Alex Leslie

Alex Leslie: Keeping The Focus

The one thing I’ve learned is to always keep moving. Never let it all drop. Always be doing something for your project, even if it’s printing it out and crossing out words and writing in other words, or writing a plan. Stay in motion. Give it something.

This week I talk to Vancouver writer Alex Leslie about staying with a project and maintaining The Focus. And Smartfood. This was such a helpful discussion for me to have, and it even helped me sit my self down at my desk and actually hang out with words for a bit this week.

Alex has published a collection of prose poems, The things I heard about you (Nightwood 2014), shortlisted for a Robert Kroetsch prize for innovative poetry, a collection of short stories, People Who Disappear (Freehand 2012), shortlisted for a Lambda and a ReLit, and a chapbook of microfictions 20 Objects for the New World (Nomados 2011). Alex‘s writing was included in Best Canadian Poetry 2014 (Tightrope) and in 2015 Alex was awarded the Dayne Ogilvie Prize by the Writers Trust of Canada for an exceptional body of work by an emerging writer. Alex has facilitated writing workshops in many community contexts, including high schools, social housing facilities, prison, detox, and homeless drop-in centres. Alex is of English and Jewish Ashkenazi descent and grew up on unceded Musqueam territories. Alex is currently working on a collection of prose poems, Vancouver for Beginners and a collection of short stories, We All Need to Eat.

SACHIKO MURAKAMI: So, Alex. What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?

ALEX LESLIE: The hardest thing about a writer is finding and keeping focus for my work. Actual, strong, bright focus. I’ve published two books and am currently in the later stages of writing my third and as my life continues, the hardest thing about writing for me is maintaining this writing-space and focus in my life. For me this is a state of mind. It is not necessarily about having weeks of uninterrupted time on a mountaintop. In fact, I have never been to a writing residency or writing retreat. I can’t afford it or I don’t have time or my application is rejected (over and over and over). So I continue to search for The Focus amidst everything in my life. I have a full-time job and, like everyone, a full-time everything-else-in-life-oh-my-god-do-I-even-have-real-life-friendships-any-more adult life.

Focus for me means: mental/emotional/spiritual space that is occupied by my writing and only by my writing. I am lucky to have a project right now that’s in its later stages that is enough of a manuscript to stand on its own and compel me to continue working on it, because there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. That makes The Focus easier. Writing continuously on my own is largely a game of tricking myself into entering the next stage of the project. At least when a project is somewhat done it has its own centre of gravity. The beginning stage is just hell; that’s when I have to have The Focus and the project just lies around flapping its hands helplessly wailing “make me liiiiiiiiiiive.”

This is the hardest thing about being a writer for me. Because The Focus is a lot of the time not even achievable because of the practicalities of life and the realities of a long artist project and how they don’t match up 80% of the time. I am always wanting The Focus. I write all my first drafts by hand for this reason.

I have a manuscript schedule. This means weeks of the month written in one column and pieces I plan to work on in the other column. A schedule contributes to The Focus for me because it is its own timeline and I can see what I’ve done, where I’ve planned to go and where I’ve gone off track. I have a literal plastic hideous envelope folder thing that I carry around in my bike pannier. It has the latest draft of my manuscript and many many crumpled sheets. I try very very hard to have some time every day – often the whole hour of my lunch break – to work on my manuscript.  When I take public transit I often email myself things on my iPhone. Maybe something will contain the key and I will have more of The Focus!

Alex Leslie - IPhone convo
Alex’s texts with Alex, her writing coach.

SM: I love this idea of The Focus. I know exactly what you are talking about – it’s what I long for when I am steeped in the day-to-day. I’ve to do a lot of scrambling over the past year after some major life changes, trying to get my shit together so I could, you know, pay rent and eat. When those basics are insecure, The Focus isn’t even an option. I just accepted that no writing was going to happen when I was sleeping on my sister’s couch. Now I have some more security and so more opportunity for The Focus to happen. What does it look like for you when The Focus isn’t happening?

AL: Yes I’ve gone through many periods of not having The Focus. When I was in grad school (I have a Masters in a field unrelated to writing, the field I work in now) it was very difficult and I feel very glad that my current project sustained through that time. My second book came out during my peak academic term of grad school and I remember one of my profs stopping me outside the department building and saying, “I heard a story about you, that you’re an author” and I said, “Yes, I’m about to go do readings in Toronto and Montreal,” as if this were a normal thing, and I walked away and thought, this is just crazy. I think one thing many writers do is compartmentalize our writing, divide it away from other parts of our lives, to protect it. Compartmentalization can be a useful survival technique in the short term, but long term it is exhausting, in a passive, almost undetectable way, like an IV slow drip.

I think for me there are times when I don’t have The Focus that are situational or environmental – like doing a degree, or managing a loved one’s crisis. It’s much harder when it’s emotional or related to the work itself, when it’s internal to me and the work – that’s harder to deal with.The situational and environmental things are inevitable and just pass in stages. Sometimes I’m just insanely busy with work and have less TIME for my writing, but I always have some time and that’s why I said before it’s a state of mind thing, this focus I want.

Not having access to focus for internal reasons is harder. Those are not bright times, when I don’t have focus for emotional reasons or reasons related to the work itself. I feel disconnected from the project, disconnected from myself, I can get very bogged and confuse my emotions for problems in the project. Am I feeling this, or is the piece of writing stuck? I don’t even know and is that even a question that makes sense? It’s like being in a bad relationship sometimes, these relationships with manuscripts. I’ve made dramatic statements during these No Focus periods that I am going to QUIT writing. Ha, ha, ha. Like, who am I going to send my resignation letter to? Isaac Bashevis Singer, CC: Facebook, BCC: Michael Ondaatje, circa Coming Through Slaughter. With one of those Alice Munro stamps. Stop judging me, Alice Munro stamp!

It’s complicated to talk about this stuff because my relation to my work and to focus has changed so much over the course of publishing a chapbook and two books and now almost being finished a third. I used to be much more purist and black-and-white about this stuff in my earlier stages of publishing – now I am much more of a negotiator/seeker/improviser about this stuff. Right now there’s another project that’s pretty much stalled and I know that it’s stalled, or sleeping, and I am learning Hebrew and think this might help this project come back to life (I’m Jewish on one side of my family). So yes I want this Focus when I’m writing drafts by hand and working away and stuff like that, but now I also have this broader sense of things I can do around my projects to nurture and help them. I also believe that we can be participating in a lot of work we’re not aware of at the time. I have a lot of spooky beliefs about that. I dream a lot about my projects when they’re going well.

Oh, and when The Focus isn’t happening, and during those long stages when The Focus hasn’t happened, all through grad school and tons of other shit, I’ve taken NOTES. I have notebooks full of so much stuff. I have lists of titles of stories I abandoned or barely started. I am dialogue I copied down on public transit. I have cryptic phrases that I once believed profound. Or just catchy.

The one thing I’ve learned is to always keep moving. Never let it all drop. Always be doing something for your project, even if it’s printing it out and crossing out words and writing in other words, or writing a plan. Stay in motion. Give it something.

Alex Leslie - Manuscript-in-progress
Give your manuscript something. Like the loving caress of multicoloured pens.

SM: I have notes, too! They are totally bewildering to me, now, though, which is so frustrating. But I like this idea of always doing something for your project. If I want my houseplants to stay alive, I need to water them daily, right? I should probably water my projects more. Then I have this fear that once they’ve been left unwatered for too long I’ll run to the tap to get the water to fill them up, and it’ll run dry. Do you ever get that feeling, that when The Focus has been absent for a long time that it will never return?

AL: Definitely I have fears re. losing the focus forever. We all do, I think.  That’s a big part of the reason I’m so anxious to stay in touch with projects. It’s all cumulative; it goes better when I’m doing it more often and when I’m engaged I lose contact with the sense of alienation, discouragement etc. Self-reinforcing hamster wheel vicious cycle blah blah blah. I don’t think I have any issues in my writing other than momentum issues, but that’s like saying I don’t have any life issues other than continuing to breathe.

Learning how to pace a project is an art for anybody who isn’t secretly rich. You need to know when to plan, when to be writing, when to take breaks (I HATE BREAKS), when to put yourself in boot camp. Actually, maybe this is the hardest thing about writing — the painful degree of self-mastery (haha) and self-management. Writing ongoingly through multiple long projects forces you to know your own patterns in ways that are just very uncomfortable.  It has always come back though, when it’s gone away. And you can take comfort in the fact that there are too many factors so you can never really know what the hell is going on anyway, so just try to find something interesting and/or beautiful.

SM: You’re actually really inspired me to stay closer to my work. Thanks for that! Any last words of consolation for someone who’s lost The Focus and is hiding under a pile of Smartfood and Netflix in a darkened room?*

Smartfood: Always there, even when The Focus isn’t.

AL: The Netflix and Smart Food Struggle Is Real – and that would make an outstanding tattoo. I appreciate that you’ve asked for words of consolation, not words of inspiration. I like that this series is real about the everyday shit shovelling of it. Inspiration is all good, but then there’s the long process of literally willing something into being. Because you decided to.  I think my consolation is discovering again and again that my writing is smarter than I am. The best consolation I can offer is that your Focus will come back, if you’re kind to it, and feed it Smartfood.



Do you have the Focus? Need the Focus? Have no idea what we’re talking about? Let us know in the comments. You people have been reading but you have been shy about commenting. Don’t be shy, bunnies! We’re all friends here!

Next week I talk to the unstoppable Jacqueline Valencia, who launches her first collection of poetry, There Is No Escape Out of TimeTODAY!

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6 thoughts on “Alex Leslie: Keeping The Focus

  1. Lovely interview with ALex! Thank you. I am now curious what is the difference between inspiration and consolation, if they both keep you going and help you in seeking/regaining/reclaiming Focus? 🙂

    Note: The book “The Things I Heard About You” was published by Nightwood, not Nomados!

    1. Inspiration I think has that effort of can-do, try-to-fix-it air about it. Consolation lets the situation be as it is. I’m much more naturally an inspirer (as I am deeply codependent and find it difficult to let people be not-ok), and have been making conscious efforts towards consolation. Like, let the sad be sad.

      And thanks for the catch!

  2. Kudos to Alex Leslie and Sachiko Murakami! I so enjoyed this interview and as for focus, I remind myself of three things: she who keeps writing, keeps learning and then digging deeper, she whose words are meaningful to real readers out there, lasts. Also, “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.” Chinese proverb. And finally, the inimitable Isak Dineson: Write a little every day without hope and without despair.

      1. That’s exactly where the Dineson quote and the Chinese proverb are, on post-it notes stuck to my two volume OED set along with another inspirational one from that great wit, Anonymous: Imagination plus Desire=Outcome!

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