Most of my days now start off like the opening sequence of The Sopranos but that may just be how it feels inside of my head.
The truth is that things have recently changed quite substantially for me. For decades I have had two full time jobs but I have recently retired from a day job of thirty years having been an elementary teacher, a principal and a high school teacher and, of course, I am a writer – a part of my professional life which has traditionally been the night shift because there has been no other place to put it and, as you know if you write, it must be put someplace. For the last five years of this day job I was head of a Drama department in addition to having a full course load and teaching schedule which meant working before classes started in the morning, then a full teaching day, as well as play rehearsals during lunches and after work every day. When that was over I would come home, nod to my wife, and head upstairs to my office loft to work on the novel in progress. Add to that the marking of assignments, always the marking, and whenever one batch was completed there was another sitting ready to take its place. That meant eighty hours per week on the teaching and the writing plus more writing on the weekends and holidays because that job never takes a rest. There is no vacation from writing, still it was always surprising to me that the novels even got written at all. It is surprising that anything gets written as most novelists and poets work in some way similar to this. It is amazing that I am still married. I have found that in many cases writers depend in large measure upon the charitable natures of those around them.
All this is to say that my writing day has recently undergone a transformation from which it is still reeling and from which I am still reeling so you’ll understand when I tell you that more than a specific pattern of action or a particular day what I am attempting to describe here is an approach or a frame of mind rather than a methodology.
When I am engaged in writing I am entirely lost in the process but when I think about writing, which is something I do most of the time when I am not writing, I am Tony Soprano driving a Lincoln Continental down the Jersey Turnpike. I am Mike Tyson at the MGM Grand. Johnny Cash. Although I spend time in person and on line encouraging and assisting other writers and feel genuinely excited when one of my peers wins an award or gets a book deal there is a part of writing for me that is combative, a part that will accept nothing other than greatness and the vanquishing of all comers although I do want to spend some time in this piece discussing process and describing an actual day I wanted to begin here with this idea of conquest because I have never actually seen anyone describe this aspect of writing which is, for me, a small but integral one. It is not pretty but it is effective (for me). I don’t know if other people have it or not. If this were a Facebook post someone would already be commenting that I should not feel this way, but I think that a great many writers either feel “I am/will be the best writer ever” or they think “I suck at this”. I’m not sure that there’s a middle ground – I have certainly never heard anyone express that there is. I know which side of that fence I am on because I spend a lot of time there.
So in a moment I will describe what my writing days have been like post-retirement, what it is like to get up in the morning and sit down to write when morning writing is something that I have never done before. But I’ll preface that with the statement that before I even get close to that act of sitting down I have committed myself to the idea that what I write will be the best thing anyone has ever written. This is how I work.
It feels very strange to wake up in the morning now knowing that writing is the priority in terms of both commitment and time. Mornings have never been like this before. Teaching has always dominated the work day both by necessity and by desire. Interacting with one hundred teenagers a day in the areas of drama and creative writing as well as on a personal level requires a level of focus and performance that doesn’t allow much space for anything else. It is demanding work that I no longer do. In the hours devoted to my work life these days all I have to do is write. Fortunately I am at a point in my career trajectory where I just sit down and write, there is no longer any avoidance of or any need to slowly edge up to the process. Game on. There is only “this page” and “the next sentence”. This was not the case for decades and I know that I am currently very fortunate. I am grateful for this. Although I have many interests and activities to occupy my time I can always let writing take first place now and that is an astounding and brand new freedom. What I am saying is that it has always taken first place in terms of passion but it can now take first place in other ways as well. So… my day…
It starts with a shower and a coffee. For the last eighteen months I have only eaten one meal a day so there’s nothing else to do before getting to work and the coffee is now decaffeinated in consideration of my stomach lining. I am awake enough. The dogs might get a walk but more than likely that will wait until later in the day. They can go and play in the backyard for now and dig some new holes and bark, we all have things we need to get done. I go upstairs to my loft office where I have my desk and computer as well as my easel and painting supplies, my hunting equipment and target guns, my guitar collection, my familiar knick knacks and toys to surround me. And there is always music. I do not write without music. Currently I have several writing projects on the go which will comprise the balance of my working day:
My new novel “Legend” is coming to the press stage in Vancouver and months have been spent with a series of editors honing the manuscript and layout. It is a project that involves hundreds of illustrations as well as aspects of text that include fiction, non-fiction, poetry, film theory, biography, autobiography, music, cinematography, deceit, interview, art history, sidebars, footnotes, samples… the list goes on. It is currently in the line edit stage in terms of text and at the formatting stage in terms of design. I might describe it overall as the most ambitious thing that I have done to date and it has been taxing on me personally and on my marriage in terms of the space that it has taken in my schedule and on my mind. Conceptually it is the hardest thing that I have ever written. Today there may be some questions about it to answer by email. There is a promotional event coming up this weekend for the book which was scheduled before production delays set in and now the book is not ready for the event. There are some decisions to be made about that and some readings to prepare for the event itself. This will likely be all that there is to do regarding this project today but soon the heavy lifting will start regarding format and design. It has already begun in Vancouver and soon it will be shipped back to my part of the country and this book which has already dominated so much of my psychic space will once again, and for the last time, take precedence. It is hard to describe what the months of substantive edits felt like on this one, it is very intense and expansive as well as being a quite personal book and the substantive phase was all the more intensive for having a demanding and truly collaborative editor in Donato Mancini. I can describe it best in the words of Post Malone; “This shit is hard.” I came very close to mental exhaustion in substantive edits, I was wiped. How many more times can I set my brain on fire? Drained. Anyway…
My next novel “Skin House” is due in the Spring and is about to start preliminary edits as soon as an editor is assigned to it. In preparation for this I am re-reading the manuscript as I have not done so in a number of years and doing so reminds me of how much there will be to do as well as preparing me for getting started on that. Editing something you have not seen for some time requires looking at your own work in a whole new way – stepping outside of it.
The novel that I am currently writing. “I am Billy the Kid”, is in its third draft. I spent several years writing it and then several months creating a second draft sentence by sentence. I am now three months into a third draft and am probably six to twelve months away from the completion of a fourth draft which will likely be the one forwarded to my agent. Currently it sits at 112,000 words. I will also spend some time today booking a trip to Las Vegas which is where I will complete the third draft over the course of ten days holed up in a casino. I should explain that I don’t gamble. I write. I tell friends that I am going to Las Vegas. They ask what I will do there. When I tell them that I will not leave the room very much and that I will be writing the whole time, well… this is part of the reason writers have the reputation that they do.
I am assisting several younger writers with their projects. I will spend some part of today doing this work online.
Yesterday, while walking the dogs, I conceived of the idea for my next novel which may be a novel for children. This would be a major departure for me. There is some background work to be done if this is to be the case and that may form some part of today’s schedule.
This will also be the third day of working on this piece that you are currently reading.
There are lots of jobs harder than writing in fact most jobs that I’ve ever done have been harder than writing. But writing is demanding in a way that few of those jobs have ever been. The fact that it is almost entirely solitary and also that it takes place almost completely within one’s own head makes it different from any other work that I have done. It is a type of work that is very hard for people to understand. I can understand what it is like to work in service and retail jobs because I have done a lot of them but I think that I could imagine that form of work pretty accurately without having done any of it. It is very demanding work but it is not hard to conceptualize from the perspective of an outsider. I think that most people who have not taught are able to conceive of what it might be like to do that job although I think they might tend to get it wrong in imagining the work and its demands rather than the emotional rewards inherent in it. I like to fool myself that I can imagine what it would be like to be a paramedic because I know what it is to be physically, mentally and emotionally drained by work and I have seen quite a bit of blood in my time, but I am probably wrong. I think that I could do a good enough job to get it down on paper in a novel though. I don’t believe that anyone who has not done it could accurately imagine what it is like to be a school principal. No one that I’ve ever spoken to has been able to do so without first having been one. There are probably other lines of work that are similar in this regard. The military comes to mind. A surgeon. Police officer. But many professions are conceptually available to the outsider because they have probably done something like it at some point.
Not so writing. I am not saying that people make the mistake of thinking that it is easy because it does not involve any heavy lifting I mean that they cannot imagine what it does involve.
This to say that I am right now having a very difficult time describing just what it does involve. It is likely that most people who read this will be writers and in that case this is a moot point. But for others it is difficult. Previous to my retirement when asked in social situations what I did for a living I would say that I was a teacher and this was easy. Even people who have never taught have spent time as students and therefor they imagine what it would be like to be a teacher (although they are often entirely wrong in much the same way that I imagine that I can have even the remotest idea what it might be like to be a paramedic). Now that my response in those situations is to say “I’m a writer”. There’s just nowhere to go from there.
“Oh, what do you write?”
“Oh, who do you write for?”
Well, how much time do you have? Because those are extraordinarily complicated questions.
Then there are the more difficult questions, all writers know them to the degree that they have become clichés even to those who do not write:
“Do you write under your own name?” (No, I write under the name Dan Brown.)
“Much money in that?” (Not a lot. No.)
“My daughter likes to write.” (That is swell.)
“I have an idea for a book.” (You’d better not tell me, I’ll steal it and make a million.)
“Where do you get your ideas?” (The consciousness construction named Mike Blouin steals them from the sub-consciousness from which it sprang.)
My favourite exchange went this way:
“I’m a writer.”
“Oh, what do you write?”
“The made up kind?”
“Mostly that kind… yeah.”
But these questions arise from having no way in which to access the nature of what it is that writers actually do with their days merely because without having done it you just don’t know, much like skydiving perhaps or maybe like high stakes gambling.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“What’s that like?”
“Well, imagine a man sitting alone in a dark empty room lighting match after match and throwing them down onto the floor until eventually one sets fire to a piece of paper…”
“Well that piece of paper is my brain.”
People usually change the subject then or they may head for the cheese and crackers and who can blame them?
What is my writing day like?
Pass the matches.
There is no other way to describe it. I am writing all of the time, every waking minute.
But it is quite different when I sleep. In my dreams I am always driving. Like Tony Soprano on the New Jersey Turnpike. I am always going somewhere.
I never rest. I am trying to make something new.
Michael Blouin is a Canadian writer. His debut novel Chase and Haven was a shortlisted nominee for the amazon.ca First Novel Award in 2008 and won the ReLit Award for Best Novel, and his poetry collection Wore Down Trust won the Archibald Lampman Award. Forthcoming are Legend, Skin House and I am Billy the Kid. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and through the website michaelblouinwriter.com