the next writer in the series: july 1, 2017

I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with … Continue reading

outside my window-october 28

Matisse wrote, “To paint an autumn landscape I will not try to remember what colors suit this season, I will be inspired only by the sensation that the season arouses in me: the icy purity of the sour blue sky will express the season just as well as the nuances of foliage.” I’m not sure I agree, Henri. At least not today, standing at my desk with the bold scarlets to my right.

When I was cleaning out my study, I rediscovered this journal written in 1906 by the English naturalist, Edith Holden, who drowned in the Thames in 1920, at the age of 49. I have the French version, and I wish I’d written in the book when and where I found it.

the writing life

For the last couple of months at Hunger Mountain, Claire Guyton, former Art +Life editor, and I have been working together to expand that section of the journal into The Writing Life.

Here’s what’s up and coming at


1) ANOTHER LOOSE SALLY – Hunger Mountain’s blog about writers and writing anchored by Claire Guyton (check in every Thursday!)

~june 16: The Catch / june 9: Shape is the Thing / june 3: Envisioning Concrete Pianos /may 26: New Writing Rule

2) AUTHOR VISITS  – interviews with the Hunger Mountain contributors

3) CRAFT SHORTS & ESSAYS – large and small doses of craft (online submissions for both forms now open)

~first short: On Endings: 11 Strategies by David Jauss

~May essay: Conjuring the Magic of Story by Stephanie Friedman

4) LISTS: LITERARY & LAUNDRY – coming soon – postcards from the organizational side of the writing brain

5) WRITER, INC., debuting in September, memos from the business of the writer’s life 

6) REVIEWS GONE SIDEWAYS – coming soon – anything but your mother’s reviews.

Check us out here


stay tuned!

new york march 2011

In New York last weekend, Cal and I saw Memphis, the 2010 Tony Award Winner for Best Musical. It was GREAT!

Saturday, we ate breakfast outside (despite the cold weather) at Sarabeth’s on the park.

At The Museum of Modern Art, we saw:

  • Picasso Guitars 1912-1914,
  • Andy Warhol Motion Pictures–12 or 14 giant screens, showing facial close-ups,
  • and an exhibit on Abstract Expressionist New York, featuring Jackson Pollack.

In striking contrast to Picasso’s assurance was Pollack’s self-doubt. About the metal sculpture Picasso made of a guitar, people asked, “What is it, painting or sculpture?” Picasso answered, “It’s nothing, it’s el guitare!” On the other hand, “once, after completing a new piece, Pollack asked his wife, Lee Krasner, ‘Is this a painting?'”

Saturday night was the revival of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, which I was glad to see but which was somewhat tedious, both in dialogue and acting. Also, the actors whose performances I enjoyed most were the ones with whom the critics found the most fault.

Sunday was a 3-hour walk from Times Square to Soho and then brunch at Commerce, a wonderful little restaurant tucked into a residential neighborhood in Greenwich Village, large murals by David Joel. I highly recommend the doughnuts.

Monday morning was a blur of rain and umbrellas as I headed for the airport, full of inspiration and good food.

Tied with Memphis for my favorite part of the trip was seeing Picasso’s obsession with guitars and seeing how each expression was different from, and fed on or off of, the others. A digital version of his sketchbook was available.

Chad Kimball sings “Memphis Lives in Me:”

rock & sling, poetry, arroyo, ecotone

One I’d heard of before. Three I hadn’t. Some were free at AWP; some were not. In each one, I found something that made me glad I’d lugged it home–either connecting with the words of writers I didn’t know or finding new poems and stories by writers I did. Two of these journals have stunning covers that will make me incapable of putting them in the recycling bin even after I need the space for new ones. So two I will send to a friend. Two I will take to the local high school library. Here are some highlights from the four literary journals I brought home from Washington a few weeks ago:

Rock & Sling–a journal of witness. Published twice a year by Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. Volume Six. Issue One. Winter 2011.

“Chalkboard” by Jeremy Clive Huggins:

I was in the 10th grade when it first registered: I will be someone else some day…Two decades later, I fail to remember that I will be someone else, not just some day, but next year, next week, next day, next anything.

“Mud Flats” by Ray Amorosi:

Clams hiss through pin holes a few feet down.

Poetry. A publication of the Poetry Foundation. Volume 197. Number 3. December 2010. The Q & A issue. Cover art by Sam Martine. “Faces (detail), 1997.

Charles Baxter on his poem “Some Instances” is asked if poetry is an escape from narration: “My answer is a respectful “No”…Like many fiction writers, I began my writing life as a poet, and what I sometimes miss in my own fiction is the high-velocity association of ideas and events and imagery that poetry makes possible.”

Jane Hirshfield on her poem “Sentencings” is asked about the image of “putting arms into woolen coat sleeves”: “I might, I suppose, have written a different poem, about my late sister’s coats. They are lovely. But I wrote this.”

Arroyo. Department of English, California State University, East Bay. Hayward, California. Volume 2. Spring 2010. Cover art by Jonathan Viner.

Dorothy Allison interviewed by Jacqueline Doyle. 15 pages.

Life goes so fast and we lose so much. We can barely even hang on to memory. But if you’ve got a story, a stunned moment story, that moment lives forever.

Ecotone–reimagining place. Department of Creative Writing and The Publishing Laboratory at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. 10. The sex and death issue.”Ecotone and the University of North Carolina Wilmington are proud to print this entire issue on 100 percent postconsumer fiber paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.”

Benjamin Percy on James Salter’s “Akhnilo”:

Suspense is the engine that drags a story forward…They [my students] misunderstand suspense, believing that it hinges exclusively on plot points, rather than on human urgency.

This story is a case study on the mystery outside the character and the urgency within…the true pull of the story comes from the desire the man feels, the desire we feel alongside him…

I support literary journals. Support art–any way you can.

Crossposted at The Contrary Blog

it’s been another year

It’s been another year and I missed it–completely never even thought about it until Friday night when I was visiting another blog, reading a post about how that week was that blog’s two-year anniversary–still not thinking about it–and then at the end of the post, this question: how long have you been blogging?

and I thought well, how long?

I remembered celebrating one year. And then I thought, surely another year has not gone by already.

has it?

yes, it has. September 4th was two years. Wow. That was fast.

And it was a big year: I started back to school for my MFA in creative writing. I also started what is turning out to be another novel. I saw Jackson Browne, Carole King, and James Taylor in concert. September seemed to be all about Infinite Jest. January about reading like a writer. In the spring I was traveling and then recovering from traveling. May was all about Annie Dillard and The Maytrees. July I went back to camp, and August was the mini-David Jauss festival. Both my novels placed in the 2010 Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition: my first novel, The Painting Story, on the Short List for Finalists, and my second novel, Between Here and Gone, as a Semi-Finalist. We’ve now had a whole year of the How We Spend Our Days series. Also, I updated the look of the blog and added new links and new pages.

So here’s the annual look back at the words, still hoping to see some sort of pattern emerging. I’ve linked to a few of my favorite posts, but if you see another one you’d like to explore, just pop the words into the search rectangle on the sidebar or go to the archives for that month, also on the sidebar. If you have a favorite post, I’d love to know which one it is.

A big thank you to all the readers out there. And a really big thank you to all those who posted the 1560 comments (double the number from the first year). You have made Catching Days better than it could have been on its own. As you read the words below, I wish for you, as always, fond memories and new discoveries…


September 2009: A Day in the Life of Dani Shapiro-those were the days-wage peace-the splitting sound-from creede-finished-infinite autumn-the germ of everything-the library, and step on it-yellow letters from a shoebox on a rainy pm-the empty armchair

October 2009: A Day in the Life of Adam Braver-unfamiliar-wildlives-still playing with books-poemcrazy-to be read-12 keys to stronger writing from Annie Dillard via Alexander Chee-eucalyptus-a practicei give

November 2009: A Day in the Life of Sheri Reynolds-the sweet in-between-waiting for me-snooping-what’s Jackson Browne got to do with it-writing retreat-a brief history of time-winter spring summer fall-abandoned things

December 2009: A Day in the Life of Elizabeth Benedict-books to trees-what have I done with my life-the signal-the ordinary day-it is all just shopping-send in the elves-Christmas magic-a new book bag-VCFA visuals: 1st 3 days

January 2010: A Day in the Life of Abigail Thomas-filled up & emptied out-an equal stillness-frozen-the first residency-reading like a writer: part 1-reading like a writer: part 2:taking it to a new level-reading like a writer: part 3: questions to ask-reading like a writer: part 4: reading a story-reading like a writer: part 5: taking a story apart

February 2010: A Day in the Life of Alexander Chee-over the weekend at sea island-devotion-lines connect in thin ways-from santa fe-from the jersey shore-not firmly based-not that i’m counting-hidden from view

March 2010: A Day in the Life of Miciah Bay Gault-rearrangement-let me in-the days cottages-reasons to live-i’m in italy-another last night in rome-madame this is not your day

April 2010: A Day in the Life of Robin Black-starting with the moment-no longer what I want-the conversation-evidence-iworld-four women and a sheep-the water is wide-what it is like-the birthday of an author-if I loved you

May 2010: A Day in the Life of Daniel Asa Rose-from their flat, yellowed pages-the maytrees-time to adapt again-the person underneath-so this morning-6 things I learned from Annie Dillard-structure echoes content

June 2010: A Day in the Life of Lucia Orth-framing the past-four poems-more of this world-rejoyce-the old swing set-day dreams-core-some saturday morning fun-mrs. somebody somebody-back in vermont again

July 2010: A Day in the Life of Tracy Winn-the second residency-places that call us backhoping to discoverproofwriting my way there-my name is mary sutter-staying in the room-not searching for structure-i cannot get you close enough-a life in stories-odd disjointed pieces at strange times of the day

August 2010: A Day in the Life of Diane Lefer-because the detail is divine-you are not here-alone with all that could happen-crossing borders-out my window: 8/17/10-out my window: 8/18/10-toes-look again-catching lives-jane’s passions-Eudora Welty’s potato salad


During the next twelve months, I hope even more of you will join the conversation. I’m looking forward to it!




“October” by Annie Dillard

In The Maytrees, Annie Dillard wrote,

She herself hoped to paint, soberly, when she got old.

In 2009, a week before I headed to Provincetown, I read in The Provincetown Banner that, at the age of 64, Annie Dillard was doing just that. Although she usually painted between books, now she was giving up writing for painting. After arriving in P-town, I visited the gallery where her work was being shown and brought home this small painting. It hangs in my study. With a slight turn of my head to the left, I can see it. Called “October,” it’s the view from Pleasant Point Town Landing.

There’s a line that connects writers and painters. In August I wrote about writer James Baldwin crediting painter Beauford Delaney with teaching him how to see and how to trust what he saw. Henri Matisse wrote often about painting. (Matisse on Art by Jack Flam). With “The Dance” at The Barnes Foundation, Matisse gave the viewer only part of the picture to free him to imagine so much more. As writers, we want to give the reader this same freedom. We want to suggest what lies beyond the page. Robert Boswell writes brilliantly about this half-known world we’re trying to create.

Maureen Doallas also wrote about Annie Dillard’s move to painting at her blog Writing Without Words. On Annie Dillard’s website, you can see more of her work, and you can also purchase limited edition prints with the proceeds going to Partners in Health.

the empty armchair

Matisse1My story, “The Empty Armchair,” which is loosely based on my first novel, The Painting Story, appears in the fall issue of Contrary Magazine. Here’s the beginning:

Being sick has taken away the busy surface of my life.  Gone are the errands and the superficial, the insubstantial, the time-wasting.  Being still is forcing me to reflect on what remains.

Boil a life down to its essence.  Freeze it, and see what rises.

Tucked into bed, my body is at rest, but my eyes search the room, settling on the blue armchair.  Exhausted for weeks, I had been leaving my clothes on this chair instead of hanging them in the closet.  The night before the surgery, seeking order and control as I contemplated having neither, I sorted through the layers of discarded clothing—returning shirts and jeans to the closet, socks to the hamper.  Now as I look at the space instead of the pile, I remember keeping the chair clear because Mark liked to sit there.  With sudden clarity I see myself as Matisse’s Invalid, without a face and with only heavy, somber colors to define my existence, lying in a room where an empty armchair reminds me of the choices I’ve made.

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making order

IMG_1962In Mary Gaitskill‘s story collection, Don’t Cry, is a story entitled, “Mirror Ball.” It’s one of my four favorites in the collection and is described on the book jacket as an “urban fairy tale” in which “a young man steals a girl’s soul during a one-night stand.”

I don’t generally like stories that involve the surreal, but from the first page,  the language of this story is so alluring that I was able to keep an open mind.

“…the anonymous little haunts where songs were still alive and moving in the murky darkness,…”

The words just kept twirling me on down the river of the story…

“It was a cold fall night with a feeling of secret pockets and moving shadows.”

…until I was caught in the current.

“Music temporarily filled the empty space, soothing her and giving shape to the feelings she could not understand.”

My favorite passage of all is so full of concrete images that it almost seems to move this way and then that:

IMG_1964“In daily life, his emotions were chaos. He let himself become a vessel for them, letting feeling roar through him, pulling him around like a kite, boiling him like water in a kettle, dissolving him in a whirl of elements. Except that normally he could go into his studio and make order. He could make songs that were satisfying containers, for the kite, for the kettle, the whirl of elements–he could put each in its place. The things he was feeling now did not fit into the songs he was used to making.”

What a fantastic paragraph. It contains so many images and ideas. Every time I read it, I want to read it over again. Except that for all the rich images, the idea I keep coming bacIMG_2488k to is using containers to make order.

Growing up, when I would approach the front door with my arms full of eleven different things, my mother would always be right there with a tote bag. “Here,” she would say. “Put everything in here.”

Containers keep us from spilling out all over the place. They make order out of disorder. Here, the character poured his emotions into songs. Matisse used paintings. I empty myself into words on a page. I’m also reminded of this passage from Toni Morrison’s Beloved:

“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”

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one thing leads to another


Which leads to another….

For the last post, I was looking for a quote by Henri Matisse that I never found by the way about not needing to show the whole shape of something in order for the viewer to grasp what you’re creating. In fact, for the Barnes Foundation mural, Matisse intentionally showed only part of the dance so that the viewer would follow the painting off the page. All of which I wish I’d put in the last post…Anyway I found myself flipping through my favorite book on Matisse, Matisse on Art by Jack Flam,  and rereading all my underlinings.

IMG_2078Then came some interest in an older post of mine on a quote by Flannery O’Connor from The Habit of Being:  The Letters of Flannery O’Connor: “…I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it over again.”

So I noticed that an interviewer, in the summer of 1931, noticed that Matisse was “looking for a way to summarize again what he had been saying…I had to smile when I realized that he was striving for order in his conversation just as in his paintings.”  I love that Matisse did that. I do it all the time.

Is that all? No, there’s more.

Anyway anyway, in the comments to that older post, we’ve been discussing that Frank Conroy “used to say that in his own writing he’d read and re-read what he’d written the day before until he knew what to do next.”

IMG_2082Matisse also said, “…I continually react until my work comes into harmony with me. As someone who writes a sentence, reworks it, makes new discoveries…At each stage, I reach a balance, a conclusion. At the next sitting, if I find that there is a weakness in the whole, I make my way back into the picture by means of the weakness–I re-enter through the breach–and I reconceive the whole. Thus everything becomes fluid again…At the final stage the painter finds himself freed and his emotion exists complete in his work. He himself, in any case, is relieved of it.”

Which is the way I find that I’m writing these days.

Now I’m relieved of this little trail.

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the odd shapes of life

IMG_1675“Obituaries, I believe, are really less about death than the odd shapes life takes, the patterns that death allows us to see.”

The Bridge of Sighs, Richard Russo

But it’s not death that allows us to see the patterns. Death just gives us the last few strokes, allows us to write the last few sentences.

It’s the writing that allows us to see–the process of writing and the finished product.

We don’t need to know the shape or pattern before we start. Henri Matisse wrote, “…I am driven by an idea that I really only grasp as it grows with the picture.” The same is true of writing.

Writing is the brush with which writers make shapes. One of the things that makes writing so exciting is the discoveries we make as we write.

For those afraid to start, Matisse wrote, “…each new stroke diminishes the importance of the preceding ones.”

So let’s write and let the shapes emerge…

breathing in art

img_11781Reading Willa Cather‘s The Song of the Lark is like breathing in art, instead of air.  It’s in the words chosen by the author, in Thea’s artistic pursuit of her voice (a lark, of course, known for its beautiful songs), and in Thea’s love of the painting, “The Song of the Lark,” by French painter Jules Breton.  Here on the cover, it was painted in 1884, and now hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, perhaps since 1894.  The book was published in 1915.

Thea describes the painting:

“But in that same room there was a picture–oh, that was the thing she ran upstairs so fast to see!  That was her picture…She liked even the name of it, “The Song of the Lark.”  The flat country, the early morning light, the wet fields, the look in the girl’s heavy face–well, they were all hers, anyhow, whatever was there.  She told herself that that picture was ‘right.’  Just what she meant by this, it would take a clever person to explain.  But to her the word covered the almost boundless satisfaction she felt when she looked at the picture.”

Toward the end of the novel, Thea says:  “I had lived a long, eventful life, and an artist’s life, every hour of it.  Wagner says, in his most beautiful opera, that art is only a way of remembering youth.  And the older we grow the more precious it seems to us, and the more richly we can present that memory.”

When the novel opens, Thea is eleven.  We meet her first as a child.  Late in the book, she says, “A child’s attitude toward everything is an artist’s attitude.”  Henri Matisse, years later, emphasizes this point in his famous essay, “Looking at Life with the Eyes of a Child.”  The artist, he writes, must look at everything “as though he were seeing it for the first time:  he has to look at life as he did when he was a child.”

Thea says, “They save me: the old things, things like the Kohlers’ garden.  They are in everything I do.”  It’s her being able to reach them, inside herself , that allows her to come into the fullness of her voice.