Thursday, September 7, 2017

Colin Morton : my (small press) writing day

I don’t really have a “typical writing day” any more, if I ever did.
            Writing a novel is a full-time job, and the hours can be long when you’re trying to get everything down against the blizzard of distractions that can pull you out of your self-guided dream. I swore off writing novels long ago (and still have unpublished ones in my drawer), but while writing them I went at it like any office worker leashed to the desk. I aimed at 20 pages a week, but on my best days I often ended up with fewer words than when I started.
            Poetry feels more like theft: stealing glimpses of the inexpressible from the grip of mortality. (There’s a line I’d kill if it turned up in a poem.) In my years as an office worker, the theft was literal. On my walk from the car I’d be thinking of a poem, and my first half-hour at work, before others arrived and started making noise, I would write down what had been going through my head. If I got back to that draft the same day, it would likely be at home after the family was asleep. Weekends were conflicted times for me: keeping up a household, making time for fun and family, brooding about the poems I needed to write. I’d usually get to work about 11 o’clock on Sunday night, setting the pattern for the rest of the week.
            Nowadays, demands on my time are fewer, but my NEED to write new poems has diminished too. After writing for half a century, though I haven’t yet said it all, I have to dig deeper to find the surprising, the unexpected way to make it anew.
            I’ve never written well when travelling, or undergoing big changes or emotional stress. (Teaching, for example, was emotionally draining, as well as requiring me to spend too many hours on student writing that was even worse than my own.) Just as a daily routine was necessary to write a novel, I function best with a routine, predictable day. It can’t be exciting to watch, but that’s okay; I’ll shut my notebook if anyone walks into the room anyway.
            My typical writing day now, then, begins with making coffee and reading the news. I’ll probably be making bread in the Zojirushi and/or a batch of yogurt in the InstantPot. Lately, I’ve been visiting the community garden plot to pick lettuce and tomatoes for salads. There will be a walk to check on the level of the Rideau River. There will be a Scrabble game with my wife, another writer. I might meet a friend for coffee at Stella Luna or Thyme and Again. Two or three times a week I’ll swim lengths in the afternoon. After making supper, my wife and I will knock off to watch Jeopardy and our program (currently, The Good Wife). The rest of the time, I’ll be reading or staring out the window.
            You might notice something is missing from my “writing day” scenario. But I haven’t said what I’d be reading, or what I’d be paying attention to while walking by the river or getting my hands dirty at the garden plot. Being generous, I’m going to say that poetry is what is going through my head at times like those, and when I take an hour or two to write it down, rearrange it, tweak it, polish it, throw it away – that’s the poem. (And it’s never really thrown away, just thrown back into the compost heap of the mind.)
            Long ago, when he was writer-in-residence at the U. of Calgary, W.O. Mitchell talked a lot about his writing practice. It involved free writing, a stream-of-consciousness purge of memory, sense impressions, character sketches, turns of phrase. He called it “Mitchell’s messy method,” and you’d end up with a mess of ink on the page, which you could later comb through in search of sentences or phrases that deserved to survive in a story. Mitchell called it lumber: he wrote forests of knotty, blighted, or worm-infested prose in the hope of finding in it some good strong lumber to build his fictional structure.
            I have some lumber of that kind (and a lot of deadwood), but nowadays I gather my the lumber to build my poems on the riverbank, or in the rooty soil, from the conversations I have or overhear on my meanders. A phrase will stay with me, or come back to me, while staring out the window or, often, while reading poetry. It might be, or become, a line of poetry. And when the mood is right, one line of poetry gives birth to the next, and then the next. The mood can’t be sustained very long, usually not long enough to call what appears on the page a poem. But it’s a start.
            I’ll think about those lines again while I lie in bed at night. Occasionally, I’ll get up and add another line or, more likely, take one out, move it around, start a new poem from it. On times like this, I can work on into the night without the worry of having to show up at the office in the morning. Next day, I’ll be up as usual (any time between 5 and 8), and look at the page again for a few minutes before making coffee. The poem will stay with me through my familiar routine, sometimes growing, sometimes decaying. I’ll come back to it for an hour or two in the morning, maybe an hour or two in the afternoon. It will keep me awake that night. I may begin to resent it, in which case I’ll dismember it, make the first line the last, cut out the first page. Or I may begin to love it, in which case I’ll put it away for a few days or weeks, until I can look at it dispassionately again. Then the process starts over.
            I may have four or five such poems on the go at any one time. Or I may, as now, have a full collection that I am trying to give balance, or to relieve of useless decoration, to use only the lumber it needs, and only where it’s needed. It’s exhausting, but I wouldn’t exactly call it work. It’s a little like running a marathon or climbing a mountain: you get a kind of runner’s high from the effort. Though you haven’t contributed much to society by getting there, it feels good if and when you finish, and sometimes the view is great.

Ottawa writer Colin Morton [photo credit: Pearl Pirie] has published nine books of poetry including, most recently, Winds and Strings, and one novel (Oceans Apart). With animator Ed Ackerman he co-produced Primiti Too Taa, recently named one of the hundred best Canadian films ever.

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