I have a full-time academic job, a partner who is also a writer and has a full-time academic job plus a part-time academic job, and we are raising two children: a 15-year-old and a 3-year-old, neither of whom have jobs yet nor have so-far decided to become writers. And somehow, we have almost all dinners together, save for an odd one during the week during busy semesters, do family things and extended family things on the weekend, and don’t compete with each other for writing time even.
My writing time happens on a schedule that isn’t particularly generous. It’s definitely not at home after bedtime, before anyone wakes up in the morning, or in small pockets that I steal away. My writing day right now is two hours between 6pm and 8pm on a weeknight spent in the company of a handful of other writers at Historic Joy Kogawa House in Vancouver.
These two hours shape-shift a bit during different seasons. Sometimes they are six broken hours every Friday in a faculty writing group at the invitation of a friend at a neighbouring university, sometimes three hours on a Wednesday afternoon in a shut up and write group that began years ago and has continued in different configurations since, sometimes a few hours of Monday morning with a friend writing her summer away. In one month of this year, July, I found my way to rare days of writing followed by days of writing, but those too were followed by more days of not writing at all.
It is there my mind understands that the writing needs to happen, and importantly, the time will end shortly. In these several-hour stretches over the last four years, I’ve written dozens of short stories, a million creative non-fiction memoir-based fragmenty things that get too personal to have meaning to anyone else, and a 100+ page manuscript of poetry that I felt so achieved to have accomplished. The achievability of the goal—write for 25 minutes, then do it again until my hour or two is over—doesn’t trigger the anxiety or overwhelmingness of the woeful “Will I ever accomplish anything?!” and “I don’t have time for this!” and all those other thoughts that make me afraid to be a writer. Because, I am already a writer: especially right now between 6pm and 8pm on Wednesdays.
And even though my pockets of Muji pen to paper, or fingertips to keypads, are rare, I write all the time...when you consider writing as defined by all the thoughts about writing I have. I use an iceberg as a metaphor here in both fear that I’m regurgitating a thing that everyone knows and in hope that my repeated recent encounters with it are more meme. For my iceberg of writing, the two hours of writing I described is that part above water. There’s the transcribing from notebooks, the ideas that follow that, sometimes even what people refer to as freewriting, maybe some editing, pulling together of ideas, or even the emergence of a few thousand words about something and new stanzas in poetic metre
But, for the iceberg, the tiny portion above water hides the bigger crucial thing happening underneath. That ice metaphor fails me here, as the writing underneath is not even slightly like the cold clear solidity of structure of beautiful clean narwhal-adjacent ice. It is something else all mixed up and muddy and warm and fomenting. It’s also where the word writing fails too for many, as there is no visible output of words. For this purpose, I borrow an underutilized word and add underwriting to my process.
Just like my writing time depends on the company of others writing, my best underwriting is done in the company of other writers, where thoughts are in the air and my mind can wander away. Readings, especially poetry readings, are the pinnacle of quality underwriting time. I am always, always inspired by other writers. I have pretend dialogues with them as they read, and ask no questions later in those awkward moments of questions at the end. They read, and my mind engages. At the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts a few years ago, Elizabeth Bachinsky read a beautiful love poem to her husband, and I wrote the backbone of one too. At Growing Room in Vancouver last year, as the poets and writers spoke to the moderator and each other in a series of panels, I wrote pages and pages in my secret dialogues with them.
Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence discusses these conversations that writers have with each other through their work and in the work’s relationships with writing predecessors. Relationships to me are magic, coincidences, serendipity, signs. They create meaning for me, just like the repetition of an image in a beautiful piece of writing. Or then the repetition of that image in a new piece of writing, and then maybe the discovery of that image again in a previously unknown ancient piece of writing. Or like going to a poetry event where all the poets are writing about things that are so close to what you are writing about that you might has well have chosen the poems they chose to read aloud that day yourself...all
I extend the relationships Bloom describes, in all their tension and anxiety even, to the influences of people who are writing near each other—people who are sharing their work without reading or seeing or hearing, but instead as they work on a keyboard at a table together and write. After the underwriting moments have marinated for days and weeks at a time from the notebooks, to the walks or drives to work, or showers, or just thoughts that happen in the background of the everyday, when I climb out from under the iceberg and sit with other writers in these tiny pockets of time...and write.
Photo credit: Ann-Marie Metten