The beginning stages of a novel are like the first few shoots that poke above ground in March. Delicate and fragile, easily crushed. They may look like they’re growing and blossoming, and then one last snowfall or late frost withers them to nothingness.
So too with stories, I find. There’s a precarious stage when you first start writing any new project: novel, short story, play, whatever. You may believe in it, you may know what’s happening later on, but you haven’t quite settled into the story or its characters. Not quite settled is a very uncomfortable feeling, and I generally dislike uncomfortable feelings.
Self-doubt creeps in. “You don’t know what you’re doing. This is terrible. This story has deep intrinsic flaws that cannot be fixed. You call that a description?”
It’s one last, late frost.
The only way through is to keep going. Now, of course, some stories—like tender shoots and buds—dry up and die for no apparent reason at all. Quite annoying, really, when you can see the story, you were all excited about it—and it’s undeniably dead on the page.
That’s why I hesitate to talk about stories too early. Just in case speaking about them out loud brings that swift, fatal winter wind. But there’s also a definite point when the story crosses the threshold, and you know it’s going to survive. It’s an instinctive thing, not measured by page or wordcount. There’s always that story that you write all the way to the end before realizing it doesn’t work. Not that I have experience with that or anything.
To an extent, the story’s fighting to keep you just as much as you’re fighting to keep it. My off-season means that all those hours formerly occupied with beer and frolicking about in petticoats are now filled with creative work. I adore it, but there’s a lot of it. How do I keep my tender little shoot alive when my garden’s looking a wee bit full?
No matter how busy I get, I’m committed to writing this novel every day. 2000-3000 words is my preference, but 1000 is okay, too. Even 500. As long as it’s something. Think of it like water: that little shoot may still wither and die, but looking after it gives it a fighting chance.
Also, trickery. I’m pretty sure that the main reasons my stories wither and die is that my brain suddenly realizes: Holy frak, we’re Writing A Real Thing. And then it freaks out and gets really self-conscious, criticizing every comma, and holding every sentence against the fantasy corpus, despairing of ever actually Writing A Real Thing.
Not the best creative atmosphere.
Luckily, my mind is fairly easy to trick. I never begin a new novel with a title page. I just start writing on a blank Word doc. Roman numerals have always been my preference for chapter headings: my brain takes a moment to register “I” instead of “Chapter One,” and it seems that split second of hesitation is all the space I need to forge ahead. Sometime around “II” or “III,” I’ll add page numbers and the usual “AUTHOR/TITLE” header.
It takes the pressure off: “See, we’re not Writing A Real Thing! We’re messing around. Playing. That’s all!”
And then, once I’ve tricked myself into getting a few chapters in, that little shoot is usually strong enough to keep going. It may still die. But the chances of survival are much, much higher.
My new novel’s getting there. I wouldn’t say it’s out of the woods yet. But—but when I open the file to keep working on it, it’s with a sigh of relief. “I get to work on this now;” not “I have to.” There’s a pull with this one, tugging me forward. Since Heartstealer felt much the same, I take that as a good sign.
Will it live? Only time will tell.
But I sure hope so. :)
PS. Do you like the new site design? The old one was feeling too dark and claustrophobic—I wanted to clear out the cobwebs! And I think this scheme captures my writerly flavour a little better.
What I’m Listening To This Week
We all know I like Palestrina, but when I first came across this piece, I had to stop what I was doing. This Sanctus from Palestrina’s “Missa ut re me fa so la” is divine in every sense of the word. Oh, those long lines in the top soprano part! The altos driving like an engine!
I’ve heard a lot of liturgical music. This piece is one of the most beautiful.
Picture this: there’s eighteen of us backstage at a performing arts high school in Freeport, Maine. Actually, we’re in the band practice room. Linoleum floors, stray music stands, drum kit and harp shoved against the walls. Kat’s changing into her grad dress in a supply closet while Kelly-from-the-Book-Table corrals us and fastens our Masters’ hoods, because none of us can figure the damn things out.
Then we file into the auditorium to the delicate strains of “Pomp and Circumstance,” as arranged for guitar. We are tightly gripped by the elbow before being sent out. Alongside a push, we receive either a whispered, “Congratulations,” or “Walk slow!”
(Guess which I got? :D)
And then there’s speeches. I kind of forget that novelist Aaron Hamburger is giving our commencement speech until about halfway through, because it’s mostly a really good story. Names are called, and we trip across the stage one-by-one to receive our diplomas. Then, when we’ve all got one, the Dean of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Southern Maine calls us to rise.
I paraphrase, but he says something like, “These candidates brought before me have completed all their requirements of study, and come well-recommended by their faculty. Therefore, by the power vested in me, I confer upon you all, respectively, by your disciplines, the degree of Master of Fine Arts.”
And I thought, “Oh, shit.”
See, I’ve spent the last two years calling myself a “secret grad student.” Oh, the Stonecoast MFA Program is work. Absolutely. But it never felt like schoolwork. It felt more like an apprenticeship—like I’d troop into the woodshop in the evenings and have a master cabinetmaker show me tools and inspect my carving.
Or maybe it was more like Jedi training. The point is that it didn’t feel like school.
But in two years, I learned far more than I can express here. The difference in my writing before-and-after Stonecoast is striking. Arriving at Stonecoast, I knew how to string together clean, functional sentences. Leaving, I know a lot more about being an artist.
Most of all, I grew up. Looking back, I arrived with a strange mix of arrogance and insecurity—that special mix possessed only by twenty-two-year-olds who’ve had some lucky breaks. Stonecoast isn’t a harsh “break-down/rebuild” program…but the faculty and students challenged me, tempered me, encouraged me, pushed me. Yes, Stonecoast made me a better writer, but it also made me a better person.
I learned about beauty, artistry, and grace under pressure.
I learned about cutting to the heart of things, balancing objective insight with gleeful delight, and the importance of irreverence.
I learned that kindness and shrewdness are not mutually exclusive.
I learned about picking yourself up, no matter what, and writing from one’s heart of hearts.
I learned about sheer grit, and the absolute refusal to collapse and give in.
I learned the beauty of form and architecture, and the heights we may climb when we join hands with other artists.
I learned, once again, that the sweetest people often write the darkest things…and that’s pretty awesome.
I learned the sheer joy of devoting one’s self to one’s art, and the warmth of a truly open heart.
From the administration team, I learned about dedication and organization and going way, way above and beyond the call of duty.
From my fellow students, I learned about friendship and community and unconditional acceptance.
Thank you. Thank you all. You’ve left your fingerprints all over my life and art.
Two years ago, a frightened little girl stepped off the plane in Portland. I am no longer that girl. Two years in sunny coastal waters have given me strength and love and resources I never knew I had. Armed with these lessons and lifelong friendships, I’m excited to venture into the depths.
Honestly, it’s like Pokémon Gold/Silver/Crystal: once you beat the Elite Four and become a Pokémon Master, you get a whole new world to explore.
“When you get home,” Aaron said, “take your degree out and look at it. Own it. And then roll up your sleeves, and get back to work.”
What I’m Listening to this Week
My friend and occasional co-writer Lauren Harris introduced me to Mary-Jess while I was in Virginia last month. She’s got one of those sweet, pure soprano voices: quite high and light. This piece is my favourite thus far; it’s unsticking a novel point for me, and I absolutely adore the crescendo into the runs on “glorious.”
And it seems fitting, given the whole “starting a new chapter” thing. ;)
I am writing these words while sitting on a couch in Virginia, surrounded by some of my dearest friends. When I think where I was this time last year—this has been a long journey, of which 2015 was just one part.
Recapping the year feels trite. I can’t, especially not when I’m full of this much beer, bacon, and Thai food.
But there’s always a hunger around New Year’s, bacon and Thai food aside. A yearning, an excitement for the year ahead and all its yet-to-be-realized plans. I graduate from Stonecoast in two weeks. I’m returning to a fabulous writers’ retreat. Museum theatre and beer and audio all continue to be important parts of my creative and professional lives.
And thinking about all of this, there is a word that comes to mind.
Audeamus. Let us dare.
I wrote about audacity ages ago: the willingness to take bold risks. The concept of audeamus is similar, but I think it also brings in connotations of courage. Being scared but doing it anyway. Striving for new ground.
This year, I’m writing a play. I have no idea what I’m doing with it, or where it will end up, or if I’ll do anything with it. But I want to write a play. I’m writing at least one novel. I’m submitting as many short stories as I can.
Standing on the precipice of the year, it’s intimidating.
But there’s another cool thing about the word audeamus. Add one letter, and it becomes gaudeamus.
Let us rejoice.
Tonight: audeamus, let us dare.
This time next year?
Happy New Year, lovelies.
What I’m Listening To This Week
A friend offered me several introductions to Hamilton. There’s enough cleverness in the lyrics that I keep coming back to smile at the wordplay. Also, it gives ear-worms like no one’s business. There’s a line in this opening that strikes me as particularly fitting for New Year’s Eve:
There’s a million things I haven’t done
But just you wait.
I am just back from a night seeing The Phantom of the Opera with my mother. Like many sensitive and creative angst-ridden teenagers, I went through an intense Phantom phase when I was fifteen. I’ve read the original 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux. I’ve seen every film version from Lon Chaney in 1925, to Phantom of the Paradise (1974), to the abysmal adaptation of the stage musical (2005). The stage musical itself…well, I won’t admit to how many times I’ve seen that. Mostly because I’ve lost count, so I can admit nothing! Ha ha!
Basically, I know my Phantom.
The version my mom and I saw tonight was a new production of the 1986 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Same music, same costumes; new set, new director. My opinions on this production could be an essay in itself. For now, suffice it to say that I wholeheartedly agreed with two decisions; liked 2-3 in principle, but wish they’d been better executed; and mostly disagreed with the rest.
It’s still a good show, though. Of course it is. It’s the musical equivalent of Grandma’s chicken soup. Grew up with it. Loved it for years. Not the most sophisticated thing, but it’s what I turn to. Though I prefer the 1986 staging on the whole, this production gave me a lot to think about.
Let’s start with the Phantom himself. When I was 15, the Phantom was the hero. No question. Sure, he murdered a few people along the way, but he was misunderstood. He was sensitive. To quote Gaston Leroux…
…with an ordinary face, he would have been one of the most distinguished of mankind! He had a heart that could have held the entire empire of the world; and, in the end, he had to content himself with a cellar.
You see why the Phantom appealed to a creative-but-socially-anxious teenager.
Watching as a young adult, I’m more struck by the muse-artist relationship. Different actors give you different angles. Honestly, in this production, it was hard to tell which came first: the Phantom’s love for Christine, or his love for her voice. I think particularly of the few lines following the title song.
I have brought you
For one purpose and one alone
Since the moment I first heard you sing
I have needed you with me, to serve me, to sing
For my music…
They stood out more this time. Look – he’s not saying he fell in love with her at that first encounter. He’s saying that he heard that voice and said, “I need that.” Which begs the question – does he love Christine for her, or for what she can do for his art?
Here’s the thing: as artists, we’re constantly drinking in the world around us. Anything has the potential to inspire, to become art through us. This concept of muse is a sticky question, and yes, it’s one that makes me deeply uncomfortable. There is something wonderful about collaboration. There is something wonderful about someone who is very good at their art igniting in you the passion for your own.
Muses are different. If you’ve not read Christina Rossetti’s poem In the Artist’s Studio, take a break and do that now. So yeah, that’s part of it—that’s why, I suspect, Christine spent half of this performance looking like a deer in the headlights. She’s the Phantom’s idée fixe: she doesn’t get much of a chance to be Christine, a character in her own right. If they spent more time exploring her grief and father issues, that would help, but alas. Phantom fails the Bechdel Test hard. Some of that is source material, some of that is adaptation. But there’s something else, something the Phantom runs into…
You alone could make my song take flight,
It’s over now, the Music of the Night!
How sad is that? A brilliant composer—done. No more art. No more beauty. No more Music of the Night. It scares me. This notion of becoming so dependent on another person that in a sense, your art isn’t your own anymore. If everything you create is for them, to them, then really, it belongs to them. When they leave, you lose yourself.
It scares me because I can see how it might happen.
Teenage Me raged against the injustices wrought on the Phantom. He could have loved, and loved well, if only he’d been given the chance. But he wasn’t, and look at him now. It wasn’t fair. I felt his pain.
Adult Me smiles nervously. Yes, I can empathize—the creative figure behind the scenes, isolated by something that can’t be helped, something that is strange and different. I’m not a Christine: not in the spotlight, not terribly interested in it. I lurk in the basement, write the stuff, pull the strings.
But there’s a darkness and possessiveness to the Phantom. He’s better than Edward Cullen, but it’s a difference of degree rather than kind. Which is obviously problematic for multiple reasons, but we’re talking about art and muses. Muse relationships work best, I think, when there is some distance. You’re creating art partly to fill in that gap, but once you get too close, the art doesn’t work anymore, and neither does the relationship. It’s the Icarus Paradox.
So the Phantom tried to touch the sun. Should he be faulted for that? Not that, I don’t think. Murdering, yes. Threatening, yes. Blackmailing, stalking, keeping people against their will. None of that is good.
But reaching for just a little more? Falling in love?
I don’t think so. In the end, I still consider The Phantom of the Opera a tragedy. If Christine had felt the same; if he’d stuck to giving music lessons and writing avant-garde operas and learned to love her in an artistic, mentor-like way; if there’d been someone else; if, if, if…
For me, the saddest part of the musical comes just before the end of Act I. The Phantom emerges on the empty rooftop, after seeing Raoul and Christine’s makeout session.
“I gave you my music,” he whispers. “I made your song take wing.”
He gave the most important, deepest, and truest part of himself: his art. And she couldn’t—through no fault of Christine’s, it doesn’t work out. Sometimes life is like that.
It’s still awfully sad.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I just saw an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Obviously, I’ll be singing it for days. Even the baritone parts. Especially the baritone parts.
I couldn’t pick between “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Music of the Night,” so here they both are. This is the original London cast, with Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman. The 25th Anniversary cast runs a close second, but these two are still my favourites. Michael Crawford has the perfect voice for the Phantom: something just a little…different. And unlike Phantoms who simply stalk and shout, he actually shows us the Phantom’s whole emotional range: from grief to amused irony. Also, his high notes in “The Music of the Night”? Divine.
(Also, this version of “The Music of the Night” comes with an 80s-tastic music video!)
And Sarah Brightman…well, the role was written for her. Enough said.
“Hopefully you can take some time for yourself,” said my mentor, once my thesis went in. And I smiled and nodded and laughed inside, because please, there’s always something else that needs doing: another story that needs writing, or scheme that needs plotting, or a novel waiting in the docket. I like working. I do better when I’m busy. I do not idle well.
Except I’m very, very tired. One early night turned into two, which turned into a slow week, which turned into sluggish anxiety over everything I want to do and everything I’ve not yet started.
Not writer’s block. Writer’s block usually comes from fear—or an innate problem in the work that hasn’t yet been acknowledged. I’m not scared; I know what I want to write. I know how to do it. A novel’s emerging from the mist and I have five-ish short stories pressing on me. They’re developing themselves very slowly, but the work is good—I know it is.
Except I’m very, very tired.
I couldn’t figure out why. Regular iron supplements have kept me out of anaemia for weeks. For the first time in years, I’m getting sufficient sleep on a regular basis. The cold I was fighting earlier this winter is long gone. I’m happy. Aside from, you know, the whole tired thing.
Then I realized that we’re about midway through December. And I realized it’s the same damn thing that I deal with every year.
I’m pretty sure it’s the quality of light that does it. See, in December, there’s a certain grey slant to the light—especially in the late afternoon. It’s completely unlike the light in November or January. It’s almost funny—in so many ways, we try to divorce ourselves from natural light. Fluorescent bulbs and backlit screens and searchlights probing from the Air Canada Centre. Then December rolls around with its flat grey light and some lizard part of my brain wakes up and says, “Oh. Oh. When the light looks like this, very bad things happen.”
There are other things, too. There’s the weight of the wind, and the way the air smells, and all the seasonal reminders. But mostly, it’s the light.
So, great. It’s the psychological equivalent of an old wound acting up again. Where does that leave me?
A few years ago, I would’ve tried to push through. I would’ve beaten myself up for not writing more, faster, now. I would’ve seethed with self-directed frustration. Now…maybe I’ve mellowed in my old age. Or maybe I’ve just learned a thing or two.
Sometimes, you need to rest. And sometimes, you need gentleness. This is not a race, and you do yourself no favours by charging ahead on an empty tank. For myself—I’ve learned that mid-December is likely never going to be a particularly productive time. And that’s okay. I am human. I am allowed to rest and read Agatha Christie stories and drink hot chocolate and go to bed early. No babies will die if I write those five-ish short stories in two weeks, instead of right now this second.
Besides: my off-season is coming. Better to rest now and then make the best use of my uninterrupted writing time. And yes, there’s a small part of me that cringes at that, feeling like I’m giving up.
But I’m not. I’m looking at the long game. ;)
What I’m Listening To This Week
So for everything I just said about taking time for myself, I am very casually and informally turning a novel over in my brain. Nothing beyond general musings and some whiteboard sketching. But, I did find this song, which jolted something loose in the old noggin.
Besides being an Irish dance spectacular, “Lord of the Dance” is a modern hymn borrowing the tune of an earlier one. I heard it once, and it was catchy. I heard it again, and around 1:45, I got slammed with a flood of feeling and images and dialogue that I’m pretty sure is the climax of this story. That seems to be how I plot: flailing about until serendipitous music sets me right.
But oh…oh, I can see my protagonist…
Remember how last time, I mentioned my podcasting pal and increasingly-frequent collaborator, Lauren “Scribe” Harris? Right, that one. She’s pretty cool, and this week, she’s revealing the cover for her latest book: THE GIRL IN ACID PARK. I was lucky enough to hear snippets of this during last year’s Smoky Writers Retreat, and even luckier to read a completed draft. I could gush about it…but instead, I’ll turn the mic over to Lauren. :)
Welcome to the cover reveal for THE GIRL IN ACID PARK, book two in The Millroad Academy Exorcists series. I’ve been sitting on this cover for about a year, ever since it was created by the inimitable Starla Huchton. I’m so excited to release the both the cover and the preorder link today! Book one hit #1 in three Kindle categories, which is sort of like making the indie pub honor roll. I’m hoping book two does just as well. So, without further ado, THE GIRL IN ACID PARK.
Unlike her best friend Hiroki, Georgia Collins can’t see or talk to dead people. But she recently discovered she can help ghosts move on–no exorcism required! Unfortunately, so did the national media. Her underground blog is not so underground anymore and the Millroad Catholic Academy students with their scandals on exposé are less than thrilled about Georgia’s journalistic success.
But Georgia has never been one to let things blow over, so when the police request paranormal assistance on a new murder case, Georgia decides to make the unwanted spotlight work her way and agrees to help…except she didn’t expect Hiroki to refuse.
Pre-order here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B018O7RZXU
Join my mailing list and get book one, EXORCISING AARON NGUYEN, for free! http://eepurl.com/CB6Pv
Lauren Harris is an author, narrator, and the assistant editor for Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show magazine. She lives in a renovated tobacco pack house in rural North Carolina, where she is pleased to have running water, wi-fi, and all her teeth.
What I’m Listening To This Week
I have a longstanding soft spot for Andrew Lloyd Webber. It’s hard to get one-woman shows to work…unless you’ve got an actor like Bernadette Peters (pretty sure I once saw Song and Dance with Louise Pitre as well – marvellous).
It’s December on Tuesday, and no one told me. This year has absolutely zoomed by—honestly, I’ve no idea quite how that happened. But as we’re in the home stretch of 2015, it’s time for a very important part of my creative life.
See, every New Year’s Day, I sit down with a blank piece of paper and a Sharpie. And I sketch out my main goals for the year ahead. Not in any great detail: it’s a rough list of the main points I want to hit by year’s end. Knowing this, the year has some shape. I’m not just flailing about between creative projects willy-nilly. Since it’s December on Tuesday, let’s check in.
For me, this sort of planning is helpful because it’s a combination of measurable and conveniently vague. You hear about measurable goals all the time: the goals that you can straight-up say, “Yes, I did that,” or, “No, I did not do that.” Write more awesome is not a measurable goal, because you do you quantify that? Write three new short stories is measurable, because at the end of the day, you either did or you didn’t. Nothing wishy-washy about it.
Hence goals like “Launch Coxwood” or “Get HS out somehow.” I did both of these things in 2015, which brings a sigh of relief. I wouldn’t have wanted to go another year without releasing things, which is another reason why I find setting things to paper helpful. This scrawled-on list sits above my desk all year. It’s literally always in sight. Helps accountability like anything.
But sometimes—life happens, plans change. Note that I said “Get HS out somehow.” I wasn’t exactly sure how until two months ago, simply because monkey wrenches kept getting thrown into the mix. That’s fine. That’s not the important part with this sort of planning. The important part is that it happened.
Sometimes, though, things are put on hold. And that’s okay. My podcasting bestie Lauren Harris and I are still working on PodCon, but between our schedules, we figured it’d be better to take some more time, get the project really solid, and then strike it hard in 2016. You can label Coxwood History Fun Park and Heartstealer “complete;” PodCon is a solid “in progress.”
Sometimes lists don’t make sense to anyone but you. That’s fine; who else is reading it? I realize “Canadian Folklore Project” is the only item without a verb. But…in my head, “Canadian Folklore Project” encompassed, “I want to do an audio drama about Canadian Folklore. So…research and select folk tales, craft a story, write the story, see if Blythe wants to do it, research and apply for grants…”
Right. So, Canadian Folklore Project. (Grant application is away, incidentally; we should find out by March.)
And lastly, “Outline HB.” This was meant to be Heartbreaker: a sequel to Heartstealer. Which is great, but I have two novels fighting for brain space right now, and the Magic Australian Dinosaurs story is winning.
(It’s not only about dinosaurs. And it’s not actually Australia. But there is magic!)
I figure as long as I outline that by the end of the year, I’m close. It’s still outlining a novel, right?
So there we have it: I more-or-less met all my goals for 2015. I’m learning it’s a fine balancing act of knowing definitively what you want, and being flexible enough to change course if needed. I suppose I should start thinking about 2016…
What I’m Listening to This Week
I let myself start listening to Christmas carols after American Thanksgiving, which means I’ve been binging for the last three days. It’s mostly been the medieval carol “Gaudete.” I love the poetry of Latin: “gaudete” means “rejoice,” and there’s plenty of that happening here, especially when the full choir hits at 1:24. Today’s the first Sunday of Advent, so I’m in a philosophizing mood, but that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Gaudete—rejoice.
So I’ve thought about it,
And while a Hugo would be nice-
If we could leave the politics, maybe?
-That isn’t what I really want.
I admire the Nebulas, and
The World Fantasy Award has
But if I never get one,
I won’t lose sleep.
I don’t know if I still qualify
(Or ever qualified, let’s be honest)
For the John W. Campbell,
But I think
I no longer care.
See, I’ve thought about it, and
I love getting fan mail
From people I don’t know.
I appreciate the reviews on Goodreads,
And other fine book retailers.
And yes, I squirmed with
When my advisor said
That I deserve a “Pass Plus.”
But I’ve thought about it,
And what I really want
I want you to find me,
Some Tuesday afternoon
When we aren’t doing anything.
I want you to pause,
Just for a moment,
“I read your story –
It was really good.
I liked it.
I’m so proud of you.
So I’ve thought about it,
And I think
I’ll beat on:
Seeking the words
That you’ll find beautiful.
What I’m Listening To This Week:
“There Will Be Rest,” a lovely choral piece by Frank Ticheli, set to a poem by Sara Teasdale. Honestly, I’m really tired right now, so just listen. Absolutely divine lyrics and treatment.
“Write what you know.” We hear this so often, it’s not even cliché anymore. It’s a cliché of a cliché: the archetypal advice given to new writers.
Write what you know. You can see what they’re driving at. Write those things you’ve lived and held in your bones; write the things that matter to you. Write your experience, because your experience is unique and no one knows it better than you.
Except—I don’t think we write what we know. Not really. We write what we don’t understand.
I look at my fiction, and I see the same motifs emerging over and over again. Frigid, brittle winters. Loss and grief. Sibling and pseudo-sibling angst. These are the stories I tell myself, again and again. Turning them over, swapping things around, changing the key. Almost as though, if I keep trying, I’ll hit the magic combination that lets “The End” sing with comprehension.
It’s not intentional. I don’t think writers consciously set out to write stories based on their psychological hang-ups. I certainly don’t sit down and think, “Right, short story time. Let’s see, I need my northern village in the grip of winter, my tiny ray of hope at the very end…” No, the stories that come to us come from inside us. We write what we don’t understand because those unresolved questions are what the mind returns to—quietly, subconsciously—expressing its findings as wendigo and little gods and ice, because those are the best images it can find. And so, as artists, our metal workshops are filled.
I do worry about becoming a cliché of myself. “Oh, northern village, hidden god, sad orphan—must be a KT Bryski story.” I do try to push myself. “Does this story have to be set in winter? Is there a way to accomplish this without resorting to divinity?” And sometimes, the answer is yes. And sometimes, the answer is no.
Because—I don’t think I understand winter. Not really, not on a metaphorical level. Not the long nights, and the cracking ice, and that peculiar grey time between late afternoon and twilight. I don’t understand loss. I don’t understand being torn from home—or exiles.
After this week, I realize I really don’t understand the pains of this world.
But we keep writing. Or painting. Or singing. Or even just talking. That’s the only way to come close, I think—to get scraps of insight, a piecemeal comprehension. The only way out is through. And that is the wonderful, powerful thing about literature. It’s how we try to understand. I can think of nothing more meaningful than that.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Continuing our theme of “loud and complex,” I’ve been enjoying “Mars, the Bringer of War,” from Holst’s Planets suite. It starts low but ominous—striking strings beat a menacing pulse in the background while the brass carries the melody. We get louder and fuller through the first two minutes, sound crashing like waves…
And then we break at 2:11, with an extended dialogue between the horns and the rest of orchestra. A murky, serpentine section in the middle gradually disintegrates into our original, Darth Vader-like theme.
And you know what? Holding onto that pulse all the way through—it never lets you rest. It’s like alarms going off the entire time. Until the crashing, thunderous chords in the last minute. This piece pretty much just obliterates everything in its path.
Hope you’ve all been well. The thesis is finally out of my hands—huzzah!—and if I can muster all my strength to make it past Tuesday or so, I think I can finally take a breath.
So recently, my choir held a cabaret night to raise funds for our trip to the UK next year. I think I was meant to be a general dogsbody, but then I said, “I’ll just help set up the bar.” One thing to led to another, and…I spent the rest of the evening bartending.
Which was good. Because here’s the thing: as soon as my bar was set up (and see, even without thinking, it’s my bar), I felt like something had settled on its tracks properly. Everything fell into place. I knew what to do. I was on. I was home.
And it made me think about art, naturally. In his book Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury talks about practice. Through enough practice and time, you can relax. Things become second nature; the very conscious focus on the mechanics falls away. You’re relaxed, but not in an apathetic way. It’s the relaxation when you know a situation.
This is what being behind a bar feels like for me. My first jaunt in the brewery—oh, the awkwardness. The glasses slipped between my fingers, the beer sloshed as I poured, and I was terrified of the dishwasher.
Art’s similar. Look at writers’ first pieces; artists’ first sketches; dancers’ first practices. They tend to be gawky and ungainly, don’t they? Adverbs slipping through the prose, paint sloshing all over, and terror leading up to certain turns. But that’s okay. The mechanics take practice. And here’s the rub: they take time, too.
A lot of time has passed since my first stint slinging beer. Lots of tastings. Lots of tours. Lots of events. Countless glasses poured and bottles lifted. And so, I can relax a little. It’s muscle memory. Once the motion and intention is worked into the body—your mind doesn’t need such a death-grip. It’s free to think about other things: the witty banter, the tasting notes, the fact that there’s a new queue all clutching drink tickets but the gentleman to the right still needs his Guinness.
At that point, you can start exploring ways to push your art. Deepen it. Enrich it. Hearkening back to Mr. Bradbury, fingers and subconscious and story all come together in one motion: an archer releasing an arrow, a beer wench snatching up the correct bottle and pouring exactly four ounces without looking.
When that happens—you got this. You know how to move your wings. And you can fly.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Something old and new at the same time. An old friend has an album out—Erin Cooper Gay gave me my choral mechanics and foundation, so it certainly fits today’s theme! In Black Market, she’s blending indie music with Renaissance and baroque; it’s fresh and spirited, and feels very classic at the same time.
“Manchester” is my favourite track…partly because it’s about a writer (the line “I guess I’ll have to write a sequel” makes me smile). But also because it’s got a lovely, bouncing chorus, and it feels…well again, it feels like something new and something familiar simultaneously—the voice in particular feels contemporary, but listen to the strings in the background. There’s some of your baroque influences. ;)