to do today

  1. write blog post
  2. read over 5 pages of novel-details (every day 5 pages)
  3. make airline reservations for Oct trip to California
  4. out
    1. buy birthday gifts (8 birthdays in 10 days in sept)
    2. exercise
    3. grocery (supper!)
    4. make copy of photo
  5. call
    1. cancel exercise apt in Atl
    2. Dad
    3. Claire at 3:00
    4. Jodi
  6. work on novel revision-big picture
  7. play with point-of-view in general
  8. edit reviews for Contrary
  9. edit HM piece
  10. read

Not sure how time feels to the rest of you, but if you have a little to play with, don’t miss Robin Black’s To Do list, the second list of the new feature Lists: Literary & Laundry at Hunger Mountain:

“For as long as I can remember I have made TO DO lists with the letters of TO DO all caps.”

What’s on your list for today?

await your reply 5: parceling out your life

And you wipe the snow out of your hair and get back into your car and drive off toward an accumulation of the usual daily stuff–there is dinner to be made and laundry to be done and helping the kids with their homework and watching television on the couch with the dog resting her muzzle in your lap and a phone call you owe to your sister in Wisconsin and getting ready for bed, brushing and flossing and a few different pills that help to regulate your blood pressure and thyroid and a facial scrub that you apply and all the rituals that are–you are increasingly aware–units of measurement by which you are parceling out your life. (92)

This passage from Dan Chaon’s 2009 novel, Await Your Reply, reminds me of so many things:

Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”  

  Mark Strand’s “The Continuous Life”: Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,/That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;”

the Zen saying: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours: “Laura reads the moment as it passes.  Here it is, she thinks; there it goes.  The page is about to turn.”

that surely there is more than this

and just as surely, no there’s not.

What are the units of measurement by which you are parceling out your life?

await your reply

~last in a series
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog

await your reply 2: nods

In the surprisingly interesting Reader’s Guide at the back of Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply, Chaon writes:

As a writer, I feel like I’m always in conversation with the books that I’ve read.

Yiyun Li, the author of The Vagrants, feels the same way: “I believe a writer writes to talk to his/her masters and literary heroes.” About William Trevor, she wrote:

I write stories to talk to his stories. And a story can talk to another story in many ways–a line, a character, a few details, or sometimes it is the mood of the story, the pacing and the music of the story…”

I found two of these nods by Chaon as I was reading Await Your Reply. When I found two, I got such a warm feeling inside. Here they are:

On page 81: “She might’ve been a good mother, Miles thought, if their father had lived.” >>>Flannery O’Connor, from “A Good Man is Hard to Find:” She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” [Here’s a very cool link to Flannery O’Connor reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find” at Vanderbilt University in 1959–amazing]

On page 203: “Your jitters are starting to rub off on me. I’ve got the fucking fantods, man.” >>>David Foster Wallace throughout Infinite Jest.

A lovely practice.

~2nd in a series
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog

scheduling time

I adore this portrait of May Sarton. I used it in a blog post on August 8, 2009. I also used some of the same quotes, but I had a very different reaction to them two years ago. 

Polly Thayer's portrait of May Sarton owned by the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University

There is nothing to be done but go ahead with life moment by moment and hour by hour–put out birdseed, tidy the rooms, try to create order and peace around me even if I cannot achieve it inside me.

As the last days of summer float by, I feel like I’m swimming upstream against them, periodically climbing onto the river bank to put out the next fire. I don’t really think that’s what May Sarton meant by going “ahead with life moment by moment.” And, unfortunately, I’m not even in the same universe with putting out birdseed and tidying rooms. How can I have so much to do?

I’ve been printing blank weekly calendars from the internet and making lists, thinking about the best way to shape the mornings, afternoons, and evenings. On one of my lists from yesterday was “schedule time for reading.” You’ve got to be kidding, I say to my list. It’s come to this?

“That was what I was after–a daily rhythm, a kind of fugue of poetry, gardening, sleeping and waking in the house.”

I like fugue for its sense of interweaving of parts, for its writerly rhythm.

But at the moment I’m not sure fugue is going to get it done. In fact, what I need is a general to command the troops, to whip all these to-dos into shape. And less sleep. Maybe if I get up an hour earlier…

Just so you know, Eleanor Marie Sarton was born in Belgium in 1912. All of her quotes in this post can be found in  Journal of a Solitude, published in 1973.

How about the rest of you–how are your summers going?

it pulls me and grounds me

After seeing my photos of the ocean, a friend wrote that she could tell the ocean pulls me and grounds me at the same time. What an amazing thing to know from a photo.

Seven days the first week of April–spring break–in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, in a house right on the beach–days I can’t seem to stop thinking or writing about.

Seeing, hearing, smelling, living the ocean–I just felt great. Each moment was wider than normal. Each day had a rhythm and an arc.

I’ve never been one to appreciate or mark the beginning of the day. I’m not much in the morning. But at the end of each one of these,
 I paused to watch the sun disappear into the o c e a n.

oh the ocean

It’s so quiet now, without the waves pounding in the background. The first week in April we had our own wonderful steps to the beach. I went to the grocery before I left, and after I arrived on Friday, the first, I did not set foot in a car until we pulled out of the driveway Friday, the eighth, to come home. I wish I could say I woke with the sun, but I slept late, I walked, I read, read, read… All activities interrupted by a few steps to the ship-size deck for hefty doses of sea air. I wrote, wrote, wrote…with the door open and the sound and view of the ocean. And after it was dark, just for fun, I downloaded the series Damages and watched in solo-size on my iPhone. I ate more pizza than I would have thought possible because it was the only place that delivered. Even pizza for breakfast one day. When I write, the hours turn to minutes and before I know it, the day is done. But one day, Sunday I think, I just read all day–different books. With a midday walk down the beach. And the day felt l u x u r i o u s l y long.

the squad: goon 3

Each chapter of Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad can stand alone as a story, but united, these chapters took my breath away. I got chills as I discovered yet another connection between them: Characters who age and reappear. Younger selves revealed. Shadows filled in. Events alluded to that come to pass. The language itself (Chapter 13 is called “Pure Language.)

The subject of time and what it does to us is threaded throughout Goon Squad. From Chapter 3: “Ask Me If I Care:”

Lou looks so happy, surrounded by his kids like any normal dad, that I can’t believe this Lou with us is the very same Lou.

From Chapter 5: “You (Plural):”

My questions all seem wrong: How did you get so old? Was it all at once, in a day, or did you peter out bit by bit?”

From Chapter 11: “Goodbye, My Love:”

“Let’s make sure it’s always like this.” Ted knew exactly why she’d said it…because she’d felt the passage of time.

From Chapter 13: “Pure Language:”

What he needed was to find fifty more people like him, who had stopped being themselves without realizing it.

And in that moment, the longing he’d felt for Sasha at last assumed a clear shape: Alex imagined walking into her apartment and finding himself still there—his young self, full of schemes and high standards, with nothing decided yet.

And the hum, always that hum, which maybe wasn’t an echo after all, but the sound of time passing.

In addition to time, A Visit From the Goon Squad is also about music. The book is divided into Side A and Side B, recalling 33s and 45s. The main character, Bennie Salazar, founded the Sow’s Ear record label. In my previous post, I quoted an excerpt that mentions, in the same paragraph, Bennie and a Jets game–a subtle reference to Elton John’s song.

Chapter 12 is Alison’s (the daughter of Sasha who worked for Bennie) power point presentation on “Great Rock and Roll Pauses.” This 75-page slide show is stunning in its juxtaposition of word restraint and emotional impact.

In addition to the surface, there’s below the surface, before the surface, after… From Chapter 6: “X’s and O’s:”

I’d said something literally, yes, but underneath that I’d said something else: we were both a couple of asswipes, and now only I’m an asswipe; why? And underneath that, something else: once and asswipe, always an asswipe. And deepest of all: You were the one chasing. But she picked me.

E. M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “Music … does offer in its final expression a type of beauty which fiction might achieve in its own way … and when we have finished does not every item…lead a larger existence than was possible at the time?”

Final post in a series of three on Jennifer Egan’s award-winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad: first post and second post.

*cross-posted at The Contrary Blog

you gonna let that goon push you around?

As some of you may know from my recent post, last week, Jennifer Egan’s book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. This morning it was also long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is brilliant. It’s not a novel in the traditional sense. The chapters can be read and appreciated as stand-alone pieces. In fact, four have been published that way: “Selling the General” in the anthology This Is Not Chick Lit published in 2006; and three in The New Yorker: “Found Objects” (Chapter 1) in the December 10, 2007 issue, “Safari” (Chapter 4) in the January 11, 2010 issue, and “Ask Me If I Care” (Chapter 3) in the March 8, 2010 issue.

In her review in The New York Times, Janet Maslin is unsure whether the book is “a novel, a collection of carefully arranged interlocking stories or simply a display of Ms. Egan’s extreme virtuosity.” In an interview on Selected Shorts, Jennifer Egan referred to sections of her book as stories and also as chapters of a longer book.

Regardless of their severability, when read as pieces of a longer work, they shine–oh, they shine. Like separate parts of the universe talking to each other.

The chapters move backward and forward, and part of the pleasure of reading each one is to figure out where we are in time. From Chapter 13: “Pure Language:”

Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?

And there are sufficient clues—dates, ages, references to events we’ve read about in other chapters—that the reader enjoys the challenge and never feels frustrated. And after all we should struggle with time, for that is the subject of the book. Time. Who we were then, who we are now, and how we got from there to here—from side A to side B.

From Chapter 7: “A to B:”

The album’s called A to B, right? Bosco said. “And that’s the question I want to hit straight on: how did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about? Let’s not pretend it didn’t happen.

In the same Selected Shorts interview, Egan said, “And one of the principles of the longer book is that each chapter had to be written in a very different way technically from all the others.”

Because each of the chapters has its own separate sound, when they all play together, the result is the answer to E. M. Forster’s question in Aspects of the Novel:

Is there any effect in novels comparable to the effect of the Fifth Symphony as a whole, where, when the orchestra stops, we hear something that has never actually been played?

Brilliant.

The first in a series of posts on A Visit From the Goon Squad. For the second post, click Pure Egan.

cross-posted at The Contrary Blog

help wanted

As a perfect follow-up to the photos I posted on Sunday, a friend gave me an early holiday gift today that now hangs on the door to my study:

At this time of year, when the demands/desires of the holiday season are heaped on top of our already overflowing lives, all of us could use a personal assistant.

And now I’m going to be my own PA and stop the forward progress in order to reap the benefits of feeling more comfortable in the moment. I’m going to return books to the shelves, file, discard, consolidate. Then I’m going to sit back with a glass of wine and read one of those books you can see on the other side of the door.

it was a good autumn

I dropped the last packet of the six-month semester into the FedEx box yesterday afternoon. After I fill out some end-of-the-semester forms, I will have completed the first year of my two-year program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

To celebrate I went to run in the rain–a new personal best: two miles. Twelve weeks ago, I started running again–starting at one mile and g r a d u a l l y working up to two miles.

The first week in October I started wearing contacts. I’ve gone from taking an hour to get them in to just a couple of minutes.

It was the air, really–the clear brightness of the air that in the evenings now held the first chilliness of autumn, and brought with it that subtle undercurrent of old longings and new chances which autumn often brings.

from Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout

it’s been another year

It’s been another year and I missed it–completely never even thought about it until Friday night when I was visiting another blog, reading a post about how that week was that blog’s two-year anniversary–still not thinking about it–and then at the end of the post, this question: how long have you been blogging?

and I thought well, how long?

I remembered celebrating one year. And then I thought, surely another year has not gone by already.

has it?

yes, it has. September 4th was two years. Wow. That was fast.

And it was a big year: I started back to school for my MFA in creative writing. I also started what is turning out to be another novel. I saw Jackson Browne, Carole King, and James Taylor in concert. September seemed to be all about Infinite Jest. January about reading like a writer. In the spring I was traveling and then recovering from traveling. May was all about Annie Dillard and The Maytrees. July I went back to camp, and August was the mini-David Jauss festival. Both my novels placed in the 2010 Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition: my first novel, The Painting Story, on the Short List for Finalists, and my second novel, Between Here and Gone, as a Semi-Finalist. We’ve now had a whole year of the How We Spend Our Days series. Also, I updated the look of the blog and added new links and new pages.

So here’s the annual look back at the words, still hoping to see some sort of pattern emerging. I’ve linked to a few of my favorite posts, but if you see another one you’d like to explore, just pop the words into the search rectangle on the sidebar or go to the archives for that month, also on the sidebar. If you have a favorite post, I’d love to know which one it is.

A big thank you to all the readers out there. And a really big thank you to all those who posted the 1560 comments (double the number from the first year). You have made Catching Days better than it could have been on its own. As you read the words below, I wish for you, as always, fond memories and new discoveries…

***

September 2009: A Day in the Life of Dani Shapiro-those were the days-wage peace-the splitting sound-from creede-finished-infinite autumn-the germ of everything-the library, and step on it-yellow letters from a shoebox on a rainy pm-the empty armchair

October 2009: A Day in the Life of Adam Braver-unfamiliar-wildlives-still playing with books-poemcrazy-to be read-12 keys to stronger writing from Annie Dillard via Alexander Chee-eucalyptus-a practice-i give

November 2009: A Day in the Life of Sheri Reynolds-the sweet in-between-waiting for me-snooping-what’s Jackson Browne got to do with it-writing retreat-a brief history of time-winter spring summer fall-abandoned things

December 2009: A Day in the Life of Elizabeth Benedict-books to trees-what have I done with my life-the signal-the ordinary day-it is all just shopping-send in the elves-Christmas magic-a new book bag-VCFA visuals: 1st 3 days

January 2010: A Day in the Life of Abigail Thomas-filled up & emptied out-an equal stillness-frozen-the first residency-reading like a writer: part 1-reading like a writer: part 2:taking it to a new level-reading like a writer: part 3: questions to ask-reading like a writer: part 4: reading a story-reading like a writer: part 5: taking a story apart

February 2010: A Day in the Life of Alexander Chee-over the weekend at sea island-devotion-lines connect in thin ways-from santa fe-from the jersey shore-not firmly based-not that i’m counting-hidden from view

March 2010: A Day in the Life of Miciah Bay Gault-rearrangement-let me in-the days cottages-reasons to live-i’m in italy-another last night in rome-madame this is not your day

April 2010: A Day in the Life of Robin Black-starting with the moment-no longer what I want-the conversation-evidence-iworld-four women and a sheep-the water is wide-what it is like-the birthday of an author-if I loved you

May 2010: A Day in the Life of Daniel Asa Rose-from their flat, yellowed pages-the maytrees-time to adapt again-the person underneath-so this morning-6 things I learned from Annie Dillard-structure echoes content

June 2010: A Day in the Life of Lucia Orth-framing the past-four poems-more of this world-rejoyce-the old swing set-day dreams-core-some saturday morning fun-mrs. somebody somebody-back in vermont again

July 2010: A Day in the Life of Tracy Winn-the second residency-places that call us back-hoping to discover-proof-writing my way there-my name is mary sutter-staying in the room-not searching for structure-i cannot get you close enough-a life in stories-odd disjointed pieces at strange times of the day

August 2010: A Day in the Life of Diane Lefer-because the detail is divine-you are not here-alone with all that could happen-crossing borders-out my window: 8/17/10-out my window: 8/18/10-toes-look again-catching lives-jane’s passions-Eudora Welty’s potato salad

***

During the next twelve months, I hope even more of you will join the conversation. I’m looking forward to it!

 

stiltsville

The new issue of Contrary Magazine is online with my review of Susanna Daniel‘s first novel, Stiltsville. Here’s the first paragraph of the review:

A stilt house off the shore of Miami is a wondrous and fragile thing, built against all odds of survival. As is a marriage. Although we know that nothing lasts forever, still we hope that some things will. Stiltsville, the debut novel by Susanna Daniel, is straightforward and unsurprising, and each day that I was reading it, I could not wait to return to it.

There was nothing there but sea and sky, but then a few matchbox shapes formed on the hazy horizon. They grew larger and I saw that they were houses, propped above the water on pilings.

Read more…

re-entry

Transitions sometimes take my breath away. Despite the fact that on Sunday I got up at 5:30 am mountain time to ease myself back into eastern standard, seven am still feels like five am.

Vacation to Life. Suitcase to drawers. Behind to behind-er.

Last week in Colorado, I received stacks of marked-up manuscripts from my writing group. Plus my adviser returned my packet with wonderful annotations on two stories. Where to begin?

I need new running shoes, an idea for supper, birthday gifts, to turn in a housing form. I wrote a friend yesterday that I seemed to be proceeding helter-skelter, with no plan in sight, that I needed a priority list–number one: pay tuition so son can return to college.

This morning I lit my Rejuvenation candle–sweet orange and clove–cranked up Mavis Staples and began–this time with determination. The stacks would not defeat me.

One thing from each: Read for thirty minutes. Write for thirty minutes. Creep along Moses, Moses… Read one blog post. Review one stack of notes. Answer one email. Make one phone call. Write one letter. Review the notes on one manuscript. Place one clean shirt into a drawer. Trying to cross the Red Sea…

writing my way there

I walk every step of what used to be the camp, of what is now Kingsland Bay State Park. Then I sit in a white Adirondack chair with my pen and paper, looking across the bord de l’eau to the Adirondacks. I bring my vision in to the flag pole cemented to the ground. The cement tells me it’s the same one that was here when I arrived for the first time in July of 1970.

Why do I want to come back? For proof I was here. For clues as to who I used to be. I just want to stay long enough to…

I think this place has something to tell me.

I remember friends I made here, but I no longer keep up with them. It’s this place I miss, not the people who were here. Is it this place or the person I was here?

I was my best self here. I learned how to be myself here. It was my first time away from home for a long period of time–eight weeks that first summer, nine the others. Each summer I got closer to me.

The metal rings holding the flag clang against the pole. The water of Lake Champlain laps against the shore. People spread cloths on the picnic tables. A motor boat zooms past a large sail boat that seems to linger in the moment.

Writing about it again this morning for this post, I finally get it. It’s the continuous life. That’s why I’m here–to understand that the girl who was here in 1970 is the same woman who is here now. I’ve been tagging these posts all week with those words without seeing it.

As Mary Gordon wrote so well in The Rest of Life:

“She sees that she has before her an important task: to understand that all the things that happened in her life happened to her.  That she is the same person who was born, was a child, a girl, a young woman, a woman, and now she is old.  That there is some line running through her body like a wick.  She is the same person who was once born.  All the things that happened to her happened to one person…’I’m trying to understand what it means to have had a life.’”

Final post in 4-part series on
Ecole Champlain:
Part 1: places that call us back
Part 2: hoping to discover
Part 3: proof
Part 4: writing my way there

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