Wednesday, October 31, 2018

MY TEA-SOAKED WRITING DAY : Sarah Anne Strickley

Once upon a time, I had the idea that wild swaths of time in which to write and a quiet, home-office space in which to conduct my creative life would result in thousands of effortless pages, effortlessly arranging themselves into books. Like magic! It turns out, though, that wild expanses of time nullify me. Picture a woman wandering aimlessly around an empty field forever. Maybe she’s muttering; maybe she’s fixated on one, specific area of the field for eons; maybe she’s accidentally napping. That’s me with too much time on my hands. And, while it’s true that the problem of too little time is a greater and more frequent problem than the problem of too much time—I’m a writer and an editor and a professor and a mother and a wife, after all—I’ve enjoyed enough aimless, guilt-wracked summers to know that I need structure to make the writing happen and that structure only exists outside the home.

So, what I do even when it actually is summer is to drive to campus to write at least three days a week. My office is a former dorm room and it feels like one. I’ve even populated it with items from my actual college dorm days: a lamp with a brown, paper shade, a poster featuring two eerie-eyed girls, a desk plant that is somehow more than twenty years old, a little white hot pot. There is a sense of containment in this room built of concrete blocks and held together with sixty years of thick, industrial-grade paint; there is a sense of confinement that I desperately need and welcome. I walk into this room and experience extreme focus. I won’t pretend that I always resist the allure of the internet or allow myself to stare wistfully out the window at the sand volleyball courts, but there is no accidental napping in this space. I push the work forward here.

Generally, what happens during my writing days is that I wake up around 6:30 a.m. and spend what feels like ten hours getting myself and my daughters ready for school. By the time I get into my office at about 8:30 a.m., I’m ready for fuel: when I’m writing, I consume truly massive quantities of tea. Once I’ve unloaded my bags and fired up my machine, I stalk to the very dorm-esque kitchenette (the building also features showers in the bathrooms, but they’re filled with old boxes of things like trophies and empty three-ring binders) fill my little hot pot to the tippy top with water, and wait for the roiling boil. I have a bright red carafe, which I stage within reach of my machine, and I refill my Little Women Kick Ass mug at a rate that might alarm casual bystanders. I writewritewritewritewrite and drinkdrinkdrinkdrinkdrink.

It is true that I love tea, but the reason I drink so much of it while I write is that the motion of the cup to my lips allows me a pause in my typing, but not in my thinking. I take a sip of hot tea whenever I need to arrange or rearrange or re-consider, which is often. On the rare occasions when I don’t have tea in my proximity while I’m writing, I feel naked and confused. My dependence is such that I’m not really sure what to do when this happens. I have found myself raising an empty hand to my lips when I need a pause; it’s ridiculous, I know, but it lets me keep working without having to wander around campus in search of a substitute. When my first carafe of the day is empty, that’s when I take a look around and realize that a good deal of time has passed—probably something like three or four hours.

At this point in the day—it might be 11:00 or noon—I decide that I should really eat something. I stalk back to the kitchenette, nuke something semi-healthy and return to my desk. While I eat, I indulge in some poking around on the internet and catching up with non-writing kinds of work. I might spend an hour or so in this mode and then I return again to the kitchenette, fill my little hot pot to the tippy top with water, and wait again for the roiling boil. What a beautiful sound! While I drink my second carafe of tea, I go back through the work I’ve done during the first session of the day and make top edits. It’s an easy way to ease back into the work. Once I arrive at the place I left off, I try to push the story forward again. I don’t aim for any particular word count or page count, but I like to arrive at a point where I feel I’ve done all that I can do for the day: exhaustion. This point very often coincides with the last drops of tea in the carafe.

By this time, it’s about 2:30 p.m. or 3:30 p.m. I do a little more non-writing work, stalk back to the kitchenette for cleanup, and then scramble to pick up one daughter in time to meet the other daughter at the bus stop and then my husband arrives home and we all have dinner together and then we read books and then we go to the fuck to sleep.

Reader, it’s a life.

Sarah Anne Strickley is the author of the short story collection, Fall Together (Gold Wake Press, 2018). Her stories and essays have appeared in Oxford American, A Public Space, Witness, The Normal School, Ninth Letter, Hotel Amerika, and elsewhere. She’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and earned her PhD from the University of Cincinnati. She teaches creative writing and serves as faculty editor of Miracle Monocle at the University of Louisville. Visit her online at

Monday, October 29, 2018

Hannah Gordon : My (Small Press) Writing Day: To Each Their Own

I used to think I needed to be sad to write. That tired cliché that artists must be tortured in order to produce worthwhile art informed many of my writing habits. Throughout high school, college, and for some time after, I’d wait to write until everyone else in the house was asleep, until I was alone with the quiet, pale moonlight. I’d play sad music—anything low and slow with melodramatic lyrics—and maybe light a candle. My writing became ceremonial, my pain an offering.
            It’s only now (nearly a decade after I started writing seriously) that I’m beginning to understand what it means to be a writer. I’m realizing that I don’t need to be sad or depressed to produce work I’m proud of. I don’t need to dig up bad memories to unearth a story.
            My writing is not a werewolf: it does not come out only in the cover of darkness. My writing is not a vampire: it does not need to suck the life from me.
            Now, my writing day begins with the warmth of the rising sun coming through my kitchen windows (I never write at night anymore, usually too exhausted to do anything more than flop in front of the TV for a couple hours before crawling into bed). My apartment gets a lot of natural light. When we first moved in, my husband took one look at the kitchen table awash in the sun’s honey glow, and declared, “I bet this is where you’ll write.”
            And so, every morning, after the kettle whistles and my coffee percolates, I settle in front of my computer and I write and write and write.
            Ideas for stories and essays come to me throughout the day—and sometimes the night—and when they do, I’ll jot them down on anything close to me: a notebook on my shelf, a CVS receipt at the bottom my purse, or in the notes app on my phone. These tiny, jigsaw pieces—snippets of dialogue or resonating lines or character descriptions based off people I see on the train—once written down so I don’t forget them will, the following morning, find their way into the puzzle that is a first draft.
            A typical writing day will see me flitting back and forth between multiple projects. This used to be is limited to essays and flash, but lately I’ve been pushing the boundaries I’d set on writing, venturing into longer stories and exploring poetry. This year has been defined by expanding my interests and testing my creativity. I now push my writing into the uncomfortable places: essays that leave me feeling raw and exposed, a live wire; genres I’ve never written in before that feel simultaneously foreign and like coming home; and poetry, even though I hadn’t written a poem since I was eighteen and still writing at night.
            I write as long as the ideas are flowing, the sun changing positions in the sky outside. Or, if the ideas are not there or aren’t coming out right, I don’t write. This is another thing I am relearning: I don’t need to write everyday. I think it’s a nice sentiment, and if it works for you then by all means carry on, but the notion that you must write every day in order to be a “real writer” is as harmful as believing true art demands pain and suffering.
            This is the beauty of being a writer (of being anything): finding what works for you. Some writers do their best work at night over a glass of wine or finger or two of whiskey. Some write early, before the kids are awake, before chaos rules the day. Some can only write on the weekends, their weekdays eaten up by meetings and deadlines. Some write by hand. Others, computer. All are just a myriad of stories waiting to be written. 
            I’m enjoying the consistency of my days. I know that, tomorrow, I will wake up and make myself a cup (or three) of coffee. I know I’ll write. Maybe I’ll write a story or an essay or a poem. Maybe I’ll edit, cutting away the jigsaw pieces that don’t fit. Maybe I won’t write, and this is okay, too.
            Who knows if years from now my writing day will look like this? Process, like anything else, changes. I find comfort in this constant, forward motion.

Hannah Gordon is a writer and editor living in Chicago. She was born and raised in Michigan. Her work has appeared in Hypertrophic Literary, Jellyfish Review, WhiskeyPaper, and more. She is the managing editor of CHEAP POPYou can follow her on Twitter here

Saturday, October 27, 2018

My Writing Day : Holly Flauto Salmon

I have a full-time academic job, a partner who is also a writer and has a full-time academic job plus a part-time academic job, and we are raising two children: a 15-year-old and a 3-year-old, neither of whom have jobs yet nor have so-far decided to become writers. And somehow, we have almost all dinners together, save for an odd one during the week during busy semesters, do family things and extended family things on the weekend, and don’t compete with each other for writing time even.

My writing time happens on a schedule that isn’t particularly generous. It’s definitely not at home after bedtime, before anyone wakes up in the morning, or in small pockets that I steal away. My writing day right now is two hours between 6pm and 8pm on a weeknight spent in the company of a handful of other writers at Historic Joy Kogawa House in Vancouver.

These two hours shape-shift a bit during different seasons. Sometimes they are six broken hours every Friday in a faculty writing group at the invitation of a friend at a neighbouring university, sometimes three hours on a Wednesday afternoon in a shut up and write group that began years ago and has continued in different configurations since, sometimes a few hours of Monday morning with a friend writing her summer away. In one month of this year, July, I found my way to rare days of writing followed by days of writing, but those too were followed by more days of not writing at all.

It is there my mind understands that the writing needs to happen, and importantly, the time will end shortly. In these several-hour stretches over the last four years, I’ve written dozens of short stories, a million creative non-fiction memoir-based fragmenty things that get too personal to have meaning to anyone else, and a 100+ page manuscript of poetry that I felt so achieved to have accomplished. The achievability of the goal—write for 25 minutes, then do it again until my hour or two is over—doesn’t trigger the anxiety or overwhelmingness of the woeful “Will I ever accomplish anything?!” and “I don’t have time for this!” and all those other thoughts that make me afraid to be a writer. Because, I am already a writer: especially right now between 6pm and 8pm on Wednesdays. 

And even though my pockets of Muji pen to paper, or fingertips to keypads, are rare, I write all the time...when you consider writing as defined by all the thoughts about writing I have. I use an iceberg as a metaphor here in both fear that I’m regurgitating a thing that everyone knows and in hope that my repeated recent encounters with it are more Baader-Meinhof phenomenon than meme. For my iceberg of writing, the two hours of writing I described is that part above water. There’s the transcribing from notebooks, the ideas that follow that, sometimes even what people refer to as freewriting, maybe some editing, pulling together of ideas, or even the emergence of a few thousand words about something and new stanzas in poetic metre

But, for the iceberg, the tiny portion above water hides the bigger crucial thing happening underneath. That ice metaphor fails me here, as the writing underneath is not even slightly like the cold clear solidity of structure of beautiful clean narwhal-adjacent ice. It is something else all mixed up and muddy and warm and fomenting. It’s also where the word writing fails too for many, as there is no visible output of words. For this purpose, I borrow an underutilized word and add underwriting to my process. 

Just like my writing time depends on the company of others writing, my best underwriting is done in the company of other writers, where thoughts are in the air and my mind can wander away. Readings, especially poetry readings, are the pinnacle of quality underwriting time. I am always, always inspired by other writers. I have pretend dialogues with them as they read, and ask no questions later in those awkward moments of questions at the end. They read, and my mind engages. At  the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts a few years ago, Elizabeth Bachinsky read a beautiful love poem to her husband, and I wrote the backbone of one too. At Growing Room in Vancouver last year, as the poets and writers spoke to the moderator and each other in a series of panels, I wrote pages and pages in my secret dialogues with them.

Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence discusses these conversations that writers have with each other through their work and in the work’s relationships with writing predecessors. Relationships to me are magic, coincidences, serendipity, signs. They create meaning for me, just like the repetition of an image in a beautiful piece of writing. Or then the repetition of that image in a new piece of writing, and then maybe the discovery of that image again in a previously unknown ancient piece of writing. Or like going to a poetry event where all the poets are writing about things that are so close to what you are writing about that you might has well have chosen the poems they chose to read aloud that day yourself...all Baader-Meinhof phenomenon–like.

I extend the relationships Bloom describes, in all their tension and anxiety even, to the influences of people who are writing near each other—people who are sharing their work without reading or seeing or hearing, but instead as they work on a keyboard at a table together and write. After the underwriting moments have marinated for days and weeks at a time from the notebooks, to the walks or drives to work, or showers, or just thoughts that happen in the background of the everyday, when I climb out from under the iceberg and sit with other writers in these tiny pockets of time...and write.

Holly Flauto Salmon’s fiction and creative memoir have been published in The Puritan, Joyland, and The Rusty ToqueShe recently completed a manuscript of memoir-based poetry exploring immigration to Canada as a modern-day settler. She works at Douglas College, and lives on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish Peoples, including the territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm, Skwxwú7mesh, and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh Nations.

Photo credit: Ann-Marie Metten