So I assume we’ve all seen the WIRED article, right? This one: the one really excited that podcast fiction is “finally” a thing?
Evidently, they’ve overlooked that podcast fiction kicked off in 2005, and that 2007-2009 was arguably the Golden Age of the Podcast Novel. In fact, the origins and development of the genre were the topic of a massive essay I wrote at Stonecoast. I suspect others will be doing overviews of podcasts from 2005-2012, so… I’d like to share a different portion of my essay, one that proposes a new means by which to classify the genre.
II. Parsing the Parsecs: Proposing a New Taxonomy of Podcast Fiction
Despite the genre’s significant development over the past decade, few attempts have been made to rigorously classify podcast fiction. Nevertheless, there is a generally understood difference between “full cast podcasts” and “straight reads.” A “full cast podcast” generally refers to a fully scored and produced podcast novel featuring the use of numerous actors, as in the case of Morevi, Chasing the Bard, Murder at Avedon Hill, Metamor City, et al. By contrast, a “straight read” features a single reader and minimal production. Mur Lafferty’s Heaven series is thus a “straight read,” alongside numerous audio fiction magazines such as the Escape Artists’ triumvirate—Escape Pod, PodCastle, and PseudoPod—and the Clarkesworld podcast.
However, the distinction between “straight read” and “full cast” is ultimately limiting, particularly within the field of “full cast” podcast fiction. “Full cast,” as it appears in general usage, obscures the distinction between fully-produced, fully-casted podcast novels, and fully-produced, fully-casted audio dramas. Adhering strictly to a straight read/full cast binary, both Morevi and We’re Alive could be considered full cast podcasts. However, Morevi was originally released as a print novel, and relies heavily on narration to tell the story. As such, it undertakes a fundamentally different approach to storytelling than does We’re Alive, which instead lies primarily on dialogue, performance, and sound, with minimal narrative segments.
This difference between podcast novel and audio drama is recognized by the Parsec Awards for Excellence in Speculative Fiction Podcasting. There, the primary distinction amongst podcasts is not between straight read/full cast, but rather between “story” and “audio drama.” According to the Parsecs’ 2015 category descriptions, a story “…uses narration as its primary means to convey scene and action,” whereas in an audio drama, “Storytelling is effected through the dialogue of its characters and sound effects/scenery presenting action and scene as it’s [sic] primary mechanism.” While these categories differentiate between the two major approaches to storytelling within podcast fiction, they also have certain limitations. Specifically, there is perhaps insufficient nuance in the “story” category.
For example, the 2014 category “Best Speculative Fiction Story: Small Cast (Short Form),” included both the stories “Why the Sea is Boiling Hot,” (author Michael Spence, podcasted on Tales from the Archives) and “Growth Spurt,” (author Paul Lorello, podcasted on Pseudopod). However, while both “Why the Sea is Boiling Hot” and “Growth Spurt” are indeed small cast, short stories, they function very differently. Despite being small cast, “Why the Sea is Boiling Hot” adopts the production values associated with “full cast” podcasts: music and complex sound effects to denote an aethergate are particularly noticeable. Conversely, “Growth Spurt” has a single reader, no music, and no sound effects.  Despite being in the same category, “Why the Sea is Boiling Hot” is essentially a “full cast” podcast with a very small cast, whereas “Growth Spurt” is a straight read.
Thus, neither a full cast/straight read nor audio drama/story dichotomy is sufficient to classify podcast fiction. The full cast/straight read binary obscures the artistic differences between audio book and audio drama (though again, this difference is understood in general parlance), while focusing on that distinction to the exclusion of all else overlooks the many variances in production amongst podcast stories.
As such, this paper proposes a new taxonomy for podcast fiction. Examining the genre broadly, it is evident that some podcasts (PodCastle, Clarkesworld, Jim Kelly’s Free Reads, Heaven) use audio primarily as a means of distribution, whereas for others (Hidden Harbour Mysteries, The Antithesis Progression, We’re Alive, The Leviathan Chronicles), sound is integral to the story itself—whether the podcast in question is an audio book or audio drama. Therefore, this paper proposes classifying podcasts not by “full cast/straight read,” or by “audio drama/story,” but rather, by “read fiction” and “performed fiction.” “Performed fiction” relies on the use of dramatic techniques to tell the story—that is, music, sound effects, and acting— while “read fiction” does not. The category of “performed fiction” can then be subdivided into “audio drama” and “audio story,” under the same criteria utilized by the Parsecs. This classification, therefore, combines both the commonly-understood distinction between straight read and full cast, along with the Parsecs’ observance of stories and dramas as separate genres.
However, this means of classifying podcasts is not intended as a strict binary. Rather, conceiving of podcast fiction as a spectrum more accurately reflects the vast array of podcasts that have been produced. At one extreme are those stories which are read by a single narrator, without music, acting, or sound effects. Indeed, such stories might not have originally been intended for audio distribution at all. In its submissions guidelines, Pseudopod states, “We do not discriminate between previously published and unpublished works…we encourage new authors to send their work to other markets first, and then send it to us for audio rights after the story has appeared.” Thus, the stories it solicits are not necessarily written with podcasting in mind, unlike We’re Alive or Hidden Harbor [ETA: Or Six Stories, Told At Night]. As such, the performance is not an integral part of those stories—they lose very little when experienced as pure text.
The shift from read to performed podcast fiction occurs as a result of the use of dramatic techniques. Music, sound effects, and voice acting are used to communicate setting, atmosphere, and character in addition to what is already suggested by the text. Thus, reading and listening to performed narratives are ultimately very different experiences. The key distinction between read and performed narratives therefore lies not in the amount of dramatic techniques used, but rather, in their importance to the story. For instance, it is fairly common to have musical interludes introduce and finish segments of audiobooks; however, they have little impact on the storytelling. By contrast, the now-removed podcast Weather Child had relatively light scoring and sound effects, and a cast of two. As these elements were integral, Weather Child was nevertheless performed. This is particularly evident when considering its use of voice acting to portray character.
The use of voice acting is the most telling characteristic of performed fiction. Acting necessarily denotes performance. However, it is misleading to deem a read narrative “performance” when the reader has simply used different voices to distinguish characters. Here, this paper draws a distinction between “reading with voices” and “voice acting.” While reading, the reader speaks like the character. While performing, the actor speaks as the character. Admittedly, this distinction contains a certain amount of subjectivity, but it is generally useful.
For example, the podcast novels Weaver’s Web (Philippa Ballantine) and Ancestor (Scott Sigler) are both read by a single voice. However, Ballantine offers performances of her characters—this is particularly evident in her portrayal of the Weavers. Sigler can affect accents and emotions effectively—as in the case of troubled geneticist Lu Jian Dan—but ultimately, the difference is one of kind rather than degree. While some allowance should be made for a reader/actor’s particular skill, the difference between reading and acting is ultimately one of intention rather than talent.
Having determined the importance of voice acting in distinguishing podcast works as performed fiction, it is now necessary to examine the distinctions between performed narrative and audio drama. As the name suggests, performed narratives are primarily told through narration, whereas audio dramas are told through sound. This paper agrees with the general definitions put forth by the Parsec Awards.  However, this paper maintains that performed narratives fall along a spectrum. Weaver’s Web lies at one extreme: it is a performance due to its use of voice acting, but relies almost entirely on narration. Conversely, Hidden Harbor Mysteries is explicitly presented as a 1930s radio play. Therefore, it is unquestionably a drama. Not only is there minimal narration, but the narrator himself is another character. Yet between these two extremes fall podcasts such as The Guild of the Cowry Catchers, Metamor City: Making the Cut, and The Antithesis Progression. Sound is more integral to the storytelling than would be the case in a strict narrative, yet there is more narration than would be incorporated into a drama.
Thus, using these distinctions and taxonomy, one might say that We’re Alive is a large-cast audio drama, Weaver’s Web is a solo performed narrative, and “England Under the White Witch,” by Theodora Goss, as read by Kate Baker on Clarkesworld, is a read short story.
 Bryan Lincoln, Episode 73: Straight Read vs. Full Cast, accessed March 26, 2015.
 “2015 Category Descriptions,” Parsec Awards, accessed March 26, 2015. <http://www.parsecawards.com/2015-parsec-awards/category-descriptions/>
 “2014 Parsec Award Winners and Finalists,” Parsec Awards, accessed March 26, 2015.
 Michael Spence, Why the Sea is Boiling Hot, podcast audio, Tales from the Archives Vol. III, edited Philippa Ballantine and Tee Morris, MP3, 24:30-32:30, accessed March 24, 2015. <http://www.ministryofpeculiaroccurrences.com/2014/03/25/tales-from-the-archives-iii-three/>
Paul Lorello, Growth Spurt, podcast audio, Pseudopod, edited Shaun M. Garrett, MP3, accessed March 24, 2015. <http://pseudopod.org/2013/10/25/pseudopod-357-growth-spurt/>
 Lincoln, Episode 73: Straight Read vs. Full Cast, 35:06.
 “2015 Category Descriptions,” Parsec Awards, accessed March 26, 2015. <http://www.parsecawards.com/2015-parsec-awards/category-descriptions/>
So I’m still not entirely sure where Six Stories, Told at Night falls…but since it’s performed, and uses a lot of narrative – a solo performed piece?
Also, Tee Morris and I made this awesome infographic detailing other fiction podcasts pre-dating Welcome to Night Vale’s 2012 launch. Check it out, and discover some other cool listens!
What I’m Listening To This Week
Sometimes, there’s a song that I don’t even remember stumbling across. Amy MacDonald’s “This is the Life,” for instance. I heard this first back in high school, and it’s popped up again. Not my usual style, but quite enjoyable!
With Six Stories, Told at Night merrily dropping episodes, I’ve been reflecting on two much earlier plays I wrote. This was ages ago, when I was all of sixteen/seventeen. I’d written one play about an author who falls in love with her character—he’s onstage, but only she can see/hear him, which results in much hilarity and absurd humour. The second was a play written in response to that first play. It was a very pointed criticism of art criticism, in which characters debate the meaning of an abstract statue, resulting in much hilarity and absurd humour.
Both were pretty clever. Even at the time, though, I had whispers in my ear saying, “There’s a difference between being clever and being good.”
Being sixteen/seventeen, I ignored those whispers and merrily churned out more clever writing. Most of it wasn’t very good. But what do I mean, about the difference between clever and good?
Clever skims the surface. Clever is slick. Clever is a neat idea—perhaps even an original idea—perhaps even a good idea—but it isn’t followed through as fully as it could be. That’s the thing about cleverness, you see. It’s quick—the flash of a firefly, bright for a moment and gone.
Clever gets you praise. Clever makes you laugh.
Good makes you think.
John Scalzi’s written about this very topic, as it relates to young writers. If I may quote him, he noted that, “There’s nothing wrong with being clever, and it’s possible to be clever and good at the same time. But you need to know when clever is not always the best solution.”
I think that an important difference is this: with cleverness, there is usually an element of showing off. Like we said—the flash of a firefly. It can be easy to get distracted by the surface show, and not realize that there’s very little of substance underneath. So when Scalzi says you can be clever and good at the same time, I suppose that means you’ve got both the shiny, slick exterior trappings, as well as something of greater depth.
It’s really hard to do. Again, I think this is partly because cleverness directs its energy towards itself—look at me, my smarts, my humour—whereas things that are good direct themselves outwards, striving to connect to something within the audience. In a way, then, good cleverness needs to be oddly unaware of itself.
Recently, I wrote a story with a clever ending…but something about it nagged at me. I heard Jim Kelly’s voice in my ear, whispering, “Yes, yes…you’re very clever, but this ending cheats the reader. Try again, and write something good.”
The same whispers I heard eight years ago—cleverness is a tendency I need to watch in myself—but this time, I listened. I wrote a different ending. We’ll see if it’s a good one.
But hey, we’re learning!
Before we go…you want to see some of this play, don’t you? All right. Fine. I’d say to bear in mind that I was seventeen, but…well, anyway…here it is. The sculptor’s uncle has run into a haughty art critic.
SAGE: Vince, Vince, Vince. Of course art should be enjoyed by everyone. But it should be commented upon and criticized by those who have the training for the job.
VINCE: What if commenting on art is part of the enjoyment?
SAGE: Your opinion does matter, just not as much as the opinion of someone who’s right. Now, if you’ll excuse me, they’ve erected another work by the south end, and I must see it.
VINCE: But wait, your write-up, it’ll be…
SAGE: A cutting exposé of the depraved messages infiltrating our cherished public spaces through rampant narcissism.
VINCE: Look, we can patch this up. Maybe… (He rummages in his pocket.) Maybe Queen Elizabeth can convince you to be a little kinder?
SAGE: What are you implying?
VINCE: (Looks through his wallet) Or maybe you can have a threesome with William Lyon Mackenzie King?
SAGE: Are you suggesting I have sexual relations with a dead prime minister and the Queen of England?
VINCE: No! All I meant was-
SAGE: Never mind family ties; this is why you so adore this monstrosity! Clearly, you are too emotionally immature to understand the wrongness of this statue… and you’re dependent on perverted fantasies!
VINCE: I was trying to bribe you, all right?
SAGE: Oh. That is hardly better! Sexual intercourse can be a wonderful and natural act, but money appeals only to the greed-driven, consumerist levels of the soul.
And then I had an elderly couple whose sole purpose was to wander onstage every so often and offer a dose of absurdity (they later partially resurrected themselves as Old Mabel):
ETHEL: George? Have you a sweetie?
GEORGE: Why, yes!
ETHEL: I like sweeties.
GEORGE: As do I.
ETHEL: Is it an orange sweetie, or a lemon sweetie?
ETHEL: Neither? Then… George, can it be?
GEORGE: Yes! It is a cherry sweetie!
ETHEL: Splendid! (Pause) George, have you only a single sweetie?
GEORGE: Yes, but I shall give it to you.
ETHEL: I couldn’t eat your only sweetie, heavens no. It would be terribly selfish of me.
GEORGE: Then I know what we shall do. We shall purchase other sweeties!
ETHEL: Sweeties are very nice to suck on.
GEORGE: They are. Do you suppose they make scotch sweeties?
ETHEL: Shall we ask?
GEORGE: I think we shall. To the shopkeeper!
They wander offstage.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Sigh…I do like Ola Gjeilo. This week, I’ve been playing a lot of “Unicornis Captivatur.” The text is a Latin chant from the Engelberg Codex, a compilation of chants from ~1400s Switzerland.
Basically, the wounded unicorn is presented to the court, it heals itself, there’s a lot of fairly conventional Christ metaphors, but also phoenixes and hydras eating crocodiles alive from the inside. (Listen for Idrus intrat crocodilum, around 1:45.)
Six Stories, Told at Night released its first episode yesterday! If you’ve heard it, you’ll know that it’s a strange sort of hybrid piece: it’s sort of like an audiobook, but it’s really more a one-woman play, and it’s really comprised of six discrete short stories, while simultaneously being one cohesive whole…
It’s weird. It’s wonderful, and I think we’ve hit on a really interesting form of audio fiction, and also, it’s weird.
Which is fine—I’ve joked that Submissions Grinder needs to develop a filter for fiction labelled “weird af,” since that seems to be what I write. Not intentionally, necessarily—it’s just that with every story, you need to find the best (or often, only) possible way to tell it.
Look at Six Stories: the story that emerged—this story of Sam and Joëlle, of loss and friendship—was always meant to be voiced by one person. That’s what it demanded—this story of stories within stories.
So, cool. An audiobook with extra bells and whistles, a straight read supplemented with sound effects. Right?
It IS a story that absolutely must be performed aloud. It loses a layer of meaning if you’re reading it on the page, the same way that scripts only spring to life when you get them on their feet. And I choose my words very carefully: performed aloud, not read aloud. There’s a difference in energy and intention. It’s subtle, but it’s there:
“If this was a regular stage play,” I told Blythe, “it’d be black-box studio theatre, with a minimalist set.”
“I treated it like I was onstage,” Blythe told me, after. “It was different than Heartstealer.”
So. Not quite an audiobook. But not quite a conventional audio drama, either. Basically, I took that lovely taxonomy I developed at Stonecoast and threw it out the window. We have something new, I think. A weird, hybridized, emergent art form.
Because that’s how this particular story must be told.
We instinctively make these choices when we start noodling ideas. Is it a play, or prose? Short story or novel? First person or third person? Linear timeline, or jumping all over the place?
Sometimes we only find out by writing. Sometimes we change our minds halfway through. Sometimes we change our minds at the very end, when we’ve given the draft a cold, hard look.
In the end, though, it always falls to the demands of that particular piece. “This is the only way I could think of to tell this story,” is a perfectly valid reason for making certain artistic choices.
Even when they’re weird af.😉
What I’m Listening to This Week
Cover reveal and podcast announcement! Huzzah!
Our new audio drama, Six Stories, Told at Night releases soon—Episode 1 should drop on Sunday, August 14th. There will be links aplenty once that happens, rest assured.
Six Stories, Told at Night has been generously funded by the Ontario Arts Council. What does this mean? It means that, after years of podcasting on a shoestring, I could finally afford to do things properly. Custom music, pro rates for voice talent (an actor AND a singer, oh my), and a gorgeous cover image.
Would you like to see this gorgeous cover image?
Of course you would.
It’s designed by Starla Huchton, after all.
Here it is:
I am so incredibly grateful to the Ontario Arts Council. Someone, please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I’m the first fantasy podcaster to receive government funding? While that’s neat for my ego, it’s also highly encouraging.
You guys, the government funded an independent podcast. Not only that, the government funded an independent fantasy podcast.
Ten years ago, not many people knew what a podcast was. Not many people outside the community took them all that seriously. While podcasts have since grown more mainstream, this feels incredibly validating. It reaffirms that yes, podcast fiction is legitimate art. It shows that podcasts have changed the way we tell stories—maybe not quite the way we all imagined ten years back, but nevertheless.
And it reaffirms the legitimacy of speculative fiction outside its community. For those keeping score at home—earlier this year, a straight-up fantasy story about cannibal ice monsters won the largest short story contest in Canada. Now Six Stories and its fairy tales contribute to the arts in Ontario. It makes me feel very honoured, very blessed, and very humbled.
It’s been a wild ride. Blythe sounds phenomenal, of course—I think this may be my favourite vocal performance from her. I can’t wait to show you what we’ve been working on. See you next Sunday!
What I’m Listening To This Week
So here’s how I do this: I literally just find whatever song has been most played on my iPod over the past week. That’s it.
Sorry. Not sorry.
This song has acquired a very special poignancy for me. Music starts at 1:04.
I’m typing this somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, on my way home after a week in Ireland as visiting choir at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (I wasn’t the entire visiting choir, don’t worry—there were close to 40 of us singing). Conveniently, Ireland was next on my “Want-To-Visit” list after New Zealand, so things worked out quite well.
After all, I have a lot of upcoming fiction that either draws from Irish history/mythology, or straight-out takes place in Ireland. So while the choir was there to sing, I used this as a research trip alongside.
Mostly, this research consisted of walking around and looking at things. Getting a feel for Dublin and its qualities of light; how the air lies against the skin; the smells and shadows and tastes. My pal Erin and I took some day trips as well, so I did the same heading north to the Giants’ Causeway, and then cutting across the country to the Cliffs of Moher.
It’s a funny thing. When you’re in this research-mode, you’re always hanging back a little. You take notes, mentally or otherwise. My phone is full of things like, “Horn spoons can’t be sharpened,” and “Mugshot mirrors,” and “Body-snatching cemetery near Kilmainham: jail visible.” It’s kind of like being a spy: silently gathering information as you move through the world.
Of course, you still enjoy yourself. It’s true: there’s something about the Cliffs of Moher that take the talking away from you. At the same time, it’s like having double-vision: gasping at the Cliffs of Moher because they’re really quite shockingly beautiful, while also saying, “Right…this is the contrast of grey-lilac cloud and bright green. This is how it looks.”
I think that writers are simultaneously hyper-engaged with the world, and standing apart from it. Constantly stroking the limestone (smooth, warm, grainy under the fingers), really paying attention to the salt on the wind (it gets on the lips), studying our bus tour group (that passive-aggressive woman insinuating that maybe the driver can stop at her hotel, not the official bus drop-off). You’re right there, but always saying, “So that’s how it is, I can use that.”
Really, though, you don’t need to travel to conduct this sort of research. Watch the people on the subway—the power dynamics over shared seats. Pay attention walking down the street—ears open, eyes wide, breathing deep.
It’s tiring. I don’t think anyone can do it all of the time. Sometimes, you can’t be standing apart, taking notes. But I do think I made the most of my time in Ireland. I understand it better; we’ve gotten to know each other a bit.
Now, of course, even more fun and hard work: taking those impressions and scraps and synthesizing them into good stories. 🙂
What I’m Listening to This Week
Ah, it’s been “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” (no, I’ve not seen the movie; yes, I want to). There was a lot of Irish history on this trip. There’s a wonderful crescendo about midway through this piece that cuts to a lot of grief—it’s given insight into a certain character.
I understand him better; we’ve gotten to know each other a bit.
Like many writers I know, I keep quotations at my desk. As with most people, they represent an eclectic mix of memories, aspirations, and feelings. Now, I like seeing what words other writers use for compasses. Here, then, are mine:
There’s a reason this picture has shown up a few times. It’s one of the most important of the bunch. Shortly after I graduated, Elizabeth Hand and I had a long, lovely conversation. This is how she finished it. At any stage of a career, it all comes down to this, doesn’t it?
From Doctor Who (the beautiful Vincent Van Gogh episode, more specifically). My writing goes dark, more often than not. While it’s all very well – easy – to hit the reader that way, there has to be more to a story than emotional button-pushing and personal catharsis.
Another contribution from Liz: this is from a poem by Theodore Roethke. She put this on the easel during our first workshop, and it’s stayed with me since. The voice of the story is always there. Often, we simply need to centre ourselves, breathe, and listen to it.
From another friend: Dave Robison. During my first Smoky Mountain Writers’ retreat, I joined a renegade critique group that met to offer criticism after cocktail hour. I read a story about undead French-Canadian steampunk cyborgs (of course). After the silence that followed, this is what Dave said.
This probably deserves its own blog post, but I have to believe it. I have to. Words aren’t coming? You’re going to win a Hugo one day. Rejection letter? You’re going to win a Hugo one day. Feeling frightened, alone, and talentless? Dust yourself off and keep going, because you’re going to win a Hugo one day.
Of course, it seems terribly arrogant to presume that, but I think a weird mix of arrogance and humility is part and parcel of the writing mindset. In any case, it’s proven a lifeline, a beacon, something to drive my ship towards. Can’t ask for more than that, can you?
Okay, so this is probably the most idiosyncratic of the bunch. Earlier this year, I read The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars, by Steven Brust. It was part of Terri Windling’s series of fairy tale retellings. It’s about a painter and it’s about a Hungarian fairy tale. It’s mostly about art and creation. Throughout, the narrator asks, “Bones?” He explains that in traditional Hungarian fairy tales, it’s a way of asking if the listener is still awake, if they want more.
And then the story continues.
When I’m beaten, and exhausted, and battling a three-day migraine (I was doing so well with migraines, for a while), I look just past my monitor. There, on one of many whiteboards, the question waits.
And inevitably, my tired brain mumbles, “Tiles.”
And then the story continues.
Can’t ask for more than that, can you?
What I’m Listening to This Week
We’re finally going to Dublin! The choir flies out at the end of this week, so naturally, when it’s not tour music, I’ve been listening to all sorts of Irish music. I’ve heard other versions of “Óró Sé do Bheatha Bhaile,” but none like this. Loosely translated, it runs something like, “Oh-ro, welcome home, Oh-ro, welcome home, now that summer’s coming!”
It’s a rebel song, and it’s the intensity of the vocalists that gets me here. It’s sparking something in the back of my mind: possibly a way to fix the novel I drafted earlier this year (Dublin will be part choir tour, part research trip….)
It’s mid-July, and I’m not in Maine.
It’s the first Stonecoast residency since I graduated. Today is Monday, which means it’s the third day of workshops. The groups have bonded by now. Follies is tomorrow. The Secret Firstie Meeting probably hasn’t happened yet. People are starting to get a little tired, but there’s still very much a feeling of, “Residency will last forever!” It’s not the same as the second half. After the Break Day, everything just goes on an ever-faster slide to the end.
And here I am, in Toronto.
A very large part of me misses Stonecoast. For two years, my twice-annual trek to Maine has been part Hogwarts, part con, and part summer camp. I miss hopping off the airport shuttle onto beautiful green Bowdoin campus. You’d pick up your packet and name tag from Matt at the front desk, drag your stuff into the dorms—such sterile white halls, but oh, what wonderful people! It’s hot. Of course it is. But the air is full of moisture (we’re close to the ocean) and everything feels possible.
The bar at the Brunswick Tavern is used to us by now. Oh, that long porch with the spindly metal chairs and tables, and that small-but-mercifully-air-conditioned lobby, and the room where we had readings, with the windows letting the evening light in and the ridiculous pattern of that carpet.
Everything felt possible at Stonecoast. Everything was morning and potential and wonderful things yet to come. And of course—the people are a big part of that. Our wonderful faculty, our fellow students—each cohort slowly emerging with its own distinctive personality.
Part of me feels like Peter and Susan, barred from Narnia. And yet—perhaps a bigger part of me knows that this is right, that I’ve graduated, that I had my time at Stonecoast and now it’s time to move on.
See, Stonecoast is a finite thing. You get two years, and then you’re on your own. This is part of the magic: it’s precious because it’s so short. It’s not meant to be the point of the journey—it’s a waystation—a place in the coastal shallows where you ready yourself for the open ocean ahead.
And so, there’s understandably some trepidation, post-graduation. You’re on your own. The defined structure is gone. Now’s the time to take everything you’ve learned and use it. There’s some pressure in that. I want to make the faculty proud. I want to put my time in Maine to good use. And I don’t want to disappear beneath the waves. I don’t want to return to dry land. I don’t want the wonder and potential of those Stonecoast years to fade into the hum of dayjob and ordinariness and Everyday Life.
So yeah, pressure. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It spurs me on. It makes me keep trying. Honestly, I know I’ve done some good stuff post-Stonecoast. It’s not enough. It won’t ever be enough. I don’t think that’s a bad thing either.
See, the thing about Stonecoast is that while it’s an MFA that you pay for, it is also a wonderful gift and opportunity. For two whole years, you get top-notch instruction. You get peers. You get friendships, and experiences, and challenges, and memories. You get so very much—and then it’s up to you.
I don’t want to squander the gift I’ve been given.
I want to be one of the ones who make it.
But even as I yearn for Bowdoin’s sun-filled quad and gorgeous Maine mussels and IPA, I’ve realized—Stonecoast isn’t just a place. It isn’t just a program. It’s a community, and it’s the principles of that community.
Stonecoast changed my life. Sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true: I shudder to think where my writing would be without it. Really, it’s where I grew up, as a writer and a person. For me, residencies are done, but I’ll always have Stonecoast as my compass.
For those graduating this residency: congratulations, and remember—this is where the real work begins.
For those incoming and continuing: take care of our community—leave it even better than you found it.
For our faculty and administration—thank you.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Ah, Schubert, we meet again. For whatever reason, the phrase “Death and the Maiden” came floating through my head this week. It may be the title of a new short story; I’m not sure. In any case, it got me thinking about this piece.
In parts, it could almost be sweet…almost. Instead, it’s largely discordant and creepy: a nightmarish dance that makes me see crumbling gothic castles and flickering candlelight.
It’s my birthday tomorrow! Granted, this does happen every year. But tomorrow is rather a milestone. I’m turning twenty-five, you see.
It feels like a big number.
I’m sure I’ll look back on that sentence in ten years and laugh.
Regardless, the idea of twenty-five seems to be settling quite well. It feels like I am exactly where I’m meant to be at this point in time. And a slow realization has been dawning on me…
I’m really, overall, very happy.
There was a time that I didn’t think that would be possible. Frankly, there was a time when I thought I’d be lucky to make it to twenty-five. That period leaves an overwhelming impression of greyness and cold. I was living by my fingernails, and I would’ve been miserable, but everything inside was too frozen for that.
Going into this twenty-fifth year, it’s green-gold and light, all the way through. Honestly, when I think about how happiness looks to me, it’s the same image over and over: those golden summer mornings at the village, early, before the public arrives. When the day’s heat is banked and the air’s shimmering and full of dew, and the dust lies quiet on the road.
Of course, there have been bumps in between Then and Now. There was also an impressive derailment. But overall…
I’ve worked really, really hard to create a life that makes me happy. I’ve learned stuff, too.
It is always, always better to talk things out.
Unexpressed emotions fester. They turn septic, poisoning you from the inside out. It is always better to get them out in the open.
I can’t drink beer and be productive on the same night.
Not at 20, definitely not at 25.
The prevailing narrative isn’t the only valid one.
Grow up, meet significant other, marry, buy house, have 2.1 children, work, retire, etc.
This is the narrative we all receive as children. It’s a fine narrative; there’s nothing wrong with it at all. But it isn’t the only one. Over the last year especially, I’ve learned that my life narrative is NOT going to look like this. And at first, that was really hard to accept—because damn, isn’t something wrong, if you stray from the Approved Story?
But you get to write your story. You can change the ending. Throw in a plot twist. Whatever narrative you end up living is no less valid than the one with the most cultural currency.
The arts really is a matter of taste.
I recently read an award-winning story (from a few years back), and said, “Eh.” Nothing wrong with it. Just not for me. And then I realized, OMG this is what editors do too!!!
See also: my experiences with modern art.
Success is a numbers game.
If you are lucky, talented, and persistent, you will eventually make it.
I’m talented. My Canadian soul quakes to say it, but it’s disingenuous not to. I’m lucky.
The minimum amount of sleep I need to be reasonably functional is 4 hours.
This has been extensively tested. 3 hours is not pretty.
There’s always a line in the sand.
Whenever I go into tailspins, there’s always some line in the sand—something that I am not willing to lose—that pulls me upright again. It’s an impetus to start clawing my way back to the light.
Everyone has their price. It’s a matter of sorting it out, before it’s too late.
My family/friendships are my centre.
I like Being Alone. I like staying up until 4:00 am writing. I like bopping around museums and galleries by myself. I like having my art play a prominent role in my life.
But without you—you, my families; you, my friends; you, my Tribe—there’s nothing.
So that’s twenty-five years. They’ve been good ones, on the whole, made much better by a whole host of wonderful people.
Here’s to a whole bunch more!
What I’m Listening To This Week
More Hamilton, #sorrynotsorry. The musical just works for me, okay? It’s incredibly well-crafted, and the music does hugely interesting things. That’s why I have to keep listening – because you can’t quite get it all, the first time around.
So: the Reynolds Pamphlet. My inner history geek loves this because they quote the actual primary source document. My ear loves the deep-voiced, “Daaaaaamn.” My plotting self loves that this is the moment at which Hamilton’s world crumbles – plotwise, this is pivotal. And my character loving self adores Angelica’s rage and Jefferson’s unrestrained glee.
Quite a lot, for a two-minute song!
Well. It never rains, but it pours. We got back to our museum life, hit the ground running, and then immediately got walloped with all the things ever. Including a video series! I’m not complaining. It’s all good stuff. It’s exactly what we want to be doing, and we’re stoked to see where it all leads.
(See our videos here!)
And it also takes up a lot of brain space.
I’ve been doing all right, actually. The play and some short stories are moving a little more slowly than I’d like, but they’re moving. For now, I’ll take that.
I do want to talk about something, though. Lauren Harris first articulated it for me this spring, I’m conscious of it now, and it really struck home while I flailed about rehearsing my new monologue:
I’m the freaking Energizer Bunny, and I run at 100 mph.
It’s not even something I’m usually aware of, until it’s pointed out: the rapid speech, the constantly tapping foot, the thirty million simultaneous projects…. Sometimes, I feel like my body’s trying to compress 1000 mL of ideas and energy into 750 mL of KT. It mostly sort of works, but inevitably, stuff brims over and spills out.
I’m not the only one, though. There are other freaking Energizer Bunnies out there—I know some. It can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be challenging. When you crash at 100 mph, you’re more likely to crash spectacularly.
There’s really two main challenges that I’m learning to work around: one entirely related to the individual, and the other to dealing with other people.
Let’s talk about the individual challenge first.
When you’re the freaking Energizer Bunny, you tend to mistake exhaustion for accomplishment. You bank on endless energy, rather than actual self-care. Then, when the well dries up, you don’t know how to get yourself back on track. It’s like bright kids who coast through elementary and high school, and then hit university without proper study skills. Sheer strength only gets you so far; you need to learn how to channel and preserve it.
Of course, measured pacing seems less appealing when the ideas are coming so fast, you’re already struggling to keep up. You know, those nights you want to weep because you can’t turn your brain off. Even if you wanted to. But there’s so many ideas, and not enough time, and another just hit, and…
And so I become that child who doesn’t want to go to bed. And if you can stay up all night, or take on another thing without consequences, why not?
Because ultimately, it’s better over the long term to take care of yourself. As I see it, you can roll at a slow burn for a good long time, or go out in a flash fire blaze of glory. Sometimes the latter is tempting, but it’s probably not the smartest.
What’s more, Energizer Bunnies are exhausting to other people. For a long time, that simply never occurred to me. And it’s hard, because there are all of these amazing things to do right NOW, and they’re fun, and what do you mean you don’t want to hit up another museum???
I’m learning to moderate my pace. Sometimes, that’s really, really hard. Again, because there are all of these amazing things to do right NOW—who wants to wait?
I do….because it’s not just about the amazing things. It’s about respecting other people’s limits and being a decent human being. And hey, if you’re good at working with people, more amazing things tend to happen anyway. It’s win-win!
A last thought: it becomes very easy to pathologize our various quirks. My thyroid has been tested approximately eighty times, because I am wee and run at 100 mph.
My thyroid is fine.
People who do not run at 100 mph are fine.
I feel like a children’s TV show right now—but difference isn’t always abnormality. It’s this vast spectrum of people and experiences that make us humans so interesting. Of course, self-knowledge and understanding go a long way towards smoothing the places where those differences clash.
After all, we’re all driving on the same road.😉
What I’m Listening to This Week
This upcoming choir tour introduced me to Haitian composer Sydney Guillaume. I really like the piece we’re doing, so I went hunting for more. And I found this one! I love it!
“Twa Tanbou” is about three drums having an argument: the boula drum, who says he’s the loudest; the tanbouren, who says he’s the most beautiful; and the kata, who thinks they’re both ridiculous. Guillaume himself says: “The central theme of Twa Tanbou: In order for a team to reach the optimal result, each member must play his or her own part as a team…”
The music itself embodies this philosophy—it demands very rhythmic precision and listening from all parts. Each line is like a piece of clockwork that, set in motion with the others, ultimately makes the gears move.
When I was a wee sprogget, I was irrationally, intensely, phobic-ly afraid of things turning to stone. I didn’t read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe until high school, and still have no desire to see the film. Pokemon: the First Movie felt like a betrayal. It still makes me nauseous.
So of course, Medusa was my personal Boogeyman. She scared me absolutely shitless. See, the White Witch at least had to decide to point her wand at you; Medusa doesn’t have to do anything. You look at her, and bam—too late.
I have vivid memories of watching an ancient Bugs Bunny cartoon when I was seven. Most of the classic monster movie references flew way over my head…but then, suddenly, unexpectedly, there she was.
A wave of coldness rolled down my throat. I started shaking. I felt sick. I turned off the TV and did not look at the clip again until right now.
That was not my first encounter with Medusa. That was an episode of Tales from the Cryptkeeper, circa 1995. I refuse to watch it, but it’s online here.
So what was the big deal? Why the persistent, overwhelming terror?
I’m not sure. It could be as simple as: I got really scared by a stupid cartoon too young, and it’s left an indelible mark on my psyche. It could be as complicated as a visceral existential horror at the prospect of oblivion and death.
(I do remember intensely debating with myself about what happened to the souls of Medusa’s victims. Can the soul turn to stone too? Was petrifaction like death? Did the soul pass on? Was it stuck in limbo? I was a weird little kid; that’s all I can say.)
So now I’m an adult (allegedly), and I still don’t like watching Medusa. But I can read about her just fine. I can read about how she was once a beautiful young woman, pledged to chastity to serve her goddess. I can read about how she was raped, betrayed, transformed. I can read about how the goddess she loved condemned and damned her for what was done to her.
I can read how, following that, she’s consistently named the most horrifying woman EVAR, the archetype of womanhood gone Wrong—and how she’s also been co-opted as a symbol of female rage.
I can read about all this, and I can look at the world we live in today: a world no less horrifying than that of the Cryptkeeper. I can read about how a young woman was taken behind a dumpster: raped, betrayed, transformed. I can read how the same story unfolds again and again and again: this inability to understand consent; this persistent paradigm that women are their bodies, and that said bodies are only valuable insofar as they are useful to men. I can read how she should’ve known better, she should’ve been more responsible, she didn’t protect herself.
I can read about these victims made into Gorgons by public shame, this brokenness deep in our culture. And I can read my own experiences: the experiences that are heartbreakingly mundane, that aren’t special, that every woman has known.
The man who ran after me when I was fifteen to inform me that I had a nice chest.
The man who inserted himself between me and my friends at the bar, cutting me off like a wounded antelope, grinding closer and closer until someone grabbed me, hauled me back into the circle, and stayed by my side until Creepy Guy left.
The man who barked at me to smile last year, and when I gaped in bewilderment, snarled, “Whatever, foureyes.”
I can write this, and feel tired. Because it happens all the time. Because it isn’t special. Because every woman has similar stories. Because I’ve never bothered to tell anyone half of it, because we all go through it.
And the rage starts boiling: slow and bubbling under my breastbone, because Jesus F****** Christ, how far do we have to go before we hit a tipping point?
I can feel this, and because I’m a writer, I tell stories about it. I find symbols. I speak in metaphor, because otherwise I would give an inarticulate scream.
And so I return, perhaps inevitably, to Medusa.
When Perseus handed Medusa’s head to Athena, the goddess put it on her shield. It became a protective object: The Gorgoneion.
I’m writing about Medusa. The story is there, itching to get out. A Gorgoneion of my own: my worst and oldest fear transformed into a weapon against the real monsters.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Something not full of rage, actually. My choir’s heading to the UK on tour soon, so I’ve been stamping music into my brain. Due to my bizarre work schedule, I’ve mostly been rehearsing with the children, and they’ve been spending lots of time on this piece.
It’s grown on me. It took a while, but now I can hear how the soloist and choir work together. There’s some fun bits throughout: the C natural at ~1:35, the passing of melody around 2:50, and that glorious high G at 3:54. If I have a money note, that’s it. Nothing better than just floating in the stratosphere.😉