For the last week I have been, and for the next seven weeks I will be, the Writer in Residence at the 22nd best restaurant in Canada in my adopted home of St. John's, Newfoundland. This is a position I invented. When I pitched the idea to the co-owner of Mallard Cottage, I called my own bluff. You see, I am working on some short fiction. Sort of fiction. I am writing a fictional version of real horror. I write regularly, journalistically, for St. John’s local Arts and Culture monthly (The Overcast), but fiction is new to me. I was looking for a way to commit myself to the work while having a deadline to work towards and an audience to work up to. I have been a writer for only two years. Most of the work I have done since declaring myself a freelancer was in response to various requests: can you write, research, investigate, comment on, review this? Yes. I can. No problem. I can help. I can be of service. I can write. This is my way of taking the next step: Here is a story no one asked for. You are welcome.
For this residency in a restaurant, I am provided a space to write, undisturbed but not lonesome, three mornings each week before they open for evening service. I am offered coffee/tea and a plate of cake from the icebox. If the kitchen staff has lunch while they are butchered or prepping, I have it too. I get a weekly stipend and a venue for a reading of my new work at the close of the residency. In return, I make myself available to customers and the public at a table during Friday brunch service. What that looks like, I will find out over the next weeks. What I have discovered so far is that writing in this setting embraces superstition. It is an experiment and a dare.
Newfoundland is a place of deep superstition (this is simply true, but it is also a quote from Jason Sellars, the public programming officer at The Rooms, our provincial museum and archives). I am a person of no superstition. My beliefs all lay out in the open, ready for testing, on serpentine asbestos labtop tables. Query. Attempt. Observe. Test. Repeat. Rethink. What I do have in common with my new compatriots on this island is a willingness to use whatever tools are within reach. Superstition is a tool. So are fear and misery; an implicit understanding of the horror of life; the lack of claim we have to a long one. These lay all around the woodpile in Newfoundland. These are tools I am using.
I use them in two ways. First, I let the random brutishness of this North Atlantic outpost compel the spirit of laissez les bon temps rouler, a spirit required when attempting an artistic life. A spirit I found seductive, but ultimately sickening, in the permissive heat of New Orleans where I lived for a while pre-Katrina. There I abandoned writing for a career in science. But here, decades later, the soft, wasteful, Caligulaic swaddlings of living “in the moment” are long gone to trade for food or to warm a frozen foot or a baby through 6 months of winter. The urgency of comforts drives all freedoms here and produces a haphazard entrepreneurship. Stripped of the “mainland” ambition which so thoroughly directs lives along the coasts and oil belt of the US, my own once included, here you try things because your day job ends at 4:30 and the bands don’t play until midnight. Here you try things because it does not matter in the long run. There is nowhere to rise here. This place is a full stop. Recently, another writer wrote asking about my work and wanted to know “what was the closest large city?” I was tempted to answer “Atlantis”. Surrounded by ocean, famed for cultural achievements and utterly irrelevant outside of one bubble, it is closer to St. John’s than is Toronto or New York or even Montreal, Halifax or Reykjavik. With no way to communicate and no thought of escape, Atlantis is still creating, still producing myth and stories.
The second way in which I'm using the tools of superstition is more tangible. I'm touching wood. I'm knocking three times on old doors. I'm filling my pockets with cake to ward off the fairies. I am sitting for two hours each weekday morning in one of the oldest buildings in the oldest city in North America. I'm walking, biking, or driving the two miles through blowing ice or RDF (our constant companion between winds: rain, drizzle, fog), from the heart of a harbour city to a smaller, even damper, inlet known as “The Gut”. At the same time each day, I'm arranging the same notebook, the same blue 0.7mm mechanical pencil on one of three wooden tables (depending on how near or far I want to be from the boisterous kitchen). I am following the oldest urges of repetition as superstition, and I am reaping the benefits of routine and harnessing the psychological powers of “classical conditioning”.
Just as bread in a child’s pocket serves a practical purpose if they do get lost in the woods, fairies or no, the inside-out shirts, unlaundered lucky-streak underwear, or trusty rabbit's foot rubbed by the same hand, in the same pocket, all serve to put us back on our mark like tape “spikes” on a stage to achieve our performance consistently. Yes, says our skin, this is what it felt like last game when I hit a homerun. This is what it felt like to write yesterday. This is how I will write again today. This is a skeptic's “automatic writing”. I am letting atmosphere lay on me and stroke my hand like rabbit fur.
Emily is a freelance food, travel and culture writer in Newfoundland. She writes regularly for The Overcast (St. John's). Before that, her comics and advice columns appeared in The Scope and her poetry was recently featured in the newly established FreeFrame. She writes reviews and blogs annually for both the Festival of New Dance and the St. John's International Women's Film Festival. She is working on her first pieces of fiction as the Writer in Residence at Mallard Cottage. Before becoming a writer, Emily worked as a geoscientist specializing in 3-D visualization techniques.