Saturdays are my best writing day because, if left to my own devices, I would like nothing more than to start working before I am fully awake. When I can do this, I can trick myself into not thinking about how good or bad the piece is going to be and actually get down to the writing. Usually though, my writing day starts at 5 or 6, after I’m home from my day job. I’ve let my two ferrets out and, between them wanting both my attention and in general just to nip at my toes, I am sufficiently aware that if I don’t write something in the next few hours or so, I will have lost a day.
But no pressure.
I start with a word, a phrase, sometimes a sentence that’s not yet fully formed. I will read non-fiction that is somehow related to whatever I think my poem is going to become, and I collect fragments as I’m reading in my notebook. I’ll find a sentence here, an interesting word there, maybe a phrase. Words I think will make it into the poem as is I put a star beside or outline in a square. Most of the time this is so I remember to read them, because my handwriting is only slightly better than a child just learning to print and even I find deciphering it painful. I don’t write in the lines. I think if I ever became famous enough that students would want to study my notebooks they would need a background in cryptology.
Once I have these fragments, I look for unexpected connections of ideas, idioms that will lead to a double meaning with enjambment, slant rhymes to evoke an idea without ever using the term itself. Research on the use of zombies in film leads to looking up dysarthria and other diseases that can cause moaning and other vocal tics. This in turn requires research on diseases of the vocal tract, which somehow becomes a poem that features the power dynamics between Freud and a mute Anna O. I spend a lot of time arranging, then re-arranging fragments, usually while I am silently willing the glass of water on my desk to magically turn into a beer. If all is going well, I have forgotten to eat dinner and will realize an hour from now that I should feed myself.
I alternate between prose and fiction, but prose days are always slower. I start with a sentence or two, maybe three, stare out the window. Beginnings are the worst because I usually can’t bring myself to move on from the first paragraph of a short story until it sounds right. The rhythm has to be right so I read it again and again, deleting a word here, a phrase there.
I have written three sentences.
I force myself to write the next scene without reading over it too much, then I jump maybe three scenes in because I can’t think of how to connect what needs to happen next to what I know is going to happen. At this point one of my ferrets bites my toes and tries to climb my chair so I am distracted for the next twenty minutes. I fill in what I think are my missing scenes with a sentence, then realize more research is necessary.
I have written four paragraphs. One of my ferrets is currently fighting a water bottle.
Most of the time I go back and forth between writing a scene and the research I think I need to do for a piece. Usually this is a connection that I haven’t thought about, or a backstory essential to my character which I know nothing about. For example, I might have to look up “Japanese traditional festival with dolls” because it becomes imperative that my Japanese character has had a traumatic childhood experience where he would have had access to dolls. Then all of sudden my character has a sister, and I have to explain to myself why she is no longer a large part of the family dynamic. Or I might start by searching for “weird superstitions,” because I know I have a superstitious mother-to-be on my hands, and find that these often involve birds. I learn that doves produce crop milk to feed their young for the first few days and I want a symbol, but I’m worried doves are way too clichéd. Are there any animals which are often mistaken for doves? By the time I’m finished I have learned that a jynx torquila can turn its neck all the way around to stare at someone, that a certain species of white pigeon can pass as a dove if someone doesn’t know much about birds. I have written a non-sequential page and a half and my other ferret has somehow climbed onto my desk and started drinking from my water glass.
Sometimes though, the rhythm clicks. Sometimes I know exactly what happens next in a scene and I get to the end of two pages without breaking once to check twitter, or write an email, or see if one of my ferrets would find a plastic bag interesting. Sometimes all the words in a poem are already somehow there, and I find myself just connecting the pieces with phrases that lead to new phrases I could never have connected before. These are the days I forget time; these are the days when I feel like I can call myself a “real” writer.
Number of Words: as many as possible (I try not to count)
Number of Hours/Day: 2-5, with breaks in between
Drinks consumed: surprisingly (for someone who also owns Draught Dodger brewery) only water
Number of Ferret bites: too many to count
Paola Ferrante is an emerging writer whose poetry and fiction have appeared, or are forthcoming in Minola Review, Overland, The /tƐmz/ Review, Geometry and Third Point Press. Her poetry has been longlisted for The Puritan’s 2017 Thomas Morton Memorial Prize for Literary Excellence, and shortlisted for Eyewear Publishing LTD's Fortnight Poem Prize, along with the 2017 Fairy Tale Review Awards. Paola Ferrante is currently working on her first collection of poetry, What to Wear When Surviving a Lion Attack. She resides in Toronto, Canada.