Monthly Archives: September 2017
I have just returned from three days’ camping along Georgian Bay. It was stunningly beautiful landscape and a much-needed break, but now I am exhausted. As such, no real post this week: just some pictures and a very special “What I’m Listening to this Week.”
What I’m Listening to this Week
“Wanderer’s Lullaby,” by Adriana Figueroa, is a gently lilting piece based on a music box theme. The lyrics are perhaps a little self-indulgent, but they are also exactly what I needed to hear this week.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Toronto’s green spaces: the ravines, the parklands, the rivers. Partly, it’s novel research. But also, it’s keeping me grounded. Rooted, if you will. (Terrible pun. Sorry, not sorry.)
Over the past few months, I’ve realized something. When I move through the urban streetscape, it’s a very visually oriented experience. Yes, traffic rumbles and horns honk and the stoplights all have auditory signals, but I’m mostly relying on my eyes. And it goes without saying that this is my experience: someone differently sighted will have an entirely different way of interacting with the city.
But in the ravines and along the ponds, I rely on my ears much more. Rustling leaves and sudden splashes, birdsong and squirrel yells—that’s how I put together the thousand tiny dramas unfolding all around me. Sight comes later: you hear a plaintive warbling, then spy the baby bird in a hollow tree. Catch the whisper of a cattail blowing the wrong way, then notice the frog chilling in its shadow.
Really, though, it’s all the senses working together. Except taste. As lovely as the ravines are, it’s probably not a good idea to lick anything you find in them. Digression aside, the trees become a sort of tapestry around you, with eye, ear, nose, and touch all working together to create a living, holistic picture of what’s happening.
It humbles you. To become part of that scene, you need to become part of the scenery, too. And so, you must become quiet. You must become still. You must get outside your own head and worries and actually notice the chipmunk and squirrel staring each other down in the branches above.
I’m not articulating this well, but—it’s like moving from first-person to third-person. We aren’t the centre of the universe, in the woods. We’re one more drama, one more set of noises. And when you start to let go of all the preoccupations—when you actually listen—the details start emerging more and more quickly, like stars coming out in the evening. First one, then another, and another.
Lurking frog. Dragonfly landing on water lily. Fish cruising in its shadow.
And it occurs to me that writing can be the same way. Writing isn’t about us, the authors. It’s about the stories. But I think, like people blustering through the woods, scattering birds and breaking branches, we sometimes get so caught up in ourselves that we can’t hear what the story is doing. We can’t become part of it because we are so focused on ourselves: the Writer.
So we need to become quiet, still, and get outside our own heads. Actually listen to the story: that sure little voice inside, persistent as birdsong.
For me, if I can get into the headspace I find in the ravines—calm and open, joyful and humbled—I think the writing should start to pick up. I hope so, anyway.
What I’m Listening to this Week
“Jauchzet dem Herren,” by Heinrich Schütz. We’re doing it in choir soon, but it’s been in my regular listening rotation for a few years. I like double-choir pieces, where one choir answers another or follows the first like a round. Seeing how they fit together is immensely satisfying, and you get this super exciting building effect from the echoes.
I had an epiphany this week: no one cares that I have an MFA.
Another epiphany immediately followed: no one should care.
It all sounds much more dramatic than it was, really. Sometimes after shows, visitors ask us, “So…did you, like, go to school for this or something?”
“I went to theatre school!” inevitably draws admiring murmurs and follow-up questions. “I have my Masters in Creative Writing!” not so much.
It’s a silly thing. I hate the small, venomous part of me that bristles at it. But you know what? We all have our vanities and our arrogances, and I want to be honest. It is such a silly thing, but sometimes it really sucks.
What helps is remembering why I got an MFA. I didn’t get it for glory. I got it so that I could become a better writer. No other reason. Degrees and workshops and grants are all very nice—but having them isn’t what matters. What matters is what you do with them.
Forging new opportunities.
And writing isn’t full of much glamour anyway. We tend to be paid last and least. We’re generally the silent partner, drafting proposals in the basement. Like good sound editing, good writing is often invisible, which doesn’t help if you’re after recognition.
GOBLIN 1: The Snow Queen doesn’t make any sense without goblins. We’ve got the most important part: there’s no story without us.
GOBLIN 2: But after this, we’re never seen again. No glory, no thanks, no nothing!
GOBLIN 1: It could be worse. (Pause) We could be playwrights.
The Snow Queen: a Pantomime, by Me (2016).
So if not for fame and fortune, why write?
Because we must; because we’re artists. But I’m not going to say, “Forget external validation.” That’s not realistic; most humans like praise. When you’ve worked really hard on something—put your heart and soul into it—pulled off the impossible on sheer grit and nerve—of course you want a clap on the back. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But to counterbalance that craving, we need an even stronger core of self-assurance and self-knowledge. Because the praise won’t always come. The kudos won’t. The appreciative murmurs won’t. And when that happens, an inner, steely kernel will keep you going. That’s your compass: external validation is a nice boost, but you don’t want to steer by it.
At the end of the day…yeah, I have a hungry ego. And I’ve worked to temper it, because it doesn’t have any place in the creative process. What good is praise and validation if you don’t value what you do? “Believe in yourself” sounds so cliché, but if you don’t, who will?
I think it’s one of the hardest things we face, as artists. Putting the mitts back on, wiping our faces, and striding out into the silent ring. But if you can know—if you can know, deep down—that what you’re doing is good and worthwhile—
Then the fight is already won.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I found “Dacw ‘Nghariad” by accident and immediately became obsessed. It’s one of those pieces that make stories flash before your eyes. Pretty sure this is a lullaby for my new novel’s protagonist… Of course, she’s not Welsh, but we’ll forget about that for now.
This week, I kicked a few more pieces of the new novel into place, which felt good. It’s at a peculiar stage: I know the general plot arc, but I’m not ready to start writing. Partly, I need to know the characters better. But also, there’s more substance and under-the-surface thinking I need to figure out.
It felt too superficial. A colourful facade with nothing beneath. And so, I’ve been continuing my research: not only delving into Toronto history, but also theories of the Gothic and the sublime.
Including this roundtable on Southern Ontario Gothic!
Coles’ notes: Southern Ontario Gothic blends realism with terror, generally through explorations of family dysfunction, decay, decrepitude, and repressed trauma. In Southern Ontario. The conversation is well worth watching in full, especially for its characterization of Canada as a haunted country, which suggests a way to reconcile some artistic problems I’ve been having.
I was particularly struck by Jane Urquhart. First of all, because she reminds me of Elizabeth Hand—slightly in mannerism; greatly in her razor intelligence.
But also, because of this:
I think that, as an author, I write about what intrigues me, and then it’s later that somebody else decides that whether or not I’m part of some kind of movement.
The genre was handed to the writer. The writer did not think to him or herself—“I know, I’m going to write something in the Southern Ontario Gothic genre.” I don’t think writers think like that. They don’t invent genres.
It was interesting. It’s not even that I necessarily disagree with her—I just want to explore these ideas further.
I think there is often a bumblebee-doesn’t-know-it-can’t-fly phenomenon going on with the development of new literature. Look at steampunk: K.W. Jeter only coined the term after he, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock had produced early examples of it. And once you have a name for something, once you have tropes—that’s when the family resemblances start appearing in subsequent works, whether the author intended them or not.
So what about when the genre is already established? I mean, the Creepy Play was initially code-named “Southern Ontario Gothic.” I wrote the script knowing exactly which genre it was.
But then—as Urquhart said, the genre was handed to the writer. I didn’t fit the story to the genre; I fit the genre to the story. (“Oh, wow, this is a dysfunctional family shot through with degeneration and repression—in Southern Ontario—I think I know what shelf this goes on!” rather than, “I want to write SOG, so I’d better build a family on the brink of collapse…”)
Going further with the bumblebee theory, I know some writers who refuse to read anything in their genre, for fear of contamination. For me, though—I fall back on my Stonecoast training. If you’re writing a Gothic novel, you read other Gothic novels. You read the early ones; you read the most recent; you read the literary criticism surrounding them. It’s important to understand where the genre came from, how it developed, and what people are saying now. Because it’s a dialogue—and you’re part of it. How can you contribute if you don’t know what’s been said before?
As for writing what intrigues me—I’m intrigued by the haunted, the degenerate, the many shades of family dysfunction. I’m intrigued by the liminal space between realism and the fantastic: the place where the worlds cross. I’m intrigued by the mountain of CanLit I’ve consumed this year: but I want to add magic.
So no—I don’t think (most) writers set out to create genres. But I think it is useful to have some idea of what you’re working with; what you intend to do. It’s like painting: tempera, oils, and watercolours all behave differently, and they all create different effects.
Perhaps we don’t name the movement. But surely, we imagine its form and colours…
What I’m Listening to This Week
I cycled back to a lovely Scottish-Gaelic piece. There’s still something about this music that makes me want to write all the things…