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 SUNIL YAPA.
In November, I moved out of the apartment in Montreal that I shared with my girlfriend. I packed my car with my amps and guitars and books and moved into an old farmhouse in central Pennsylvania where I now live alone. As winter began in earnest, and the clocks shifted back, I started a new book. I will describe for you my writing days as I started this new project, but first you must indulge me a few caveats.
- This reads less like an essay and more like one of those click-baity but sometimes informative “life-hacks” you see on the web. Fair warning.
- I am not married. I have no children. This isn’t something I’m entirely happy about, but we all live with our choices. When I look back at my life, I have more than once chosen writing and the solitude it requires (for me) over continuing great relationships. Is this healthy? Am I happy? I have no idea. Probably not. I do think, however, whether you live alone or amid the busiest of family lives, if you are a writer you must carve out a space of solitude to do your work. To do your dreaming and musing and typing.
- I work “gig jobs.” For ten years, while I was learning to write and also writing my first novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, I spent every August and September traveling the country in a 35-foot Ryder truck, selling posters on college campuses. I would then take that money and move to another country where I could live more cheaply. This is why/how I lived in China, India, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, and Greece. I wasn’t a very good tourist: I spent most of my time at my desk or a kitchen table, or whatever I could find really, writing. After the publication of my novel, I was lucky enough to be invited all over the world to read from the book, and to talk about its themes of radical empathy, protest, and what it means to care in a world that punishes compassion, often violently. Working what I call these “gig jobs” means that I compress my working into a few short intense weeks or months, and then have the ultimate luxury of time.
- It’s entirely possible that you do have a family, a partner, or kids. It is entirely possible, and more than likely, that you have a regular job. I submit that while I have more time to mess around, that doesn’t make this schedule less relevant to you, it is perhaps more valuable. As a person love is my most cherished asset. But as a writer it is time. And I am ruthless.
- Lastly, I should note that writing is for me a constant struggle between anxiety and if not excitement, then at least, getting stuff done. To be clear I am terrified of the blank page. I have spent years trying to break down this resistance but it feels hardwired. I wholeheartedly agree with whoever said they don’t write until the Fear of the Deadline overcomes the Terror of the Blank Page. Everything about how I schedule my writing day is designed with this is mind. After all, why do we check email/social media/the temperature outside/the state of our laundry in the dryer, if not because of a deep-down anxiety about our voice on the page? If you are one of my anxious tribe who is terrified of the thing they love most, read on.
How I Spend My Writing Days (or at least how I spent them in the month of November, 2018.)
I have a screen habit I can’t kick. I can easily stay up until three am watching basketball highlights from 1992 (Jordan and Pippen!) or studying jazz scales (does watching a YouTube video about the diminished scale make me able to play it?) Unless you write at night, staying up until three am is probably the worst habit for a working writer. The best habit by contrast is not necessarily writing in the morning, but is writing every day. And for me, the only way I can guarantee I that will write every day, is to do it first thing in the morning. This means no three am YouTube sessions. No three am drinking sessions. I stopped drinking altogether, partly because I didn’t know when to stop, and partly because even two glasses of wine made me slow and stupid the next day. And it’s all about the next day. The writing day really begins the night before.
Here comes the first life hack. I struggle so much with distraction, and staying up late, that I set an internet curfew. You know those light timers that you plug a light into when you go on vacation and they turn your lights on at a specific time every night to trick burglars into thinking you are home? Yeah?
Well, I took one of those and ran it in front of my internet router. Now whether I like it or not, my internet turns off at eight pm. It doesn’t come back on until noon the next day. When the internet goes off at eight pm, it’s usually a signal to go to bed. Remember, I live alone in a country farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania where the nearest “attraction” is a bowling alley and a 24-hour gas station that sells meatball subs. Also, it’s winter. There’s not much to do. So, at eight pm I take off my clothes and walk around naked (I live alone) turning off all the lights and then the heat. Then I get in bed and read until I fall asleep. This November the best bed reading was Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway though it doesn’t really matter if you read it naked or not.
It’s probably clear that I’m not a morning person. And yet, this November, with the internet off at eight, and me in bed reading while the wind howls outside, I find myself waking up most days between five and six am. In the Pennsylvania winter, tucked into this stream valley, that means I wake up with nothing but black beyond the window.
At first, it is so surprising that I refuse to turn on the lights. Making my tea and getting to my desk in the dark is not the safest (thank god for the staircase banister and a mug with a lid), but my feeling is if I got up this early, I want to see every drop of light leaking into that winter sky.
In this state, blackness outside my window, groggy dreaminess inside my head, I start to write. You may remember I mentioned I am terrified of writing. To tame this anxiety, many years ago I adopted Julia Cameron’s famous advice to write three pages, by hand, every morning. I don’t do full eight and a half by eleven pages, but I do write three pages in a medium sized Moleskine every morning, first thing. So, yes, I journal. Not much more to say about that, except that the first page is crap and I feel crappy, and thirty minutes later I’m still writing and there isn’t anywhere in the world I’d rather be, and nothing else I’d rather be doing. Magic.
The sun is coming up over the mountain, the sky paling, when I head downstairs for another cup of tea. I twiddle on the piano while I wait for it to brew, playing and singing old Dylan songs that have never gotten old. But then the timer goes off, and the tea is ready and I leave Dylan and climb back to the desk. Should I mention that I leave the heat off in the mornings, not starting the wood stove, so that it is cold downstairs, sending me in a hurry to the relative warmth of my desk upstairs where I have stashed a little electric heater? Am I crazy? You know, living alone, I rarely ask myself. That is awfully nice.
Now back at the desk I begin to write. Maybe another hour or two as light pours into the sky. I try not to push. When I feel my energy flagging, usually two hours in, I head to the shower.
Every writer has their own mind-clearing process, and it is probably the most important part of the day. For some it is running, for some cleaning dishes, or walking to the mailbox. For me it’s standing under the spray of hot water. I hesitate to even admit it, because I don’t want to lose the magic, but there is something about hot water, about relaxing, about zero possibility of “getting work done” that frees my mind. There I am feeling the hot water, letting my mind drift as I work soap into a lather, doing nothing. And for some unknown reason, like bubbles rising from the depths of my unconscious, there come creative thoughts. A funny bit of dialogue. A structural fix for a broken scene. Some unseen truth that will breathe life into a difficult character. It’s uncanny how productive the non-productive shower can be. I’ve learned not to ask why, just to accept the gift. I towel dry in the freezing cold and quickly I’m back to the desk, feeling now that my task is not to make something up, but simply to write something down.
The rest of the day hardly matters. My essential energy spent, I seem only half present even to myself. I find it difficult to make coherent conversation until I’ve eaten lunch and replied to some emails. Maybe I call a friend or read a book or watch the latest greatest TV series, script in hand. Maybe I go for a swim, put on ice after, and then take a nap. I go for a long walk along the stream. I turn on my amplifiers and fuzz pedals and play guitar loud enough to shake the windows. It doesn’t much matter as long as the sun goes down, the internet goes off at eight pm, and the sky goes black. Because then I can wake once again in a freezing room, look outside to a sky full of stars, make a tea in the darkness, and climb the steps to my desk to begin the dream again.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What writing advice do you give that you rarely follow?
- Don’t sweat the small stuff.
2. What one word best describes your reading life?
- Deep, but not wide.
3. Do you have any obsessions?
- Too many! My life is bouncing from one to the other. The days disappear. In no particular order a few of them: the 90’s Bulls, chess, muji pens, Great Blue Herons, Mexico, guitar effects, Ronald Reagan, ambient country music, dawn, pine trees, vulnerability, compassion, love, writing.
By Sunil Yapa: