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.
I seem to recall saying that 2013 was a lost year, and 2014 would be a year to build. By and large, that’s pretty much what happened. I started my MFA. I learned an immense amount through a writer’s internship. I wrote lots—no novels, but more short stories and scripts than I’ve ever done before.
One of those short stories was my goodbye to my friend and colleague P.G. Holyfield. It still doesn’t seem entirely real—dude, I just saw him at Balticon. In fact, I was recently collating lists of voice actors and podcasters I know, and I got halfway through typing his name before realizing what I was doing. So I was very grateful to editors Tee Morris and Val Griswold-Ford for giving me the chance to have one last Tuaca with him. Just a reminder: all funds from the anthology go towards P.G.’s kids. If you haven’t already done so, please consider starting 2015 with fiction honouring our friend.
This is usually the part of the blog post where I’d talk about upcoming projects in 2015.
Um. See, well, I can’t actually really talk about most of 2015 yet.
Let’s go through the year. In a week, I’m jetting off to Maine for my third Stonecoast residency. As a third semester student, I’m expected to complete a major project over the course of the semester. I’m doing something vague and boring. A paper. Yeah.
However, my colleague, Katherine Sinclair, a bright young thing who may as well be my alter ego, is putting together a serialized podcast/transmedia project. She’s very excited. Not only is Katherine looking forward to podcasting again regularly, but she’s planning on using blogging and Facebook as part of the project. Katherine is also looking for voice talent: interested parties may enquire at firstname.lastname@example.org.
She’s pretty cool, you guys.
After returning from Stonecoast, I fight off polar bears here in the Great White North for a few weeks, and then I’m fleeing south again, this time to Virginia to spend some time with Pip, Tee, Boom, and kittehs. That trip is getting piggybacked onto a writer’s retreat. I’ve never been on one, but the idea of spending a week with friends and colleagues, working very intensively, is thrilling.
I’m devoting that week to a project that I’ve been noodling around for a while. It’s different. That’s all I can say right now.
Then I come home again. And then, a few weeks after that—
Well, I’m publishing the Dark Victorian Fantasy.
Heartstealer, as it’s actually called, drops on March 12th. I have a gorgeous ebook and print layout courtesy of Imagine That! studios, and a cover from Starla Hutchton that makes me swoon every time I see it. I’m sitting on details for a bit longer, but that’s coming. Because of course I would release a novel whilst in the middle of my third semester project and getting ready for my dayjob…
So those are three big things right in the beginning of the year. The second half of 2015 is my thesis semester. This time next year, I’ll be getting ready to graduate.
So there’s all that to look forward to. 2014 was indeed a year of building, laying foundations, and preparing. I can’t wait to see what 2015 brings.
All right, all right, here is another new thing I would like to do. See, whenever people talk about popular music, I feel completely lost, because my tastes are…eccentric. I love music, I’m realizing more and more just how much I need it. So I want to try and explain what I love, since I can’t usually join in on conversations.
What I’m Listening to this Week
What I’ve been listening to for the last month. Bogoroditse Devo is a stunning piece by Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). This is a Russian setting of the Ave Maria. The beauty of this piece is all in the dynamics. We start super soft and gentle, the runs of notes falling over each other like streams. About a minute in, the altos start driving, the tenors and sopranos fading in and out…except when they’re in, they’re getting louder, almost imperceptibly, until….
OMG fortissimo out of nowhere, on everyone, and the basses come back and the tenors and sopranos are blasting away on a high G (which is really fun, FYI), and the heart just soars with them…
And then we come back down.
Gentle, soft, so very delicate..
It makes my heart catch, every time.
Two years and one day ago, I tweeted the following picture:
I was so happy that night. Things were good at school, Christmas was coming, Hapax was out and I was clearly on my way in writing, and I was suffused with love and good will for the people at Black Creek, my coworkers truly becoming my friends.
Less than twenty-four hours after I posted this picture, my life shattered.
I went to choir the next morning. This was December 16th, 2012. The Sandy Hook shooting had just happened, and part of the sermon reflected on the loss of so many lives, the pain their families now carried through the Advent season. I can’t even imagine, I remember thinking, my toes dangling off the back of the kneeler. I can’t even imagine what it would be like, losing someone so close to the holidays.
Less than twelve hours later, I knew.
My father died two years ago today. And honestly, that’s something I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It’s been two years. My dad is dead. He’s been dead for two years. It doesn’t even make any sense that my dad—my vibrant, lively, healthy dad—is dead. But two years? Jesus Christ.
This may be a little trigger-y for a bit. If you want to scroll down, I will put a picture of a cat. Past that, it’s all hope and love again.
Okay. So sometimes, I still need to talk about the horror of that night. Sometimes, I still need to tell the story again. This is, I’ve found, something that happens with grief. Friends and loved ones can be reluctant to bring up the event, in case it makes us sad. Well, guess what? We’re already sad, and talking it through, recapping it, putting it in order again, and again, and again, is the only way that we’re going to process it. Saying it out loud makes it real, but it also brings it out of our heads. It gives a bit of distance, so we can try to understand what the fuck happened.
Even two years later, I still need to tell the story sometimes.
So, around 9:00 pm on Sunday, December 16th, 2012, I was sitting at my kitchen table. A friend was over, doing some rough sketches of Serafine. Shortly, she and my other friend were going to watch Love Actually. I was trying to convince myself that I could totally take another night off studying for exams, because Love Actually was a Christmas tradition and I hadn’t seen it yet that year. Of course, I really needed to study, but—
My phone rang. It was my sister. She explained that she and Mom were coming to fetch me right now, and then we were all going to the hospital, because Dad had had an accident playing hockey.
I was not overly concerned at this point. It wouldn’t be the first time he got hurt. When I was small, he’d nearly lost an eye when he took a hockey stick to the face. Maybe he did lose it this time, I thought. Because I had been in hospitals before, I had the presence of mind to pack my bag with my textbooks and notes. After all, waiting for X-rays and CAT scans took a long time; I’d be able to study while he went through those.
As I tugged my boots on, I suddenly thought of my grandfather. During my first year of university, he’d driven himself to ER, promptly had a massive stroke, and died a week later. Wouldn’t it be awful, if—if—but no. I figured that maybe worst case scenario, Dad had taken a really bad blow to the head. Maybe really, really worst case, there’d be some brain damage, a bit of rehab. But that was super-worst-case. It couldn’t be that bad.
My mom and sister picked me up off the street, and we drove to the hospital. Traffic crawled. I remember the copper-orange of the streetlights. At one point, we crossed the foot of my friend Blythe’s street. I’d just been to her apartment for the first time, and I gazed up the street, wishing that Mom could just turn here, like I was just going to hang out with her.
My grandparents arrived at the same time we did. Some of Dad’s hockey team were already in the waiting room. I knew some of them—they all seemed very shaken. Memories fragment here. I don’t remember exactly what was said. I remember trying to shield my sister, dragging her over to a vending machine around the corner.
A man in scrubs led us into the labyrinth of emergency care behind the receptionist. He had blue scrubs, a long black ponytail. We passed curtained-off alcoves, cots and IVs flush to the wall. As we walked, a curious numbness settled over me. This is the scariest thing I have ever done, I thought. I remember thinking that, but also still hoping that later, the warm flush of relief would come. God, Dad, we were so scared, and for nothing—isn’t that funny?
The man in scrubs led us to a small, cream-coloured room. It had two brown, slippery couches, a shiny black coffee table holding a Kleenex box, and a cross on the wall. That’s when I knew that things were very, very bad. You don’t bring people into rooms with crosses if everything is going to be okay.
The man in scrubs explained that Dad had had a “cardiac event” and had gone down on the ice. Wonder of wonders, there had been a firefighter and a cardiac specialist on the opposing team. CPR had started right away, they’d used a defibrillator right away, and the ambulance had been called right away. Absolutely everything that could have been done had be done, as quickly as possible.
And they’d not yet been successful in resuscitating him.
I may or may not have been slightly aggressive with the doctor. I may or may not have been told to relax. Then we went to see him. Around yet another corner, there was yet another curtain, a sectioned-off portion of emergency. We went behind the curtain.
And I knew, the moment I saw him.
There was no resuscitating. Not anymore. We were long past that. It was disorienting—on the one hand, it was just Dad, lying on a gurney. On the other, he looked so old. Chalk-grey skin, shirtless, tubes going into his nose and mouth, electrodes on his chest. A technician furiously doing compressions. Dad’s mouth gaped open a little, and that’s what really struck me: the way his cheeks sagged inwards, the way there was absolutely no muscle control, everything was just limp. Lifeless. Two years later, and I still sometimes see it. The horror doesn’t lessen with time. You just don’t think about it, until you do, and suddenly, you’re back in that room, with the metallic smells and the beeping, and Dad’s cheeks collapsing on themselves.
We asked how long they’d been doing this.
About forty minutes.
How long could they reasonably keep doing this?
They were about at the limit.
So, if his brain had been forty minutes without oxygen, then—
Then it was time to stop.
I couldn’t touch him. I couldn’t touch him because I knew that he was already cooling, and I was too scared to feel it. And so, cowardly, I stood very close, wanting to touch him one last time, wanting to give one last hug. Someone asked if we wanted a chaplain. “He’s Catholic,” I said. “He needs Last Rites.”
Tears spilling from our eyes, we wandered the emergency department: making calls, trying to figure out next steps, reassuring the hockey team that it wasn’t their fault. I vaguely wondered what the other patients thought. Probably they knew that some lives had just been permanently changed. We’ve all been there. We never think we’ll be the people crying.
I wandered back just as a chaplain began the Lord’s Prayer. I collapsed next to my grandparents and said it too. I don’t think they realized I knew more than “Our Father.” I talked to a cop. I gave dates of birth, addresses. I agreed that yes, I was very young. I stayed with my sister, who was refusing to leave the body.
But then I looked over, and I saw that a rosy red flush was blooming along the underside of Dad’s cheeks. And that is another horrific detail that’s branded itself into my memory. See, for a scene in Hapax, I’d had to research what happens to the body shortly after death, and so I knew precisely what this was. Without the action of the heart to keep blood circulating, gravity will cause it to pool at the lowest points of the body. When a body is lying on its back, that’s the undersides of the arms, the legs, the face…
I was right, I thought.
And then I had to leave so that I could go vomit. I never saw my dad’s body again. (My choice, incidentally, to not stick around for the open-casket portion of the visitation later that week.)
We returned to my mom’s house. I had to send a bizarre text (“Sorry, I can’t study tomorrow. My dad died.”) and then I called my childhood best friend. Numb, shocked, broken, I didn’t want to go to bed, because I dreaded waking up—I didn’t want that moment of remembering what had happened the night before, feeling it fresh all over again.
I think I fell asleep around 5:00 am. I was up by 7:00. I emailed my registrar, asking to defer my exams on Wednesday. I emailed my bosses, asking not to be called that week. And then I called my friend Rachel-the-Anglican-Priest. I’d been in her office the week before, seeking counsel for stress and family tensions. Now I had to explain, “So…new developments…”
This whole thing was so bizarrely scripted.
As promised, the picture of the cat says that things get a little more hopeful from here.
My maternal grandmother and I went to the church around eleven to sort out funeral details. Although my Dad was technically Catholic (and while I still am, technically), they could do a very inclusive service. They could recommend a good funeral home. They could help us through this—it was going to be all right, I had a community at Grace Church that loved and supported me.
I had cried in the hospital, but it had been like the tears were seeping out slowly. My grandmother stepped outside of the office, and then, alone with Rachel, I sobbed for the first time. And when she told me that it was terrible, and unfair, and painful, but that they were all there for me, I believed her. For a while, I’d considered Grace a safe place—but here it was, when I needed it most, as a rock in my life.
Thank you, all of my family at Grace, for doing infinitely more than I could ask or imagine. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Where there is love, God is there.
Around two o’clock, I was at loose ends. My sister had been swept away by her friends and Mom was huddled on the couch with all of the relatives. I paced aimlessly. What would make me feel best right now? I asked myself. Who do I need to be with?
The answer was undeniable, if somewhat surprising.
Blythe. Right now, I need Blythe.
Sure, we were friends. Sure, we saw each other outside of work. But this was heavy stuff. Was it too heavy? I hesitated, looping the kitchen. The answer didn’t change. And so, I texted her, asking if I could come over and escape the madness for a bit. As I sent it, I figured that I’d get a responding text in a few hours, maybe.
She called me before I’d even slipped my phone back in my pocket.
My uncle drove me to her place. At that point, I’d actually only been to Blythe’s apartment one time, so I was a little uncertain as I directed him there. But, soon enough, I was standing outside her door. As I jabbed the doorbell, part of me wondered what on Earth I was doing. The rest was just too numb.
The door flew open. “Hi!” Blythe said. “Come on up!”
Turning, I waved to my uncle, then followed her up the narrow staircase. Maybe we made awkward small talk, I don’t really remember. What I do remember is that Blythe went into the apartment ahead of me. I bent down to take off my boots. When I glanced up, she was standing in the middle of her kitchen, looking at me: not with apprehension, but compassion. Suddenly, absolute certainty rushed over me. This was the right place to be.
She hugged me. She badgered me into eating part of an apple. Gave me odd jobs to distract me. And while the two of us tend to have different accounts of these sorts of things, I think it was then that things changed between us. We were friends before, certainly, but supporting someone in so much pain and shock is an entirely different thing. When I needed someone, she was there without question. I honestly do not think I could have managed those first few months without her.
Thank you, my friend—thank you, and all of my love.
On Wednesday, I went to work. I remember running out of the car, throwing the door open before Mom had really stopped, and booking it through the village. Like Grace, this was my place of safety. This was home. In hindsight, it must have seemed bizarre. Here I was, roaming the village with a haunted expression, dodging crowds of schoolchildren. This was my workplace—why on Earth was I there?
Because I needed to be. And credit to my supervisors and coworkers, they let me do my thing. They let me wander bleakly, surround myself with the people and places I loved. Some people came to the visitation that night (for which I was profoundly grateful, I couldn’t have done that without them—walking into the funeral parlour and seeing the casket, it was heartbreakingly, crushingly real). There was a card, filled with love. My boss sent a handwritten note. I still have all of these things.
Here is the thing about death. For the most part, it doesn’t make sense. If this was a novel, my editor would never let me get away with it. “What? And then he dies? No, that’s stretching credibility too far.”
When death strikes like this, the normal rules cease operating. And so we cry in our friends’ offices. We crash other friends’ dinner parties. We walk around our workplace because reasons. And people, for the most part, are just as stunned as us. Unsure how to react, they do the best they can: opening their arms with love, drawing us close, holding us near.
When you are grieving, nothing makes sense. You worry you’re too sad. You worry you’re not sad enough. You worry about burdening your loved ones. And at the same time—you need, desperately need that human connection. You need to be able to tell the story, as often as it takes. You need to be vulnerable, to cry—and also, sometimes, you need to go skating and live normally for a few hours, away from the sadness.
And if a grieving person comes to you…ask them. Ask them if they need to describe what happened again. Ask them if they just want to sit. Know that they may think they’re fairly functional, but in several months’ time, they will realize that they really, really weren’t.
Love us. That’s all we need.
It saddens me that almost everything that is now important in my life—working full time, Stonecoast, the nice young man, beer, my writing family, my current friendships—happened after Dad died. My life now is completely different from my life two years ago. But that’s what happens.
We heal, but we don’t recover. I will never not be sad about my dad. Every December will be hard for me. The body remembers, longer and more vividly than the mind. The body remembers the fall of light, the weight of the wind, the pattern of the clouds overhead. We don’t get over the loss; we make it a part of us, growing into and around it.
When a writer loves you, you can never die. Dad’s fingerprints touch my work now, even if it’s his death bleeding through again, and again. In the Victorian Dark Fantasy, Sara’s grief plays out alongside my own. In short story after short story, I try to use words to build a ladder down into the abyss, using fiction to go where I can’t.
Two years on, and I am usually happy. Sometimes I am sad, but usually I am happy, and I miss my Dad more than all those words can say.
So, in order to get time off for Stonecoast this July, I traded a whole bunch of shifts at work…which has resulted in me working eleven days straight. Right before that, I worked ten days straight—I had a day off in between the two stretches. Plus, I write at night.
I shouldn’t complain. I know people who work more hours, longer stretches, more stressful jobs.
But darn it, I really just want to sit alone by myself for a day. In the dark. And silence. Without people. Alone.
Huzzah for introversion!
As most people know, introversion isn’t about shyness or anti-sociability. It’s about energy production. Introverts generate energy within themselves, and lose it during social interaction. Important caveat: the energy loss varies from person to person. Chilling with friends takes energy, but significantly less than dealing with irate customers or dozens of strangers at a party. By contrast, extroverts generate energy through social interaction, and lose it when they have to be alone.
So ideally, for an introvert, life should look something like this:
And for an extrovert:
Energy loss more-or-less equals energy generation. For introverts, that means that they get enough alone time to balance out the social interaction (which, while fun, is expensive, energy-wise). Extroverts get enough people time to compensate for the times that they’re alone. Everyone is happy.
It doesn’t always work this way.
Sometimes, like at cons, the creative environment and awesomeness of seeing everyone face-to-face masks the energy loss. That’s why so many introverts collapse after conventions; we’ve been steadily losing energy all weekend, we just haven’t really noticed. Adrenaline does the same thing. We had a fairly busy weekend in the brewery recently—and man, I was flying.
Sample! Growler! Growler sample growler! RETURN GROWLER SAMPLEGROWLERSAMPLESAMPLE!
And then I went home and promptly crashed.
Since Balticon, however, my own graph has looked more like this:
It’s out of sync. My alone time isn’t enough to pay for the energy I’m spending on work, writing, and various other things. Think of a bank account. If my paycheque is suddenly slashed from $500 to $100/month (I’m using round numbers, bear with me), I’ll go into debt if I keep trying to pay my $200/month rent (again, I am pulling these numbers from the air).
Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, your energy source is just as important as food and water. Extroverts need people. Introverts need solitude. Force them to go too long without their generator of choice, and bad things happen.
All of which explains my own exhaustion and irritability. Yeah, I’ll own up to that—I’m trying very, very hard, and I feel terrible after snapping at people, but it happens.
But what can we do? After all, at some point, every one of us will go through stretches like this.
Setting boundaries and limits helps, I think. I am protecting my few off-days. Communication, as well: explaining to people that you love them, AND ALSO need to sit alone by yourself in such solitude that you cannot even sense the presence of another human being.
And of course, knowing yourself and maybe planning for those stretches. For me, some of these extra shifts were unexpected; I’m trying to roll with it, but having strategies in place—carving out time with/without people, allowing yourself breaks, getting enough sleep and such, which I admit I struggle with—might have made this easier.
Ah well. Only a few more days. And then—
Cool Thing of the Week
Apparently, I’m getting a reputation as a lush! My ten-year-old self would be horrified. Two people sent me the same link to 18th century drink recipes—I raise my eyebrow at the ones with egg and cream, but some of them actually look quite good!
I sat at the spinning wheel. Grey afternoon light fell through the window behind me. The spinning wheel clicked gently as I moved my foot up and down. Pinch the wool. Draw. Release.
Besides the clicking, the log cabin was quiet. Faint traces of wood smoke lingered, but the hearth was growing colder. With no one else around, I let my mind wander.
Pinch. I hope they’re taking care of him. I wonder if he misses me. I wish I was there—I should be there. Draw. It’s meant to be me. I trust Mairi, but it’s meant to be me.
He’s my son.
Ha! Startled some of you, I bet.
So, here’s what is happening. I think the Victorian Dark Fantasy is starting to gel. The novel has changed throughout Stonecoast—I think the plot’s getting there, now I’m bearing down on voice and character. To help with this, my thoroughly brilliant mentor posed me an interesting challenge:
One thing you might want to do, and this will sound less strange to you as a playwright than to other people, is to go around being each of the main female characters for a while, and do things the way they would do them. How do you feel as those characters? How do you walk and talk?
I laughed in delight upon reading this. So…I thought, grinning, I spend most of my days wearing period-appropriate clothing, doing period things…
Plus…I kind of stole half our buildings.
Heck, I can reconstruct entire scenes in these buildings, mapping out exactly where this character was standing, where that one paused before coming around the corner. It’s like being on a movie set.
So…I have the right clothing (mostly—for two of them, I really need a crinoline, and I only wear that in the brewery), I’m doing the right things, and I’m in the right place. Sometimes, it’s almost a little disorienting.
It’s also taught me a lot.
I’ve always talked with my characters. Usually as mental knitting—on the bus, while walking, during quiet times at work. Just relaxing, asking questions, hearing what the response is. Sometimes full-on conversations develop; Serafine, for instance, rarely shut up once she got going.
It’s one thing to invite a character into your head. Thus far, it’s been quite another to invite them into your skin. Really, really cool, but different. Because this way, I’m not guiding the discussion. I’m not prompting anything. I’m essentially retreating to the sidelines and seeing how my characters assert themselves once they have the space and freedom to do so.
- One worries far more than she lets on; she’s clinging by her fingertips.
- In another time, place, and culture, one could be a geek girl. As it is, she’s sensitive, carefully (and constantly, my God!) analyzing and observing.
- And the last POV character…I don’t think I ever really understood the depths of her possessiveness, her sense of entitlement.
My circumstances definitely give me a leg-up, but it’s also interesting to take characters on field trips. Point out a streetcar, stop in a grocery store. What do they think, how do they react to this world so unlike their own?
It’s been fun—and I still love working on this story, still love exploring these people and their lives. Even after so long (yeah…longer than I anticipated…) the joy hasn’t ebbed.
Let’s just hope that I never, ever answer visitors as my villain.
Actually, that’d be hilarious.
I’ll be good. ;)
Cool Thing of the Week
So, there’s the solar system, right? Then our galaxy, then our “local group” of galaxies, then our galaxy cluster, then our supercluster…and then the filaments.
The thought makes me shiver. So many stars and worlds, so much void between them…
More than anything, it makes me want to write.