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 DAVID ABRAMS.
I wake to my wrist buzzing at 4:44 a.m. (yes, I’m a bit of an OCD when it comes to round numbers). My Fitbit wristband is one of the greatest writing aids I’ve purchased in the past three years. I think it even trumps the beautiful Moleskine notebook I bought for handwriting a partial draft of my new novel (working title: Braver Deeds).
My wife Jean can sleep longer because she is not a writer. I, on the other hand, must answer my wrist-alarm and swing my feet to the floor, dislodging my cat, Ash, who’d been snugly settled into his Chosen Spot against my chest. Ash is also not a writer, but he gets out of bed with me nonetheless. He stretches out his front legs (or is he bowing to me, his Supreme Master?), yawns, shakes his ears and gives me a cat-look that says, “I guess I’m up now, too, you bastard.” He follows me into the kitchen, where I get a glass, fill it with ice cubes as quietly as I can, add water, then take several big gulps in order to awaken my throat.
I am weird about my coffee mugs. Whatever I choose for the day greatly influences my mood. Nearly all of my mugs are book-themed: there’s the Banned Books mug, the “Read Harder” mug from Book Riot, the mug with Charles Dickens’ bearded mug looking out at me, and the mug I bought when I visited the Library of Congress, which has a quote from Thomas Jefferson (“I cannot live without books.”). But when I want to have a serious, crack-the-knuckles-and-get-down-to-it kind of writing day, I choose my William Faulkner mug. This is the one I’ve owned for the longest time (more than a decade at this point) and though there’s a worrisome hairline fracture along the top of the handle, it has somehow survived the near-droppings and over-caffeinated hard set-downs. I love this mug with the kind of affection people usually reserve for their pets. I can’t explain my romance with this ceramic cup except to say I think it’s because I like drinking out of William Faulkner’s head. Somehow, I’ve taken the notion that my coffee will be infused with his linguistic talent. Poppycock, of course…but try telling that to my heart.
I pick Faulkner today. I’m on deadline to turn in a short story commissioned for a new anthology in five days. It is not going well. The editors need a completed draft of a story between 3,000 and 6,000 words. Five days before it’s due, I have 853 limp, aimless words that stubbornly keep bashing their heads against a concrete wall. I don’t have writer’s block—I can write plenty of words, goddammit—I have story block. This narrative doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up. I am depending on coffee from William Faulkner’s head to help me figure out this story’s identity.
With ice water in my left hand and coffee in my right, I climb the stairs to the second floor where I’ve set up an office space at the end of the hall in one of the three upstairs bedrooms. Jean and I live in Butte, Montana—a historic mining town that is now polluted with arsenic, sulfuric acid and eight other essential minerals and vitamins (I stop on the stairs when this phrase passes through my head, thinking maybe I can work it into the story I’m writing). We live in a Craftsman home on what Butte-icians call “the Flat,” which is to say, downslope from “the Richest Hill on Earth,” the huge mound of earth which produced copper, gold and silver for a number of years.
I love this house. It’s large and roomy and though it is just Jean and I living here, it somehow fits us like a comfortable skin.
When we first moved in, my writing space was in the basement, beside the boiler and the tool room and the cat litter box. There was a large desk against one wall and I surrounded myself on the other three sides with bookshelves, primarily classics (every now and then, I’d raise my Faulkner mug in a toast to my copy of Absalom, Absalom!). I wrote the bulk of my first novel, Fobbit, in this space sitting at an antique desk the size of a 19th-century whaling vessel. After five years of that windowless exile, however, I moved up two flights to the room where I now sit. My desk—a smaller one since the behemoth antique desk I had in the basement would not fit up our narrow staircases—is on the south-facing wall, which is also the front of the house. The room’s three windows stretch in front of me like a triptych screen. My view is foregrounded by our front porch’s roof, then I see a bank of trees and beyond them the street that runs in front of our house and the line of houses across the street. At 5:05 a.m., the street is quiet. For the next hour, the only thing that will break that stillness is the car, bright with headlights, which arrives with clock-like regularity to deliver newspapers to houses along Argyle Street. If I have not started writing by the time those headlights flash down the street, my writing is doomed for the day.
I go to work on this noir-themed story set in Butte, hearing my narrator’s voice in my head. He sounds like Humphrey Bogart.
I came around a downhill bend in the interstate, the view of the city opened up, and there it was: the Berkley Pit. The gouge of earth glowed orange in the late light. It was the oozing wound of the city, both its pride and shame. Work at the open-pit mine had stopped decades ago when the owners moved on to more mineral-rich pastures down in Chile. Once the underground pumps were shut off at the Butte mine, the pit began to fill up with water laced with arsenic, sulfuric acid, and eight other essential vitamins and minerals. One day, the water would reach the lip of the pit and breech the banks, flooding the downslope homes, drowning them in poison. Until then, the people of Butte just went about their business, trying to pretend the Pit wasn’t there—like a man with an eye-patch insisting he could see just fine.
Those will turn out to be the only words I keep from this morning’s writing session, but they are enough and I’m happy with them for now. They might be keepers.
I keep noodling around with the story, until I feel Ash the cat nudging my ankles and realize I’ve forgotten his appointed feeding time: 5:15 on the nose. Ash is not a writer, so he cannot understand about creative flow. He only knows about the flow of Friskies.
Downstairs, I feed Ash and his sister Cinder, then warm up my half-empty mug of coffee, giving a little more steam to Mr. William Faulkner. By this point, Jean is awake and I greet her with a kiss.
I return upstairs and realize my morning schedule is starting to run a little late, so I put the creative writing on hold and write a blog post for The Quivering Pen. Because this is Friday, that means I pick a winner for the weekly Friday Freebie book giveaway. The contest runs all week, from Friday to Thursday at midnight, and each Friday morning I write contestants’ names on little slips of paper, fold those slips and drop them into a vintage potato chip tin, give the tin a few vigorous shakes, then close my eyes and pull out the winning name. The weekly Friday Freebie is one of my favorite parts of running the blog because it means I get to put new books in readers’ hands.
Once the blog post is written and published, I go downstairs again, slip into my tennis shoes, check in with my wife to see if there’s anything I can do for her (it usually involves warming her coffee in the microwave), then head down to my old office space, now a fitness room. Two Christmases ago, Jean bought me a treadmill and I’ve used it nearly every day since. The treadmill allows me to do two things at once: get a cardio workout and read a book on my Kindle. My treadmill is one of those fancy ones where you can follow a mapped route and see the actual terrain going by, courtesy of Google Earth. This morning’s pre-programmed workout takes me through the Grand Canyon. I start out at a brisk walk, and then—Holy crap! The treadmill’s incline, responding to the map’s GPS, starts rising….and keeps on going until it hits its maximum 15%. In minutes, I’m puffing air like the Little Engine That Couldn’t, hands pressing down on the tops of my thighs, helping them piston my steps. I’ve all but abandoned reading at this point. I watch the treadmill screen, hoping for a break in the uphill….but it doesn’t come for at least another torturous mile.
My stats for the morning: 2.37 miles, 33:53 minutes, a 14:17 pace, 537 calories burned, an elevation gain of 445 feet. This day will be an uphill slog.
After I get off the treadmill, lungs heaving, thighs burning, I climb back upstairs and put this evening’s dinner in the oven. The Aleppo-pepper pork roast has been chilling in the refrigerator since yesterday. I’d rubbed the kosher salt and spices into the pale pink flesh and now there is a nice dark brown crust coating the roast. I put the meat into the oven where it will cook for seven hours. Just before serving, I’ll whisk together a shallot vinaigrette to drizzle over the slices.
For the last seven years, I’ve done the bulk of the cooking for the two of us. It’s something I enjoy. Chopping herbs and stirring soups is therapeutic and when a dish comes together in harmony on the tongue, it is as gratifying as marrying words together on the page.
I take note of the time and set a mental reminder to take the pork roast out of the oven right after I get home from work.
Work! Yikes! I’m running late again. I rush through the rest of my daily routine. Brush teeth. Shave. Shower. Dress. Kiss the wife.
Then it’s off to the Day Job. I work 40 hours a week as a Public Affairs Specialist with the Bureau of Land Management. It’s a multi-faceted position, but most of my duties consist of writing news releases, answering phone calls and emails from media, maintaining my office’s website, coordinating public meetings to discuss land-use plans, serving as the BLM’s liaison to the Montana State Legislature, writing feature stories for internal publications, sitting in on conference calls and attending an average of three meetings per week. Not every day is filled with each of those tasks—they’re sprinkled throughout the month and most days are pleasant and stress-free (quite the opposite from how I spent my twenty years in the Army).
Every now and then, I’m able to get out of the office and into the wilderness where I can take photos of BLM lands in western Montana. It’s a comfortable, mostly fulfilling job and I’m glad to have it, but it is almost completely unrelated to my work as a creative writer. I’ve always had jobs like this—ones where I can leave the artistic brain back home at my desk. Over the years, I’ve done various non-writing jobs: cook, dishwasher, video store clerk, community college tutor, actor with a summer-stock theater company, school janitor, pizza delivery driver, and, of course, soldier. I’ve always had to negotiate the clock and schedule writing time around my work hours. E. B. White once said, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” My motto is Carpe Conditions, ideal or not.
If this was a movie, here is where you’d get the quick-paced music montage that shows me moving through the rest of my day—set to Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend,” perhaps: speed-typing on the computer in my BLM office, walking through the cubicle-lined halls to warm up my coffee in the break room microwave, mouse-clicking through emails, entering a stall in the men’s room with a thick novel in my hands and exiting that stall fifteen minutes later (don’t grimace, but the porcelain throne is where I accomplish a lot of my leisure reading), putting gas in my car on the way home in the evening, mowing the lawn, pulling the pork roast out of the oven, plating the food and following Jean down to the basement where we sit on the sofa in front of the TV while eating dinner. The music montage ends with me turning to my wife of thirty-two years and saying something witty, then the two of us collapse laughing into each other’s arms.
Okay, maybe it ends with me trying to make a joke and Jean rolling her eyes because after three decades, she’s heard them all before and still loves me in spite of my lame attempts at sophisticated wit. Like all married couples, we have our patterns, our ruts and routines, and a shared history that seasons a relationship as surely as salt tenderizes a pork roast.
We spend the next two or three hours sitting on the couch binge-watching our latest favorite TV show on Netflix (tonight, it’s Bloodline) and at some point Jean will put her feet on my lap and I’ll give them a quick massage, rubbing away the day’s tensions with my thumbs. Around 9 p.m., Ash the cat will leap up onto the back of the couch and ask, “Is it time for bed yet?” Jean and I will hush him, say he’ll have to wait until this one episode is over, then we’ll be up.
We put our dinner plates in the sink, check our phones to see if we’ve gotten any important emails since we’ve been downstairs (we never do), then I make sure the back door is locked and we head into the bedroom.
I burrow under the covers. Ash curls against my chest. I reach out a hand and touch Jean on the shoulder—a simple gesture which, after thirty-two years, can be loosely translated as, “I’ll be here with you all night and forever beyond that.” Then we close our eyes and drift away.
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?
- One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson. Focusing on one year full of remarkable events (Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, Babe Ruth’s home run, Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution), Bryson is a genius at seeing patterns and weaving everything together. I chose One Summer because it was on a long list of books I call my “Reading Essential,” books and authors I’ve always meant to get around to, but somehow never did. One Summer was my first Bryson, but it won’t be my last.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- On my darkest, most despairing days when the last thing I want to do is sit down at the keyboard, I trick myself into writing by saying, “Just one sentence. Just type one sentence and then you can call it quits for the day.” To date, I have never stopped at just one sentence.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- If I’m eating alone in a restaurant, I will devote my full attention to whatever book I’m reading at the time. Unless there’s a deliciously odd person sitting at another table; at which point, I pull out my tiny Moleskine notebook and start jotting down a character sketch.
By David Abrams: