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.

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