The outline of a writer's day…

There’s an interesting website that give a wee bit of insight into “how writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days,” called DAILY ROUTINES.

My friend, poet and novelist Lisa Pasold (who’s first novel will be out this fall — look for it!), told me recently that Philip Roth was downright monastic in his habits. This site confirms that, and in fact it was probably Lisa who told me about the site in the first place. Roth lives alone, apparently, gets up every morning at the same time, makes his way to the little writing cabin at the end of the garden, writes all day, totters back up to the house, eats and sleeps and when he wakes up, even in the middle of the night, writes some more. His friend Ross Miller said he lives “as though he’s at Fort Dix.”

Roth himself says, “So I work, I’m on a call. I’m like a doctor and it’s an emergency room. And I’m the emergency.”

Lisa also said she suspects I’m far more like Philip Roth than she is. Well, she might be right. I may not be as extreme as Roth, although anyone who knows me knows I do tilt toward silence and reflection more than the social whirl, and I agree with Flaubert that one should have regular habits as a writer. We need to leave all the drama and violence for our work. I often tell my students that if they’re all wrapped up in chaotic lives, worried about how they’ll pay the rent, or whether their partner’s cheating on them, they will find it mighty difficult to concentrate on their work. I keep my life happily ordinary in the hopes that my writing won’t be. A wonderfully supportive Best Beloved, and thirteen years sobriety helps.

To that end, I get up at roughly the same time every day, have coffee, check the emails, shower and breakfast, then to work, which is often rough going until around mid-afternoon, and doesn’t amount to much writing at all most days, but, if I’m lucky, some good research. Then something to eat, and back to work, getting out a minimum of 500 words a day, which takes as long as it takes. Now, of course, there’s also the blog, and right now it’s 7:50 p.m. and I should be thinking about dinner at some point but since I haven’t managed the shower yet I suspect the day’s rather off-kilter. I blame it on having to shovel out a long walk this morning before it turned to solid ice. Luckily, there’s often something to blame. Tonight I plan on a nice bath and then a supper of cheese-toasts before tiptoeing to bed around 9:30 with “The Gathering” by Anne Enright tucked under my arm.

I can get quite distracted by research. And just now I’m deep into “King of Mysteries” by John Carey, a collection of early Irish religious writings that I hope will inform the new book I’m working on, set in 7th c. Anglo-Saxon England. It’s a most nourishing distraction, but there are other, more mundane research distractions, such as a sudden narrative requirement to know how much milk a cow gives per day. Well, to be accurate, how much milk a cow would have given in the 7th c, before the adoption of hormones and other dubious food-production practices. I concluded, after several hours on line and several more buried in a book called “The Family Cow” that we’re looking at about a gallon, but that led to the question of how long a cow, left to nature and not human intervention, would give milk after birthing… and so on. (I’d be thrilled to hear from anyone who knows such things.) And that research led to the question of what cows looked like then (sort of like Dexter cows, I learned).

That kept me going for 500 words, but the next day I was derailed by my inability to remember what that thing on top of a well is called (a windlass), and then where rennet comes from (in the 7th c — the inside of a calf’s stomach, which was salted and hung in a nice cool place so you could cut a small piece off when needed. Yummy.) And so on.

You can see how that might make me a rather odd conversationalist.

Which leads me to wonder why we’re so interested in how people we think are interesting spend their days, but we are. Me, too. Perhaps it’s because I think if I do what they do, I will accomplish what they do, or perhaps, when reading about people whose lives involve various bad habits and the chaos they result in, I am convinced to abstain from those bad habits for another day myself.

I also find it rather funny that writers are listed on this site as ‘interesting’ people, since I’m not at all convinced we are. And after reading that bit above on my research, you probably agree with me. After all, we live most of our lives in our heads, in solitude, surrounded by scraps of paper, half-read books, coffee cups, pens, and the various flotsam and jetsam (in my case an odd collection of photos, stones, shells, feathers, miniature figures of a bear, a gargoyle and a church mouse, a crystal heart, a dozen or so reference books, headphones and candles) that make up the outward manifestation of what goes on in our heads. We are often anti-social, obsessed, one-trick ponies, our skin pale from being inside too much, and our bottoms rather flabby from sitting too much. We are either insecure and worried about what people think of us and our work, or loudly proclaiming we don’t give a damn. Some of us drink too much. Most of us go into lock-down mode for months at a time, sometimes years, when we’re working on something, and then don’t quite understand why our friends, whom we’ve ignored for all that time, don’t rush round to hug us when we finally surface, mole-like and blinking, looking for reassurance.

Well, as any honest writer will tell you, writers don’t write because we really like it, because it’s so lucrative (snort) and such fun! We write because we can’t NOT write. As nuts as we are when we’re writing, we’re actually less sane when we’re not writing, God help us.

And we hope you’ll be patient with our quirks; we’re certainly eternally grateful to anyone who actually buys and then reads our work. And if someone takes the time and effort to let us know we aren’t out here shrieking into the dark windswept abyss, well, that’s just a little piece of heaven.

And now, off to bath and toast and bed. Good night all….

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