Thursday, September 13, 2018

Leslie Greentree : My writing day

Bending and collapsing time. That’s what my average writing day is about. Boundaries and binge-writing. Monasteries. And the semi-regular shedding and re-shedding of FOMO (an acronym I constantly re-google due to a level-one character flaw: my tasteless assumption every time I see the letter F in an acronym; and a level-two character flaw: my disappointment every time it’s attached to one of the other F words, in this case, “Fear Of Missing Out”). In truth, my average writing day has been slowly assembled around the understanding of my many flaws, and the sorting of those I resist and those I defiantly embrace.

Bending and collapsing time:
As a long-time Star Trek: TNG fan, it pleases me to recognize my ability to bend and collapse time. I have a day job that demands writing, plotting and strategy, and it tires my brain. My creative work gets done around those structures. As does the editing and swapping of work with my playwright partner Blaine and a handful of writer friends, and the social life I’m not willing to give up.

A full writing day – let’s assume six or seven solid hours equals a “day.” Full-time writers likely arrange their time differently and don’t binge-write for six or seven hours a day, but it can take me weeks to cobble together my writing day. It’s accrued through five-minute increments of dictating ideas, personal emails and epiphanies into my phone on a Monday coffee break, two- to four-hour stretches on a Thursday night or Sunday morning, and road trips across the prairies for week-long writing binges at a monastery in April and October. There are no in-betweens.

I don’t like to leave the house before noon on weekends. No. Scratch that. I hate leaving the house before noon. It makes me nuts. I’ll break this rule for out-of-town loved ones, or when we’re away ourselves, but seriously, people, stop trying to ruin my writing career with your offers of Eggs Benedict. You don’t understand the crashing waves of hostility your careless Hollandaisical suggestions invoke in me. Weekend mornings, I need to drink tea and either read for three hours in my pyjamas or sit at the computer for three hours in my pyjamas. Alone. In the summer, I do it on my patio, because sunshine and FOMO on flowers.

Beyond weekends, I also carve out two- or three- or four-hour chunks of writing time at night on an irregular basis, usually prompted by either a looming deadline or that existential minefield of despair-frustration – destration? – that plagues writers who aren’t writing.

These are the chunks of time in which I work on larger projects. Between November and January, I used them to work on my first art show. It was a collection of photographs I’d taken combined with text – a series of triptychs exploring themes of loss and grief from different angles. On January 1 it was hung in a Red Deer gallery. Now I’m using some of these time-chunks to poke around and think about how it might be turned into a book (alternated with wondering who on earth would publish 30 full-colour pages of whatever-this-is.) But publication isn’t the goal when I play like this; I call it making mud pies – just slopping around, enjoying the mess. And so I blindly and muddily forge on.

I also use these chunks to work on greeting cards. I have three lines that sell in a handful of stores in Red Deer, Edmonton, Ottawa and Maui: a fun (to me, and isn’t that what this is all about?) line called “Duck Butt” that uses my weirder photos; a more poetic line featuring flowers; and a line of misanthropic Christmas cards featuring drawings I did on my iPad that look like the work of a five-year-old (albeit a five-year-old with issues).

Last week I used those large time chunks to write a freelance magazine article on a local female leader who was recognized for a lifetime of achievement. I don’t take on many of the freelance gigs offered to me because of time constraints, but if I like the subject (I did) and the pay is good (it was), I’ll do it. 

I’m also heavily focused right now on a piece I’m excited to create and perform at Equinox Vigil, an incredibly cool annual event at Union Cemetery in Calgary (September 22, come on down!) to honour the dead. I have a longstanding fascination with cemeteries, as evidenced by the 7,683 photos on my computer, and I’m letting this new piece simmer in my brain while I play around with how I might add a visual component, and what that might look like.

Bigger projects don’t squeeze into short increments. They need space to grow. My process is to settle into the groove so deeply that, on standing and stretching, I realize I’ve been breathing so shallowly that any movement incites uncontrollable yawns. I’m not saying I do this on purpose; on the whole, I think oxygen is a good thing. But it’s what happens.

In case you’re getting the impression that I’m a hard worker, let me disabuse you of that right now. Despite my implacable resistance to brunch, my creative boundaries are known to crumble before a well-timed invitation. I’m no hero. (And if you have a Cliff Richard earworm now, I’m sorry, but also I love you.) I plan to go straight home after work to write, but a dear friend I haven’t seen in two months wants to meet after work for a drink. Approximately 63% of the time, I go for the drink.

I don’t want to miss out on writing time, but neither do I want to miss out on my important relationships, on life, on these brief months in which I can sit on a patio in the summer sunshine and connect with people I love while sipping a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. I inhabit rich, overlapping worlds, populated with fascinating people in the flesh as well as on the page, and I’m only willing to neglect the fleshy ones so much. FOMO on writing, FOMO on life. I shrug and I juggle.

So yes, I have no firm routine. Many artists think that’s a bad thing, but I just mute them on Twitter and get on with my day. I’ve never met a routine I didn’t learn to hate within two weeks. I’m a jerk that way. 

I can’t write for 15 minutes every day. I lose track of time. I burn things or forget to go to my day job or leave Blaine sitting at a pub patiently texting me. Or I feel angry and ripped off at having to shut it down just when things were starting to flow. I mean, who tells athletes to stretch, sprint for one minute, do two jumping jacks, then wrap it up? I’m like an athlete. Yeah, an athlete.

But I do use those five to 15 minute increments throughout the week – delaying supper, squeezing them in before a play, after post-work get-togethers, or after work errands – in mad scrambles around the business of writing. Organizing or promoting friends’ book launches, editing a friend’s essay (okay, that one took place over three or four different short slots, because, ahem, I’m a good and thoughtful editor). Writing recommendation letters for fellow artists for awards or grants or other recognition (three so far this year). Setting up a September launch in Red Deer for Waiting: An Anthology of Essays, which contains my first published piece of non-fiction. (Yay!)

These 15 minute slivers are when I fill out artist contracts for Equinox Vigil, tweak my bio for the gig and the word count, dig up and send the headshot I hate the least. It’s when I do social media posts, assemble files for reprint orders for my greeting cards, and send invitations to one of Blaine’s plays or the aforementioned writerly events. This is when I work on drafts of my introduction for my friend Fran Kimmel’s upcoming novel launch for No Good Asking. Or send photos and text to the woman who’s rebuilding my website. These are also the short chunks when I do pre-reading for Writers Guild subcommittees or stakeholder meetings. (Should I be embarrassed about last-minute speed-reading? Nah. I’m a fast reader.)

I do these tasks on the fly, right before – and sometimes after – my deadlines, when I’m minutes away from leaving the house, and often with that edge of panic my fellow writers know so well (usually also swearing under my breath for not planning better).

Because, basically, one of my character flaws is a deep-rooted resistance to a cold, intolerant schedule. Let’s not delve into my childhood about the reasons for that (or for my love of nasty adjectives when defending a position), but suffice it to say I live by a standard yet heartless work schedule and – after years of guilt for allowing exhaustion, relationships and Ru Paul’s Drag Race to keep me from writing more – I have embraced my burning hatred for rigidity in my creative life.

This is also nice because it means I’m no longer compelled to roll my eyes when fellow day-jobbers proudly talk about getting up two hours before work every morning to write. Early risers always get credit for being better humans, despite being annoyingly self-satisfied, but this is one of those issues where I’ve learned not to fight my slothful nature. Leaving aside the fact that no one would want to read the vile misanthropy that oozes from my pores at 5 am, the truth is that I just don’t want to write like that.

For me, writing is fun. It’s fulfilling, and challenging. It’s hard work. It’s necessary. I feel resentful and ultimately depressed when I don’t do enough of it. It feeds me and informs the way I see the world. It’s integral to my sense of self. But I’m not doing it before the freaking sun comes up. And I don’t have to chain it to a daily regimen.

I’m a binge writer. Seriously. Twice a year I run away to a Saskatchewan monastery, where I write alone for a full, glorious week. I wake at 7 am when the bells ring; I go to the dining hall and eat whatever they made for breakfast. When the noon bells ring, I eat whatever they made for lunch. I chat with my beloved monks. And at 5:30 pm when the dinner bells ring, well, you get the picture.

I write like crazy. Go for walks. Feed birds from my hand. I photograph the weathered doors and rusty hinges on the outbuildings. I read, or watch an episode of Drag Race. I leave my room to make tea or pour a glass of wine. Mostly, I write. I start at 9 am and write until 11 pm.

This obsessiveness is likely bad for my body. It surely says something unhealthy about my character. But holy crap, I’m happy out there. And productive.  

The weirdness of the year:
This year, my writing days have been weird. I spent hundreds of hours between October and December creating my art show, exploring themes of loss and grief. I moved directly from that to spending almost every free moment between January and the end of April memorizing a play – The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion – then rehearsing, then performing it. Another first for me.

It wasn’t my idea to act in a one-woman show – and it was more themes of grief and loss! And I’m not an actor! – but I said yes when I was asked to do it. It was exhausting, terrifying and transformative. I ran lines until I lost my voice, and had to take steroids to get it back in time for opening night. And I didn’t write a word between January and May.

(PS: my essay in the Waiting anthology also deals with grief and loss, along with more fun stuff like sex, Christmas, and Tom Petty. So I guess the Equinox Vigil coordinator heard about me and thought, “This Greentree woman is all about death! I must have her!” And maybe I am, these days. But I’m still fun, too, honest.)

Am I still re-flexing those writing muscles now? I think so. Am I still recovering from the nakedness, the disbelief I still have in the success of the art show and the play? I think so.

So. What now? I want to say that I’m currently in between projects, but that would be a stupid, cliché thing to say. Despite the fun I’m having making mud pies, despite all my self-talk, apparently I’m still schooled in the idea that creativity must be about book-length projects – that publication must be the goal.

I’m currently in between the sort of book-length projects I’ve done before. I have a book of short stories sitting with a publisher, which means much of my current writing time consists of refreshing my email every half hour and cursing when all that pops up are Writers’ Guild newsletters and email receipts from Sephora. Last month I spent all my free weekend time reviewing a novel draft I set aside years ago, and slowly falling in love with brand new possibilities for it. But it’s in the very early stages. Y’know, simmering. Y’know, mud pies. My interest in the subject matter has changed drastically since I wrote the first draft ten years ago. So has my writing style.

This is a time for pre-writing – an unsung but necessary part of writing. Poking in and out of those pages and my new thoughts about them. Staring into space. It’s for dictating thoughts or questions into my phone in stolen moments at work. It’s for talking about writing with Blaine on our frequent road trips to Edmonton. It’s for sitting on my summer patio avoiding brunch invitations, reading and listening to the birds sing. Occasionally setting down my book to scribble random thoughts.

I have a very sick friend. I don’t know if he’s dying or not, and I’m scared to ask. He writes poetry, but I didn’t know that until he got sick and our conversations changed. He’s writing good stuff, but he doesn’t write at a serious/ publication level; he’s not part of any literary community. So, last week I started reading his poetry and offering him encouragement and feedback. This is never going to appear on my literary resume; maybe only a handful will know his poetry in the end, but that doesn’t change how important it is. So there are a few more of those 15 minute increments that I’m freely giving away.

I’m slowly cobbling together another full writing day, but this particular one might take me weeks. That’s something I have zero FOMO about.

Leslie Greentree is the author of the short story collection A Minor Planet for You, which won the 2007 Howard O’Hagan Prize for Short Fiction, and two poetry books: go-go dancing for Elvis,which was shortlisted for the 2004 Griffin Prize for Poetry, and guys named Bill. Leslie has won CBC literary competitions for short fiction and poetry, and the Sarah Selecky 2013 Little Bird short fiction competition for a story that appears in her current short story manuscript, This is not the apocalypse I was hoping for. She co-wrote the play Oral Fixations with her life partner Blaine Newton; it was professionally produced in 2014 by Ignition Theatre. Her essay, “The ways Tom Petty will let you down: riffs on waiting” was written before his death, and appears in Waiting: An Anthology of Essays (University of Alberta Press, August, 2018).

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