Saturday, January 20, 2018

Matt Jones : My Writing Day

I wake a few hundred yards from the Moulin Rouge. My lady is a gentle economist whose work brought us to Paris. When she rises, I present my obeisance, and breakfast. The pain aux raisin is circular, with intertwined segments, like our fates. A bucket of espresso—the metal mechanism is blackened from overuse.  She leaves for work when the bells of Sacre Ceour basilica chime nine times through the windows.

French lessons, workouts, spousal support, visa wrangling, teaching, tutoring: so many reasons not to write but every day I slough off these skins and sit at my desk with its puppets and pictures of mythical beasts. “Don’t be ashamed of your monster,” reads the note I’ve plastered on the wall. Beneath the note, a giant octopus threatens a warship.

But this next book is a sasquatch war story—the book that was too close to write when I came home from Afghanistan. But the story doesn’t care where it gets written so long as it gets written, and sometimes I’ll walk a few blocks to the sketchy café on Rue la Condamine. Here the drunks are already moaning into their whiskies by 9:30, and the café crèmes are a mere three euros. I meet my friend Corinne who is brilliant; she writes books about goddesses and people turning into cats.

Elegants and wretches stroll past. It is not quite cold enough for scarves, but these are ubiquitous. It is far too cold for skirts, but these are common, too. Paris is a performance. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fashionista, wino, or lowly bohemian. Paris invented hype. It is glitz and arrogance. The roofs and statues are gilded in gold, but the gutters and sidewalks stink of piss.

We English writers in Paris constantly fight against the cliché tropes, but we’ve succumbed to the biggest one. Paris itself. Who are we to follow in the footsteps of the greats? The Hemingways and Fitzgeralds and Pounds and Steins? Even their names are ringing false. What is truth?

In the evenings the city unwinds and the petty bureaucrats evolve into great seducers and dancers. The artists unfurl their feathers. The holiday street lights illumine the people in their jackets sharing aperos. To get to the writing circle I endure the filthiest of metros: the notorious thirteen. I am too big for this place. On the metro a man is wedged into my armpit. An elderly woman spears me with her elbows. The words Madame and Monsieur are ostensibly polite, but hurled like curses.

Helen greets me at the door with kisses on my cheeks; she hosts the writing circle in her apartment in the 10th arrondisement. The first time I met her she was wearing a birdcage hat with a giant dildo inside. It was she who recruited me as an editor of Paris Lit Up, a magazine and community that caters to expats and English literati.   

We in the writing circle are Irish and Canadian and American and English and Australian and French. I’ve never read anything bad from any of them, even if I didn’t like it. These friends are award-winning and published and serious about craft. Many have sold books, recruited agents, attended MFA programs or PHDs of creative writing.

Their stories stay with me: Tasha’s narrator is haunted by her lover’s suicide; her prose is crisp and lyrical. Ferdia has been working on something mysterious and teasing us with these polished short stories set in Ancient Greece. Helen has written about a homosexual in the 50’s who goes to a mental hospital to be “cured.” Albert is penning a masterpiece called, “Consent.”  Chris  is writing a spectacular book on bullfighting.  He and our friend went to Spain for the running of the bulls and the friend was gored which was terrible for him but magnificent for the book.

We drink far too much wine under the influence of cheese and fresh bread. Sometimes we squabble about words, “that dialogue isn’t doing everything you intended,” “I feel like I’ve lost track of the physicality here,” “is there a way to show this?” Helen deploys her boyfriend to restock the wine. He had been vaping like a dragon.

By the end of the circle my brain swims with ideas, my sasquatch story has been overhauled with edits and recommendations, and my knapsack has been loaded with loaned books. I kiss all the cheeks in valediction, even the men.

It is late. Too late for the metro. I am stumbling. I didn’t notice, but it snowed.

Paris has a system of rental bikes as an alternate means of public transportation. I’m too drunk to navigate my bike well, and my knapsack has too many books in it, throwing off the balance. But I only fall three times, twisting to put my body between the ground and the books. I am honked at twice, and not killed.

The idea of the Parisian bohemia—we fed it and fell for it, all these writers. We thought that there would be magic here and our ideas would expand and we would write great books. We were suckers: naïve, childlike. But enough of us were duped.

There is an illusion of Paris as this great place for writers to flourish. To my incredible astonishment, it’s real.

Matt Jones has penned prose and poetry about his experiences in Canada, France, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, China, and while on a warship. In 2014 he won Arc Poetry Magazine’s Readers’ Choice Award for his poem “Wounded Village.” His short story, “Drone,” will be an upcoming publication in F(r)iction magazine.  Explore his work and join his mailing list at

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Teri Vlassopoulos : Writing Cycles

My typical days contain very little actual writing, which is admittedly embarrassing for someone who earnestly tells strangers they are a writer. But I’ve long excused myself from having to write on a daily basis. I’ve tried slotting it in on weekdays in different configurations (early morning/on lunch breaks like Frank O’Hara/late at night) and they left me feeling cranky, resentful of whatever pulled me away from writing, or just guilty for not following through. Knowing that writing isn’t something I’m obligated to do during the working week weirdly makes me feel like less of a failure.

So I think of writing as something that happens in cycles, not over the course of a day. These cycles can last weeks or months, ups and downs, ideas developing or hiding away. And while my typical day is filled with more numbers than words (I work in finance) and more Paw Patrol than literature (I have a toddler), I can’t say that the days are completely devoid of writing – there are threads of it. There’s thinking through ideas while driving to and from work. I like listening to interviews with writers on podcasts, particularly interviews with poets. (For the record, I can’t write poetry.) I read, of course, bits of books and stories and poems and Tweets and longform essays and viral clickbait posts, all of which are part of a writing cycle. I also jot down notes on my phone or post-its, rarely in the notebook I insist on carrying around with me.

I email myself writing in progress and read it on my phone after putting my daughter to bed. As I drift off to sleep, I give my subconscious instructions on what to work on. “Absorb this,” I’ll tell my brain. “Fix this part. You have one week.” When I eventually have a writing session I’ll see what it gives me. Even if it’s disappointing, it’s still more than if we hadn’t had one of our little chats. Which is good since I can’t exactly go ahead and fire my brain.

When I do write, when it’s an actual writing day, it looks like this: it’s a Saturday or Sunday morning. If I’m feeling civilized, I’ll go to the café up the street for coffee and a scone. If I don’t want to leave the house, I’ll just sit in bed. These days, if I can get the house to myself, I prefer staying there since I won’t get distracted by baked goods or lose precious minutes on the walk over (every minute counts when I have a writing session!). Because there’s been so much build up – all the nighttime talks with my brain and processing during commutes — I work steadily for about two or three hours. Then I email the writing to myself, and the cycle repeats.  

Teri Vlassopoulos lives and writes in Toronto. She has published two books with Invisible Publishing: a short story collection, Bats or Swallows, which was shortlisted both for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the ReLit Award, and a novel, Escape Plans. Her writing has appeared in Little Fiction/Big Truths, Catapult, The Rumpus and The Millions. She can be found on Twitter at @terki or at

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Jessica Sequeira : My writing day: 1 January 2018

First day of the year is here, a good time to think about process a little. As requested I am going to ramble on for a stretch about writing, though not translation, since while the latter is related it feels different and merits its own reflections.

A ‘writing day’ for me is not a scheduled sit-down for hours, so much as an occasional and regular transfer of assorted thoughts from notebook to computer, before I organize something coherent and continuous out of the fragments. I am a notebook person and jot things down all the time, not so much about myself as about the buildings I pass, or the books I’m reading, or the funny green birds that hop across my path. Quick sketches also help with my visual memorywhat might look like scribbles objectively, but that activate a different part of the brain in a helpful way.

The actual writing seems to happen on its own, in a sort of tunnel of hours that disappear. I wonder what happens during the mind at such times; it’s struck me before that the impulse to concentrate like this is similar to the religious impulse, or might even be the same thing.

I get interested in things really easily, and while this sort of magpie tendency has its positives, it also means that I dash out a lot of stories, poems and short essays on different subjects without dedicating myself in a scholarly and focused way to a longer project. This is something that in the last couple of years I have begun to feel is important.

Just like everyone else, there are parts of me that are frivolous and happy-go-lucky, and parts that are melancholic and lyrical; the part that is drawn out depends on my surroundings. I studied history and there’s a side of me that gets excited by the idea of documents, investigation and archives. In my email this morning there was a wonderful message from my great aunt, who has started to type up my great grandmother’s old notebooks and taped interviews. There are preliminary notes on her studies in Germany at the Hans Hoffman Art Institute, travels in Italy and life in Canada on a cattle ranch before she moved to California, which she would later chronicle in a book called Ranch Stories.

Anyhow, my writing day. Here with literary remote I’ll fast forward through the entire morning and early afternoon, taken up with New Year’s matters that have nothing to do with writing (though everything has to do with writing). Now it is evening. I am content and relaxed but my body feels better when exercised. I need to ‘run myself’ regularly, as if I were a border collie, or else I get irritable. I’ve thrown on a Stanford soccer T-shirt from a camp years ago, or that’s possibly a hand-me-up from my younger sister.

Outside, roses peek through the trellises; the noses of dogs too. The occasional bark makes me jump. There are cats on every block, and they all flash me the same look. It’s disconcerting, but I like cats. Christmas lights are strung up everywhere along with bright decorations; it’ll be a pity when they come down. There’s pink in the sky and the mountains are slate gray against pale blue. Patches of gold light still come through the green branches, and the windows of the buildings are like mirrors at this hour.

In the afternoon it’s almost impossible to go out because of the heat but now it’s a quiet time, lovely and cool. The shops are all closed except the 3 Reyes Minimarket, which sells alternatives to gold, frankincense and myrrh. In one of the closed shop windows, dolls with string legs commune with each another. Sprinklers make Rorschach blobs on the sidewalk, and the dry cement, which needed that humidity, absorbs the water thirstily; a good moist smell rises up. I pass a mural of Kali, the Indian goddess of Time, Creation, Destruction and Power.

As I keep running I feel lighter and lighter. The part of me with human complaints—itchy legs from whatever pollen is in the air, blisters on my heels, etc.—gets shed and a sort of second self begins to float down the streets, a supernatural version perhaps like the Kogii character in Kenzaburo Oe’s Death by Water that impersonally observes what is around me, or just myself without so much damned self-consciousness. Hot shower now; then coffee. Double espressos are my favorite, but there’s something comforting too about a big orange mug full of fresh coffee with milk. Dripping hot water through a cone packed with ground beans is a calming way to enter into things.

Well, here I am now in my chair. The photo above was taken before I set off on my run, when there was still enough light. If a writing day has to do with everything around the writing (which in the end is the writing), I don’t know what to offer beyond notes. These are the first words of the night.

Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator from California, living in Santiago de Chile. Her works include the collection of stories Rhombus and Oval (What Books Press), the collection of essays, Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age (Zero Books) and the bilingual collection of poems, Diversion and repose / Diversión y reposo (Pez Espiral), as well as several literary translations. Currently she is editing a novel.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Jessica Hiemstra : Writing Day

I spend a lot of time in airports and on ladders. I’m a concept artist, a designer, a poet, a painter, a friend, a sister, a daughter and a fool.  I travel all over god’sgreenearth for work.  I make things full-time, but what those things are varies. What doesn’t vary is what I’ve come to think of as my approach to making things. So – what’s my writing day? I’m not sure, but these are my precepts:

Be kind. In a nutshell, this means saying sorry and thank you. It means being generous when I’ve got something to give. It means delighting in the successes of other people. I tell them I love their work when I love it. If I care, I say so.  I make sure I’m nice to bus drivers, neighbours, colleagues, people outside the liquor store with no teeth (and ones with teeth). I make sure to write thank you cards, give money to things I believe in. I make sure to write letters to other writers when I’ve been moved or changed by their writing.

Be honest: This is still hard for me. Some things are hard to tell the truth about. But I’m getting better at it.  This doesn’t mean saying everything that’s on my mind (Lord knows, I wish more people said less, including me). But it means that if something is hard, I say so. And if something hurts, I say so. And if I care, I say so.

Be curious. I place great faith in curiosity. Curiosity brings me where I need to go. By following my curiosity I grow. Recently I got a compliment – someone told me you’re willing to be lucky. I liked that compliment. When the road changes, when I’m lucky enough to be lucky, I follow the new bend. When I pursue what interests me it somehow all comes together. Curiosity never leads me away from writing and making art. It leads me to it. It’s meant I’ve ended up in Nepal learning how paper is made. It’s meant I’ve failed to get to the top of a mountain in New Zealand and succeeded in getting to the top of one in Sierra Leone. It means that yesterday I was sitting in the audience for a play about an octopus by Shannon Bramer for which I’d done the set design. It was curiosity that brought me to these places. As did my next rule:

Risk. I try to touch things I’m afraid of. I like that often quoted Beckett quote: fail, fail again, fail better. I remind myself that I learned to walk by falling. So when I want to make something and have no idea how, I set about to fail, fail again and fail better. When I get to my desk I don’t set about to succeed. I set about to try. I set about to play.

Be nourished. When I hit a wall, I take a hard look at my life. I usually hit a wall because my life has to change, not my work. I do my utmost to take care of my friendships, my body, my intellect, my art. I don’t think any of these things are separate from my life as an artist. I put my friendships ahead of deadlines. I full-hog buy into Leonard Cohen’s words: Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.  I try to burn well. And to stoke the fire. I go to what nourishes me. And that nourishes the work. I try to meet the work in good health so I can offer what is required to make it. Which is my entire self.

Find solitude. I guess like most of us I’ve learned that being an artist can be lonely. Or maybe just being human can be lonely. But I don’t create out of loneliness. I create out of solitude. It’s in solitude that I meet my own mind. Solitude is where we keep company with our selves, and history and hope. Other writers and artists. Dreams. In art we do this crazy thing – we desperately want to make what’s within us visible to others. That’s nearly impossible. But only nearly. If I can turn off all the things that intercede between my mind and my pen or brush, I can actually listen. I can have long thoughts. I can slow down and listen to my own heart and all the other artists who are also at it or have been at it, this thing we do. If I’m taking care of myself and my mind I can be ready for the right words or pencil marks or ideas when they arrive.

Listen:  To people who say something’s not right or fair.  To people who know more than me. To criticism. To editors. To readers. To viewers. To my mom. To good music.

Be sincere: I’ve learned, hard as it is sometimes, to accept how much I care. I don’t hide from it. I make art because I want our world to be more habitable. And I mean that. I take what I do very seriously.

Jessica Hiemstra makes things. She is a writer, painter, designer. She lives on the second story of a little beige house in Toronto where she is currently at work on a novel alongside several new poems, paintings and drawings. She is trying to figure out how to get all the neighbourhood cats to stop sleeping on her lounge chair. She’s losing the battle. She’s lived in beige houses all over the world – from Botswana to Sierra Leone to Australia to Toronto. She believes art gives us the courage to live.  And she’s found this is true from the porches of all her beige houses. Her third book of poetry, The Holy Nothing, was published in 2015 with Pedlar Press. You can learn more about Jessica online at