Sunday, December 31, 2017

Lily Gontard : My Writing Day

It so happens that over the 2017 holiday season, I've taken annual vacation from my job that pays down my mortgage, buys my groceries and pays my bills. For three glorious weeks, I get to actually work as a full-time writer. The glamour is palpable: after being woken up by the dog who wanted to be fed 6:30 a.m., the dog and I return to sleep in till 9 a.m. (My usual waking time is 6 a.m.) To shower or not to shower, the answer is elusive. I consider that perhaps this will be necessary after I’ve worked up a sweat snow biking in the afternoon and put it off for a while.

The weather is particularly inhospitable in Whitehorse on this late December morning: -30C on the day that I write, and there is no actual reason to leave the yard, let alone the house. The truck started leaking power-steering fluid last week and needs to be driven to the mechanic, however, it’s not plugged in, so forget that. Today, movement from the house will be limited to walking or biking.

My life partner is working out of town this week. Knowing I’d be alone in my home, I prepared for this precious writing time. Snacks are stocked, fridge is packed with cheese, meats and veg. The only thing I might have to do is bake some bread.

Once the curtains are open, the sky is still dark. Solstice passed last week, but increased daylight happens in seconds and minutes, not hours. Coffee maker switched on. Twitter feed perused. Breakfast made and eaten. Aforementioned dog and I play fetch in the backyard until his brown muzzle is tinged white with frost, a forecast of how he will look when he’s arthritic and smellier than he is now. It’s 10 a.m., and I begin.

I’m currently working on the biography of an American geologist, Helen Foster, who turned ninety-eight earlier this month. The work on the biography has lagged because the ‘paying’ job which has me sitting in front of a computer all day robs me of any desire to sit at a computer at night. I have been interviewing Helen for almost a year and there are hours and hours of recordings to be transcribed. This means me, sitting in front of my computer wearing my headphones and typing.

The sun rises to the east and lasers into the window of my writing room. My desk and computer face the window, and the sun’s relentless rays shoot at my eyeballs. It may be a form of pre-technology laser eye surgery; I will find out at my appointment with the optometrist later this week. My writing desk is a 1930s dressing vanity with the mirror removed. The desktop is too high, and I sit on an antique wooden dining chair from the early twentieth century with a low seat. After transcribing for an hour or two, my lower back gets sore, as does my butt. My shoulders stiffen. My hip flexors shorten. The pains of a writer are oh-so-very glamourous. My writing set up is far from ergonomically correct, but I love the charmingly routed edges of the dark wood, the ornate brass hardware and the six tiny wooden wheels of my writing desk.

The dog sleeps on his bed near my feet, and every once in a while he lets out the whimpers of his prey-chasing dreams. Throughout the day, I’ll take breaks to play fetch with him and take him for walks.

I find transcribing to be tiring, but the work is essential for this project. During breaks, I linger on Twitter too long and I check email too often. Today, there is a nugget in my inbox. This is the exciting part of being a writer. I’ve been trying to figure out how I can help Helen donate her extensive personal archives of photos, journals and geology papers to some archive. In the past, she hasn’t found one that was willing to take it. Yesterday I wrote to the Alaska Digital Archives and today the reply is that the ADA is happy to help find a home for Helen’s personal collection. Bingo!

I’m also working on two personal non-fiction essays, one about working on the biography of Helen and one about the death of my sister, a year ago this month. Working simultaneously on these two pieces—switching between the subjects of Helen’s life and my sister’s death—is giving balance to my emotions this holiday season.

All this before lunch. Speaking of, my stomach grumbles, it’s time to feed the machine. After which I’ll return to observe the sun skimming along the horizon and then set, as I sit slightly uncomfortably, transcribing some more. I could get used to this.

Lily Gontard is a writer living in Whitehorse, Yukon. Her fiction, poetry and non-fiction have appeared in magazines such as Geist and The Puritan Magazine. New non-fiction about a Greenlandic couple who sailed the Northwest Passage appears in the December 2017 issue of Up Here. Her non-fiction book Beyond Mile Zero (Lost Moose / Harbour Publishing) is a collaboration with photographer Mark Kelly which explores the vanishing Alaska Highway lodge community.

Friday, December 29, 2017

April Ford: “These days, when I can’t write, which is typically every day, I turn away from the capacious Ikea pine desk I bought when money didn’t matter, and I stare at a painting of my dead cat.”

Last December, very early in the month, I told my husband I wanted a divorce. We had been together for eleven years. I had no good reason to want out of the marriage, except that I had been unhappy for a while and fallen in love with someone else. From afar, many people would have said, and some certainly did, that I wasn’t in my right mind. My husband was a marvelous person and partner (100% true), who had enabled me to pursue my raison d’être: Writing. Indeed, I celebrated numerous successes during my enabled, married years, including the worldwide release of my award-winning debut short story collection, a Pushcart Prize for one of the stories in that collection, and the ongoing privilege of teaching creative writing at the university where my husband held tenure. What more could a M.F.A.-holding writer of literary fiction, destined to never earn a living wage on her own, ask for?

During my enabled, married years, I would rise at dawn not because I had to get children ready for school or embark on a long commute to a job I loathed, but because I loved spending the earliest morning hours alone in my home office, quaffing stovetop espresso while I developed a character or scene or story idea. When my husband and I had purchased the house together, I had aspired to furnish my authorial space with a tanker desk—teal, or maybe Mad Men orange like that spectacular refurbished one I had seen on eBay. After all, I needed something massive and vintage upon which to set my anachronistic MacBook Pro and finish the novel I had begun five years earlier. And since the narrator wore porkpie hats and two-tone spectator shoes, my writing space should reflect the world I was creating. I needed to go “method” in order to be true to the process.

That all turned into a load of unrealized shit. Never mind that I never got my tanker desk because the stairway leading up to my office was too narrow and angular. What really set me back was when my husband asked me to move out, being that I was in love with someone else and all, and then my office—my sacred authorial space—rejected me, too. The bookcase, for example. When I look back now, I understand it was pissed at me for throwing away the writer’s dream. But on the day it busted for no reason, vomiting books and files filled with paper all over the place as I glumly sorted my precious archives into boxes labelled “to keep” and “not to keep,” I received the bookcase’s action as hostile. “Traitorous, harlot-ous author, be gone!”

As I gawped at my chaotic office space, which was evidently a metaphor for my inner landscape (when you’re a writer, this sort of thing happens all the time), I came to an important conclusion about my writing process: It, like the warning I was going to be sorry for leaving my marriage, was a load of shit. The miniature cactus in a copper pot on my writing desk? I didn’t need that to help me write better or longer. If anything, the tiny plant was a source of distraction and anxiety; while cactuses don’t need to be watered often, they do need water, and I never quite figured out that one’s schedule. The tacky 80s-style pen holder and faux-50s butter dish-cum-paperclip dock? These items didn’t improve my writing days; they took up space on my desk because people had given them to me as gifts, gifts befitting of an author, the people had said, and I hadn’t known how to politely respond with something like, “Well, thanks! But actually? I know we love to imagine what a writer’s typical day is like, and I know there are plenty of writers out there who actually do compose their oeuvres on old newsroom typewriters or yellow legal pads as they listen to Bach or Tom Waits, but me? I’m really just so basic, grumpier than I am mysterious or trendy, about what I need to have a good writing day: A screen, a comfortable seating arrangement, silence, and the presence of no living thing.” Oh, and I need to be in a good headspace—not inebriated or euphoric, and certainly not depressed. Just…balanced. Neutral.

I’m building a life now with the person I fell in love with. We are in Montreal, and we share my writing desk because it’s all we can afford. This is the first creative piece I’ve written since last year’s vomiting bookcase incident. I’ve done a lot of other writing, cover letters, fussy variations on my curriculum vitae, Facebook rants, but I haven’t felt compelled to write from the heart. These days, when I can’t write, which is typically every day, I turn away from the capacious Ikea pine desk I bought when money didn’t matter, and I stare at a painting of my dead cat*. To some people, this fact is in conflict with the fact that writers write all the time. Writers must write all the time. We are machines; it’s all we are designed to do. My partner tries every other day to get me to write. “Hey! How about just a half-hour?” He wonders if it will make me feel better, and he’s right. I know it. I just have to get past the excruciating slowness of beginning again. 

* R.I.P. Troy, 1997 – 2012. 

April Ford’s fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous print and online journals, including Grain, Ploughshares, New Madrid, Atticus Review, Lascaux, and Gargoyle. Her debut novel, Carousel, is forthcoming in 2019 with Inanna Publications.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Nathaniel G. Moore : my (small press) writing day

I usually work a 7 hour day doing freelance publicity work, which includes pitching festivals, writing event and award releases, responding to emails, designing event posters, organizing review copy mail outs, doing follow-ups for media and other top secret book PR tasks which are part of my vocational quest for greatness. I used to do this from an office in the woods in BC, but we moved a couple of months ago to Fredericton.

Since I work almost exclusively in the small press vat, and my job description includes a lot of writing; my whole day could be described as a small press writing day. I suspect this is what you are getting at rob mclennan, as you framed this interview / essay series.

I’ll try to get there as cohesively as possible.

My writing days orbits around domestic virtue, deadlines, bills, weather and other assorted distractions. But one recent writing day could be patched together into a comprehensive look at a not so typical example of my creative habits.

In the afternoon during the week, I pick up my daughter from school and she usually has a friend with her to raid our fridge. The friend vanishes and I make dinner.

But a recent and long overdue trip to Montreal proffered a unique version of my small press writing day, in the most delightful way.

My friend Vitalyi Bulychev and I worked on a short film which we had organize and shoot quite quickly and with a very small cast. (This film is about Catullus and I play the part of Calvus, Catullus’s best friend.) It’s in support of a new book of poetry (Goodbye Horses) I have coming out with Mansfield Press in the spring. We shot the film in three hours at a green screen studio, and to give you a quick summary: Catullus hears music, plays music, complains about his life to a series of friends, myself (Calvus) included. There is also a scene where a group of people simultaneously read Catullus’ poetry (which is my poetry) in an almost cult-like chant. In another scene, Catullus is approached by a fan in a graveyard who wants to talk to him about his poetry. It was fun to write a small script for this, because I’m also writing a novel about Catullus, called Transcripts of a Roman Séance, to complete what I am calling The Original Catullus Trilogy, starting with the now out-of-print, Let’s Pretend We Never Met (Pedlar, 2007). A lot of the same characters are in Goodbye Horses and the novel, so it was fun to workshop these relationships in the short film. This was my favourite writing day in recent memory, because it involved an intertexual workshop, costumes and short hand storyboarding, plus on the fly directing and a crash course in Catullus for the cast and crew of 8.

In my regular strength life, when I’m not doing my freelance contract work, I pick away at reading fiction and poetry and doing research on Roman societal mores, food habits, sexual habits, and spend hours doing math and studying maps, attempting to get a realistic sense of how long it took to travel by cart from one Roman city to another. I also try to stay current with all the new releases from other presses, and when I can, interview authors or write small reviews, something I’ve been doing for nearly twenty years—something unfortunately which simply doesn’t pay enough to maintain in my current lifestyle, which includes continuous financial invasions.

I tend to have stacks of books and notebooks stuffed in drawers and backpacks all over the house so if I find myself alone for a spell, I can pick up where I last left off. I usually have a manuscript that I’m constantly marking up and adding things to along the margins as a cat will claw at it, urging me to make it better. It’s a rapid fire way of writing and progressing; a battle against one’s self importance. Your kids and family have to come first, your highly-in-demand works on Catullus, second.

Nathaniel G. Moore is the author of a few books including Savage, winner of the 2014 ReLit Award. His next book Goodbye Horses, will be out with Mansfield Press in the spring of 2018. He currently lives and works in Fredericton, New Brunswick with his wife and daughter and some cats.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

K.I. Press : My Writing Day

The holidays are coming and so is my writing day. Not day but night rather, for what am I but a person who cannot work before sitting for a long while. Sitting to think with the music on and the mindless thumbing and maybe even just the nothing, I am one who can sit, sit, sit in a chair and think until my mouth is dry, but I will not arise until I am done thinking.

I am profoundly introverted and spend my days teaching. I’m socially exhausted at the end of the day. Sometimes I feel like the inside of my head is screaming and jostling around hitting my skull like bunch of cackling Jacks-in-the-box. I need to sit and think and be alone, without working, without writing, for a while, to calm them down. I can only do that after my daughter goes to bed. And then I think.

I think while the little people in the computer build their lives, I think in my simmering back-head while the lives of all the lot of you scroll by.

I really should just write. The thinking is sometimes true and sometimes an excuse. The thinking is necessary but also inertia.

My “office” is the chair I nursed my daughter in. The rocking mechanism stopped up long ago. It’s fine, I don’t want to rock when I write, but I wish the arms were a little different, a little further apart, for I can’t get quite the right angle on the elbows when I’m typing.

I’ve a bookshelf or two and a TV tray and a lamp in the wrong place because the right place would be too far from the electrical outlet plus it’s the only place for my daughter to store her guitar. My things are stored in cardboard boxes and vertical piles on the floor. The TV tray is too small for piles. File cabinets, I have a few, but aren’t they just where paper goes to die? I never open them. Paper exists there. It couldn’t be that important.

The holidays are coming and so are my writing nights. I never get to catch up on sleep, no matter the vacation, because I need to squeeze time so tight. Because during vacation I have to work on work neither in the day nor in the evening and so I can get my thinking done and then there I am and it’s not even 10 o’clock and I’m ready to rock and roll! Hallelujah!

It’s not exactly the life. My shoulders hurt from the stupid angle of my elbows. The cardboard sleeve that belongs to a deluxe Moomin collection holds the papers I have yet to file. Papers on their deathbed.

I could have wine, but it’s a bad idea. It just makes me give up and fall asleep. I could have a snack, or water, at least, come on! But these things are also bad ideas. Once the roll has begun, stopping it for any reason is a bad idea.

This is only one kind of holiday: the winter kind.

Summers are a bit different, with less work-work, less social exhaustion, and my vacation even overlaps with the time my daughter is still in school. I get to have writing days, in fact; though, really, more than three or four hours of intense work, day or night, I find a stretch. I still need the other hours for reading, for thinking. I consider that part of my work.

In summers, my writing nights are in a camp chair in a falling-apart screen house, only lightly protected from the mosquitoes. From around 7 or 8 o’clock till 10 or 11 I sit in there, with a delicious non-alcoholic beverage, with the Wi-Fi on my laptop disabled, and write as fast as my little fingers can go. The dog likes to hang out with me in the back yard – until it gets dark, then she comes over and tries to herd me inside, and eventually gives up on me.  I’d love to have a writing shed. Only it would need a bathroom. Because of the beverages. I don’t like to have to go inside.

These summer evenings in my backyard are my most productive time of my whole year, and the reason that I don’t like going on vacations. Vacations just eat into my writing time. It is very hard to explain this to my family, and mostly I give in.

I’d take a picture of the screen house, but it’s December now, and my nursing chair is in the position it’s in because it’s directly in front of a heat register. (In summer I move the indoor operation elsewhere because the air conditioning is too cold.) I’m sitting in it as I write this. I look forward to the next few weeks of relative calm and greater getting-the-thinking-out-of-the-way-early-so-I-can-do-more-writing-ness.

K.I. Press’s most recent collection of poetry is Exquisite Monsters (Turnstone). She lives in Winnipeg.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Chris Galvin : Writing Day

This past September divides my writing days into before and after. Before, I’d get up around six, maybe do a crossword puzzle, peruse the Guardian, enjoy some solitude and a tiny strong coffee before my husband awoke. Have breakfast with him and see him off, then switch on the laptop, fritter away some mind-emptying time on Twitter, and finally, open a file and wonder if it was time for another tiny coffee. The rest of the day I’d write and edit, watch the birds and the squirrel antics in my garden, look stuff up, write more, and garden-watch more. With some household tasks or a walk thrown in, and some cooking and reading. All my days end with books.

For over a year, I’ve not submitted much to lit mags or elsewhere. I’ve focused instead on preparing query packages for my nonfiction manuscript, Breakfast Under the Bodhi Tree. Penning thirty-six chapter outlines was a challenge. Daunting when I began, but useful. I would do it again for another book as part of my editing process. To pick out the main elements of each chapter, distill the chapters into two-paragraph summaries that loosely connect them all, that are concise, yet offer enough detail to entice a reader to keep reading—this was my aim. To accomplish this, I reread each chapter with an eye for overarching theme or meaning. Some chapters, I saw, needed more details; others needed trimming.

After early September, my writing days spun in a downward spiral. I still rise around six, but my quiet solitary time ends thirty minutes later with rumbling dump trucks, or a delivery of steel piles that construction workers drive into the ground directly across the street, a quarter hour of bam-clang pandemonium per pile, 400 piles to go. Before the pile-driving came the chainsaw destruction of a one-hundred-tree forest where much of my garden wildlife lived. Earth-shaking hydraulic shovels removed a town block’s worth of soil that hadn’t been dug beyond garden-tilling depth in over a century. They excavated so deep that the water of Lac St. Louis on the other side of a bordering road wells up in the monstrous hole, collapsing its meticulously calculated sloping sides.

I consider going to a café, but I’ve never been able to write in public spaces, not even libraries. Jot down ideas, yes, but nothing requiring concentration. My home, when I’m the only one in it, is my writing castle. My refuge.

At noon, the insanity—roaring trucks, growling generator, clanging hydraulic pile drivers, beep-beep-beeping vehicles in reverse, hollering and shouting workers—all stops and I rush to open my chapter outlines and manuscript. I have one hour, if I’m lucky. Having made many small changes in the manuscript, I’m reading the whole thing again to look for introduced typos and such. Then I’ll be ready to send it all out to the first small press on my short list. I manage two chapters before the hellish condo project racket starts up again. In the evening, around 8 or 9 o’clock, after the workers leave, I search for more publishers that might be interested in my manuscript; I research back catalogues, guidlelines, editors. Then I go to bed wondering how I’ll survive the condo project and if my book will ever see publication. I retreat into a good book to ease me into sleep.

Chris Galvin divides her time between Montreal and central Vit Nam. Her writing and photography have appeared in Room, PRISM International, Descant, Asian Cha, and other places. She has written for Vietnamese travel and culture publications in Vietnamese and English. Chris is currently looking for a home for her recently completed nonfiction manuscript, Breakfast under the Bodhi Tree, about living, eating, and tour-guiding in Vit Nam. She tweets as @ChrisGNguyen.