Sunday, March 24, 2019

Typical Writing Day: Chad Sweeney, blog entry, March 3, 2019

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.

Friday, March 22, 2019

My (small press) Writing Day: Richard Weiser

My sister, a painter and sculptor, always said the best situation for any artist was 1/3 making your art, 1/3 of the time teaching, and 1/3 of the time making money. Although I think this is a sound idea, it’s not something I’ve ever managed to do.

I stumbled into advertising shortly after university and made a good living writing ads and making videos for corporate clients. During those years, I did very little creative work. I supported my wife through medical school and residency, and a few years back, when I was complaining about having to return to work after a vacation, she told me to let her support me while I finished my book. I am a lucky man, no doubt.

My book, in this case, was CNF about the art and inspirations of Tom Thomson (1877-1917) coming out in 2019 from Dragon Hill Publishing.

Traditionally I never had a writing day. I worked on plays and poems and songs when I was moved to do it. Fits and starts. When I started writing my latest book, I managed to impose some order and discipline. A good day looked like this:

  7:00AM get up, get kids fed and ready for school
  9:00AM cycle to the Metro Reference Library
  9:30AM working from yesterday’s notes, write and/or edit
11:30AM break for food/coffee
12:00PM back to work, make notes for the next day (what needs to be done)
  2:00PM cycle home to pick up kids from school

If it’s not the library, my writing space is a local coffee shop, or my dining room table. I don’t generally work at night or early in the morning, because sleep is important to me, as is spending time with my family. These are things I need to keep me healthy so I can write. I definitely use coffee to fuel my writing and editing, but I avoid alcohol or any other drugs when I’m working.

Advertising can be a tough gig, but it taught me a few things that have stood me in good stead for creative writing.

1)     The real trick of being successful in a creative occupation is the ability to be creative on demand. In order to do this, you have to take care of yourself. I think of myself as an opera singer, taking care of my voice. You can’t sing at top volume all the time. Be good to your brain. This philosophy came in handy when I had to rewrite the book from my first editor’s notes the week my family was on vacation in Jamaica. There, I wrote in bed, after the kids went to sleep.
2)     You have to care deeply about your work, but you can’t be precious. You don’t have to say yes to every change an editor (Creative Director, client) proposes, but you have to say yes to some of them. Pick your battles. Even if you disagree with a change, try it as an exercise. See what comes of it. You may be surprised. My Thomson book has been through a writing group, The Humber School of Writing, several readers, and an editor. I’ve received a ton of criticism and proposed changes and I know with certainty the book is better for it.

Richard Weiser is a poet, musician and playwright. He began his working life in broadcast journalism after which he returned to school to study creative writing with Governor General’s Award winner Don Coles. After university, Richard tripped and fell into a career in advertising and recently won a Cannes Lion (advertising’s version of the Oscar). He is a member of the League of Canadian Poets and SOCAN, and his poetry has been published internationally in journals such as HCE, Acumen and Gravel. His as yet untitled CNF about the painter, Tom Thomson is due out in 2019 from Dragon Hill Publishing.

Richard lives in Toronto with his partner and two children.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Anthony Etherin : my (small press) writing day

I generally sleep badly. I’ll be awake at three, and I’m lucky if I fall asleep again between then and seven. Lying in bed, I write poems in my head—palindromes, triolets and miniature sonnets, mostly; anagrams, I find, are too hard without a page in front of me. I have a notepad app on my phone now, so I can make a record of the better poems. Before I had the app, I had to tweet the poem instead.
          I’m out of bed at seven, or shortly after. I shower, and I dress. My wife goes to work. I walk and feed the dog. I skip breakfast (always).
           I’m ready to start at about 8:30. I tweet a poem. I get a coffee and check my emails—of which, each day, there’s an increasing number. Hopefully a decent chunk of them are sales. There are normally a few new submissions to read. I answer those emails that require attention, and I schedule my submission readings for the coming month. I tweet another poem at about 10. I make notes on which leaflets and books need mailing, and to where. I package the sales.
          Whatever time is not taken up by these activities, I’ll spend writing new poems. I tend to write short poetry, which helps. This takes me to 12.30, and lunch. I won’t eat a lot.
I’ll end lunch with another coffee, my last of the day; if the morning has gone well (or particularly badly), I might throw in a whiskey or two.
          The afternoon is for editing. I could be working on my current manuscript, or I could be editing and designing a new Penteract Press publication. Sometimes there will be another task, like contacting printers or checking proofs. There may be paperwork.
I’ll check my Twitter, a lot. If I feel I can spare the time, I’ll work on some music: I’m currently composing musical palindromes for piano; but I feel oddly guilty about working on them, like it’s time better spent focussing on my poetry or press....
          There are usually a few more emails by 5: Perhaps another sale to package. Perhaps another submission to review. Perhaps rob mclennan asking me to participate in another of his projects. I answer as many as I can. I walk the dog, again, unless the weather is awful*.
          The boring household chores are hastily packed into the hour between 5:30 and 6:30, during or after which my wife returns home. We review the day over a bottle of wine. We get something to eat—a more substantial meal than earlier—before settling in for a proper drink.
          The day ends with a mild alcoholic buzz and the vain hope for seven hours’ sleep.

*This photo shows a view of the Welsh border, taken from where I’ll walk the dog on more pleasant days.

Anthony Etherin is an experimental poet. He composes constrained and formal verse, and he invented the aelindrome. In 2016, he founded Penteract Press – a venue for skilful and aesthetically adventurous structure-based poetry, publishing mostly works of concrete and constraint. Collections of Etherin’s poems include Cellar (Penteract Press, 2018) and Danse Macabre (above/ground, 2018). For more of his poetry, find him on Twitter, @Anthony_Etherin, and via his website:

Monday, March 18, 2019

Sarah James : Balancing Acts: My Writing Day

I write and work from home, in the small spare bedroom now turned into a makeshift office. There was a period when I’d dive straight from bed to my desk – a very brief period. 

When my sons were very young and I first started writing poetry, it was on scraps of paper between nappy-changing and feeding. When they went to school, the school-day still wasn’t quite long enough to fit in everything so I’d dive from school-run to desk with only coffee-breaks until school pick-up time. Then they got old enough to sort themselves. For a few months, I’d dive from bed to desk, still pressurised to get as much as I could from any time I had, particularly while doing my masters in creative writing at MMU.

The trouble with doing anything at full pace in all the spare time available is that it’s exhausting! These days, personal writing still has to slot around family, life, paid work and the not inconsiderable demands of running a small press, V. Press. But I’ve become less frantic about this. I rarely get a writing day as such, at least, not a whole day just for my own work. Instead, I patchwork inspiration, time and writing together as best I can.
I’m usually at my desk most of the day, complete with coffee, diet cola or herbal teas. I dodge between V. Press admin, my own admin and submissions, a little new writing of my own, editing V. Press manuscripts, social media, blogposts, marketing and a whole range of other small but needed jobs that actually add up to a lot of time and energy. 

I mostly have the flexibility of setting my own targets and deadlines, so I have no typical day as such. Instead, I’m constantly prioritising and re-prioritising what needs doing next, both according to deadlines and to balance my different energy levels to the right tasks to ensure I use my time and energy most effectively. It probably isn’t going to come as a surprise that, yes, I’m a compulsive list maker!

As it happens, I also have lots of shelving in my office, but, in bizarre contrast to this seeming need for order, my walls and these shelves are creatively chaotic! This typifies my writing process too. Inspiration tends to come in bursts, sometimes from nowhere, sometimes through stimulation. My most immediate sources of inspiration include reading other poetry, art and nature. But I find commissions and competition or journal themes are also productive. I thrive on the focus and framework these bring. By contrast though, once I have a starting point, I need procrastination space in order to flesh it out.

On a single poem or flash level, I jot down individual lines and ideas as they come, then allow them to develop in my head before trying to form these into an actual poem or flash. This may be redrafted by hand many times before I type it up and start editing on computer. Then space away from a piece and buddy feedback from trusted poet friends are great editing tools.

The chaotic and compulsive elements of my make-up are very manageable on the single poem or flash level. It’s when I get a bigger idea or inspiration for a longer piece of writing – be it creative non-fiction, blogpost, essay, feature or longer fiction – that the fun starts.

When I’m inspired, I’m inspired to the level of blocking out almost everything else while I’m working on that idea. Creativity grips me and won’t let go until I have it all down. In these periods I may write for hours on end and even through the night. I’m focused, in the zone and driven. Energy isn’t a problem because the inspiration is fuelling me and I’m alive, excited and energised by the pure creativity!

The downside of this is that once I finish, I’m usually mentally and physically exhausted. Touch wood, I recover quickly if I can take some lazy hours in compensation and then get a good night’s sleep. I’m lucky, of course, to mostly have enough control over my day and deadlines to allow this. One thing I’ve realised over the past eighteen months though, with V. Press busier than ever, is that I have to be able to do this writing in order to keep doing things like all the admin, accounting and marketing involved with V. Press. It’s the pure creativity that gives me energy for everything else.

Because full-on inspiration can be demanding on the time and energy front, I’m careful to avoid over-inspiration when I know there isn’t space for it. I also recently made a decision to try as far as possible to keep V. Press and paid work to normal working hours and week days, with the evenings and weekends for my own writing and life.

Has this worked? Yes and no. Sometimes V. Press creeps into the evenings or weekends. Other days I’ll have no pressing V. Press jobs but a personal deadline to meet, so I’ll switch things around. Like most things in my life, it works enough – for the moment at least.

Speaking of the moment, one aspect of routine that I like to stick to whatever else is going on is meditation before I start the day. The other is an hour’s daily exercise, mostly swimming or cycling. I find these help me to focus and keep a wider perspective on anything stressful. Exercise also gives me some essential procrastination time. While my body’s busy trying to keep going, my mind will be developing a new writing idea or editing existing lines that have been troubling me. My subconscious frequently solves things more quickly and easily once my conscious thoughts are directed elsewhere. Moreover, the pace of cycling, swimming, running or walking is good for smoothing out rhythm.

Often, once the day’s underway, I lose track of the clock unless I have appointments or meetings. My work tends to create its own flow, but it’s rare that I put down my pen or close my laptop without a satisfying tiredness. This isn’t to say that every piece of writing gels – far from it! It’s more that I won’t stop until I’ve at least something that feels like it’s been worthwhile.

Sarah James (also published as S.A. Leavesley) is a prize-winning poet, fiction writer, journalist and photographer. Author of seven poetry titles, two novellas and a touring poetry-play, she runs V. Press, poetry and flash fiction imprint. Her latest books include Always Another Twist (Mantle Lane Press, novella), as well as How to Grow Matches (Against The Grain Press, poetry pamphlet) and plenty-fish (Nine Arches Press, poetry collection) both shortlisted in International Rubery Book Awards. The High Window Resident Artist 2019, she is curator and photographer for LitWorld2. Website: