Thursday, February 14, 2019

Stephanie Bolster : My Writing Day

My daughters missed the bus this morning. So rather than waving goodbye, walking home from the bus stop at the top of the street, washing the breakfast dishes, brushing my teeth, starting the laundry, then sitting down at my desk, I drove them to school, waited until my younger daughter’s group went inside, and went for a twenty-five minute walk in the hundred acre wood (also known as Terra Cotta Park) across the street from the school. Although it delayed even more the start of my “real” day, this walk was the reward for the disrupted routine, and as walked I felt grateful for this place, these maples and meadow, although the trees are already losing their leaves and although my sabbatical is now over and the first week of classes is now done.

I’m grateful for my job, too. It brings into my life amazing people, some of whom have become lasting friends. And their writing: vulnerable, audacious, raw, polished, hesitant, explosive. In any one class, quality varies, sometimes significantly, but the range of sensibilities I encounter, the scope of style and tone, is almost always greater than what I see in most literary journals. I’m grateful for that. I’m less grateful for the committee meetings and files to review, for the letters to write and reiterate, for the awards and fellowships to adjudicate, for the websites to rejuvenate. I’m not grateful for those things at all. They are as much a part of the job as are the students. I didn’t recognize this seventeen years ago when I applied for, and accepted, this job. But I have two children. I’m a poet. I’m grateful for my job.

While in the woods I saw a woman I recognized. We hello’d as we passed, heading in opposite directions on the narrow path. I placed her just after: she was once the receptionist of a doctor whose emergency walk-in clinic my older daughter used to frequent. I kept walking. I thought about my day, for which I had a long list of tasks, including (though it was only the first week of term) submitting my teaching preferences for next year, adding student names to a course schedule, reviewing next week’s class notes, reading half a book of poems for discussion as part of an independent study project with a particularly promising student, transferring funds for my RRSP, picking my daughters up from the school daycare, taking my older daughter to her ballet class. Clean-up, bedtime routine, e-mail, more work, then, as an end-of-week reward, an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale or Treme. But first dishes and laundry. And somewhere in there, because I had promised myself during my sabbatical that I would write for half an hour a day, three to five days a week (because this should after all be manageable in a job I got because I was a writer, right?), I would begin this essay.

I knew, from past experience and conversations with friends who were managing a daily writing practice in spite of being parents with demanding jobs, that if this plan was to work, I would need to put writing first. But first after what? I could not, as the writer Rachel Kushner said in an onstage interview at an AWP conference several years ago, simply wake up and go to my desk. (When someone asked about her child, she responded that she had a husband. My relationship with my husband is not like that.) After the school bus had left, should I write then, without cleaning up the dishes, starting the laundry, brushing my teeth? I should, but I couldn’t. But could I write before doing those nagging work tasks? I longed to clear them away so I could write into an open space, the ticked-off list tossed into the recycling bin. But I knew the endlessness of the list. Once I opened Gmail I would find new messages. By the time I’d responded to the last of them, new ones would have come in. I would have to supply my availability for the next six months in order to facilitate the creation of a schedule of meetings for a particularly demanding committee to which I’d just signed over my life for the next two years. The day would pass and poetry would not be in it. Not my poetry, anyway. I would resolve to try again on Monday. And etcetera.

During my sabbatical I had to relearn a daily writing practice. That I had spent years coaching my students in the particulars – keep your commitment; put writing first; stick it out at least half an hour and by then you probably won’t feel the time pass; reading counts, too – made it, if anything, harder. From September through April each year I’d felt like an imposter in the classroom, speaking about writing in the present tense when, with a few exceptions (invitations or rare flashes of inspiration, the kind I tell students not to count on), I had become one of those seasonal writers whose schedules used to baffle me. Now I felt like an imposter in my life.

I lived it out. I lost, though I know this loss was a gain in another column, hours of the autumn to cycling to the lake and back in preparationn for a four-hour bike tour I planned to take on a research trip to New Orleans. (I hadn’t cycled in over a decade.) I lost, though I doubt this loss was a gain in another column, hours of the fall to scrolling on Facebook, sickened by Trump’s rise and the divisions within the Canadian literary community. (Then I stopped going on Facebook.) I lost moments falling asleep at my screen as I read over 1100 pages of writing I’d produced since just before my younger daughter was born. Yes I fell asleep. Since my first daughter was born I’ve rarely gotten more than six hours of sleep a night. I didn’t used to think it possible to function on so little sleep. I have become one of those people.

What is a writing day? For the first seven months of my sabbatical, interrupted by a massive housecleaning and -organizing (with only minimal input from Marie Kondo), by the girls’ summer break, by a few days of readings at a poetry festival, by the trip to New Orleans, by the girls’ Christmas break, by weekends, by spilling a few drops of water on my laptop and losing it for weeks, by setting up a new laptop, I cut and pasted those parts of my writing that felt alive, or that felt dead but necessary in their statement of what needed to be done, into a new file. During those weeks without my computer, I wrote raw, charged descriptions of photographs from Robert Polidori’s After the Flood. Almost daily, I researched. Whether this was procrastination or necessity is still unclear. It wasn’t writing but it was part of writing. How many hours roaming news stories, watching news footage and documentaries, for the thing that sticks, the woman who spent eight days after Hurricane Katrina floating on her Sterns and Foster mattress in a bra planning that, when she was found and renovated her house, she would choose marble countertops next time.

No day emerges as typical. Some days what I read as I cut and pasted moved me, reacquainted me with a self – the parent of a baby, the parent of a toddler – I barely remembered. Some days I saw a way to improve what I’d written. But mostly I pasted. Revision would come later.

Into how much detail can I go before this ceases to interest even me? I’ve often wished there were an app (there probably is) that could track what I did during a writing session. How I moved, when I deleted, when I added, what my eyes did, how often I reached for my mug of water (kept on my window ledge, not the desk, ever since the spill), how often I got up to transfer the laundry or to pee, how often I opened the Google tab to check a fact, how often I let myself scroll on Facebook for a few minutes before I stopped going on Facebook, how often I checked e-mail.

Because I had promised myself, I made it through the last fifty or so pages of material in a rush over a couple of evenings before 31 December 2016. When the girls returned to school in January – the younger one in tears, the bus missed, me dropping her off, still teary, then walking, nearly teary myself, in thirty below through snow and ice in that forest – I began another round of cuts. This took mere weeks. What had changed? There were still nearly four hundred pages of material. But less clutter. Less bad writing to drag me down. I had stopped Facebook. Time was dwindling. If not now, etcetera.

There were two weeks in Burnaby with my family. These days were not writing days and because it snowed – it really and truly snowed and kept snowing, and the snow didn’t melt – I didn’t get to go on the research trip to the site of the Tashme internment camp as planned. But I walked to the National Nikkei Museum to research this camp. Were those hours taking notes on and photographs of old photographs and newspaper clippings, a handmade “souvenir of Tashme” handkerchief, writing hours? I went through objects in my parents’ home and stuck strips of post-it notes on those things I would eventually want for my own. The implications of this were not lost on me. We looked at old family photograph albums and I wrote down the stories that went with them. I hadn’t done this before. This was not part of my project but were these writing hours?

Once home, I organized the culled manuscript material into Word docs by subject. Fukushima and internment. Chernobyl material. NOLA material. Expo and Vancouver. Other and imagined disasters. Personal meditations hinges refrains. Some passages didn’t make it into the new files. What remained was becoming almost holdable in the brain. We went to Disney World. While there, nothing about my writing life and my project felt real, even though I had, just days ago, felt it was the universe. Yes people were still struggling in the Lower Ninth Ward. Yes my manuscript was worth every hour I had given it. Was it? Would we one day be able to afford a vacation property in Florida? It was so good to go outside without a coat boots mitts a toque. To be with my daughters every moment. To be taken on rides. To be suspended briefly in the air the castle in the distance and beyond it Space Mountain and below it a nest of thorns, to plummet shrieking into those thorns, to get wet because we wanted to. If I could do this every day would I do this every day? I knew I would tire of it but at that moment I didn’t believe I would tire. I wanted this life. Even though Trump. Even though the wall. Even though this place used to be a swamp and it was costing us as much to be here for a week as it would cost to send my older daughter for a year to the private high school she was considering.

We came home. The world sprang back into its place, the parade music lingered then faded. I culled again. I printed the docs. I cut them into strips, each part (some as brief as a line) its own thing. I sat on the floor of my office and began to place them into a sequence. After a few hours I could barely pull myself up off the floor. I switched to a table. I imagined this would take months. It was now spring, warm enough to open the windows, but sometimes I didn’t get the paperweight placed in time and some strips fluttered out of their places. How did I know where their places were? I wanted the subjects, intertwined before I separated them, back together. But I’d had to separate them so I knew what I was looking at. Was this writing? I felt which things pulled toward each other, which pushed away. In fact, it took only a few days for an order I could work with. Now I had to replicate on the screen what I’d made on paper. More cut and paste. But I’d had to move to paper so I knew what I was looking at. Was this?

Once I had a thing I had a thing to come to each morning. After school bus dishes laundry teeth it was the first thing. I didn’t fall asleep. I cut and rewrote. I cut and pasted. I added. I checked facts. These days I was a writer. I had a project that was real. I gathered, honed, excerpts to send to competitions and to journals. Was I writing, was I revising, was I researching? These were not separable. Through these larger clusters of material I began to find a way to build the thing of other than fragments. Or, a glue. Or, a spine. It teetered less. My mind could hold even more almost.

The early writing days of this work were naptimes. A few hours in the afternoon, of indeterminate duration, the writing, if it was going well, continuing for as many minutes as I could manage even after my younger daughter woke. I had told myself to write what came. This meant sometimes Katrina sometimes Chernobyl sometimes the girls who lived down the street passing by the window, the older of whom was born premature and had endured several heart surgeries and who would probably always, according to her parents, live at home; she was now back in school, a baking program, while the younger ascended to CEGEP, to university. They still sometimes passed together but mostly alone. Sometimes I wrote about death.

Any account leaves out almost everything. The laundry has just beeped. I allotted myself an hour today because it’s early in the term, the treadmill has not yet begun to run of its own accord, and I have one minute left. Is this a writing day? I spend so much of my time talking about writing that writing about writing seems legitimate, but I can’t help feeling inauthentic. Do I know anyone who is able to afford, over years and decades, a regular writing practice? Do I know any poet who is able to? Those I do know can do so thanks to a partner’s income, or living in a country where their dollars last longer. If I don’t know what my own writing day looks like, I don’t know what anyone’s does.

During sabbatical, I was usually done writing by lunchtime, which was often late. Then the necessary e-mails, or exercising, a shower, the arrival of the school bus or the drive to the school. Sometimes in the evenings some more time to write, but more often e-mail. Reading, sometimes The New Yorker, sometimes a novel.

This was the past. Now I am back to the days in a chair critiquing student work, the days in workshops and office hours, the days in meetings, the days in coursepacks and anthologies, the evenings of leaving my laptop late and, if time permits, reading just a few pages of something chosen. Or else more coursepacks and anthologies. 

This is the first day. I have exceeded my hour. I will not get more than this – unless I wish to crush the other end of my day and sleep even less – for months, maybe not until spring. (So it’s fitting that it is now spring as I reread this and at last send it off into the world. This file called “My Writing Day 11 September 2017 rev. 10 May 2018.”) (Except I didn’t send it off, I wasn’t sure if this was right for “My Writing Day” even though it’s more right there than anywhere else, and now it’s now January 2019. You’re reading this because rob kindly, gently, asked again if I’d consider writing something.)

This is how it goes. I’m in the middle of my life. My children will never be this young again. When the near-total eclipse happens in Montreal in seven years, I may be on sabbatical again. When I told my parents, in their late seventies, this was not that far off really, there was a silence. Will they still be there then, on the other end of the line?

It matters not how each day goes but that is all that matters. One day at a time but through this a life. Next spring (this spring; now) I will get back to work on my manuscript in a sustained way. I’m starting to think of it as a book. When it comes out – after more days of work, the nature of which I can’t yet know – I hope it will bear the traces of time, of struggle. Each fragment “hard won.” I want someone to understand that. The struggles with which my manuscript’s concerned are so great that this hour I have taken for this assignment of describing what it is like to have part of a day to write is a luxury almost obscene. I am guilty. I am grateful. I am typical in ways I recognize.

This is not what I intended to write. Had I not seen the former doctor’s former receptionist again on the way out of the park, in the meadow this time, the meadow quivering with crickets, goldenrod, chicory, and mist, both of us again crossing in different directions, and had we not stopped and discussed how we knew each other, and had we not talked about the park and had I not said I had enjoyed walking there while on sabbatical and had she not asked what I worked on during my sabbatical and had I not spoken of the difficulties of finding both time and mental space for a writing practice while working and parenting and had she not nodded and smiled kindly as she always did to mothers of sick children at the clinic and had we not discussed the value of that walk in the park as mental preparation and had she not said perhaps a routine was necessary and had I not told her I knew I had to put the writing first or it wouldn’t happen and had we not wished each other well and had I not decided on the way out of the park back to the car before dropping off the books at the library then home that I would not open Gmail that I would not fill out the teaching preference questionnaire that I would not put the students’ names on the workshop schedules that I would instead give myself one hour to write first before anything that I would work on this piece because rob invited me to write it and it was easier to put writing on the “to do” list when I had been asked to do it, I would be reading over course outlines right now. This essay would not exist in this form. The lesson in this is when the little voice says Do it now, do it now. I cannot do this every day any longer. I cannot do this for this long (75 minutes now) and I cannot do it most days. But if I’ve done it once I can do it again. I have this evidence. (Is writing about writing writing?)

She told me her name, which I’d forgotten. Thank you, Jane.                                 

11 September 2017, 10 May 2018, 23 January 2019

Stephanie Bolster has published four books of poetry, the most recent of which, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, was a finalist for the Pat Lowther Award; an excerpt from her current manuscript, Long Exposure, was a finalist for the 2012 CBC Poetry Prize. White Stone: The Alice Poems, her first book, won the Governor General’s and the Gerald Lampert Awards in 1998. Her work has been translated into French (Pierre Blanche: poèmes d’Alice), Spanish, and German. Editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008 and co-editor of Penned: Zoo Poems, she grew up in Burnaby, BC and has taught creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal since 2000.

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