Rachel Z. Arndt’s debut collection of essays, Beyond Measure, is out from Sarabande books today. In the words of the publisher: “Beyond Measure is a fascinating exploration of the metrics, rituals, routines, and expectations through which we attempt to quantify and add value to our lives.” Today, we are lucky to feature an essay from Rachel herself on the experience of writing the manuscript that would become her first published collection.
“I wrote first thing in the morning, assigning myself at least a paragraph a day. And on Sundays, I went to my parents’ house for dinner, toting my computer and notebooks to work there, where I sat on a white couch, their poodle lying on my feet.”
I wrote much of the manuscript that would become my first book sitting in the same chair: a boxy gray Mellby from Ikea, far more comfortable than it looked. It faded in the west-facing windows’ sunlight over the three years it sat in the corner of my living room, a change I noticed all at once, as if it had been bleached, the aging sped.
Every day for nine months, I’d sit in the chair, wearing Adidas soccer pants and a college t-shirt, feet on a wooden step stool, notebook propped on my legs. I’d write for a couple of hours, taking breaks only to play Two Dots, a game whose 20-minute cycles of life-regeneration strictly structured my pauses. I’d write and then eat lunch and after lunch I’d write a little more until I’d fall asleep for 10 or 15 minutes, the sun warm on the top of my head, my basil and rosemary plants fragrant behind me, craning.
But then grad school ended and I moved, at last, back to Chicago, where I grew up, where I hadn’t lived since high school, and the Ikea chair didn’t fit in my new aparment, and the windows faced north, and my basil and rosemary shriveled dry. I worked a regular day job. I lived near my parents and their dog. I saw my high school friends.
For a while, I couldn’t write. I won’t pretend it’s ever been as easy as it was in grad school. But in those first months in Chicago, it was especially impossible. Just as I often tried to recreate the circumstances of a particularly successful essay—writing at the same time of day with the same book splayed open beneath my notebook—I tried to imitate Iowa in Chicago. No matter that I had often wanted to leave Iowa while I was living there. No matter that I had wanted to be in Chicago for years.
So that first summer back, I sat with my notebook open, the same stool beneath my feet, the same pants on. But I was on a couch, not the chair. The pockets of the pants bunched in a new way, and the stool creased the rug and crept away from me. I accidentally bought the wrong notebooks and their slightly thinner covers flopped and folded beneath the weight of my pen. Weekends got away from me and weeknights I was too drained by staring at spreadsheets to think in words.
Eventually, I stopped trying to copy Iowa. I got a new rosemary plant and plant light to keep it alive. I wrote first thing in the morning, assigning myself at least a paragraph a day. And on Sundays, I went to my parents’ house for dinner, toting my computer and notebooks to work there, where I sat on a white couch, their poodle lying on my feet. Then I’d seek critique: I’m lucky to have an editor and agent who gave me helpful and encouraging feedback. They weren’t the same as my peers in workshop, but they shouldn’t have been. After all, this was “real life,” I told myself. The limbo of grad school was over. And had it really been so idyllic? I often, as it happened, thought it was a mistake.
But grad school was, it turned out, like most things: better in retrospect, morphed not only by the lens of nostalgia but by the very real gratitude that grad school—the people there, the there there—helped me create a book. Chicago did too—it just did it differently. Place is still important, but what ended up being most important was the same in both places: a routine. Not the same routine, just a routine, something that would make me feel good when I did it and would make me feel off when I didn’t. A routine provided the certainty I needed to scaffold my writing. It provided the certainty whose lack motivated each of the essays in the book. It provided, as it were, a firm notebook cover.