Author Archives: ktbryski
You know that thing where someone gives you really good advice, but you’re not ready to hear it yet? Or you’re not able to understand? And then—maybe years later—you say, “Aha! That was very good advice!”
That’s where I am right now.
During my second semester at Stonecoast, I was mentored by the fabulous Nancy Holder. Towards the end of that semester, she said this to me:
I appreciate your observations about having “potential.” I know that can be quite paralyzing. My task to you is to connect deeply to your work and let go of why you’re doing it and what the outcome may be. Try to work on flow. Work on “what am I going for here?” instead of “what does this mean for me as a writer?” If I haven’t suggested THE VAN GOGH BLUES by Eric Maisel to you before, let me suggest it now. Maisel talks about a writer’s need to make everything mean something. My suggestion to you is to try to stop searching for the meaning in your process and just fall into these amazing, affecting stories you tell. Revel in the work. Enjoy being a writer.
At the time, I shrugged it off (sorry, Nancy, I was young and foolish). But since then, it’s floated up from the depths of my subconscious. See, humans instinctively look for patterns in things. We try to order the universe in a way that makes sense to us. Often, we do that by making up stories. Writers especially do this—making up stories is our thing. And so, we try to apply narrative structure and plot principles to reality.
This is really hard but it’s okay—this is the part where the hero is in despair, but they don’t give up, and then after the big struggle, they get the crown and glory.
It’s just the descent into the underworld. We’re at the “trials” part of the story. If we keep going, they’ll end soon.
This is just the dark night of the soul. Everything looks like angst and despair now, but it’s actually transformation. It’ll end. It’ll pass. And in the end, everything will be better.
To an extent, that’s helpful. If it keeps you putting one foot in front of the other, then it’s got some merit.
The problem is when we cling to our narrative structures too tightly:
Wait a sec—if I do the trials, they’re supposed to end at some point.
Okay, okay, so I’ve been waiting through this dark night for a real long time. I don’t think I’m transforming.
I’m not giving up, so where is my crown?
This isn’t the way the story goes.
Cycling back to Nancy’s advice, it can be paralyzing to apply this logic to our work and careers. We hunch over submissions responses like auguries over tea leaves, forecasting our writing lives. Another rejection? And another? After all this struggle? Well, this isn’t the way the story goes, so something is deeply wrong. With you. Obviously.
But even worse, I think—in stories, a taste of success means that more is coming and we’re shifting into a new act. Any glimpse of light is the first ray of dawn breaking through the soul’s dark night. And so when the morning doesn’t come—when we’re plunged into darkness and struggle deeper than ever—it feels wrong.
This isn’t the way things go.
It’s imposter syndrome with the fatal perfume of plausibility, because hey, you got stuff out. People saw it. And now?
Right. They figured it out.
So every moment—every step on the journey—becomes a plot point. It foreshadows everything else. And when the story doesn’t follow our accustomed structure, we feel like failures.
But here’s the thing: reality doesn’t plot well. The writing life isn’t a story. It’s the most unpredictable, least logical field out there. It’s not foreshadowing, it’s down to circumstances that we can’t control and that change by the minute anyway.
The only caveat I’ll throw in is that sometimes, yeah, you do need to up your game, craft-wise and art-wise. That’s where I am.
…stop searching for the meaning in your process and just fall into these amazing, affecting stories you tell. Revel in the work. Enjoy being a writer.
I know one thing for sure. There is no sure way to succeed in the arts, but the best way to fail is to stop trying. We got into this whole creative thing because we love it, right?
Then we should love it. Because we don’t know how long the road goes, and we don’t have a map to predict its twists and turns. In the end, that love—that revelling—is all we have.
What I’m Listening To This Week
I just discovered “Down by the Salley Gardens,” and honestly, I’m surprised it took me this long. It’s the lilting-haunting-lost-love sort of piece I love. Plus, it’s a setting of a poem by Yeats, whom I adore.
Add in a solid treble voice, and I’m in.
Well, I was right. It was another immensely busy and stressful week. Honestly, it feels like I’m spinning my wheels and getting nowhere fast. That said, I’m hopeful things will calm down once Canada Day is behind us. Once I’ve put myself back together, we can talk about forging ahead.
But for all the worry and work—there have been times when the breeze shifts just right, or the morning light hits, and the past few summers come rushing back all at once.
I loved the summer I started working at the museum. You know that feeling, early in the morning, when the light is gold and the air is fresh, and all things seem possible? Like you’re poised at the beginning, in the moment that holds all the potential? That’s what it felt like, all the time: forget-me-not-sky and dewy grass, lingering lilac and gravel crunching underfoot. It felt like I was finally getting something I’d been craving for such a very long time.
It’s the Southern Ontario Summers of my childhood. Sometimes I feel them when I look at paintings: line and colour flooding all five senses at once. And so, since I’m really too tired for a coherent post this week, here are a bunch of pictures that send me straight into summer.
Mostly turn of the century. Mostly meadows and fields. Mostly light.
I’m sure that says something about Southern Ontario, but I need to sleep now.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Henry Purcell is a cool dude. His semi-opera, “The Fairy Queen” (1692), is also cool. Bright and sprightly, as the Renaissance ought to be, but with quite a bit of depth, too. Heads up: it’s a long one.
Well. That was an immensely busy and stressful week. I would be glad it’s over, but I sense more busy and stressful weeks on the horizon. On the other hand, I did find out that “La Corriveau” has been long-listed for the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, putting me in very much esteemed company. Congratulations to all the long-listers!
So amidst the madness, I’ve been thinking about the various necessities we have in our lives. Not just food/shelter/clothing—but the things that keep us sane and stable enough to handle very busy weeks…and very frightening administrations… The things that help us live, rather than survive.
This whole pondering really started when I came home after a bone-crushing day, noticed my floors were filthy, and immediately wanted to cry. On the flipside, cleaning them made everything so much better.
So what do I need?
Some Semblance of Tidiness
I am not Martha Stewart, nor was meant to be. I live in an Edwardian garret with a cat that delights in destruction. My baseboards are dusty. There’s a few weird stains around.
That’s fine. I don’t need things pristine. I need them neat. If the floor gets a semi-regular mop, the laundry stays done, and the cat litter is monitored, I feel 1000% more human.
This one is tricky. Sleep has long been a challenge for me. The thing is, I can survive on very little sleep. Short-term, five hours is fine. And by “fine,” I mean, “it’s really not, but I function well enough to pretend it is.” And then, I keep doing it, because everything is so fine—
And then we get into trouble. I can’t do long stretches as easily anymore. Besides, when I finally get enough, it feels so good, I rather want to keep doing it…
Have you heard of forest-bathing? It’s a Japanese practice that basically involves being around trees. Just wandering and breathing. There’s something similar at play for me. Every so often, I need to get out. Away from artificial lights, away from computer screens, away from the constantly-pinging network of communication.
Fortunately, Toronto has plenty of wild pockets, if you know where to look. An afternoon in the ravines, and I can handle the world again.
Other People’s Art
Same thing, basically. Creation begets creation, but sometimes you need to refill the well. And more importantly, sometimes you need to connect to what makes you create in the first place. Sometimes you need other people’s art because you are a person too, and I think we all need some art in our lives.
So it’s a lot of reading. Music. Periodically, I go to the AGO and walk around getting drunk on light, colour, and lines.
I’m a weirdly social introvert. Absolutely, I need alone time. In fact, not getting alone time leads to jangled nerves and jittery anxiety.
Too much solitude doesn’t lead anywhere good. And while I’m lucky to have friends across the world—well, it’s not exactly easy to nip down to the US on a whim. Seeing people face-to-face is important to me. Having a drink, seeing a show, talking a walk—I need my friends and family, and I need that time with them.
Flip side of the coin. I need alone time. I need writing time. When I don’t get it—or when it feels threatened—the gnawing little panic starts up. Really, it’s the same sort of feeling you get when you hold your breath too long.
You can hold it for a time—and sometimes, you have to—but eventually, you have to breathe.
So if I feel caught in a tailspin, I’ve learned to check this basic list. Is one of my necessities going unfulfilled? Is there a way to meet that need?
Moreover, four things on this list relate to nourishing the inner life. Which I suppose makes sense, if we’re looking beyond mere survival. And the cool thing about one’s inner life is that it is unique to you.
We all need food and water. Not all of us have similar internal needs. So what about you? What necessities are in your life?
What I’m Listening To This Week
Lots of Phantom and Wicked, for some reason. Specifically, this song. Occasionally, my cold, cold heart does a little shudder and flip—catch me right, and I can be the sappiest sap who ever sapped.
When I was a wee sprogget of 16, I went to tour a university. They had a creative writing undergrad, you see, and I’d somehow wrangled a one-on-one with one of the instructors. She seemed distant, impervious to my earnest charm.
Until I asked brightly, “So, do you teach genre fiction as well, or is it all literary?”
She recoiled like I’d slapped her. “Oh, no,” she hissed. “We only teach literary fiction.”
And so I did not attend that university.Through my late teens and undergrad, I similarly avoided anything smacking of “literary fiction.” Meandering vignettes of people sitting on park benches, pondering the banality of existence? Dysfunctional families in the woods? Giants of the literary canon deriding my chosen genre as nothing more than space-faring octopi?
To hell with all that. I was a speculative fiction writer. I was interested in telling good stories.
Have I mentioned that I was incredibly arrogant through my late teens and undergrad?
In any case, I took a half-credit Science Fiction course, which is probably one of the best moves I’ve made. We started with Darko Suvin, forged ahead from Weinbaum to Gibson, and highlighted LeGuin and Tiptree along the way. My final paper contrasted notions of bodily autonomy in “Boojum” (Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear) and “Bloodchild” (Octavia Butler).
Quite a literary analysis, if you think about it.
Then I did my Stonecoast MFA. We’ve talked about it before – that was when my authorial voice started to change. And there—I learned that perhaps “literary” didn’t mean what I’d thought. Perhaps it wasn’t just “the opposite of genre fiction.” So what was it?
It was introspective. It was character-driven. It was devastating. It was lyrical and elegant.
Literary was an approach.
And literary could still have magic and spaceships.So I’ve been undergoing another reading regimen. In some ways, I still feel like an interloper: scuttling across the border to see what I scavenge and bring back to my fantasy. But startlingly, I sometimes recognize myself in the small villages, the bitter-dark humour, the pervasive loss, the tension between things beautiful and grotesque…
Of course, humans like to classify things. We like to label ourselves. That’s what we do. And genre markers are a useful common language for markets, authors, and readers.
But I’m feeling my way towards a strange, interstitial space. Not terribly surprising: I’ve always been fascinated by the liminal. It’s the place betwixt-and-between, where we gleefully borrow principles, turn them inside-out, and blur the lines as we cross them.
That’s what I’m writing towards, I think. It feels right.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Have I done Carmina Burana before? I guess it doesn’t matter; it’s what I was listening to this week.
It’s an Orff cantata, using poems from a medieval manuscript called – appropriately – Carmina Burana, or, “Songs from Beuern.” The “O Fortuna” movement is the one everyone knows.
Two main things. 1) I love the contrast between driving whispers and orchestral cataclysm. It’s the Wheel of Fortune going up and down, you know? And 2) Those lyrics. They are. The most. Metal. Lyrics. EVER.
I almost didn’t go to the Nebulas. In total, I flip-flopped three or four times. First, I was reluctant to skip work over the Victoria Day weekend. Then, no one knew how the political landscape would look by May. Then my novel wouldn’t be ready to query in time. Then it would be ready, but I had a crisis of self-esteem.
In the end, I am very, very glad I went.
For those unfamiliar with the term, the Nebula Awards are a series of awards for outstanding fiction nominated and voted upon by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). In recent years, a conference has developed around them.
When I go to cons, you can assume that I learned lots, saw stellar programming, met amazing people, and caught up with old friends. That was certainly the case this time, so I want to zero in on a few particular moments.
Moment the First
I met Connie Willis during the mass autograph session on Friday night. I absolutely adore her fiction. Plus, I’ve been putting together playlists of all the SFWA Grandmasters—and hers was one of my favourites to curate. The woman is just so incredibly lovely and smart.
To set the scene a little: the hotel’s massive ballroom was opened up. Tables seating an author or two each filled the room—like a maze of books and tablecloths. People strolled through with drinks and ice cream, chatting and signing and snapping photos. It was basically a cocktail party with 2/3 of the guests seated.
I’m always loath to interrupt conversations, so I waited until there was a gap in the stream of people around Ms. Willis’ table. Then I cautiously approached, stuttered something about loving her fiction, and stammered something further about how much I’d enjoyed listening through all her interviews and readings.
I frequently claim that I no longer get star-struck. I lie like a lying McLiarPants.
In any case, she was super gracious and somehow turned the conversation to politics. And politics and fiction. And then somehow, I was having a real conversation with Connie Willis, all stammering and trembling forgotten.
But wait, there’s more.
The next day, I found myself on an elevator with her. “Oh, hello again!” she said. “How was the rest of your evening? Are you enjoying the weekend?”
Part of being a writer is that you learn from everyone around you. With Connie Willis, I look at her graciousness and kindness and say, “I want to be like that when I grow up.” It’s modelling behaviour, really, and she sets a prime example. I was so incredibly touched—I just hope that when I’m in her position, I leave half as good an impression.
Moment the Second
Part of the Nebulas involves celebrating the latest SFWA Grandmaster. For 2016, it’s Jane Yolen. Like Connie Willis, I love her fiction and thoroughly enjoyed creating her playlist.
Same ballroom, but now filled with banquet tables and rows of chairs. People glide around in suits, tuxes, dresses, and gowns. The main lights are lowered, bright purple accent lights shining around the stage. Anticipation hums through the air.
And when Jane Yolen is presented—
Standing ovation. As President Cat Rambo said, Ms. Yolen writes “those” books—the ones which probably steered many of us in the room towards writing and fiction.
Writing can be such a lonely art. Jealousy bites sans warning or logic. It can feel like a zero-sum game (it isn’t—but sometimes, in our darkest hours, it feels like one). But here—the anticipation richened into a blur of pride and goodwill. We were all there because we love stories. We were all there because of a certain commitment to them. Ms. Yolen exemplifies a life dedicated to them.
And in that moment, I realized something:
As writers, we need to constantly check in with ourselves. “Is this what I really want?” Writing is hard. It’s lonely. It doesn’t pay well. It comes with LOTS of rejection. It takes a long time.
“Is this what I really want?”
Do I want a life of strange airports and con hotels? Do I want a life of uncertainty and no guarantees, ever? Do I want a life that pretty much has to run on faith and love?
Feeling that swell of good feeling, I answer as always, “Yes.”
Moment the Third
This isn’t a particular moment, so much as it is an observation.
During the post-award parties, I noticed something interesting. My imposter syndrome is worse when I have a safety net. In a room with people I know really well, I found myself getting quieter and increasingly uncomfortable.
Recognizing this pattern, I struck out alone.
Very quickly, I met a whole bunch of new people, got to know other people better, and had a lot of excellent conversation (and alcohol, but that’s beside the point).
This makes no sense, so what’s going on? I think that subconsciously, I assume the people I know REALLY well will spot my social fakery, and so I get too nervous to try.
But—if you can do it, it’s not really faking, is it? I mean, the thing about “fake it ‘til you make it” is that, eventually, you make it….
Of course, recognizing the pattern is Step One. Now, I’m trying to figure out how to change it.
There are many, many people I need to thank—more than can fit here. So, please know that if you attended, you made my weekend special. That said, an extra-special thanks to Derek Künsken and Brandon Crilly for letting me room/hang with them through the weekend. Next stop: CanCon!
Happy sighs, and back to work.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Shortly before I left for the Nebulas, I saw new vocal ensemble Vocalis give their inaugural concert. While the program was incredibly strong, this one’s stuck with me. It’s got the relentless, driven choral lines I find so fascinating. Much like my beloved polyphony, the parts all fit together like pieces of a well-made clock…
I’ve been looking for this video for years:
If you’re not keen to watch the whole thing—this is a film about the HMS Speedy, a schooner that sank in 1804 carrying many prominent members of Upper Canada. She wrecked attempting to enter the Newcastle Harbour, near modern-day Brighton, Ontario. The surrounding peninsula is now a provincial park where I spent many idyllic childhood summers.
Plus, The Wreck of the Speedy was the first piece of museum theatre I ever encountered.
From ages 2-16-ish, Presqu’ile Provincial Park was the happiest place in my world. It wasn’t backwoods camping, but there were outhouses and forest trails and fossils to find in the bluffs.
But my favourite thing was the Lighthouse. Sure, the Nature Centre was pretty cool with its live turtles, taxidermy birds, and light-up map of Lake Ontario. But I was always impatient to get back on my bike (left unlocked, obvi) and keep cycling down the road to the Lighthouse and its Interpretive Centre.
History, man. History.
The Interpretive Centre is attached to the 1848 lighthouse keeper’s cottage. It houses artifacts dredged up from the lake; there’s a documentary about the 1920s entertainment scene; you can Go for a Dive! at a series of video monitors.
But the best thing—the best thing—was this movie.
I’m not sure when it went in. Maybe when I was seven or eight? Anyway, I was entranced. Like, hanging-over-the-railing entranced. Like, I knew the history better than the interpreters. Like, I totally had the entire script memorized at one point.
First of all, a sunken ship that’s never been found is pretty cool. (Although I learned in adulthood that they found it ages ago.) But also – that video made it real. It turned names into people, dates into tragedy.
For those late to the party, my dayjob is thus: my co-creator and I use theatre and its associated techniques to educate people in museum settings.
Explained badly: I pretend to be dead people to teach you a lesson.
So here was this…this play. Filmed, yeah, but still a play, smack dab in the middle of the artifacts, maps, and dive footage. And it punched me in a way nothing else did. Of course, as a wee one, I couldn’t articulate why. But having worked as a museum theatre professional for a few years—sure. Let’s take a look.
We start with a chaotic opening. Storms! Shouting! Ship going down! It grabs one’s attention right away—it’s a bold choice to start with something this distressing, though some details escape if you don’t have background context.
Then it’s an interesting format: monologues from various crewmembers and passengers interwoven with our guide/host—Captain Charles Selleck, the one sort-of-witness. Selleck’s character makes this video work: we need an anchor, an emotional hook to hang our hats on.
Now, whoever wrote the script does a decent job weaving historical facts with human drama. Name-dropping runs rampant (who’s Richard Formaldi?), but there are some gems of interpretation:
“Never enough money. Never enough material. Never enough men!”
Succinct, informative, and charged with emotion. BAM.
A wide range of characters speak their piece: the low-class seaman, the beleaguered captain, the officials and judges. This all predicts the 21st century emphasis on diversity of voices and perspective.
But I realize now, one voice is missing.
The whole reason for this voyage was to transport a prisoner and attendant court participants to Newcastle for trial. A Chippewa man named Ogetonicut was accused of murdering fur trader John Sharpe. Ogetonicut’s brother had been killed by a white fur trader a year prior, and Ogetonicut had been promised a trial…that never happened. This all gets rather glossed-over in the video.
And Ogetonicut never gets a monologue of his own. We never hear the prisoner’s perspective: his rationale for his actions, what he thought of the Speedy’s dilapidated condition, how he felt as the water closed in. It’s a glaring weakness in an otherwise strong piece.
Because it is strong, otherwise. For a tiny interpretive centre in a relatively small provincial park, this was insanely well done. It showed me what museum theatre could be, long before I even knew what museum theatre was.
This is how I know it worked. After the video—after the display cases and gift shop—I’d go to the Lighthouse itself. And I’d stand on the point and stare hungrily at Lake Ontario, imagining the Speedy lying on the cold lake bed. There, I would promise myself that I’d find it someday. I’d finish the story begun in the interpretive centre.
Obviously, I didn’t find the Speedy. But in a strange way, I am finishing the story begun at Presqu’ile. Too often, I say that I never envisioned myself in museums—that it was all a very happy accident.
Then I remember this video, and realize—no, no.
It was all inevitable.
PS. I’m at the SFWA Nebula Conference this week. Find me. Frolic. Come to my Beer Talk on Friday evening.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I finished the final (for now) edits on Sing to the Bones. To set the mood, I listened to a lot of Western/cowboy music while editing. I stumbled across this piece entirely by accident, but it is very beautiful.
So I’ve seen Moulin Rouge! three times over the last week. Partly it’s because the music got well and truly stuck in my head (as we’ll see in What I’m Listening to this Week), but also, I feel like a little kid with their favourite story.
“Tell it again!”
“Um…they still fall in love. It still doesn’t end well.”
And it got me thinking. In a funny way, I feel like I imprinted on this particular story very young. Not just Moulin Rouge! per se, though that was the first variant I encountered. Moulin Rouge! is itself mostly a riff on La Traviata with some strains of La Bohème. La Traviata, of course, is the operatic adaptation of a mid-Victorian play called La Dame aux Camélias. In turn, that play was adapted from Alexandre Dumas fils’ novel of the same name.
Lots of variations, all essentially the same story: a courtesan and an earnest young man; impossible love; self-sacrifice through deception; and of course, consumption.
Doomed love and unabashed romanticism—what can I say? It’s my catnip. La Traviata remains my favourite opera, and I’ve never survived Act Three dry-eyed.
And looking at my fiction, I can see echoes here and there. Not necessarily in courtesans and consumption, but in some of the themes, the feel…the motif of impossible love.
I think that some stories do leave their mark on us quite deeply. They find touchstones within us, and so resonate through our own works. Asking why is kind of like asking why we have recurring dreams. There is something deep in our subconscious that sings the same song back, and so it makes sense that these are the stories we return to again and again—even if we’re not entirely sure why.
Sometimes, they’re wholly unexpected. Honestly, I find myself returning to Neuromancer more than people might expect. I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favourite books—not like La Traviata is my favourite opera; not like East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon is my favourite fairy tale. But there’s a bit towards the end that’s never left me.
Beyond ego, beyond personality, beyond awareness, he moved, Kuang moving with him, evading his attackers with an ancient dance, Hideo’s dance, grace of the mind-body interface granted him, in that second, by the clarity and singleness of his wish to die.
And one step in that dance was the lightest touch on the switch, barely enough to flip—
and his voice the cry of a bird
3Jane answering in song, three
notes, high and pure.
A true name.
Neon forest, rain sizzling across hot pavement. The smell of frying food… But all of this receding, as the cityscape recedes…as the roads and crossroads scribed on the face of a microchip, the sweat-stained pattern on a folded, knotted scarf.
William Gibson, Neuromancer
Fantasy author can’t get over the climax of a seminal cyberpunk work? Say what?
It’s the moment of transcendence, you see. That’s what I keep trying to answer, in my own way. And that’s really it: some stories, you keep trying to write back to, subconsciously or not.
For me, this all gets back to the idea that we write what we don’t understand. We write what confounds us, perplexes us, what the mind cannot quite work through. I’m not sure that it always does, of course. Some stories echo in us forever.
And so we keep singing back to them.
What stories resonate in you?
PS. A reminder that Lauren Harris’s YA novel UNLEASH released last week! Do you like gritty urban fantasy and kickass heroines? You can get your copy here!
What I’m Listening to This Week
Really, all of Moulin Rouge! but let’s just say, “One Day I’ll Fly Away,” which is a song to which I never really paid attention before this week. SPOILERS, it shows up as a devastating motif later, but I like it here as a way to show another side of Satine’s personality. It’s really the only time in the film we see her in (assumed) privacy, not performing for other people.
Okay, pals, let’s have some real talk. I wasn’t going to post this, but I think I need to get it out, and I can’t think of a better forum.
I doubt it caused any ripples, but I have been spending the last two weeks sitting quietly by myself. Basically, I got overwhelmed, and my response to being overwhelmed is to withdraw and shut up. The root wasn’t deadlines or workloads or anything. It was this immense pressure that I put on myself:
WRITE ALL THE THINGS. APPLY FOR ALL THE THINGS. LAUNCH ALL THE THINGS.
For obvious reasons (chiefly, I’m not a perpetual motion machine), I couldn’t.
And then I felt awful.
And then I went away to sit by myself.
Honestly, the worst part has been feeling like I’ve been letting people down. My creative partner. My mentors. My friends. I’ve joked that my creative ventures are predicated on making certain people proud…but deep down, it’s not really a joke, is it?
Rationally, I know—I know—the need for external validation is deadly. The drive has to come from inside. At the end of the day, the internal engine is the only one upon which you can rely.
But it’s hard. Giving this some good, solid thought, I don’t have a problem with motivation. I’ll write ‘til the cows come home, because that’s all I know how to do.
But the fear of disappointing people is my Achilles’ heel. Not living up to potential. Being a flash in the pan. “That’s nice, but what have you done lately?” is both my inspiration and my nightmare.
Yes, I know. This is an insane amount of pressure to put on one’s self.
What does one do?
I’ve been trying to ease the pressure by reminding myself that this isn’t a race. If I keep working, then when it’s time, things will happen in their course.
That’s the most important thing, I think. To keep working. To set aside the expectation and the pressure and the fear of disappointment and just keep going.
In many ways, to keep working is an act of faith. With no idea where the road goes, we set off.
I’m slowly venturing back into the world. And rest assured—I’m still working.
What I’m Listening To This Week
One night this past week, I had beer and watched Moulin Rouge! and it was just what I needed. This song has been stuck in my head since.
Last January, I set myself a goal of writing a weekly blog post. Mostly as a discipline thing; partly for writing practice; partly to lay a foundation for the future. Overall, I’ve been good at sticking to that goal.
Except for last week. There wasn’t a blog post last week.
Actually, there wasn’t much of anything last week. I posted a poem to Facebook and a sunrise to Instagram, but that’s about it. I deleted all my social media apps from my phone and tablet. Sometimes I’d pop into Facebook on a browser for a quick peek, but only rarely.
See—I try to keep my social media activity mostly positive. Oh, I’ll post a sigh of despair over the latest shenanigans down south or the odd frustration, but mostly—if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
And so I stayed real quiet.
There’s another principle I try to keep: you don’t look in other people’s bowls. Actually the real quotation goes, “The only time you look in your neighbour’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough.” The thing with social media is that everyone’s bowls are on display all the time. And everyone’s tilting their bowl, and adjusting the lighting, and fiddling with filters to make sure that they look as good as possible.
And I just—I wanted to take my bowl and leave the table and sit quietly by myself for a little while. I didn’t want to worry about hiding its cracks. I didn’t want to expend the effort disguising how empty it’s gotten. In a weird way, I felt ashamed; like, why am I even at this table with a bowl like this?
I just wanted to sit quietly by myself. I wanted to remember why I love my bowl. And I wanted to take a good, hard look at it and say, “Okay. This isn’t working anymore. What now?”
So I spent my time reading a lot. Lots of magical realism. Lots of CanLit and Southern Gothic. Lots of fiction that skates the line between literary and genre (the irony is—after spending years and years rebelling against the literary—it’s calling me pretty strongly right now).
I listened to a lot of music.
I went for walks in the woods.
It was like leaving a noisy, noisy party and entering into silence again. I’ve been feeling pretty jangled up inside. The solitude’s been like a cool compress for the soul.
But even I can’t hermit forever. Last week, I dipped a toe back into the community—I grabbed a pal and went to the monthly Chiaroscuro Reading Series. Confession: I almost bailed at the last minute.
“I can’t,” I said. “I can’t smile and small talk today. I can’t be on my best behaviour.”
But bailing at that point would’ve been terribly unfair to my pal. And I knew, deep down, that it’d be good for me.
And you know what? I saw a bunch of people I normally only see at conventions. Like, right there! Because we actually all live in the same city! Whoa! I had some really nice conversations and cake. My pal got to meet one of his favourite authors, which seemed like a lovely moment for both.
And I remembered that I like writing. I like the fantastic and speculative. I like this community. A lot.
But since this whole experience has the whiff of burnout, I think I need to achieve better balance. Not only loving my bowl, but finding a place at the table where I can still hear myself think.
So I’m not quite back to the table, yet. I need a little more time with the quiet. But I’m edging closer to my seat.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Ah, Celtic Woman, my guilty pleasure.
I’m in the beginning throes of a new novel, which feels an awful lot like making your entrance in an unfamiliar choral piece. If you can get your starting pitch, things usually stay more-or-less on track. Landing sharp or flat? It’s difficult to stop the piece falling apart when you’re wrong-footed from the first note.
I usually forget how much flailing about I do at the beginning of a story. And then because I never remember the angst, the flailing feels disastrous, and I freak myself out.
And so, I thought it would be instructive to remind myself exactly how common false starts are for me:
It was a clear evening, one of the first of summer. A warm breeze wound through the City, caressing friends drinking outside taverns and lovers strolling through narrow streets. Plucking guitars floated over conversation and laughter, occasionally joined by soulful tenors. The golden stones that formed the City’s buildings still carried the heat of the noonday sun. Overtired children and the elderly clustered on them; the latter thanked the warmest spring in memory for driving away the chill winds that usually made one last appearance. And above, the stars, ever twinkling: familiar constellations smiling on the summer night. The Ox, the Hunter, the Vineyard, all the old friends that heralded the beginning of the new season.
(Then there’s an extended bit where two old men eat chicken and talk. Seriously.)Eventually:
The time, at last, had come.
A new star ignited over the City. Like a drop of blood glinting in the darkness, it blazed in the Serpent, brighter than any other star in the constellation. Under the starlight, the City crouched in the night, perched atop its plateau. Sheer cliffs fell away on every side; if not for lack of water, it could have been an island.
No breeze stirred the warm air. In narrow alleys, shadows stretched as quiet and endless as the gorges beyond the City.
Time passed. The stars danced on.
Sara had not felt so ill since her first glimpse of her husband’s headstone. That had been nearly six weeks ago, and plenty of stomach-turning moments had filled the emptiness between. Yet juddering along a country road in a carriage with shot springs ranked high among them. Sara clenched her hands in her lap, gritting her teeth each time the horses pounded over a half-buried stone or fallen branch. To her amazement, the coach’s other two passengers slept. An older woman leaned against the side of the coach, while a towheaded boy nestled into her.
I had not felt so ill since the funeral. The stagecoach rattled over the road and my teeth rattled in my skull. I kept watching the road ahead, even though dust streaked the windows. We jolted again. A large rock or another half-buried stump. There hadn’t been macadamized roads since several towns back, and since we’d left the train station at Ossington, the road had only gotten rougher. Too slow—I just wanted to get this journey over with.
Sophie clutches her knife tight, watching the unicorn across the pit.
(That is, apparently, as far as I got. It was bad.)
The hunt begins as it always does: with quarry, bait, and hunter.
This is the first story.
Once, there were two girls who lived in a little village far in the north of Québec. Let’s say the younger girl was seven, and the older one was ten. When you told me this story, you didn’t say what the girls looked like, but I always imagined that they looked like us.
The older girl had flashing dark eyes and knees covered in bruises. Her mouth quirked at the corners. The younger girl, her friend…well, she was paler. Frailer. Just a wisp, her grand-mère always said, just a bit of thistledown that would blow away in the wind.
This is the first story.
I’ve got this friend Joëlle, right? She moved in when I was seven. She was ten—a big kid. Only she wasn’t much bigger than me. Bruised knees and these huge, haunted eyes. Mom made sure she got an extra slice of pizza at our first sleepover, that’s how skinny she was when she arrived.
When my sister rose for the third time, we called the vampire-hunter.
He came in the stillness between afternoon and dusk: that suspended, grey time that happens only in winter. From the forest he came, shouldering a leather pack, and he went straight to the inn. There, by the smouldering hearth, he spread a cloth over the scarred taproom table and opened a glossy walnut box with hinged lid. In the firelight, the wood gleamed, and his onlookers—the entire village, it felt like—pressed closer.
The hands of the vampire-hunter move like spiders, and I hate them. They creep over our kitchen table, avoiding the plates of sausage and country bread my mother has laid out. They scuttle along the sides of a polished walnut case. Quick fingers, sly fingers—they lift belts and let brass buckles fall with a clink, clink, clink. They ease the lid up. Inside, his tools rest on velvet the colour of old blood. My mother chokes on a gasp; my father will not look.
You get the point. Sometimes, vestiges of an early attempt survive, but really, it takes me a while to figure out the tune.
Worth remembering, as I flail about with this novel…
My friend Lauren Harris recently revealed the cover of her upcoming YA urban fantasy UNLEASH.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Even after all these years, I have a soft spot for the French horn. Here, I love the dialogue between the horn (basses supporting) and the rest of the orchestra, especially the building tension around the 1:30 mark. Also, those devastating accidentals around 2:20.
And it’s Mozart. Of course it’s exquisitely well put-together.