The last time I was introduced to a group of new people, it was by a classmate secure enough in herself to admit to having a friend closer to her mom’s age than her own. She went over my bio for the beautiful young people crowded around a table in a small Korean pub in arty inner Edmonton—three novels, five sons, PhD student, China, blah, blah—and I made it weirder by shaking my head and saying, “No, stop. It’s not true, none of it’s true.”
It is my real bio, one that usually provokes cringe-y but polite and perfectly reasonable follow up questions about how I can do those things all at the same time. These questions are seldom meant maliciously. I know that and try not to let them smack me down, but they often sound to prickly me like a challenge, an audit. Let’s see your logbook, ya big phony. Look, the fact is, except for where it mentions a few awards, my bio never claims I’m any good at the things I do. Living the way I do means being bad at stuff. Achievements and good habits many people have perfected by the time they’re my age either aren’t on my schedule or appear there only in half-butt messes. Let’s just say, thank goodness for pre-fab Pillsbury cookie-dough-in-a-tube and kids who are precocious with kitchen appliances.
But beyond the mother-student-artist-daughter-friend guilt issues I drag behind me into small talk, there is a real, logistical question here, the one people have actually asked: where does the time for writing come from? What, as rob’s blog series asks, is my writing day?
All that stuff about writing as a daily way of life, a regular routine, in the same cozy place, when the sunlight is coming through the window just so—if that’s not you, go ahead and scrap all of that. If you’re like me, writing time is a season, like in that old Byrds song on the cassette tape in my parents’ car, with the “turn, turn, turn” and the rest of the lyrics lifted from somewhere deep in the Old Testament.
“A time to plant, a time to reap…a time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together.”
When I’m writing, I’m in a season of casting away stones. What I have seen, felt, heard, imagined is set loose, tossed into the open, raked out and cobbled into a form, a path that can be traveled by other people, readers. Writing season is a frantic time, no moderation, no routine, no discipline. It usually happens in the summer when my children’s school schedule is not pounding out a rhythm for me to march against. It’s a season of sleeping 3 ½ to 4 hours a night. I’ll try to go to bed, just to be sociable, to maintain a marriage, but then I’ll lie in the dark, knowing the only two choices I really have are to write or to lie awake thinking about what I wish I was writing. My husband doesn’t stir when I leave to sit at the desk in my laundry room. He might notice I’m gone and come find me to make sure I’m not fighting a burglar or cleaning up someone’s vomit. Otherwise, he leaves me to it. Writing season doesn’t last long but while it’s on, it’s a mania—productive, tolerable but still a mania. My nurse sister says I could probably get a prescription to fix it.
Currently, I am in a season of gathering stones together. I am in a season of reading. This is the phase of my doctoral studies where I prepare to write comprehensive exams to prove myself knowledgeable enough to become the kind of doctor who can rescue people hemorrhaging comparative literature. It is a cold and quiet season—a winter. There are no classes, no teaching assignments, just me, some snacks, and the sixty-one books I will be tested on. This season is not a mania, but a slog. Two-thirds of the way through my PhD reading list, I realized something. If I was going to appreciate any more of what I was reading, if I was going to gather any more stones to grind away in my poor brain, I needed to cast a few stones away. I needed to take a few minutes now and then, even in the winter, to write something.
There was no time for anything in excess of my PhD work so I found ways to write within that scope. Translation is creative rewriting and the subject of my studies. Of course, I can’t write about translation theory without translating anything so I reworked a few excerpts from canonical modern Chinese literature that I’ve never seen translated into English to my satisfaction.
Even the creative outlet of translation wasn’t enough. I ducked into my desk drawer and found the notebook I had been keeping while studying in China last summer. “Listen to your story” it says in dubious English on the foot of each blank, lined page. The notebook began as a personal journal, another white-lady travel memoir, but as I add to it now, my research, my reading list, mobilizes my idle reflections on that time abroad into something more. The notebook is the same kind of creative nonfiction I’ve written for years, but it feels different. I’ve never cast away stones like these before. Maybe the notebook will become an appendix to my dissertation, read by me and three or four other people obliged to by their academic duties. Or maybe it will develop into a fully realized manuscript I don’t yet understand. Perhaps all it will ever do is sustain me through this dull, difficult winter season. I write on, in fits, after 2am, by the light of a laundry room lamp, even on school nights, waiting for summer.
Jennifer Quist is a writer, critic, student, cry baby, and author of Love Letters of the Angels of Death (2013), Sistering (2015), and the newly released The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner (2018). After careers in social research, journalism, and stay-at-home-mothering, she is now studies as a graduate student in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.