On this episode of A Day in the Life we meet 2014 grad Liza Mattison. She is a literary fiction writer as well as a freelance artist. Liza lives near Boston with her wife and animals (including 5 chickens). I had the pleasure of meeting Liza on our residencies abroad in Paris and Ireland as well as being at Liza’s graduation in Berlin. It was great to hear from Liza and learn more about her daily routine and writing process.
Now let’s hear from Liza.
When did you graduate?
Whatever year it was Spalding went to Prague and Berlin. 2014?
What genre do you write?
Where do you live?
About an hour outside of Boston. in a little house on a little lake with my wife, our gracefully aging four legs, and a pampered flock of bunkered chickens.
What are your favorite books?
I will always vocalize my love for anything by PG Wodehouse because of his unparalleled vocabulary and mastery of language, and because he makes me laugh until I hurt. After reading Olive Kitteridge, I will read anything by Elizabeth Strout. Likewise with Richard Russo for his Empire Falls. I find myself returning again and again to The Great Gatsby, A Room of One’s Own, and to the stories of Jorge Luis Borges. I love Blue Territory for Robin Lippincott’s fearless form experimentation and tender portrait of an artist I knew little about until he made me fall in love with her utterly and completely. And to the books I am suddenly going to think of directly upon this segment’s publication, I preemptively apologize for overlooking you.
Do you hold a full-time job other than writing?
What do you do?
Can I say chicken farmer if there are only five of them? Ok, fine, I don’t hold a full time job but I am a freelance animal portrait painter and graphic artist, and I am fumbling my way into being the director of a writer’s retreat out of Joy Farm, the summer home of the poet E.E. Cummings. I am grateful to Spalding for giving me a whole community of writers from which to solicit my participants. It has run for its second year and I am full of ideas and hope for its future.
What part of writing do you like the most?
I like feeling my way through scenes with my characters because I don’t always know how they will react to something I put in front of them. I like falling in love with my characters’ vulnerabilities. I like finding ways to describe the landscapes they inhabit and coming upon fresh ways to write about their sensory worlds.
Do you work with an outline or just wing it?
With my short story collection I didn’t work with an outline, but with my two novels I have worked from outlines to get a shitty first draft written and not much else. They are still marinating in their unseemly drafty nascence.
Do you ever experience writer’s block?
It’s more like I experience writer’s dictatorial, authoritarian perfectionism. I will edit myself right off the page when I get like that. It’s not cute.
Do you listen to music while writing- if so, what kind?
I actually most often write in stony silence with little besides a purring cat for ambient noise. But I like listening to music when I’m in the middle of a writing project just not actively writing. I’m fairly provincial in musical tastes and often go for folk. That said, I am obsessed with Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and before that, it was early Elvis.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Joni Mitchell has a good quote about how pursuing different arts is akin crop rotation. When I’m not writing, I am expressing myself in other forms whether it’s visual art or cooking or sewing or woodworking. I get crabby if I am not creating, but every artistic field of mine has extended periods of fallow. Some more than others.
Can you tell us about an upcoming project?
I’ve recently finished my short story collection and have begun sending it out. I don’t want to get bogged down in either novel until I am in a place with my collection where I feel it has found a home. That said, I will be eager to return to my novel about the subtle and unsubtle ways WW2 opened up a briefly progressive time for women on the homefront.
Where can we find your work?
I had one of my stories published in The Louisville Review, and another one published in Composite, edited by Spalding’s own Joey Pizzolato. A somewhat haiku version of one story appears in an anthology put out by Wicwas Press called Safe to Chew. It’s available on Amazon and is entirely about bees and beekeeping. I’m afraid a few of the journals where my early work was published are now defunct, but if someone has an itch to see my story “Swamp Donkeys,” I can dust off one of my copies of the Charles River Review. I hope in the not super far off future my collection Fumbling Towards Greatness will clog the bookshelves of independent bookstores everywhere.
What does your daily schedule look like?
I wake up first around 6:30 with every intention of getting up, which I finally manage to succeed at around 7:30. After feeding the animals I use the morning to read whatever I am currently reading until my dog lets me know in no uncertain terms she is ready for her walk. If I”m lucky, I get an hour or an hour and a half. We walk about a mile and a half daily. After that I usually go and let the chickens out and clean their coop. It is around here the procrastination begins, particularly if it involves sending stories out to journals or doing early revisions of a story.
10am to 2pm is my most productive writing time. If I am working on my writing (or current art field), this is the best time for me to do it. Depending on the day, I do my creative work first (writing stories or revising them, or noodling around with my novel maybe) and the business side of my work after that until either my wife comes home or I need to get dinner going.
I hardly ever finish what I set out to do because I not infrequently succumb to that writer’s dictatorial authoritarian perfectionism I wrote of earlier. Also, I’m a slow writer. Also, the business side of my writing (sending the stuff out, researching journals and presses, etc., asking questions and seeking advice from my writing mentors, remembering my password to a million different literary sites) always involves more research and time and fussy tailoring than I ever allot time for. The business side of forming, organizing and running the Joy Farm Writer’s Retreat is sort of daunting but I am passionate about it and so I nibble persistently even if it is a slow process. I also get way too distracted by the news and politics. This has been especially true since the primaries were just getting off their feet for the 2016 election, and it’s only gotten worse since November. I have to actively distance myself from the news or it eats me up depressively and obsessively. At the same time, I’ve found the state of politics today has given me a new urgency about the importance of art and literature, and for that reason has given me better focus on my writing where I might have struggled in the halcyon days when I could put my trust in our president and his cabinet to make adult choices.
I am not a natty dresser, but I always wear actual clothes when I write as opposed to sweats or casual wear. Writing is my work, and I need to be dressed when I work. It’s easy for me to say that I suppose because nobody is forcing me to wear uncomfortable pants and tight button down shirts on a daily basis.
I wrote out a daily schedule once when I was really floundering about how to be productive. I found it helpful to use these chunks of time I allotted for myself, though it took more discipline than I could muster to stick with it beyond a year. Still, having the schedule helped give me muscle memory about what a writing routine feels like. I also find the more I read, the more productive I am. Reading different genres also helps me be productive, and so does changing settings. I love seeking out Kathleen Driskell’s poetry and the plays of Tennessee Williams or Henrik Ibsen whenever I need a jolt of deep humanity to inspire me.
Once I am making dinner or my wife comes home, my writing day is at an end. If I am in the middle of a creative surge, I will steal time where I can to put little dabs of edits and revisions onto my story but it’s probably good that I have to put it to bed by 10 because being eager about my writing helps get me up when I wake up.
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Mackenzie Jervis is a Summer 2016 Graduate. She lives in Texas with her husband, two cats, puppy, and son. She’s traveled to 65 countries solo, now taking the baby along. She blogs about family travel at A Wandering Scribbler while writing novels and binge-watching British TV.