How We Spend Our Days: Margaret McMullan

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 MARGARET MCMULLAN.

I awake not as a cockroach but thinking of a big brown one crawling up a white wall. I scribble palmetto bug on a pad right next to the mug of coffee my husband, Pat, left on the nightstand. He’s up at 6:15, and lately, because of the coffee and many other niceties, I’ve nicknamed him Saint Patrick.

One sip gets me to the side of the bed. Another sip and I’m vertical. I make the bed so I won’t climb back in.

Our dog, Samantha, barks once, her toe nails clicking on the hall floor. Samantha is our 14-year-old golden retriever, and today, she’s full of beans.

I slip into clothes I’ve laid out the night before, an old habit from 25 years of university teaching. The morning is foggy, and I am out the door, in what my son describes as “a hurry.”

Seagulls fly overhead. To the South is the Mississippi Sound. Farther out is the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Katrina demolished our town of Pass Christian, Mississippi, and people are feeling brave again and re-building. I wave at builders, fellow construction workers making plans for sturdy foundations.

I’m thinking about a new novel I’m working on. I’ve framed a hospital scene with two wounded people. Anything can happen. Who will die? I ask myself, walking past blooming azaleas and wisteria.

Leaving the house is important. Walking helps me think; if I don’t exercise I’m mean and cranky; and since I work at home, when I return from the walk, it feels like I’m heading into the office.

Back at the house, I shower, quickly. I blew off yesterday. Our son was in New Orleans with his friends for their last college spring break and we drove over for a long lunch.

Pat is already in his office, working on his documentary. We know how lucky we are to be able to do the work we want to do from home. Knowing this motivates us even more.

I put my morning notes in a canvas bag, then walk around the house collecting other notes. Samantha follows close at my heels. I’ve got notepads scattered throughout the house–on the kitchen counter, in my closet, on the bathroom sink–words, sentences, and scenes that will go into the novel, a story, an essay, or an op-ed.

I need a lot of notes because I write a lot of pages to get to any of the good stuff. I’m a slow, messy writer that way.

I’ve got a thermos with coffee, a plate of apple slices, a hardboiled egg, a leftover sweet potato, and a dog biscuit for Samantha, all of which I put in a basket because it’s easier to carry and I can pretend I’m at Yaddo even though I’ve never been to Yaddo, but I heard they do things like bring you meals in a basket. In this way, I am pampering myself.

Samantha trots on the grass while I crunch down the gravel driveway for our one-minute commute, during which time I will my characters back to me: I’m 15, and at the hospital. I’m wearing my favorite sneakers, same ones me and my best friend bought together at T.J. Maxx. Except that now our shoes are stained with blood.

My office is a one-room, book-lined shed with a bathroom and a porch.

Sam gets the biscuit for walking with me, then circles and settles into her spot on the porch.

At my desk, I open my laptop and dump the scraps of paper.

I don’t have Wi-Fi here. Still, I’ve got deadlines and an upcoming book tour, so I use the “personal hotspot” on my phone to quickly check email to see if there’s anything urgent. I respond to a book store in Provincetown, then turn my phone off and retrieve the novel.

I’m off the grid and alone with my 15-year-old self.

Her world unfolds here in my office every morning, and I need to stay with her to keep her and the story alive. I know that as soon as I check the news, my email, Facebook, or Instagram she hides.

And right now, her world is blowing apart. And things are about to get worse. I’ll soon see what she’s made of.

I’m not stuck. No sirree. Not stuck. Out of the corner of my eye, wedged into the bookcase is another manuscript, which I refuse to call a “failed manuscript.” Just something I’ve put aside for a while to “bake.” When I return to it, I’ll know how to fix it.

Crazy? Maybe. But I have faith in my brain’s ability to put together the jigsaw puzzle I’ve created. I’ve done it before, I can do it again.

I glance at the sheet taped to the window in front of me: The problem isn’t you. The problem is the problem. Work the problem. And the note next to that: Invent a character. Load her up with trouble.

My fingers hover over the keyboard. I look at my notes and add a line to the scene I wrote yesterday. I throw the note away. I sift through more notes. One line leads to a scene. And then to another. When I write the scene, I throw the note in the trash.

The typing is no longer typing. I can hear her now.

As I work, I hear the hammering and sawing from the builders down the street. Someone’s roof is going up.

I eat apple slices and cold sweet potato, sip coffee.

Three hours pass.

After a quick lunch with Pat, I take a 15-minute “reset” nap, which stretches into 20.

The afternoon is for business.

My first memoir, Where the Angels Lived, comes out in May, and I’m saying yes to everything, even though every event will take me farther from my desk, Pat, Samantha, and from my girl who’s in a world of trouble.

I answer emails and return calls.  I finish a pitch for an essay and send that out.

I read through an essay I’ve put aside, cutting and adding, then I send it to Saint Pat, asking if he can read it before I send it out.

I call my mom, who’s upset because she can’t go to the symphony this week because the symphony is on strike and she doesn’t want to get shot. My mother is struggling with her memory and our conversations are a mixture of fact and imagination. I do a quick online check and see that the symphony is, in fact, on strike, and I’m oddly relieved.

When I hang up, I look at where I’ve left my girl. She’s left the hospital, and she’s under the covers of her bed in her tilted house, the mud between the floor boards, the ghost on the porch. Her boyfriend is climbing through her bedroom window. I recall the cockroach in my waking dream. I write the bug into this scene too. It’s a small thing, adding the bug, but it takes so many small things every day to make a book.

Before I head in for the day, I take my empty Yaddo basket out to the freezer in the shed next to my office. I pull out a loaf of the sourdough bread Pat likes, and the last of the chili I made back in January.

Samantha and I take it slow on the way back to the kitchen, walking around the garden, smelling the mint and sage that survived the winter.

~

NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…

1. What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written?

  • That’s like asking which of your children do you love the most. If pressed, my favorite book is always the book I’ve just written, which, right now, is Where the Angels Lived.

2. What one word best describes your reading life?

  • Eclectic. We’ve got stacks of books in various reading spots throughout the house and on the porch. There are maps, the histories and first person accounts for research. Books by friends. New books I want to read. Old books I’ve not yet read. I also read magazines and newspaper articles to keep up with the world. My characters try to do the same.

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

  • In Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See suggests writing a fan letter to a writer every day using your best stationery. Email is quicker and easier, so I’ve taken to writing authors–not once a day, more like once a week. I’m not looking for a response, but most of them do email back. It is such a joy connecting with great minds this way.

~

By MARGARET MCMULLAN

 

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