How We Spend Our Days: Daniel Torday

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.

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?

  • 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:


The Duct Tape Brother, excerpt in The Kenyon Review
Hunger Mountain, The Writing Life, List #3