How We Spend Our Days: Tessa Fontaine

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 TESSA FONTAINE.

I wake up with light coming just in through the blinds, 6:45 am. My dog is asleep beside me, his head resting on the pillow where my husband usually sleeps, but my husband is in Oman for two weeks with students, and so the dog gets the good spot. Once he sees me awake, the dog rolls onto his back and wriggles, worming around, covering his face with both paws. I give him good belly rubs, staring out the window at the squirrels leaping between trees and sparrows gathering seeds, and back into his face—the face of love, to borrow Jo Ann Beard’s term—and then get up. I make espresso, sit at the dining room table, one of a few spaces I use to write, and answer a few emails. These days, though, I am not supposed to answer emails much, or spend time looking at screens. A car accident in September left me with a brain injury I’m struggling to heal from. As I transcribe this from handwritten notes, in fact, I am typing with my eyes closed.

A friend has been writing lately at a quiet café in the mornings, so I meet here there, say hello, pop in my headphones and pull out my notebook. I like to be in public spaces sometimes, the energy of other people’s lives giving me energy. I’m working on a novel right now, though I’m often unsure about it. With my first book, a memoir, I felt this wild obsession to write the story, to get it right, like I had no choice but to write it. I didn’t realize how lucky that was. I don’t feel that wild obsession with this book, and I wonder whether that means it’s not the right project, or that we just don’t get that feeling with all projects? To make a life as a writer, and a living as a writer, how do we know when a project is worth years of writing time if we don’t feel that internal compulsion? Beyond this question, the other question that has been obsessing me lately is how to determine the best form for a project. With this novel, I’ve done a lot of research, including some fascinating interviews, that has brought me great joy. And with mounting despair and excitement, I’ve been wondering lately if this project should, in fact, be a book of nonfiction instead of a novel. I’m in a writing day mired by big questions. What is this thing I’m working on? What kind of impulse do I trust?

To accommodate my brain and eyes, I print out what I’m working on. I also have a translucent blue plastic sheet to put on top of paper when I’m reading—something about the blue light is easier on the eyes, apparently. I like it not just because it’s less stressful on my eyes, but also because it makes everything feel a little bit like a performance, like the stage has been lit.

After three hours of working on the novel, crafting a new scene, revising an old one, going over some research, I leave the café. It’s just before noon. At home, I eat lunch and listen a bit to my current audiobook—The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography by Deborah Levy, which is glorious. She’s so damned smart and thoughtful. It reminds of reading Rachael Cusk’s trilogy last year, both authors conveying these profound truths about writing and womanhood and heartbreak and intelligence with simultaneous subtlety and candor.

My vision therapy is in the afternoon. In one exercise, I stand a foot in front of a whiteboard, staring at a blue circular magnet the size of a cherry, right at eye level. I have one dry erase marker in each hand. Go, the therapist says, and, following the beat of a metronome, I am supposed to draw two large squares, one with each hand, and then trace over my initial lines as I go. It’s a measure of peripheral vision. Over. Down. Over. Up. Over. Down. Over. Up. Staring straight ahead at the magnet, I draw the lines again and again, afraid to tell the therapist that I can’t actually see my hands at all—my peripheral vision is shot. Turns out I don’t need to tell her—when she says stop, my “squares” look like two MC Escher mazes, a square becoming more diagonal and getting smaller with each line until it’s just a tiny interior diamond.

Your brain doesn’t trust the information your eyes are giving you right now, she tells me. Your peripheral vision is closing in. I imagine a camera shutter folding closed on itself. How do you use your brain to convince your brain of something it doesn’t believe? How do you trust your brain to determine the best way to tell a story when it doesn’t trust the story its physical receptors tell it?

After an hour of vision therapy, my brain and eyes feel like porridge, so I go home and lie down for twenty minutes. Usually, I use the afternoons to do other kinds of writing—the technical writing I do for an artificial intelligence robotics company, for example, where I try to translate research about things like tactile-assisted autonomous grasping and robotic vision into layperson’s terms, or copywriting, editing, whatever my other projects are. I also run errands in the afternoon, or do a gardening or house project—we’ve been remodeling the rambling ranch house we bought a year ago—or go for a run, or prep for teaching. Today, I had a voice in my computer—Belinda, I call her—read me a manuscript I’m evaluating for a University press while I painted old paneling on our fireplace. I took the dog on a short walk, short only because he’s injured and on vet-directed rest, but just look at his face—he can’t be contained.

After some exercise at the YMCA, I usually cook dinner, the most relaxing part of my day. With my husband gone, though, I eat leftovers and think about whether this book is a novel or nonfiction project, about whether I can even trust the way I am thinking about it because of my misfiring brain. I call a friend, who asks for me to put the dog on the phone before he’ll talk to me. I agree. Do I seem like the same person I used to be? I ask him, when he’s done with the dog. Well, yes, he says. And no. Which is, I suppose, always true.

~

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NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…

1. When you’re writing, is there something you return to again and again for inspiration?

  • Memories of my mom—her wildness, her humor, my very partial and fragmented recollections of her, my grief, her beliefs, my questions, her questions.

2. Do you write in your books?  

  • Yes! I underline and star and kiss and question and dog-ear. Books are living objects for me, and there are many I return to over and over, desperate for a particular line.

3. If you find yourself with an extra 15 minutes, what do you do?

  • When it’s nice, wander through our yard, pulling at weeds in the garden, or looking for the heron who fishes in the creek out back, or closing my eyes toward the sun and hoping to find a little stillness inside.

~

By Tessa Fontaine


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Other Writers in the Series

3 thoughts on “How We Spend Our Days: Tessa Fontaine

  1. I really loved reading this. I could have read much more. I love how you awaken to the dog with its head on the pillow and then its paws over its eyes. Have you thought about writing a memoir/journal of the brain injury and recovery? I just completed a working draft of a book on anoxic brain injury (as compared to what you have, traumatic brain injury or TBI). My protagonist also had vision issues and was actually legally blind when she emerged from a prolonged coma following botched anesthesia during surgery. For some reason, every detail of your writing day fascinated me. Now I want to read your memoir.

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  2. Hi Kirie – thank you so much for those kind comments! I’m so glad you liked reading this – it helped me write about the physical experiences I was having in a way I hadn’t at all since the accident, not only with my own body, but also in paying more attention to the bodies around me (like my pup). It’s so interesting that you are writing about an anoxic brain injury – what’s the title? Ill look forward to reading it down the road. 🙂

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  3. The working title is “Dark Blood,” and as this very minute, I am laboring over my query and sample ten pages to send to agents, cold. My lovely “significant other” golden dog is pressed close to my side hoping we’ll venture out into Washington State’s 20-year blizzard again soon. Keep on healing and writing!

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