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.
I’ve been thinking about pride lately. Alas, as they occasionally do, my thoughts began spinning. Oh God, am I secretly an awful person and no one bothered to tell me? Am I really awful, like seriously un-talented, and I haven’t been able to hear the sniggers over my own pride ringing in my ears?
It’s been a fun week.
And of course, as many writers are wont to do, I got sucked into a Second-Guessing Spiral of Doom. Well, if I’m not as good as I thought at one thing…maybe I’m wrong about EVERYTHING ELSE. Maybe I should just put my head down and not call any attention to myself at all.
Except I have HEARTSTEALER coming out next month, so that’s not really an option.
And therein lies the paradox many authors face: we have both insane self-confidence and crippling insecurity. To even dare submit a story – heck, to even show it to another human being – you need to think that it’s good. If you don’t honestly think, “This story is so good, people I’ve never met will give me money for it,” then why are you wasting your time? Not to mention the editors’ time?
That’s not all, either. When you have sold things, you can very rarely get away with proceeding to sit quietly in the corner. Doesn’t matter how good your books are – if people can’t find them, they’re a whole lot less likely to buy them.
All of which means: if you are overly self-deprecating – because, hey, I’m just some Canadian kid who hasn’t actually done all that much – if you never speak up and out, if you deflect all attention away from you, if you don’t aggressively seek opportunities… Well, it’s still possible to have a career, but you’re setting up a lot of roadblocks for yourself.
So we can’t do away with pride. Great. That doesn’t help my roiling anxiety.
But then I thought: is taking pride in one’s work different from being proud?
Google didn’t have an answer. I wonder, though, if maybe we should be talking about respecting one’s own work. So not inflating one’s ego by extolling its virtues, but simply giving it the time and attention it needs. Part of respecting one’s work – and I think this is the key difference – is being able to accept criticism to make it better.
Because the difference between egoism and respecting the work is this: what’s it about? If it’s about YOU, and how it makes YOU feel, and why isn’t anyone paying attention to YOU – in other words, if it’s entirely personal – then we may be looking at pride.
If it’s about the work…accepting criticism that might hurt your feelings in order to make the work better, making the writing (not you and your awesomeness) the main focus, doing what you can to make sure the work gets what it needs…that might be a different matter.
Remembering too that no work is perfect. We can strive to make it so. We’ll never get there, but that’s no reason not to try. But when criticism comes a-knocking…it may spur your future works on to be even better, and future works need just same amount of respect. (And if your ego is a bit, uh, puffier, you may find people less inclined to read your future works, so there’s that angle on this whole “respect the work” thing too.)
There’s another word I’d like to throw out: audacity.
No, not that Audacity. The actual dictionary definition of audacity, which is, “the willingness to take bold risks.” This is a term that’s become very important to me, and not just because of the sound editing program.
It’s a good counterpoint to pride. Recently, I had a conversation in which it was suggested that if I’m self-publishing HEARTSTEALER, I must be very proud of it.
I have worked very hard on HEARTSTEALER. I believe in it. I believe there’s a place for it out there. But what this whole endeavour boils down to is audacity. This is a bold risk. Every time I’ve reached out to people for help, that’s audacity. My relentless pushing at the dayjob? Audacity. Also, sheer stubbornness, but that’s another post.
And podcasting. To have the sheer audacity to suggest to people that they might really like to spend their afternoons recording dialogue, and no worries, you’re totally going to figure out this whole audio editing thing before it goes live…
I like the term audacity because of the element of risk. Someone who is too over-confident doesn’t see any risk involved in these activities. Why would they? They’re awesome, so clearly, everything will work out. And when you don’t see the snakes, that’s when you get bit.
Creative types who push the envelope, who suggest new things, who pull other people aboard—they may not have any idea if it’ll actually work. Hence, it’s a risk. Being proud means assuming the dangers will never touch you. Having audacity means you see the dangers, and you’re willing to try anyway.
So respect your work. Be grateful with criticism, gracious with praise.
And above all: be audacious.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Oh, man, I love me some Verdi. La Traviata was the first opera I ever heard, and it’s still one of my favourites. Courtesan meets guy, courtesan loses guy, guy briefly reconciles with courtesan, courtesan dies of consumption.
Yeah, I consistently cry through the third act. Sue me.
Si ridesta in ciel l’aurora takes place after a party at Courtesan Violetta’s house: the dawn is breaking in the sky, and it’s time for the guests to go home. I love the exuberant, galloping introduction here. Also, Verdi writes really, really well for choruses: the lower and upper voices pass the melody off, back and forth, getting progressively louder and more intense, until we burst into a triumphant climax at 0:36, complete with crashing percussion.
The melody becomes almost march-like, nearly militaristic, and then the original light, peppy tune ushers us out. Sidebar: this modern production looks super interesting. Love where they placed the chorus, and how Violetta is left all alone…with a spinning clock, because her time is running out, get it???
Authors spend a lot of time peering carefully at things in their head. It’s fun, but it’s also difficult…so when you get to see things outside of your head, it is very exciting.
All of which to say—when I saw Heartstealer’s cover for the first time, I gave a piercing squeal of delight. Then I swooned.
Starla Hutchton doesn’t just write about superheroes. She is one. She’s captured the feel and atmosphere of the novel. She’s got a woman on the cover who looks just like Sara. Look, there’s my heroine!
And she even managed to work in my beloved cloak. No, it’s not actually my cloak on the cover, but in my heart of hearts, it is totally my cloak.
So…ready to see Heartstealer?
Are you sure?
Here it is:
Back cover copy reads:
Autumn came early that year…
Sara Wolfe was told three things:
Her husband and sister-in-law died in a backwater village. Wraiths are only stories. Her nephew needs her.
She believes none of it.
Following her husband’s supposed death, Sara travels to Grey Run in search of answers, quickly becoming embroiled in the village’s old hurts and older magic –
Grey Run sits on the crossroads between the human realm and the Gloaming: a shadowy world of ghosts and little gods. With the curtain between the worlds thinning, Sara must unravel the truth behind her husband’s disappearance—
Because the wraiths are not the only ones lurking in the night.
Heartstealer is slated for a March release. When more information (and pre-order links) are available, I will let you know. In the meantime—please share, far and wide.
What I’m Listening to This Week
If I’m revealing the Heartstealer cover, I can’t really listen to anything other than Marie’s Wedding/Mairi’s Wedding/Mari’s Wedding/Mary’s Wedding/Mhairi Bhan/The Lewis Bridal Song.
Yeah, this song has a lot of names.
Sara may be the protagonist, but her pal Mairi has a very special place in my heart. Backstory: one day in New Zealand, as I was homesick and forlornly looking up harmonica tabs, I came across a song called “Mairi’s Wedding.”
“Hey!” I said, “I wonder if it is related to the play of the same name!”
It isn’t. Not at all. As near as I can tell, the identical titles are a complete and utter coincidence. But when I heard it for the first time, Mairi’s character burst into my head—fully formed, complete, her eyes already sparkling with mischief.
I love when that happens.
At 2:43, when the chorus returns after a mini-violin solo, I pretty much see the entire novel flash before my eyes. Also, I dance.
Hello! Guess what day it is? It is Bell’s Let’s Talk Day, wherein for every text message sent, mobile call made, Tweet using #BellLetsTalk, and share of the Facebook image, Bell Canada will donate 5 cents to mental health initiatives. Besides raising monies, it’s also a day to promote awareness and combat stigma.
As most of you know, mental health is a cause close to my heart. It’s a factor in the lives of people I love, mental illness affects creative types at a disproportionate rate—and as my much wiser boyfriend says,
We all have a mental health.
Whether or not there’s an active illness, taking care of one’s mental health is important for all of us.
As I’ve been made aware (often painfully so) in the past. I’ve always been pretty open about anxiety. And it’s the anxiety I want to talk about today, since it’s the one I live with.
So, Let’s Talk:
Anxiety is a tricky beast. It is defined as “a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks.” Which tells us some things, but not all of the things.
Anxiety comes in many flavours
Let’s line up ten people with anxiety. While there may be similarities between them, there may also be ten different types of anxiety. Kierkegaard over here has existential anxiety. Sally Student has crippling test anxiety, a diagnosable form of social phobia. Billy-Bob has Generalized Anxiety: persistent, disproportionate worrying and an inability to let go of worries.
I have social anxiety. Which means that I approach social interactions with the profound dread of doing something wrong, I become easily overwhelmed, and I constantly second-guess my ability to read social cues.
Anxiety does not hit with the same intensity all the time
This is a frustrating one. “Okay,” you say, “you have anxiety. Except—hey, last time, you talked to people just fine! Therefore, you are better! So why is this time such an issue?”
Beats me, and I wish I knew. The stimulus that provoked a strong response last week might be manageable this week, and next week, it could be worse again. Generally speaking, the more familiar anxiety-sufferers are with a situation/person, the easier it is—except for those times when it’s not.
“But you’re so social and outgoing!”
I’m a writer. I can also act when needed. So joking around on panels, being gregarious on podcasts, bantering with visitors at the museum—I might be super familiar and comfortable with the situation, but there is also a really, really good chance that I’m faking it.
The better you know me, the more likely it is you’ve seen me in the grip of a meltdown.
The play’s the thing
Going along with the acting metaphor—anxiety hates uncertainty. Hates it. I do not do well with ambiguity at all. So, what’s the answer to that?
This is why it’s actually sometimes easier to be thrown into a group of people I don’t know well. There is a script for such situations. Ask about their jobs, family, hobbies. Make small talk about a Topic Of Common Interest. It’s a formalized, ritualized way of interacting. Anxiety doesn’t mind that, because it can predict what’s coming next.
(This is also why I’m a boss at tours and presentations, by the way—I don’t just have a script, I wrote the f****** script).
So…for whatever reason, we’ve hit a point where the anxiety becomes greater than the person’s ability to contain it. What happens then?
Honestly, depends on the person. Some people lash out. Some people have panic attacks. I withdraw. It’s awful and I hate it. Imagine a really heavy, cold blanket slowly draping over you. You can feel yourself going numb, getting weighed down, slowed down, but you can’t do anything to stop it. The voice goes flat. Emotional affect dampens. It’s like when your computer overheats and triggers an automatic shut-down. Whatever the response is—it’s no one’s fault.
But as it’s not fun for anyone, prevention is the key: heading off the anxiety before it hits that point. There are many ways to do this. Exercises from Dialectical Behavioural Therapy were developed for people with borderline personality disorder, but they can work well for anxiety, too. Since sensory overstimulation can be a thing with me, I sometimes take my best sense (my ears, yo) and selectively flood that—music is a godsend when my brain is spinning too quickly.
Kind of like writing, though: there’s no One True Way, you just have to experiment until you find what works for you.
To close things off, let’s talk about labels. Sometimes, labels can feel helpful. It is awfully comforting to be able to put a name to the feelings and experiences you’re having—and being able to name it gives you some power over it. At a basic level, it certainly helps you find other people who are going/have gone through the same thing.
The thing to remember with labels, though, is that they are a starting point, not an ending. So, you can name this creeping dread “anxiety.” Fantastic, now you can more easily find resources to help, and maybe talk yourself down better (“This is not my thinking—this is anxiety”). It becomes tricky when the label becomes the be-all and end-all; when it becomes intrinsic to your self-conception. You are not a label. Whatever you have, you are not it.
As always, I’m glad we talked. Yes, it can be difficult, and awkward, but opening the dialogue is hugely important: for ending stigma, and for helping others find the support and help that they need.
Kids Help Phone: http://www.kidshelpphone.ca/teens/home/splash.aspx
Canadian Mental Health Association: http://www.cmha.ca/mental-health/find-help/
Centre for Suicide Prevention: http://suicideinfo.ca/
Mental Health America: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/go/help
American Crisis Hotlines: http://suicidehotlines.com/national.html
British Mental Health Infoline: http://www.mind.org.uk/help/advice_lines
Mental Health Council of Australia Helplines: http://www.mhca.org.au/index.php/help
New Zealand Ministry of Health: http://www.health.govt.nz/yourhealth-topics/health-care-services/mental-health-services
Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand Resource Finder: http://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/resourcefinder/listings/resource/73/support-groups/#content-222
What I’m Listening to This Week
This week, it’s “Fac ut ardeat cor meum” from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Once this movement starts, it doesn’t stop—I’ve actually heard it run faster than the version below. “Make me feel as thou hast felt,” runs a loose translation. In essence, this piece is a plea: and done well, it is hugely emotional.
Baroque music pleases me because of how precisely constructed it is. Again, done well, all the parts fit together like clockwork. Here, that’s particularly noticeable with the runs of three quarter notes at 0:18 (the “ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah” bit)—the soprano is rising higher, the countertenor steady underneath, and then they come together so perfectly.
I’m back from my Stonecoast residency: ten days packed full to bursting with workshops, presentations, seminars, readings, and the occasional shenanigan or two. (I saw Val Griswold-Ford! It was awesome!)
So, we’re a year into this MFA. Those of you with good memories may remember that I spent my first semester at Stonecoast thrashing Heartstealer into shape with my mentor, Theodora Goss. Since Heartstealer is coming out in March and all, I figured it’d be a good idea to tell her in person, rather than letting her find out through the internet.
I was a wee bit nervous. Writing books is one thing. I’m absolutely fine to share them and get feedback. But talking about them still feels strange and frightening to me. After some thought, I decided to break the ice by showing her the beautiful cover designed by Starla Hutchton.
“That’s it,” Dora said. “That’s the cover! That’s what it looks like!”
Starla’s work tends to have that effect on people. That’s what I said when I saw the finished product, too.
Then I explained that Heartstealer will be out in March (I say now, fingers and toes crossed). And she was very excited, which left me feeling warm and glowy. The conversation moved into some of my dayjobbery, and she said, “I don’t know how you do all you do—it’s very impressive.”
The consummate cool cucumber, I froze, taken aback. All that I do—what exactly do I do? Impressive? Huh? Stonecoast’s faculty teach at multiple programmes and institutions, they have families, they’re all working writers with countless projects at any given time. Then I listed everything out to myself and had a terrifying moment of vertigo.
Here is something that I learned this past semester, though. During one of my Skype chats with my mentor Nancy Holder, she asked if there was anything else I wanted to discuss. I hesitated, and then in a rush, blurted, “It’s not related to Stonecoast, but about my dayjob…”
She listened, and gave me advice, and then said, “You know, you shouldn’t divide things up in your head like this—Stonecoast and Not Stonecoast. All of these things are part of who you are as an artist.”
She’s right, of course. In some ways, it’s obvious, as when my beloved buildings and creek bleed into my novels and short stories. But it goes the other way, too. I’m lucky enough to do some creative work for the dayjob. Of course, of course everything I’m learning from Stonecoast and from my own muddling shows up there as well.
That being said, there is still a stubborn part of me that clings to some writing as “mine.” Looking closer, though, that doesn’t hold. Heartstealer was mine, and then it was for Stonecoast, and now it’s mine again. My short stories were once for Stonecoast, and I’ve got an eye on them for my thesis, but now they’re mine. My colleague Katherine is experiencing something similar with her podcast. There seems to be a constant dialogue between my MFA programme and me. I think that’s the way it should be. I’ve always liked collaboration, intermedia writing, and cross-genre work—so why should this be any different?
Maybe this holistic approach to the creative life is why it doesn’t feel like as much stuff as it is. Sure, I distinguish between projects (three big ones right now, two potentials on the horizon), but the lines between the spheres of my life apparently got blurred without my noticing terribly much.
That doesn’t sound unappealing, though. For me, the best thing about writing across genres and disciplines is that you can foster connections and inspirations you wouldn’t normally get.
The vertigo is better now.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Apropos of historical things, I’ve been listening to The Ashokan Farewell by Jay Ungar. This piece was written in the 1980s, but most people think it’s from the nineteenth century because it was the theme of Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. It’s a heartrending, exquisitely beautiful piece, with the violin entering into dialogue with the other strings.
It makes me want to write.