I write in a kind of chosen squalor: I share a student house with five other people, most of them sublets subletting for tenants long gone. The landlady lives next door, and is in possession of the original, tea- stained lease; she prides herself on not owning a phone, and spends long days out in her remarkable garden. Before he died of lung cancer, her husband signed our lease with an ‘X’. After he died, she cleared his science-classroom skeletons, dusky jars and sticky magazines from a small cupboard adjacent to my room, which – to be fair – comprises the entire basement. Before she leaves, she moves my writing desk against the only wall with a window. I am touched. The window is twelve inches tall and fitted right up against the low ceiling; sometimes she trudges past, in mucky boots, and once an errant tennis ball rolls up against the pane.
My squalor is chosen, because I could have painted the walls, found a bed for the mattress, bought bookshelves, and so on. I don’t yet know how to make a writing space, indeed a home, for myself.
2:14AM: I fall asleep with a pizza box beside me, groggily typing a sentence like “He walks around to the other side of the car, fist cocked dshf,,,,,,,,,,” or “She hated it when ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.” All of my books are stacked around me – I keep as many as I can at arm’s length – and so silverfish dart across the mattress all night.
9:43 AM: Since the kitchen is directly above me, I wake to the clink of dishes, bright burst of laughter. Even on days off, my roommates know how to be people: they go to Kensington market, they practice yoga. When the kitchen falls silent, I creep up and make coffee.
10:15AM: I bring my laptop to the little desk, turn it on, and reread yesterday’s work. I hate it. Wait, a few sentences are OK, so I put them in bold, and start to work around them. I cut the rest, and paste it in Notebook: the digital pack-rat’s intermediate step between manuscript and trash.
12:03 PM: The little window darkens briefly – someone kneels and retrieves their tennis ball. I approximate a smile, and wave up at their knees.
1:00 PM: My characters are stuck in a burning house, and I’m too lethargic to retrieve them. Reluctantly, I creep up to the kitchen again, and boil some noodles. Since my grant is running low, I cover my pasta with someone else’s sriracha. A sublet’s sublet comes downstairs to make her lunch; we grimace at each other. She tells me about how she’s entering a beauty pageant for short girls. I loathe and admire her healthy self esteem. How’s the book, she says, as if inquiring about a terminal illness.
1:45 PM: I feel the heft of what I’ve written today – a good fifteen pages or so. There’s a little more left, I think, and suck some sriracha off my palm. I don’t aim for a daily word count, I never have. Since the book hit about 70,000 words last week, I’ve written more and more in a day – it started moving with its own terrible momentum.
Between 3:45 – 5:15: Now is the Bad Time: more feet darken my window; more voices call in the streets. Now is the time that my characters, their world, so real to me in the morning, grow thin, and my own world seeps in. Roommates come home chatting happily, and gather in the kitchen, put groceries away, open and shut the fridge. I wince, thinking of the sriracha. They’re really nice people.
7:30-ish: I abandon the scene I’m working on mid-sentence, create a new section and start writing that instead, which helps when it’s the Bad Time – at least I can skip events in the book, withdraw when it’s stressful, when it’s sad, when nobody’s fucked in a while, navigate its web of time-fabric like the invisible, arachnidan voyeur I am. They’re cooking upstairs; I smell meat, teriyaki sauce. I give up writing for the day and lean back in my chair. I imagine I’m a squatter, living in the basement. I’ll eat scraps from my roommate’s garbage, and hold my breath when it’s quiet upstairs, and when they descend to the basement to use the laundry machine, I’ll leap and hide under my writing desk – but the bright screen of my laptop will betray me, won’t it – the cursor still flashing, the keyboard a little warm.
Victoria Hetherington is a Toronto-based writer, visual artist and author of digital fiction project I Have To Tell You (0s&1s, 2014). Her debut novel Mooncalves (2019, Now or Never Publishing) is now available for preorder.
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