Calling in Sick

Yesterday, I called in sick.

Since it’s Winter Break, there was no one to actually call in sick to . . . so I had to call in sick to myself. In the ten years I’ve been teaching, I’ve only called in sick to cancel a class once, on a day when I could barely crawl to the phone to make the call. (This was back when I still had a landline.) Usually when I get sick, but not very sick, I have a conversation that goes something like this:

Body: I’m sick.
Mind: No, you’re not sick. I have a lot of work to do, so you can’t be sick.
Body: I’ll put off being sick until the weekend. But then I’ll really collapse.
Mind: Deal.

I’m very good at not being sick for a couple of days. And then I really get sick when I have time to. It’s something I learned back when I was in college, taking exams. I would study study study, take my exams, do well on them. And then I would go to bed for a week, sick from exhaustion. Nowadays I don’t have exams anymore, but the ends of semesters are just as intense, and I tend to overwork myself just as much. What’s changed is that I cut myself less slack. I assume that I should be able to (a) grade papers and submit final grades for almost sixty students, (2) make sure my graduating MFA students get in their final theses, (3) send a finished novel to my agent, and (4) prepare for Christmas, including the shopping and cooking and decorating, without getting tired or feeling ill. Gracefully, like some sort of academic Martha Stewart.

Instead, of course, I wake up one morning and decide that showering and making breakfast both sound like way too much work . . .

The problem with being a doctor’s daughter (and I’m the daughter of two doctors) is that one was never allowed to be just a little ill. When I told my mother that I felt sick that day, she would come take my temperature. And if I didn’t have a temperature that said “fever” to her, I had to go to school. After all, she dealt with children who were genuinely ill, who were being treated for diseases like cancer. What I was doing fell under the category of malingering. Now when I feel ill, the first thing I do is check my temperature. If it’s normal, I immediately say to myself, “I’m not sick.” The problem is, I never have a fever. The useful thing about being a doctor’s daughter is that when you call a parent and say that you have a pain in your side and it’s probably nothing, that parent can say “Go to the emergency room.” Several hours later, you are being prepped for an appendectomy. At first, the doctors didn’t think it was appendicitis, because . . . I didn’t have a fever. (Not having a fever when you have appendicitis is apparently some sort of bizarre medical anomaly. So I can say with some confidence, seriously I never have a fever. If I ever did, I would probably be convinced that I was dying.)

But if you feel ill, you are ill. The feeling itself is a symptom. If you’re so tired that you don’t want to do anything but lie in bed and watch British crime dramas, you’re ill. If you think a piece of toast and a boiled egg sound like a perfect dinner, you’re ill. If showering sounds like way too much trouble . . . Well, it’s time to call in sick. Also if you’re coughing and blowing your nose, but I tend never to trust physical symptoms.

Mind: You’re just coughing and blowing your nose to fool me into thinking you’re sick.
Body: Go. To. Bed.

Basically, I’ve exhausted myself. My body is completely out of whack, and I need to get it back in again. (Is there such a think as in whack?) And that means giving it what it needs, which is a lot of sleep, and rest, and time completely alone. So I’m letting it sleep whenever it wants to, as much as it wants. And I’m still doing the work that needs to get done before next week, but more slowly. I’m not bothering with going out, or seeing people, until I want to again. (I’m an introvert, so this is very much what I need.) Luckily, I have several pairs of pajamas. I have at least a couple of days until I run out of food. I will probably take a shower today . . . I have books and Netflix on my computer, so basically, I’m set.

I think every once in a while we just have to call in sick to ourselves. We just have to say, “I’m going to be sick. I’m going to be sick until I’m well again.” And then we have to sleep and sleep, and binge-watch British crime dramas, and drink herbal tea. I’ll know when I feel well again because I’ll decide that I’m just so bored, and I’ll want to see what the outside world is doing. I don’t think it will take long.

But until then, I’m going to be well and truly sick.

The Library by Elizabeth Shippen Green

This painting is The Library by Elizabeth Shippen Green. I am nowhere near this elegant when I am sick. But let’s just pretend I am . . .

Why I Write

Last night, I stayed up late finishing the final edits to my novel manuscript before sending it to my agent for the second time. The first time I sent it to him, it was in the “well, I finished the novel but I’m still working on it because it’s not quite right, but here you can see that it’s finished” stage. This time it was in the “I hope you like it because honestly I can’t stand to look at it anymore” stage.

If you’re a writer and you’re sending manuscripts out, you know the stage I mean. It’s where you read through the manuscript on screen and decided to take out “that,” and then you read it on paper and decided to put “that” back in. And as you’re putting “that” back in, you stare at the screen, trying to read it both ways: with and without the word “that,” which really is only one of approximately 108,700 words in your manuscript. But there you are, agonizing over the one word. (“That” is one of my particular, personal problems. I did not realize this until an editor pointed it out and I did a word search on the short story she was editing. Sure enough, there were an awful lot of “that”s, about half of them unnecessary.)

These are the sorts of questions you ask yourself when you’re at that stage:

1. Should she have “dark brown” or “darker brown” hair?
2. Have I used the word “monkey” too often? (Word search for “monkey.”)
3. Do I need to mention that she left her umbrella at home? It wasn’t raining that morning.
4. How many characters are snoring? Is that too many characters? Do I need to cut some of the snoring?
5. Wait, where is her revolver? Is she holding it all this time?

I did, in fact, cut some of the snoring.

I sent the manuscript out around midnight, as an emailed document file, about 370 pages long (double-spaced). And then I celebrated by eating chocolate and watching two episodes of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, which took me to the end of Season 2. Now I have to wait until they film Season 3, which is entirely too long . . . If you haven’t heard of it, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is an Australian television series based on the books by Kerry Greenwood. If your taste in stories and television shows is anything like mine, you will love them. I adore Phryne (pronounced Fry-oh-nee), her 1930s Lady Detective, and I have to admit that I’m in love with Detective Inspector Jack Robinson. But that’s based just on the television series, since I haven’t read the books . . . yet.

So there I was, sitting in bed, in pajamas, eating dark chocolate with sea salted almonds in it, watching Miss Fisher on my computer (I don’t have a television). Thoroughly enjoying myself. And I thought: this is why I write. Because someday, someone might need something to entertain them, or cheer them up, or even just pass the time. And maybe my book will do that.

I think that’s worth all the agonizing over “that.”

It’s fair to say this novel took me two years to write: the first few chapters were written earlier, but I had to rewrite them after I finished my PhD and moved into my previous apartment. I had been thinking about the novel in the wrong way, and it took the mental freedom of having finished my degree to get it right. That apartment was where I really wrote the novel, finishing it last summer in Budapest and then adding the final chapters when I moved into this apartment, in August. Since then, I’ve been revising. And of course there has been a lot of revising along the way . . . Sometimes I think it’s pretty good, sometimes I worry that it’s awful and I just can’t see its awfulness. But I figure, it’s only the first full-length novel I’ve written, so if I mess up the first time, I’ll get it right the second time. Or the third. Or fourth. I’ll just keep writing . . . Someday, there will be a woman in pajamas, with chocolate, and she will stay up late to read something I wrote. Or maybe even watch something based on it, on her television screen!

So thank you, Kerry Greenwood, for doing that for me. You don’t know me from Eve, and you’re all the way on the other side of the world, in a country I’ve never visited, but you gave me two lovely hours. Oh yes, a television show is always separate from the book, although based on it. But it would not have existed without you, sitting in a room, probably in front of a computer, agonizing over that final draft. Just like me.

Miss Fisher

Phryne Fisher

These images are from the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries television show and the first book in the series, which I now want to read . . .

Writing Lesson: Observation

I thought it might be interesting to put down some of the things I’ve learned from teaching writing.  From writing too, of course, but I find that when I teach writing, I tend to make certain points over and over.  Because these are the sorts of things that many writing students need to work on.  So I thought they might be interesting to point out here as well, for those of you who are writers, or who simply want to improve your writing . . .

The first one I want to talk about has to do with observation.  If you want to be a writer, you need to also be an observer . . . someone who is curious about the physical world around you. I don’t know about you, but I find it harder to write about the physical world than about mental states. It’s easy enough to describe what someone is thinking, but try to describe someone walking down stairs. I mean, in a way that makes it interesting.

(Ironically, writing students often think the way to keep a narrative interesting is to include action scenes. But action scenes can get very boring, very quickly. It’s often less interesting to watch a character act than to hear her think. Physical actions are usually interesting to the extent that they illuminate something else: the character herself, the world in which she is acting, etc.)

When describing the physical world, it’s very easy to fall into clichés. And the best way to avoid clichés is to observe closely, to see things as they are instead of as people say they are. To see what actually is.

So here is an exercise for any writers among you: go and observe. I do it sometimes sitting on the metro, where I can see so many faces, all different. I think about what makes them different, what distinguishes them from one another. I try to remind myself to observe, because it’s so easy not to see, isn’t it? To go through our days, particularly when we’re busy, and simply miss what is around us. The colors of leaves on the sidewalk. The different kinds of stone in the buildings. And the world is hard to describe anyway, because it’s so specific, each part of it different from every other part, and yet the words we have are “gray stone” and “autumn trees,” and it’s hard for writing to get at that specificity. But we have to try.

I was thinking about this recently as I read a description of a character in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. The description comes right at the beginning of the book, two paragraphs in:

“Dr. Archie was barely thirty. He was tall, with massive shoulders which he held stiffly, and a large, well-shaped head. He was a distinguished-looking man, for that part of the world, at least. There was something individual in the way in which his reddish-brown hair, parted cleanly at the side, brushed over his high forehead. His nose was straight and thick, and his eyes were intelligent. He wore a curly, reddish mustache and an imperial, cut trimly, which made him look a little like the picture of Napoleon III. His hands were large and well kept, but ruggedly formed, and the backs were shaded with crinkly red hair. He wore a blue suit of wooly, wide-waled serge; the traveling men had known at a glance that it was made by a Denver tailor. The doctor was always well-dressed.”

This, by the way, is what Napoleon III looked like:

Napoleon III

But I can imagine Dr. Archie without that image. He’s stuck in a small town in Colorado, but I know he will be a strong character, simply from the way he’s described. It’s a long description — you probably would not find one as long in a modern novel, since novels now are expected to move at a faster pace. But Cather avoids any clichés. She includes generalizations (“always well-dressed”), but also backs them up with specifics (the Denver tailor). And notice the information she does not give us: we don’t know the color of his eyes. It’s standard in student writing to find a description that focuses primarily on hair and eye color. Here Cather gives us hair color, but not just on Dr. Archie’s head. We also learn about his mustache and the hair on the back of his hands. We do learn that his eyes were intelligent, which is actually what we most need to know about him.

Do you see what she’s doing? She’s describing what we would probably notice if we actually met Dr. Archie. These are the things about him that stand out, that make him different from other people. That are specific to him.

So when you’re observing, you really have to observe two things at once: what is in front of you, and yourself noticing. You have to see how you’re seeing. And not just what is static, but also gestures.  Here Cather gets gesture in a bit with the stiff shoulders; it’s a static description, but we get a sense for how he holds them, for how Dr. Archie moves.  When you’re observing, think about how people move, how they walk down stairs, or put their hand on the railing, or look back up when they reach the landing. How do they turn back their heads? What do their gestures look like?

It occurred to me, writing this post, that writing handbooks often tell you how to write, focusing on the craft of writing itself. But they don’t often tell you how to be a writer: how to prepare yourself to write. How to go through the world as a writer, finding and absorbing the material you will need. Because writing doesn’t come out of your head. Oh, if only it were so easy! No, writing comes out of other writing, and out of your lived experiences. If it comes only out of other writing, it’s merely imitative. If it comes only out of lived experiences, it’s often unformed, uninformed. Like a long diary entry, uninteresting to read. Good writing happens when you’ve absorbed a great many things, both from books and from life, and they’ve mixed pretty thoroughly in you, as though you were a cocktail shaker. And then you pour it out, into whatever form you’ve chosen or it’s chosen for itself (whether a poem, or short story, or novel).

So if you want to be a writer, give yourself homework: go out and observe.

Song of the Lark

This, by the way, is my copy of The Song of the Lark, from 1924.

Small Details

Details matter.

Once upon a time, a long time ago (specifically, while I was in college), I took a poetry class. It was my introduction to the fact that taking a class with a Famous Poet doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good (it wasn’t). And that’s where I first heard the phrase “God is in the details.” I’m not sure where I heard “The Devil is in the details,” which I suppose is a sort of companion phrase. They both essentially mean the same thing, which is that details matter. (In my poetry class, the professor meant that the poem is in the details, which is both true and not true. He was referring to the small descriptive details that are at the heart of modern free verse. But the poem is also in the details of rhythm and rhyme.)

I was thinking of this last night, because it was the first night in about two weeks when I haven’t been working (frantically trying to finish the tasks of the semester). And instead of going straight to sleep, which is of course what I should have done, I stayed up to sew cherry red bobbles on my lampshade. Because decorating is also in the details — if the details aren’t there, aren’t right, you haven’t decorated at all. You’re just arranged furniture.

There is a sort of rule that I’ve been hearing about, mostly from business people: since 20% of your effort goes into achieving 80% of a task, and the remaining 80% goes into achieving the final 20%, you should focus on achieving that first 80%. As for the rest, “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” right? I suppose there’s nothing wrong with thinking that way, or acting on it, in certain industries. But there are places where the difference between 80% and 100%, or even 90% if you can’t get all the way there, is huge. Is everything.

One of those places is the arts. The difference between an artist giving 80% and 100% is the work of art itself. You can tell a painting, a novel, that isn’t at 100%. Where the artist or writer said, “that’s good enough.” What makes an artist great is knowing where 100% is, and doing his or her best to get there. Maybe not achieving it — probably not achieving it, because who are we kidding, art is hard. But trying anyway.

When I’m decorating, I add the bobbles. (Which I love in part because they’re slightly ridiculous, as though my lampshades belonged at a circus. This morning, I added bobbles to the other lampshade. Now I have two lampshades with red bobbles, like circus clowns.) When I’m writing, I sweat over the commas and semicolons. The novel I’m writing — I’ve read the entire manuscript out loud to myself, to hear what the sentences sound like. Over the next few days, I need to go over it one more time before sending it to Important People. Just to make sure there aren’t any stupid mistakes.

As I said, I suppose there are places where 80% is enough, and you can let the other 20% go. But not the spaces I work in: not in teaching, not in writing. And it’s not a way that I particularly want to live, because I care about the details, about getting to 100%. And there’s another saying that I’ve always remembered: “The way you do one thing is the way you do everything.” I think that’s often true: people who are conscientious in one area tend to be conscientious in other areas as well. I know it’s true for me: the better I get at one thing, the better I get at others. It’s as though each thing I do is a learning process. Putting red bobbles on my lampshades provides a lesson about writing, about teaching. About living.

Because in the end it’s about how we live, isn’t it? In the end, everything is. And everything can provide lessons. Even time spent sewing on red bobbles . . .

Details 1

The photo above is from this morning: some of my sewing supplies scattered on the daybed in the living room, where I was working. The cigarette tin holds needles, the tea tin holds buttons, and the old Altoids tin holds my pins. The photo below is one of my lampshades, the one next to the Christmas tree, with red bobbles.

Details 2

Tidying Up

I read the most charming book, recently. It’s called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo. The author is a television star in Japan, where she has a show in which she . . . you guessed it, goes to people’s houses and helps them organize their possessions. Helps them tidy up. After reading the book, I watched clips from several episodes on YouTube, in Japanese of course. A lot of what she does is talk to people, and I’m guessing that she’s asking them what they love, which of their possessions are truly important to them. Because Kondo has a different approach to tidying up, one I found interesting and valuable.

The book is charming in part because Kondo is so obsessive, much more than I could ever be. But I’m going to describe what I found valuable in her book, the ideas that stood out to me. Because I need order to work well — I need my environment to be tidy.

I know there have been articles on writers and how messy they can be. Some of them need mess, need disorder — they say within that disorder, they know where everything is. They get angry if anyone tries to tidy up. I’m not like that: I need my environment to be organized. I think it has to do with the way I think. My mind is itself a tidy place, or wants to be. It doesn’t like to be untidy, with important things tucked into the wrong places and forgotten. I do so much, have so many projects at once, that it’s really the only way I can operate. And one of the best ways to tidy my mind is to keep my physical environment clean, clearly organized. I don’t like inner or outer mess.

There are two other reasons I don’t like mess. One is that I need to live efficiently. I have so much to do that it’s frustrating when I have to spend time searching for a set of notes I knew I put somewhere. Or keys. Or change. If I’m working on a research project, I need to know which books I have relevant to that project, and where to find them. And second, I want to live in a beautiful space. Mess can be beautiful, but have you noticed that a beautiful mess is almost always intentional and intensely curated? Edward Gorey’s house was a beautiful mess, but he was an artist. It’s actually much more difficult to create a beautiful mess than simple neatness. So I try to keep things neat.

But I do fall into messiness sometimes, particularly when I don’t have time to clean. When I’m simply too busy.

So here are the central concepts from Kondo’s book that are particularly important to me:

1. You should only have things that bring you joy. This was a revelation, actually. What Kondo does, and I did not do this, is have people bring out all their possessions and put them on the floor. Then, she tells them to hold each one in their hands and decide whether that item brings them joy. If it doesn’t, it goes.

I thought I was being very practical by keeping things I had not worn for a long time, because I might need them again someday. But Kondo would say, while those things were useful to you once, they have outlived their usefulness. They are now ready to go away, wherever they’re supposed to go next. In a way, by keeping them, you’re impeding the flow of both your and their lives. Someone else could potentially use that coat. And then there are things that have outlived their usefulness entirely, and simply need to be thrown away. Old receipts don’t necessarily want to stay with you, to clutter up your drawers. They know when it’s time for them to move on, and so should you.

Did I mention that Kondo talks a fair amount about Shinto? It’s very clear that she believes all your things have spirit. If they’re no longer giving you joy, not only should they move on, they actually want to move on.

This prompted me to go through my closets and bookshelves. I try not to keep things I don’t love, but even I found things I was keeping that didn’t give me joy: some books I had bought because I felt as though I should read them, some clothes that were such a bargain at the time. I took several large bags to Goodwill.

2. Once you have discarded everything that doesn’t give you joy, make sure everything you’re keeping has its proper place. You should have a designated place for everything.

3. And you should make a habit of putting everything in its place. Now, this is difficult for me at the moment. Although I moved into this apartment six months ago, I’m still decorating. So there are paint cans on the kitchen counter, which is clearly not a place to store paint cans. (I just painted three lamps, and next come the shelves in what I glamorously call the walk-in closet, because you can walk into it, but is really a tiny room under the stairs, with a rod and drawers.) But I do try to make sure that whenever I take anything out of its place, I put it back. I notice that if it’s sitting out of place after I used it, I start to feel uncomfortable. This is partly Kondo’s fault: she makes me feel as though everything I own is sentient! As though my socks have feelings. (And how do I know they don’t?) Things like to be in their proper places, she says. And I know mine do.

There is a final concept in her book that I really like. She says that every day, when you enter your home, you should bow to it and thank it, and all the things in it, for taking care of you. For sheltering you, supporting you. Because after all, that’s what your things do, from socks to frying pans. I don’t actually bow down to my apartment (or at least not often!), but I like the idea of gratitude toward your things. That’s where the impulse to keep them neat, to take care of them back, ultimately comes from.

Marie Kondo