Monthly Archives: January 2016
The beginning stages of a novel are like the first few shoots that poke above ground in March. Delicate and fragile, easily crushed. They may look like they’re growing and blossoming, and then one last snowfall or late frost withers them to nothingness.
So too with stories, I find. There’s a precarious stage when you first start writing any new project: novel, short story, play, whatever. You may believe in it, you may know what’s happening later on, but you haven’t quite settled into the story or its characters. Not quite settled is a very uncomfortable feeling, and I generally dislike uncomfortable feelings.
Self-doubt creeps in. “You don’t know what you’re doing. This is terrible. This story has deep intrinsic flaws that cannot be fixed. You call that a description?”
It’s one last, late frost.
The only way through is to keep going. Now, of course, some stories—like tender shoots and buds—dry up and die for no apparent reason at all. Quite annoying, really, when you can see the story, you were all excited about it—and it’s undeniably dead on the page.
That’s why I hesitate to talk about stories too early. Just in case speaking about them out loud brings that swift, fatal winter wind. But there’s also a definite point when the story crosses the threshold, and you know it’s going to survive. It’s an instinctive thing, not measured by page or wordcount. There’s always that story that you write all the way to the end before realizing it doesn’t work. Not that I have experience with that or anything.
To an extent, the story’s fighting to keep you just as much as you’re fighting to keep it. My off-season means that all those hours formerly occupied with beer and frolicking about in petticoats are now filled with creative work. I adore it, but there’s a lot of it. How do I keep my tender little shoot alive when my garden’s looking a wee bit full?
No matter how busy I get, I’m committed to writing this novel every day. 2000-3000 words is my preference, but 1000 is okay, too. Even 500. As long as it’s something. Think of it like water: that little shoot may still wither and die, but looking after it gives it a fighting chance.
Also, trickery. I’m pretty sure that the main reasons my stories wither and die is that my brain suddenly realizes: Holy frak, we’re Writing A Real Thing. And then it freaks out and gets really self-conscious, criticizing every comma, and holding every sentence against the fantasy corpus, despairing of ever actually Writing A Real Thing.
Not the best creative atmosphere.
Luckily, my mind is fairly easy to trick. I never begin a new novel with a title page. I just start writing on a blank Word doc. Roman numerals have always been my preference for chapter headings: my brain takes a moment to register “I” instead of “Chapter One,” and it seems that split second of hesitation is all the space I need to forge ahead. Sometime around “II” or “III,” I’ll add page numbers and the usual “AUTHOR/TITLE” header.
It takes the pressure off: “See, we’re not Writing A Real Thing! We’re messing around. Playing. That’s all!”
And then, once I’ve tricked myself into getting a few chapters in, that little shoot is usually strong enough to keep going. It may still die. But the chances of survival are much, much higher.
My new novel’s getting there. I wouldn’t say it’s out of the woods yet. But—but when I open the file to keep working on it, it’s with a sigh of relief. “I get to work on this now;” not “I have to.” There’s a pull with this one, tugging me forward. Since Heartstealer felt much the same, I take that as a good sign.
Will it live? Only time will tell.
But I sure hope so. 🙂
PS. Do you like the new site design? The old one was feeling too dark and claustrophobic—I wanted to clear out the cobwebs! And I think this scheme captures my writerly flavour a little better.
What I’m Listening To This Week
We all know I like Palestrina, but when I first came across this piece, I had to stop what I was doing. This Sanctus from Palestrina’s “Missa ut re me fa so la” is divine in every sense of the word. Oh, those long lines in the top soprano part! The altos driving like an engine!
I’ve heard a lot of liturgical music. This piece is one of the most beautiful.
Picture this: there’s eighteen of us backstage at a performing arts high school in Freeport, Maine. Actually, we’re in the band practice room. Linoleum floors, stray music stands, drum kit and harp shoved against the walls. Kat’s changing into her grad dress in a supply closet while Kelly-from-the-Book-Table corrals us and fastens our Masters’ hoods, because none of us can figure the damn things out.
Then we file into the auditorium to the delicate strains of “Pomp and Circumstance,” as arranged for guitar. We are tightly gripped by the elbow before being sent out. Alongside a push, we receive either a whispered, “Congratulations,” or “Walk slow!”
(Guess which I got? :D)
And then there’s speeches. I kind of forget that novelist Aaron Hamburger is giving our commencement speech until about halfway through, because it’s mostly a really good story. Names are called, and we trip across the stage one-by-one to receive our diplomas. Then, when we’ve all got one, the Dean of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Southern Maine calls us to rise.
I paraphrase, but he says something like, “These candidates brought before me have completed all their requirements of study, and come well-recommended by their faculty. Therefore, by the power vested in me, I confer upon you all, respectively, by your disciplines, the degree of Master of Fine Arts.”
And I thought, “Oh, shit.”
See, I’ve spent the last two years calling myself a “secret grad student.” Oh, the Stonecoast MFA Program is work. Absolutely. But it never felt like schoolwork. It felt more like an apprenticeship—like I’d troop into the woodshop in the evenings and have a master cabinetmaker show me tools and inspect my carving.
Or maybe it was more like Jedi training. The point is that it didn’t feel like school.
But in two years, I learned far more than I can express here. The difference in my writing before-and-after Stonecoast is striking. Arriving at Stonecoast, I knew how to string together clean, functional sentences. Leaving, I know a lot more about being an artist.
Most of all, I grew up. Looking back, I arrived with a strange mix of arrogance and insecurity—that special mix possessed only by twenty-two-year-olds who’ve had some lucky breaks. Stonecoast isn’t a harsh “break-down/rebuild” program…but the faculty and students challenged me, tempered me, encouraged me, pushed me. Yes, Stonecoast made me a better writer, but it also made me a better person.
I learned about beauty, artistry, and grace under pressure.
I learned about cutting to the heart of things, balancing objective insight with gleeful delight, and the importance of irreverence.
I learned that kindness and shrewdness are not mutually exclusive.
I learned about picking yourself up, no matter what, and writing from one’s heart of hearts.
I learned about sheer grit, and the absolute refusal to collapse and give in.
I learned the beauty of form and architecture, and the heights we may climb when we join hands with other artists.
I learned, once again, that the sweetest people often write the darkest things…and that’s pretty awesome.
I learned the sheer joy of devoting one’s self to one’s art, and the warmth of a truly open heart.
From the administration team, I learned about dedication and organization and going way, way above and beyond the call of duty.
From my fellow students, I learned about friendship and community and unconditional acceptance.
Thank you. Thank you all. You’ve left your fingerprints all over my life and art.
Two years ago, a frightened little girl stepped off the plane in Portland. I am no longer that girl. Two years in sunny coastal waters have given me strength and love and resources I never knew I had. Armed with these lessons and lifelong friendships, I’m excited to venture into the depths.
Honestly, it’s like Pokémon Gold/Silver/Crystal: once you beat the Elite Four and become a Pokémon Master, you get a whole new world to explore.
“When you get home,” Aaron said, “take your degree out and look at it. Own it. And then roll up your sleeves, and get back to work.”
What I’m Listening to this Week
My friend and occasional co-writer Lauren Harris introduced me to Mary-Jess while I was in Virginia last month. She’s got one of those sweet, pure soprano voices: quite high and light. This piece is my favourite thus far; it’s unsticking a novel point for me, and I absolutely adore the crescendo into the runs on “glorious.”
And it seems fitting, given the whole “starting a new chapter” thing. 😉
I am writing these words while sitting on a couch in Virginia, surrounded by some of my dearest friends. When I think where I was this time last year—this has been a long journey, of which 2015 was just one part.
Recapping the year feels trite. I can’t, especially not when I’m full of this much beer, bacon, and Thai food.
But there’s always a hunger around New Year’s, bacon and Thai food aside. A yearning, an excitement for the year ahead and all its yet-to-be-realized plans. I graduate from Stonecoast in two weeks. I’m returning to a fabulous writers’ retreat. Museum theatre and beer and audio all continue to be important parts of my creative and professional lives.
And thinking about all of this, there is a word that comes to mind.
Audeamus. Let us dare.
I wrote about audacity ages ago: the willingness to take bold risks. The concept of audeamus is similar, but I think it also brings in connotations of courage. Being scared but doing it anyway. Striving for new ground.
This year, I’m writing a play. I have no idea what I’m doing with it, or where it will end up, or if I’ll do anything with it. But I want to write a play. I’m writing at least one novel. I’m submitting as many short stories as I can.
Standing on the precipice of the year, it’s intimidating.
But there’s another cool thing about the word audeamus. Add one letter, and it becomes gaudeamus.
Let us rejoice.
Tonight: audeamus, let us dare.
This time next year?
Happy New Year, lovelies.
What I’m Listening To This Week
A friend offered me several introductions to Hamilton. There’s enough cleverness in the lyrics that I keep coming back to smile at the wordplay. Also, it gives ear-worms like no one’s business. There’s a line in this opening that strikes me as particularly fitting for New Year’s Eve:
There’s a million things I haven’t done
But just you wait.