The hustle, the constant money-anxiety, is for sure taking years off my life, but I refuse to live without writing/extensive reading. If one day I am forced to reduce my life to one small room with all my books in order to live, I’d do so. When I’m writing, like really in it, I don’t give a shit that I’m eating only lentils because I get to write, which is the most important thing, even though it is very hard. There’s definitely no romance to it.
This week’s conversation is with the delightful Laura Broadbent. Laura is the author of Oh There You Are I Can’t See You Is It Raining? (which I had the pleasure of awarding the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry), Interviews (Metatron Press), and the forthcoming In on the Great Joke (Coach House). She currently lives in Montreal.
SACHIKO MURAKAMI: So, Laura. What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?
LAURA BROADBENT: Well, there isn’t just the hardest thing, there are the hardest hard things, plural. Like Daniel said in his interview, the process of writing itself is the hardest thing. It is like putting your head through a meat grinder. To very loosely paraphrase Toni Morrison, writing that appears effortless takes a helluva f*ing lot of work.
The hardest thing about writing, same with the hardest thing about living, is the mind (aka that self-sabotaging machine lodged in our skulls). I don’t think I’m alone in loving to think about writing more than actually writing; like romance, the idea is so much more ideal than the clumsy, stinky, challenging, unromantic, reality. A Blanchot quote I used in my first book comes to mind: “I’ll lie down and take you in my arms. I’ll roll with you in the midst of great secrets. We’ll lose ourselves, and find ourselves again. Nothing will come between us anymore. How unfortunate that you won’t be present for this happiness!” Dreaming is essential to making, but too much is just an escapist crutch, an addiction, one of the endless beguiling forms procrastination takes on. Oh how wonderful are the books that I have written in my head but not yet begun on paper— you should read these imaginary things, you’ll love them, everyone will! As long as they remain imagined.
Procrastination comes in the form of the question, “why can’t you write today?” My mind answers in variations of the following: because you owe hydro so much money/because writing is self-indulgent and myopic and you should be out on the front lines volunteering or championing for the causes you care about/because you haven’t exercised today/because you have to read this first/because everybody and everything dies/because you haven’t written back to about 30 friends, colleagues, families, or acquaintances/because you need to clean your house/because you need lemons/because you need to meditate/because who cares/because what is the point anyway the world doesn’t need any more….and so on, endlessly.
To the question “why can you write today?” is a more simple answer: because you don’t feel fully alive if you are not making and through making, thinking as deeply as possible about a given subject.
However the self-sabotaging mind is so much mightier than the simple, productive, diligent, one, especially if you keep on feeding it. For example, I have given myself two days off of my freelance writing work to finish the (already two weeks late) edits for my next book which will be released in the fall. I haven’t even opened the document yet, however today I have: written a number of friends, talked to my boyfriend on the phone, smoked seven cigarettes, gone for an hour run, taken a long bath, written three tweets, posted a quote onto my blog, read three chapters of the book I’m currently reading, and “liked” a bunch of my brother’s posts of Facebook. Now I am writing this, and then I think I’m going to go to the market and stare at food I can’t afford, go to the bank…and then begin on the edits tonight, that is, if the self-sabotaging machine is satiated with the amount of procrastination it has incurred.
On my run, Azealia Banks’ “212” came on and she said, “sayin’ you runnin’ but you ain’t goin’ nowhere/why you procrastinate, girl?/you got a lot but you just waste all yourself/they’ll forget your name soon/and won’t nobody be to blame but yourself.” And I was like, “Azealia, shut UP, okay? Just shut up.”
So, procrastination I would say is number one for me, followed closely by the never-ending battles of poverty (hustling, always hustling to find work, borrowing from Bob to pay back Joe, etc), and linked to poverty, my most loyal companions, Depression and Anxiety, hurdles that often seem insurmountable in and of themselves, let alone eking out some words.
SM: Your day of procrastination looks a lot like one of my typical days. If we took out the variable of ‘being a writer’ from this equation, it would look like we are very productive people: connecting with friends, gone for an hour run, go to the bank— that sounds like a lot of getting shit done. Maybe it’s my own shit saying that— I was in a relationship where my worth wasn’t validated unless I got a lot of errands done during the day; ‘sitting in bed writing’ read as ‘sitting in bed’. “Oh, I wish I had your lifestyle,” I heard daily. So the procrastination impulse was encouraged— I wasn’t being productive unless I was out of bed, not-writing. I think maybe that’s a systemic issue— that writing poetry isn’t valued the way, say, the work a doctor does in a day is valued. This feeds into my own self-doubt that constantly whispers, “You’re wasting your time, and everyone else’s time. You should be working.“
Then, every once in a while, I get a tiny tap on my shoulder, and my little heart whispers, “keep trying.” So I arrange my life around my writing. But that arrangement doesn’t always work out. Lately I have been day-jobbing for close to full-time hours. Zero writing happens. Zero anything happens— I come home from work every day and immediately pass out when I can, only to wake and crush candies while listening to podcasts and stuffing my face with sugar-free chocolate. Social life? Self-care? Housework? Writing? Ha! All my energy goes into the job and combatting my ever-mounting debt. Now I have a bit more time thanks to a grant and can devote two-and-a-half whole weekdays to writing— which then brings up the procrastination issue.
Long way to ask: what does your hustle look like?
LB:: I would like to address the first thing you mentioned, that of what being a writer in a relationship means. It’s definitely another hurdle. I mean, if what you say is the case, I’m glad you’re out of that relationship (!) but also sorry because break-ups are not only hell, but not-conducive to writing, contrary to what I think most people assume. Your ex-partner’s assumptions (sitting in bed writing translating into lounging around in bed) are common; it brings to mind something I heard the novelist Heather O’Neill say in an interview once. She said when she was writing her first book, she was living with her father; he’d leave for work in the morning and she’d be sitting on the couch, smoking, notebook in hand, gazing out the window, and when he returned eight hours later, she was on the couch, smoking, gazing out the window. He’d ask her incredulously what she had been doing all day, to which she answered, WORKING! It takes a a lot of mental wrestling to allow yourself to write knowing how it appears to others and how that appearance goes against this very protestant sort of work ethic culturally inscribed in all of us. Next time someone says, ‘I’d like to have your life’ insinuating its a cake-walk, tell them to write a goddamned book or two, tell them to risk all safety and security in order to do so.
Like any other art, writing takes a huge amount of dreaming (time), intensive thinking (time), craft (time), etc (time). A visual artist is considered validly working when we see her immersed in her physical materials whatever they may be, or when we see a musician with all her gear…it is easier, empirically, to say they are working. A writer’s materials are words, and so when we are working it looks like we’re doing nothing, and that’s a hard thing I think for others to understand, that it’s no different from any other art except for the materials used. I think many people also don’t understand how important reading is to writing, I mean to me it is essential. Reading is most commonly looked upon as merely a leisure activity, where for me it is essential as I develop as a writer, and also obviously for research.
As far as relationships go, in my last one, I barely wrote a thing for a year and a half because the relationship itself was this other full-time job I had taken on – when I wasn’t working (for both of us, he was depressed and unemployed), I’d be present for his emotional needs, I would perform this emotional labour being his therapist (which he badly needed) and tending to all the other dramas he liked to create, constantly. Exhausting, exasperating, not nourishing. He ostensibly respected that I was a writer, but did not respect me enough to actually help me create space in our relationship for writing. Then there was the breakup and all the shittiness therein which, like I said, is not conducive to writing either. So it’s only been in the past couple of months that I’ve been able to really be able to write again, after about two-year hiatus! How I got my book finished in this time is a miracle. I don’t even remember when and where I did it. Anyway, I have hope for my current partner— he respects and believes in what I do, and he wants us to work together to find a way where there is real legitimate space in my life for writing. We’ve been long-distance for the past six months, he’s coming to live with me soon, and still, despite my excitement, I worry that the relationship will yet again keep me from writing. Relationships take a lot of work, and all that work usually ends in a break-up and shattered dreams, not a finished book.
As for the hustle, yes, I hear you, I know exactly what you’re talking about. Full time hours basically just kill a writer. A lot of writers make huge sacrifices (like wake at 4 am and write for three hours before going to work from 9 to 5), but usually the work as you say takes everything out of you. Your doctor example is apt and I agree. I mean, I did my undergrad and master’s degrees just as any other person has, I excelled, worked tremendously hard, usually worked 2-3 jobs during, navigating all sorts of things on my own, no safety nets whatsoever. My graduate thesis turned into my first book (you were the judge for the award it won!), and from there things just went well with writing which is pretty unusual. Now, peers I went to high school with, I constantly see, are now professionals, earning enough money to buy houses, have kids, vacation, all that, but the amount of work they put into their work is the same as the amount of work I have done, the difference being I’m happy if I can afford groceries. Often I can’t. Also, when they are done work, they are done work, whereas when I am done whatever job I am doing to afford life, I begin work, which is writing. Therefore when I am done work, I go to work. When I made this choice though, I did know more or less what I was getting myself into, that many, many, sacrifices would have to be made.
In the years that I have not been in school, I worked part-time in a bookstore (which paid, just barely paid, for food and bills) and I was on Social Assistance, which helped pay for rent. Most artists I know in this city are on social assistance, which doesn’t do much to counter this typical notion of art not being real work, of artists just being lazy good-for-nothins. Though I was (and am) always broke, I had time and time is what is needed to write. Now, I just dropped out of my PhD for the second time, I’m constantly trying to get more freelance contracts, and am terrifyingly poor yet still stubborn enough to not sacrifice my life for a 9 to 5 job. I don’t know how much longer this can last. My debt, too, is crippling. Basically I’m always patching together a bunch of short-term, very part-time work so that I may write and study. In the past ten years for example I have worked: In a bookstore, as a waitress in multiple restaurants, as a bartender, as a nanny, as a research assistant, a teaching assistant, a caterer, a lecturer, an ESL teacher, a landscaper, an editor, a tutor, a freelance writer for such a crazy range of things…and so on. The hustle, the constant money-anxiety, is for sure taking years off my life, but I refuse to live without writing/extensive reading. If one day I am forced to reduce my life to one small room with all my books in order to live, I’d do so. When I’m writing, like really in it, I don’t give a shit that I’m eating only lentils because I get to write, which is the most important thing, even though it is very hard. There’s definitely no romance to it.
Jean Rhys once said that no novelist [or writer] is happy, and if she could choose between being a writer and being happy but write nothing, she’d choose the latter. Being a writer is often portrayed as something one cannot help, as though writing chose them, and as a curse! No wonder James Baldwin said he doesn’t know a single writer who does not drink…
SM: YES, emotional labour in a relationship is a huge time-suck. And I’m so insecure and neurotic that I don’t get loving detachment and am always flitting around trying to make myself as a partner as I possibly can be, which uses up all my spoons, which means I don’t write, which means I look lazy, which means I run around doing extra stuff to make myself look like a better partner, which uses up all my spoons…
The choosing to be a writer thing— I pretty much think about quitting every other week, like who needs this writing gig when it causes me so much trouble. Then I look at my career options and realize I’ll just end up writing anyway, only I’ll write ad copy or SEO blog posts (who am I kidding, I’m not even qualified to do either of those things) so I might as well write poetry. Maybe I’d be better off thinking of my long not-writing periods as having quit so I feel less stressed out about not writing. Have you ever quit or thought of quitting?
LB: Haha, what a relief to hear so blatantly from another that she doesn’t *get loving detachment! And all the flitting about to be the *best partner and having no spoons and self-sabotaging in a way by virtue of doing so— god yeah, I get it. The pressure I put on myself in relationships alone is enough to exhaust me on a profound level— neurotic indeed. But when you’re that neurotic, you just feel you are never doing well enough, and that poisons you. God, the amount of times people have said, ‘Relax, Broadbent!’ I like to sometimes think romantically, like “love is the best art project, the best creative practice there is” then other times I think that is such a load of crap. Depends on the day. Generally I’m quite content though just to love another and live intensely together, a constant and fluid improvisation (even if it ends in ruins!) and that does kind of satiate that ever-hungry creative impulse. But too much so, and I turn into a real bitch— why? Because I am not creating my own work. Boundaries are so, so, hard for me (and many others) in that I always feel like I am being ‘mean’ if I try to instigate real working time on my own when in a relationship, and that is just f’d.
As per quitting, funny you ask because I was just thinking that on my bike ride somewhere the other day, just straight-up, ‘maybe I should just quit.’ Why? Because this constant hustle gets less and less romantic the older I get, and I do it all to afford a life devoted to writing. Not that I write much at all! I too go for long stretches of not-writing, and that is because I am coping with life, and I have a shitty toolbox with a lot of coping tools missing. I generally trust the stretches of not-writing, because I’m always imagining, always composing in my head, always working through ideas. It never goes away, EVER. So because of this I know I can’t quit. Literature, philosophy, theory, just books in general, have been my life’s total obsession. For this I am often made to feel a freak because so few people in the Real World it seems really understand what that is, let alone read much at all. In an utterly, utterly, overwhelming world where meaning becomes increasingly elusive, it is writing and reading that still unwaveringly bring my life meaning. As purple as that sounds, it is true. While I’m alive, I won’t accept anything but an existence that has deep and deeper meaning to me, no matter how hard or how futile my choice may be. I don’t write for any other reasons than to communicate, to share, to give, to artistically and intellectually challenge myself. These things are very fulfilling. The process, too— the process is where it is at, I love the process. I was the same way when I was a nutso national-level competitive swimmer— I just loved the process, I had absolutely no desire to beat people, or compete with others, or to win. I just loved the training, the rigour, the discipline, the pain, the art, the science, witnessing the slow improvement until I was a straight-up water-ninja.
My friends tell me I need to write more freelance articles for journals and magazines and such, but I stubbornly know and believe in the kind of writing I want to do, likely the least popular, and I sincerely do not care. I know that because of this, existence is always going to be hard, i.e. financially. I can’t work 9 to 5 and I hope to g_d I never do. But that’s just me— and it is NOT laziness! Anybody can quit whenever they like! It’s not a luxury, but it is a freedom, and with that comes of course real consequences. In fact I have a fetish, almost, for quitting, or more accurately, for leaving. This rush of total delight I get from leaving parties – it never ceases to thrill – leaving jobs, walking away, quitting things that were keeping me bound in some way…Bartleby is my spirit animal (“I’d prefer not to”), and so many other literary characters who make this radical decision to just…stop. I think quitting can be a totally radical act. Maybe take the pressure off yourself by— instead of stressing about quitting— just knowing very simply when you’re not writing you’re not writing, and when you are, you are, without putting a grand, stressful, title on it? I don’t know. The older I get the more I realize I know nothing and really I find that really invigorating, and there’s lots of humour or lightness of being to be had within this realization. To me though, it sounds like quitting isn’t an option for you, and for that I’m glad. I really hope we two neurotics can really find peace within the decision to write, make peace with the fact that it is hard, really hard, and will always be hard. Some things are worth it.
Next week I talk to Nikki Reimer about spoons, time, and being real in public.