“To everything is a season” sums up my writing life and this day in particular, as both evolve. After rob’s kind request for a piece, I freaked, a little, on reading author/oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee’s piece in The Guardian about his writing day. Welcome to my slacker heaven. Please bear in mind that I’m writing this at the tail end of an unprecedented heat wave.
So here’s my day:
6:00am—Up and at computer, reading about additional writers’ writing days. Calm down, let head fill with ideas, shut off internal editor, or try to. Listen to self-coaching: Have fun with this. Writing can be fun, right? Promise self not to get tied in knots.
7:00am—Breakfast: poached egg on kale and raspberries from my garden, strong black coffee.
8:00am—Walk dog with my husband. We’re fortunate to live in an urban area with near-instant access to woods and ocean shorelines. Today’s pay dirt: spotted huge grey seal and her pups chasing mackerel. I always feel that such animal sightings bode well for the hours ahead.
9:00am—Make pie with more backyard raspberries for dinner tonight with friends.
10:30am—Go to desk. Today this feels auspicious as I’m breaking in a brand new one, part of the super-deluxe suite of office furnishings I won, much to my shock, in a Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia raffle. It’s a little intimidating, actually, as the desk fills a wall in my sunroom-office. My cat and dog are leery of it, which may bode well for the cloistered privacy necessary at future stages in my novel-writing process.
With its locking drawers, sprawling surface and mighty lamp, this desk is a far cry from my previous ones. Most recently these were an ancient drop-leaf table my husband and I scored eons ago when we were newlyweds and owned only a futon, and before that, a wobbly thing from my student days. My very first desk, though, was the slanted-lid schoomarm’s model I was given in grade two, a gift that equalled having a force-field buttressing my happy solitude. This was my first discovery that a desk + writing = bliss.
Looping back to the present, a few clues about today’s and previous days’ work appear on my new desk’s pristine surface. Here’s a list: two books about an artist who’s the inspiration for a novel I’ve started writing, and a dollar-store notebook full of jottings and fragments of scenes and ideas, bits and pieces that I hope will somehow coalesce into a storyline but haven’t yet begun to. A ragged copy of the Concise Oxford Dictionary that my dad gave me in university. An advance reading copy of my new novel, A Circle on the Surface. A miniature gift-shop version of Rodin’s Danaïde featuring Camille Claudel as his model, a present from my husband during the arduous writing of my last novel, These Good Hands. A mug made by my sister contains a jumble of pencils, pens, sharpies, nail clippers and a glue stick.
A lot more telling is the paper chaos that lies out of view, a stash of old stories, new stories, story ideas, stories stuck in a half-written limbo. One of my writer friends says I’m prolific. It’s not true, but might be if I stuck to a routine like the one I followed for six weeks last winter. Rising each day in the dark, breaking only for meals made by my patient husband and a late-afternoon dog walk to glimpse January’s orangey light on snow and to count mergansers, then working into the night until incoherence set in. It was the only way I could make A Circle on the Surface be what it needed to be. The only way, perhaps, to rewrite a novel, spurred by a tough, brilliant editor and a tight deadline.
Today, by contrast, is a languid, drizzly day, and the novel I’m working on, like slow food, needs simmering time…
1:00pm—Continue writing about my day. Don’t think about an essay on Salvador Dalí versus the persistence of fictional narrative I’ve written and need to revise. Await an editor’s yes or no to the story I finished yesterday (following an ocean dip) for her online journal, a collaboration with my ceramist sister whose submission is an image of one of her flower-brick artworks. The good thing for me is that writing the story, about a couple debating whether or not to have a child, enabled me to merge two stories kicking around for ages that, until now, refused to develop.
Each day is about trying to clear the decks/desk. Which reminds me how writing defies time and logic, and the paradox of needing to give yourself over to it as if you have forever and nothing else to do, while being increasingly aware of life’s ticking time bombs.
I found it a lot easier to be disciplined, driven, when my kids were small and everything seemed a game of Beat the Clock—when each and every five-minute chunk of writing time was counted and well-used. When I wrote anytime and anywhere and often on Sobeys receipts and serviettes. And later, once my boys were all in school and my husband was at work, when I would write all morning and all afternoon, so immersed in the work I’d forget to eat, then in a near-panic swim back to the real world in time for everyone’s return and to make supper.
Reading, meanwhile, is for night-time, for recharging and relaxing. I retain some of a certain phobia from those early days about reserving daytime hours for writing only, setting aside evenings for reading. As if reading during writing hours is somehow slacking off or squandering alone-time. As if!
Of course, on summer days this neurosis goes out the window.
Bum in seat, is what I’ve always told my students, seasons when I taught writing. That’s how you get it done. Today I’m obeying my rule, not moving until this piece is drafted. Except that my focus keeps drifting to the pesto I’m going to make, time to harvest this summer’s basil and the peas in my garden that’ll be eaten by bugs if I don’t get off my arse and pick them.
1:39pm—Drink a glass of water. Eat a bowlful of cherries. Think about corralling dog and cat for a photo op by The Desk for a picture my publisher has requested. Read last page of notebook scribbling, where I left off the last time I knit onto a scene from the fledgling novel-in-progress. Try to remember document name for Dalí/narrative essay. Listen to rain at the windows, wind in the leaves.
1:45pm—Check email, answer email. Possible interest in the Dalí essay, hence a tight deadline that throws off what I envisioned for the rest of this afternoon: a leisurely wrapping-up of this piece, tea with my husband while avoiding social media (in an ongoing effort to curb my addiction and read more books instead).
2:08pm—Panic when computer appears, at first, to have eaten the present piece. Begin rewriting it from memory.
2:20pm—Relief when piece mysteriously reappears. Start tightening it up. Think about Dalí essay, imagine reading it, cringing. First things first, calm down. Finish this piece. Tomorrow will be bum in seat, cutting the Dalí/narrative thing to ribbons, not moving till it’s done.
Tomorrow is another day.
4:05pm—Leave desk, go and pick green beans and tomatoes, and cut basil, make pesto.
5:00pm—Pour wine, have dinner with friends. Take the evening off. Don’t give Dalí and his Persistence of Memory or the nascent novel another thought until the morning.
9:40pm—Hug friends, say goodbye. Return to desk, nitpick what I’ve written today, hope it makes sense. Drink some water. One last nitpick. Press send.
Carol Bruneau is the author of three short story collections and five novels, including A Circle on the Surface, being published this September by Vagrant Press. Her 2017 collection, A Bird on Every Tree, was a finalist for this year’s Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize and the Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction. Her first novel, Purple for Sky, won both awards in 2001. Her 2007 novel Glass Voices was a Globe and Mail Best Book for that year, and was re-released this spring by Vagrant. Both of these novels have been published internationally. Her articles, reviews and essays have appeared nationwide in newspapers, journals and anthologies.