My mind is very busy, to say the least. I am on the autistic spectrum, so I need to create the right conditions before a writer’s focus is even remotely possible. I write in a café, safely recessed into a corner where I can see trees outside whose gyrations record the high turnings of the wind, clouds and changes in light, pickup trucks rumbling past with rakes and shovels in the back, parents pushing strollers and skateboards jumping curbs, where I can hear the humming of conversations and trains, indistinct like the babbling of waters. In this way I feel human, grounded and included, with enough sensory stimulation but not too much. I live in Redlands, California now, so most of the time the writing is happening in Bricks and Birch Café near my house, across from the old police station, down the street from the exquisite temple of our public library, the Lincoln Shrine and the oddly formal outdoor Grecian auditorium which houses two free concerts per week all through the summer. From my table in the corner I can see queen palms and fan palms, Lebanese cedar, jacarandas, yucca, pine, olive trees, Mexican birds of paradise, fire hydrants and one stop sign.
I am grateful for this life. All of my relatives were artists, writers and storytellers, carvers and quilters, in barns and garages, after farm work, after folding clothes at the thrift store, after taking orders in restaurants and office buildings, after the assembly line, after laying rail line or preaching in the country church—I am the first one to make a living from this, to be a creative writing professor. I write after talking about and thinking about writing all week, all weekend, all summer, all winter. Everything I do is part of the writing life. I never forget that this is a privilege folded inside a responsibility.
In order to write I need to feel a sense of timelessness, of being off the calendar and off the clock. I often start by reading a good book of poetry slowly and thoughtfully, or I stare out the window. I drift into an attentive consciousness, one which is especially sensory and embodied, empathetic and awake. In this state the colors sharpen, the wood grain and reflectivity of glass, the fan blades and the shadows of bicycle wheels in motion over the concrete, the surfaces and forms clarify. The world provides its own subject matter and I follow it where it goes, outward in concentric rings, inward in concentric rings. The dimensionality and elasticity of mind begins with this embodied sensory experience. The metaphysical distances open up through the ordinary surfaces. Then the words begin.
The words come in bundles and strings. Each string is surrounded by space and silence. I trace the words and record them. I hear them and feel them and see them at about the same time. The words come from wars and from homeless shelters, from off-ramps and parking lots, from the high desert Santa Ana winds sluicing through the canyons and passes, from Oklahoma, , San Francisco, Michigan and Thailand, from the delicate eyes of children and the tumbling of dice. The words teach me and surprise me, and I record them faithfully.
While writing, I try not to evaluate the material, not to assign it a place within a given writing project or to relegate it to whatever requests I’m fielding from lit journals. The instant the mind of the editor or agent takes over, the covenant with language is broken and the meditation closes up.
I write until I am too tired to maintain this level of wakefulness and singular focus, then I drift back into my name and look around for someone to talk to. I get up, take a walk around the block, think about what I’ve written, come back to my seat, reread it all and do some light editing. It’s possible to re-enter the writer’s mind from here, to write some more or to just drift into other activities. Regardless, the remaining hours of the day feel special, hallowed and haloed. The best days are writing days, and the writing touches everything.
Chad Sweeney is the author of six books of poetry, Little Million Doors (Nightboat Books, 2019), Parable of Hide and Seek (Alice James), White Martini of the Apocalypse (Marick), Wolf’s Milk (bilingual Spanish/English, Forklift Books), An Architecture (BlazeVOX), and Arranging the Blaze (Anhinga), and two books of translation, The Art of Stepping Through Time, the selected poems of Iranian dissident poet, H.E. Sayeh (White Pine) and Pablo Neruda’s final book, Calling on the Destruction of Nixon and the Advancement of the Chilean Revolution (Marick, 2019). Sweeney’s poems have been included in Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Prize Anthology and Verse Daily. He is the editor of the City Lights anthology, Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sounds: Teaching Artists of WritersCorps in Poetry and Prose, and Iroquois elder Maurice Kenny’s posthumous collection of poetry and prose: Monahsetah, Resistance, and Other Markings on Turtle’s Back (Mongrel Empire Press). Chad Sweeney holds an MFA from San Francisco State University and a PhD from Western Michigan University. He is an Associate Professor of English/Creative Writing at California State University San Bernardino where he edits Ghost Town Lit Mag. He lives in southern California with his partner, Jennifer Kochanek Sweeney, and their two little boys.