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 SAMANTHA DUNN
My days start with shit.
And I think that’s a pretty good metaphor for my writing process.
Weekday mornings I wake up at seven—or I should say re-awake, because I usually get up around three a.m. and write a little, my muse taking advantage of my chronic insomnia. Then I go back to bed.
So, at seven I put the tea kettle on, feed the dogs, feed the mouthy cat who is never satisfied, wake up the kid, hustle him to get dressed, then while still in my pajamas drive him the ten minutes to school. When I get back, it’s time to feed our two horses, pig, and goat.
While they’re chomping their hay I muck the paddock and stalls. “Muck,” for you non-agrarian types, means taking a pitchfork and sometimes a shovel and picking up manure to dispose of it in bins. You finish by raking in fresh shavings so that the critters have comfortable, dry beds.
It’s a dirty job and requires some muscle. And yes, I could hire someone to do this, and sometimes I do, and yes, my husband does it most afternoons, so it’s not all me.
But I love the peace of these mornings, listening to the contented snorts of the animals, running my hands over their coats as I work. This is the time when I organize my thoughts for the challenge of the day ahead–editing and managing the monthly magazine where I am executive editor.
If I’m lucky, mucking the paddock is also when new ideas emerge, like the tender shoots of grasses. I might hear the sound of a beautiful sentence, arriving in my head from God knows where, and when that happens I scramble to finish so I can run inside and jot it down. I collect these little fragments, like scraps of cloth, that I try to weave together for essays, stories, sometimes whole books.
Even if that new idea doesn’t happen, I always feel a sense of satisfaction from my mornings. They ground me in the real world.
And maybe because the writing process itself is never really finished and my Platonic ideal of the perfection I want to render on the page never completely achieved, the physical labor of restoring order to the stable gives me a feeling of completion that I can carry forward through my day.
Of course, this order is only temporary, and that too is a constant reminder to me. There is always more shit to pick up. As writers we’ve got to move through an unforgiving routine steadily, consistently.
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’m going to cheat here and tell you there have been a number of great books I’ve enjoyed, including a novel by my friend Mark Sarvas that comes out in March called Memento Park, and a graceful, haunting memoir by Gayle Brandeis, The Art of Misdiagnosis. Both were sent to me. But the book that I find myself returning to over and over again is a slim volume by Patti Smith, Devotion. My husband gave it to me. It’s about the creative process, and the mystery of it, and the faith you must have to get anything done.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Don’t get stuck on your idea of the story. “Don’t have ideas,” as the brilliant and sadly gone novelist Les Plesko used to say (look him up, it’s worth it). Let emotion lead you to the heart of what you are burning to say.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- OK, but this is really weird. When I’m finishing a book, I eat exactly the same thing every day: black tea and peanut butter toast for breakfast, a McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish sandwich for lunch. I don’t even remember how I happened upon this strange combo. Yes, I know it’s disgusting. Yes, I know it will give me diabetes and cancer. But for the week or two that I’m deep into a final draft, that’s what works. And you have to stick with what works. Oh—and I also sleep with my laptop. If there is something I can’t figure out, I think about it before I go to sleep, then my subconscious gets to work solving it, and then at two or three or four in the morning, pop! I wake up with the paragraph or sentence I need, full-formed. Cross my heart, it works.
By Samantha Dunn: