Monday, April 29, 2019

Catherine Pikula : The Non-Writing Day

I’m not going to tell you about the limitations of time or priorities. This isn’t about having a full-time job or the length of my commute. This is about agency. I want to tell you about the days I don’t write.

I spend at least two hours on the subway every day except Sunday. I usually read or listen to audiobooks. Sometimes I take notes on my phone:

I don’t want to bore you with my troubles -- these two guys sing on the shuttle
between Times Square and Grand Central-- but I love you, I love you, I love… 

“The heart may think it knows better […] we defend ourselves from the rooms, the scenes, the objects that make the senses start up and fasten upon a ghost. We desert those who desert us; we cannot afford to suffer; we must live how we can.”-Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart

          Trans by Jansport: Queer Currencies and the Reclamation of Pride

Love is a choice. Attraction is not. ///////// How am I getting in my own way?

Is democracy dead? No, we’re just alienated from the process.

One note from February just says “Cemeteries of the brain,” which feels like an appropriate name for what it is that I am doing: pre-writing or creating this graveyard of content to be mined later, or not.

By the time I sit down to write this piece, it will be days later. I have a desk, but I won’t use it. I will sit in my bed, back against the wall with my knees up. I won’t use the notes I made about what I thought I would write about. It will be a privilege.

I’m waiting for a pizza delivery. It’s Friday. I just burned myself on a match while lighting votive candles. I’m drinking white wine – Chablis if you care about that kind of thing. I choose to watch an episode of Terrace House instead of finishing this piece.

It’s the Karuizawa season. Aio invites Yui to a bar (she’s a virgin who has never been to a bar) and he says, “There are a lot of things you don’t like about me right?” It’s true; Yui doesn’t like that he picks his nose and hocks loogies. The thing is Aio has fallen for Yui and wants to win her over. So, he says, “Tell me,” meaning, how can I change?

My writing practice has often been like this, a kind of self-assessment, a blunt confessional geared toward connecting with others and growth. But the writing only takes you so far in that growth. Today, I take myself to the page, tell myself to change, and walk away.

I remove four screws from the back of a digital clock, replace the batteries, and reset the time: 9:27 pm. I do my laundry, pay some bills, go out dancing. I make pasta, go to work, read. I attend a political thing. I flirt. I don’t attend a political thing. I flirt. I go to Japanese class. I go to therapy. I look at the flowers. I live.

The days that I choose not to write are days I choose to heal in a different way. I am in a state of change— literally. I relapsed in managing my depression over the summer and  adjusted my medications over the winter.

Writing has always played a role in my depression management, but the type of role it plays is shifting. The page has always been a place I feel safe being vulnerable, a place I feel seen and heard. It’s a place for growth but also a place for blame if I’m not careful. The page is a place where I can always win, where I can continue arguments in my head with people. It’s a place where I can pick my scabs and bleed all over. While I am grateful for that, I don’t want to pick my scabs or open old wounds right now. I don’t want to win; I want to learn how to lose gracefully.

So, while I’m learning to be well, there are more days I choose not to write than days I do. The irony is that writing doesn’t begin or end with putting words on a page. Even in choosing not to write, I am still doing the work in experiencing and processing as much as possible. Through non-writing, I am changing my way to the next thing. This is part of writing too.

Catherine Pikula has degrees from Bennington College and New York University. Her chapbook I'm Fine. How Are You? was selected by Chole Caldwell as winner of the 2018 Newfound Prize.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

My Writing Day – Jaclyn Desforges

I used to get up at 6 a.m. or earlier to write before my daughter woke, but that was back when I still needed the haze of early morning to drown out my existential pain. Was I a real writer? Was my work any good? Now I know the answer to those questions: no, and of course not, nothing’s good, but fuck it. My only other option is pouring coffee for a living, and I’m truly awful at following directions.

I recently figured out that I have ADHD, so my schedule is a lot different now that I’m tackling that. I used to fritter away my days in a state of constant low-level panic, feeling vaguely sure at any given moment that I was forgetting something or that I really ought to be doing something else. Now I do calendar blocking, so I’ve already decided exactly what I’ll be doing at any given moment. I feel like younger me would find this very disturbing, but as I’ve gotten older and more tired, the anxiety that once compelled me to keep all the details of my life in order through sheer force of will is mostly gone. I’ve been getting myself in trouble with double booking and poor planning – I even slept through a coffee date with a new acquaintance once, which I’m still horrified by. So it’s better to just accept that I need to treat myself a little bit like a child at daycare, I think. Keep myself on task.

I get up at seven every single day, which is a recent habit. Getting up at exactly the same time has done wonders for getting my four-year-old daughter off to school on time – I think she’s been late 27 times this year and we literally live around the corner. I now have a system wherein my daughter gets her milk from the fridge and pours it on her own cereal and sits and has a cartoon while I get ready. I also have four bins near the cereal: one with dresses, one with leggings, one with panties and socks and one with her toothbrush, toothpaste and hairbrush. So she selects her own clothes in the morning, though we’re still working on putting them on independently.

While she’s doing her morning things, I have a shower. I sit on the floor of the shower and turn the water to its hottest and try to centre myself a bit, because otherwise it’s hard to open that channel to writing. Sometimes I put eucalyptus or frankincense oil on the floor of the shower and just breathe for a bit.

I get dressed. I’ve been wearing bodysuits every day because I don’t want to waste my energy making decisions. I turned thirty in December, and so far this decade is all about having very little patience. I walk my daughter to school. I come home and settle myself into work – ideally, I don’t need to answer emails or get into socials in the morning and can just sink right into writing.

I love it when I have a short story on the go because I can just read and scroll through the pages for a few minutes to start. I write my poems over the course of one or two days, so to sit down and write poetry usually means to face the blank page immediately. Stories take a few weeks so you can putter around a bit. Recently I’ve been working on a ghost story – I finally sent it out last week, actually. It’s about a ghost and her best friend who is a hamster and a non-consensual assisted suicide. That was a really pleasant few weeks, because when I sat down, I knew exactly what to do.

I’m sure this will change, but as of right now the only way I can start a poem is through some kind of rhythm — words knit themselves together in my head and I like the sound of it. I write it down. Today I am trying to write poems. I have to find that connection, that stream of consciousness that’s not quite my consciousness, and listen for a line.

Writing is like herding cats. The cats are my attention. I am very easily bored, which is sort of shameful to say, but I actually think it’s a strength. I’ve never had a problem with tossing out what’s not working. I worked on a mixed-genre project for three or four months, looked at it one day and realized — poof, the energy was completely gone from it. Delete. Or shelve it if you’re sentimental, but has anyone ever gone back to something they wrote years ago and actually been pleased? I have often had editing or coaching clients who will say, I’ve been working on this story for a year or two years, what should I do with it now? And more often than not my answer will be, burn it and move on.

I write until eleven or sometimes until noon. Recently, the poet Robin Richardson and I began collaborating on a new project: Citadel (, an immersive retreat and event space for writers, artists, and arts connoisseurs. So my days have become deliciously busy. It’s been a thrill to partner with Robin — we’re very aligned in the way we work. And we both very much value creating real-life spaces for writers to work and connect, and really to pursue excellence not only in content but execution. So once I’m out of my morning writing haze, I’m right into web development and publicity and event planning.

If I’ve planned my day very, very well, I have time for writing, Citadel AND the gym all before kindergarten pickup at 3:00. Other days I’m still in a poetic haze when my alarm goes off and I’m rushing out the door.

Jaclyn Desforges is a Pushcart-nominated writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Fiddlehead, Contemporary Verse 2, Minola Review and others. She and the poet Robin Richardson co-founded Citadel, an immersive retreat and event space for writers. Her first poetry chapbook, Hello Nice Man, was published by Anstruther Press in early 2019. Her first picture book, tentatively titled Why Are You So Quiet?, will be published by Annick Press and released in 2020. She's the winner of the 2018 RBC/PEN Canada New Voices Award for her short story “The Gall,” and is currently completing her MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Cooper Wilhelm : Writing Day

8:51 am I’m trying to get off twitter for a week or two so now everything seems personally relevant. A block from the subway station, the dead pigeon with three red tulips laid on it like it had just finished a performance, picked from a plot a few feet away, could have something to do with a reading I got last week, but it could just be the city reacting to an accident. The train conductor said “shall,” which gives me a strange feeling of optimism. The train car has one of those black star stickers on it that seem to be there for official reasons, but are otherwise inscrutable except that they look like the cover the last album Bowie did before he died.

10:23 am One of the things I have to do at my job today is check the transfer of line breaks from a print book of The Tempest into an ebook of The Tempest. As my eyes do this, I listen to a reading of an Algernon Blackwood story on youtube. The protagonist is worried that he’s having trouble distinguishing between dream and reality: “The hard thoughts never come when my mind is much occupied. But they are always there waiting and, as it were, alive.” Say that aloud a few times, and there isn’t a rhyme exactly, but both sentences end with “I,” the same vowel in “rhyme.” These are the sort of ghost rhymes I feel comfortable using in poems. More direct ones seem too much like Wordsworth or limericks, too self-serious or too obviously a joke. Not that jokes in poems aren’t fine. They’re great. Poetry and stand-up have more in common than not sometimes.  

10:37 am My browser currently has 59 tabs open, not including the one in which I’m writing this. Here are three:

-The Wikipedia article for the Thematic Apperception Test, which is something I heard about in a Michael Crichton novel I was listening to on youtube.

-A recipe for Møsbrømlefse that I may never make

-The FindAGrave page for a crossroads burial in Warren County, New Jersey.

12:47 pm (or thereabouts) On my lunch break I take the train downtown to where I have a PO Box and on the way back up I start revising a poem. When I first started working on this poem, I was thinking about the idea of listening to a band I found out about on the poet Ruth Awad’s instagram story called Mashrou’ Leila. I had been crossing under the East River at the time (this was maybe a week ago) and also fixating on something I’d learned earlier that day. In trying to figure out how common crossroad burials are in the US (they were banned in the UK in the 1820s) I learned that the massive strip of cemeteries on the Queens–Brooklyn border had 1) been made possible by the Rural Cemetery Act of 1847, and 2) had resulted in the dead population of Brooklyn being greater than the living one.

Revising the poem now is turning into a major reworking centering on considerations of the reality of ghosts. I’ve certainly used the metaphor of ghosts a lot, and there’s a part of me that’s believed in them enough to sometimes wake up in the middle of the night very afraid, but this poem seems to be a way of interrogating the possibility of capital-b Belief in ghosts and the dead being more alive than simply metaphor and memory.

4:06 pm I take a short break from the work I’m doing on The Tempest to fiddle with a poem, a different poem. I like where it’s going, this poem, but I’ve been fixating on mycology and think maybe that could play a role. A used mycology textbook from 1984 sits next to my work computer almost completely unread. Its time will come soon I hope.

5:30 pm still at work, I am copying the Latin for a recipe from an image of a book from the 1500s for a nonfiction piece I’m working on. The recipe is for holy water.

Cooper Wilhelm is a communist, and a witch, and the author of three books of poetry, the longest of which is DUMBHEART/STUPIDFACE (Siren Songs / 2017). More at and on twitter @CooperWilhelm.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Margaret Sweatman : Writing Day.

I necessarily have a job that consumes me for weeks at a time when I go a bit mad for lack of silence/writing. But it’s been my great luck right now to have a six-month leave from that job, so I have been blessed with writing days.
I’ve been eating and smoking history. Specifically, for a novel, 1961-1977, when the Pentagon trained its sights on Vietnam. But I have a poor memory for everything other than my domestic misdemeanours, so I have to transform history into just that, a domestic misdemeanour. This takes a lot of time: much research, reading, writing, rewriting, to inhabit, incorporate, compress the external with the internal frame to create a story. A story, as you know, is a complicated organism.
I recently spent the first three months of my six-month leave in a small city where I had almost no contact with people. For days at a time I would speak only to my husband. He is handsome and interesting so it was fine, but lonely, being separate from my family and friends and home. I got so lonely for the sound of poetry I went to a Mennonite church. I’m not Mennonite, not even Christian, but the church was a marvellous house of kindness and literacy. It was Lent, and one sermon (more like a scholarly lecture: she didn’t try to save my soul) addressed Satan tempting a starving Jesus to turn a stone into bread. This, Jesus would not do. I loved being in the church (children were among the congregation, rustling and chirping so it was like being in a big aviary) but I can never be a member because it’s my job to turn stones into bread.
During this particular exile there were some bad days when the stones didn’t budge. But sometimes I could write without looking at the keyboard or the screen; sometimes the novel was writing me, while I studied the squirrels in the trees outside my window (very lucky: a window). I learned that squirrels can become embarrassed, that they are show-offs, jealous and competitive, that squirrels are not duplicates. At equinox, crows, yes, a murder, descended on tall thin pines in purple dusk. That was the moment when I would permit myself the first glass of wine that might fuel tomorrow’s cadence. This was bliss. Bliss is a weird state.
Now I’m still on leave, free from my job for another few months, and writing every day, but at home where there are many more interruptions. When I first got home I thought I was finally going crazy: I was fractured, shattered, yet had no actuality.
There’s a wonderful letter by Sam Melville written from Attica State Prison where Melville was imprisoned for bombing buildings to protest the violence of the American military-capitalist system of permanent war (this was 1971). The composer Fredric Rzewski took Melville’s letter (published in Letters from Attica) and dis-assembled it into an epic yet minimalist work called “Coming Together,” which I’ve performed with small orchestras: an exhilarating experience. (You can find various performances of this piece on YouTube.) Here is part of Melville’s brilliant letter:

I think the combination of age and the greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. it's six months now and i can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. i am in excellent physical and emotional health. there are doubtless subtle surprises ahead but i feel secure and ready.
As lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crisis, so am i dealing with my environment .… i read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life. 

Shortly after writing this letter, Melville was murdered by state police in a revolt over prisoners’ rights.
In another of Sam Melville’s prison letters he writes that Revolution is inspired by desperation and a desire for ecstasy. I’m enlarging my tiny existence with this story, this text, these references, to supplement the fact that I went to watch my grandson play hockey this morning (an enduring happiness, to see his beauty), and to try to portray a constant, obsessive relationship with language (to read like a safecracker). And what I get in return for all this tunnelling and tapping are souvenirs, the occasional book or story or lyric. Souvenirs can be mass-produced but they share in the intensity of the original moment, which, for a writer, is an intensity of attention.
It’s often observed in this blog, these descriptions of “Writing Days,” that there are no writing days; that the decline of writers’ value and therefore income means that we spend our days trying to make our living, and spend our nights in desperation seeking ecstasy. In some ways we live in a prison that has exploded, become total. All data is collected. We are massively significant and none of us is powerful. 
It must be love, this engagement with silence and solitude that is occasionally interrupted by semaphore with the guards and other inmates. Like you, I have to write and cannot stop any more than I can stop loving my family. But we are living in an age where the ministers of culture (and education) despise culture (and education), when the products of our imaginations and our intellectual work are often met with condescension, even by other writers. We are too many. There are not enough resources. We must turn inward for resilience while we try to pay close and loving attention to the indifferent world.

Margaret Sweatman’s novels are Mr. Jones, The Players, When Alice Lay Down with Peter, Sam and Angie, and Fox.  She writes essays, song lyrics and libretti, poetry, plays, and short fiction, and is a vocalist and harmonica player. She lives in Winnipeg.