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 CHERISE WOLAS.
I am at my desk before dawn on this August Sunday. The decaf coffee, readied by my lovely husband who wakes even earlier than me, requires only a press of the button. Henry, our feline lovebug, padding sleepily after me, settles next to my laptop. I always find it magical starting work in this dreamy, blurry state. I open my computer and should be prepared, but my heart sinks a little because of what’s not there: the usual slew of nightly emails I send to myself when I’m supposed to be sleeping—ideas, dialogue, reminders to look at this paragraph, or that word.
My normal daily sequence of events is coffee, cat, email printing, then inhabiting again the bodies and minds of my characters by going back several pages and reading them over, or going back to earlier chapters, and making changes, word by word, and sentence by sentence, which leads to other changes, which leads to new thoughts and new connections, which might lead to reviewing the enormous stack of my email notes, or it might send me down rabbit holes of ideas, and on and on, keeping at it, seeking the clues, that lead to the keys, that open the doors.
I am wistful for my daily sequence which has been on hiatus since July 17, the day my second novel, The Family Tabor, was published. A hiatus for the most exciting reason, but not falling headlong into a world of my own creation every day has me a little unmoored. I’ve found that being fully immersed in the writing provides me with equilibrium, a way to balance all the good and the nerve-wracking that attends having novels newly out in the world. When The Resurrection of Joan Ashby was published, I was on the thousandth version of The Family Tabor, and I floated with the thrill of all the accolades my debut novel received, and loved sinking back into my writing.
There’s also the fact that I wanted to crest a particularly steep fictional hill in the novel-in-progress before I became absorbed with everything related to the publication of The Family Tabor (book events, book touring, Qs and As, interviews, etc. ), and it didn’t happen. And because it didn’t happen, there’s a bit of fear knowing I’ll be facing confusion when the hiatus concludes; I’d really, really hoped to avoid that.
Because I am obsessive and can’t help myself, I open the novel-in-progress, read the last sentences I wrote, then close it, and leave the study, with Henry following along. I refill my coffee cup and watch Michael working on a painting in the living room. He’s not a trained artist, but on an easel he built himself, there’s a large canvas that has gone through many metamorphoses—the figure in a raincoat with an umbrella is gone replaced by a swatch of intense blue. He’s practicing various techniques he’s teaching himself and it’s impressive. All I can draw is a cartoon hippo with long eyelashes.
I return to the study and Henry curls up with his paws on the keyboard. A phrase I’ve never thought before is circling around in my heart—elegiac ecstasy. Loss coinciding with intense pleasure. The forecast is for more rainstorms. This summer, there’s been no telling what the weather will do. Just as there’s no telling the emotions I’ll experience today, that I’ve already experienced today and it’s just eight a.m. I’ve learned all these emotions are an inherent part of the process, of being reviewed, praised, and otherwise. I look at the editions of my novels on the bookshelves and it is both marvelous and fantastically strange that they no longer fully belong to me, but belong as much to the readers.
Since Thursday, I’ve received forty-two emails from readers. I always respond to everyone, with utter joy. When I was writing Joan Ashby and Tabor, I never thought about a future reading audience, and I stringently protect myself from outside voices now so that what I write isn’t impacted. But the epistolary and face-to-face interactions with readers is soul-filling and replying is my way of expressing my profound gratitude that I am a writer who is being read. Once the work is out in the world, every writer hopes to be read.
I print out all the letters and read them through. Each writer has addressed one of three subjects: that they have found themselves on different paths than they’d expected, just as Joan Ashby does, and then identify the conundrums that tangled them up; or that Joan Ashby has convinced them they must figure out how to live their lives with specific intent, regardless that they are only 17 or reaching 35 or nearly 80 years old, and outline what they plan to do; or that they are trying to remember what they fear they have forgotten, as Harry Tabor deliberately forgot something of great import in The Family Tabor, and that if they could only remember, they would understand why a husband walked out without a word, why a grown child maintains a cold distance. It is an intimate, special privilege to have readers open their lives to me, and their pleasure and pain is threaded through me by the time I reply to the last one.
It’s noon now. I’ve drunk the entire pot of decaf coffee and am still in my pajamas. I shower and dress and slide on my crystal silver sandals that I’ve been wearing all summer. I adore sandals that look like I’m wearing gems on my feet. Then Michael and I are a whirlwind of cleaning and organization: changing the bedding, collecting the laundry, vacuuming the carpet, unloading the dishwasher, checking the contents of the fridge, making a list, and on the way out, I leave the stack of magazines that have accumulated for my neighbor down the hall. For years, she’s been the secondary recipient of all my subscriptions, gifting me mammoth-sized fruits and containers of homemade soups she makes in the winter in return. In the elevator, I say to my husband, “I swear, this coming week, I’m going to really organize my bathroom,” and he laughs because I always say that and have yet to do it. We pick up vegetables at Whole Foods, and other staples at the grocery store, including Diet Snapple Peach Ice Tea, which is finally back in stock and the only flavor I like, and we gather up three of the big containers, pay, and return to our building, weighted down by bags. In New York City, errands mean walking and fetching and gauging whether you have the physical strength for it all, and I always think people here are like cavemen and women carrying home their hauls. While Michael unloads our groceries, I return to the study.
City Books in Hove in the UK is among the many indie booksellers who have been incredible supporters of my work. The bookstore was highlighted in The Guardian and named Joan Ashby as one of their top recommended novels. They are very excited about The Family Tabor. I wrote asking if they’d like me to sign bookplates. Yes, yes, they responded. So I turn on Michael, my favorite musician/composer/songwriter, and listen to him while I start signing, in a soft black for Joan Ashby, and in cerulean blue for Tabor. Fifty signatures in, I think, Is that how I sign my name?
A newspaper would like to talk to me about my literary response to the current climate. Their interest was spurred by an interview where I said that when I began writing The Family Tabor, I never expected religion, faith, or religious identity to become serious themes in the novel, but with the rise in anti-Semitism and hatred toward all immigrants and other marginalized groups sweeping across the world once again, I felt compelled to heed my characters and explore their responses, or lack thereof, to the faith of their ancestors. I find the newspaper’s remit a little overwhelming, and I research and read articles and take notes, and think. By four, I’m exhausted and don’t know if I’ve succeeded in marshaling my thoughts.
While Michael works on a new song, I take a walk through the Sunday-quiet streets. I stop at a tiny park near where I live and look out over the East River, thinking about the novel-in-progress: When the hiatus from the new novel happened, I had written and rewritten and revised an explosive scene, and many of my characters are now gathered in the same place, separated by a staircase. Would T still be there, or would he have disappeared? Should he disappear? Do I continue in the chronology I’ve established, or jump ahead in time? If I jump ahead, am I avoiding writing what must be written? When the sky booms, I race home and make it into the lobby as the rain comes splattering down.
Michael is staring unblinking at his computer screen when I come in, editing his music. I kiss his cheek and he smiles, and I return to my pretty study, with its pale gray walls, and white wooden floor painted many times, and white bookshelves filled with books and art, and Henry again next to my laptop on my charcoal-gray desk. I’ve just hung up the phone after talking to one of my closest friends when Henry plants himself at the arrangement of miniature cacti I received on The Family Tabor’s UK publication day and tries eating the leaves. He’s very smart, but the connection between eating leaves and throwing them up perpetually eludes him. I imagine a rush to the vet because he’s swallowed cactus needles and whisk him out of the room. He castigates me loudly from the other side of the door.
I catch up on personal emails, on upcoming book groups I’ll be talking with, on new invitations to speak about my work, add materials to the folder for the advanced fiction writing class I’ll be teaching in October, look at the calendar to see about staying on after the Miami Book Fair concludes if Michael comes with me, it’s been a long time since we’ve had a vacation, check flights for him, and then realize I don’t know what Grammar Girl and I will be talking about when she interviews me this week for her podcast and email my book publicist.
At seven, Michael opens the study door and says, “Come be with us.” And Henry, perched on his shoulder, says, “Er er er,” which you’d have to hear to understand how funny it is, and it’s clear he’s saying, “Never ban me again from my rightful place.”
I’m not a big cook, but I love chopping vegetables while drinking a glass of wine, and while Michael plays his new work for me, I chop away (three kinds of lettuce, two kinds of onions, carrots, sprouts, a little cilantro, two hardboiled eggs, sunflower seeds, mozzarella cheese, pepper, sea salt, olive oil, fresh lemon juice) and the colorful bowls look to me like proof of my wifely love. We eat while watching the series we’ve been racing through on Netflix—Icelandic and moody and murderous. I’m game for a third episode, but Michael can’t keep his eyes open.
By eleven, our bedroom is half-dark. Michael is sleeping, Henry is curled into my neck, and I’m hoping to wake at all hours emailing myself ideas again for the novel-in-progress. I’ve been working on it for two years, have revised and honed with extreme intensity. I am far into it, but there’s still a long way to go. Next week, or next month, I’ll be running toward that fictional hill, to fly over it, or burrow through it, hoping I’ll splash down in a clear, blue pool that will provide clarity. I want to be back in that world, with characters who are as completely alive and real to me as those in my first two books, as anyone I know in real life. And I want all this wonderfulness to continue on and on for The Resurrection of Joan Ashby and now The Family Tabor. I open the book I’m reading, certain of only one thing: I’ll be up way too late again.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your writing life?
- Intense fictional exploration into questions that intrigue me. (Apologies for needing more than one word.)
2. What one word best describes your reading life?
3. What is something you do every day?
- Write and read.
By Cherise Wolas: