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 Barb Johnson:
Before I started writing seriously, I had spent most of my adult life as a self-employed carpenter. One habit from that life that has carried over into my writing life is that, just before I’m fully conscious in the morning, when I’m half in and out of sleep, I try to orient myself in the world. Today, I tell myself it’s Monday, a teaching day. Then I give some dreamy thought to what I want to work on. I run a little movie of it in my brain. Rather than the carpenteric: “Mill all the facing pieces,” I tell myself: “Find something for Pudge to do that will give Luis a reason to respect him just little.” And then my soupy consciousness starts making connections. This stems the panic that can set in when I’m working on a large project like a novel, as I am doing now.
My day starts at about seven. It takes me a little while to ease out of sleep and into the world, and that transition requires a certain amount of coffee, a quiet breakfast and a little bit of reading. While I’m reading, my language center wakes up. I like to immerse myself in some story that isn’t my own. Good writing inspires me, makes me feel challenged.
I love sitting down to the computer in the morning. Love it. I am rarely unaware that I am not outside lifting heavy objects or working in the heat. In New Orleans, it is still hot in September. Really hot. Steamy. Hurricanes form and dissipate, dumping a lot of water on us as they do. Not having my productivity or comfort contingent upon the weather is the single greatest part of not being a carpenter anymore.
I work only on my creative writing in the morning. That’s when I’m at my best. No email. No Facebook. No talking on the phone. No preparing for classes. I try to write at least a thousand words a day. It’s only a number, but it’s a great way to trick myself into doing what I am routinely afraid I will be unable to do: come up with something new. I love revision. I love to edit. Those things come easily. But making up the new stuff can be scary. The carpenter part of my brain is always trying to find the most efficient way to do everything, but efficiency has no place in generating new material. It takes however long it takes, and the result is often too ugly for me to believe that one day it will be better, good even. So, as a way to keep myself going, I promise myself that I can do anything I want, anything at all, once I hit that thousand-word mark. I can get up and go hang out with friends or finish the book I’m reading or take a nap if I want to. That nap part of the bargaining is hilarious: I never, ever nap. But when I stare at a blank page, it makes me sleepy, so the promise of a nap always feels meaningful.
Some days I hit a thousand words without realizing it. Some days it’s as though I enter the Twilight Zone, where no matter how much I type, the word count stays at 384. Because I am teaching in the evening, I work on my novel until about 1 p.m., and then I have lunch. Coming up out of writing takes a little time. I can’t really carry on a conversation, and I am pretty dangerous and ineffective in the kitchen. In a perfect world, I would open my front door and find a little picnic basket filled with a delicious, nutritious lunch. Alas, all the sandwich-making is up to me.
After lunch, I work on other projects. Today I am writing critiques for my students’ stories, which I marked up last week. I find this relaxing and interesting, and I always learn a lot from doing it. On a day when I don’t have class in the evening, I might take the four-block stroll down to Bayou St. John to clear my head. Sometimes the dots just connect themselves when I do this. When that happens, I often go back and revise something I wrote that morning or set something up for the next day. But today, after I finish writing the critiques, I head out to campus for workshop, which starts at six. I teach fiction writing in the MFA program at the University of New Orleans. It’s a great program, close-knit and supportive. Fun.
All the sections of fiction workshop meet on Monday, and when they let out at 9 p.m., everyone heads for Parkview Tavern, a neighborhood bar, which, conveniently, is walking distance from my house. We sit outside at picnic tables. It’s hot as all get out even in September, and there are mosquitoes, but the tradition, which is nearly as old as the program, persists. I graduated from this same writing program a few years ago, and those Parkview evenings rounded out my education as a writer. Once, in a conversation with one of my teachers about how and whether I should submit a short story for publication, she stunned me by saying, “Well, I assume you want to write professionally.” I had no idea that I was a viable candidate for such a life. I mention this to emphasize the importance of writing community. We often can’t see in ourselves what others can. We can’t imagine a thing because we’ve not gotten that far in our own writing lives.
Not every night at Parkview is revelatory like that. Sometimes we talk about foolishness or play midnight bocce ball beneath the palm trees on the neutral ground that divides the street in front of Parkview, but the company of other writers is always fortifying and enlightening as well as being a nice break from the essential loneliness of the writing life.
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- The first book, The Tiger’s Wife was given to me by a friend who knew that I was spending the year reading only novels. I had never heard of Tea Obreht—nor had anyone, I suppose. She’s very young. But she wrote this amazing, wise book. The second was Ann Patchett’s newest novel, State of Wonder. I selected it because I heart Ann Patchett. What a wonderful world she created, and what surprising characters. Women doing important things. Exactly what I was hoping to find..
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- First: Don’t freak out. Seriously. It is just words and paper. Sometimes you need to give yourself the day off and go do something else. But sometimes you don’t need a break, you need to stop being afraid. If you find you’re giving yourself too many back doors, too many days off, consider the following. When I was a carpenter, I often worked on massive projects the zillion details of which would stymie me, a deer-in-the-headlights kind of thing, so that I couldn’t figure out which thing I should do first. I had a notebook for every project, and I taped the same note on each one to jumpstart productivity when I felt stymied: Take a step in any direction. That works for writing, too. Slightly modified, that note now says: Take any step that contributes to your writerly stash. That may mean generating new work or revising work or reading in the genre in which I am working or researching lit mags to submit to. It may mean printing work out and putting it in an envelope for someone to read. It may mean working on some aspect of craft. It most certainly does not mean screwing around on the Internet. The Internet shortens your attention span. Because of its click-and-drag wizardry, it will leave you feeling impatient with the rather labor-intensive, single-focus nature of writing. All that clickety-click quickly starves your creativity. Writing requires you to make a car out of cardboard box. The Internet gives you the car, complete with customization options applied by clicking a button. Once you contribute to your writerly stash for the day, then go ahead on, find out what your friends have been up to on Facebook while you’ve been cutting holes in cardboard boxes all day.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- When I’ve been working on something for a while, for long enough that I can’t really tell what it says anymore, I like to save it as a .pdf and then hit “read aloud.” Listening to a robot voice read the material makes me focus on the words, what’s actually on the page, separate from whatever rhythm or meaning I’ve given it when I’ve read it aloud, something I do as I go along. It solves the problem of supplying words that don’t exist. Extraneous or off-topic sentences and the absence of segues are put in stark relief. It is also quite comical to listen to a robot with precise enunciation read dialogue written in nonstandard English and containing curse words.
By Barb Johnson: