Monthly Archives: January 2017

Guest Post: A Natural Antidepressant

Hi, pals. Today, we welcome a guest writer into the garret. Christine McDonnell is an author of YA fantasy. She’s here today talking about a subject dear to our hearts: mental health and the arts. Take it away, Christine! Read the rest of this entry

Choosing Bravery

Like approximately three million people worldwide, I participated in the Women’s March this past Saturday. The Toronto march began on the steps of the Ontario Legislature: signs in hands, pink pussyhats on heads, and chants ringing out into the January air.

Photo de Katie Bryski.

Finishing the march at Toronto City Hall.

“Tell me what diversity looks like?”


“Tell me what equality looks like?”


Thinking about it, though, there’s one more I would have added:


Speaking up and out is a very brave thing to do. Saying, “No,” is brave. Choosing to love is brave. It made me think, once again, of my favourite book: Not Wanted on the Voyage, by Timothy Findley.

Not Wanted on the Voyage is a magic realist retelling of Noah’s Ark that gives a sharp critique to patriarchy and voices to the voiceless. In one scene, Mrs. Noyes (Noah’s wife) comforts bears during a storm on the ark, despite her terror of/anger towards them. Later, she muses:

 “Cruelty was fear in disguise and nothing more…[and wasn’t] fear itself nothing more a failure of the imagination? That was why Mrs. Noyes had been afraid of bears. She had not been able to imagine consoling them.”

-Timothy Findley, Not Wanted on the Voyage.

When I look at Noah in Not Wanted, when I look at Trump, at the people railing against immigrants, the LGBTQIA+ community, minorities, Indigenous populations, women…I see a similar streak of fear. Look at their eyes. Listen to their tone of voice. You see it too, don’t you? These awful, cruel, immoral people—they’re all so scared.

Being scared is fine. Let’s be quite clear about that. But fear comes with a choice. You can act in spite of fear. You can love. Or you can let fear decay into hatred and cruelty. You see, being brave isn’t something you are. Being brave is something you choose: over and over and over.

It’s a hard choice to make, of course. Choosing bravery is exhausting. When you’re brave, you confront that fear: whether yours, or someone else’s. In choosing bravery, you imagine another way.

But that is the choice that three million people made this past weekend. It’s the choice that many millions more make in their own spaces. We’ll have to remake and recommit to it even more in the near future.

And yes, bravery is a choice that I will make in my fiction. If fear is a failure of the imagination—then let there be new stories to challenge it. Rewrite the characters and change the ending.  Undermine the dominant narrative.

Bring people to a place where they can imagine consoling bears.


What I’m Listening to This Week

 Puccini’s “Crisantemi” (Chrysanthemums) is a devastating little elegy for strings. I love the constant tension between fragile delicacy and driving momentum. It’s a restless, unsettled piece. Apt, since Puccini composed it for the death of the Duke of Savoy (chrysanthemums are a symbol of death in Italy). In places, it almost makes one think of rain – perhaps a brooding, ruminative walk through evening drizzle.

A Life of Odds and Ends

I was reading Eliot recently, as I’m wont to do:

In a life composed so much, so much of odds and ends,

(For indeed I do not love it…you knew? you are not blind! How keen you are!)

 “Portrait of a Lady,” T.S. Eliot

Listen to that: “A life composed so much…of odds and ends.” Eliot’s Lady isn’t keen on the idea: modernist life is fragmented, a jumble of meaningless scraps. And yet, and yet…

A longstanding joke in my garret is that the kitchen is outfitted almost entirely by the church rummage sale and my grandmother, who does pottery. I’m typing this paragraph while wearing fingerless gloves knit by author Leah Petersen. The book from which I quoted Eliot comes from Shakespeare and Company, in Paris. The whiteboard behind my monitor was left by the garret’s former tenant.

Photo de Katie Bryski.

So much, so much of odds and ends.

On a more philosophical level, I write fantasy: mostly fairy-tale-rooted, dark fantasy. But I also work in museum theatre, teaching history through drama. I have a soft spot for both the Pre-Raphaelites and composers like Byrd and Tallis. I read T.S. Eliot and then I play Pokémon.

Odds and ends have a history, known or not. They have an experience stamped on them already. Plus, the thing with odds and ends is that you have to figure out how to make them work for you. There’s no one-size-fits-all, standard IKEA approach. Only the materials you’ve somehow accumulated along the way, and shaped into something that hangs together: whole and uniquely yours. It’s the life of a bricoleur.

That said…sometimes, especially in the winter, I walk in the evening and peer at all the houses and feverishly covet them. A grown-up house, with matching plates and coordinated colours; an annual salary; a well-behaved cat; a spouse, and 1.7 children. The usual narrative, more or less.

And then I remember—that’s not what I want. Not really.

Seriously, that face.

Seriously, that face.

“I’m pretty sure I won’t have a conventional-looking life,” I told my mother.

“Well,” she said, “there’s no better time to have an unconventional one.”

Odds and ends. Sometimes harder, but still whole and uniquely mine.


What I’m Listening to this Week

Ha, my musical tastes are certainly a collection of “Odds and Ends.” This week brings us Franz Schubert’s “Erlköning.” That’s right, it’s the Erl-King: this lieder is based on Goethe’s poem of the same name. For those who haven’t read it: father and son ride through the forest at night; son is being lured by a supernatural being invisible to the father; by the time they reach home, the son is dead.

It’s a cool piece – not only because you can hear the Erl-King’s fingers flexing and the horse galloping – but because it requires a fair bit of acting from the singer. We’ve got the steadfast Father (first at 0:56), the terrified Son (1:00) and the creepy, creepy Erl-King (1:29). Listen also to the last two chords: it’s all so Gothic!


Last week, I had a dream—one of those dreams that makes you wonder if sometimes we really don’t just leave our bodies for a bit and go walking on another plane.


In the dream, I was in a train station. It’s one I’ve visited in dreams before: the station a little way out of town, but still pretty close to the big junction. (My dream-geographies are remarkably consistent.) A writer whom I deeply respect and admire was hanging out too, waiting for the train. After some chit-chat, I said:

“Everyone else taught me how to write. You taught me how to be an artist.”

All the next day, the dream stayed with me, seeping into the sunlight as only certain dreams do.

Everyone else taught me how to write. You taught me how to be an artist.

Every so often, the sleeping brain figures things out. Craft and art: slightly different aspects of the creative self, aren’t they? Here then, is my theory. Just like we all have public, private, and innermost selves, I think that writer types are three selves as well: writer, author, and artist.


To my mind, the writer is the craftsperson. The Writer-Me is the one who managed to get Hapax published—clean, solid, functional prose and a well-crafted story. She’s the one who beat her head against POV for months until it finally clicked. She’s the one whose voice broke—from clean, solid, functional prose to a distinctive sharpness and lyricism.


The Writer-Self dissects other people’s books like kids taking apart radios to see how they work. She delights in seeing exactly how a plot twist or character arc was constructed. She tries to articulate why some stories just don’t do it for her.

She’s writing presently—she preferred writing presently to writing right now, because of the homophone in the line—but she’s sharing the job with someone else.


I draw a distinction between writer and author. If you like, you can picture a parallel between author/writer and public/private.

So the Author-Self handles the social media, and she’s the one who does readings and sits on panels. She’s aware of how she presents: she’s the most outgoing version of myself, and she tries very hard to be gracious and polite, even when she’s exhausted, because that’s just good manners.

Photo de Katie Bryski.

Yep…there she is.

But more than that—it’s the Author-Self who does the business side. She maintains the submissions spreadsheet: which stories are with which markets, when they were sent, and their current status. She reads contracts and records earnings. She’s the one who learned to podcast, and create e-book files, and edit video, and lead workshops, and customize a blog, because those are all important authorial skills.

But there’s one more…


"Proserpine," Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1882.

“Proserpine,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1882.

The hardest one to get a handle on. The Artist is the one who makes stories sing. She’s the one that gives warmth and life to the skeleton so carefully wrought by the Writer. She’s the one who has to create, needs to create. She’s very probably the one who had the dream in the train station.

But the Artist isn’t just a self, it’s a way of life. It’s a way of seeing and breathing and being. And so the Artist is the one who wanders galleries and gets drunk on light and colour. Certain pieces of music make her cry, or gasp, or conceive a creepy, creepy play.

It’s the Artist who pays attention to the small things: apple blossoms and held-back tears. It’s the Artist who rises to the big things: love, and injustices, and fear. She looks to the Other and tries to understand.

She believes in fairy tales.

She wants to make her own.

But the thing is…

They’re not wholly separate, these aspects of ourselves that make up a creative self. They’re interdependent; they need each other. So I guess, as with so many things, it comes down to balance: the harmony of many parts moving as one.

Because really, they are one.

Now rock on with your bad selves! 😉


What I’m Listening to This Week

 A cheerful little madrigal by John Bennett. Actually, it’s not cheerful at all; it’s about wanting to cry so much you drown in your own tears. As one does, I suppose.

But it is very beautiful; there are some wonderful chords in there, particularly around the “springtides” section. I also love when the upper and lower voices start dialoguing with each other, before returning to a four-way conversation.

New Year’s Reflection: On Carrie Fisher

Welcome to 2017, everyone. The year’s unfolding like a blank sheet of paper: no creases or smudges yet. As per my own tradition, I’ve written out my creative goals in Sharpie and tacked them above my desk. There, they’ll serve as a north star for the year: something around which to orient myself.

But I don’t really want to talk about my creative resolutions. They’re there: novels and scripts and short stories, oh my! I’ll do them. You’ll see them unfold over the next twelve months.

No, I want to talk about a question posed to me by a friend: “Do you have any personal resolutions?” I hemmed and hawed and eventually said no, not really, but the question stuck with me. I mean, I’m generally quite happy. My friends are awesome. I love living in my little garret. I have a weird-but-charming cat.


I’m still working on getting my French back up to snuff. Does that count?

Then I thought vaguely that I might like to attend to my diet better. Whilst I’m in good health, it occurs to me that my family’s track record for stroke and heart disease is not super fantastic, and it might be better to bolster my defences now.

But then I thought, “No, I have a better one.”

I want to be more like Carrie Fisher.

Of all the celebrity deaths in 2016, Carrie Fisher was the one that shook me. Maybe because it was so unexpected. Maybe because she was young. Maybe because it was cardiac arrest. Or maybe because I’ve really only appreciated her in the last few years.

See, I didn’t grow up with Star Wars. Leia was not my first princess, not my childhood heroine. Instead, I got hit with the prequels. They left me terribly unimpressed, and I didn’t find my way to the original trilogy until university.

And then—well, then, of course I fell in love with Princess Leia. How can you not? She’s the one with the caustic humour; she fires the guns; she is strong and brave and good.


But all that aside—it’s a mix of General Organa and Fisher herself that impresses me most. Tough. Resilient. Still delivering caustic humour (my God, that wit!). Sure of herself and who she is. It was really only when she did the media rounds for The Force Awakens that I saw that side of her—tough as nails, smart as a whip, and a heart of gold.  Of course, of course she was human. I’ll pass on following all her examples. But dammit, she was a good human.

Did you know that she was a talented script doctor? I didn’t until earlier this year. It didn’t surprise me much.

And you know about her mental health advocacy, right?

And the books? Fiction and non-fiction?

Getty Images

For so many children, Princess Leia showed that girls can shoot just as well as boys, that you can be tough and tender, and that heroines get shit done. For me, I nurtured a gradually growing admiration for Ms. Fisher: for her honesty, her talent, the way she carried herself. Until suddenly, she was gone. It still doesn’t feel real. There’s always a certain bafflement, isn’t there? How does someone so loved, so vibrant, just go out like a snuffed candle?

Except –

Except the lessons and the example and the admiration remain. While I’m cautiously hopeful for 2017, I know that we’re going to need a lot more heroes and heroines. We’re going to need a lot of tough, tender people who get shit done. We all need to be tough as nails, smart as whips, our hearts of gold beating together.

So that’s what I’m thinking about as 2017 opens. I know I can write stuff and produce stuff and keep to goals and timetables. That’s great—but in this brave new world, it’s no longer enough.

May the Force be with you.


What I’m Listening To This Week

For no particular reason, this Mendelssohn piece came floating through my head. It is absurdly catchy—especially the alto line—so once it struck, it stuck.

Listen to the alto and soprano lines twisting around each other like ribbons—they’ll run in counter directions for a bit, join back together, support each other…it’s really quite wonderful.