We asked this year’s faculty to respond to a question related to this year’s theme of disTRACTION. Here’s what Serena Chopra has to say about the influence of weather, candlelight, cats, and more on her writing.
How do you create an undistracted space for writing?
I can’t compose just anywhere. But I’m always writing everywhere.
My composition space is my home. When my partner has left for work and the house is still and quiet, I open the doors and windows if the weather allows, and let the city sounds filter in. If it is winter I indulge in the romance of snowbound silence, and the work is often very different season to season, year to year. I can write in any room in my house, but I have to feel called to the spot, so I am not usually anywhere in particular. I like to write in natural light for as long as possible. If someone visits later in the day, they might find me writing in dusk’s near darkness. I also position myself by a window so that I can watch the day and the weather, which sometimes filter into the writing, but not always or necessarily. I always clean and tidy up the house and space before composing because I like a neat and organized space to compose in and the gestures of tidying are meditative for me, getting me to sort of knead around my writing space, like a cat, before I settle in to the page. I light a candle because its part of my ritual. I call my cat over. I have something to drink, tea or coffee or lemonade, and always water because I will forget to drink it if its not around and Colorado is very dry. I also pull out books that call out to me and I keep them by my side, for energy, and I read them occasionally, for inspiration. Sometimes I sleep with them under my pillow, for dreams. I always keep the current art project I am working on out and available so that if writing is getting my head in knots, I can break with drawing or painting or clay. Sometimes if I am getting too heady, I dance around to feel my body and to re-presence my senses. These tasks aren’t distractions as much as they are extensions of the writing and composition process. Though I am always writing, I reserve two composition days for myself each week where I write for 6-8 hours without stopping. Afterwards, I am hungry and pretty strange, so I try not to interact with others until I’ve socially recalibrated. During composition, I get into a kind of trance, which I long for when I can’t be in it and which I am always feeding during my other daily experiences.
My writing space is everywhere and what I mean by this is that I purposely distract myself at all times that are not composition times, and I take good mental and actual notes. By distraction, I mean that I let the momentum of each day carry me: I like to get lost in the city, have conversations with peers, students, friends and strangers, go dancing, ride the bus, do a city-hike or a nature hike, go to the park, teach, read (a lot), have lunch with a friend, take an art or dance class, or just do anything that comes my way, each experience has use for me. By notes, I mean that I remember things, sensationally, in my body; I put sensations into my muscle memory and re-engage them when I sit down later to compose. I also listen deeply to language all the time—both the language in my head and around me. I write down actual phrases and words that I plan to work with later. I keep my notebooks and a pen on hand at all times whether writing or composing. I read everyday. I read about all kinds of things at once and discover how all the ideas converse. Right now I am learning about symbiosis, exploring the relationship between language and empire and re-visiting Simone De Beauvoir. This kind of distracted reading allows me to find strange and unexpected relationships and new ways of seeing my daily world.
Finally, I live by a major road and the main hospital route in Denver and so I can always tell what time of day it is by the intensity of traffic and sirens. Because of this, I don’t need to look at my phone or computer for anything except if I have to look up a word or concept, which I do often. When I pick up my phone I know that texting or jumping on email or Facebook will distract the creative momentum and present-ness of my writing time, and I’m often so entranced during my composition time that I really have no desire to visit social sites or to socially interact at all. I enjoy and appreciate and indulge in the intensity of my mind and work. At the same time, I really enjoy the unfolding of the city and day as the background noise and movement to my creative composition experience. So, I create a solitary shelter in the mass and mess of city life, or even natural life, if I am in the mountains, beach, prairie, etc.
SERENA CHOPRA is a PhD candidate at the University of Denver in Creative Writing, Poetry, and earned her MFA from the University of Colorado in Boulder. She is the author of This Human (Coconut Books, 2013), Ic (Coconut Books, out in Winter 2015), and the chapbook, Penumbra (Flying Guillotine Press, 2011). She has published widely in journals, including The Denver Quarterly, Timber, Vinyl, Everyday Genius, The Laurel Review, Volt, Versal, and No Tell Motel. She is a Kundiman Fellow and a Zora Neale Hurston Scholarship recipient to Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program. She is also a co-founder and player in the poet’s theater group, GASP, a dancer with the modern dance company, Evolving Doors Dance, and a visual artist, acting as a 2011-2013 resident artist at the RedLine Gallery in Denver. She currently teaches poetry at the University of Denver.