Sunday, June 16, 2019

Germán Sierra : Writing day

Excluding the regular production of scholarly texts—often collaborative, and scheduled in accordance with my research group’s academic objectives—, my typical writing day is a typical not-writing day. I rarely manage to encase writing into a routine—like something I would do around the same places at the same hours of the day, same specific days of the week or during some periods of the year. Despite being awfully busy for most of the academic year, I’ve never learned to take advantage of vacational months. Most of my days are (dis)organized around teaching and research work and my nights around on- and offline reading, so my involvement with active “literary writing”—to use a term that I dislike—has become something akin to that commonplace about teenagers and sex: I think about it all the time, I try to do it often, but I rarely succeed—and when done, it’s a quick, messy, and intense blessing. Using sex as metaphor for writing might seem an outfashioned Freudianism; however, if there’s a single human activity which could still be properly related to psychoanalysis it must be writing, for all its baroque dynamics of frustration and joy. In my experience—and I know many of my writer friends will disagree—, you never really mature as a writer, the same way that—also expecting some difference of opinion on this—if you’re a real lover, you never mature as a lover.

For instance, I’ve been thinking about this text for a couple of weeks and only right now decided to start working on it, while resting over the living room’s couch with the ipad in my hands, enjoying my first Saturday morning espresso. But I’ll be leaving home in a while, which means I’ll probably be trapped in an ambiguous state of concentration for the rest of the day, thinking about this text, maybe allowing myself to interrupt whatever I might be doing—wandering, shopping for groceries, tweeting, sharing a beer with a friend, having lunch somewhere out of the reach of the zombie-tourism horde...—to key in some additional notes on my phone. I’m a peripatetic thinker. Ideas arrive frequently on the go, while walking around or traveling, under the shower or in bed. It’s good that this text automatically copies itself to the cloud so I can access it from any of my devices. Before devices, I used to carry a notebook in my pocket, but that was long ago. Nowadays, everybody is busy with their phones all the time, so my surreptitious activity goes most often unnoticed...

But, of course, this one is meant to be a short text... I’ve never figured out how I manage to write full-length books. I never have a specific plan in advance; only a chaotic, eventually self-organizing collection of vague ideas going on in my mind for months, sometimes for years. It’s as if during all this time everything I think-as-writtable keeps circulating in an undefined space of possibilities (a space that flows into and out of my devices) which haunts all my other activities, including my private, social and academic life. I’m rarely writing because I’m always writing. People often ask me about how my work as a scientist affects my writing and the only answer I can provide is that my work as a scientist, like my whole life, gets hacked —and then, somehow repurposed in a haunted form—by my drive to “think fictionally” which eventually will become materialized later into written words. So the science infecting my fiction was already fictional itself; a perverse, degenerate method of dis-organizing reason.

I’ve never identified myself as “a writer”—and specially I don’t refer to myself that way in a “productive” sense. I’ve never considered that literature should be useful in any way. I love the uselessness of things, the evanescence of purpose. Most of my ephemeral intuitions never make it to the devices, and among those that do, many will be deleted. I seldomly keep drafts, but some presumably final texts will become drafts for new ones to come. I recycle. This piece itself will be eventually recycled one day. Actually, what an outsider would mistake for a “proper” writing attitude—myself sitting for several hours in front of my laptop, most often at late night or during teaching breaks—usually corresponds to recycling/correcting/re-structuring work.

Even when I have the prospective of some free time to write—like during the forthcoming summer vacation—, my wish of reading others’ work gets in the way. Borges said the he felt more proud about the books he’d read than about those written by himself. I’d say that I’m much more interested in reading what others had written than in writing my own stuff—interest that has expanded to keeping a well-curated social network/online community  and trying to keep up with the constant flow of wonderful online texts. I naturally intend my writing to be as close as possible to “reading” some “other-me” whose cognitive endeavors I hardly recognize. “Italo Calvino said that all his books began with problems that he knew he never could solve”—wrote Harry Mathews— “Plainly, he is attracted to insoluble problems. Why? They allow him to make discoveries. Choose your subjects so that you can discover what you didn’t know you knew.” (1)
Needless to say, I just had to walk to my library in order to find this quote. Harry Mathews is always at hand but my library is thoroughly chaotic—I often spend some time searching for the right books, and this wandering among shelves or online is also part of my peripatetic working style. I like going from one place to another, even if I stay the whole day in the same room.

In her short story “Pilgrimage”, Tomoé Hill describes a woman having an spontaneous orgasm while sitting in a Paris Métro train : "I sat in the narrow plastic seat and clenched violently—a last gasp stifled, as were all my gasps then—spasming as if possessed; another hidden orgasm in a city where I should have been luxuriating, unabashed, in layers of literary and actual sex. Instead I was coming alone on the Métro, in a crescendo of solitude. There is a line in Henry and June: “Writers make love to whatever they need”. Love seemed like a puzzle piece that did not belong to the rest of me: I do not know if I was making love to myself in the hope that I might understand my life—the distant poles of desire and its opposite that I seemed to both inhabit—or because I wished to be a writer, another impossibility." (2) This text perfectly summarizes my own relationship with writing—my days-in-writing, rather than a succession of writing days—: the nomadic wandering of the embodied language dynamics, the inseparable combination of pleasure and  exasperation suddenly performing itself—like a theater of seizures—in the most awkward opportunity. The alchemical summoning of a fantasy’s seed that won’t be understood until it’s shared with others.

However, a perverse, precise, and active dedication will be required to expose that part of my body which is language, to let the collection of archives which remain undeleted ensemble themselves into the hallucination of a rhythm. Writing is much more than letting language creep over my changing perception of reality: writing is essentially transcribing, which is when the most important findings are bound to happen. To achieve a transcription mood I must go out again—it would be useless to stick my nose in the screen where the cursor keeps blinking. I’ve known of poets who can only write while listening to the repetitive hammering of industrial machines, others who need to pay attention to their own heartbeat amplified by the effects of chemical stimulants. The rhythm is first absorbed by the bodies, and then language sculps itself in their insides. Sometimes, everything just starts and ends with a nonsensical but well-architected pack of words.
So there’s a writing cycle after all, inhaling and exhaling a multitude of micro-universes, the prospect of laying many eggs so one or two will get an opportunity to survive. At last the work gets done—it might sound like an effortless game I’ve been playing for a short while, until I realize it’s almost 4 AM and some emails are still waiting to be responded. And then I know that I must be exhausted, because I’ve been unconsciously time-traveling.


1. HARRY MATHEWS. Immeasurable Distances. The Lapis Press, 1991. p. 30.
2. TOMOÉ HILL. Pilgrimage. In: Andrew Gallix (Ed) “We Will Never Have Paris.” Repeater, 2019, p. 113.


Germán Sierra is a teacher and neuroscientist living in Spain. He has authored six books of fiction in Spanish, and one in English—The Artifact, released in 2018 by Inside the Castle.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Erin Russell : Ctrl/Alt

Always I start small (good pentecostal girls never quite outgrow a small beginning), shrink the MS Word window to a narrow rectangle, then even it out to a flickering square patch. There’s a satisfying sense of control in this motor movement—and a sense of containment for the morning’s frenetic lineup of marsupial thoughts that already are burrowing pockets of acid-pooling logic, threatening to hook me up and zip-line me into a muggy underground place of not-real but very work-killing rumination.

It’s part of my day’s beginning, part of me: I am apprehensive in the mornings and worry a thing until it’s shred-skinned and thin as fetus fingernails but never have I worried a thing into submission. I pause wryly contemplative now before I start my writing work, lamenting all the productive hours lost to this, my twitchy feral mind. My fingers, single minded, itching to reduce the screen yet further—the phenomenology of tricking clever thoughts from an amygdala brain.

I lift one hand slightly, two fingers indented from the others and tap out a rhythm in the air, pacing out a few iambs like an alt-rock drummer, but way less cool. The workers at the café where I write are okay with this. Or they are at any rate unfazed; they usually give me bigger portions of cake than everybody else to boot. Maybe they assume I’m still a grad student and poor. It’s hipster in this place but on the edgy side—my odd hours and odder states of dress and messy hair-buns are all mostly forgiven. Someone has turned the music up. Fingers back to the computer. I navigate the arrow to the three-diagonal-lined bottom right corner of the screen and feel a swell of finger wriggle gleemove the cursor out, window bigger, relax into the flow.

My thoughts go to expanse, excess; my haunches give a little on the café’s hard wooden chair (I live in Amsterdam. There are Calvinist forms of restriction informed by a mistrust of bodies and comfort that even these edgy owners haven’t managed to work through–we none of us outgrowing certain smallnessness). I think about women I have loved, about surfaces and fingertips, insides-of-palmnessess, the taut and elastic sweep and pull and softening of flat things, the sensitivity of screens buzzing and waiting for a pawing touch. I think of the contours of skin and the way hands can smooth out a thing, make a thought/spirit level. The way planed surfaces make words/bodies come out from left to right. Make words come out right.

As a poet I manipulate form, it’s my favourite part of craft. Lyric body in poetic straightjacket—determining the shape of the things I am properly allowed to control. I don’t put contours around the angst, however; don’t write the things down that obsessive-worry me. They are morning things only and wouldn’t anyway fit the shapes I could fashion and who’d want the all-of-it-ness out on paper anyhow?

I think about how good people are who meditate and why don’t I do meditating more instead of this? A momentary regret I am not more spiritual, but I am not and in this manner I have topped the biggest hurdle of the morning: the crest of writerly unease has moved past peak crescendo now, settling instead into a full band brass inner noise of hyped-up clanging and prairie-dog twitch-y distraction seeking. I am told this is not normal, that people shouldn’t be this wrangle-innards jumpy cat-back arch-y and how do you conquer a thing at all?

Measures of reassurance in Word’s grammar function—the green slug squiggles and red-spellcheck-mistress-y underlines that simply don’t get (my) poetic license. Mild rebukes are there to be enjoyed. I pound out another sentence fragment and do not consider revising. Four corners are reliable. Expected indents. Standard fonts.

Feeling confident now, a bit cocky, and getting ahead of myself I pull out my phone and book a midday yoga class I will almost certainly cancel later. More positioning for control. I’ve emailed the better portions of the morning’s work to myself in my ad hoc Gmail filing system. Noting to myself it’s time to buy more Google storage. My words jostling for digital space with photos of the kids.

Erin Russell @etcall is a writer from Calgary living in Amsterdam. Her poetry and flash fiction have appeared in Burning House Press, Train, Scrivener, Montage, Time Out, and The Holland Times among others, and her poetry has been translated into French and Chinese. She won the Wycliffe College Poetry Award at the University of Toronto two years in a row. She lectures in literature and writing at Amsterdam University College. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Cassie Young: My (Small Press) Writing Day - Concerning Art and Other Matters

My relationship with art has always been one of give and take. I was too tired and uninspired for the first half of my animation career (my 9-year work-i-versary is this month) and no amount of guilt could bring back my desire to create for myself. I was exhausted from satisfying the requirements of others; first my professors in college, and then, my studio supervisors and directors. I was so worried about making a good first impression that I lost the thread of why I create and who I create for. Spoilers: it’s for me.

But time heals all wounds so-to-speak, and one night while Skyping my then-long-distance girlfriend, I started to sketch one of favourite fictional characters. Just because.

I picked up the thread again and started creating, selfishly. Every sketch or thumbnail felt like a win because I was doing something for me. I was creating the art that I wanted to see. I slowly began to share these little victories with friends and family. I was proud that I had made an effort, and as someone who lives with both depression and anxiety, sometimes the attempt is enough.

I put myself out there after that. I became more confident in sharing my work online and began investing in certain tools to further my craft. I still get a little sweaty when I think about how much money my Cintiq (an interactive display and tablet combo) cost me but my peers assured me that it would pay for itself.

It has. Within the last few years, I have been able to participate in multiple zines, online drawing challenges, and a handful of paid illustration and design gigs. It finally felt as though I had found a balance of animation work (yay, steady monies!) and fulfilling personal art. So, like any other self-respecting type-A yes man, I began to hustle. I started saying yes more to continue the trend of making and accomplishing. I made goals for myself and I wanted to see them through.

Smash cut to me getting an unexpected new position at my studio demanding more of my time and energy (and just more overall responsibility). I was at a loss. I hadn’t planned for this. This was the worst possible timing and thing and I was going to let everybody down. I couldn’t say no though.

During those first few months as a lead animator, I continued to push my personal work, just as hard. I didn’t want to give up what I had but I needed to please the powers that be and collect a paycheque. Eventually, I got used to my new routine at work and I was able to continue creating for me. Yes, I was tired all the time but I still able to find those pockets of joy within the work that I was doing at home; so, it seemed worthwhile.

Full-time 9-5, finding time to draw and post online, moving house, and more; it all caught up with me. Enter burn out. I started getting sick, a lot. I almost lost someone very near and dear to me around this time, and instead of stopping to catch my breath, I threw myself headlong into my work to drown out my thoughts and feelings. I had a proposed schedule to adhere to and staying busy kept me from overthinking. My anxiety started creeping in from the shadows though, “you have to stop and think sometime,” it whispered. The enormity of the year came crashing down around me and I had to tap out at a certain point.

A well-timed and much-needed Christmas break followed, and I made zero art for two and a half weeks. It was an important moment for me to stop and just be. I got a new tattoo, ate my weight in roasted vegetables, read voraciously, and started planning my first real vacation. Consequently, that vacation is next week and I’m stupid excited to stay in a remote cottage and fill up on strawberries. I wouldn’t trade this period of time for anything. I felt safe and reinvigorated and ready to take on the New Year and some new shiny goals. You know, if and when I felt like it.

I told myself that this would be the year that I would start being selfish again. But, “selfish”, not just in making my own art but in taking the time to invest in my well-being as well. Impostor syndrome constantly clouds my judgment; I wrestle with the belief that I haven’t done enough in a day. But no job is worth sacrificing my mental health for. I have to be kinder to myself, and work on not feeling so anxious whenever I’m not doing something “productive”. My mom had a constant refrain during my dark and gloomy years as a teenager: “One step at a time.” It’s been echoing throughout my head and my every day a lot lately. I wonder why?

I had initially wanted to spend this post writing about my process, but I think I’m still processing what mine is. My often-all-or-nothing attitude makes finding a middle-ground a struggle. So, here’s to a future of middle and good; a new normal, whatever it may be.

Cassie Young is an animator, illustrator, and aspiring tattoo artist living in Ottawa. Her professional work can be seen on Disney TV shows like Tangled: The Series, The Lion Guard, and Jake and The Neverland Pirates. Her design talents have created merch for companies such as Potterless Podcast and Moo Shu Ice Cream & Kitchen, and her most recent work is her first zine: Concerning Flora and Other Botany, an illustrated appreciation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s plant life. She is currently pursuing a tattoo apprenticeship, a lifelong pipe dream of sorts. Find her personal work at