Saturday, August 3, 2019

Sam Reese: My (small press) writing day

Half my life here is nomadic, so my writing day is really two. Migrating and hibernating—each part has its pleasures and its challenges. Perhaps the only constant is the coffee.

Although the days that I travel south begin with coffee earlier. I brew a thermos-full in my kitchen in the dark, eking it out over three-and-a-half hours and two trains. Quality is secondary to quantity and heat.

On these days, my writing desk is usually a cramped table shared with three other passengers. Even the carriage designated ‘quiet’ seldom is, so I plug in headphones and put on some jazz. The music needs to match the stage of the project I am at. If I’ve got momentum on a story, then it’s time for Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans—something that has pace, a strong and even pulse. When I’m starting out, though, or those times I’ve hit a wall, I know I need something that will startle me, jolt my sluggish brain. Ornette Coleman or some more bombastic Mingus.

Even after four years here, the landscape of the UK still sometimes unsettles me. Watching the sun blaze from fuschia through orange and into blue across this strangely familiar countryside, blurred with the speed of movement, I can see the beauty of it—but unease is often the more constructive fuel.

After the long interlude of teaching, I head off to temporary accommodation. During term time, it will be dark by the time I reach my room. Rarely, I will take a long time on a single story; mostly, though, I like to write them out intensively, over a few days. After I have planned the main ideas, and got the shape, the taste of it inside of me, then it takes a concentrated effort—like laying an egg. So, after a light dinner, I will continue my morning’s writing for two or three hours in the dark, at a small desk of the kind I might have had at primary school. I keep the curtain open, so that I can catch the stars.

My migrations end with this process reversed; early morning writing with a coffee before classes; a long northward journey by train at night.

The payoff for my days of movement are my writing days at home. These, too, begin with coffee, and normally a walk to organise my thoughts. Then I settle in to write at our kitchen table. As far back as I can remember, I dreamed of an apartment with a bay window, so sitting here, with light streaming in and the sound of our windchime, gives me a feeling of freedom—the sense I can make mistakes.

          I urge my students to be pragmatic—learn to write anywhere, whatever is at hand. When I am at home, I find this hard to follow… I prefer to draft by hand, in a Muji notebook, and I always feel more comfortable when I have my small talisman nearby: a brass squirrel. On these days, I try to fit all my writing into a single concentrated block, and then move on to errands and housework. Usually the universe has other ideas.

Hailing from Aotearoa, Sam Reese is an insatiable traveller and self-confessed short story nerd. An award winning critic and story writer, his first collection of stories, Come the Tide, was published with Platypus Press this year. When not writing stories, he is usually writing about them; his critical work, The Short Story in Midcentury America, won the 2018 Arthur Miller Institute First Book Prize. Later this year, his second critical work, Blue Notes: Jazz, Literature, and Loneliness, will be published with LSU Press.

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