If there’s a process to my writing, it involves transcendence. Gravity must be resisted and therein lays the suspense. The lift-off, when smooth, is magical, but often there’s turbulence and a struggle ensues. Either way, it usually starts two coffees into my early morning at my L-shaped desk when I face my screen and the window looking out onto the low-rise buildings of my Montréal neighbourhood. I fire-up the laptop and gauge the dials, among them the crucial Self-Doubt Index – its needle quivers at medium, high or off the dial, but never low or zero.
There are many variables, SDI among them, to this writing life, so much uncertainty and risk, so few absolutes. I’ve trained myself to be consistent in one simple action: sitting down to write every possible day. Of course it’s not always possible or, as a colleague in the corporate world used to say, “Only dead people are consistent.”
That’s where my discipline took shape, in the corporate world. Straight out of university, at the age of 20, I landed a desk job because on the day the company interviewed, there was a massive snow storm and I was the only person who showed up. They needed someone fast and there I was. For almost two decades, I sat at desks in open offices and in various cubicles, writing with a gun to my head. Ok, it wasn’t loaded, but I felt the relentless pressure of producing while stressed-out bosses hovered within earshot or paced outside my cubicle. The only one with a liberal arts background, I became the target for any piece of writing needed yesterday, within the hour, by noon tomorrow. What saved me was my spare-time writing, the poems and stories I wrote on weekends and holidays. Just before I turned 40, I understood that my spare-time writing had become my real work so I walked away from a decent-paying job with solid benefits.
I took little with me except my discipline, perhaps the most redeeming by-product of the capitalist endeavour. Also, the ability to focus even when city workers are jack-hammering the sidewalk outside my apartment building and the immense privilege of writing what I want to write about, in the form I choose – poetry, fiction, whatever. No unloaded gun to my head, just the internal pressure of wanting to produce writing that’s meaningful and authentic. Of course it turned out to be much harder than anticipated, the total financial uncertainty of this life and the soul-sucking quest for publication and readership. Three books in, I’m never sure I have the necessary mental toughness to endure.
Yet almost every day I manage to sit at my L-shaped surface formed by two tables, roughly door-sized. To my left is what I call the “analog desk” stacked with files containing half-baked stories, incomplete poems, essays-in-progress, notebooks with ideas scribbled on the pages, spreadsheets tracking my submissions and articles on writing. Also, critically, the books, dictionaries and notes I’ll be consulting as I write. Facing me is the “digital desk” – the laptop, big screen, keyboard, a back-up device and printer. Here I do the writing – from first draft to final – except for poetry which I always write longhand at the analog desk for at least two to three drafts. But social media, no...that’s reserved for my phone, sequestered in a separate room to limit the ever-beckoning temptation to ramp-up dopamine.
So here I am writing this very essay about writing. The space is warm with a solid roof. Nobody is shooting at me. Nor is it likely I’ll ever be arrested for my words. Self-censorship is the greater problem. Outside, a gentle snowfall blurs the low-rise Montréal buildings as I contemplate the burden of my privilege, or what the freedom to write really means.
To tame the self-doubt, I invoke my heroes. Many of them writers in prison who managed to overcome their ungentle realities and find the wherewithal to break with silence, to demand pencil and paper, to resist and write: Rubin Carter who spent decades in solitary confinement for a double murder he didn’t commit; Ken Saro-Wiwa, the environmental activist arrested and then executed in Nigeria; and Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident imprisoned for his writings. The list remains long – last year, PEN International recorded 78 writers in prison around the world.
Outrage is a powerful creative fuel. Siphoning an iota of my heroes’ determination and courage, I unfold the margins of mind to get at that sacred liminal space, to find some flow and transcend my fears. I don’t like writing directly about myself but, of course, my Self is in everything I write. I think it was Nadine Gordimer who said, “Write as if you’re dead.” Her words are liberating. Although I rarely feel more alive than when I’m airborne, writing.
Cora Siré is the author of a collection of poetry and two novels, including Behold Things Beautiful (Signature Editions, 2016) which was a finalist for QWF’s Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction in 2017. For details, please visit her website, www.quena.ca.