Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Mark Russell : my (small press) writing day

My parents bought me a desk for my room when I was quite young. I can remember doing my homework on it, writing ridiculously complex stories for my English teacher that filled whole exercise books instead of a couple of pages. It must have caused her great distress – for both its content and its length.

I can remember cutting out quotations from plays or poems and Sellotaping them around my room; sitting with album covers to examine lyrics while music played in the corner; opening bottles of beer on the handles of its drawers; hiding my stash of marijuana behind pencils and scraps of paper inside its drawers. I still have that desk. It’s in my ‘study’ today, a room I’ve never tidied since we moved in five years ago, and which I’ve therefore never used as a study, and probably won’t until I retire and find the time and energy to clear enough space to sit at it.

This photograph is the desk I share in my school’s Drama Studio. I like desks. For most of the year, it’s where my writing day begins. I get to work as early as possible because I like to avoid heavy traffic, and I like to have plenty of time to prepare for the day ahead. This also allows me to begin what I suppose is my daily writing process. It’s difficult to nail down a precise process because no two days are the same, but during a working day I try to follow a certain pattern. Sometimes I am successful.

Reading is the driver of my writing process. I cannot write unless I read, so the day always begins with reading, either new work or re-reading old work. It’s usually one or two hard collections of poetry – I love the feel of a book in my hand, and I never have just one on the go. Often, I’ll read online journals for poetry, prose, and criticism, and sometimes a novel or some non-fiction. This is like meditation for me. It centres me before the school day, which is a rare old fairground of a time. Imagine the world’s longest rollercoaster: it’s one-and-a-half miles long, can reach 95 miles per hour, and takes four minutes to complete (it’s in Japan). Multiply that by 100. Your ride takes about seven hours. You can’t get off. Nobody can hear you scream because everybody else is screaming, too. That’s what an average day’s education feels like.

So, once the morning bell goes, I have to strap myself in and place all this reading and writing nonsense aside until I get home. Like many writers, especially those with full time jobs, I have to find spaces in a day in order to write. It begins at my school desk. After that, it can be anywhere: on my laptop; in real notebooks; on the back of receipts; on Post-It notes; in my phone’s note app; into an email I mail to myself, or anything else that comes to hand. I have been known to ask my wife to text me a phrase or sentence while I am driving so that I don’t forget it.

A few years ago, I emptied my life of tv and internet. I had neither for three years and it was grand. With just radio or CDs to hand, I kick-started a beneficial routine. I can work with all sorts of music playing. Occasionally, it needs to be instrumental when I am looking for a particular rhythm, or breath pattern. I don’t need silence, though sometimes I think that as my concentration deepens, all extraneous noise becomes silent to me: there is just a beat on which to hang words.

I came back to the tv/internet fold eventually. It’s quite difficult to keep up that level of Ludditism and remain sane. So much of public discourse becomes alien to you, and you then become an alien in public discourse. That’s a little unhealthy. I need to be part of something bigger than myself. That’s what writing is, I think. A communication. We are in conversation with ourselves and each other. It all starts by paying attention to one’s self, and then to others. Even if I record a dream, that dream has come from my conscious interactions. It has been processed in my messy brain and emerged in some form, searching for its audience. Art, I think, is a result of social interaction.

On this perfect exemplar of a successful writing day, I might be able to tinker with a line or stanza during break times. On the drive home, I will think about what I am going to prioritise when I get home. I am privileged to have two marvellous children, but they are adults now and live somewhere else, so my home time is pretty much my own. When I get home, I will put on the radio or my iTunes and I’ll pick up where I was earlier in the day. Later, I may ready some submissions if I have any, or check social media if I can stomach the vitriol that pervades it. And then I’ll hope that nothing wakes me during the night, demanding that I write it down. Though if it does, I’ll do its bidding.

Mark Russell’s publications include Shopping for Punks (Hesterglock), Spearmint & Rescue (Pindrop), (the book of moose) (Kattywompus), and ا (the book of seals) (Red Ceilings). Other poems have appeared in Stand, Shearsman, The Interpreter’s House, Tears in the Fence, The Lonely Crowd, Blackbox Manifold, Prelude, and elsewhere. He is a graduate of the University of Glasgow’s MLitt in Creative Writing, teaches Drama in high school, and lives in Scotland.

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