Writer in Residence

Working at Home: the Fine Line Between Distraction and Productivity

Submitted by Teva Harrison

I have learned that it's not unusual in that I like to listen to podcasts while I draw comics. Those of us who work on things alone much of the time have tricks to feel less isolated. Music, podcasts, pets, maybe even houseplants or a garden, or both – these can be distractions, tools to help channel productivity, or gifts that make us feel less alone. 

When I’m writing, I like to have either silence or music playing, ideally instrumental or sung in a language I don’t really understand. I like albums, because anything else is distracting and disruptive to the thought flow. That frees me up to focus on the words forming in my own head, to let the words play with each other, to let the story find its own cadence, to allow for the slow process of clarifying an idea and finding its truth. 

My current top five albums for writing are:

  1. Steve Reich - Tehillim: Such a sublime piece of music. Gorgeous melodies, counterpoint, harmonies, unusual and entrancing vocals over full orchestration. I could just put it n repeat, but we have it on vinyl.
  2. Tricot Machine - Chante et raconte 25 décembre: Perfectly twee francophone music from Quebec.
  3. Brian Eno - Music for Airports: Ambient music written for one of my favourite liminal spaces. 
  4. Dirty Three - Ocean Songs: Moody, textured, spare yet lush. How do they do it? It blends into the background when it needs to and suits the introspective pauses while I clarify thoughts.
  5. Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique  Épisode de la vie d'un artiste ... en cinq parties: Wikipedia tells me: “Leonard Bernstein described the symphony as the first musical expedition into psychedelia because of its hallucinatory and dream-like nature, and because history suggests Berlioz composed at least a portion of it under the influence of opium.” I find it invigorating and driving, intellectually inspiring as it builds through pastoral tones to the Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath. It’s a bit meta to work to, but the layers are rich and nourishing.

But when I’m drawing, when I’m inking a comic or painting, I love podcasts. It’s like I’m eavesdropping on the best conversations without changing out of my art clothes, which are stained shirts and baggy sweats. I don't have to feel social or witty to feel like I'm a part of the conversation. It’s not half bad. Often I just turn on the CBC and listen live. I love how live radio gives me a sense of where I am in the day, because I lose time when I’m working. 

My current favourite podcasts that don’t automatically come out of my radio:

  1. Anything Gimlet produces - Smart, clever, topic you want to learn about. Even if you had no idea you cared.
  2. Dear Sugar Radio - Steve Almond & Cheryl Strayed give deeply heart--driven advice to people in really difficult situations. Their thoughtfulness, kindness and no-bullshit advice is fantastic radio.
  3. Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me - The NPR gameshow. Funny, smart, a bit off-colour, rounds up the week’s news and turns it absurd. A good way to catch up on world news and laugh instead of cry.
  4. Call Your Girlfriend - Long distance friends talking, and man are they fun, smart and thoughtful.
  5. UpTalk for Chatelaine - Rachel Giese hosts this fantastic new podcast from Chatelaine. Smart, very now, and incredibly engaging. Of course.

The garden gives me a chance to get outside. Last year I was working on my book so much in the basement that I never got a tan. Since I have cancer, my sister was worried about my pallor. Now I make an effort to be outside at least a little bit during the day. The garden, conveniently, needs daily attention to thrive. And I want it to thrive, both because it breaks my heart when even one plant wilts, and because I grow food and I want to eat lots of it! The breaks actually help me to work better. They clear my head, give my hands a rest, and fill my heart.

If I must choose from all my beloved plants, my favourite things growing in the garden are:

  1. Tomatoes: They smell so good when they’re perfectly ripe & warmed by the sun! I always think I’ll put some up in sauce, but I eat all the ripe ones & at the end of the season I pickle the green.
  2. Herbs: Fresh herbs in salad, in iced or hot tea, in sauces and infusions & syrups for cocktails or pouring over desert. Drying the herbs at the end of the season and living summer over again, aided by smell.
  3. Summer squash: It grows so quickly and you can eat the flowers, pick the small and tender or grow them into giant boats to stuff with quiñoa and herbs.
  4. Nasturtiums: They spice up a salad, either the leaves or flowers, and the red flowers attract hummingbirds to the garden. Hummingbirds! They seem unreal like seahorses. Magic made real.
  5. Berries: I have currants, gooseberries, yellow raspberries & kiwi berry vines. They come back on their own. Such a marvellous gift. I race against the birds, and we always end up sharing.
  6. Rhubarb: The most generous plant in the garden. Full stop. Let me know if you’d like a few stalks. I have extra.

I don’t have any pets. Sometimes a neighbour cat wanders in and I pet it. Sometimes I think I should steal it, but I am not productive when he visits. Everything the internet tells me is that cats hate it when people work, so perhaps I'd best keep pouring my love into the garden.

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.

Teva Harrison is a writer and graphic artist. She is the author of the critically acclaimed graphic memoir, In-Between Days, which is based on her graphic series about living with cancer published in The Walrus. It was named one of the most anticipated books of 2016 by the Globe and Mail, which also named the author one of 16 Torontonians to Watch. She has commented on CBC Radio and in the Globe and Mail about her experience. Numerous health organizations have invited her to speak publicly on behalf of the metastatic cancer community. She lives in Toronto.