Spencer Gordon is the author of Cosmo, a collection of short fiction from Coach House Books. He is the co-editor/co-founder of Ferno House, the micro-press, and of The Puritan, the online literary journal. His poetry chapbook Feel Good! Look Great! Have a Blast! was nominated for the 2012 bpNichol Award. Spencer Gordon's fiction, poetry, and non-fiction can be found in numerous literary journals and anthologies, such as Riddle Fence, Event,The Windsor Review, dead(g)end(er), The Maple Tree Literary Supplement, subTerrain, The Barnstormer, Broken Pencil Magazine, The Mansfield Revue, Existere, Contemporary Verse 2, echolocation, Joyland, a hub of short fiction, Soliloquies,Weijia Quarterly, Dinosaur Porn (Ferno House, 2010), Gulch: An Assemblage of Poetry and Prose (Tightrope Books, 2009),ottawater, Bywords Quarterly Journal, The Danforth Review,The Puritan, experiment-o (AngelHousePress, 2008),Departures (above/ground press, 2008), and zaum.
How do you decide what you’ll work on, when you sit down to write?
I’m not sure if I understand this question correctly. When I sit down to write I know what I’m working on, or what I’m about to work on. I don’t decide to shift activities after dragging myself to work. The decision to fiddle with something particular trumps any decision that sends me to my desk to write in general. Sure, I may change my mind and walk away (or do something else) after writing gets too scary or sad or frustrating, and I suppose some creepy fairy may belch in my ear and make me suddenly want to write something completely different. But I know what I need to do ahead of time, for the most part
Or, whoa—are you asking how I decide what part of the piece I’m working on to work on when I sit down to write? ’Cause that’s a whole other question, and one that has no answer. I generally know where I’m stuck and in which direction the story or chunk needs to shuffle. Sometimes unexpected things happen and I end up working on a section that I thought was finished, or I have a bleak epiphany that some component I thought golden is actually dull and worthless. Such is the usual back-and-forth between making and editing, forging and tinkering that fiction and poetry demand.
Do you keep a writing schedule, with any sort of quotas?
In an interview with rob mclennan earlier this year, I was asked the same question (albeit with more lowercase letters and semicolons). I’ll quote myself and then try to elaborate on what I meant, and mean:
“I do not have a writing routine. I abhor routine, as my life is already filled with mechanical routines. [Note: I was teaching full-time at Humber College and OCAD University. I have since quit and had a marked reduction in grey hair discoveries.] Writing releases me, provides a blank and glorious rift in schedule and shame. If I scheduled writing and stuck to some demanding ledger, it would feel like forced, dry, and unwanted intercourse, and I already receive enough of that.”
Later on, I say this:
“I like to forget about my writing completely from time to time. All claims that writing is about daily labour and constant suffering is weird protestant work-ethic stuff, and I’m not buying it! Sure—one must write and read a whole lot to get good at it. But people sometimes forget the most important thing: writing is pleasure. It’s about magical worlds and insane fantasies. It’s where you get to indulge the delusions of the heart and hold people enthralled in worlds of your own dastardly creation. Isn’t that beautiful? And given the fact that most writers must work at some other gig just to make rent and sew up their hideous shoes, that beautiful thing that you love [so often] gets knocked down your list of urgent, worldly priorities. So why are you making it so hard?”
Although Henry Miller liked his lists and commandments, he also said, “Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only!” I am chasing whatever pleasure, personal vindication, expression, and existential yawps I can channel. I would absolutely hate myself if I had a real, workmanlike ‘quota.’ The work completed to fill such a bastard would be mostly soulless and I would be in a constant state of self-flagellation when I failed to meet it.
I’m just trying to write as much as possible without sacrificing too many other obligations, and without losing all my money and hair, and without completely alienating and vilifying myself in the eyes of my loved ones and peers, who naturally request that I be a social creature and share my time, as we all must (although I am exceptionally attractive and the life of any party, so it’s particularly difficult for me to withdraw completely).
What stops you from writing?
Trivial, mundane matters, from chores to errands to boring acts of self-preservation. Attending to other people’s needs (see above). Other literary investments—editing, running a magazine, working with a micro-press, planning launches, meetings, and so forth—so that I can return favours and stay connected and make other people happy. Making money, finding work, and all those other horrible demands of capitalism.
But all of this is to cover up the real blocker, the real inhibitor: and that’s Deep Terror & Anxiety. I am absolutely terrified that the awesome story or image or devastating emotional turn in my imagination will transform to lifeless, sodden shit on the page—so terrified that it’s easier to daydream and forget about writing entirely than risk such a failure. The spectre of bad writing (I’m certain) has prevented the production of more fantastic novels, short stories, and poems than almost any other inhibiting factor, including poverty and madness.
Add to this my personal spectre, who whispers a continuous, midnight litany of you are a fraud, an imposter, a bad artist. You are no artist at all! In the world of The Simpsons, it would be a more brash admonishment: “They’re all gonna laugh at you!”
Which leads me to the morose question: what if all this is in pursuit of something never to be grasped, a fruitless endeavor, and all those other, ignored paths would have led to real happiness, fulfillment, love, comfort, joy?
What is the worst advice about writing you’ve ever heard or received?
It’s rare that I get truly bad advice from anybody. I can think of some exceptionally misguided notions, though, that I’ve tried to avoid.
The first is the feeling that there’s always more time. I am happiest when I’m most ant-like and at work on something writing-related, no matter how far this gets me from my writing itself. We are not going to be around forever, duh! I need to read, write harder, with more awareness of my impending disappearance—how awful.
Another bad piece of advice would be to insist upon one ‘right’ way, or school, or method, or period, or whatever. My Twitter and Facebook and blog feeds are usually jammed up with very smart writers righteously claiming that disputing ways (or schools) of writing—always antithetical to their own—are wrong, or unethical, or not hitting the bull’s-eye of art (which changes according to camp, obviously). I may not like a piece of writing at any given time, but I am training myself to see work I’m not instantly keen on from other people’s perspectives, to see why someone else might celebrate the things I find stinky. I think it’s bad advice to get caught up in any camp war, period, because everybody’s wrong, and what a waste of time! Why be snarky and angry when you could be reading stuff you love! And god, how are you so secure in your own opinions?
Now can I turn this question around and talk about good advice? Advice that emboldens and empowers me and makes me want to be a better artist? I think there’s a real ethical framework behind the writing life, but it takes a lot of guts (often what I lack the most—if I had real guts I probably wouldn’t be a writer).
Part of a good writer’s ethics comes from cultivating self-honesty. Don’t lie about bad work, and don’t make time for bad work, and don’t make time for mean-spirited or power-hungry or trivial people (but forgive them ’cause they’re just like you!). Don’t kiss anyone’s ass, especially in shallow and obvious ways that are just as much a part of literature as they are in the corporate world—refuse this almost irresistible urge. Don’t jump to the first conclusion, don’t lump people/writing styles together unfairly, and don’t dismiss anyone’s work as inferior just ’cause it re-secures your position or stake in the field of cultural production.
Serve only your own artistic impulses; do not try to write for or emulate anyone but your own hard-won, struggle-discovered idols/models; retreat, if necessary, into the unfashionable and the out-of-date. But keep your writing dangerous by writing against whatever you can imagine is the fashion (which may get you hated) or against real power/money/laziness (which may get you disliked). Remember that all the ills of power have shadowy, mirror manifestations in your own personality, even if you’re (seemingly) powerless, poor, and hardworking. Everything evil in a community or an institutional sense exists in some form in your own mind and heart; be like Gandhi and be the change you want to see. I guess we do this by being kind and forgiving; we don’t allow ourselves to get bored; we challenge ourselves to be better. In that way we write what needs to be written.