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 Sheri Joseph.
7:00 a.m. … Heaven is waking directly into work. The wood thrushes sing from very close, all around my Georgia mountain cabin among the dripping leaves. A fluty trill followed by a bedspring, tinny and flat. While the coffee brews, I’m in fleece and at my laptop to begin Day 19 of 26 at the Hambidge Center, one of my favorite artists’ colonies. Two summers ago, in this same cool, secluded, deep-woods studio called Mellinger, I began the book I’m now working on. That summer I had a visit from a black bear, who wandered politely from door to window, poking his nose into possible openings. This summer, no bears yet, but I’ve seen a rarer creature for these parts: a bobcat, chasing a squirrel up a tree just outside my back door.
I’ve recently drafted chapter 12 of this novel—a “fictional memoir,” I’m calling it—and for the last couple days I’ve been working back over the new chapter to build up layers, sharpen language, clarify images, add bits of richening. For instance, where one character jotted down his phone number to give to another, I added in the paper he used and the table he wrote on—which might easily have been pointless detail. But in this case, both became significant to what was happening and altered the drama so that it turned in a slightly different way. The 20-page chapter is now almost to the stage where I can read it through and see what it consists of. I’ll do this today, though I suspect I’ll still need to pause as I go to add, cut, adjust.
Before I leave I hope to get through a first draft of the next chapter, a daunting challenge when I don’t know what comes next. Ever. For me, the process of seeing what I should write in chapter 13 has a lot to do with what I can get out of chapter 12. I don’t know how or why other writers churn out fast, unpolished first drafts. If I can find one line of dialogue in chapter 12 that doesn’t ring true, that I can hone and layer with more character revelation and find the surprise in, it might change the course of the book. The process can remind me of places and themes that need revisiting, of characters who need a say. Two days ago, I ended the chapter with a conversation that seemed to take a wrong turn in its last lines. If I had left it and gone on, with plans to fix it later, the whole book might have taken that wrong turn. I spent one entire day aiming for a truer ending, and finally found it, a matter of about 10 lines of prose. It may not be the only possible truth for the scene; it’s not something that can’t be changed later. But the story has a better foundation from which to go forward.
11:00 a.m. … Since it’s not raining for once, I walk to the mailbox, about half a mile, to post a Netflix DVD, and then I stop in to check email in the main house. The hike back into the woods is a hard uphill slog and soft decline to Mellinger. I eat some lunch while staring at my laptop screen and afterward read someone else’s book for an hour.
Some days at a colony I can produce five or six pages, but this afternoon I’ve become caught up re-reading much earlier chapters. I do this a lot, probably more than I need to, but eventually the reading pushes me ahead. By late afternoon I’m throwing new work on the page. This is the fast part of writing, a scene I slap down as it comes, as I imagine it happening by trying to inhabit my characters—but only until I have enough to assess for potential. If it’s false, I’ll bump it down the page or move it to a cut file and begin again somewhere else, some other location, time, situation, mode. If it feels true, I’ll stop before I get too far, go back and examine the words, the detail choices, and begin to enhance, select, and rewrite. Too much loose writing and I’ll land somewhere untrue.
5:30 p.m. … Most days at Hambidge, I have to stop writing now, put on some presentable clothes, and go down to the main house to meet the seven other residents for cocktails and dinner. Consequently, it’s usually now that I’m in the midst of my best work of the day. But once I switch gears, the food and company are excellent here. And it’s no real crisis to break off work at a spot with some latent energy in it.
No communal dinner tonight, though, so I keep writing and end up with two new pages. They aren’t right, but I’m not sure how. Maybe this part goes later. Chapter 13 is nothing yet but a one-page anecdote I wrote yesterday about the table where someone was selling roses on which a character wrote a phone number, and then I wanted to see what would happen with the roses that were bought there. It worked.
While I boil some pasta for dinner, I listen to music that’s key to the book. I eat on the patio while the sun goes down, waiting for bears with a glass of wine, and begin composing in my head a kind of paean to a boy I once loved. It emerges from the song playing and fits my character, and I sit down to write it, just below the problematic section. But here’s the thing: it goes way back somewhere, a hundred pages earlier. These are my favorite parts to write, the little pieces that can enhance what came before, and I won’t even know how it affects what comes later until I go back months from now and read the whole of it together.
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- The best one is probably the one I’ve not yet finished, the reading of which is continually interrupted by more duty-related and research-related reading: Jane Hamilton’s A Map of the World. It’s so vivid and strange that I can put it down for weeks at a time without any loss of it in memory. I chose it because I met the author at the Muse and the Marketplace conference in Boston, and she was lovely and kind and funny, and that reminded me of how much I had loved The Short History of a Prince. Then I was browsing at Burke’s Books in Memphis while on book tour and it caught my eye.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Intend lightly. Writing is discovery.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I don’t know how strange it is, but students often find it disconcerting: I write about 1000 pages, intentionally, for every 300 I keep. For Where You Can Find Me I drafted an entire pre-novel, 400 pages, that was just the backstory and memory for the characters, and I wrote it knowing it would not be included in the actual book.
By Sheri Joseph