What my writing day looks like depends on the season. The cycle my life follows is teaching for eight months, writing for four months. My writing day begins on May 1st and ends around August 31. It would be more accurate to say ‘my writing half-day’. Much as I admire and envy those writers who can work for hours, through the night, even, I don’t have the concentration or stamina. I reach a breaking point after about four hours at the desk. I can feel the work devolve, grow sloppy. Lose intensity. A knock-it-out-of-the-park writing day for me is a five-hour stretch. I work on a reward system; a four-hour bout is respectable. If I achieve that I allow myself to do something fun, like go for a walk, or to a thrift shop. But after my writing day I must also return to my job which, even though classes aren’t in session, carries through the summer months. Student supervision, hundreds of emails, letters of reference to write. And the increasingly challenging endeavour to read. But those things are outside my writing day. Let me re-focus. Focus has never been my strong point; this issue impacts my writing day.
I can think of my writing day, then, as a pyramid of diminishing focus. The apex happens around 9:30 am, after I’ve guzzled at least two cups of coffee but am still in that vaguely woozy post-sleep state. I’m not yet wearing my self-critical hat, but rather letting my hair down, letting the sentences go sideways, giving myself permission, enjoying what Stephen King, in his terrific book On Writing, calls the “inspired play” of the craft. He means this in a good way. At the pyramid’s tip of my writing day, I’m kinking my verbs, pushing past the predictable – or failing at it better than usual. I might even invent a few new words or terms. I’m in my happy place and don’t care whose birthday Facebook has just been announced, or what weather the day is likely to bring. I’m not even really inhabiting my body, and that’s something I love about writing; it affords me an escape from my body. Many writers I know feel, when writing, deeply embodied. But it’s the opposite for me; the only part of my body I’m aware of, at the writing desk, is my hands. Typing. (I don’t write longhand unless forced to, like, in an airport, or on a bus.) And my eyes, tacking across the screen along with the words.
By noon, I can feel the slide down the pyramid begin, can detect the energy, focus, and concentration descend from the peak. I begin to check email when I pause to search a word in an on-line thesaurus. I do stretches on my floor mat; these should help me re-focus, but they don’t. They situate me back in my body. Email situates me back in the world. The writing-desk spell is breaking down. I wish I was capable of longer bouts at the writing desk, but I’m not.
Thus far I’ve said nothing about the physical conditions of my writing day. There has to be white noise, a fan whirring the whole time. I keep wearing what I wore to bed. My hair must be pinned back off my face with a claw-clip. The heat has to be cranked. I need to be really warm when I write; maybe it’s to melt away the edges of my body. Not great for the electrical bill or the environment. Not to mention my Macbook Pro, buzzing away for big chunks of each day. Right now, my writing desk is crammed in my small bedroom in the undisclosed location where I’m writing, so I just have to stagger out of bed and over to the desk. Three steps. I like it this way. If I had to trek outside to a writing-studio shed behind my house, in my back yard, I might never go there.
Genre informs my writing day, too. I’ve been referring mainly to prose composition so far, and if I’m in the early drafts of a novel, I impose a word quota – not an uncommon practice for writers of long prose, I’ve heard. It makes me feel productive, like my hands twitching across the keyboard have achieved something tangible even while the logical side of my mind, what remains of it, knows I’m seven or eight years away from a finished novel. During my writing day, it’s not uncommon for me to check the ‘word count’ feature on my computer. The nerd factor. Poetry feels less productive, paradoxical as this may sound, since its tonnage is lighter than a novel or other long prose work. If the poetry-writing itch comes over me, it helps jumpstart my poetry-writing-day by reading – other poetry, or non-fiction, mostly. But if a riff doesn’t arrive in the first hour, I’m sunk. Or if I have a riff but nothing to hook to it, nothing generative in play. I hate those days; I feel like a washed-up writer on those days, and I don’t know what to do with myself.
Genre, yes, that’s what I was on about just now. I can’t read fiction while writing a novel. Entering another writer’s fictional world has the potential to sabotage my focus on my own story’s world. Therefore, if it’s a fiction-writing day, I dive right into it; ideally, I’ve been inside my characters’ heads during the night, which is often the case, in the interstices of sleep.
So now we are nearing the bottom of the pyramid; my writing day is drawing to a close. It’s probably about 1:00 or 1:30 pm. I’m let down that the focus and that special ‘buzz’ needed for writing anything remotely worthwhile, isn’t there anymore. It’s like that old Gordon Lightfoot song; the feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back. I have to wait until the next day, fill the waiting hours with teaching-related work, or meals, or sleep, or drum lessons. Even though my writing days are restricted to one-third of the year, they are golden, they are bliss; I know I’m lucky to have the May to September period relatively uninterrupted to devote to writing projects. When the ‘back to school’ stuff begins to appear everywhere, I want to cry. There’s a period of mourning for my soon-to-be-gone writing days. But I’m lucky to have my teaching gig – I learn a lot – I get to talk about writing. I enjoy my students. Talking about writing isn’t as good as doing it, but it’s pretty okay. And I know I’m fortunate to have a job that keeps me thinking about writing for those eight months of the year when outside the pyramid. And when the days begin to lengthen, sometime in March, and more light creeps in, my crusty heart stirs – if I can hang in for a few more weeks, my writing days will return, those slow, daily slides down the pyramid of diminishing focus, inside the planet’s big, diminishing clock.
Jeanette Lynes’ second novel, The Small Things That End The World, is forthcoming from Coteau Books in 2018. Her eighth book of poetry, Bedlam Cowslip: The John Clare Poems, received the 2016 Saskatchewan Arts Board Poetry Award. Her poetry recently appeared in the on-line poetry journal Juniper. Jeanette directs the MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan.