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 Rebecca Makkai.
I’m writing this from Ragdale, the bucolic artists’ residency in Lake Forest, Illinois. I’m not writing about Ragdale, though, but about a day two weeks ago—and about why I need to be at Ragdale right now. Why, without one or two colony visits a year, I’d have no writing career at all.
The day starts with my daughters, newly three and six, screaming about a balloon they’ve both laid claim to. My husband has fed them breakfast, and as I emerge from the shower, he drops them in our room so he can head to work. They decide they want to “do the twist” on the bedroom rug, as they did yesterday. The problem: yesterday I sang them the Sam Cooke song about the twist—but now, as I search the closet for something to teach in, all I can remember is “Let’s Do the Twist” and “Let’s Twist Again,” neither of which is right, I know. And my kids know it too. I manage to dress and locate a Sam Cooke CD and load the girls into the car. We find the song (“Twistin’ the Night Away”—of course!) and I get a moment’s peace.
I have seventy things to do, but one overrides them all: the copyedits of my new novel are due in three days. This is my last chance to incorporate any changes (beyond fixing typos) into the manuscript. I need to go over it with a fine-tooth comb and even change a last few major things for my editor. The novel is ninety thousand words long. I’m on page twelve. That’s twelve, as in one ten and two units. As in, three hundred pages away from the end.
But right now I have just enough time before class to grab a coffee and do the class reading for Monday so I don’t have to worry about it over the weekend. After I drop the girls at school, I spend a half hour perched in Starbucks, reading Louise Erdrich’s amazing story “The Years of My Birth” and eavesdropping on the rich people who have some kind of daily three-hour coffee club. I’m obsessed with this group in a writerly way, especially with how the women (all young and beautiful) fawn over the men (all older and not so beautiful). I’ll write about them one of these days.
I teach class—undergrads, intro. We’re moving from poetry to fiction, defining prose (I have a weirdly hard time defining prose, which might speak to my mental state), and today I’m being observed by my department head. I’m an adjunct—this is the only class I teach—and I do want to be asked back. After class, he chats with me. The class went well, but I need to put my students on the spot more. It’s true. I tend to want to rescue them from flailing.
At 11:30 I get my three-year-old and head home. After lunch, two high school students come to interview her for their child psychology class. We live on the campus of the boarding school where my husband teaches, and although the timing isn’t great (I’m still on page twelve. Twelve!) I love that my daughters are growing up surrounded by intelligent and diverse students. Their project is on gender, but I don’t think they’re getting the answers they expected. (My daughter answers that her best friend is named Gino, she wants to be a bumblebee for Halloween, her favorite book is Curious George.)
My daughter naps after this, but before I can edit I have to send in a report on a student I’m concerned about and help promote something I’ve written for the Ploughshares blog. Finally I sit with my manuscript and a massage pillow and a cup of decaf. I’ve been off caffeine for three weeks now, because it was messing with my heart. I miss it dearly. In half an hour, I edit eight pages.
I spend the next two hours changing a poopy diaper, getting my older daughter from school, and peeling potatoes with the girls. My husband comes home (marry a teacher, people—they get home at 4:00!) and I take off running—literally, running—to my car.
I could go to the library, but there’s a guy there who picks his nose and a businessman who loudly chews gum, and at this hour the place will be filled with tutors. So I head to the wine bar, where I discover no free table. I stand there vulturing for ten minutes before a woman glares at me and leaves. Finally, I have my wine and some crackers and my pen, and about three hours before my fatigue will catch up with me. I edit at eighty miles an hour, thinking that if I had more time, I’d make the one edit that would change a bad review into a good review, the one edit that would elevate the book or win me a prize or save me from embarrassment. I’ll never find out. And I can’t put that disclaimer in the back of the book: “It would’ve been better if it weren’t for the poopy diaper.”
Fast forward ten days: Although I miss my kids, I’m in a beautiful room at Ragdale, overlooking a prairie. My edits are done—I could’ve used this residency two weeks ago, but maybe that’s for the best. Now I have three weeks of time to write, to think, to get a full night’s sleep.
It’s going to be amazing.
I have no idea what to do with myself.
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 Virgins, by Pamela Erens. I didn’t choose it—I was asked to blurb it. When you agree to something like that, you always try to stay noncommittal, in case it doesn’t quite capture you, or in case your own projects demand your time. This is a brilliant book, though, intense and haunting and sexual and lyrical and important. I dropped everything and read it. I played hooky and finished it on a cold day at the Lake Michigan beach.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Vitamin B. No kidding. Large doses of Vitamin B. It gets you alert and focused, and you’re able to keep the details of your project in your mind without losing sight of the whole. It increases your IQ by about twenty points.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I can’t sit normally in a chair. Right now, my legs are folded up so my knees are right under my chin. This is my most human way of sitting. Most of my seated postures are a bit more simian. Basically, on any given day if you snapped a picture of me writing, I’d look like someone who got struck by lightning while doing yoga.