead try and choose a reasonable task, usually one scene or moment in the story. Today I task myself to write a scene where my protagonist is driving headlong into a hurricane with her little sister and brother (a war vet gone A.W.O.L.), in an attempt to find their father, who’s holed up in a huge coal barge down in the shipyard.

The way I write has a closer kinship to acting than to journalism, though I use techniques from both disciplines. From my training as a journalist, I use research. On this day, I need to get my head around how being in a hurricane might look/feel/sound. I turn to videos online, watching home videos of from North Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida. I take notes. I make sketches. From this, eventually the hurricane becomes realized in my imagination.

Next, I have to figure out the content of the scene. I try to think of any books I’ve read, any plays or films or TV shows I’ve seen, that might help. On this day, I read a bit of “Upon the Sweeping Flood” by Joyce Carol Oates, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Far North by Marcel Theroux. Then, I watch scenes from the film Winter’s Bone and a documentary Hell and Back Again. After all of this, I come away with the mechanics of the scene.

I’m what I call an “empathetic writer,” as I try to place myself wholly inside the character, which in this case is a seventeen year old woman, a high school drop-out who is now, with her mother dead, her father gone, her sister too young, and her brother ill, in charge of the well-being of her family. I take the setting and events I’ve imagined, and now must figure out how she might feel, think, and imagine, in this situation. I read a book on the Stanislavski Method of acting and find it very useful to take the emotional content of my own past and place those feelings into the character. I recall driving through a tremendously frightening storm back in Illinois, and draw my imagination back into the intensity of that trip. I work all this out, playing the scene in my mind over and over until I’m feeling it as real 

Then I open the computer and do my best to find the words to capture the empathetic experience of my character, as it’s vividly alive in my imagination. Today’s an intense day and I work myself into crying, wiping my eyes just to see the computer. I don’t pause when I’m done, and immediately revise, scrutinizing every word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph, until I’ve delivered the scene into absolute truth and clarity.

Finally, to disconnect from the trauma of my character before my wife and kids get home, I return to the house, where I take a long hot shower, then hit the kitchen, turn on some tunes, and play a game of Scrabble on my iPad. Then I begin working on dinner, trying my hand at a new curry recipe.

At last, my wife and kids get home and I kiss them each and ask about their days. When they ask about mine I say only that I had a good day of writing.

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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?

  • Ladies and Gentlemen by Adam Ross. I loved his novel Mr. Peanut, and was curious how he’d do with stories. Great, great, stuff.

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

  • Do not look beyond yourself for validation. Be brave enough to take yourself seriously. The moment you decide to look fearlessly inward, to take yourself seriously, you will stop imitating others and will become original.

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • In my trailer I have a counter and wall that I’ve covered with pages from books that contain amazing writing. So, if I’m reading something and come across a passage that completely blows my mind, I tear it out and glue it to the wall.

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By Alan Heathcock:

16 thoughts on “How We Spend Our Days: Alan Heathcock

  1. Alan, I love that you “warm up” by writing your favorite passages. I do something similar: I open up a book by Ian McEwan (every passage is golden to me) and choose passages at random and begin copy writing a few paragraphs just to get in the mode. I have never been able to write or highlight inside a book. It’s some sort of disorder from which I’ll never recover, so I just open to any page and go.

    Cynthia, hi. I’m still here. I don’t comment on blogs as much as I used to, but I’m still around, reading, lurking.

    • Thanks, Tricia! Yeah, I have to sometimes buy two copies of books, and can’t highlight in any first editions. Otherwise, though, I highlight, and tear-out pages, write in the margins, generally just destroy the books (ha). I’m sure the authors would understand I’m destroying their work out of love. By the way, I love Ian McEwan, too. Best to you! Happy writing!!

  2. I love the term “empathetic writer.” I go a little overboard because I subconsciously do this writing technique with most people I meet. This way I learn how to be a great listener and I can steal writing ideas from people’s every day lives. Thanks for the post! :)

    • Ha! I do that, too. Since I was a kid I’ve always found myself trying not just to listen to what people say, but what they mean by what they say. It’s come out to be a very valuable skill-set as a writer. Best to you, Tara!!

  3. Loved everything about this post, epecially Alan’s writing advice. Since I grew up and live in South Louisiana, I’m interested to read his story about a hurricane and have Volt on my list.

    • I’m fascinated by hurricanes. I’ve never been in one. I’ve been in great floods and tornados, but no hurricanes. From the video I’ve watched, I’m not in any hurry to find out the reality of being in one. Thanks for the comment, Darrelyn! Be well.

  4. What fun to see one of my favorite short story writers featured on one of my favorite writing blogs! The practice of regularly copying out great work sounds amazing and I’m going to try it. My favorite quote from Alan…”I’m what I call an ‘empathetic writer,’ as I try to place myself wholly inside the character…”
    If you haven’t yet, tune in to Alan’s recorded essays on NPR. They’re wonderful! Here’s one.
    http://www.npr.org/2011/12/26/143853118/a-poem-a-day-portable-peaceful-and-perfect

  5. I love this idea of recopying the highlighted passages from your reading as training yourself to write to that same quality. I also underline passages while I read with that idea in mind, but I’ve never gone back through to write them down. I bet that’s a really valuable exercise. Thanks for the inspiration! I also love the idea of using Stanislavski’s method of acting to imagine yourself into your characters emotional state of being. Brilliant!

    And just to share with other folks, Alan did a great interview with Brad Listi recently. It’s a pleasure to listen to this podcast if interested: http://otherpeoplepod.com/archives/474

  6. What a great post. It is so inspiring. I LOVE the little travel trailer. For a while I have been fantasizing about a writing shack in the backyard. Now, suffice it to say, my fantasy is MUCH more specific. And, if need be, portable!

    • Thanks for your comment, Richard. I share the fantasy of a little Airstream trailer, parked just outside and ready to roll to the beach at a moment’s notice : )

  7. Pingback: Shaking Off the Grip I Love Most? Nah! | Rigmarole

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