How We Spend Our Days: Tracy Winn

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 Tracy Winn:

My idea of a perfect writing day goes like this: Wake up naturally without being alarmed by the alarm clock. Eat breakfast in silence staring at something nice to look at: my husband, a bouquet, the garden growing. Read a story from one end to the other, uninterrupted. Write for two hours. Have a snack and stretch outside. Write for another hour. Eat lunch while reading another story. Take a half hour nap. Write for another hour. Take my dog for a long walk in the woods. See everyone I’ve been missing, laugh, answer emails, pay bills, do errands, eat, drink and be merry until it’s time to sleep.

Of course, that isn’t the way it happens. I’ve only managed days of such openness to creativity at a residency or a self-imposed retreat. To catch a writing day means waking early and hoping to stew up a good cocktail of desire and discipline in the course of events.

How my daughter is doing determines how I am and how I’ll spend my time on any given day. She has a major anxiety/depression disorder and has been living on her own for a year, almost to the day, as I write this. (If you are wondering about my sharing my daughter’s information, it’s okay. She wants to de-stigmatize mental illness and writes an articulate blog to that end.)

Today, when the alarm rings, my husband, who has to take a re-accrediting test for his work, rises almost as reluctantly as our dog. The dog, who sleeps next to our bed, lingers and lounges and yawns and groans until I tell him to quit the malarkey and get to work. You know the koan about the dog having the Buddha nature? He thought that up in a previous life.

My first obligation is to take the dog with the Buddha nature for a walk. He weighs almost as much as I do. I am tall, but he makes me look short. We walk along an old railroad bed where Henry David Thoreau tarried under these same trees. Today, while the dog is being here now on a bush, I see a fox with a kit playing in the shadows of the path then vanishing into the shadows, like shadows themselves. The woods are generous that way, giving me glimpses of lives other than the human kind. I am grateful for those gifts — those sightings — to a degree that is hard to explain. It has to do with what I consider the most basic fact of being alive: humans are completely and indivisibly OF the natural world whether we appreciate it or construct elaborate defenses (physical, philosophical, or technological) against it. I am a dedicated appreciator of the interconnections.

My next stop is across town to meet a good-hearted contractor who has volunteered to donate his time at Gaining Ground, the organic farm where one of the hats I wear is as chair of the land committee. Gaining Ground grows produce with the help of volunteers, and gives all of it to local food pantries and meal programs. We’ve just leased two acres from an abutter of the farm and are returning those acres to agricultural use. To get to the new acres with a tractor, we need to build a little wetland-protecting bridge. Luckily, this contractor knows building the way I know short stories. We’re calling it “the bridge to somewhere.”

I’ve made it seem as though I live in woods and farmland, but I’m only twenty miles from downtown Boston. Since there have been no distress calls from my daughter, I stop for a good cup of coffee at a little Italian market in town. I raise my cup to her, really proud that she is doing well on her own today.

It’s time to get down to work, which, despite my email box’s insistence to the contrary, is NOT to promote Mrs. Somebody Somebody. First, I read a little, almost always a short story. Today it is from Cynthia Morrison Phoel’s astoundingly excellent collection, Cold Snap. Then I reread what I wrote yesterday. This is the trickiest part of the process because my tendency is to get bogged down perfecting yesterday’s work. What I’m trying to do is enter the “fictive dream” John Gardner described so perfectly. If I am unlucky, I will grind out 250 words of struggling prose almost all of which will get tossed tomorrow. If I am lucky, I will be lost in the fictive dream until my husband’s returning car alerts me to the fact that the afternoon is gone. Either way the luck flows, I’ll be at my desk writing.




1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?

  • One of the books I’ve admired greatly in the last few months is God’s Dogs by Mitch Wieland, a novel in stories not to be missed. I chose it because we were on a panel together talking about short story collections.

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

  • Unplug your internet connection while you are working.

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • All of my habits seem perfectly normal to me, but maybe not everyone has to create a safe place — a saved file — for the parts of a piece that clearly need excising. In order to cut, I have to fool myself into believing that nothing is lost.

By Tracy Winn:

13 thoughts on “How We Spend Our Days: Tracy Winn

  1. I’ve seen a lot about this book, and look forward to reading it. Robing Black’s IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS has reignited my old love for short stories, which sadly, has been dormant for while. Thank you for this post, and to Ms. Winn, for her candor.


  2. Read the first story “Mrs. Somebody Somebody” last night. Loved Lucy Mattsen and Stella Lewis. It was late when I started reading, but Winn’s writing grabbed me from the beginning and would not let me sleep till the end. No way I could I put down a story that opens with “Lucy Mattsen was nobody–Like all the women I worked with–until the day the baby fell out the window. It was break time at the mill. Us girls from Knitting leaned on the railing over the North Canal, airing out our armpits and sharing smokes. The baby was bare except for diapers. It fell like a bomb in the newsreels.”

    Now, if you want to know what happens to the baby, you’ll have to dash out and buy the book. Believe me, it’s worth the trip even during Friday’s rush-hour traffic.


    • Darrelyn, I agree that this is an amazing opening. Thanks for taking the time to put it in your comment. I also love all the characters’ names–just wonderful. So glad you’re enjoying the collection.


  3. After reading the second story in this collection, “Glass Box” I decided to slow down and read one story a day. It’s so good I want to savor every word. I believe it was this sentence that convinced me: “He lifted her to the surface of herself–could make her feel inside out with wanting.” Ahh, that is beauty.


  4. How true – the gap between the ideal writing day and reality as a writing mom. How wonderful to be both in the woods and only 20 minutes from Boston. I agree with Tracy’s answers 2 and 3.


    • Sarah, so sorry. Somehow I missed your comment on my way home from Vermont. I love that you mentioned this gap between the ideal writing day and the reality of a writing day–what we aspire to and what we have to work with.

      I would love to be that near Boston too. And as for #2, I really need to work on that : )


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  6. Darrelyn and Sarah,

    I really appreciate your comments and apologize for being missing in action. (I’ve been really ill, but am on the mend.) It still surprises me that people find their way to these blogs (even extremely excellent ones like Cynthia’s) and that someone out there is reading. Thank you for speaking up.



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