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 KRISTOPHER JANSMA.
“Daddddddy…” 4:43 AM. My wife sleeps soundly. I go to my son, who asks me why he’s in a Dino Garage.
“It’s just a dream,” I say. “It’s not real.” He goes back to sleep. Now I’m wondering what is it like to not know what dreams are? Do I really know what they are? Is there anything about this I can use in the new novel section that I’m supposed to start today?
My narrator is a hallucinating physicist stuck on an abandoned space station at the edge of the solar system. Could she hear a baby crying somewhere on the station?
5:45. This time a dinosaur is biting my son’s foot.
Again he goes back to sleep. I lay there thinking until the alarm goes off and then I shower.
Normally Wednesdays I go to therapy but today is the beginning of a new “every other week” schedule. A year ago, waiting a week between sessions left me anxious and depressed, but lately things have seemed better. Or, rather, lately things are sometimes still very bad, just my reactions to those things have been better.
I make coffee while I pack lunch for my son. (Two hot dogs, some cheese, strawberries of questionable freshness, and apple juice). He’s still not up and now it is 7:30.
There’s a song I’ve had stuck in my head–“Fare Thee Well” from Inside Llewyn Davis, which I re-watched the other day. That and the coffee are enough to get me to the laptop, where I write half a page about the space station before my son wakes up.
The downside, now we are all an hour late.
My wife heads into Manhattan for a meeting. My son and I eat Cheerios and read a book about a troll who joins an orchestra. We watch “The Hall of the Mountain King” on YouTube on my phone and he completely lights up. He recognizes the song from a TV show that I guess involves ghosts, so we talk about ghosts.
“Ghosts aren’t real,” he tells me confidently.
I start to agree with him, but then I think, well, what the hell do I know?
He grabs my phone and in three seconds opens Snapchat, which has a yellow icon of a ghost and begins transposing a picture of me onto his own face and cackling, “I am daddy!”
He is three.
After dressing him in a dinosaur shirt, he chooses two toys to bring with him to “school today.” This is what he calls his daycare. Not “school”, but “school today”–like, “I don’t want to go to school today” but also “At school today yesterday we colored binoculars.”
He chooses two cars and we leave the apartment to race them along the wall of our building. Then we race and he cries when I catch him too quickly. We walk backwards for a while, then “stick together” which means he holds my hand as we cross the street.
We get on the subway–the 2 train–which he calls “Edward” because that is the #2 train on Thomas the Tank Engine. It’s crowded and nobody gives us a seat. I hold him and all his stuff through five stops while he speaks “whale” like Dory in the movie Finding Dory.
After we get into “school today,” I say goodbye and go back outside. He waits at the window to see me go, so in front of a crowd of business people going to offices, I do a silly dance, spin around, blow kisses.
From there it is a five-minute walk down to the café where I work in the mornings.
I’ve got a busy workday planned: the half page from this morning still waits on my laptop, then a phone interview with someone from my college alumni magazine, then a guitar lesson, then a dentist’s appointment, then back to get my son.
The half page becomes a full page. I’ve scrapped the crying baby idea and gone with a dog who despite being imaginary, leaves a very real-smelling dump on the space station floor. The narrator knows it’s not real, but it still stinks.
But then just when I think I have momentum, I find myself stalling. Really, am I writing about spectral shit right now? Is this really how I’m spending my morning?
Mindlessly I shift into other modes. Email. Facebook. Twitter. I feel a mild gloom settling in. Is it because I’m not working? Or is the gloom causing the not-working? Really it is probably both at once. Soon I’ve wasted the hour and it is time to go.
The interview goes well. As soon as we begin talking I feel totally better. We talk for almost an hour about my novels and how an undergraduate research fellowship from seventeen years ago helped me down this road to success. This is a narrative I enjoy believing for a while. I like when people think I’m a success, which is not how it feels after my morning on imaginary dog poop.
I used the fellowship to write a script and then make a feature film called 2:37 AM, which if anyone were to locate now and force me to watch, I would definitely die. But I laugh and admit to the interviewer that when I graduated I was sure I was en route to Sundance.
Realizing later it was a productive failure was, I think, important to setting out to write novels. It also occurs to me that both of my novels center around well-meaning people who fail at noble endeavors.
As I talk to her, I find myself wandering around Brooklyn Heights, and it isn’t until we finish that I realize what’s been on my mind all morning, and all week on some deeper level. I’m standing maybe a block from where a good friend of mine used to live, until he committed suicide earlier this summer.
I get on the train and take out the book I’ve been toting around for research for the last three weeks. Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide by Kaye Redfield Jamison. I’m so uncomfortable reading it in public that I have not read a page of it in all that time.
In one of those weird art-life convergences, I had already set out to write this new book, about a family struggling with a history of mental illness and suicide, a year before my friend’s death. In fact, I’d bought the Jamison book almost eight years ago when I’d first taken a run at the project, and failed.
I read Jamison’s thoughts on Robert Burton’s An Anatomy of Melancholy and John Donne’s Biathanatos and remember doing a high school poetry project on Donne, around the time I became close with the first person I knew who had attempted suicide.
I read Donne’s words over a few times:
Whensoever any affliction assails me, methinks I have the keys of my prison in mine own hand, and no remedy presents itself so soon to my heart as mine own sword.
Suddenly, the next scene I need (but still don’t want) to write becomes clear. It’s supposed to be about him–or really them–my high school friend and the one I recently lost.
And I’m excited, even as I’m nervous, because it feels like this is the process working. Even though I didn’t see my therapist, I’m running the routines myself. Avoiding, wandering, reflecting, associating, and then connecting the dots.
I manage a few more sentences in the café of the Target near the Barclay’s Center, which is the only place I can find to sit that won’t mean buying more coffee. Then I rush to the Guitar Center downstairs, where I meet with my instructor for a lesson.
This is also research for the new book. A birthday gift from my in-laws, who two years ago bought me a guitar I never learned to play.
The new section revolves around the early life of a would-be rock star and since I barely know how to hold a guitar and have zero musical ability, I thought I ought to learn.
I’d been all set to start lessons a few months ago, when my friend killed himself. I spent the night after he passed away learning to restring the guitar, but did it backwards, and had to redo it. Then I put it away and didn’t go back to it.
So this feels like a big step. I have extremely low expectations, mostly that I will embarrass myself for six weeks in front of a Guitar Center employee, and not come out able to play more than a chord or two.
What I want of course is to play “Fare Thee Well” like Oscar Isaac at the end of Inside Llewyn Davis. What I’ll settle for is to pick up enough secondhand texture that I’ll be able to write a scene that evokes the same swell of emotions in a reader that I get from listening to the song (as I now have six more times since the morning.)
I always think of great writing as being musical. Having an ear for the way people speak, but also the way sentences flow and have rhythm. I want to make my readers smile, only I’m writing about people grappling with suicide. Even I have trouble gearing up to dive into it.
After the lesson I scarf down two slices of pepperoni pizza and watch the news on the TV mounted inside the pizzeria. I try to read the Jamison book but the TV keeps winning. Trump. Clinton and the FBI. The Dallas police shootings.
Being a writer feels awfully small in the face of the news this summer. In the face of such misery, is my job to write something that mirrors that misery, or to remind people of the hope that we lose sight of when these miseries happen?
Then a piece comes on the news about a Salinger movie they’re filming in the West Village. It’s called Salinger’s War and it dramatizes Salinger’s time as a soldier in WWII. He nearly died in the Hürtgen Forest. He was at the liberation of Paris and later entered Auschwitz. The whole time he was running around with the first half of The Catcher in the Rye under his jacket–a book that never fails to give me hope when I re-read it. And so I think that yes, this is the point of what I’m doing here. To cause smiles, to renew hope, to make music.
Then again, Salinger went off to the woods and never came out again. So there’s that.
I’m exhausted, having been up early and, according to my Fitbit, walked 5.1 miles. I have to leave for the dentist in an hour so I duck into another café and try and get to work.
More coffee. I fire off two pages that I almost immediately hate.
Tomorrow, I will either come around to them or cut them. I will maybe start a new section a little further into the plot. Tomorrow my mind might focus and my heart might be back in it.
I see an article about an electrical fire that has all the trains messed up, so I cancel my dentist’s appointment and head home.
I get in just before it pours rain, and I almost immediately pass out for a good hour.
5:00. Time to get my son from “school today.” I’ve been looking forward to this all afternoon. As much as I long to be able to write on days that he stays home with me, I am less rudderless when we “stick together.”
He meets me at the door to his classroom with his things, all ready to go. He saw me coming from the window, his teacher says. He is so happy to see me that I’m not sure why I ever dropped him off. He tells me about a bumblebee that he read about in a book.
“Don’t worry,” he tells me, “Bumblebees not real.”
“Bumblebees,” I say, “Are real, but they don’t like to sting people.”
We discuss monster trucks on the way home. My wife is there when we get in. We have leftover pizza and Chinese food, then take a walk around the block.
I love our neighborhood, especially at this hour, when many other parents have the same idea. One last bit of fresh air, try to wear the kids out while it is a little cooler, before the bedtime rituals begin.
We meet a neighbor and his two kids. As the children hang from scaffolding poles, blow rainbow bubbles, stomp in puddles, and suck down popsicles, we walk and talk about them. It’s all so much fun that I can’t totally blame my son when he doesn’t want to go back inside and then drags his feet all through bedtime.
Every night we read four books, which he chooses from his shelf. Sometimes it’s Harold and the Purple Crayon, sometimes The Snowy Day, sometimes Octopus’s Garden. But we always finish with a little board book called My Day which we have read to him since he was an infant. It is the simplest book I’ve ever read. It has five pages, and five words.
Eat. Build. Play. Ride. Hug.
With each word, we recount to him something that he ate, or built, or played with, or rode, that day. We hug and my wife sings, “A Bushel and a Peck” while he conducts. He requests a verse of “Welcome to the Sixties” from Hairspray, which she allows.
Then she says good night and I stay to tell him about his dreams. I tell him the same story every night, which always involves two firemen that race over a bridge and put out a fire together. Then I sing him “Summer Time” from Porgy and Bess until he falls asleep, or my arms get too tired to hold him, or both.
My wife and I watch an episode of The West Wing and talk about the day until she falls asleep.
But I’m not tired. It happens a lot. The three cups of coffee. The nap. I get up and load the dishwasher. Make a drink. Check Facebook. More Hillary. More Trump. No more shootings at least.
I think about the day, and the coming day, and wonder if tomorrow I’ll like what I wrote today, and if I’ll write more tomorrow. I worry about money, about my family, about the latest poll numbers, about how hot it is. I worry about my friend. I worry ghosts are real. I worry that maybe I’m writing the wrong book, or that I’m forcing it, or that I’m letting the summer slip away without getting enough done.
Then I get back in bed, and as I fall asleep, I think to myself, you ate some not great things today, you built three more pages than you had before, you played the guitar for half an hour, you rode the subway and finally read that book. You have hugged your son, your wife, one of your heroes, your neighbors, your neighborhood, your day.
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 last great book I read was nonfiction, called The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe by Stephon Alexander. I’ve had a weird fascination with quantum mechanics and string theory and other stuff like that since I was in high school. I never had the mathematical ability to pursue it, but I love the questions physicists are asking. They’re really the same ones we artists are. Why does everything exist? Where do we figure into the universe? Is there some logic or sense to it all, or is everything just haphazard chance? Alexander, who is a professor at Brown, brings Jazz into this, and looks at how the underlying rules and systems of improvisation in that musical tradition are very similar to the way that particles in the universe interact with one another. It’s fascinating stuff. I think about 90% of it flew right over my head, but the stuff I absorbed has been very helpful as I’ve worked on my new novel.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Don’t be afraid to have fun. I think there’s this sense that writing should be painful, or difficult work. That in order to counteract the notion that what we do is frivolous, we can tend towards being super tense and serious and dark about everything. So much of what I read fails to show even a glimpse of the lighter side of life. And I’m not saying that everything has to be grand comedy, but there’s too much joylessness out there already. Salinger, who I mention in the essay, has a nice way to put this, which I think of a lot.
When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. I’m a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? … I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions.’ Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions.
Were your stars out? (Or at least most of them?) I think of that as an essential question for every writer. Do you actually like what you’re writing? Does it make you smile? Does it make you like life, and the world, a little more? If you can say yes to that, then you know you’re onto something worthwhile.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
Since my son was born, and even before, since I started teaching, I’ve had to get much less precious about my writing and reading routines. I simply have to be able to sit down and do either when the opportunity presents itself, and I can’t always have the proper soundtrack or setting or even clothes on. Maybe the only habit I have never been able to kick is coffee, which is tricky because it sometimes limits where I can go to write, or if I end up writing at the end of the day. But I love my coffee. I get crazy about it when I can. I have bean preferences. I have a little electronic scale I use to measure out the exact right amount of beans which I grind in a special burr grinder. I have a little instant-read thermometer that checks the water is between 195 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s totally absurd. I recognize that. But–it works. Everyone’s got to have something, right?