Friday, June 29, 2018

Timothy Otte : my (small press) writing day

I want to push against the idea that a writer is “productive” or that a writer “produces.” Our value as writers isn’t tied to how many words or pieces we write and especially not tied to how much we publish or the awards or fellowships or grants we win. Your biography is not your worth. My value as a person is in the relationships I make, the community I build, and the kindness I share. I’m more interested in living a life of poetry than I am in being a Poet. I thank my mentor, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, for teaching this to me, and continuing to insist on it; my gratitude to my friend Éireann Lorsung for the same.

For me, few days contain sustained writing of more than an hour or two. Most days, what I do wouldn’t be considered writing by most people. For my friends who are parents, or sick, or caring for family, or working multiple jobs, or students, even fewer days contain creative writing at all, and yet they are still writers. I work only forty hours a week and don’t have children, so I manage to write a lot, as these things go. But it can also depend on what I’m writing, whether or not I like what I’m writing, or what season it is. I write best when it’s light outside, so April through October are my generative months. November through March is when I revise (if I can muster the energy for it) and send poems out (if I enjoy reading what I’ve written).

There is no typical writing day for me. I try not to be precious with my writing—I draft just as well by hand in a notebook as I do in the notes app on my phone. I write when there’s a bit of language or an image in my head that I keep turning over and when I have a spare five- or ten-minute to play with that language. Once every week or so I manage to set aside an evening or a Saturday to focus on writing. During those times, I try to have a goal: draft or revise a book review, revise a poem or two, go through the fragments I’ve collected and build on whatever jumps out.

I find it helpful to remember that language is tied to the breath. It’s easy to forget that language is inherently embodied, especially if your body isn’t interrogated on a regular basis: bodies that are white, cis, able, thin, mostly male. I have certain privileges that allow me to write in certain ways, but I reject the idea that the way I write is the only way to write. I can tell you about my writing day, but also that’s not useful to you.

Rather than thinking of myself as “producing” writing, I prefer to think of the process as “generative,” which feels tied to birth and growth and resembles the word “garden.” Bodies are inefficient, messy, and easily broken, which are bad features under capitalism. But those features of the body are good for writing: when we take our time, we’re more likely to notice, and when we’re noticing we’re outside of a production cycle and capable of doing our best growth (both personal and culturally). Sometimes, not making art can be a radical act.

Mostly, my writing looks like reading. I read a little every day. I read a lot in a year. I read a few poems before going to sleep, or a fantasy novel out loud with my partner while we cook or wash dishes, or sometimes a blessed evening on the couch with my dogs. I began keeping a book diary in 2013, so every book I finish reading I enter into my reading log. Title, author (and translator if applicable), publisher, year published, genre, page count, date finished. Sometimes I record who lent or recommended it to me. Finally, a page about how I liked the book.

The project I’m revising right now is a book-length poem about time and routine and the ways politics touch our lives directly and indirectly. I think it’s some of the best writing I’ve ever done. I wrote it mostly in the notes app on my phone, every day from April 1st through June 30th, 2017. At most I spent an hour drafting a section, but most sections took between five and fifteen minutes to write. I took a few days off to go camping with friends. A few days I wrote as many as two sections. I cut nearly a third of the sections I wrote. Each section begins the same: “every day I wake up & …” The poem spirals from there. The form was very generative. It felt a lot like living.

Timothy Otte is a poet and critic. Poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Denver Quarterly, Sixth Finch, SAND Journal, Structo, and others. Reviews have appeared in the Poetry Project Newsletter, LitHub, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. Otte runs the Poetry Book Club at SubText Books in St. Paul, MN, works at Coffee House Press, and keeps a home on the internet:

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Christine Fischer Guy : My (small press) writing day

Best case scenario: I sit at my writing desk in pajamas with a cup of coffee by 7am and get right to it. The veil between dreaming and waking has only just lifted, so the writing space is like an open plain at sunrise. Every blade of grass glistens with promise. The ink flows freely. I’m away! By the end of the writing day, I’m satisfied. It’s only a first draft, but it’s a thousand new words. I am a happier, nicer person to everyone around me. I put a roast in the oven and then bake a pie for dessert.

Alternate scenario #1: Sitting at my writing desk in pajamas with a cup of coffee by 7am, check. The veil between dreaming and waking has only just lifted. Check! Oops, my pen is out of ink. No matter! The refill goes smoothly. It takes a while to get the pen working, but then I’m away, having wasted very little time. By the end of the writing day, things have gone as swimmingly as they can go with a first draft: I have written seven hundred and fifty new words. I’m a decent person to people around me. Homemade spaghetti Bolognese for dinner.

Alternate scenario #2: Sitting at my writing desk in pajamas with a cup of coffee by 7am, check. The veil between dreaming and waking, etc. The little yellow sign I made and stuck to the monitor says Don’t let the world in! but I check my email anyway. By the time I’ve answered a few messages, that veil is a distant memory and I can barely remember what it looks like. Focus. It’s only 8am. Step away from the computer, back to the writing desk. Lots of time left. Focus. Shit, now there’s a single hour left until I have to start marking student work. Now it’s noon, end of my writing day, and what do I have to show for it? One lousy paragraph and a headache. I mark student papers, answer more emails, throw in a load of laundry. What’s for dinner? Eggs. That’s what’s for dinner.

Alternative scenario #3: Sitting at my writing desk in pajamas with a cup of coffee by 7am, check. The veil between dreaming and waking, and so on. The little sign says Don’t let the world in! but I check my email anyway. Then Twitter. Then it’s 9:30am. I begin work, but it’s too late: I’m now miles and miles away from that open plain, so I begin the long trek back there. End of the writing day is just another brick in the wall: I couldn’t find the damned plain, so I’ve written a single shitty sentence. It’s best to avoid me. Leftovers for dinner.

Alternate scenario #4: In the kitchen, the coffee machine isn’t working properly and two of the three other people living in the house have engaged me in conversation. Can I have a ride to work? I’ll be late for dinner, OK? What’s for dinner tonight, anyway? Can you pay the phone bill? No, OK, I don’t know, and yes. I’m tugging on that veil between dreaming and waking: back down, dammit! Serenity now! Ohhhm. Back at writing desk. At least I got the coffee machine working. Last night’s election is impossible to avoid. Don't let the world in! screams the little yellow sign. I’m feeling reckless because of the coffee machine and do anyway. Just a peek. I can handle it. The roofers arrive and the hammering begins. End of writing day: I’ve eked out several words, changed a few commas. The world is a garbage fire and I hate myself. Popcorn and wine for dinner.

Alternate scenario #5: Sitting at my writing desk in pajamas with a cup of coffee by 7am, check. The veil between dreaming and waking has only just lifted. Check and yay! The past two days were write-offs, so I have to make it up today. I watch the snow falling. So far so good.

Christine Fischer Guy is a Toronto author and journalist. Her first novel is The Umbrella Mender (2014, Wolsak & Wynn). Her short fiction has been nominated for the Journey and Pushcart prizes. She is also a fiction critic and an award-winning journalist. She teaches creative writing at the School for Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto and conducts author interviews for the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and Hazlitt. Find her at

Monday, June 25, 2018

Catherine Graham: My (Small Press) Writing Day

Everything Feeds into Everything Else

My writing day fluctuates with the demands of my outer world. This past year brought forth extra obligations with publishing two books—my debut novel Quarry and my sixth poetry collection The Celery Forest

To maintain a link to my inner life I keep a notebook, a place to jot ideas, musings, dream fragments, quotes, snippets of dialogue, descriptions—things that spark my imagination. When I do have time to write, I’ll go back to mine them further.

Play is an important part of my practice. I try not to think about “writing a poem.” The aim is to engage with language, imagery, and mysteries that intrigue. Writing poetry is a process of discovery. I don’t know what I have to write until I’m writing it. My inner world is very important to me: dreams, intuitions, feelings. I try to follow what I’m drawn to and explore the energy there.

Each time I complete a project fear rises—is it the end of my writing journey? Thankfully something new always comes up so I know fear is part of my creative process— a gateway into new psychic territory.

Morning is my favourite time for writing. I’m closer to the dream world then. Many of my notebook entries come from dreams. Sometimes an entire poem appears before my eyes. Unfortunately I’m not quick enough to get it down before it disappears. Very frustrating!

Synchronicity, patterns and connections confirm I’m on the right path. Little signposts that signal: Keep going.

Reading is crucial to my practice. It helps turn my mind inward, away from worries and fears and the gremlins of everyday life.

I write my drafts, both poetry and prose, in a spiral notebook. I need to feel the ink flowing from my body as my mind releases words and the rhythms inside them. I do this in a reclining chair by our front window and keep the blinds half shut to minimize the temptation to people watch. Once I’ve done all I can with a draft, I’ll head to my study and type it out onto the computer.

Exercise also plays a role. Cardio, weights, yoga, walking. This helps unite my body with my mind and keeps my imagination fresh.

When life becomes too busy with teaching, readings, and other commitments I ache to write. Even a small bout helps dissipate the growing tension. Writing grounds me. Themes and subject matters circle round with new angles: the water-filled quarry I grew up beside, the parents I lost too early in life, childhood, nature, cancer, relationships, ghosts. Much of my past surrounds me in my study, on walls and shelves. Dolls, toys, photos of my parents, the quarry, memorabilia from trips, books I love. This too is a comfort.

There really is no on/off switch to being a writer. I’m always thinking about some aspect of the art. Everything feeds into everything else.

Catherine Graham is a Toronto-based writer of poetry and fiction. Among her six poetry collections The Celery Forest was named a CBC Books Top 10 Canadian Poetry Collection of 2017 and appears on their Ultimate Canadian Poetry List. Michael Longley praised it asa work of great fortitude and invention, full of jewel-like moments and dark gnomic utterance.” Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects was a finalist for the Raymond Souster Award and CAA Award for Poetry and her debut novel Quarry won an Independent Publisher Book Awards gold medal for fiction. She received an Excellence in Teaching Award at the University of Toronto SCS and was also winner of IFOA’s Poetry NOW. Her work is anthologized internationally and she has appeared on CBC Radio One’s The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers. Visit her at Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @catgrahampoet.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Amy LeBlanc : my (small press) writing day

            My typical writing day starts with watching the birds outside my windows while I sip a strong cup of coffee. Most of what I see is pigeons, chickadees, sparrows, robins and magpies, but every now and then, I see something different. In February, I saw a migrating flock of Bohemian Waxwings in the crabapple tree outside my kitchen window. In summer, Northern Flickers build nests in my willow tree. Western Tanagers and Blue jays perch in the evergreens. Two ducks have recently moved into the green space beside my townhouse to lay their eggs for the summer. As I watch what I call my ‘morning birds,’ I think about how almost fifty percent of migrating birds die during their journey. For some reason, I find this prospect both gloomy and motivating.

            My best time for writing is either in the morning­ (I consider myself to be an unproductive blob after about one in the afternoon­) or late at night when I get a sudden surge of productivity and can’t sleep. I work full time during the week, so I fit in what writing I can during my lunch breaks and in the evenings. Weekends are my quiet days for writing and recharging after a week full of social interaction. Saturdays are my absolute favorite writing day. Most Saturdays start with an indulgent walk to the bookstore, ten minutes from my house, for a new read and a cup of coffee. If I’m feeling particularly smart, I’ll leave my wallet at home and remind myself that my bookshelves are already overflowing.

            In winter, I normally have to wrestle my cats for some table space, as I clean off the paper scraps, novels, journals, and poetry collections that have accumulated over the week. I open the curtains even if all I can see is white and grey to reconnect myself with everything around me. In summer, I take advantage of the weather and sit in my backyard to watch birds and bees that float by like blimps. Some mornings, a robin sits on the edge of my planters and the wind blows the smell of rosemary and lavender in my direction. I bring a shawl, a pile of books, journals, a big cup of coffee and my laptop outside with me and settle in.

            Whenever I start a new project, I decide which works and which writers I want to learn from and emulate. Lately, I’ve been combining my love of poetry and podcasts into one giant time consuming project. I can listen to podcasts while I’m at work or out for a run and generate ideas for what I want to do with them. I have a running list of lines and words in my phone and a few journals I jot my ideas down in. I feel a bit like a magpie, gathering scraps of information and history here and there. When I finally sit down and start writing, I have to sort through the messy nest I’ve built over the week.

            Some days, that nest feels like a big tangled piece of yarn. It’s all connected and everything that I need to write is there, but it’s knotted and it takes some work to get it out the way I want it to be. When I’m really struggling, I take myself for a walk and leave my headphones at home. While I’m walking, I remind myself that this is all part of writing. I don’t have to be stuck behind my computer screen for hours to consider myself a writer.

            I constantly have to remind myself that I’m always a writer when and not just when I’m writing. This past year has been a challenging experiment in adaptability. I finished my English and creative writing degree and began a degree in Education. In my undergrad, I was encouraged to write everyday and was surrounded by peers and mentors who were as hungry for words as I was. I also had deadlines to write to. Now, I set my own deadlines for writing and no one holds me accountable but me. I’ve felt a huge disconnect from other writers, even while I ran a small literary journal and went to readings, because I wasn’t steeped in writing every day anymore. In short, I stopped feeling like a writer.

            Now, I have a post-it note on my laptop that simply says Write something good today. It doesn’t matter if I write ten pages or half of a poem or one sentence that I am fiercely proud of. In the words of Kyo MacLear, “I like smallness. I like the perverse audacity of someone aiming tiny”. I’ve broadened my understanding of what it means to write and to be a writer. You’re always a writer and not just when you’re writing. You’re a writer when you’re washing the dishes, or running for the train, or noticing the way someone says a certain word, or watering plants in the garden, or organizing rejection letters in your sock drawer. Writers are always like magpies, searching for glittering bits in everything we see, hear and feel. It’s no wonder that each writer’s writing day is different. It all depends on what we’ve gathered to make our nests with.

Amy LeBlanc holds a BA (Hons.) in English Literature and creative writing from the University of Calgary where she was Editor-in-Chief of NōD Magazine.  She is currently non-fiction editor at Filling Station magazine in Calgary. Her work has appeared, or is scheduled to appear in Room, Prairie Fire, Contemporary Verse 2, and EVENT among others. Amy won the 2018 BrainStorm Poetry Contest for her poem "Swell". Her collection Ladybird, Ladybird is forthcoming from Anstruther Press in fall 2018.