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 JOSEPHINE HUMPHREYS.
That’s how I’m thinking of it anyway, as I make my morning coffee in the kitchen. In reality, the event is a tour of studios at the Confederate Home, where I’ve had an office for twenty-five years. Once a refuge for war widows and orphans, the Home is a conglomeration of old Charleston buildings surrounding a big green secret courtyard. It’s still a residence for women in need, but studio rooms are rented to artists, mostly painters and writers. This evening, people will pay money to come see us in our working habitat.
I dread the tour. I want it to be over. I always feel an increasing crush of anxiety before any public event. My simple goal for the day is to stay calm. If dread gets the upper hand, it can make me physically sick, or at least so sleepy I can hardly move.
As is often the case, I’m alone in the house. Husband and dog have gone off together, farming and fishing. They’re adventurers, those two. My own adventures, which by the Latin roots of the word would signify going somewhere, happen mainly inside my head. And for some time now I’ve been writing at home instead of in my office. I claim it’s because I simply got used to that pattern when my father lived his final few years with us, and that’s partly true. But also, I just plain love solitude, even though it can make me lonesome. This paradox is my lifelong quandary.
In my childhood the old Southern strictures still included the rule that women should keep to “the private sphere” and never do anything that would attract attention, like take to the stage or write a letter to the newspaper. I didn’t agree, but gradually I found that the private sphere actually suited me. Not that I wanted a life confined to domesticity. What I wanted was the freedom (and even a certain, almost magical, power) that comes with anonymity. I wanted what Keats called Shakespeare’s “negative capability,” a state of mind that renders writers “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts,” and allows them to imagine themselves into the selves of a multitude of disparate fictional characters, without the blockade of personal ego.
I do understand that my ego’s pretty healthy. As I wrote long ago: “I have that strange combination of self-doubt and vanity that serves writers well.”
At 9 a.m., after two cups of coffee and a prolonged period of staring at the yard from my porch (a new species of weed has invaded), I decide to wash my hair and iron something to wear. Unfortunately I can’t find the iron. The last time I used it was more than a year ago. I’ll just have to find something that’s already smooth. Later on I’ll put on makeup, which I rarely use and never really got the hang of, but lipstick and mascara will be a good disguise. I will curl my hair and wear a dressy dress. I might wear heels. Yes, that could work. All I have to do is figure out a way to get through the day.
Writing is out of the question, so I spend a couple of hours doing mindless things—laundry, Facebook, weed-pulling. These turn out to be too mindless, leaving room for awareness of me. I need something that will take me away. So I go to the place that has become my number one escape, a different world in a different time in a different language. I go to Haiti.
I’ve been reading about Haiti, or St. Domingue just as it was becoming Haiti, for years. My French has improved, but the reading still requires effort. I log in to the University of Florida’s almost-complete digital collection of a newspaper called “Les Affiches Américaines,” first published in St. Domingue in 1769, and I fall into the island’s contradictory miscellany of wealth and slavery, sugar and war, atrocity and beauty, horror and hope. My silly tourophobia slips away, my single self yields to other selves—the sugar-planter’s daughter, the free woman of color, a lieutenant in the army of Toussaint, an American sea captain looking for his sweetheart in the rubble of a burned plantation. I’m the French confectioner advertising chocolates while cities burn, the enslaved woman hiding in her pocket a lethal dose of poison, the mulatto sisters dreaming of a theatrical career in Paris before dying in the crazed streets of Port-au-Prince. I am the child watching as the flag is raised by the black men who defeated Napoleon.
Is it really possible to hold these contradicting multitudes inside me? Walt Whitman says yes. I charge myself up with negative capability until it’s time to go.
Past time, in fact. I slap on lipstick and blush, draw some eyebrows that end up looking Joan-Crawfordy, so I scrub them off. I check the clock, throw on a not-too-wrinkled black shirt and slacks with flat shoes, and go.
Threading my way down the peninsula through tourists and traffic, transitioning from the Haitian Revolution to the Confederate Home, I’m thinking that an important part of life in the South, especially for writers, is the mystery of living and working in a place where history raises questions, and where we are reminded of complex, difficult, troubling things every day of our lives.
When you open the door of the Home, what you see is a short dim hallway and then the huge courtyard, with a long row of apartments on one side, three floors up, piazzas on each level. In the waning October light, the courtyard’s a muted green. The air is cool, and music’s coming from somewhere. The artists and some of the residents—all of whom I’m crazy about and haven’t seen in a long time—are standing in the grass, awaiting the arrival of the public. I wonder if everyone feels what I feel, which now is not dread but the very opposite—elation. I’m all but transformed by this gathering with other living souls in this mystery-laden place. There’s time to chat with a few of my favorites: Catherine who restores old paintings, Matthew who writes cookbooks, Martha who takes pictures. I say, “I’ve missed you!” but what I mean is, “I love you!”
And when the doors open to the guests, I’m in my studio being a writer, at once public and private, certain of very little in this world but at least not in disguise. I’m me. The folks who come are eager to talk about writing. Some are old friends, some strangers—neighbors, tourists, newcomers, young and older (mostly older), men and women (mostly women.) About a third have read something I wrote, so we talk, take pictures, tell stories. I can’t imagine what I was dreading all day long. I want the tour never to end.
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?
I’ve been reading only nonfiction for about a year, and a recent favorite is When the United States Spoke French by Francois Furstenberg, a lively account of five French immigrants to the U.S. When I’m deep into writing fiction, I try not to read it. Good novels cast me into self- doubt, and not-so-good novels do exactly the same thing.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
The most important piece of advice I have to give, both to myself and to others, is “Accumulate pages.” Without pages, there is nothing. No amount of planning, outlining, workshopping, dreaming, or revising old stuff will make a book.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
Sometimes my inner clock changes when I’m writing furiously. I begin to wake and write earlier and earlier every morning as the book progresses, until near the end I’m often starting work before one AM after just a few hours of sleep.
By Josephine Humphreys