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 Sue William Silverman.
Around two a.m. insomnia startles me awake. Without turning on the light, barely opening my eyes, I pick up my laptop from the floor beside the bed, propping it on my stomach. I sip Smart Water, waiting for the computer to boot up. I recently started a fourth memoir about the inconvenience of hypochondria, fear of dying and actual death itself, to say nothing of all manner of emotional mayhem and conundrums encountered since childhood. A real light-hearted romp! I’m the kind of person who thinks a headache must be a brain tumor, or a new freckle a sudden outbreak of skin cancer.
Counter-intuitive though it may be, writing about long-held fears and fiascos—writing about the past itself—calms me.
I grow tired, after about an hour. I close the computer and play a CD called “Sleepscape Delta.” This new-age-y music, plus a white noise machine, actually cause the air to sound more silent, not less. Lavender-scented pillowcases relax me, too. I need all the help I can get.
Around seven, like clockwork, my cat’s paw slides under the door to remind me of her needs: food, water, warmth. I open the door. Bijou makes a beeline for the bed. I snuggle beside her. I power up my computer and continue to delve into the depths of hypochondria, fear of death, etc., hoping this theme, in an ironic tone, will sustain a whole book. (Let me hasten to add that, right this minute, I am perfectly healthy, and not about to shuffle off the mortal coil.)
It’s April in Michigan, too cool yet to open windows: foggy morning, foggy mind. Nonetheless, this quasi-dreamlike state facilitates writing, the subconscious still close to the surface.
At ten I go downstairs for breakfast: oatmeal, raisins, walnuts, more Smart Water.
I next carry my computer into the office. I’m ready to sit upright at my desk. I put finishing touches on a presentation about my recently published third memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew. In a few weeks I will deliver this brief talk to the Jewish Book Council in New York. I practice reciting it aloud. Bijou pretends to listen, but I know better.
A letter I received a few weeks ago from Pat Boone himself is propped on my desk in a place of honor. I sent him a copy of the book. Back when I was a teenager, I wanted, literally, for this wholesome squeaky-clean Christian white-shoe wearing 1960s pop-music idol—whose records often out-sold Elvis Presley’s—to adopt me. I, a Russian-American Jewish girl, wanted to resemble Pat Boone’s four daughters, be like all my WASPy high-school friends. I wanted to fit in. Recently, as an adult, I twice met Pat Boone backstage after concerts, encounters that prompted the book into being. His letter, which I read daily, thanks me for writing it. In the letter, he also says he looks forward to reading the book. I worry about his reaction, however. The Pat Boone Fan Club is a tribute of sorts, but one that’s quite ironic and conflicted; after all, I’m a liberal feminist with a life-long crush on a Tea Party member!
I take a break from work and walk the five blocks from my house to the Grand River. I stand on a deck overlooking the water flowing into nearby Lake Michigan. A palpable haze drifts inland, almost obscuring the red lighthouse at the end of the pier. This mecca for summer tourists isn’t crowded yet. I feel alone, cocooned in mist and near silence—my favorite state of being—one that allows me to think about writing even when I’m not actively doing it.
Later in the afternoon, I recline on what was once called a fainting couch wedged into a tiny second-story room in my Victorian house. I read for a while before editing a paper copy of the morning’s writing. I stare out the window overlooking the secluded backyard. Century-old lilac bushes struggle to recover from a brutal winter. I daydream.
By five o’clock, I’m ready for my appointment with Dr. Moss, a therapist-hypnotist. He ushers me toward stairs leading to his refinished basement office. He walks behind me, but shouldn’t I be following him down, down to wherever this guide to the subconscious will lead me? With each step, I feel as if I enter a faint humming in my mind. The underworld of the psyche.
Dr. Moss asks me to close my eyes, lean my head back. Inhale through my nose, exhale through my mouth. Slowly. Again. Focus on breathing. I have asked him to hypnotize me to enable me to go back back back in time….
I visualize where his words lead me in order to touch the origins of all these random life-long anxieties that endlessly cycle on the treadmill of my mind.
Later that evening, curled up in bed, an amorphous sadness, stemming from my preoccupation with the past, wells up around me. To calm myself, I pencil notes about the session with Dr. Moss. I plan to include what I learn from this hypnosis in the new manuscript.
I sprinkle lavender oil on my pillows. I pull the antique copper chain to turn off the lamp. I’ll lie awake with night-thoughts for another hour. Maybe two.
As a writer of memoir, I find that the present—the now—fades to hazy, blurry edges, whispers of longing
Live in the moment? Me? Never!
It is in this way that I catch days, nights, catch hours of the past itself by writing about last year, or the year before, or a previous decade. I flow through days already lived as if I contain my own lifelong weather—the sun, the moon, the stars, the wind, the fog—alone with the night, with the past, always restless beneath the surface of skin.
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 Family Heart: A Memoir of When Our Son Came Out by Robb Forman Dew. Dew is better known as a novelist, but this extraordinary memoir shows me more about what it’s like to be a mother, what it’s like to be part of a family, than any book I’ve read in a long while. In my own life, I only know how to live in a broken family (as a child), and, as an adult, I’ve never had children. Dew’s memoir elucidates for me, in the most profound emotional way, what it means and how it feels to be part of a family. I’m simply blown away by how she conveys love. Familial love. A mother’s love. This book moves my emotional furniture. I’m still reeling.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Well, how about four?!
- Emotionally submerge yourself as if you’re following a trail straight to the heart of your senses. In every scene determine what that moment tasted like, sounded like, felt like, looked like, smelled like—whether literally or metaphorically. How do these senses convey the interiority of the narrator?
- Read everything: poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction.
- Drink Smart Water.
- Be tenacious.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I am plagued with insomnia. So if I read good literature while trying to fall asleep, that’s like a jolt of caffeine. I am deeply immersed in the language, in the narrator, etc. In order to fall asleep, therefore, I read books that aren’t, well, considered literary. Oh, I’ll read genre murder-mysteries, like that. In short, the so-called page turners lull me to sleep as well as any other sleep aid!