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

reading like a writer–part 2: taking it to a new level

Like many of you, I feel that for some time now I’ve been reading like a writer. In other words, when I’m reading, I’m also noticing: tense shifts, point of view, use of time, distance between the narrator and the characters, the movement in and out of scenes…

In 1999 I was so amazed by Michael Cunningham‘s The Hours–its structure, its use of repetition–that I reread it in order see what he had done. I circled. I underlined. I used Excel and made a chart. I cited page numbers.

Recently at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, another student suggested I listen to the CD of a lecture given by Douglas Glover last summer on “How to Read Like a Writer.” In that lecture he said that to read like a writer, we should learn how to take a story apart. I thought, right, I know that.

But it wasn’t until a few days after that, when I actually took apart a couple of the Alice Munro stories in her new collection, Too Much Happiness, that I finally GOT how to read like a writer–or how to take reading like a writer to a new level–and how that could help me make choices when I was writing.

So the first time I read, I read for pleasure. I underline passages I like, and I notice what’s working and what’s not. Then the second time I read, I read to answer questions.

Other posts in this series:

Part 1: Reading like a writer

Part 2: Taking it to a new level

Part 3: Questions to ask

Part 4: Reading a story

Part 5: Taking a story apart

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how do you record?

In 1999, I started keeping a list of the books I read on an old computer program called Sidekick, which was amazing because you could create cardfiles and name the categories exactly what you wanted to. As the years went by, they did not update the program.  It became more and more unstable.

So two years ago, I managed to import all outlook michael cunninghammy data into a separate contacts file in MS Outlook. Each book is a separate contact, and hopefully on the fourth line you can see that this card is filed as Cunningham, Michael–author’s last name. There’s also a nice place to make notes, although this one is blank at the moment. Sometimes in the notes area, I will add if I borrowed the book from someone or if I gave it away or why I chose it to read.

The categories don’t match up exactly.

Company=genre (novel, stories)

Job title=title

Business=year it was published

Home=year (or years) I read the book. This is an older entry, where I actually wrote out july. These days, I use 01 for January because it offers nice possibilities for sorting.

Callback=Not seen here because this is an older card, but where it says Business Fax, I now use callback, which = do I want to read this book again. And here I have 3 choices: yes, no, maybe.

I can see in two seconds if I’ve read a book before.

Last summer I added a card for each of  the other books on my shelves that I’d already read.

One of the recent comments: “I keep a tiny journal of all the books I read each year and the page numbers and the dates I read them.”

In a separate Note in Outlook, I also keep track of yearly totals. Do you keep track of the books you read? If so, what do you record and how?

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not writing books but writing in books

IMG_2115We’ve been having a discussion about writing in books. If you’re interested, check out the comments to Some People Buy Shoes (a prequel). I buy books. One thing leading to another, I mentioned that I had a slight problem with making more use of the library because I wouldn’t be able to write in my books.

This is the great thing about comments. I discovered that a lot (okay, most) of the people commenting do not, and would not dream of, writing in their books. So if you’re out there and you do, I’d love to hear from you.

As I said in one of my comments, I cannot read a book without a pen or a pencil in my hand. Cannot. I’m afraid something will be lost to me forever. It’s kind of like “catching days.” Writing in a book is my net for catching what means something to me in the book–the lines, the recurring images, the metaphors, the echos from page to pageIMG_2114.

I am in no way trying to persuade anyone to cross over. I’m just trying to explain myself to myself. Which is, at the moment, becoming difficult. Because the more I think about it, the more it’s out of character for me to write in books. I do want things in general to be perfect, and so many things I can’t bear to use for that very reason–journals for one thing. I don’t like to write in them because I’m afraid I’ll mess them up. Instead I “save” my journals and make notes on index cards and in spiral notebooks, where mistakes can be easilyIMG_2118 discarded.

I do see that journals are made to be written in and books are not.

Writing in books is the way I bond with them, and everyone bonds differently with books. Are there any other unique bonding methods out there?

I always write my initials and the year and month I read a book on the back page. Do the people who don’t write in books write your name in your books? Do you write in books you give as gifts?

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there it goes

img_1252New Year’s Day is a pause for me.  I lie on the sofa and watch movies and football.  I let life happen outside of me and around me.  Then yesterday I spent the entire day in action–restoring order after the holidays.   Chopping wood, carrying water.  Untangling Christmas lights.  Two very different days, but two days I let slip through–catching nothing.  Instead of an inner life, an outer life. Today, I’m hoping to restore order in my study; there are piles everywhere.  I’m starting here. 

At the end of each of the last few days, I’ve thought of the line from The Hours by Michael Cunningham:

“Laura reads the moment as it passes.  Here it is, she thinks; there it goes.  The page is about to turn.”

The last few days, nothing written on the page.  Today, big hopes.

the extra hour

“Here she is with another hour before her.” 

The Hours, Michael Cunningham

One of the reasons I love reading this novel is the way the author intertwines the lives of the three women with recurring words and images–steps forward, cold water, failure, flowers, hours everywhere, the soul, the word yellow…It’s like a treasure hunt. On every page, a discovery. 

Spend your extra hour reading–something old or something new.