How We Spend Our Days: Diane Lefer

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 Diane Lefer:

Mountains or coastline? I’m due at Peace Camp 2010 at the Circle X Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu to give a group of high school and college student activists a crash course in street theatre. There’s no direct route. I can drive south, then crosstown, then north up along the Pacific beach, but there’s thick coastal fog this morning. I can go north over the hills, then south again down the windy narrow mountain roads, half-awake first thing in the morning on a single cup of espresso, or else on a main road traversing the canyon and through a tunnel cut in the mountain rock, hoping they did indeed inspect it for safety after yesterday’s earthquake. I opt for the canyon.

I’ve never subscribed to the macho philosophy that if you’re a Writer, you put your ass in the chair every day and write. (I say “macho” because I think men feel more compelled than women to conform to the outward sign that writing actually is a job.) But writing is about life, and life is too valuable and fleeting to be lived only through the written word. Anyway, there are so many other things to do: earn a living, work for social justice, have a personal life, too, goddammit! Still, though I don’t write every day, in the past I have put in my share of 12 or even 14 hours without interruption at the computer screen. These days, even if I wanted to, I can’t.

Several years ago–and this is a warning to all you writers out there–I lost my eyesight for eight months when too much staring at the screen made all the focusing muscles go slack. When I could read, write, and drive again, I began to limit my hours at the screen. This spring, when my right eye started going blurry, I panicked. This time around, the doctor says my muscles are physically fine, but my brain is no longer communicating properly with my right eye. My left eye is good. I limit my hours at the computer. I function.

Mornings start with a hot compress over my eyes. Then a gentle scrub of the inner eyelids with much diluted baby shampoo. Then a shampoo wash on the outside followed by artificial tears. Because I won’t be home till late, I add the exercises which usually wait till late in the day. I hope Desi, the best cat in the world (or at least in this apartment), won’t be too impatient as this departure from routine will delay the brushing she gets every morning.

First a warm-up with a card that features green and orange squares that I have to make join up again just by looking at them. Next, with 3-D glasses, I turn on a computer program that shows me red and blue squares that I have to overlap until a 3-D object pops out for me to click. When I visit the doctor’s office, I get to look at doubled images: Bo Peep has a sheep only on one side of the screen, her staff only on the other; Ole King Cole has a pipe on the right side and a bowl on the left; Humpty Dumpty is sometimes missing his hat and sometimes his cane. I have to merge the images by thinking them. Sometimes it actually happens. I’m hoping the doctor can teach me to bend spoons with my mind and then I can take the show on the road.

I think well on the road. So with two hours stretching before me en route to the ranch, maybe I can unravel a problem I’m having with the novel I’m just starting. But maybe I should rehearse the lines of the piece I’m going to perform. Turning some of my fiction into performance pieces is one of the ways I’ve found to be creative away from the computer. For today, I’ve adapted a story to demonstrate how art can be used to stimulate discussion of issues. The piece is also designed to explore whether these kids suffer from a common activist affliction: confident when standing up for someone else, embarrassed or silenced when they need to speak up for themselves.

Maybe I should just enjoy the scenery and let my mind go blank. Blank is what allows new ideas to surface. It can make the difference between carefully crafting what you already know and gaining access to something wholly unexpected. Alas, the only idea I gain today is how I can solve a costume-change problem simply by removing shoelaces in advance from my black running shoes so I can switch in full view of the audience from Guantánamo jumpsuit, hood, and handcuffs to human rights t-shirt to high heels with cocktail party dress.

At last, I’m headed down a long steep dirt road. Then, a cluster of tents, adult mentors, and sixteen young people–male and female, mostly it seems Latino, and ranging from a sophisticated Berkeley student to a young lady who explains the deteriorating quality of her favorite music (techno) is due to interference by the federal government. They’ve been making tie-dyed t-shirts and I smile to hear them regret they were born too late to be hippies or beatniks. They are all part of a movement in Southern California that has already won significant victories. When budget cuts threatened phys. ed. programs in the public schools, the military stepped in to provide free Jr. ROTC programs–especially in low-income neighborhoods. While military training is still an option, it can no longer be required. Firing ranges are being removed from school property. I listen as they brainstorm on means other than war that might help women in Afghanistan.

I’m here to suggest theatre, imagination, creativity as additions to the activist toolbox. After my performance and some initial exercises and reactions, we play a theatre game in which half the group becomes God and half are inanimate lumps who have to be brought to life and controlled. Then they switch roles and we can talk about power and the pros and cons of being leader and of being follower. Did any of them look around to see if someone else’s God was better? No. So we talk about how hard it can be to stay aware of alternatives when your attention is fixed on a single idea–something progressives need to guard against as much as anyone else. We make music on improvised instruments: empty coffee cans hit rhythmically with chopsticks, plastic jugs, shakers, whistles made from plastic straws. We do some quick improvisations: protesters in chains; a judge wearing a wig made from a mop and wielding a gavel made from a cardboard cylinder topped with a roll of toilet paper; a young soldier following a seductive beat. I explain “invisible theatre” in which a scripted incident is played out in a public place as though it’s real life in order to get bystanders engaged in conversation. Today two girls create a scene in which they walk affectionately arm in arm through what they tell us is a shopping mall. Their accomplices then approach kids who play unsuspecting shoppers and get their reactions in order to open up conversation about homophobia and gay marriage.

We try a brief scene in which one person is rude and mean to another and we play it over and over again to see how many different responses are available to the “victim.” Then I ask one of the kids who had just played the mean girl to explain to her best friend how she’d just behaved. She brags about her bad behavior. Then I ask her to imagine telling a therapist. She tells the story deadpan and when pressed, only says she had her period and was in a bad mood. Next, she has to go home and tell her cat. Now, she admits doing wrong and feeling bad. We notice that the cat doesn’t judge her.

One of the kids tells about a boy who horrified the members of the high school Peace Club when he showed up one day to say killing was part of human nature, people have always killed and he’s looking forward to going to Afghanistan so he can have his chance. It’s just as important for activists as for fiction writers to be able to imagine their way into someone else’s experience. One girl agrees to portray the boy–“I really felt like him,” she says later. “Man, that was hard!”–as we try exercises aimed at seeing him as a whole human being. Kids take turns engaging him in conversation, trying to see if they can connect on a human level and what approach will make him most willing to open himself to other points of view.

The sun has come out. I should release them from the workshop and let them hike the trails that wind through this mountain canyon. Unless you know the world is beautiful, why would you bother to save it? And me, I should rethread the laces of my shoes and go with them. But for a while no one gets up. We sit under a blue tarp that rustles in the wind and we talk about the world that is and the world we dream.


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

  • Edinburgh by Alexander Chee, recommended on this site, has the most evocative descriptions I’ve ever read of the experiences of singing and of falling in love. Thank you, Cynthia!

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

  • When they ask for more, give ’em less. (When someone wants to know more about a character, it’s usually because you’ve tried to explain motivation in some way that only opened up more questions. If a character seems alive, rather than explained, motivation takes care of itself.)

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • Desi is usually curled up next to me as I type, purring, her front paws on my thigh, but if she’s elsewhere in the room meowing for attention and I really don’t want to be interrupted, I tell her I can’t play with her right now but I’ll write her into the story. It assuages my guilt–a little. The frequency with which cats appear in my work is a good indication of how guilty I feel.

Books By Diane Lefer:

19 thoughts on “How We Spend Our Days: Diane Lefer

  1. I love so many things about this piece. Diane Lefer’s tenacious spirt when faced with losing her eyesight is inspirational, and what she does with high school students is brilliant. Putting myself in other’s shoes and looking through a variety of POV’s is what I love about reading and writing. It never occurred to me that I could give this experience to my children with role playing. My boys are grown (and all love to read) but the grandkids are visiting today, so I’m going to give it a try. Sounds like fun and better than watching another episode of Caillou.

    P.S. This blog is the best way (with coffee) to begin a Sunday morning as my cat purrs beside me.


  2. Diane, I’m all for living as well as writing about it – good point. How scary to lose your eyesight!

    Cindy, I’ve also just started Edinburgh thanks to you. I enjoy this feature on your blog.


  3. First, love the cat. I share your cat guilt and your limited use of the computer. My affliction is my back. I can write for about 20 minutes, pain sets in, then I have to get up. I thought it was horrible that I was at such a disadvantage, reading about others who finish a novel in three months (I’m going on three and a half years) but losing ones eyesight, even for a day, puts me in perspective. What a thing to overcome.

    I also love the “if they ask for more, give ’em less” as this just happened to me on a short story. I had no idea what more they wanted so I went with instinct and gave ’em less.

    Thank you for sharing your day with us. And thank you Cynthia for the intro into her life.


  4. Tricia, your instincts sound just right. I am so sorry about the pain. Do you think it effects the style and structure of your novel? There’ve been so many studies, going back to writers including Louisa May Alcott, suggesting that women developed a more fragmentary, chapter-by-chapter style because of constant interruptions in their lives. It’s true for me. And I know the desire is always there to focus on the work and lose myself in it, but in reality while the novel remains with me, percolating, I can’t always remain with it. Getting up though and moving around means the blood is flowing throughout the body and not just accumulating in the butt which is not the part of my body that does the best thinking.
    And three and a half years for a novel is probably closer to the norm than three months. Three months! Sometimes it does spill out. But to keep up that pace? Even Joyce Carol Oates doesn’t write that fast!


    • It might be true that my interruptions cause me to write more fragmentary. I thought it would be a challenge submitting excerpts of my book to lit mags, revising for stand alone, with a beginning, middle, and end. When no such challenge presented itself, I realized why my novel is taking so long: it doesn’t flow from one chapter to the next. I have a problem with flow.


  5. I really enjoyed reading this. I love every phrase that is in bold. Knowing about the beauty in our world lets us write about it.
    I find it interesting what you say about an interrupted life leading to fragments in our work. My work is constantly being interrupted (due to my young children), yet, as you say, the story and the words never leave me.
    Thanks to you and Cynthia for this post, giving us a peek at your life (that happens to be so different from mine, and so interesting.)


  6. Thanks, Jennifer.
    Cynthia gets the credit for choosing which sentences to put in bold (and for so much more).
    And I really do love fragments. You know what many of us are taught in school about story structure consisting of rising action, climax, denouement — hey, that’s male sexual response, no? How about some multiple epiphanies instead?! but what I love about bits and pieces is how, like a mosaic, they gradually come together (no pun intended) to create meaning. That last piece falls into place and the story feels satisfying. We can create so much strength out of the limitations that daily life imposes. Or so I tell myself!


  7. So Tricia, the novel is more or less episodic? Or could be read as a novel composed of stories? I do think readers are more accustomed to reading this way than in the past. I can remember when editors insisted on forward momentum, when a novel was supposed to consist of Then, and then, and then, and then. But that doesn’t seem to hold anymore. They also used to say they wanted plots that transferred easily to film — but movies these days aren’t always linear either. Anyway, I don’t believe in “supposed to.” And honestly, it’s hard to get anything published these days even if you follow all the so-called rules. Write the novel in your own way, because if it’s not yours in the deepest sense, there wasn’t much reason to write it. We beat ourselves up too much. Work hard, but at the same time, trust yourself.


  8. I love how the Theater Games were really exercises in empathy. I also loved your discussion, Diane, of how driving stimulates thinking. So true. I always look forward to long drives these days, because it invariably gets my mind cooking.


  9. Cynthia, the bolded sentences really struck chords with me, you, too. Thank you for them.

    I am intrigued by Diane’s creative process, as I am with all writers, painters, creators. It is a sacred act to create, one that requires so much giving. Thanks for this interview, this gift.


  10. Hello, Terresa. I love what you wrote about our work being a sacred act. Sharon Sheehe Stark, wonderful writer who was an early inspiration to me, used to say she couldn’t think about stuff like publishing when she was writing, that she felt her stories were the prayers she offered up.


  11. Pingback: The World of “e” « Behind the Words at BiblioBuffet

  12. Pingback: “The Tangerine Quandary,” a story by Diane Lefer « Numéro Cinq

  13. Pingback: “The Tangerine Quandary,” a story by Diane Lefer » Numéro Cinq

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