My jobs all have to do with writing in some way, so while I am grateful for that, it also makes switching gears and paying attention to creative writing very difficult. Opening up my computer sometimes gives me nausea, reminds me of work to do. Therefore, I am not a person who can write in fits and starts, and usually need a “writing day.” I can’t get my mind in the right frame to write in between my tasks, or else I just do pedantic things like write to-do lists, a diet plan, or just a list of ways I suck and should be better (lol, no lie). I need to have no other tasks to do, no plans to think about, in order to get past this block. I have to trap myself in order to sit down and do it. For example, sometimes the only way I’ll read is if I am in the bath. There’s no escape in the bath!
I moved to West Michigan from Georgia just over a year ago now. I had lived in Massachusetts for four years, which gave me a taste of snow, but Lake Effect is a new bird. The thick, lake-churned clouds hold steady over my house, and there is a new color of blue for what the snow does to the streets. I am getting used to the tundra that builds. Something I am grateful for, though, is that the snow gives me no excuse but to stay in my house and read and write. I just need to create a space where I can be vulnerable, where I’ve pulled away from routine, where accidents and flashes can find their way in. It is a lot like working out, or running: once I get back into it, it seems like the most natural thing in the world, that everything can be a poem, that I am a magnet for the tension and snarl of imagination and memory. But outside of it feels like you’ve never written in the first place.
So on a Snow Writing Day I wake up around 7, with my cat (Petey) and my dog (Hubble) on opposite sides of my legs. It gets hot and uncomfortable, but we like our pack. I’ll slowly wake up by reading some of whatever Kindle book I’m reading at the moment (I just finished The Fact of a Body, and just started a book on the Jamestown Massacre), until my dog rings his little bell on the stairs to let me know it’s time to feed him breakfast. The bell was originally for him to let me know when he needed to go out, but now it’s just our communication tool for whenever he needs something.
So I feed the dog and my sourdough starter (her name is Flora), and then make some French Press coffee. During that wait, I take my medicine and vitamins (I don’t eat breakfast; usually I don’t eat until 1 or 2 on non-teaching days). I’ll play a podcast (usually My Favorite Murder). Then, as the water boils, or the coffee steeps, I visit social media—usually Instagram and Twitter. If I think of something jokey and pithy to say, usually about my dog, I will post. Otherwise, I just lurk and “like” posts, sending odds and ends of what I’ve seen (either positive or negative) to my best girls (Caroline Cabrera & Anne Cecelia Holmes) through our group chat. I'm kind of an open book in real life, but tend to keep it close to the chest online, compared to others. This is frustrating, especially considering I’m kind of alone up here, and comunication with friends happens through social media. I used to feel self-conscious about not performing myself as much online, thinking that being successful and more like a “real writer” meant to be more transparent online—and I felt jealous of those who were able to put their current lives and emotions into words. But now, I know there doesn’t have to be that trajectory (from silence = bad to vocal = good). Transparency doesn’t mean that I’m a successful writer. I can create my own goals and trajectory.
Although, for the sake of transparency: I’m not going to lie—this is also when I check in on my Sims Freeplay game, and build a house or two.
9:00am—This is when I decide: do I stay or go? I haven’t really found a coffee shop here in Grand Rapids that I feel at home in yet, like the ones I loved in Amherst or Athens, but there are a couple I like. If I leave, I can sometimes get work done quicker, but tend to feel antsy and ready to go home in a few hours. I also don’t like going because I’ll spend money and calories that I shouldn’t. So if I have a particular project or task to accomplish, I’ll go to a café. I wrote a huge amount of Helen or My Hunger at Hendershot’s in Athens, GA, outside on the patio. I will write my job cover letters at a café. But now, more often than not, I stay home. Home has a heater, my animals, and I don’t need to wear real clothes.
I have a couple of notebooks that I write in—nothing substantial or complete, just some phrases or quick word combos, notes from the internet, dreams, and so on. Most of my actual writing is through my laptop. Sometimes I work at the kitchen table, where my two friendly fish are, but not often. I have an old Ikea table in my room that I’ve been trying to use as a desk in my new apartment. On it is an old desktop I got from my uncle, a little plant, and usually loads of books and my agenda. The cat usually sits on my desk, looking out the window. He thinks both snowflakes and leaves are birds, so it’s all very exciting. The dog sits under the desk, because it makes him nervous that I’m not with him on the couch. More often than not, though, I’m back in my living room on my new favorite chair. I have wicked tendinopathy in my upper hamstrings, and that’s the only place in my house that doesn’t aggravate that chronic pain. I usually make a cup of tea by 11 or 12 (milk and sugar/stevia).
I can have up to fifteen books out at one time, depending on what I’m writing. Most of what I’ve been working on before the semester began was an essay called “The Book of Moths,” about OCD and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. I’ve been trying to finish it since 2016, but I think I’m at a stopping point now. The books helping me through this that were on my desk (and still were until I did some deep cleaning two days ago) were The Waves, Lily Hoang’s The Bestiary, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, John Green’s Turtles all the Way Down (seriously, one of my favorite books I’ve read in the last year), Jane Lewty’s In One Form to Find Another, Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book, Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue, Allison Benis White’s Please Bury Me in This, Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter, and Zach Savich’s Diving Makes the Water Deep. That’s not even mentioning the hybrid-genre/lyric essay work of friends and idols that I’d printed out (either from them sending it to me, or just finding it online), that I’ve organized into a large binder: Carrie Lorig, Caroline Crew, Caroline Cabrera, Shamala Gallagher, and others.
Sometimes I look through the books and piles of paper I have around me, but more often than not, they just remind me that I’m not alone. They remind me that the limits and barricades I make for myself are silly, and that I don’t give myself enough credit to look past them and push myself, go beyond what is expected. Because I’m pretty sure it’s clear by this point: I’m a rule-follower, a quiet, plodding, heads-down-power-through worker, on things that are expected of me and have clear instructions. But I am still quite unable to be my own cheerleader, to rebel and do things that aren’t asked or expected of me. Also, I need community—I need a family around me, and since moving to Michigan, I’ve learned that my writing depended on that. So now I set up that family around me. It’s been a big change, having been in writing programs (MFA then PhD) for nine years after college. Even if you’re alone there’s a least an idea of being a part of a cohort.
Sometimes my own work is on the desk, too. My memory is shot when I start to write—I forget words, how I used to write, memories, what I’ve ever read, etc.—so sometimes I’ll print out some poems or prose that I’ve written, to try and convince myself that I actually wrote them, to figure out what it was I was thinking, to try and get back to that space, to remember that Gale.
The last thing I wrote of “The Book of Moths” was this:
The OCD experience is built on the faulty premise that control is possible, and that there is a stable, absolute self that can do the controlling. And my resistance to this was perhaps partly the source of the problem. I had kept my back up, I had pushed against the breach. But I think I’m learning that to accept being alive is to accept not only impermanence but to be impermanent. Words are not stasis. A Self is the flux result of series and pattern, and I am learning to lean into, rather than to grieve, the endless division of cells, the tender moths that stream by the bedroom window.
Once I get into it—writing/editing poems, or completing this beast of an essay—the time can slip away quite quickly, and suddenly I look out and it’s dark outside. The only thing taking me away from this process is if my dog decides he needs to go to outside, or needs attention, and he rings his bell. Other times, though, I might work steadily for a few hours then take a break to go for a run. Right now it’s snowy, so that involves me driving to my gym to run on the indoor track. I am not someone who “works” or “writes” while I run or walk. I just run so that I can feel like I have a body or know what the sun is on days that I don’t really go outside. Or I’ll go for a hike. Grand Rapids has some great trails, although since everything is so flat I’m not sure it can be called “hiking.” It’s more like “outdoor walking.” But the dog comes with me, which is all he’s ever wanted.
Other things I’m doing in between, depending on my responsibilities:
1. Grading/commenting on papers—I teach around 5 classes total each semester, each with about 26 students in them. I’m putting off commenting on them right now to write this.
2. Completing job applications. I’m on the market right now, and so a good bit of my time is also spent writing cover letters and putting together dossiers.
3. Baking. Right now I’m baking a couple of loaves of sourdough bread, and tonight I’m going to try a passion fruit curd.
4. Coding. I’m in the middle of a restructure/redesign of the magazine I edit, Jellyfish Magazine (soon to be renamed Jellyfish Poetry!). Coding gives me the same kind of zoned-in, hyper-focused feel of working as essay writing. An entire day can pass by and I’ve just been writing and testing out code, somewhat manically. I love coding because there are answers! and clear goals! and set methods! And you know immediately whether you messed up or not!
5. Sometimes I can work with the TV on, but most of the time I can’t, especially when I read. But when I do, it’s either The Great British Bakeoff (or the Masterclass), the Netflix Fireplace video, Call the Midwife, The West Wing, Star Trek Voyager, or the Planet Earth/Blue Planet/Frozen Planet collection.
The dog eats dinner. The evening begins with some television and social media. I start to think about the next day, make sure my lesson plans are correct and taken care of, and that I’m not missing anything big by spending the whole day writing. I answer emails, I code, I grade, or, if I’m lucky, submit some poems, until I start to lose my edge.
Sometimes, this is one of the nights that my best girls and I have a Gchat planned, so we will talk from about 7:30-10:30. Sometimes my friend and poet Todd Kaneko will invite me for dinner with his family (bless him). Then time to start the bedtime routine: feeding the cat, the fish, taking the dog out one last time (I’m never not singing “One Last Time” from Hamilton while we do this), then bedtime. I read from my Kindle until I fall asleep, around midnight.
Gale Marie Thompson is the author of Soldier On (Tupelo Press, 2015) and Helen or My Hunger (YesYes Books, forthcoming). Her work appears in Tin House Online, Gulf Coast, American Poetry Review, Guernica, Bennington Review, and others. She has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Gale is the founding editor of Jellyfish Magazine, and she lives, writes, and teaches in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can find her on twitter @thegalester.