Saturday, January 11, 2020

Christian Fink-Jensen : The Persistent Itch


Asking a writer about their writing day is not really a single question. Embedded are things such as: Where do you write? When do you write? How long do you write for? Do you have a magical pen? What secret techniques do you have that will instantly convey talent, inspiration, and productivity? Or, to put it another way, what does your writing routine look like and what can I learn from it? 

In my case, I don’t have a firmly structured “writing day” (or a magical pen, though I do have a menagerie of pens I’m quite fond of, including one with special abilities. More on that later.) What I do  have is a collection of habits that, over the years, I’ve found to be helpful.

One of my more useful daily habits is obsessive note taking. I’ve read that we have roughly 60,000 thoughts each day. Most of these are pretty banal. The sky is grey. Judy has a nice voice. If I drink any more coffee, I will have a seizure. Occasionally, though, we do notice something interesting or wind up on a new train of thought. I do my best to capture these thoughts, not because they are actually great thoughts but because it teaches my brain to notice and remember things. It also creates a storehouse of raw materials for possible later use. 

Many years ago I participated in something called the 3:15 Experiment. Its rules were simple but not easy: for the entire month of August participants would set an alarm for 3:15 am and then attempt to write a stream of consciousness poem. The idea was that by writing while you are only half-awake you are more likely to make novel associations and less likely to edit yourself. It was a comprehensively awful experience but it did teach me a lot about how my brain works. 

For the first few nights my writing was exceptionally dull. I found it difficult to come up with anything to say, never mind capturing the kaleidoscopic dreamlike images I hoped would appear. So I decided to cheat. During the day I began filing away ideas and images that I could quickly write about at 3:15 am. This would allow me to a) look like a creative genius and b) get the hell back to sleep. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was how willingly my brain joined in the game. After a few days, I was noticing details and making unusual associations during my normal waking routine. For example, a group of distant rocks became a metaphor for some old friends who, upon closer viewing, were not the warm and welcoming people I thought they were. Not especially profound, but it was unusual and, when handled by a hypnopompic 3:15 am mind, became something rather interesting. Kaleidoscopic even. 

Middle of the night writing aside, there are no particular hours that I designate as “writing time” and no particular place that I need to go to find my muse. That said, I am keenly aware of time and its limitations because, really, it’s the most fundamental of all creative resources. Without time, nothing happens. Time is both strict and lenient. The days can’t be stopped or taken back, but they can be shaped. Which is why I take notes. And, yes, often in the middle of the night. This is where the pen I mentioned earlier comes in. In order to decrease the likelihood of disturbing my bed partner I use a film critic’s pen to make notes at night. Easier than switching on a lamp or actually getting out of bed, the pen contains a tiny light at its tip, just bright enough to let me see what I’m writing and dim enough to not FLOOD ME WITH BLUE LIGHT FROM MY PHONE EVEN WITH DARK MODE AND THE ORANGE FILTER ON. You can see an example of a film critic pen here

As for actual bum-in-seat “serious” writing. I would like to say that I do this every day but I don’t, and never have. That’s not to say I don’t love it but, for me, it depends on what stage I’m at in a particular project. The idea generation phase of my writing process looks very much like lollygagging, time-wasting, and dry-mouthed anxiety. And while this is partly true, it’s also a kind of slutty curiosity. And even more than that, it’s an act of faith. Somehow, from somewhere, the ideas will bloom, the transmission will happen. 

When, by some miracle, the amorphous stage of fumbling curiosity takes shape as an idea, I change tactics. Curiosity never wanes but once a project is underway (as with my current book) it becomes essential to bring more structure to my writing day. I stop the ravenous rabbit-holing and focus on the project at hand. I create outlines in Scapple to help make sense and bring order to my myriad notes. I create detailed bibliographies and research links and, at long last, begin writing. Sometimes I start at the beginning. More often I start in the middle and make “filler notes” for the rest. If possible, I carve out four to eight hour chunks to “bleed” over the keyboard. And because I am part dog (squirrel!), I even wear clodhoppers: industrial grade ear muffs. If the end of the world should happen while I’m writing, please text or email. Because I won’t notice. 

Of course, the most essential part of any writer’s “writing day” is to actually write. It is also the most difficult part. As Dorothy Parker famously said, “I hate writing but I love having written.” This is an exaggeration (when I’m in flow I literally cannot stop) but getting the ball rolling can feel both Herculean and Sisyphean. Those first words, that first paragraph are the hardest for the simple reason that no writer I know of (and certainly not me) is entirely convinced that they know what they’re doing. Self-doubt is endemic to writing. 

This is why it's important to remind yourself, even against evidence to the contrary, that you can do this. So many creative people have shared their tooth-and-nail struggles with imposter syndrome. But maintaining self-belief is crucial — especially for writers. I can think of no other profession that trades so heavily in rejection. Even the most famous writers have had to swallow some very bitter feedback. Comfortingly, the idea that "good" is really a matter of taste is vividly illustrated in some of the hilarious/terrifying rejection letters published online. All those thanks-but-you-suck responses take a toll on the heart. But if there’s anything that separates a real writer from a scribbler it’s a bloody-minded stubbornness to just get on with it.

Perhaps you’re thinking that this sounds more mechanical than artistic. I won’t argue. I subscribe to the idea that inspiration is up to the gods and the work is up to me. Sure, there are those rare examples of inspired newbie authors who decide to write a book, which goes on to find an agent, a supportive publishing house, an eye-watering advance, and an enthusiastic readership. It’s also true that England and Zanzibar once went to war for 38 minutes and a woman named Violet Jessop survived both the sinking of the Titanic and her sister ship the Britannic. These things are possible, but if you sit around waiting for them to happen you may never write a word. 

I’ve been writing and publishing for over twenty years but it never seems to get easier and I never feel more legitimate. Perhaps that’s as it should be. I think it was Carol Shields who said that feeling that we’re on the edge gives us an edge. My “writing day” is an ongoing attempt to quiet my mind’s “itty bitty shitty committee” while also making room for the magic that can sometimes happen when I invest the time and mental energy to get my thoughts down on paper. And make no mistake, it is an investment and it is magic. The urge to write is a mysterious tap on the shoulder that comes with no promise of success or fulfillment. It’s a compulsion that is not the same as inspiration. If inspiration is a hair-on-fire rush to the swimming pool, the urge to write is more like a persistent itch that scratching only temporarily satisfies. 

In the end, maybe that’s both a reasonable definition of “writer” and a summary of my writing day. I’m just someone with a persistent urge to make something meaningful or beautiful with words.



Christian Fink-Jensen is a writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. His work has appeared in more than fifty newspapers, magazines, and journals around the world. He is the author and co-researcher of Aloha Wanderwell: The Border-Smashing, Record-Setting Life of the World’s Youngest Explorer (Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2016). In 2017 Christian was a finalist judge for the CBC’s Nonfiction Literary Awards. You can find him on Twitter @typomania and on his soon-to-be revived website: www.finkjensen.com  Christian lives in Victoria, B.C.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

My Writing Day : Francine Cunningham


When I think about my writing space and my writing day I think about being on the road. I spend about eight months of the year on the road for work and at art residencies. I have learned to create a mobile writing space which includes my laptop, which is remotely connected to my desktop which lives at home so my files are always up to date where I am. It also includes lots of paint, beads, and other bits of artistic inspiration. I am one of those types of people that can’t focus on one thing for too long without getting bored.

My writing day typically starts first thing in the morning. I eat breakfast at my desk replying to emails and messages. I then start with writing my to-do list for that day, this includes all the admin stuff that comes with being a writer full time. Examples are grant proposals, final reports, submissions, reading for juries, planning and facilitating workshops, skype meetings and the list goes on. This takes up anywhere from 60% of my writing day if I am being honest, I wish it didn’t but it’s how I pay the bills on the day to day so it has to. I am blessed with not having another full-time job I need to devote my energy to, unless I am on a teaching residency in which I am teaching in a classroom on regular high school hours, this is something I do for a couple months out of the year and accounts for at least some of the travelling I do.

The rest of my to-do list is filled with stuff from the current manuscript that needs work. An example would be; Write chapter 12- add in a thread and a hint about the mystery of chapter 15. Take another pass at the dialogue on page 45 and make sure her motivation for why she needs to go is clear.

I am also always working on multiple projects at once, unless I am in a full revision of a manuscript in which I am locked away on that one thing. I don’t do any admin during this concentrated time, I turn off my phone for a few weeks, I tell my family not to call me, I don’t talk to people, I become a hermit, even from my roommates. But it’s just because holding a whole universe of a story in my brain all at once can be really hard for me so it has to be the only thing I do when I am on a deep revision. Again, I am privileged enough to be able to do this. But I can only do this maybe twice a year because disappearing is not something I can afford to do often. 

I treat writing like a job, if I don’t I won’t fit it into the schedule in the same way I do other tasks. Also, self-motivating and working from home (or home on the road) can be hard AF. I am better at it sometimes than other times, I am trying not beat myself up for the times when I am not.






Francine Cunningham is an award-winning Indigenous writer, artist and educator. She is a graduate of the UBC Creative Writing MFA program, and a recent winner of The Indigenous Voices Award in the 2019 Unpublished Prose Category and of The Hnatyshyn Foundation’s REVEAL Indigenous Art Award. Her fiction has appeared in Grain Magazine as the 2018 Short Prose Award winner, on The Malahat Review’s Far Horizon’s Prose shortlist. Her debut book of poetry is titled ON/Me (Caitlin Press). You can find out more about her at www.francinecunningham.ca

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

A. L. Bishop: My (Small-Press) Writing Day


WARMUP: 12 minutes. On-demand story request from elder toddler. Composition must feature both siblings alongside various IP characters—all from different universes, frequently incompatible, in different combinations, permutations. Cannot be prepared in advance due to ever-changing cast. Must be delivered extemporaneously during drive to daycare regardless of weather, traffic, or hours of sleep acquired during preceding night. Must be stored in accessible memory in the event that reprise is requested on the way home.

PRACTICE, PEAK: 3.5 hours. Salaried writing. Does not belong to me. Pleasant to do, often stimulating/challenging, feeds family, but gets us no closer to the mountain.

BREAK: One hour. On in-office days, scarf lunch quickly in order to walk/think or read/study. On work-at-home days, research. Specifically, one episode of General Hospital for analysis of consistent characterization (as when new actors take over existing roles), slow-burn plot development (conflicts rising to crescendo over weeks, months, years), and re-orienting audience with crucial details to keep story moving (as when character returns from dead, encounters evil twin, has memories implanted/erased, etc.). Intensely underrated writing and structure. Observe.

PRACTICE, PEAK: 3.5 hours. Still salaried. Non-fiction. Good for practice on hooks, storytelling, suspense. Draining, but can’t complain.

BLACKOUT: 2.5 hours. Transit, family dinner, bedtime routines (not mine). Would trade these hours for nothing, not one thing, except perhaps longer versions of said hours.

PRACTICE, OFF-PEAK: One hour, with exceptions, when all the magic has to happen or not at all. Sometimes Writing In Silence for an Hour with a friend at a coffee shop, more frequently tapping at pre-wifi desktop or wrapped in a quilt on the couch with laptop humming, pair of baby monitors whispering at elbows. Chisel away at novella hiding inside old novel draft, tinker with story met by latest thanks-but-no-thanks. Off-peak hours also critical for running expensive household appliances—laundry, dishes—general homesteading, maintaining key relationships, social life, supplemental paid work. Find ways to incorporate all.

REFUEL: Never enough hours. Reading and bed, or DuckTales and bed, if day’s news is particularly upsetting. Gratitude for time carved out to write, study, think, any chance to go to the story and live there for a while. Imagine each hour spent thusly acquiring mass, becoming physical part of story as it grows, takes shape, escapes containment. Keep making room.



A. L. Bishop is a writer from Niagara Falls, Canada whose short fiction has appeared in The Writing Disorder, The Forge, Exile: the Literary Quarterly and Book Six of the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Anthology Series. Learn more at albishopiswriting.com.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Steve Lambert : My (Small Press) Writing Day: Rev Her Up and Listen to Her Purr


Cramped. That’s the word that comes to mind when I look at this picture. Not just the space, either. My writing days are cramped. My writing life is cramped. Shunted. That’s another good one. Shunted rhymes with stunted. It’s there, my writing time, but it’s not as healthy as it should be.

And, look. I’m not complaining. This isn’t self-pity. I’m happy for what I have, as meager as it sometimes may seem. But when I think about my writing day, that’s the way it goes. We do not use words here like abundant, ample or plenty. If you’re like me, you write what you can when you can and sometimes it isn’t much and sometimes it’s nothing at all. But the thing, for me, is that I’m almost always thinking about it. I may not have ample time, but that shunted and cramped corner of a room where I spend as much time as I can is just the point of the spear. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s just the business end of things. The rest, where most of the work gets done, goes unseen and is carried around in the bucket of my mind.

Wow, that took a turn. Got a little weird….But that’s the writing life, ain’t it? 

Truth told, that sliver of a room doesn’t even see enough action. I write on the move—on the fly—a lot. I like to think of William Carlos Williams, writing fragments and ideas on little scraps of paper (in his case, prescription pad) and shoving them in his pockets as me moved from house call to house call.

That little fragment of a room, where the books are, is a wish more than anything—a fantasy. A myth. “Here,” I point, “is where a writer works.” Well, it is. But it isn’t. Perhaps, in an ideal world—one where I can writer and only write—it is. And maybe it will be, someday. But for now it is a kind of relic.

Take my brother-in-law. He has a ’67 Chevelle poised and waiting in his garage. The thing is fully restored and beautiful and ready to go, man. He almost never drives it—but its there, and sometimes he goes out there and cranks the thing and revs it up, listens to it purr. Rarely, but often enough, he opens up the garage and takes her down the road. Might be for a spin around the block. Might be around town. On those rare occasions he, I’m sure, is very happy it’s there in the garage waiting. If it wasn’t, this drive around town or down the street would not be possible. And I’m sure he thinks, while he’s smiling and waving like he’s in a parade, I need to do this more often.

That’s me. That little cramped corner of a room is my ’67 Chevelle. When I’m not there, I wish I was, and I’m always thinking about being there. Sometimes I just I have a few minutes to go in there and rev her up and listen to her purr, and I guess—for now—that’s good enough.



Steve Lambert was born in Louisiana and grew up in Florida. His writing has appeared in The Pinch, Broad River Review, Longleaf Review, Emrys Journal, Bull Fiction, Into the Void, Cowboy Jamboree, Cortland Review, and many other places. He won third place in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction contest. In 2018 he won Emrys Journal’s Nancy Dew Taylor Poetry Prize. He is the recipient of four Pushcart Prize nominations and was a Rash Award in Fiction finalist. He is the author of the poetry collection Heat Seekers (2017), the forthcoming chapbook In Eynsham (2020) and the forthcoming fiction collection The Patron Saint of Birds (2020). He lives in Northeast Florida, with his wife and daughter, where he teaches at the University of North Florida.