Fairy tales have been enjoying a renaissance for a while now. They were my bread and butter growing up: Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books, the bright-coloured anthologies of Ruth Manning Sanders, all the collections from China, Egypt, Wales, Australia, South America, the First Nations…
Even then, I had this odd acquisitive feeling about folk and fairy tales. It wasn’t enough just to read them. I needed to know them, beyond simple recall-and-retell. It’s a strange, instinctive need to stamp them into my bones, so that they become part of me. Because yes, even now, I’m most comfortable with a story when I feel like I’ve gotten it inside me, somehow. It’s almost like I’ve spent my life waiting for my parents to ask whether I want the farm, the gold, or their blessing. Or like I’ve been looking for the witch over one shoulder; expecting the talking cat; preparing myself to meet Coyote.
Fairy tales have rules, after all. Things happen in threes. The youngest child gets the crown (as an oldest child myself, I slightly resent this). When someone tells you not to look, they really mean it.
Knowing the rules always soothed my young, anxious self—still does, actually. For a while, I thought maybe that was it. The more stories you know, the better you understand the rules. Except, that wasn’t enough reason. This need to take fairy tales into myself ran deeper than that. They needed to be a part of me. But why? Fairy tales as currency?
Then two things happened in quick succession. I was re-reading T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land for the umpteenth time, and I was working on my thesis Preface.
The Waste Land, of course, rests on allusion. Specific lines gain extra resonance: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” Beautiful alone, more poignant when carrying the weight of Dante’s descent into the Inferno. Whole sections echo with added emotional weight—Philomel, so rudely forc’d, and poor, blind Tiresias. The entire poem suddenly snaps into focus if you know the story of the Fisher King.
It’s possible to read The Waste Land without knowing the allusions, and I know that I don’t know them all. The language operates in two different registers at once: knowing the myths and stories lets you hear the second, hidden one. Almost as though the poem itself is in a language that changes meaning if you change the particles. Or notice the particles in the first place.
Nor is this just Eliot. Byron, Byatt—heck, even Stephen King. Their stories assume we have a common base of stories to draw from, that we’ll recognize forms and patterns and emotional resonances as they appear. Think about the way we talk: “It was a Cinderella story.” “He’s no Prince Charming.” “Wake up, Sleeping Beauty.” In so many ways, fairy tales are our common language—they are the basic forms to which we keep returning, the forms that structure our other stories.
Which brings me to my Preface. Laying all eight stories out, and consciously figuring out what I’d meant to do with each, I realized something:
With the possible exception of one, all eight stories are about loss.
Without exception, all eight stories are fairy tales in one way or another.
How do we make sense of things? By telling stories about them. And for various reasons—personal, preferential, social, cultural, biographical—folk and fairy tales underpin my understanding of how stories work. No wonder I kept trying to acquire them as a child. The more stories thrum through these bones, the more stories I can tell. I can mash up East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon with The Descent of Inanna. I can take La Fête de la Sainte-Catherine (itself a variant, I’m fairly sure, of Rose LaTulippe), throw in a pinch of Godfather Death, and finish it with bit of fairy tale logic I made up—but that fit the pattern.
How do I understand death? How do I lay out grief? How do I grapple with relationships that mutate and shift into something I simply do not understand?
Stories. The stories I started with. It’s like coming home.
And the broader the base, the more you see patterns in other stories. At heart, learning these stories is simply learning another language. Again, small surprise I felt I needed them inside of me—there’s a difference between memorizing the phrase book and being fluent.
So back to my preface I go, ready to speak.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Handel is my boy—I love Baroque music because it when it works, it’s like clockwork. Everything just fits. There’s no other way it could possibly be, because every piece just fits into place and plays off the next one. It’s like a finished Sudoku puzzle.
It pleases me.
The strings do go on a bit in the first minute, but then suddenly around 1:15, you realize this repeating run of notes is not just chugging along, it’s a locomotive that just jumped the tracks. Then we get the choir entering like a crash of thunder. High G’s! All the high G’s!
Followed by typically Handel-esque fanfare and cavorting. Another thing I love about Handel: he knows how to use silence and contrast to his advantage. Watch how he places rests in this piece. It’s just enough to let you gasp before he jerks you off somewhere else.
Yep. That’s my boy.
I have been quiet, mostly because I’ve been very, very busy. Writing-wise, I like to function like a Swiss Army knife. I write short stories, novels, plays, games, audio dramas, museum monologues, flash fiction, radio segments (that’ll be a thing soon, stay tuned and pardon the pun), blog posts, …
It’s a lot.
But there’s one more thing that I do write, I just don’t share it very often.
After all this time, I’m usually pretty blasé about showing my writing. If I can handle editors, Amazon reviews, and Stonecoast workshops, I can handle almost anything, right?
Well…poetry is different for some reason. I’m not sure why. Maybe because poetry feels so much more vulnerable and exposed. Closer to the bone, in a funny way—it feels like the words stand out so much more.
But hey, exposure therapy, right? I’ve also been feeling contemplative, if slightly melancholy. Almost like, in the middle of summer, I can feel the first faint winds of autumn approaching.
And hence a rare poem from me. Post-Stonecoast residency, I’ve decided I’m an odd mix of Romantic and Classical sentiments. I like feelings and nature and making up stories. But also, I like form and structure and order. Which probably explains the following. Enjoy!
That long June morn, long years ago,
I watched the rose and lilac grow.
And like them, you were all in bloom,
As heavy hung their sweet perfume.
I watched their blossoms budding clear
And did not know the winter near.
That first fair morn, I could not guess
The depths of summer’s loveliness
As on we walked amid the dew,
And rose and lilac ‘round us grew.
How bright their blossoms then appeared—
As even then, the winter neared.
Though swift the season slipped away,
And sooner closed each passing day,
Still did the brightness of your eyes
Outshine the hard autumnal skies.
I marked the dwindling of the year
But still denied the winter near.
December’s chill came soft and slow,
As soft as rose and lilac grow.
So gently did the lurking frost
Caress the blooms already lost,
But oh—how cold the touch of fear
When first I felt the winter near.
Through all the years’ unceasing snow
No more will rose or lilac grow.
Like them, you were not meant to stay,
Though endless seemed that summer day,
And longer still the sunlit year,
The winter now, at last, is here.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Pretty sure I have a new theme song: “Hymn to the Fallen,” from the film Saving Private Ryan. Funnily enough, I hated this piece the first time I encountered it. My choir was doing it, and the choral part does not make musical sense in isolation. This piece needs the brass and drums to work—the choir is really just another instrument.
It’s hopeful angst, which seems to be my thing. The drums tattoos give me shivers (especially the first and last ones), and the massive choral crescendo around 3:53 makes me want to write all the things ever.
Above all else, it’s a swan song. Maybe that’s why I’m loving it so much these days…
Wait – we just did Balticon, though. Right? Like, six months ago? No? Okay, I guess it has been a year…
Honestly, I rarely remember that I’m going to cons until the week before, and this year has already been so hectic with plans taking slight detours, academic essays being written, secret projects being recorded, and a fledgling museum theatre program finding its feet. Nevertheless, the fine people of the Balticon Programming Committee have reminded me that I am going to Balticon. Tomorrow, in fact.
Here’s the run-down.
- Getting in around noon.
- Nothing official on the schedule until the Meat-and-Greet. Bring grillable protein and bond with other podcasters in front of the Residence Inn from 5:00 pm until whenever. Meat starts coming off the grill at six.
- 9:00 am: Researching Your Alternate History – Panellist – (Tack)
- D.H. Aire (M), Me, Melissa Scott, Jo Walton
- 10:00 am: Writing Interactive Fiction – Panellist – (Tack)
- Stephen Granade (M), Charlie Brown, Laura Nicole, Me, Patrick Scaffido
- 7:00 pm: Working With Others’ Myths – Moderator – (Salon B)
- Me, Day Al-Mohamed, Aaron Rosenberg, David Sobkowiak, Jo Walton
- 11:00 pm: Balticon Beats (Garden)
- 11:00 am: How To Intelligently Do Horrible Things To Your Characters – Panellists – (Salon B)
- Trisha J. Woolridge (M), Me, Russ Colchamiro, William Galaini, Joshua Palmatier
- 12:00 pm: Collaboration and Intermedia Writing – (Tack)
- Mike Luoma (M), Me, Dave Robison, Aaron Rosenberg
- 4:00 PM: Reading (Chesapeake)
- Sarah Avery, Me, Sarah Pinkser
- No idea what I’m reading, yet. It’ll be a surprise for everyone!
- 8:00 pm : Bars, Inns, and Taverns: Fiction and Reality – Panellist (Derby)
- Steven R. Southard (M), Me, John Skylar, Ada Palmer
- Needless to say, I am VERY excited for this one.
- 9:00 pm: Mom and Dad Let me Watch WHAT? (Chase)
- Me, Andrew Fox, Nate Nelson, the JOHN VAUGHAN
- 10:00 pm: New Media Homecoming Dance in Honour of P.G. Holyfield (Garden)
As per usual, I forget when my flight leaves, but it’s sometime in the afternoon. I’ll be around for a bit in the morning before I catch my train to catch my plane.
And that’s it! Definitely an exciting array of panels with wonderful, wonderful people. I know there will be a few tears this weekend as we remember and celebrate P.G. Holyfield. I also know that there will be lots of laughter, and many more pictures than in years previous.
See you there!
What I’m Listening to This Week
Kathleen Ferrier is one of my favourite contraltos. Lovely, warm, and rich – without being overly dark. And her rendition of “Blow the Wind Southerly” breaks my little heart. Just listen.
Tonight is my last night in my little blue room.
I moved into this house four years ago with two boys. One of them was my friend’s boyfriend, and I’d met the other once at a party. They were desperate for a third person, I was desperate for housing: I won out over another person primarily because I don’t smoke. We were supposed to stay there for two years—until we finished our undergrads—and then go our separate ways.
Instead, I was the one constant in a revolving door of roommates. Some were good; others, less so. I always liked the dynamic I had with the first two boys. I love the stability and laid-back dynamic my current housemates bring. The ones in-between—well, that’s in the past now.
But I’ve always been here, in this room. I loved the colour the moment I walked in: pale blue, with a damask pattern on one wall. In this room, I got the email accepting Hapax for publication. I’ve produced many, many podcasts; written many essays; ploughed through Heartstealer; enjoyed countless cups of tea and conversation with friends.
It’s been my space. My room. While I was in New Zealand, I missed it bitterly. (My room in Dunedin was yellow. It was nice, but it was never really mine. Not the way this room is mine.) To put it in perspective, I’ve been in this room about half as long as I stayed in my room in my Mom’s current house, the one I consider my childhood home.
And it’s my last night.
It’s a strange feeling. It doesn’t quite feel real, yet. Of course, tomorrow night, I’m going to sleep here, in this small blue room with its east-facing window, because that’s what I do, right? That’s what I’ve always done, for the past four years…
Mind you, I’m not moving very far. Just up a flight of stairs to the one-person apartment on the top floor. See, I’ve been in this house for four years, and I’ve fallen in love with the neighbourhood. The woman in the shoe shop down the street calls me “ragazza” and helps me find “business shoes, you pay good price, your boss thinks you’re one million dollars.” The gents in the second-hand bookstore keep their eyes open for books on beer and brewing. I’ve got my pal and writing buddy Erik Buchanan two streets away.
Plus, my landlord is sane and reasonable. Not always a guarantee in Toronto.
So when the top-floor apartment became available, I jumped. Yes, it’s small. Yes, it’s odd. Yes, it’s a garret. But it’s a one-person garret. When my housemates finish their graduate degrees and move on in September, I can stay. Not in my small blue room, perhaps, but in my weird, rambling house.
It’s funny. Almost everything important in my life was meant to be temporary. This house was supposed to be a two-year spin, at best. Now, it looks like I’ll be here for the foreseeable future. I planned to sing with the choir at Grace Church for four months. Six years on, and I’m getting confirmed at the end of May. Black Creek was a summer job. Going into my fifth season, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. Heck, even the brewery was meant to be a one-off thing.
Somehow, imperceptibly, almost without realizing, I’ve put down roots. In no way does my life resemble the life I imagined when I first stepped into my dormitory room in first year. But that’s okay. I don’t think I had a good vision of what I wanted my life to look like then, anyway. Back then, it was about survival, nothing more.
Nevertheless, I certainly didn’t foresee this. I didn’t foresee these friendships, or these career plans, or this little blue room in a weird rambling house on a leafy green street.
The move tomorrow feels a bit like a sea-change. There will be chaos, and anxiety, and discomfort, and probably clipped tones and tears. But it’s not an ending. It’s not even a sequel. It’s simply the end of a chapter.
I will miss you, little blue room. We’ve had some good times. But I won’t be far away.
What I’m Listening to This Week
My first year with Grace Church, we went on a choir tour to New York City. I was all of eighteen, which meant that I counted officially as a member of the “women’s choir,” and thus did not need a chaperone. You know, unlike those tiny seventeen-year-olds in the “children’s choir.”
Anyway, we sang a few services in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, a truly massive cathedral that provided my model for the Ecclesiat in Hapax. One of the pieces we did came from the film The Shadowlands—“Veni Sancte Spiritus,” by George Fenton.
I love the chant feeling in this piece. Although it starts with tenors, I usually sing it up the octave, by myself, at all hours. Although the back-and-forth between the ATB parts is interesting, we really get rolling once the sopranos enter around the 0:50 mark.
Incidentally, the climbing intervals and high note in the soprano solo is really fun to sing. No, I’ve never had the solo myself…just around the house. And we end on a high, solid Amen. What more can one ask for?
So, my sister freaked me out over Easter dinner.
“Yeah,” she said nonchalantly, passing our teenage cousin the asparagus. “I’m twenty.”
“What?” I gasped, nearly choking on my beer (a Dragon Stout—fairly sweet imperial stout from Jamaica—not bad, not bad at all).
“Uh, my birthday was in, like, February.”
“I know,” I sputtered, “it’s just…”
“Hard to think where the time’s gone?” my mom asked, trying to help.
“Sure.” I took a deeper swig of beer than necessary. “Something like that.”
Here’s the real reason it freaked me out: I was twenty when I started working at Black Creek. Well, okay, I was actually nineteen, but I turned twenty within a month of my start date. I was twenty when we podcasted Hapax, when I signed the publishing contract, and when I took off to New Zealand by myself for six months.
But my sister is so young. So are her friends. I can’t imagine hanging out with them. Plus, seriously, it was not that long ago—surely, I wasn’t that small, was I?
It’s a strange thing: on the one hand, I’m still the whippersnapper amongst my friends. Sometimes painfully so. Sometimes-more-painfully-and-more-often-than-I-care-to-admit, so.
On the other—Gavin and I were recording lines for an upcoming Tales from the Archive story tonight. You might recall Gavin: he voiced Brother Gaelin in Hapax and Brandon Hill in “Under Oak Island.”
When we recorded Hapax, Gavin was mostly sending me lines from Nova Scotia, over the winter break. Through the spring, he came over a few times to run more complicated scenes with some of the others. We sat in my living room, using a USB headset mic meant for conference calls, running scenes multiple times, with a different actor wearing the mic each time, because headset.
I had no idea what I was doing. I was making up the whole thing as I went, everything from the directing to the voice acting to the audio editing. And man, in places, it shows. But you know what? That’s how we learned. All of us. There’s nothing like producing/voicing eleven hours of audio to give you a feel for it.
We learned so much. That really struck home tonight, as Gavin sat in front of my Yeti (my third mic, now), pop filter in place. Oh, also, Gavin’s been my roomie for a year and a half – much easier than getting lines from Nova Scotia! We’d moved the laptop because I was worried about its humming (we never would have thought of that, during Hapax), and so I was crouched in the corner, watching the screen, offering direction that actually mostly made sense. It struck home, in a different sense, as I texted Blythe notes on lines for another podcast.
It’s nice to have a rhythm, I thought, vaguely and inarticulately. It’s nice we’ve found our way of working.
I was so nervous to ask her to voice Serafine. So nervous. And now—we’re a team.
It struck home as I bantered on Facebook with Lauren Harris. At twenty, I’d listened to my share of Pendragon Variety. When I first met Lauren in person, she seemed to fall into that “cooler, older, bolder” personality type that seems to crop up in my life fairly frequently. So, I was nervous.
But these distant voices are now my friends. Many of them, I count among my closest. Balticon, Smoky Writers, general shooting the breeze with each other, all of my hops south of the border…it’s made some very, very strong bonds with people who were utter strangers not all that long ago.
Think about it. Four years ago, I didn’t know any of my writer pals. I didn’t know anyone at Black Creek – despite what some people think, I didn’t even know Blythe.
I can’t imagine life without these people, now.
Starting Hapax, we were so young. Unformed, untested: tabulae rasae all around. So much has happened in less than four years, my head spins just thinking about it.
“Yeah,” my sister says, “I’m twenty.” Clearly, this is a stage of life that involves lots of change: some of it epic, and some of it awkward, messy, and painful.
But at the end of it: hopefully mostly epic. I really, really hope so, anyway.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Lack of computer temporarily drove me to writing longhand, and the only thing I can really comfortably write long are notes on plot. So, after a long hiatus, I dusted off my notes for the Victorian Dark Fantasy 2.
Much like its predecessor, this story has a theme song: a piece of music that makes me see things and feel things and grasp the entire novel in a very fleeting and intuitive way.
“The Unquiet Grave” is an English ballad, which means that there are lots of arrangements floating around. I like how driving this one is; I didn’t necessarily expect to. Plus, that voice! It makes me see a character. I’m not sure how she fits in, not entirely, but I’m seeing her in a dim, grotty tavern, striding between the tables as Mairi and Sara gape, not at all sure what to make of her.
“You crave one kiss of my cold lips, but I am one year gone. If you have one kiss of my lips, your time will not be long…”
It may also work thematically. I don’t know. It seems like everything I write turns super dark eventually. Heartstealer had its moments—it was the Victorian Dark Fantasy, after all—but this one wants to go even darker. Not in a horrific way, in a very painful way.
We’ll see. Until then…I listen, trying to hear this character, whoever she is.
I’ve never had a big budget for podcasting. When I first sat down to record Hapax, I was halfway through my undergrad. And now…I’m halfway through grad school. So funds have been an ongoing issue.
Luckily, there are ways to work around impecuniousness. The impoverished podcaster has a variety of free things of which to take advantage: sound editing programs, sound effects, royalty-free music. An imagination and willingness to do weird things to make your own sound effects. Honestly, the biggest investment I’ve made has been on microphones and headphones.
And I’d been managing pretty well…until it became clear that I was lacking an essential piece of equipment.
A pop filter.
A pop filter sits in front of the mic to prevent plosives. Plosives are fun—hard, explosive consonants like p, d, b, k. When the breath hits the mic funny, it creates a pop of air. My plosives are becoming more noticeable, and the more I podcast, the less tolerance I have for them.
So, a pop filter. Research for this post indicates that they’re actually pretty reasonably priced. I have a Blue Yeti, which needs a special kind…which Amazon is currently listing for $22.84. But it looks fiddly. Besides, I need two: one for each mic, and then that gets pricier.
(My other mic is a Blue Nessie…it’s a charming wee thing, but its “built-in pop filter” doesn’t exactly get the job done.)
I’d seen tutorials for constructing one’s own pop filter. Unfortunately, they’re meant for mics with proper booms. My Yeti sits just in front of me. Some slight alterations were in order.
And so, I present: The Beer Bottle Pop Filter
- 6-inch embroidery hoop: $2.80
- Pantyhose (queen size): $1.99
- Metal rod: $0.00 (scavenged from back room) (A piece of dowel rod would probably work just as well)
- 2 clothes pins: $0.00 (scavenged from back room)
- Duct tape: $1.29
- Piece of cardboard: $0.00 (ripped from a shoe box)
- Beer bottle: $0.00 (okay, okay, originally something like $4.25, but you can find a beer bottle lying around, right?)
Total cost: $6.08
Not too shabby.
With a pair of sharp scissors, cut the legs off the pantyhose. I try to go as low as possible – there was no way that was going to sound good, was there?
Remove the small screw from your embroidery hoop and separate the inner and outer rings. Place your legless pantyhose overtop the inner ring, and put the outer ring on top, surrounding it. Make sure that there are no holes or gaps!
Stretch the fabric as tight as you can. Then stretch it tighter. When the fabric is taut, cut the excess. It’s okay if it looks a little raggedy; I prefer to err on the side of caution. If you don’t have enough fabric to cover the hoops’ frame, you’re screwed.
Cut your cardboard into a thin strip—mine’s maybe 1.5 cm wide by 8 cm long. Punch a small hole close to the tip.
Run the embroidery hoop screw through the hole, and then tighten to close the hoops.
Secure the cardboard to the rod with duct tape. At the screw, secure the cardboard—which probably looks like it’s about to tear—with more duct tape. Duct tape wherever it looks like you need it.
Attach a clothespin on either side of the screw. This will help the screen (formerly an embroidery hoop) stay upright. Then more duct tape.
Place the metal rod in the bottle. And then? MOAR DUCT TAPE.
My bottle is pretty sturdy, but if yours is tippy, you can try putting sand in the bottom to weight it down.
Set in front of microphone. Get recording! :)
What I’m Listening to This Week
It’s not all classical music and Irish pub songs over here. Coming off March Break, thinking about the year ahead, and all the changes in store…I’ve needed something a little more driving.
Because my musical taste is nothing if not eclectic, I nurture a soft spot for Queen. And these days, I do feel like I’m rushing headlong towards something—so what else would I listen to?
Once upon a time, about a million years ago, I worked at summer camp.
Okay, it wasn’t a million years ago. I was 16. So, this awkward, nervous teenager shows up to shepherd kiddies, keep a semblance of order, and entertain/educate. All while attending to the the bathroom breaks, hurt feelings, lost water bottles, tears, and Popsicles that inevitably come with summer camp.
One morning, we were packing up the kids so we could trek to Swim. Naturally, one kid threw his backpack down and wailed. I froze—what did I say to a screaming four-year-old? What did I do with the other kids, who were now gawping? What if we were late for Swim?
My co-counsellor that week was one of the veterans. She was twenty-one. (At sixteen, the counsellors in their early twenties seemed the epitome of venerable coolness. My super grown-up supervisor was probably no older than I am now.) Anyway, my co-counsellor knelt down and talked to the kid, using a mix of humour and firmness, motioning the other kids along.
And I watched.
I really, really watched. I watched how she approached the kid, how she crouched down, what she said, what tone she used, when she pushed, when she pulled back.
Then I started watching the other counsellors. Why did kids respond to them? How did they handle screaming kids, arguments, chaos? Why were their activities successful? What did the kids latch onto and adore?
Watching wasn’t enough. So, I started mimicking.
A phrase here. An inflection there. Counting to three, time-out, praise—a cornucopia of solutions and tricks. Sometimes, they worked. Sometimes they didn’t. A funny thing happened, though. The more I mimicked, the more these disparate elements merged together with my personality, my style.
At the time, I thought of it as synthesis. I’d taken all these bits and pieces that belonged to other people, and they’d transformed and recombined into something that was me.
By the time I left camp four years later, I’d learned how to counsellor—and I’d learned to do it as Yodel. Yodel didn’t suffer fools gladly, but she worked around them with a smile. She kept up to date on kid pop culture. She was irreverent and goofy, happy to get soaked in water fights and tell the same stories ad nauseam. But—when her voice dropped and flattened, game time was over.
When I showed up at Black Creek, I knew that this was my process. Locate, dissect, imitate, synthesize. I very consciously watched the other interpreters—far more consciously than I ever did at camp. Then I picked apart their interpretation, their tours. Not in a mean way, in a scientific way. What were they doing? Why did it work? How did it work?
And now we’re four years on again, and I’ve learned how Katie interprets. She’s never quite been able to eradicate that innocence and unabashed enthusiasm. Nor does she particularly want to. Sass doesn’t suit her, but the occasional dry comment does. (Writing in third person weirds her out, she just learned.)
Anyway, this applies to writing. This location-dissection-imitation-synthesis model is how I learn. At Stonecoast, this is precisely why we do annotations. We read other authors and say, “Okay. What are they doing here? How are they doing it? Why does it work?”
I’ve found a few writerly models. For the last year, I’ve been dissecting and thinking. I’m still dissecting and thinking. But I’ve also started imitating. The stories I’ve been writing have bits of this author here, traces of that one there…but there’s a sense too, that the elements are shifting as I write them.
We’re not quite at synthesis yet. I suspect it’s because I’m still not entirely sure how I write as myself. At least, not all the time. But isn’t it funny, that in this process, you find yourself by studying others? The way to look inwards is to gaze outwards.
So, I’ve been consciously studying for a year. My model seems to take about four. Where will I be in three years, then?
I don’t know. But I’m excited to find out.
What I’m Listening To This Week
An old favourite: Eleanor Daley’s setting of Ubi Caritas. The text of Ubi Caritas is really old—somewhere between the fourth and tenth centuries. So I appreciate the Gregorian feeling Daley gives it as the piece opens, only to surge into this very modern-feeling, very joyful outpouring about two minutes in—the altos slide like ribbons under the sopranos. It all resolves in the end, even when the Gregorian tune comes back, resolutely driving under the top line. I like that: the old and new treatment together.
But of course, my favourite part of Ubi Caritas is the rather-loose-but-very-pretty translation of the hymn itself.
Ubi caritas et amor,
Deus ibi est,
Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor
Exsultemus et in ipso jucundemur..
Where there is love,
God is there.
Love has brought us here.
Let us rejoice and be glad…
For the last few days, I’ve been sitting down at the keyboard, putting on music (mostly medieval and/or Christmas music—trust me on this one) and puttering around. I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions about Heartstealer, delving into the history and backstory that’s hinted at in the novel, but never fully explained. Peering at the bits of worldbuilding I’ve already written, turning those fragments over in my head to see how they fit into a greater narrative. Every so often, characters’ thoughts emerge, like this snippet from Mairi’s brother Iain…
“Mairi had a knack for the trouble. Not a man would deny that. But as Mum did be telling me long-suffering Da, Mairi was a good girl. Sure, she’d roll her eyes once and have the lads smitten for always, but that was as far as it went: smiles, giggles, eye-rolling. With every man, there came the point where she backed away like a trapped fox, her smile turning hard and her eyes turning frightened.
The lads never saw it. I did. And then, inexplicably, the rift would grow between her and him, until for some reason he never chanced to see her as much as before.
Until Arthur, I don’t think she kissed a man.”
Iain’s not a major character. I don’t intend for him to be a POV character. And yet—it’s another side, another bit of practice and insight to throw on the pile.
This noodling around, this personal Q+A, this introspection and scraps of scenes that will likely never go further—it’s always been integral to my novel-writing process. It’s only recently that I’ve figured out what I’m doing.
I’m sketching. Just like painters making studies before embarking on large projects, I’m sorting things out, drawing broad strokes with eraser and pencil before bringing out the paints. It’s an exciting time, full of possibility and potential. Of course, it’s also a little frustrating, because I haven’t had a novel for a long, long time, and I miss the feeling of being in the middle of one. But I’m not ready quite yet. If I started now, I’d just get paint all over the place.
Hopefully by the time the season opens at Black Creek, I’ll be sizing up my canvas. ;)
What I’m Listening to This Week
Some people eat food seasonally. I listen to music seasonally. Mid-March is filled with solemn, melancholic music.
So it’s weird for me to put the Christmas music back on. It’s important for this story, though. The Boar’s Head Carol is a fairly obscure medieval carol, referring to the custom of serving an entire boar’s head during Yuletide festivities. It’s been sung at Oxford for 500 years, complete with a procession featuring the boar’s head.
Most importantly for this part of the writing process, this carol puts me back to a very specific time and place: Black Creek, just before Christmas, which is where I need to be for this novel. Because I listened to this song obsessively last December, listening to it now brings back the smell of oranges and cloves, sharp winter winds and smoky hearths; the feel of wool against my skin; the suspended, muted grey afternoons.
That’s our landscape this time around.
I’ve been sequestered for the past week with ~15 other writers, in a cabin perched in high in the mountains. And it has been amazing. I could talk about the monastery-like atmosphere, everyone moving silently through the cabin, everyone writing alone and together. I could talk about the comradery, the kinship and connection I feel with these very special people. I could talk about the insanely diverse group of talent and the countless conversations we had about art, craft, life, and how you would hide the body.
I could talk about all of that, and I will, but I need to process it a little more. So, last time, I mentioned that I abandoned a story because it wasn’t really my story. It didn’t feel like a story that I would write.
While on the retreat, I wrote several stories with which I’m quite pleased, because they do feel like my stories. There’s a certain short-story voice that I’m starting to associate with getting closer to writing my stories. In my own head, I call it the “cut-glass voice.” Again, I think I hit this voice in my story “P.G. Holyfield’s Travelling Magnificent Spectacular.”
There’s something else, though. And it involves me putting “What I’m Listening to This Week” right here.
I’ve been listening to Rupert Lang’s “Kontakion.” Not to get all maudlin, but I want this music played at my funeral. This piece touches something very deep in me. Take a listen.
You may or may not have listened all the way through. For me, this piece is smiling through the tears, shining through the darkness. There is a line at 3:25 in particular that makes me say, “Yes. Yes, this.”
All of us go down to the dust,
Yet even at the grave, we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
And here—my God, my God, those rolling, magnificent, soaring alleluias. It gives a sense of something…well, something more, something hopeful and wonderful and awesome, something that takes a lot of courage to get to, because you have to get to it through darkness. That is precisely why it’s so powerful. Slightly more modern, but no less valid, is another line from Doctor Who: “Pain is easy to portray. But to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world…”
This is what I want my stories to do. I want them to go out singing.
I was writing a short story last week. Yes, past tense. I’ve shelved it; for now, anyway. Not that it was going terribly or anything. The prose was clean, it was well-plotted, there was a chilling little thrill and reversal at the end…
But it didn’t feel right. It felt slick. It felt like anyone could have written it. After mulling it over for a while, I realized—there was none of me in there.
Last semester, I got to do a lot of imitations for Stonecoast. You take another writer—Kij Johnson, Charles Dickens, John Fowles, Arthur C. Clarke, I did them all—and write a piece in their voice. Voice and style are those undefinable but hugely important elements of writing. You can’t mistake a Kij Johnson story for one by Arthur C. Clarke. They write about different things, certainly, but they use language in different ways, they infuse their works with different emotions. It’s as unique and intrinsic to the individual as one’s speaking voice is.
Admittedly, voice and style are parts of writing that I’ve come to appreciate a bit later than the others. Clean, competent, functional prose is great—but I do want more. I want my stories to do more than be clean, competent, and functional. When you read a Fowles, a Le Guin, a Butler…you get that sense of more. They’re great writers, certainly: imaginative, masterful with language. And also—they know who they are as writers. There’s that saying, right? Only you can be the best version of yourself?
Something like that, I don’t remember. My point is that, these writers wrote the stories that only they could write. And damn, they did them well.
Back to my story. Again, nothing wrong with it, it just…it wasn’t a KT Bryski story. So, what do my stories look like? What stories do I write?
I’m still in the process of discovering that. Actually, it is a wonderfully exciting time of self-discovery. And when I look at the stories that I’m most pleased with, a few trends start to emerge.
They’re intimate stories. Apparently, I save the big, exploding, destroy-the-cosmos stories for longer works. These are personal crises. Many unfold in ice and snow—there is a deep, deep vein of coldness in…well, in almost all my works, now that I think of it. I like writing about Canada, trying to get at the heart of that uniquely Canadian flavour of fantasy.
When I think of the works I think came close to getting it right, the ones that feel best…I get an impression of cut glass. Or maybe ice crystals. Sharp, hard stories, carefully wrought. And they are sharp—with that ache that comes when you smile through tears.
I think my story in Tales of a Tesla Ranger came close to that.
All of this rambling to say: I’m being all philosophical about my art, as one must be, sometimes. And it certainly gives me something to think about as I fly out to the States this week for a bit of visiting and a whole lot of writing!
What I’m Listening to This Week
It’s cold. It’s winter. I’m cold. So this week, it’s Soviet composer Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998). I stumbled across him by accident a while back—I desperately want to use the title of his piece “The Sadness of Immense Spaces” in a short story. But for now, I’ve had “The Winter Sings” on repeat.
Awesome tone poem, this. Just go listen to it. The music dramatizes everything. The howling winds, the driving snow in the tenor/bass lines, the plaintive chirps of sparrows “like children orphaned yesterday.” And then there’s the awesome, stunning blizzard section about a minute and a half in.
But of course, I like cold, snow, and ice in art. Perhaps this isn’t surprising.