Monthly Archives: December 2015

Stranger Than You Dreamt It: Writing, Muses, and “The Phantom of the Opera”

I am just back from a night seeing The Phantom of the Opera with my mother. Like many sensitive and creative angst-ridden teenagers, I went through an intense Phantom phase when I was fifteen. I’ve read the original 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux. I’ve seen every film version from Lon Chaney in 1925, to Phantom of the Paradise (1974), to the abysmal adaptation of the stage musical (2005). The stage musical itself…well, I won’t admit to how many times I’ve seen that. Mostly because I’ve lost count, so I can admit nothing! Ha ha!


Basically, I know my Phantom.

The version my mom and I saw tonight was a new production of the 1986 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Same music, same costumes; new set, new director. My opinions on this production could be an essay in itself. For now, suffice it to say that I wholeheartedly agreed with two decisions; liked 2-3 in principle, but wish they’d been better executed; and mostly disagreed with the rest.

It’s still a good show, though. Of course it is. It’s the musical equivalent of Grandma’s chicken soup. Grew up with it. Loved it for years. Not the most sophisticated thing, but it’s what I turn to. Though I prefer the 1986 staging on the whole, this production gave me a lot to think about.

Let’s start with the Phantom himself. When I was 15, the Phantom was the hero. No question. Sure, he murdered a few people along the way, but he was misunderstood. He was sensitive. To quote Gaston Leroux…

…with an ordinary face, he would have been one of the most distinguished of mankind! He had a heart that could have held the entire empire of the world; and, in the end, he had to content himself with a cellar.

You see why the Phantom appealed to a creative-but-socially-anxious teenager.

Watching as a young adult, I’m more struck by the muse-artist relationship. Different actors give you different angles. Honestly, in this production, it was hard to tell which came first: the Phantom’s love for Christine, or his love for her voice. I think particularly of the few lines following the title song.

I have brought you

For one purpose and one alone

Since the moment I first heard you sing

I have needed you with me, to serve me, to sing

For my music…

My music…

They stood out more this time. Look – he’s not saying he fell in love with her at that first encounter. He’s saying that he heard that voice and said, “I need that.” Which begs the question – does he love Christine for her, or for what she can do for his art?

Here’s the thing: as artists, we’re constantly drinking in the world around us. Anything has the potential to inspire, to become art through us. This concept of muse is a sticky question, and yes, it’s one that makes me deeply uncomfortable. There is something wonderful about collaboration. There is something wonderful about someone who is very good at their art igniting in you the passion for your own.

Muses are different. If you’ve not read Christina Rossetti’s poem In the Artist’s Studio, take a break and do that now. So yeah, that’s part of it—that’s why, I suspect, Christine spent half of this performance looking like a deer in the headlights. She’s the Phantom’s idée fixe: she doesn’t get much of a chance to be Christine, a character in her own right. If they spent more time exploring her grief and father issues, that would help, but alas. Phantom fails the Bechdel Test hard. Some of that is source material, some of that is adaptation. But there’s something else, something the Phantom runs into…

You alone could make my song take flight,

It’s over now, the Music of the Night!

Final scene, Meg holding the Phantom's abandoned mask. Meg was actually one of my favourite characters this time through: fascinating mix of "concerned friend," "I can't always deal with your s***, Christine," and "Hey, I got stuff that *I* want to do too." Photo Courtesy of:

Final scene, Meg holding the Phantom’s abandoned mask. Meg was actually one of my favourite characters this time through: fascinating mix of “concerned friend,” “I can’t always deal with your s***, Christine,” and “Hey, I got stuff that *I* want to do too.”
Photo Courtesy of:

How sad is that? A brilliant composer—done. No more art. No more beauty. No more Music of the Night. It scares me. This notion of becoming so dependent on another person that in a sense, your art isn’t your own anymore. If everything you create is for them, to them, then really, it belongs to them. When they leave, you lose yourself.

It scares me because I can see how it might happen.

Teenage Me raged against the injustices wrought on the Phantom. He could have loved, and loved well, if only he’d been given the chance. But he wasn’t, and look at him now. It wasn’t fair. I felt his pain.

Adult Me smiles nervously. Yes, I can empathize—the creative figure behind the scenes, isolated by something that can’t be helped, something that is strange and different. I’m not a Christine: not in the spotlight, not terribly interested in it. I lurk in the basement, write the stuff, pull the strings.



But there’s a darkness and possessiveness to the Phantom. He’s better than Edward Cullen, but it’s a difference of degree rather than kind. Which is obviously problematic for multiple reasons, but we’re talking about art and muses. Muse relationships work best, I think, when there is some distance. You’re creating art partly to fill in that gap, but once you get too close, the art doesn’t work anymore, and neither does the relationship. It’s the Icarus Paradox.

So the Phantom tried to touch the sun. Should he be faulted for that? Not that, I don’t think. Murdering, yes. Threatening, yes. Blackmailing, stalking, keeping people against their will. None of that is good.

But reaching for just a little more? Falling in love?

I don’t think so. In the end, I still consider The Phantom of the Opera a tragedy. If Christine had felt the same; if he’d stuck to giving music lessons and writing avant-garde operas and learned to love her in an artistic, mentor-like way; if there’d been someone else; if, if, if…

For me, the saddest part of the musical comes just before the end of Act I. The Phantom emerges on the empty rooftop, after seeing Raoul and Christine’s makeout session.

“I gave you my music,” he whispers. “I made your song take wing.”

He gave the most important, deepest, and truest part of himself: his art. And she couldn’t—through no fault of Christine’s, it doesn’t work out. Sometimes life is like that.


It’s still awfully sad.


What I’m Listening to This Week

I just saw an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Obviously, I’ll be singing it for days. Even the baritone parts. Especially the baritone parts.

I couldn’t pick between “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Music of the Night,” so here they both are. This is the original London cast, with Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman. The 25th Anniversary cast runs a close second, but these two are still my favourites. Michael Crawford has the perfect voice for the Phantom: something just a little…different. And unlike Phantoms who simply stalk and shout, he actually shows us the Phantom’s whole emotional range: from grief to amused irony. Also, his high notes in “The Music of the Night”? Divine.

(Also, this version of “The Music of the Night” comes with an 80s-tastic music video!)

And Sarah Brightman…well, the role was written for her. Enough said.

Writing and Gentleness

“Hopefully you can take some time for yourself,” said my mentor, once my thesis went in. And I smiled and nodded and laughed inside, because please, there’s always something else that needs doing: another story that needs writing, or scheme that needs plotting, or a novel waiting in the docket. I like working. I do better when I’m busy. I do not idle well.

Except I’m very, very tired. One early night turned into two, which turned into a slow week, which turned into sluggish anxiety over everything I want to do and everything I’ve not yet started.

Not writer’s block. Writer’s block usually comes from fear—or an innate problem in the work that hasn’t yet been acknowledged. I’m not scared; I know what I want to write. I know how to do it. A novel’s emerging from the mist and I have five-ish short stories pressing on me. They’re developing themselves very slowly, but the work is good—I know it is.

Except I’m very, very tired.

I couldn’t figure out why. Regular iron supplements have kept me out of anaemia for weeks. For the first time in years, I’m getting sufficient sleep on a regular basis. The cold I was fighting earlier this winter is long gone. I’m happy. Aside from, you know, the whole tired thing.

Then I realized that we’re about midway through December. And I realized it’s the same damn thing that I deal with every year.

I’m pretty sure it’s the quality of light that does it. See, in December, there’s a certain grey slant to the light—especially in the late afternoon. It’s completely unlike the light in November or January. It’s almost funny—in so many ways, we try to divorce ourselves from natural light. Fluorescent bulbs and backlit screens and searchlights probing from the Air Canada Centre. Then December rolls around with its flat grey light and some lizard part of my brain wakes up and says, “Oh. Oh. When the light looks like this, very bad things happen.”


It is beautiful, though. Can’t deny that.

There are other things, too. There’s the weight of the wind, and the way the air smells, and all the seasonal reminders. But mostly, it’s the light.


So, great. It’s the psychological equivalent of an old wound acting up again. Where does that leave me?

A few years ago, I would’ve tried to push through. I would’ve beaten myself up for not writing more, faster, now. I would’ve seethed with self-directed frustration. Now…maybe I’ve mellowed in my old age. Or maybe I’ve just learned a thing or two.

Sometimes, you need to rest. And sometimes, you need gentleness. This is not a race, and you do yourself no favours by charging ahead on an empty tank. For myself—I’ve learned that mid-December is likely never going to be a particularly productive time. And that’s okay. I am human. I am allowed to rest and read Agatha Christie stories and drink hot chocolate and go to bed early. No babies will die if I write those five-ish short stories in two weeks, instead of right now this second.

Besides: my off-season is coming. Better to rest now and then make the best use of my uninterrupted writing time. And yes, there’s a small part of me that cringes at that, feeling like I’m giving up.

But I’m not. I’m looking at the long game. 😉


What I’m Listening To This Week

So for everything I just said about taking time for myself, I am very casually and informally turning a novel over in my brain. Nothing beyond general musings and some whiteboard sketching. But, I did find this song, which jolted something loose in the old noggin.

Besides being an Irish dance spectacular, “Lord of the Dance” is a modern hymn borrowing the tune of an earlier one. I heard it once, and it was catchy. I heard it again, and around 1:45, I got slammed with a flood of feeling and images and dialogue that I’m pretty sure is the climax of this story. That seems to be how I plot: flailing about until serendipitous music sets me right.

But oh…oh, I can see my protagonist…

Guest Post: THE GIRL IN ACID PARK Cover Reveal!

Remember how last time, I mentioned my podcasting pal and increasingly-frequent collaborator, Lauren “Scribe” Harris? Right, that one. She’s pretty cool, and this week, she’s revealing the cover for her latest book: THE GIRL IN ACID PARK. I was lucky enough to hear snippets of this during last year’s Smoky Writers Retreat, and even luckier to read a completed draft. I could gush about it…but instead, I’ll turn the mic over to Lauren. 🙂


Welcome to the cover reveal for THE GIRL IN ACID PARK, book two in The Millroad Academy Exorcists series. I’ve been sitting on this cover for about a year, ever since it was created by the inimitable Starla Huchton. I’m so excited to release the both the cover and the preorder link today! Book one hit #1 in three Kindle categories, which is sort of like making the indie pub honor roll. I’m hoping book two does just as well. So, without further ado, THE GIRL IN ACID PARK.

Available for Pre-Order!

Available for Pre-Order!

Unlike her best friend Hiroki, Georgia Collins can’t see or talk to dead people. But she recently discovered she can help ghosts move on–no exorcism required! Unfortunately, so did the national media. Her underground blog is not so underground anymore and the Millroad Catholic Academy students with their scandals on exposé are less than thrilled about Georgia’s journalistic success.

But Georgia has never been one to let things blow over, so when the police request paranormal assistance on a new murder case, Georgia decides to make the unwanted spotlight work her way and agrees to help…except she didn’t expect Hiroki to refuse.

Pre-order here:

Join my mailing list and get book one, EXORCISING AARON NGUYEN, for free!

Lauren Harris is an author, narrator, and the assistant editor for Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show magazine. She lives in a renovated tobacco pack house in rural North Carolina, where she is pleased to have running water, wi-fi, and all her teeth.


What I’m Listening To This Week

I have a longstanding soft spot for Andrew Lloyd Webber. It’s hard to get one-woman shows to work…unless you’ve got an actor like Bernadette Peters (pretty sure I once saw Song and Dance with Louise Pitre as well – marvellous).