How We Spend Our Days: Robin Oliveira

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 Robin Oliveira:

I have let myself sleep in past seven this May Monday morning, the regrettable result of this season’s endlessly gray Seattle spring. Monday is usually the day I find myself propelled by a wild energy that comes from having taken the weekend off. But this Monday, in addition to the drear, I am also awaiting news of a friend’s medical tests to determine the extent of his newly-diagnosed cancer, and so this day is tinged with sadness. But in any case, I am in no hurry to begin writing. 

I am in the process of writing my second book, and I only now feel free after a year of hoopla after the publication of My Name is Mary Sutter, a year in which, after years of writing sans any expectations except my own, I have had to meet article deadlines, fulfill myriad requests from my publicist, editor and agent, travel across the country for appearances on television and radio, give lectures and readings at libraries, bookstores and conferences, and generally become a public person after years of cultivating a very private life.

When I was writing Mary Sutter, no one cared that I was writing it, no one was waiting for it, and no one had anything to say about it. Back then I raced to the computer every morning, eager to set down every word. Now I am stymied by the pull of two projects and their individual demands: the novel I wrote and the novel I want to write. Somehow, this has manifested itself as dragging my heels, which, I worry, means that I have nothing to say in a second book and that failure is certainly right around the corner. (Oh, the myriad ways in which I am capable of scaring myself.)

Why on the second book I suddenly fear failure is a puzzle for a therapist, a professional I don’t have in my stable but who nonetheless would only tell me what I already know, that the fear of failure can keep you from doing anything, even something you love, even something at which you’ve already had some success. I don’t think this second-book anxiety is mine alone. As I criss-crossed the country on my paperback tour, other writers asked me in hushed tones about my experience of writing the second book. It’s about as much fun as chewing broken glass, I say. I’m so glad to hear that, they say. Mine was hard, too. 

So, at eleven in the morning (too late!), after managing to drag my heels by setting appointments, answering non-urgent emails, checking Garance Dore’s Web site to read her colloquial French out loud in order to resuscitate my college-level ability, watering the flower pots, drinking two espressos, and reading the NY Times, especially the Metropolitan Diary, which I love—I am here, at my computer, thinking of writing, and pushing away the haunting concerns for my friend.

But as usual, when I finally give in, I’m lost in the world of my new book, writing and researching and dreaming about my characters. Hours fly by. I had intended to go to the gym in the afternoon, or at least hike up the mountain behind my house when I was finished, but the writing, as always, has eaten up the minutes and hours, and it is dinnertime, and I am ruing the earlier wasted minutes of flower-pot-watering and language instruction. 

As evening dawns, I receive the awaited email that my friend has weathered his battery of tests but must now wait a week for his results. How he will spend his summer—the length of chemotherapy, the possibility of radiation—will be determined by those results. He is a loving father to his sons and devoted husband to my dear friend, already someone who celebrates the minutes and hours of his life, but my bet is that he will never procrastinate again. Not in the smallest things, like heading outside to enjoy the Seattle sun if it should ever arrive this year, nor in the most important, like saying how much he loves the people in his life. 

And I suspect that if he had a book to write, he just would sit down and write it.  

Held in relief against this reminder of mortality, my minutes and hours spent worrying and resisting, are…I don’t want to say shameful because that is too harsh, so instead I’ll use the descriptor instructive. Virginia Woolf, beginning to reach a point where she could no longer stand the unbearable press of time, wrote the words time passed in To the Lighthouse, a novel whose theme is the ineffable nature of life and love. I don’t know why I fail to acknowledge the irrefutable fact of mortality until the great hurdles of life and death knock me upside the head. It’s not as if I don’t have a watch, or that procrastination is the great sin, or even that its unexpected advent in my life is so alarming. The hours tick by right in front of me. Mortality is not a well-kept secret. 

Time passed. Revelation, one could say. Just as the day closes.


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

  • Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Hands down, the best book I’ve read in a long time. I chose it even before it won the Pulitzer because I’d read a chapter in the New Yorker a year or so before, and because I’d heard about five people rave about it. Also, it promised complexity in the title. The Goon Squad? What was that?

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

  • Write complex sentences. Find the contradictions and complexities in the character and infuse that into the sentence itself, in dialog, description and thought processes. Complex syntax and precise diction make the difference between a boring run-of-the-mill sentence, and one that carries two, three, four meanings at once.

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • I write in different rooms depending on the draft I am working on. I finished My Name Is Mary Sutter in my dining room, where I camped for four months writing the last draft. Also, when I’m really stuck, I hop in the shower. The running water releases something in me and helps me to solve writing problems.

By Robin Oliveira:

My Name is Mary Sutter

14 thoughts on “How We Spend Our Days: Robin Oliveira

  1. Great installment, Cindy. I always enjoy these. And the To The Lighthouse coincidence after Kae’s FB picture had me wondering what it all meant. Hope your own writing is going well, and thanks for continuing to share and inspire.


  2. Dear Robin,
    I share your physical search for different rooms for different drafts. I am about to begin the second draft of my novel and looking for a new writing place to fit it’s shifting shape. Also enjoyed your comment about complex sentences, multiple meaning.
    Thanks to you and Cynthia.


  3. Robin,
    Your description of “worrying and resisting” reminds me of Steven Pressfield’s Rule of Thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursing it.

    Your first novel is brilliant and this one will be, too. Best of luck with the book and to your friend.


  4. Showers/water helps me solve writing problems, too.

    This was a great interview, Goon Squad is on my radar/to-read list, and I’m grateful for Robin’s advice on writing complex sentences. Mary Sutter’s also on my to-read list, as the historical account of midwifery addressed in the novel intrigues me.

    PS: And the Dillard quote, of course! A gem.


  5. Thank you for sharing, Robin. I recently won a paperback of your book in a Goodreads giveaway, so it’s sitting here waiting for me to get started. Sounds fascinating.

    I completely sympathize with your problems working on the second book. The pull of two projects, the dragging heels, the fear you have nothing more to say … it’s all familiar. Best of luck with the second book.

    Thank you, Cynthia for inviting Robin here.


  6. Robin–you drew me in with your words and easy cadence. Thank you for your advice (as I sit, here in the dark, scratching out the first words of my first memoir, your words truly resonate).


  7. Robin: What a wonderful book you wrote and what an insightful submission here, which while I am sure on point to the writers who read here in whose number I am not, about life and the difficulties of living it as we would wish. Cal Martin


  8. Robin,
    I’m always so appreciative of the depths you plumb–the heart of the moment–and then articulate so beautifully. All the best to your friend in the weeks ahead.
    On another note, the views for your wiring spaces seem inspirational.



  9. Thanks Cal and Jodi, for the kind words. Yes, that view is out the window of my office, which is why I doubt I will ever be able to move from this house. The salmon and raspberry colored azaleas are blooming now, and it’s a riot of color, especially in the rain, which has returned once again.


  10. I fell in love with Mary Sutter’s story immediately. It was so rich in history and full of wonderful nursing stories. As a maternal-child health nurse for almost 30 years, it made me proud to come from such a line of strong, compassionate women who worked very hard and sacrificed so much to do the work they loved. I have passed my book around to all my midwife friends and rising nursing students as a source of inspiration. Thank you for writing this terrific book and I can’t wait for the next one. Thank you for sharing a litte slice of your day with us, too!! Best Wishes!


    • Thank you, Tammy! How nice of you. When nurses tell me how much they liked the book, I feel great relief and great validation. And, btw, I just finished book number two. No publication date yet, but within a year and a half, which seems long I know, but that’s how long it takes to get out a book these days. Many thanks for reading and writing.


      • You are welcome! You are certainly deserving of praise. You captured a nurse’s heart in Mary! I am so excited that you have finished your second book. Can’t wait to get a copy into my hands. Enjoy the journey that comes with unveiling your latest work. All of your fans will be cheering you on!!


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