Sep 14

Today I spread my poems on the floor

IMG_4893(Photos by Lindsey Rae Gjording)

It’s what every poet eventually has to do if they’re putting together a manuscript. Spread the poems on the floor. Like the batter of a very rich cake, pour it in the pan, spread it evenly. Let it find its shape and settle. But the recipe is not as clear with poems (and you don’t get a delicious cake as a reward for your hard work).

Before today, I was very sure about the order of this manuscript. I had about 50 pages or so that I thought were done, and maybe 10 new pages I wanted to fit in somewhere. Once the poems were on the floor, a lot of moving around ensued. I circled the area like it was a crime scene, picking up poems, examining them, jotting down notes, putting them down. Before today, I knew what the first poem of the manuscript would be. Now I have some contenders.

The poems gathered together in clusters like continents floating on the ocean. Now I’m afraid to move them, lest the plates start shifting. I tiptoe around the room.

IMG_4887The process of ordering a manuscript provides some answers, but raises new questions. What is this poem doing here, among these other poems? What is this poem doing in this manuscript at all? Does this manuscript hold together? Are the poems too different in style, yet too similar in theme? Are these questions mere neurotic distractions from a much more intuitive process? If I gave the manuscript to a group of monkeys would any of them order it the same way?

The poems must stand on their own. Seeing them in a group helps me detect the finished ones from the unfinished or disposable ones. I see how poems fit together, but it’s tempting to view the manuscript as a jigsaw puzzle. You are putting together a puzzle whose final picture you can’t see, but which hopefully emerges. Not all the pieces are even there, you realize.

There is no right way to order a manuscript. You do what works.

I remind myself that poets didn’t always put together books of 64 or whatever pages. That there is some artifice to this whole process. So it seems like a formula I can work with, almost as arbitrary as a writing prompt. Nevertheless, I do think these poems share a sweeping something that means they belong together in a book. I have to trust that sense as I place the poems side by side, one at a time.



Sep 13

A Day in the Life: Here’s What a Day of Writing Poetry Looks Like

In my last post I talked about taking myself on as a client, trying to schedule my own writing time while working as a busy freelance editor––which is easier said than done. In the mean time, I had been wanting to visit The Head and the Hand Press, a local small press that also functions as a writing space. I am already a member of the awesome co-working space Indy Hall, but the buzzing atmosphere there tends to inspire me to hustle and bustle with my freelancing business and not to sit quietly and write. I liked the idea that I could go to this other place where I could spend the day only working on my own writing.

Last Wednesday I found myself with a rare day off. I wasn’t expecting a new project to arrive until Thursday and I just completed another one. No more excuses, I told myself: make it your writing day. So here’s my account of how it went down.

11:00am: Leave the house. Yes, my day sometimes starts this late. Though I recently challenged myself to start waking up much earlier to get to the gym, last week I was on my waking-up-late schedule.

11:00–11:45am: Flier for the Red Sofa. Since I’d just had postcards printed for my poetry workshop, I went around my neighborhood in West Philly distributing them to advertise. Writing day has yet to actually begin.

11:45am–12:00pm: Drive to The Head and the Hand, which is located in Fishtown. This involves getting on the I-95 North, which as a native New Yorker I find amazing and bizarre: I can take the highway to get from one neighborhood to another in Philly.

12:00pm: Arrive at The Head and the Hand. Off a raggedy looking street, I see the icon on the door.


12:05pm: I enter up a staircase. The place is very quiet. This is alarming at first, but then I remember that this is a good thing. This is what I came here for.

12:10pm: I am greeted by Claire, the creative manager. I immediately get into a conversation with her and ask for a tour of the place. There’s no way I’m about to start writing yet.

12:30pm: After the tour and more chatting, I decide that I have procrastinated enough. I set up my laptop at one of the adorable, hand-made writing desks. I take a moment to let it all sink in, just looking at my writing space: the light, clean wood, the little yellow flower in a jar. I smile to myself and inhale deeply. This is what having time and space to write feels like.


12:40pm: I take out the book I brought with me for poetry inspiration: Northern Tales: Traditional Stories of Eskimo and Indian Peoples. I have been reading books of indigenous mythology as a way to help me write poems that address climate change (more on that in future posts).

Northern Tales2

2:00pm: I have read and read and read story after story just waiting for a spark, and it finally comes. I land on a striking image and decide it’s time to follow its lead. I set the timer for 30 minutes and begin to write.

2:30pm: I have written a poem.

2:35pm: And it’s damn good.

2:40pm: I keep writing past the timer.

2:45pm: I finish up my hand-written draft and type it into a Word doc.

2:50pm: Bask in the glow of a really solid first draft.

2:55pm: Revise that draft a bit.

3:00pm: Notice someone else has entered the room, a fellow writer and editor who is also a member of Indy Hall.

4:00pm: Get “lunch” with said writer/editor at Soup Kitchen. Yum. We chat about our former publishing jobs in New York, about what we’re writing and what we’ve been editing.

5:00pm: Head back to Head and the Hand for more reading. No more writing happens today, but that one poem took a lot out of me. This is hard for people who don’t write poems to understand, I think.

6:00pm: I see a tweet from Twitter-and-now-real-life friend Trina, saying that she is at Head and the Hand. I turn around and she’s right behind me at the desk across the room. We giggle and take a picture together that later surfaces on Instagram. I marvel at the Internet.

Screen Shot 2013-09-19 at 6.55.17 PM

6:10pm: Now the space is starting to fill up with writers. I feel cool cause I’ve been writing ALL DAY. But of course by writing I mean mostly reading all day, with 45 minutes of actual writing.

8:00pm: Everyone gathers for Workshop Wednesday. We snack on Oreo cookies and red wine. We chat about the latest Woody Allen film, which is awesome by the way. We chat about the whole history of Woody Allen films. I somehow start preaching about my love for creative non-fiction. Head and the Hand editor Linda Gallant passionately explains why the narrative arc of Breaking Bad is brilliant. I tell myself I need to get back into that show, even though it scares me. I talk about how Maria Popova is going to speak at Kelly Writers House next week and that she has the best website ever. Claire agrees. We gush.

10:45pm: I get in the car to go home. The feeling that comes after having written––not unlike the feeling after exercise––settles into my brain, a sweet and quiet buzz. I have spent more time reading and talking today than writing. But that’s all a part of the writing process. And I wrote. A damn good poem, I’d say.


Sep 13

Taking on a New Client: Myself

I recently began working with an author who is in the process of writing what I can already tell will be an incredible book of non-fiction. Projects like this one are my dream jobs. As an editor, I often get a mix of work from many sources, running the gamut from computer science textbooks to academic books of philosophy and religion. Much of this work comes from editorial firms and publishers. I also work with independent authors, some of whom are writing dissertations, memoirs, or poetry manuscripts. The most fun and exciting work definitely comes from independent authors, because I get to help them figure out what they are trying to say and how best to say it. I love this process because it gets my own creative juices flowing, and it reminds me of why I love writing.

I had an “aha” moment recently while talking to the non-fiction author mentioned above. She said she needed someone to help hold her accountable to her writing goals while also being a supportive cheerleader. I was thrilled to take on this role. I immediately set to work creating an editorial calendar that maps out when each chapter would be due to me, when my comments are due back, etc., etc., until the book is completed. I happen to love creating schedules. I’d done it for a previous job, and I find it so satisfying to plug in tasks and due dates, being able to see a light at the end of a project, while breaking down all the tasks along the way into manageable goals.

Calendar wallpaper

Calendar wallpaper

And yet, I suddenly wondered, why had I never thought to create an editorial schedule for my own writing goals? Quick answer: I am not a fan of discipline when it comes to my own writing. This is interesting, because when it comes to my regular work (freelance editing) I’m obsessed with meeting deadlines and organizing all my projects on a clear timeline. Because my own writing isn’t something I get paid for it’s been easy for me to make excuses not to prioritize it and fold it into my “regular” work schedule.

The other area of resistance has to do with my writing process. As a writer who primarily writes poetry (though I dabble in essays), I’m confounded by the notion that I “must” write every day. Certainly many poets do write every day, and I know that I’m not supposed to wait around for inspiration, but … I still have a visceral reaction to the advice that one must write every day. I love learning about the writing routines of others. And I’m totally freaked out by the Tchaikovsky quote: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”


Poem draft from my notebook

Because I’m that writer. I do wait for the ideal conditions under which to work. Sometimes those ideal conditions are as simple as the weather. If it’s too humid, forget it. Today was too humid. My husband and I considered going for a run on the Schuykill River, our new Sunday morning routine, and the minute I opened the front door and the wet sock of humidity hit me in the face, I quickly retreated to our air conditioned apartment. The same goes for writing. If I’m physically uncomfortable I won’t write. If I’m unsure where to begin, I won’t write. If I hate everything I’ve written recently, I won’t write. If I can come up with anything else to do––cleaning, cooking, lesson planning, paid work, editing my literary journal, etc.––I’ll do that first. The excuses are endless.

But I’m realizing now that perhaps what I’ve needed all along is to treat myself like I would treat any other client. Why not create an editorial calendar for my own writing goals? As I continue working on my new poetry manuscript, I can create manageable goals that involve research, writing, and revising, and actually hold myself accountable to those goals! What a shocker!

So, dear reader, what say you? Do you use an editorial calendar/schedule to keep your own writing on track? Have any you’d like to recommend?