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 LESLEY DAHL.
For many years, my vacations were spent on islands surrounded by warm, aqua blue waters and coral reefs. Every night at dinner I’d sport a deep oval-shaped crease on my face–the consequence of wearing a face mask all day, either while snorkeling or scuba diving. Underwater I am always hoping to see something I haven’t seen before–a tiny shelled creature, a cleaner shrimp; even a familiar creature doing something unexpected makes me happy. And I can almost always find it, if I look.
These days I don’t vacation much, and I live in a landlocked state without even a lake to swim in. My village (and yes, it’s officially a village, not even a town) has a network of irrigation ditches (acequias) crisscrossing through it and, along its eastern edge, the muddy Rio Grande and its accompanying Bosque. Now I land-snorkel and look for new things during my morning walks in the Bosque or, lately, along the ditches.
I’d already lived here ten years before it occurred to me that I should walk every mile of every ditch in the village. This morning I walked my last untraveled stretch of the longest of the north/south ditches. And, as I have done every day since I began these ditch walks, I looked for, and saw, something new–today it was a yellow plastic bear wired and dangling from one of the footbridges that crosses the ditches.
Just this month on my daily ditch walks I have seen a small red fox, a steer with extravagant horns, bagworms dangling from cottonwoods, goats on roofs, Clydesdales, llamas and alpacas, a fence covered in license plates from all over the U.S., comical, cartoon-like mailbox clusters, a toy truck in the bottom of a shallow ditch that, once photographed, looked deceptively real, and I watched a field of corn grow from just a foot high to tall enough for a maze to be cut into it. And now, if I am late to walk, as I was this morning because it’s cold, I hear kids’ voices as they work their way around the maze, trying to get out.
This morning, as I was trying to figure out what I was seeing there, dangling from the bridge, I found something else I’ve been looking for–a character’s name. I’ve been waiting for it a while and have been stuck at a point in a story where she needs to show up, but I haven’t had her name. A writer I know says he has a couple of names he plugs in–the same ones every time–so that he doesn’t get hung up and can keep writing until the right name comes along. I’m not that good. Doesn’t matter, I’ve got it now. And the name is not new or one I haven’t heard before, but it was unexpected. So on a day that is not today, I will open that book again and write the next chapter.
Today, a more typical day for me than a writing day, I had other things to look for and find. After my walk, as I do every day, I made coffee, flicked on the TV to make sure nothing major happened overnight in some place like California where people I love live, and turned on my computer, hoping for no emails to answer (stop laughing). Also hoping and not hoping for work. It’s a schizophrenic thing to work for yourself. When you’re busy, you pray for a day off and when you get it, instead of raking up the knee-high leaves on the patio or de-crumbing the toaster oven, you panic and start looking for work.
So yes, I want there to be work in my inbox (always) but today I also didn’t want it because I had fifty (very short) stories to read and I was itching to get to them. To that end, I ignored my personal email, checked my work email, found a little, did it quick, and dived into the stories. These are submissions for Zizzle, a children’s lit mag dreamed up by a writer/client of mine, now publisher (and friend), Cindy Lam. The first issue just came out this month and I can say, without being immodest because I didn’t have anything to do with the production end of it, that it is gorgeous.
So these stories come in daily and I get them in batches of fifty. You’d think it would be a daunting task, and it is. And sometimes it’s infuriating. Did this writer not read the guidelines? 600-1200 words! Why has he submitted a 2317 word story? Am I obligated to read it? What if I don’t and it’s the gem I’m looking for (and could it be cut down to 1200 words?)? And this next one, it’s erotic. Middle grade fiction, folks!!!! There are librarians and parents out there who would not like that. But then, then there’s that pearl, that just-right story that I read twice to make sure it’s what I think and then I shoot an email to the publisher–“I like this one, do you?” And when she does too, I feel thrilled to know that a writer somewhere is going to get an email saying we’d like to publish her story. It’s so fun.
When we started, it took me a week to read 50 stories. Now, if I’m not loaded with pressing work, I can read 50 in a day. Sounds fast, but I do read every word of every one. I love finding something I haven’t seen before, something unexpected.
Not a bad way to spend the day.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your writing life?
2. What book is on your night table now, and why?
- There is a hilariously optimistic stack of 16 books on my night stand. On top: The Tao of Pooh. There can be no “why” for that. I don’t actually read much these days, I listen to about 50 books a year on Audible. I’ve just finished A Gentleman in Moscow (wonderful) and am starting the 4th book in the Red River Mystery series (can’t resist the characters).
3. If you find yourself with an extra 15 minutes, what do you do?
- Nap or play a few rounds of Words with Friends.
By Lesley Dahl