Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

When things are hard

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"I still think of cutting, drinking, dying, leaving, but today I feel good. Hopefully that lasts."

I wrote that in a journal last year. I'd just started therapy and was starting to slowly, tentatively feel happy. It's not that I wasn't happy before - I was, but a lot of times it was fleeting, tinged with background noise. A lot of nights spent partying with friends would always end with my head going back into its favourite places: just as I was starting to fall asleep, something would ask, "is tonight the night?" The question would be the same, but the possibility would swing from cutting to suicide. I thought about both of them every day for 15 years. I acted on the former throughout that time. The latter I sometimes let simmer on the backburner, toyed with by binge drinking and sleeping pills.

In my first blog post here, I talked about using journal entries for the foundation of a story.

My upcoming book, Amphetamine Heart, wouldn’t exist at all if it wasn’t for journaling.

I’d started writing poetry when I was a teenager, but as I got into my early 20s I started focusing more on journalism. Writing articles and music reviews took up a lot of time, and my creative side was gradually pushed out.

After a good run as a freelance writer, I realized I wasn’t as happy with my writing career as I could have been. I had a lot of half-finished poems and sketches of ideas for things I wanted to write, but I didn’t know what to do with them. A friend had recommended a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and had spoken highly of the book’s tips on automatic writing. A week later, I saw a copy in a used bookstore and grabbed it.

Automatic writing is easy: before you do anything else, write – by hand – three whole pages. Doesn’t matter what you write, just as long as you write. It’s an exercise in clearing your head, scraping the foam off the top and getting a clear view all the way to the bottom of the glass. It was through this exercise that I gradually started to get to work on some poetry, and I was able to get my writing to a level I was happy with.

Of course, I didn’t know that the poems I was working on at the time would become a collection. Back then, I was just writing small pieces that I liked, often referencing journal entries for the foundation of some of the pieces. A lot of times, I’d write down a dream or a feeling, and days later it would catch my eye on the page and I’d think, I can turn that into something.

I wanted my poems to be strange and surreal, but I also wanted them to be relatable, to reflect my truth and, maybe, reflect truths others could relate to as well, just as I had with my chapbook, Eleven: Eleven.

What was different for me was I was pulling from a lot of journal entries that were still pretty fresh. My first attempt at this with Eleven: Eleven had me looking back to 1995 to 1999; this time around, I was still living through a lot of the things in Amphetamine Heart, and in a lot of ways, the themes this collection touches on were all coming to a peak. I was at a point where I either had to let them go and move past them, or be swallowed by them.

There were a lot of days that I wasn’t sure which direction it would go in.

It’s a different feeling to write about things as they are happening to you rather than write about them after gaining some distance.

One poem, “Caution Tape,” sprung from a New Year’s Eve party where I got so drunk I didn’t remember how I got home. I didn’t even take my clothes off when I got through the door, just passed out on my zebra striped rug in the living room with my clothes still on.

Looking through some old journal entries from that night months later, I used that scenario to build a poem, which starts with:

“Passed out against/the rug’s zebra stripes/yellow sweater slid halfway off my shoulders, caution tape.”

There was a two-year stretch when I drank pretty much every night, with or without anyone else. I wasn’t sleeping that well during that time, and part of the reason I’d started drinking was because I thought it would help me wind down at the end of the day. (It didn’t. Don’t try it.)

Alcohol makes my heart pound in the early, early morning, and sometimes that heartbeat stays with me throughout the day. So I’d start the day with a pounding heart and slow it all down with alcohol later on, then often have it rise again when I was falling asleep. So then I started taking sleeping pills, too. I thought I had a pretty good routine worked out until I started to feel rundown and exhausted all the time.

What happens when you get this tired is your head starts to feel dirty. You can’t clear your thoughts don’t make sense. You get paranoid about things, start to think that everything is contaminated, start to feel like you don’t have any control, start to act irrationally even though, underneath it all, you know better.

My poem “Frantic” was based on various pieces and sentiments from journal entries made during those two years.

“It’s frantic, this way of looking at people…by end of day I’m all fetal sweat, beads along my lips as they suck on glass flesh…what pours into me pulls me back.”

And in a poem called “Sustain,” I pulled the line “a cancerous womb, this apartment” from the way I’d described the place I was living in at the time. I still feel like that’s a pretty accurate description of that apartment: it was claustrophobic, a death trap. I’m sure other people can relate to that one if anything.
As Amphetamine Heart started to take a bigger shape, a lot of the things I’d been documenting through its poems were also winding down. I don’t think it was the poems that did it; there was just a day when I realized I couldn’t keep feeling the way I did.

With it all behind me, at least for now, I wonder if Amphetamine Heart would have ended up differently if I’d started writing these poems in another year or two. Even drawing from journals that documented so much of what these writings capture probably wouldn’t have captured the same feelings or imagery that shows up in the poems as they are.

But I guess we’ll never know, will we.

Do you prefer to let some time pass before you take inspiration from your real-life experiences, or do you feel like it’s better to do it when it’s fresh?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Liz Worth 2011

Liz Worth is the Toronto-based author of Amphetamine Heart (Guernica Editions, 2011), Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond 1977-1981 (Bongo Beat/ECW, 2011) and Eleven: Eleven (Trainwreck Press, 2008), a shot of surreal punk fiction.

Go to Liz Worth 2011’s Author Page