Monthly Archives: July 2016

Voices at my Desk: Words to Steer By

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:

Liz Hand's advice: always applicable.

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….)


Open Waters: Writing Post-Stonecoast

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.

Hooligans 4 life.

Hooligans 4 life.

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.

Although this picture is blurry, it's one of my favourites. I will never forget that moment.

Although this picture is blurry, it’s one of my favourites. I will never forget that moment. I don’t remember exactly what Jim said to me, but I know it was good and wise and I want to make him proud.

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.