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 Elizabeth Benedict:
I set the alarm for nine o’clock, but can’t sleep past eight today, even though I went to bed at two, or was it three? Never been a good sleeper. And there’s no such thing as a routine when promoting a book.
In that semi-dream state before getting out of bed, I remember an event I haven’t thought of for years: soon after we moved to Manhattan, when I was eight, my parents woke us in the middle of the night. There’d been an explosion nearby, and we had to leave the building. Outside, the air was filled with sirens, the sidewalks with sleepy families huddled together, coats over their pajamas. We walked many blocks, looking back to see what we were escaping. All this time later – 1962? 63? – I can’t summon the details. If I write about it, I can force myself to remember – and make up the rest.
As I lurch to the computer at my desk, the memory falls away and instantaneously, I’m deep in email country, answering an editor who wants to reprint Jonathan Safran Foer’s essay, in Mentors, Muses & Monsters – aka the 3Ms. Her emails are about contracts, waivers, jpgs – not the sweet solitude of reading or writing.
I make coffee and raise the blinds to see Riverside Park, the West Side Highway, and the distant outlines of New Jersey. The sky is gray, the city is waking up. I decide against checking the weather report. If it’s going to rain tonight, I don’t want to add it to my worries.
Mostly what I feel is excitement about appearing at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, the city’s brand-new indie, with four of the contributors to the 3Ms – Alexander Chee, Mary Gordon, Martha Southgate, and Lily Tuck – after years of watching nearly every indie in the city shut its doors.
All afternoon, I read my students’ short stories. On my way to the subway, I fall into aimless worrying. Have we done enough promotion? What if only five people show up?
The mood at Greenlight is festive and welcoming; the store is a lovely, bright, well-lighted place. It doesn’t take long to see that the guiding principle here is quality, not quantity. By 7:30, every seat is taken. We are introduced by master literary blogger, Ron Hogan, senior editor of Media Bistro’s Galley Cat, who was instrumental in arranging tonight’s event.
“The response to my invitation was overwhelming,” I read from the introduction to the anthology. “One after another … in a matter of weeks, two dozen fiction writers said yes, they wanted to contribute to this anthology…. I seemed to have hit a nerve.” The nature of the nerve is on display as panelists read briefly from their essays – Lily on Gordon Lish, Alex on Annie Dillard, Martha on Harriet the Spy, and Mary on Barnard teachers Elizabeth Hardwick and Janice Thaddeus.
We swap stories about what made the essays hard to write (Alex: “I was writing an essay about the woman who taught me to write essays.”), whether writers need mentors (special books, says Martha, can inspire more courage than you can imagine), whether mentors can be destructive (read Mary’s essay on the transformation of Hardwick from mentor to monster), and the hazards of writing about someone who’s still alive (Lish lives 4 blocks from Lily; she was sure to clear the essay with him).
The audience wants to know if peers can be mentors (yes, Mary’s first novel, Final Payments, was one of mine), what sorts of things we pass on to our students (our affection for cherished books, personal insights of the sort that professors don’t usually offer), and do we think of our families when we write (absolutely – Alex has several ancestors he can’t shake).
As we sign books, private conversations continue. A woman introduces her grown stepdaughter, Rosa, explaining that she’s Laurie Colwin’s daughter. I didn’t know Laurie Colwin, the beloved novelist who died suddenly in 1992, but know many people who did. I ask if Rosa’s a writer (yes). I sign a book for her and remember to myself the shock of her mother’s death, and the eight-year-old I knew she left behind. For the first time all night, I’m speechless.
Hours later, packing for an early morning train, the dazzle and anxieties of the day fading, I’m still thinking of Rosa. Of explosions in the night when we’re young, of who and what save us and show us the way, if we’re lucky: books, writers, teachers, mentors, stepmothers.
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
- It’s hard to choose, but I’ll go with Life with Sudden Death: A Tale of Moral Hazard and Medical Misadventure, by Michael Downing. I’m a long-time admirer and read everything he writes.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Get in touch with your material. Write from that place rather than a place of cleverness, artifice, and/or showing off. Editing the essays in the 3Ms reminded me anew of the power of starting with our deepest material – and then doing something wonderful with it. I’m not advocating memoirs, but of using material we care deeply about as a foundation and then working it through all the steps, to a high sheen.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- When I’m stuck, I get up and do things like wash the bathroom mirror or dust a shelf – no major projects. In mid-dust, the right word frequently comes to me and I sit down, drenched in relief.
Books by Elizabeth Benedict: