Sunday, April 26, 2020

Lizzie Derksen’s (small press) writing day

Thursday, April 23, 2020
Edmonton, Alberta

8:55 am  I come in from drinking a cup of coffee in our building’s back parking lot and look at a clock (the yellow kitchen clock). It’s good to sit outside listening to the city, smelling it. I don’t know why I stopped doing it. Jeanette Winterson writes about the vitality of liminal space, about preferring to leave her doors open and to sit in the doorways, half in and half out. And whenever Dylan and I go for a walk in a rich neighbourhood, the houses I point out are the ones with big porches, rooftop balconies, best of all the outdoor walkways between the individual buildings that compose very modern houses. The most I can do is to leave the windows in our apartment wide open all summer, and take my morning coffee in a communal space designed for vehicles. But it is better than the routine I’ve had all winter, of waking up and sitting down at my computer.

9:10 am  Sitting down at my computer. Writing this diary. Checking my email. Train has sent me the bios of the artists included in the upcoming issue I’ve had three poems accepted to. I’m in wonderful company. One of my undergrad English professors has sent me an email about corpse pose and her thoughts on isolation. Dylan and Ranger come in from the morning walk. I figure I should drink some water and eat something.

9:50 am  Make the bed, make oatmeal, think about whether to have a shower and what to do with my hair, talk to Dylan, take photos of my desk, eat oatmeal, type this, check my phone.

Joanna is posting on Instagram about the new Aunt Rachel poem she’s just received. I suppose I need to back up to explain this. At the end of November, I released a chapbook called Aunt Rachel Says 13 Poems, a collection of monologues spoken by a fictional character and written over the course of about a year and a half. I thought I was done with them. Then, three weeks into the quarantine, I wrote a new Aunt Rachel poem and decided to send it out as a kind of apocrypha to the chapbook. People seem excited about the prospect of real mail.

Dylan asks me if “think piece” was a term before the internet. I don’t know. I do know that I don’t like to do one thing at a time. As usual, I find myself with nine or ten projects I could choose to work on (in addition to the laundry that will send me to my in-laws’ house as soon as I can get my shit together). A novel about 7,000 words away from a complete first draft. A short story collection I’m revising for the third time. A new story called “The Murder House” I’d like to polish before sending out. A Super 8 documentary about Dylan’s 29th year, which just needs a few tweaks to the sound design. A documentary about Open Apartment (a salon I’ve been hosting for about five years), which we shot last summer and which I haven’t touched since. A grant application, due Monday, for a play I want to write with my friend Bevin. Notes to make on Dylan’s new script. An article on investing fees for the bank I contract for. A story about a failed threeway I wrote in the fall that probably needs a second, complementary narrative thread to make it work. But today I am determined to finish a treatment to send to the feminist pornographer Erika Lust, who runs a program through which female directors can apply to have their own films produced.

10:20 am  I read “What Makes Life Worth Living and Nature’s Beauty as a Lifeline to Regaining Sanity” on Maria Popova’s brilliant blog (post-blog?) Brain Pickings. Dylan asks me what my favourite Wislawa Szymborska poem is, and I think about it and then read him “The Century’s Decline.”

The Century’s Decline

Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others.
It will never prove it now,
now that its years are numbered,
its gait is shaky,
its breath is short.

Too many things have happened
that weren’t supposed to happen,
and what was supposed to come about
has not.

Happiness and spring, among other things,
were supposed to be getting closer.

Fear was expected to leave the mountains and the valleys.
Truth was supposed to hit home
before a lie.

A couple of problems weren’t going
to come up anymore:
humger, for example,
and war, and so forth.

There was going to be respect
for helpless people’s helplessness,
trust, that kind of stuff.

Anyone who planned to enjoy the world
is now faced
with a hopeless task.

Stupidity isn’t funny.
Wisdom isn’t gay.

isn’t that young girl anymore,
et cetera, alas.

God was finally going to believe
in a man both good and strong,
but good and strong
are still two different men.

How should we live?” someone asked me in a letter.
I had meant to ask him
the same question.

Again, and as ever,
as may be seen above,
the most pressing questions
are naïve ones.

- Translated by Clare Cavanaugh and Stanislaw Baranczak, from View With A Grain of Sand, Harcourt, 1995

11:05 am  Getting my shit together. Brushing my teeth, braiding my hair, putting on makeup, packing up the laundry in an old sheet, loading the laundry and the compost into the car, listening to Waxahatchee’s new record while driving ten blocks to the house Dylan grew up in, where I feel more welcome than just about anywhere. Even during quarantine, Gwen sanitizes the laundry room so her kids and their partners can avoid apartment laundry rooms and public laundromats, and Trevor makes Costco runs on behalf of the whole extended family. Last week he brought me a massive bucket of sour soothers.

11:20 am  I start the laundry. Gwen has left me a cup of magic elixir tea and a tiny orange on the dining table where I usually set up.

12:17 pm  I spend an unholy amount of time uninstalling Adobe programs from my laptop, which has been limping along with a full memory for months now. Text with Dylan and Joanna and Laura while waiting for the uninstallers to do their thing. Also clean up my desktop. Check on the laundry. Eat the orange, and a granola bar I brought with me. Rinse out a muddy towel we’ve been using to wipe Ranger’s paws all winter. Change the laundry over. Trevor comes downstairs for lunch and we talk about the seats for the plane he’s almost finished building, which I sewed covers for last week. They’re in place, they fit, and apparently they’re extremely comfortable.

1:32 pm  Finish draft of treatment. Does it make sense? Is it hot? I don’t know. I’ve worked from a scribbled outline made weeks ago, but it hasn’t taken as long as I expected today. I still have notes to make on visual style and references, potential performers, sound design, etc., and there’s still a load of laundry that hasn’t gone into the dryer. I’m super hungry, and also a bit cold.

1:50 pm  So I take my journal and an apple outside. It occurs to me that it is possible to sit on a threshold here, half in and half out, so I do that, my legs on the deck, my shoulders in the livingroom. I come in and check on the laundry. Gwen comes down and pours me more tea and tells me what is in this week’s Costco haul. She’e especially delighted about the large pineapple. We commiserate about the apparent citywide lack of full-fat yogurt; she can’t find it anywhere.

3:20 pm  Finish notes on treatment and send to Dylan with a caveat: “I think it could still use some work (I feel like it comes off as simultaneously pretentious and amateurish in parts), but I thought I would see what you think!” Seconds later, I text Dylan to ask if he’s had any dinner inspirations. I put the last load of laundry in the dryer and hang up the delicates.

3:35 pm  This Lisel Mueller poem appears on Twitter and it says what I was trying to say, writing about sitting outside this morning:

There Are Mornings

Even now, when the plot
calls for me to turn to stone,
the sun intervenes. Some mornings
in summer I step outside
and the sky opens
and pours itself into me
as if I were a saint
about to die. But the plot
calls for me to live,
be ordinary, say nothing
to anyone. Inside the house
the mirrors burn when I pass.

- from Second Language, LSU Press, 1986

3:45 pm  I edit this diary.

3:52 pm  So hungry. Dylan agrees we should make pizza tonight.

4:09 pm  Gwen brings me some trail mix and we talk about some policy documents she’s just written for her World of Warcraft guild. I copy the Lisel Mueller poem into my journal.

4:35 pm  Pack up the clean laundry and all my work things, empty the compost into Gwen and Trevor’s garage set-up, put the laundry and our allotment of Costco groceries into the car, drive home listening to Waxahatchee again. It’s so surprising and gratifying to hear Katie Crutchfield coming into her Southern sound without fear.

4:55 pm  Home. The new Wares record is waiting in a cardboard sleeve on my desk. I cut it open. Dylan puts it on. I rinse out the compost bucket. He puts the groceries away. Time to start the pizza dough in the big, blue, beautiful enamel bowl.

5:20 pm  Ranger and I have a nap on the couch while the Wares record plays twice. It’s good. Semi-conscious, my dog and I are proud of our city, glad to live here, for the moment, in spite of everything.

6:50 pm  We assemble a kitchen-sink pizza (a tomato-anchovy sauce from another day’s pot roast, potatoes, broccoli, mozzarella). It goes in the oven. I do the dishes, drink a lot of water, update this diary. Dylan reads Lawrence’s The Rainbow.

7:00 pm  Dinner. Dylan and I get into a long discussion about my treatment.

8:32 pm  Exhausted. I get into the bathtub with Lucy Maud Montgomery’s journals, which are schoolgirlish and tedious at this point (1894) and are making me pine for Plath’s relentless analysis and speculation and self-examination.

9:45 pm  Out of the bath, I feed Ranger, take some vitamins, brush my teeth, and take Ranger out for a last walk around the block.

11:40 pm  I spend over an hour shifting between Instagram and Duolingo, caught in a low-key war between myself and another German language learner who’s online, both of us trying to knock each other out of the #5 spot for the week. I impulse-order a green boiler suit. I text Dylan, who’s at the studio. And then it’s back to the land of no clocks.

Lizzie Derksen is a writer and filmmaker from Treaty 6 Territory. A recipient of the 2018 Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Emerging Artists (Alberta), she has been described as combining curiosity, intellectual boldness, independence of mind, emotional sensitivity, and a sure sense for the rhythms of words and sentences with an aversion to sentimentality and fashionable notions.”

Esther Spellicy in the Main Game, a collection of three short stories, was published in 2019 by With/out Pretend. Other recent work includes Aunt Rachel Says 13 Poems, a self-published chapbook, and words in Poetry is Dead, Funicular Magazine, The Vault Zine, and on CBC Television.

Lizzie’s practice encompasses poetry, short fiction, creative non-fiction, journalism, voiceover narration, dramatic and impressionistic short film, pornography, and documentary. She is writing her first novel.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Kyra Simone : My Writing Day

          Whoever you are, go out into the evening, leaving your room, of which you know every bit; your house is the last before the infinite, whoever you are.”
                                                                                                         —Rainer Maria Rilke

          As I write this, people throughout the world are sitting alone in rooms. Many who, by law, cannot leave them for more than a brief reprieve. Some are laying panicked on the floor. Some are sleeping through the days. Some are enjoying the quiet. Some are sick or have lost jobs or people—alone in other rooms. Some are trying to write. And some have made peace with the fact that this is a time to be gentle on ourselves about whatever we do inside these rooms, and whatever we imagine is happening outside of them. 

          Before the Coronavirus pandemic struck in New York, I had a day job working for a small publisher a few days a week. Every morning, as I made the two mile trek through the park to my office, I encountered the same woman walking from the other direction. Vaguely middle aged and slumped in her posture, though the woman is older than me, we faintly resemble each other, both petite with dark curly hair, hers just a little grayer than mine is. I’ve tried to engage with her many times, to at least say hi, as after two years of passing each other, she must by now recognize me. But most days she just trudges along, gazing down at the ground with a sour look on her face, and in all this time we’ve never spoken. Though I’ve since given up on trying to talk to her, every time I pass her, I’m still met with a mini existential crisis. Will I be walking this walk forever, I wonder? Will I become this woman one day? Will my face turn sour like hers has? Will I evolve into a person who doesn’t notice a stranger’s face reoccurring in the crowd?

          When I was 13 years-old I befriended a writer. He was the only writer I had ever met. He told me that when he was 19 an old woman said to him that if you want to be a writer, you have to write everyday. So he started writing everyday, sitting down around 10pm and going late into the night, drafting letters to people when no one else was awake, letters, which over time, became essays, essays, which became novels and so on. It was simple, the way he explained it. No secret strategy or formula or perfect weather to wait for.

          When I was 18 and setting out to leave my childhood home, there were further instructions. In one of his famous speeches he had given to many young writers, he described writing as “the talent of the room,” that no matter how talented a person is, if good hard time isn’t put into exercising that talent, it will only exist as a sort of gift that remains unopened. What writing actually requires, he said, more than talent (though having talent helps), is the simple ability to face hours and days and years alone in a room. The picturesque has nothing to do with it—the desk by the window, the vintage typewriter, the scenic view. Waiting until you declutter the surface will not help you, moving the furniture around, or putting off the task until you convert the attic into the perfect writing room will not make you a writer. What it all comes down to is the basic act of sitting down and doing it, whatever the set up, however little time you have.

          I generally agree with my writer friend’s point on this, though despite having already spent a good number of years alone in many rooms, I am certainly still guilty of decluttering and rearranging the furniture. In fact, I have a ritual of simply having to put away all the discarded clothes that accumulate on the chair in the corner of my bedroom before I can sit down to begin writing. Distraction is often as much a part of my writing day as actual writing is. Life and the internet creeps in for all of us, obligations, anxiety, self-doubt. Facing a blank page to make something out of nothing is a harrowing enterprise, but it is the fundamental task of writing, one that doesn’t change or become any easier, whether you’ve published 30 books or toiled away in obscurity for years on a single sentence.

          There are many days when the page that is faced remains blank. Knowing this and having the resolve to keep your butt in the chair for hours anyway can be a masochistic practice. But it is what we agree to when we decide to become writers. These are the terms we must be willing to accept if we are ever to arrive at the day when the page does fill with something, and even then, to be lucky enough to fill it with something true.

          The “talent of the room” is indeed what it comes down to, an ability which perhaps now more than ever is being put to the test. Writing, however, is not limited to the moment of transmission. There are a million invisible motors behind the simple act of placing words on a page. “Writing” in a sense is also happening when you are walking in the street observing your surroundings. It is taking place when you are zoning out in line at the grocery store or riding your bike down a hill or gazing out the window or loading clothes into the washing machine or sitting on the subway. It can creep up on you in the middle of something entirely inconvenient or when you least expect it, a seemingly brilliant phrase that composes itself in your mind after you’ve already submitted your manuscript or as you are lying in bed with your eyes open in the dark. Without time spent outside of the room, nothing will materialize inside of it.

          This has become more poignant, as the limitations of COVID-19 have settled over us. The fact that we have no choice but to stay inside the room at the moment has not made staying in it, or writing in general, any easier. In fact, for some the current and very necessary restrictions of sheltering in place may have made this whole process even harder. It is one thing to be submerged in a self-imposed metaphorical isolation one has the power to lift at any time, but when the isolation is mandatory, exterior, and without antidote, the stakes inevitably change. On top of the usual distractions, now there is the distraction of COVID-19, which hangs invisibly over everything in the background (or foreground): the threat of death in its most literal sense, the anxiety over what is happening in the world and the fear that we may be alone in the room forever.

          As many writers and artists have vocalized online in the past month as the pandemic has taken hold in the US, it has been difficult to stay focused. On one hand, now that many of us have an unusual abundance of time on our hands, there is an overwhelming pressure to create. On the other, there is so much information being hurled at us, so many unsettling realities playing out, that it often feels impossible for the mind to reach the state of quiet needed to produce anything.

          I’ve never been a full time writer. I’m not exactly a part time writer either. I write regularly. That much is true. On the days I’m not in the office, I generally make the attempt, cordoning off a certain number of hours to be devoted to writing, even if nothing comes of them. I’ve placed faith in the logic that if you show up often enough, eventually something will. “If you don’t get serious with your writing, your writing won’t get serious with you,” my writer friend said. Like exercise or playing an instrument or slowly digging a tunnel with a spoon, whatever your habits or method, doing it consistently seems to be what is important, finding a practical system that you personally will actually employ, however off or unromantic it might feel for someone else.

          A wake up at 4am and write before work writer I am not. A midnight oil writer I am not. After years of trying different set ups, I know now that I’m a day time writer, a late morning and afternoon writer, a sometimes coffeeshop writer, a laptop on the couch or at the foot of the bed writer, a desk by the window writer, a notebook on a train writer, a back of a bank envelope writer. And sometimes I’m not a writer at all. Or perhaps I’m a writer at all times, least of all when not writing—the quiet person in the corner taking mental notes. I do also keep a physical notebook, but its pages are never limited to official writerly thoughts. Rather, they are a mess of lists and phone numbers, business cards, receipts…all woven in with sections of text. Many of my best ideas end up on scraps of junk mail that accumulate on my desk. Some of these fragments make it through to full sentences and paragraphs. Some are thrown out—a detritus of thoughts discarded along with the material trash.

          When I taught in the mornings I used to come home from class and either go for a run or meditate before transitioning to writing. In recent years, the long walks to the office had also become a meditation, a quiet rhythm of contemplations dissipating and re-emerging, the inward cycle moving in concert with the repetitive motion of the feet. Predictably, I keep to a strict regime of coffee—once in the morning and once in the afternoon, almost at the exact time everyday. I wear the same pair of deteriorating blue jeans I never wear outdoors, the same repertoire of t-shirts, while when out in the world I’m often much more elaborately arranged. When writing, it seems I make no attempt to be mistaken for a character, to wear the costume of myself I present to the public, intentionally or not.

          The rituals that actually stick for me are none that are so curated or planned. They are the ones that develop on their own, that I’m so comfortable in I don’t notice them, unless they are gone (like a day without coffee). Over time, the patterns become familiar animals. If I have a few free days in a row to write for instance, I know that at least one of them will be a wash, one will usually manifest some good work, and one might be a mix. I know when I’ll get hungry, I know I’ll check my email or social media at countless intervals. I know that a good amount of time will be lost to the ether.

          What did you do today?” people with normal jobs used to ask me when we met up at night on the weekends. “I was writing,” I’d answer, knowing that in most cases what they were imagining was not at all how I spent the time. A day of “writing” for me often alludes to an interior life of wandering from room to room, the apartment dimly lit in winter, sweltering in summer. It is a day that can seem long or short, filled with a million small tasks and failed attempts. Flipping a light switch in hopes of an idea, brewing a cup of tea, emptying a drawer, scouring the cabinets for a guilty snack, watching the cars go by from the window. The interjection of a phone conversation, a lonely meal, a shower, a walk to the corner store, a shaking of a limb that has fallen asleep. Perhaps an interlude of eyebrow plucking or staring at a leaf pattern on a plant in the windowsill and being reminded of something random from childhood.

          Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly stuck I’ll embark on a cleaning project. As I find myself needlessly mopping the floor or reorganizing a closet, I’m reminded of Sylvia Plath’s famous baking habit, imagining how when she was avoiding writing, her kitchen counter would fill with a spread of elaborate pies, while on her desk there remained a stack of empty pages. Cleaning is the fastest form of change, a task one sets out to do which will always be accomplished. Writing, for me, has never worked so neatly. It’s always been a slow and gradual process, a perpetual reaching out for something mysterious and invisible, which, every once in a while, amidst all these small doings, after hours of waiting quietly in the grass for the leopard to appear, suddenly flashes its light onto my fingertips…if I don’t let it slip through them.

          I don’t write every day, as my writer friend was told to. I don’t always write in the same room. I write most days and I’m serious about showing up to do it. I’ve found my own weird way of doing things…which is the only way anyone ever figures out how to do anything. That writer friend isn’t around anymore. Routines need to evolve at some point. As Voltaire once said, “if we don’t find anything pleasant, at least we shall find something new.” Still hard to find is a life of freedom and structure, as we both need the routine and yet long for it to be interrupted. The interruptions are often where life actually happens, where the things worth writing about occur.

          A few years ago, a colleague and I were approached in the subway by the guy who created Humans of New York, the photoblog series of portraits and interviews with people found on the streets of New York City. We were picked out because we were both wearing flamboyant fur hats and the photographer had assumed we were a couple. We explained that in fact we worked together at a small press and were on our way to a poetry reading, and that we were also both writers. “Why do you write?’ the man asked us, as if shocked by the notion. My colleague and I looked at each other for a few moments, suddenly at a loss as to how to reply. This was a question with no single answer, meriting a response that is different for everyone and can be difficult to put into words. I thought of all the hours I’d spent alone in rooms and how many more hours would be spent in them. I thought of my walks and the crisis of seeing that woman pass me every morning. Finally, I said: “I write in an attempt to describe something indescribable.” 
          Now alone in a room again, just walls away from other people alone in other rooms, the days of facing the blank page continue, as we wait out the collective solitude of a historical moment that has felt indescribable. Void of the routine and the interruptions, a little grayer than before, I am left in a place without freedom or structure. It has been weeks since I’ve seen the woman walking in the other direction, and I feel both unhinged and a little excited by the break in the pattern…

Kyra Simone is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Brooklyn Rail, Black Clock, Conjunctions, Entropy, F(r)iction Magazine, Little Star, and the Best American Experimental Writing Anthology, among other journals. She is a member of the publishing collective Ugly Duckling Presse and works an associate editor at Zone Books.