Saturday, September 29, 2018

Jennifer Quist : my (small press) writing day

The last time I was introduced to a group of new people, it was by a classmate secure enough in herself to admit to having a friend closer to her mom’s age than her own. She went over my bio for the beautiful young people crowded around a table in a small Korean pub in arty inner Edmonton—three novels, five sons, PhD student, China, blah, blah—and I made it weirder by shaking my head and saying, “No, stop. It’s not true, none of it’s true.”

It is my real bio, one that usually provokes cringe-y but polite and perfectly reasonable follow up questions about how I can do those things all at the same time. These questions are seldom meant maliciously. I know that and try not to let them smack me down, but they often sound to prickly me like a challenge, an audit. Let’s see your logbook, ya big phony. Look, the fact is, except for where it mentions a few awards, my bio never claims I’m any good at the things I do. Living the way I do means being bad at stuff. Achievements and good habits many people have perfected by the time they’re my age either aren’t on my schedule or appear there only in half-butt messes. Let’s just say, thank goodness for pre-fab Pillsbury cookie-dough-in-a-tube and kids who are precocious with kitchen appliances.

But beyond the mother-student-artist-daughter-friend guilt issues I drag behind me into small talk, there is a real, logistical question here, the one people have actually asked: where does the time for writing come from? What, as rob’s blog series asks, is my writing day?

All that stuff about writing as a daily way of life, a regular routine, in the same cozy place, when the sunlight is coming through the window just so—if that’s not you, go ahead and scrap all of that. If you’re like me, writing time is a season, like in that old Byrds song on the cassette tape in my parents’ car, with the “turn, turn, turn” and the rest of the lyrics lifted from somewhere deep in the Old Testament.

“A time to plant, a time to reap…a time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together.”

When I’m writing, I’m in a season of casting away stones. What I have seen, felt, heard, imagined is set loose, tossed into the open, raked out and cobbled into a form, a path that can be traveled by other people, readers. Writing season is a frantic time, no moderation, no routine, no discipline. It usually happens in the summer when my children’s school schedule is not pounding out a rhythm for me to march against. It’s a season of sleeping 3 ½ to 4 hours a night. I’ll try to go to bed, just to be sociable, to maintain a marriage, but then I’ll lie in the dark, knowing the only two choices I really have are to write or to lie awake thinking about what I wish I was writing.  My husband doesn’t stir when I leave to sit at the desk in my laundry room. He might notice I’m gone and come find me to make sure I’m not fighting a burglar or cleaning up someone’s vomit. Otherwise, he leaves me to it. Writing season doesn’t last long but while it’s on, it’s a mania—productive, tolerable but still a mania. My nurse sister says I could probably get a prescription to fix it.

No thanks.

Currently, I am in a season of gathering stones together. I am in a season of reading. This is the phase of my doctoral studies where I prepare to write comprehensive exams to prove myself knowledgeable enough to become the kind of doctor who can rescue people hemorrhaging comparative literature. It is a cold and quiet season—a winter. There are no classes, no teaching assignments, just me, some snacks, and the sixty-one books I will be tested on. This season is not a mania, but a slog. Two-thirds of the way through my PhD reading list, I realized something. If I was going to appreciate any more of what I was reading, if I was going to gather any more stones to grind away in my poor brain, I needed to cast a few stones away. I needed to take a few minutes now and then, even in the winter, to write something.

There was no time for anything in excess of my PhD work so I found ways to write within that scope. Translation is creative rewriting and the subject of my studies. Of course, I can’t write about translation theory without translating anything so I reworked a few excerpts from canonical modern Chinese literature that I’ve never seen translated into English to my satisfaction.

Even the creative outlet of translation wasn’t enough. I ducked into my desk drawer and found the notebook I had been keeping while studying in China last summer. “Listen to your story” it says in dubious English on the foot of each blank, lined page. The notebook began as a personal journal, another white-lady travel memoir, but as I add to it now, my research, my reading list, mobilizes my idle reflections on that time abroad into something more. The notebook is the same kind of creative nonfiction I’ve written for years, but it feels different. I’ve never cast away stones like these before. Maybe the notebook will become an appendix to my dissertation, read by me and three or four other people obliged to by their academic duties. Or maybe it will develop into a fully realized manuscript I don’t yet understand. Perhaps all it will ever do is sustain me through this dull, difficult winter season. I write on, in fits, after 2am, by the light of a laundry room lamp, even on school nights, waiting for summer.

Jennifer Quist is a writer, critic, student, cry baby, and author of Love Letters of the Angels of Death (2013), Sistering (2015), and the newly released The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner (2018). After careers in social research, journalism, and stay-at-home-mothering, she is now studies as a graduate student in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Jordan Moffatt : my (small press) writing day

Used to be my typical writing day was actually a full day: when I was working part-time at the bookstore (BMV) or the coffee shops (Bridgehead, Union Street) or when I went back to College (Algonquin), I had one day a week (usually a Tuesday or Wednesday) where I had a day off, what I called “Jordan’s Day Off” (JDO), and I could wake up early, eat a banana, make a coffee in my rocket red Bodum french press, read for a bit, go for some fresh air (FA) by going for a bike ride, eat some breakfast, make another coffee, put on a record on the stereo, and then settle in for some leisurely writing at whatever pace I wanted, taking frequent breaks, and then, after a few of these JDOs, have a short story all ready to go.

Now’s different. I’ve been working full-time for the last nine months, and there was a big adjustment for awhile in terms of how I’d get to do my writing without JDOs but now I’ve settled into some kind of writing routine for me but also something that’s not really a day. Most of it happens on my lunch break. I’ll take a notebook and a coffee with me to Westboro Beach or Maplelawn (pictured) or McKellar Park or whatever but most of the time I’m at Equator Coffee and I can usually get down a few hundred new words or review the few hundred from the day before in between sips and checking about cycling issues on twitter. So my writing happens in segments.

This change has changed the types of things I write. I used to write pretty short short stories, considering that on a really good day I’d be able to write a story from start to finish. Now, considering I write in 30-40 minute chunks, I’m writing longer short stories in small pieces and it takes me about a month or two to finish one. This is good and I enjoy it.

Jordan Moffatt lives in Ottawa. His first collection of short stories will be published in fall 2018 by Bad Books.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

My Writing Day : Erika Thorkelson

My writing days tend to be fluid because I do so many different things. I’ve usually held multiple jobs in order to continue to do what I love and also survive. In the past, I’ve worked as a teacher, a server (pub, banquet, fast food, café), a production assistant, a hotel front desk clerk, the list goes on and on. I feel some trepidation in writing about my writing day because I’ve spent so much of my life being carefully timed. When you work in restaurants or in the service industry, your time is very much not your own. You must always at least appear to be busy doing something to prove you are productive. But when you’re a writer, you must have time to drift, time when your mind is empty and wandering, or nothing will ever get solved.
            This particular day is a day just for writing. I can afford this day because earlier in the summer, I got a small Canada Council grant, which means I don’t need to get another job on top of my teaching and freelance work. It’s a Thursday in September. Autumn went on like a switch this year at the beginning of the month, and the trees outside my window are tinged with copper and swaying in a slight wind. Yesterday was the first class of the semester, so I’m feeling particularly calm after weeks of stress and preparation. I’m being kind to myself because I’ve learned that is the best way for me to be present both for my students and for my writing.
             My partner wakes up at 6:30 every weekday morning because he has a regular 9-5, so I do as well. The structure keeps me from losing track of myself in the amorphousness of the writing life. Breakfast is oatmeal and a smoothie that my partner makes with milk kefir we brew in our cupboard. The seeds were a gift from my friend Iva Cheung who I have coffee with about once a year. I think of her every time I smell the brew’s warm yeastiness. I think about how busy she is doing amazing work and how, despite all that, she finds time to have coffee with me and give me kefir grains and jars of homemade jam.
             While I eat, I check my email and browse social media. There’s an email from one editor about a piece I’m working on and from another confirming she received my signed contract. This is the business of writing and should not go without saying. My partner drinks half a cup of coffee and I drink the rest of the pot after he leaves.
             Before I get to work, I go for a walk. My urge is always to roll out of bed and to the computer, but I’ve learned that this makes my body very angry. I used to run, but my body wasn’t built for that either. Whatever I do with my day, I must warm up or my hips and lower back get stuck in place and the rest is pain and frustration. This, too, is a legacy of those years of working on my feet, carrying trays full of beer jugs and folding hundreds of hotel towels.
             The weather is cool and gray, but it isn’t raining, which makes everything easier. My neighbourhood is filled with families, so I pass teens on their way to school and listen to the way they talk to each other. Sometimes I listen to a podcast or audiobook and walk west, deep into the mansions of Shaughnessy where even the moss is rich, but today I have an appointment.
             I sit down at my desk around 8:30. It’s in a spare room that we’ve made into a kind of library and storage space. My workspace is crowded with stacks of books and papers I use for research, and it overlooks the street. I take out a spiral bound notebook and write out a number of questions for the man I’m scheduled to interview at 9 am. Being a journalist in Vancouver means that a lot of work can happen first thing in the morning. I’m aware that it’s already 11:30 in Toronto. I reread a few background articles to refresh the topic in my mind.
             At exactly 9 am, I open set a program on my computer to record, then I put my phone on speaker and call my subject. As we speak, I take notes, careful to mark the time so that when I go back to transcribe the interview later, I’ll have a sense of the structure of the interview and where some important points are.
             This is the fifth interview I’ve done for this story, which isn’t due until late October. I have at least two interviews left to do. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll transcribe and begin to shape the story out of the thematic connections between the interviews. If I find I’m missing information, I’ll reconnect with my sources and fill in the blanks. For now, I simply save the interview in a file with the others under the name of the subject and the organization he represents.
             After our talk, I update the spreadsheet I created to keep track of my sources so I know what I’ve done and what I have left to do. I see that one of the sources I reached out to has not responded to my initial email, so I write a follow-up and poke around the internet to find a better contact. With that work done, I check my teaching email. Class just started yesterday, so I don’t expect to see anything from my students yet. I look around social media a bit again, then convince myself to go to the gym. While I work out, I listen to a podcast about pop culture called Keep It. It’s breezy and funny, which is a nice counterpoint to the greyness of the day. While I listen, ideas for essays form and evaporate.
             I come home and listen to the CBC while I stretch. The lunchtime show is about loneliness. I listen while I eat my lunch alone. After lunch, I’m gripped by a formless, free-floating existential fear that I’ll never accomplish anything meaningful with my life.
             I eventually resolve to take my laptop to a café down the street. I like being amongst people when I write because it helps me focus, but I prefer to be alone or with someone who is ok with long periods of silence. I wasn’t always good at long periods of silence, but I’ve learned they are necessary. Sometimes, I’ll run into a friend on the street and the brief positive interaction will fuel me for the rest of the day.
             There, with a coffee and cookie to support me, I go back to re-outlining the novel I’ve been working on for about five years. I finished a draft of it earlier in the year and I hired an editor who gave me a great deal of useful feedback. I was able to pay for the editor out of the same Canada Council grant that has made this whole day possible.
             My struggle at the moment is to bring the central character into clearer focus and give her arc more momentum. In the past, I’ve rushed through this, perhaps because I was always working on borrowed time between paying projects. Now I’m using the outline as a way to get a broader perspective rather than get lost polishing the minutiae. I wonder if this novel would be done by now if I didn’t have so many other responsibilities, but that isn’t very productive in this moment.
             I start listing out the important moments of my character’s journey in each chapter. Eventually, it grows into a 5-page document of bullet points. Time passes quickly now that I’m concentrating. I lose and recapture the whole plot in my mind multiple times as I go. The beginning is in focus, but the rest shifts around too much. It doesn’t feel like it’s building into a satisfying whole.
             After a while, I realize the best way to do this work is to create a visualization of the character’s entire arc. I go home and pull out a whiteboard, then transfer the notes onto it. By the time I’m done, my partner is on his way home and it’s time to make dinner. We’ve got plans to see a documentary in the evening, so time is tight.
             Still, today has been a good day, a productive day. Progress has been small, but satisfying. My goal is to finish this draft by the end of the year, and I feel like I’m on track. These kinds of days are a privilege that I’ve worked toward for over many years. Yet I’m still surprised and a little embarrassed by how lucky I am to have this time. I know there are people who are pulled in many more directions than I am, people who have children and people who face an even worse economic struggle than I have. I see the preciousness of these days and I worry that something will happen to take them away. But for the moment, I mostly feel good. 

Erika Thorkelson is a freelance journalist and writer of fiction and creative non-fiction living in Vancouver, British Columbia whose work has appeared in local and national publications, such as The Walrus, Maisonneuve and Room Magazine. She has been a regular contributor of arts and culture writing to the Vancouver Sun as well as a host and operator on The Storytelling Show on Vancouver Co-op Radio. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and is currently a sessional instructor at Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

From 2007 to 2009, she taught English in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan. In 2013, she received an Access Copyright Foundation Grant to return to the region to research the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. In 2018, she received a Canada Council Grant to continue work on a novel surrounding the same topic.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Dan Crawley : My Writing Moments

I have experienced the routine of writing novels during the same block of time, day in and day out, sometimes for long stretches. There was that time, after graduating from college and having a nine-to-five job, I wrote every night for a few hours before bed on the chapters of a book. And I had produced a very, very rough draft after about a year or so. Another time, in my early thirties, I landed at my sister’s home in Texas, feeling out of sorts about my life and my choices and what comes next. I set up a schedule from morning until the afternoon, treating these daylight hours of writing as if it were a full-time career. I typed out this other novel in the span of six months that to this day remains also in a very, very rough draft form. But writing short stories for decades now hasn’t been as routine, sitting at a workspace during the same time every day or night. I write short stories when I can, a practice since the age of twenty. My writing moments.

Moments are all I can muster. I think obsessively about a character’s dialogue while cleaning the dishes or walking to the market or taking the trash bins out to the curb for the next day’s pick-up. A few lines quickly scribbled down into a composition notebook. I know all writers do this obsessive mulling regarding their characters, but I can’t tell you when my mulling will become a significant typed draft. It happens when it happens. Maybe when I gain a free moment during the lunch hour or late at night. Moments outside of my writing work dictates when this occurs; I am a day-to-day caretaker for disabled and stricken family members.

I’ve sat in a variety of ICU, hospital rooms or waiting rooms throughout the loneliest time of the early morning, constructing in my mind a string of revelatory character actions (or maybe more discreet movements) over and over, so not to forget.

I’ve built settings while cleaning up the shit, blood, and piss of a loved one who is unable and dependent, preparing these places for my characters to inhabit.

I’ve rounded the gradual bend of a street (like the one in the picture above), out on my morning walk, when I can get some coverage, and new story ideas come to me. A fragment of a conversation. An image. Once I saw a man standing in the driveway of his house, looking perplexed into the trunk of his car. He turned and said hello to me and asked how it was going. “Could be better,” I said. “You need to tell my father that,” he said back to me. I thought about this encounter for the rest of my walk. I made some notes back at home. I found the sporadic moments to sit at a computer, typing out drafts and working through revisions, all depending on what the moments between these writing moments called for.

I marvel at writers who can sit down and work on a story in the same place and at same time every day. Structured, unwavering, focused on everything playing out on the page. Many of my writing moments are grasps in the dark. I grab hold of a sleeve sooner or later, a shoulder, and once I felt a character’s backpack. I let these characters guide me. More so now than ever before.

I hope my writing moments will continue for as long as I can find them. But for now, I appreciate not only these moments more than ever (particularly as I type this last line) but also all of the other loving, heartbreaking, and conquering moments filling my days, realizing they won’t last.

Dan Crawley’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of journals, including Wigleaf, New Flash Fiction Review, New World Writing, Jellyfish Review, CHEAP POP, and North American Review. He is a recipient of an Arizona Commission on the Arts creative writing fellowship in fiction. Along with teaching creative writing workshops and literature courses for Ottawa University, he is a fiction reader for Little Patuxent ReviewFind him at

Friday, September 21, 2018

My Small Press Writing Day – Emily Osborne

When rob mclennan generously asked me to contribute to this blog, I waited several months before doing so: my rationale was that I would soon have a “normal” writing day to describe, one that resembled the structured routines of writers I know.

While many writers have (or are required by their jobs to have) a very strict writing slot in the day, and make use of one or two locations (coffee shops, or a minimalistic desk functioning as a tabula rasa for creative thought), my times and locations for writing are fluid. Over the past few years, I have lived in several places, and worked several jobs with dynamic hours (academic, contract researcher, voice-over artist, editor, software tester) and have adopted a flexible writing practice as a result.

Right now I live on Bowen Island, BC with my husband, poet Daniel Cowper. We also spend a fair bit of time in Vancouver for work and socializing. During the week in town, I write in several places: coffee shops, parks, by the water, the art gallery, or often in my head while walking or commuting. Sometimes I use my iPad for writing, sometimes a journal, sometimes I enjoy the practice of composing in my head and memorizing as I go. Each media has particular advantages, and often a single poem will have been composed in all three. Poets have composed using various media and techniques for thousands of years, and I fundamentally disagree with writers who argue that a particular media is “better” than another (for example, that pen and paper is a more effective way of drafting than vocalizing or digitizing thoughts).

On weekends, Daniel and I try to set aside a couple of hours for writing. Sometimes we write alongside each other on the couch or carpet in our small cabin. At other times we go to the local chocolate shop (where until recently, an elderly ginger gentleman cat used to come hang out with us), or to the main dock in Snug Cove, where we can watch boats come in and out. Sometimes we chit-chat about pieces we’re working on (although we rarely show each other work until it’s pretty polished), or we talk about poetry, fiction and criticism we’re reading. Often our conversations foment in us new ideas or directions. Some days one of us will feel like writing and the other won’t, but in the effort to go along and support the other, productive writing often occurs.

While I completely understand the advantages of a habitual praxis, and why many writers draft their work using particular media or locations, I enjoy the method of tuning my brain to my environment as opposed to creating a familiar environment in which creative activity occurs. I have found that doing so shapes my poems in unexpected ways. For example, if I’m drafting while out walking, something I see or hear changes the course of thought: the architecture I’m viewing might provide particular angles to a poem; seeing an elderly couple dining indoors by a faint light yields a new image. The sensation of energy, tiredness, heat, blood in ears or rhythm of feet, will inspire a structure or sound pattern for the poem. I have had several experiences of writing in noisy coffee shops where my frustrated desire for quiet ended up becoming part of the poem: in dissonance, in a comment on commercialization, in a rhythm or momentum in the lines.

One area of my writing practice that tends to be less fluid is poetic translation. Translating poetry is meticulous and focused work. When I set aside blocks of time for translating, I tend to use only my laptop and not to write my own poetry on those days. However, translation makes me a better editor of my own poetry and more attuned to sound and vocabulary when I next turn to writing.

Emily Osborne is the winner of The Malahat Review’s 2018 Far Horizons Award for Poetry. Her chapbook, Biometrical, is available from Anstruther Press, and her poetry has been published in CV2, The Literary Review of Canada, The Antigonish Review, Canthius, Minola Review, and elsewhere. She earned a PhD in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature from the University of Cambridge, and her full-length book of Norse poetry translations, Quarrel of Arrows, is forthcoming from Junction Books. Emily serves as a poetry editor for Pulp Literature. She lives with her husband Daniel Cowper on Bowen Island, BC.