Until last week, I snickered at the name “Pigeon Forge.” It sounds like a made-up name, doesn’t it? The name alone has always struck me as the Platonic ideal of a small town in the Deep South. I mean, listen to it: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.The Tennessean towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains. For me, they’re the gateway to an annual writing retreat I take with ~20ish dear friends. And yeah, until last week, I dismissed them as “the weirdest places I’ve ever been.”
Until last week, this is what I saw:
The main street unfurls like a midway, flashing lights and sugary music spilling onto crowded sidewalks. On one side, a collection of concrete faux-log cabins nestles like a sanitized vision of an alpine village. Olde Time Photography Studios and Olde-Fashioned Candy Shoppes stand every few paces, while black bears grin from neon t-shirts, chipped ceramic mugs, and motel doorways (TV WIFI POOL).Outside of Gatlinburg, signs proclaim JESUS SAVES right next to others announcing GUNS GUNS GUNS. Pickup trucks trundle past with plywood bumpers, and rusted-out trailers sit on hills, and Biblically-themed parks and theatres abound.
Until last week, I snickered. And believe me, it feels very uncomfortable to say that. Giving myself a long, hard stare, I see a blend of big-city blindness, liberal arrogance, and Canadian smugness.
“So typical. So kitschy.”
Then the fire happened.
Last week, wildfire (possibly “human-caused”) broke out in the mountains and swept with little warning into Gatlinburg, fuelled by the region’s worst drought in a decade. Within hours, swathes of mountainside and residences were destroyed, and 14,000 people were evacuated. At time of writing, 13 people are dead and 1000 buildings have been damaged or destroyed.
Our retreat cabin is right in the danger zone, so we stayed glued to the incoming reports. As more data rolled in, I was stunned.
- “[FARM] has a field for evacuated livestock. No charge. Call [Suzy] at [NUMBER].”
- “Shelter for pets available at [LOCATION].”
- “Biologists reluctant to leave Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, fearing for animals.”
- “Dolly Parton is giving $1000 a month to victims of Tennessee wildfires.”
- “Thank you for your prayers.”
- “We’re okay. Thank you for your thoughts.”
- “Thank you.”
With all the tourists, it’s easy to forget that Gatlinburg is a town of only 4000 people. The more I read, the more I glimpsed a tight-knit community, generous and kind-hearted. My throat closed up.
I was wrong about Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. I was so very wrong.
Coming on the heels of the US election and the subsequent soul-searching on the political left, this feels particularly poignant. It is so, so easy to see the JESUS SAVES signs and forget about the genuinely fervent faith enclosed within those walls. It is so, so easy to wander through a fake village and laugh at the concrete snow, not seeing the livelihoods that happen behind the STAFF ONLY doors. And this is the sort of easy self-absorption that we cannot afford. Not ever, but especially not now.
In a cabin outside Gatlinburg, I wrote both “La Corriveau” and “The Love it Bears Fair Maidens,” my first pro short fiction sales. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge will always claim a very special place in my writer’s heart.
If you enjoy my fiction—particularly those stories—may I request something?
Will you help me give back to Gatlinburg? I’ve done some digging: most donations of food, supplies, and money need to be dropped off in person, but if you’re far away—
And a relief fund for locals and businesses has been established by the Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Donations can be mailed to:
PO Box 1910
Pigeon Forge, TN
All my best, Tennessee. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I will never, ever look at you the same way again.
What I’m Listening to this Week
I’ve never listened to Dolly Parton before, but now seems like a good time to start…
So I’m still writing the Creepy Play. This play remains without title for now, though in my earliest notes, it was code-named Southern Ontario Gothic. I feel like I had a good title in that hazy darkness between wake and sleep last night, but it’s gone this morning.
Anyway, we’re at the point where Act II shatters into Act III. Everything is The Worst for our characters, and there’s maybe 25% of the script left to go. It’s a Point of No Return: structurally, but also writing-wise.
See, I’ve noticed something with my long-form fiction. There’s always a point where the story ceases to be optional. You sit there, typing, and suddenly you know—just know in the deepest level of your gut—that you’re going to finish today, tomorrow, in the immediate future. There’s no longer a choice about it. The story has to come out.
It’s not a happy feeling, exactly. Nor is it a negative one. It’s just grimly determined. I ran cross-country as a kid, and it reminds me of the 75% mark of a race. You’re exhausted. Your legs hurt. Breath burns up your throat.
But you know the finish line is close, so you keep going. No matter how tired, you couldn’t stop even if you wanted to. The feeling mirrors the one near the start of a long piece—the feeling when you know, instinctively, that the story’s survived the awkward beginning and that tender little shoot isn’t going to wither after all.
The more I write, the more I notice these instinctive reactions. This story’s going to survive. This one is broken too deep for me to fix. I’m going to finish this play today or tomorrow.
Experience, I guess, just as a runner learns to listen to their own body.
That’s really all for now. I’m tired. My legs hurt. Breath’s burning up the back of my throat as our characters struggle and break and reveal who they really are.
But the finish line is close. I couldn’t stop, even if I wanted to.
What I’m Listening to This Week
The first movement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater is one of my favourites. It was written for soprano and alto, but there’s a staggeringly beautiful version done solely by strings. After some digging, I found it.
So much of the heartbreak is in the grace notes: it’s the voice cracking, the heart stuttering. And throughout—listen to the bass line, the relentless broken chords. It’s another heartbeat, a pulse driving us inexorably to the end.
I was all ready to write a post about T.S. Eliot and a particularly evocative line of his, but then this happened:
At the very least, you’ve probably heard about this. Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton. He was booed. Following the show, the cast made the following statement:
“We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
By any objective standard, it’s a measured, civil statement. Pence said he “wasn’t offended.” But of course, this happened:
So here’s the thing. The theatre is not—never has been—ought not to be—a safe space. Naturally, we need to talk about what we mean by “safe space.” The theatre ought to be a safe space in that it contains sufficient fire exits and Ministry of Labour-approved standards of workplace safety. The theatre ought to be a safe space in that it
….is a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability. (Advocates for Youth)
But that, pals, is just common decency and courtesy.
A theatre ought not to be a safe space in that it is a space free from dissent, protest, and conflicting viewpoints. Drama, lest we forget, is founded on conflict. Not just conflict within the plot and characters of a piece, either. Theatre has always served—as one of its many functions—as a forum for the oppressed, the marginalized, the voiceless, and the Other.
Dissecting the history of politics-in-theatre would take a book, not a blog post, but I’ll point to Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed” (theatre as means of promoting social/political change), Bertolt Brecht and epic theatre (political theatre aimed at commenting on/changing social processes), Athenian satire plays (aimed at commenting on/changing the Athenian democracy), and even theatre-in-education (while generally not overtly political, TIE encourages students to form, test, and evaluate their own opinions on various subjects…by using theatre techniques to assist in reaching educational goals).
Do you notice any themes here?
Theatre as agent of change. Theatre as commentator. Theatre as means of education. This is what good theatre does. This is what good art does. And this is why the arts are not—will never be—ought never be—safe. Good theatre does not only entertain. Good theatre provokes. Good theatre forces reconsideration and re-evaluation of deeply held beliefs. Good theatre provides a space in which to empathize with the Other.
And I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here. Theatre is a commentator and change agent. What else is new?
What’s new is that this may not seem so self-evident in years to come. And that’s why it is important to speak out about it—so that we don’t lose sight of what theatre does. Have you ever noticed, autocrats tend to go for artists early on? This is why. Art pushes back; it always has. What’s more, it is damn good at commenting and fostering change—because art makes the makes the Other familiar; and the familiar, Other. When the Other isn’t the Other anymore—when they’re human, when there’s common ground—it becomes a lot harder to oppress them.
Granted, there has been some debate about whether it was appropriate for the cast to address Pence. Honestly, I’m not sure they could have avoided doing so. Every incarnation of art is a product of its time, and Hamilton is perhaps more so than most. In this particular political climate, this particular play would have completely undermined its own thesis by keeping silent. Hamilton is the “Other” America—the America that did not vote for Trump. Pence, of course, is free to see whatever shows he likes, but we all understand, “Ev’ry action has its equal, opposite reaction.”
So yes, it was appropriate. It was respectful. It was not harassment. But nor was it a particularly safe move. It was something far more—it was brave.
We’re going to need more of that sort of bravery in the years ahead. May we all have the courage to speak out and provoke. May we all have the courage to not be safe.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Oh, I should probably put a Hamilton song in solidarity, but that’s not what I was listening to this week. It’s a little early, but bring on the Christmas music. This week, it was Pearsall’s arrangement of “In Dulci Jubilo.” It’s a macaronic piece, which means it throws together Latin and English willy-nilly. It’s also rather heartbreaking in the final verse, yearning, “Oh, that we were there!”
I am walking through my village
Drinking a hot chocolate –
Quickly, because it’s spilling over the sides,
Cresting with each crunch
And rasp of leaves underfoot.
It is – in truth – a little watery,
Tasting of rinsed-out Thermoses
And ice-skating arenas.
But it was given to me in kindness,
And this sweetens it,
And as I walk through my village,
Drinking my hot chocolate,
Geese wing through weakening sunlight,
And my throat goes tickled, tight:
An early foretaste of
My annual laryngitis.
All signs suggest
A long, hard winter ahead.
But for now,
I am walking through my village,
Drinking a hot chocolate,
And it is sweet indeed.
Now that the dust has settled and the shock worn off, I’ve articulated a few thoughts about the travesty that is a Trump presidency.
Actually, I’d like to share a story. It may or may not fit into the neat structure of a personal essay, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about since Tuesday.
A few years ago, fantasy author Philippa Ballantine and I visited Mount Vernon: George Washington’s home, now a historic site. You can tour Washington’s house and grounds; watch a blacksmith making nails; chat with a wandering Ben Franklin. There’s also a more traditional museum stuffed with multimedia exhibits, displays, and artifacts. Fairly standard set-up.
It was so bizarre.
The museum’s narrative makes Washington a god forging his country from the fires of British oppression. As we watched mini-films about the “enemy British” and gazed at reconstructions of the general’s face, Pip and I—New Zealander and Canadian—giggled a little nervously. In one gallery, a woman openly wept over Washington’s wooden teeth.
This is not my narrative, I remember thinking. I see what they’re doing, but I don’t share this.
The current state of affairs is not my narrative. However, I do share this. Wednesday evening, I commented to author Lauren Harris, “It feels like someone’s died.”
“It feels,” she said, “like the day after a national disaster.”
And that was it. That was it, exactly—the same mix of helpless grief, and grim determination, and need to reach out and make sure everyone was Okay. Strong emotions, and they honestly took me by surprise. After all, I’m not American. I am fiercely, proudly Canadian. Every bio reminds the world of this fact: “KT Bryski is a Canadian author and playwright…”
Holy frak, I have a lot of American friends of every kind. The effects of a Trump presidency hit them a lot harder and a lot quicker than they do me. There are a lot of people I love who are very scared right now.
Beyond which, a racist, sexist man with a short temper sitting in the world’s most powerful office does not exactly fill me with confidence for the greater global community.
As a matter of pure moral principal, it simply isn’t right.
Cliché as it sounds, Hamilton has helped me understand the American psyche: a little brash, a little loud, a little arrogant, but passionately and utterly devoted to its ideals. Seeing this (you can skip to the 3:00 min mark)—
—stirred more sympathy and understanding than anything at Mount Vernon did.
But that’s what art does, isn’t it? It fosters connection, encourages empathy. It shows another world. And that is why I expect art—art that is beautiful, but above all, brave—will be so important in the years ahead.
There’s been a lot of Tweets thrown around, accusing the left of melodrama and hand-wringing. “It’ll be Okay,” they say. “He can’t do that much. It’s not the end of the world.”
I direct them here.
As to the specifics of American executive power—I don’t know them well enough to comment. I don’t know how much authority and/or autonomy the president really has. But I do know that he’s got a Republican senate and house, which tends to undermine the checks and balances built into the system.
But leaving aside the practicalities for a moment—
This is a man who has gloated about sexual abuse. He has picked needless, painful fights. He has threatened to deport Latinx en masse and bar Muslims from entry. He is a bully.
And the United States awarded him the top job.
What sort of message does that send? How does that not legitimize sexism, racism, homophobia, religious intolerance?
We’ve not even touched on the economy yet. I’ll admit: I expected the dollar to tank. I thought we might be exchanging at par in the foreseeable future. I didn’t realize the loonie would sink first—at time of writing, we’re trading at $0.74 USD.
It makes cross-border travel harder. A collapsing economy hits freelancers hard.
But that’s just my knee-jerk survival mode reaction, since most of my business is with American publishers/readers. Breathing, stepping back, thinking about others—a collapsing economy hits freelancers hard. Especially freelancers who have just lost their health care (if the ACA vanishes, as is likely). Again: many people are very scared right now, with good reason.
Breathing, stepping further back—you thought 2008 was bad? You know, the recession that kicked an entire generation in the knees? The one that triggered a housing and banking crisis?
When 9/11 happened, I was ten years old: old enough to realize that the world had irrevocably changed, young enough that I fretted about my dad being sent to war, à la Mulan.
We went to Disney World shortly thereafter. And you know what? I was scared in the airport. Nervous until we passed through Disney’s gates. All my life, I’d been told that the United States was our friend—and suddenly, it didn’t feel like a safe country.
This is the first time since 9/11 that I’ve been legitimately nervous about travelling through the States. I do not intend to be in the country around December 19th (when the Electoral College passes their votes) or January 20th (Inauguration Day). Any travel plans not currently locked down for 2017 are being suspended; I anticipate reduced travel in 2018.
The United States is our friend. Suddenly, it doesn’t feel like a safe country.
So what can you do to feel safe?
Reach out. Ask if people are Okay. Listen. Stand up.
In some ways, it feels like the beginning of a resistance movement. Wherever I look, I see people girding themselves, getting ready. Digging in, fortifying their trenches.
It makes me nervous, of course. But as my friend Dave Robison has been posting:
I have a message for the NSA, the Bots, the Web Spiders, the Social Media filters, and all the other techno-sniffers that troll people’s feeds for information.
Let me lay this out for you and save you some demographic algorithms…
I am Pro Choice
I am Pro LGBTQIA+
I am Pro Women’s Rights
I am Pro Reglious Freedom for ALL religions
I am Pro Arts
I am also…
No matter who you are—if you feel unsafe, #IllGoWithYou.
I will also make art. Because that is what I do.
I spent six months in New Zealand a fear years ago. While there are many, many similarities, I did feel some culture shock and a lot of homesickness. It was always wonderful to run across another Canadian: we didn’t have to explain. We just got each other.
While backpacking alone, Americans made me genuinely, desperately happy for much the same reasons. Two different countries, two different cultures—but definitely a common understanding.
I’m glad to have that understanding now.
What I’m Listening to This Week
A while back, a friend sent me a link to this post: a ridiculous and then all-too-real look at a day in the writer’s life. I laughed, because it was true. Then I laughed, because if I didn’t, I might cry. And I thought – what does my day look like?
Around the same time, I realized I’d be adapting Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen into a 15-minute Christmas Pantomime in a very short, concentrated burst. “What better day to examine?” quoth I. “I shall document writing this script!”
And so I did. Here is an admittedly-not-wholly-typical day for me: in which I wrote The Snow Queen in a day.
9:22 am. Awaken, as Guinness has decided that enough is enough and he would really like breakfast. Since I was only up until 1 am or so, I feel slightly groggy, but mostly rested.
10:16 am. After coffee, Cheerios, shower, and dealing with cat, I am ready to start researching The Snow Queen. First up, an English translation of Hans Christian Anderson’s original, downloaded to Kindle.
10:37 am. Realize that when Blythe gave me a synopsis of the story on the bus, she neglected to mention the Crow that randomly sends Gerda on a wild goose chase. At the end of the story, he’s DEAD. And no one cares all that much. WTF kind of story is this?!
His tame sweetheart is a widow, and wears a bit of black worsted round her leg; she laments most piteously, but it’s all mere talk and stuff!
10:55 am. Read another translation, just to make sure the nuances are consistent. Crow still snuffs it.
11:16 am. Turn my attention to the Shelley Duvall “Faerie Tale Theatre” adaptation. It is eighties-tastic.
11:46 am. Knowing that Blythe grew up with this series explains a few things about her.
11:58 am. I would make a GREAT Robber Girl. Don’t tell me otherwise.
12:03 pm. Well, that’s creepy as f***.
12:27 pm. Lunch of grilled cheese and corn chips, because I’m seven.
1:21 pm. Back to it with another eighties-tastic adaptation…
1:36 pm. Sigourney Weaver does ALL the voices in this. The characters’ lips don’t even move. It’s like an audiobook with accompanying pictures. I guess that’s ONE way to cut costs. That said, she has a very versatile voice. Start pondering what audio roles I would write for her.
2:02 pm. Pull out whiteboard. Assemble a skeletal plot. Tally up characters. Request final instructions from project lead before writing starts.
2:16 pm. Attend to dayjob costumes, because EVERYTHING is getting washed this weekend.
3:52 pm. Still waiting. Gripped by sudden anxiety regarding garret’s cleanliness (or lack thereof). Clean furiously. Admire new Pine-Sol floor cleaner. I can indeed both see AND smell a difference!
5:27 pm. Writing will begin post-dinner: pasta, rapini, tomatoes, and mussels. I like these sorts of meals because it looks like something an adult might eat, but takes like, 15 minutes to make.
6:02 pm. Sit at desk. How the f*** long is this meant to be, anyway? How long was the other pantomime I wrote?
6:16 pm. Frolic about on Twitter.
6:31 pm. OKAY WE’RE STARTING NOW.
6:35 pm. Stare at screen. Realize I have no idea how to start. And I only have ten pages, tops. Softly mutter, “Tabarnac.”
6:36 pm. Frolic about on Twitter.
7:01 pm. It’s okay, it’s okay, we can do this. Make it through an excruciating first page. Then I find my rhythm. Writing feels a bit like building a house of cards: it’s taking shape, you’ve got the groove, it’s great – and it also feels like it’s a breath away from collapsing around your ears.
7:22 pm. Can I make a reference to every song on the Frozen soundtrack? Only one way to find out.
8:46 pm. Audio break, because I realize I forgot to send Lauren our Words of a Feather audio.
9:11 pm. Back to the script. It’s either fine or dreadful. I’m not sure which, but we’ll keep going.
10:07 pm. AHAHAHA I HAVE FINISHED. ALL SHALL LOVE ME AND DESPAIR.
10:08 pm. Text Blythe.
10:19 pm. Internet woes. Call Bell and express my displeasure again. While waiting, quickly scan script and fix most egregiously bad prose. Decide that it’s pretty good for a first bash-through.
10:54 pm. Finally manage to send script off.
11:16 pm. “Katie this is fabulous!”
11:17 pm. Accept praise. Mentally start making edits. (Gerda should possibly not say, “Really?” three times in a row.)
11:30 pm. Frolic about on Twitter.
11:47 pm. Sleep.
And that’s how I wrote a treatment of The Snow Queen in a day. Again, my writing days don’t always look like this. Perhaps in the off-season, we’ll try this again…😉
What I’m Listening To This Week
This piece floated through my head this week – appropriate enough for Remembrance Day on Friday, I suppose. It’s a lovely choral setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Remember.” Pieces like this really should be treated like monologues: there’s a dramatic arc, intention, a goal and change. This choir gets that across pretty well – particularly in the rising urgency around 1:25.
I love Halloween. It’s one of those holidays that I like even more as an adult. Sure, trick-or-treating is fun, but I’ve grown to appreciate the lengthening shadows and chill in the air even more.
For me, this time of year is all about the rattle in the leaves, the orange streetlights pooling on the evening pavement. It’s the wind stripping the branches bare; the shadow that wasn’t there a moment ago; the frost coating roofs slick in the morning; the soil slowing and gathering itself for a long slumber until spring rolls around again. It’s the seductiveness of twilight and shadows; the half-understood shiver that comes with incense and decaying leaves and words like All Hallows, and Wheel of the Year, and the dark months.
Halloween, of course, shares its roots between the Feast of All Hallows and Samhain: the Celtic (and modern pagan) New Year. I think the closing of autumn is as good a New Year as any. As discussed before, the shape of my year divides neatly into two halves: season and off-season; museum time and writing time; the warm, secure months and the colder, leaner ones. Halloween is the beginning of the end; the harbinger; the already, but not yet.
At the museum, you see, Christmas starts in mid-November: only two weeks away. Once Christmas starts, it’s a quick, short slide to the end and the off-season. Halloween isn’t the beginning of the dark months; it’s the herald of it, much the way that Easter usually isn’t springtime itself, but the promise that warmth and sunlight are returning.
So because we haven’t actually gotten into the off-season yet, for me, it’s a time of potential. You can taste winter on the wind—but it isn’t here yet. And it’s oddly appropriate to have potential beginning in the dark, isn’t it? I think of the harvest gathered in, the seeds dormant in the ground—waiting. For me, Halloween is a time of baited breath. I’m planning my off-season writing. I’m gathering myself for one last push before the season ends. I’m sensing the winds grow colder; the last leaves falling; the knowledge that the warmth is well and truly gone, now.
And if that’s all sounding a little Victorian—the winter is coming on fast—then yes, I suppose it is, a little. Now, don’t get me wrong: I cherish and value and treasure my four months of full-time writing so very much. I’m very lucky to have the set-up that I do.
But in some ways, the winter is harder. While I’m very pleased with how my writing’s supported me thus far, it’s never a sure thing. Toronto gets cold: the whole city feels too hard, like you could bruise yourself on it. Without a daily commute, a Metropass becomes too expensive to justify, which means that I spend four months walking everywhere.
None of that is here yet. But it’s coming. And Halloween is the first sign—the first shiver and held breath and remembrance of everything else that might be out there. (All those ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties…)
No matter what you call today, or how you celebrate, all my best to you as we enter into the year’s dark half. The winter gets cold, but the most exciting things usually start in the shadows.😉
What I’m Listening to this Week
Well, it couldn’t be anything else, could it?
It’s 2007. I’m sixteen. And I’m terrified. I’m sitting on a hard church pew, music in hand. The notes don’t make sense. They make sense for piano, but I can’t just pluck a G out of the air and sing it. Besides, I’m supposed to be singing the harmony, not the melody, but I can’t hear it under all the other voice parts. Tenors, basses, and piano completely bury it, but the sopranos are worst because they actually have the melody and they’re loud and even though I’m singing barely above a whisper, people keep shooting me sideways glances because I keep screwing up and I just want to sing so badly but I can’t do it.
And that’s my first year of choir in a nutshell.
A combination of writing my first real “book” (Phantom of the Opera fanfic) and Toronto getting its first real opera house had given me an insatiable appetite for opera. My younger sister had spent the last year in the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, and I watched the Youth Chorus rehearsals agog.
I wanted to sing like that. So, so badly.
There was, of course, one slight snag.
I couldn’t sing.
Somehow, I got in. I’m still not sure why. Maybe Ann—the music director, a wonderful Texan force of nature—saw how badly I wanted it. Maybe it’s hard enough to find teens willing to sing classical music, and she worried about crushing my interest.
I don’t know. In any case, I was in so far over my head, I couldn’t even see the surface.
Most of the kids in the Youth Chorus had graduated from the CCOC’s younger divisions. Which meant they’d been singing for years. Not only that, they’d been singing together for years. And then there was me: new, and shy, and totally unable to keep up with the music.
I couldn’t even read it. Oh, I mean, I could look at a piece of music and tell you, “Yes, that note is a B, and that’s a sharp, and we’re supposed to get louder over here.” But when it came to matching “note on page” with “note in voice,” I had nothing.
As for technique—I had less than nothing. The voice is an instrument. Like all instruments, you have to learn how to use it. My joining the Youth Chorus was like grabbing a trumpet and expecting to join an orchestra.
All that to say, I was pretty effing terrible. In a choir of burgeoning pros, I was the weakest link. And I wasn’t used to that. My whole life, I’ve been an overachiever and a quick study. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I was used to just…picking things up.
Algebra. French. Soccer. Piano. Never much of a learning curve. Never much angst. Just trying something, and very quickly becoming good at it.
This was the first time that hadn’t happened. Those rehearsals fighting back tears were the first time I wasn’t near the top of the class.
People worried, of course. Ann worried. My parents worried. Every Monday afternoon, dread sat in my throat like a mouthful of cold worms, and every Monday night, I came home sobbing at my own incompetence. But I. Kept. Going. Back. It was stubbornness, sheer and simple—this was the first time something had beaten me, and I couldn’t let that stand.
So I did what anyone does in those situations:
I learned to survive.
Since I couldn’t read the music, I memorized it instead, tracking down recordings of every piece we did. I went to weekly lessons wherein I worked my bum off learning technique (without the mentoring I got from Ann’s daughter Erin, I might well have crashed out). Finally, I decided that if I couldn’t be the best singer, I would be the best chorister—always on time, always prepared, always listening and well-behaved.
“Come on, you guys! Get ready!”
“You don’t count. You’re always ready.”
When I aged out at eighteen, I still wasn’t a strong singer, but I’d passed the initial hurdle. Music had woven itself into my life—to feel grounded and whole, I needed a choir.
By this point, I knew enough about my own voice to realize that opera was not a great match. To the surprise of no one, my voice is very high, very light, and very straight-toned. I don’t have the vocal weight for opera, and I never will. In terms of voice, I’m not built that way.
I am built for church singing.
So I went hunting church choirs. One rainy night in September, I climbed a million stairs to one church’s choir room. I said, “I’m a first soprano,” and the director pointed me to a seat.
Whilst my voice is better suited for church singing, there was an entirely new learning curve to contend with. Hymns that the church ladies knew by heart, but which I’d never seen. The shape and structure and music of the liturgy itself. Psalms.
But the CCOC had given me enough foundation that I could stick things out. Of course, the community helped. The ladies very quickly became like a legion of extra aunts; the men, like older brothers.
Here’s the thing about singing church services, though. There isn’t actually a ton of rehearsal. Anthems get a few weeks of practice, but the hymns and psalms change every time. It was too much music for me to memorize.
So I finally learned to read.
There was no shaft of light and angelic “Alleluia!” as the notes resolved themselves. It happened bit by bit, water wearing away at a stone, until I realized I’d actually been reading the music for a while.
I learned to support. I learned to breathe. I learned to make my voice do what I wanted as we tackled a huge range of music—from Palestrina and Byrd to spirituals. Sure, there is something of an “Anglican hoot” about it, but I’m pleased with the way it’s developed.
And I learned all the ecclesiastical side: the psalms, the hymns, the pulse and pattern of the liturgical year.
But the best thing?
I’m proud that I stuck it out. I’m proud of how much I’ve learned. But in a funny way, I’m even more proud of the battle I fought with myself. It took a long, long time, but I learned to stay with something because I love it, and no other reason.
You see, I’m still not the top of the class. Not even close. I am a competent vocalist. Not great—competent. And in this arena, I’m okay with that. I’m okay with it because for me, it’s all out of love: love for the music, love for my friends, and love for the sheer breathless rush of having a high G hit the church’s vaulted ceiling.
I am a chorister, well and truly. As the hymn goes, “How can I keep from singing?”
What I’m Listening to This Week
We’re returning to Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse Devo. I never thought I’d do this, but here’s…um, well, here’s me. Anglican hoot and all.
Once, in the distant days of my youth, I was at a ChiZine reading series talking to Canadian fantasy author Caitlin Sweet. She was very kind to me (she ended up being the final, encouraging push to send Hapax into the world), and I’ll never forget the advice she gave me:
“Don’t worry about getting published too early.”
She went on to explain that publishing too early sets up expectations: both for you and by you. It can mess with your head. It tends to leave you perpetually insecure that you’re not living up to the promise and potential of your youth.
Naturally, I sold Hapax less than a year later. Go figure.
Anyway, she was right on some counts. I’ve gotten a lot better at managing insecurities, but there is sometimes a certain worry that things are taking “too long,” that I’m not living up to the expectation set. While I’m pleased with what I’ve accomplished so far, I’m nowhere near where I want to be.
So I did a little research.
I pulled up some stats on twenty-four modern science fiction and fantasy authors. Some have been at this for a few decades. Some are new to the scene. Some are American; some Canadian; some British. Some are friends. (Hi, Mur! Hi, Pip! Hi, Jim!) Some, I’ve never met. All are still writing; all are authors I admire.
Specifically, what I wanted to find out what this: how much time passed between an author’s First Sale, and their Big Sale?
By Big Sale, I mean the sale that you look at, and say, “Yes, they’ve arrived.” The sale that made them as authors. It was less black-and-white than you’d think. Some authors took the fairly traditional route of starting with a short story in a small magazine and then eventually landing a novel deal with one of the Big Five.
For those who are primarily short-story writers, I looked for the first big award: the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy Award, etc.
For one mostly-independent author, I went with the year they left their dayjob.
So a mixture of strict criteria, and saying, “Eh, I guess this makes sense?” Here’s what I found:
The average gap between an author’s First Sale and their Big Sale was 5.75 years.
Of course, looking at the data, there are some outliers. For some authors, their First Sale was their Big Sale, and they’ve been churning out fiction ever since. Conversely, three authors had more than ten years pass between the two.
Generally speaking, though, the bulk of my sample fell within 4-6 years.
There are some theories I can put forth for this Five-Year Gap. First of all, in the case of novels, you’re looking at an 18-month lag time…at least…between acceptance and publication. Add to that the agent hunt, which can take a year, and that goes part-way to explaining it.
Otherwise…dude, after your first sale, you’re still growing. I return once again to my “boy soprano’s breaking voice” analogy. When the first cracks in your voice appear, you don’t go straight to singing bass. You might wander around the different parts for a while until you settle. Even if you can hit the notes, the full richness and technical mastery of an adult voice won’t come until later.
Similarly, there’s still a period of growth that happens with new authors. And sometimes, I suspect, the gap between sales may be sheer dumb luck, or lack thereof, or other priorities.
Because Caitlin Sweet was right and I retain some neuroticism over my relative youth, I also examined biographical information, where available. If a birth date wasn’t on an author’s Wikipedia page, I didn’t hunt too hard for it.
Looking purely at biography, most authors seem to make their First Sale in their late twenties to early thirties, and their Big Sale in their mid-thirties to early forties. Again, there are outliers (looking at you, Rachel Swirsky). The age range, I suspect, probably has to do with the emotional maturity that develops through the twenties. Lots of university kids write well; there’s not always the same depth, which is to be expected.
One interesting thing I noted: the younger an author was when making their First Sale, the longer the gap tended to be until their Big Sale (Swirsky aside). This lends credence to my “emotional maturing = better writing” theory, and seems to jive with Kelly Robson’s thoughts on being a “late bloomer.”
Of course, comparing your career to others’ is rarely touted as a good idea. That way, madness lies. I mean: look at all my outliers! Everyone follows their own path!
…but sometimes, it is comforting to look at trends. We all follow our own paths, but it’s nice to see if you’re going in the same general direction. Looking at my own data, my First Sale was Hapax in 2012.
I haven’t made my Big Sale, yet. But looking at the charts, I seem to be right on track.🙂
What I’m Listening to this Week
Regular readers know of my love for Ola Gjeilo’s music. Guess what??? I got to see him this weekend at a choral concert! (I also saw my lovely former collaborator, composer Norbert Palej.)
I hadn’t heard the “Credo” portion of Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass before, and it totally captivated me. Listen to the frantic, pulsing strings: totally captures the rush of urban life. The “crucifixus” motif around 4:24 is a jagged little heartbreak, and of course, I’m a sucker for the last driving, thundering two minutes.
Happy Thanksgiving, pals!
That’s right—it’s Canadian Thanksgiving Monday today. Canadian Thanksgiving is kind of like American Thanksgiving, only there’s no story about pilgrims and a “first Thanksgiving celebration.” Likewise, we don’t have parades. Or sales. Basically, we eat pumpkin pie and turkey and give thanks that our northern climate didn’t kill us again this year.
We also give thanks for other things. I’ve done Thanksgiving posts on this blog before, and it seemed fitting to do another. I really wanted to give this one some thought, though—because once again, I find myself in a completely different place than I was a year ago.
When I think about what I’m thankful for, my friends and family immediately spring to mind. As I’ve said time and time again, the communities in which I find myself are incredibly important to me. And then I started to think deeper. Why are they important? What, precisely, is it about all you wonderful people that makes my heart swell?
First and foremost, I’m thankful for the acts of love—great and small—that I see play out every single day. Enquiries into people’s wellbeing as Hurricane Matthew batters the Caribbean and the southern US (stay safe, okay?), hugs and support in the face of loss, books arriving on my doorstep because my Books By Friends Shelf looked “too empty.” Sometimes, we see each other every day. Sometimes, once every few years. I’m thankful that it doesn’t matter. I’m thankful that we live in a world unhindered by geographic distance.
I’m very thankful for your respective passions. Perusing the aforementioned Books By Friends Shelf, I was struck by what incredible artists I know. Writers, audio storytellers, editors, visual artists, dancers, actors, cosplayers, musicians, composers, photographers—your creations make the world a better place. We all benefit by your friendship and presence, and also your dreams, your hopes, your quivering hearts. So thank you for creating. Thank you for your art.
I’m thankful for all of you. All of you. I’m thankful for my immediate collaborators, and my choir family, and the people who like my work and Tweet about it, and the guy in the apartment down the street, and the visitors at the museum, and some sheep farmer in rural New Zealand that I’ve never met.
You see, the world’s a scary place right now. There’s a lot more darkness than I would like, particularly that patch swirling south of the border. There is hate and fear, cruelty and heartbreak.
But we’re all in this together, aren’t we?
At the end of the day, I have to believe that love, passion, and light overcomes darkness. And I’m thankful that I can believe that—that in all of you, loving and creating and doing your thing no matter what it is—we’re all sharing in this light together, making a web of it across the globe.
So what I’m trying to say—what I’ve never really said properly—what we should be saying every day we draw breath—is this—
Thank you for being you.
Thank you for being here.
Thank you for everything.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Jumping styles again—back to opera, with Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro. If I were ever going to play any opera role, it would totally be Cherubino. He’s a lovesick teenage boy played by a woman—I’m already doing precisely that in our dayjob pantomime!
There are lots of Cherubino interpretations, but I quite like this one from Swedish soprano Tove Dahlberg. This particular aria is Cherubino’s first, and it’s a roiling mess of teenage hormones. He’s very… frustrated.
Part of the fascination with Cherubino comes from the way his performance blurs boundaries—we know he’s a woman, that’s part of the fun—but he needs a certain amount of boyishness to work. Dahlberg’s interpretation is interesting because she’s not just got that ambiguity in her physical performance, but vocally, too. The tone is often straighter than most female operatic sopranos can pull off…and then the full power of a mature woman’s voice comes out (as around 1:46).