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.
“When I am fabulously wealthy,” I tell myself, “I shall buy the fanciest of desks.”
After all, I am a writer. My desk is my ship’s bridge, my nest, and my second home. Nor am I alone in pondering my desk. Most writers tend to be a little finicky about their work setup. Sometimes it’s rooted in superstition—if I have the right workspace, I will make the right words. Sometimes, it’s sheer, Pavlovian habit—when I sit in this spot, with the light so and the music thus, the words come.
Here are some of the desks that I tell myself I would buy, if I had the money.
That last one is important for me. I need space to spread out. There are plenty of secretary desks out there that would be sufficient for my laptop, but not the stack of notes, papers, and books.
Drawers are important too: for pens and pencils, scissors and business cards, vitally important records and the pieces of paper that aren’t quite as important, but that I’ll probably need close to hand. Bonus points if the desk comes with a secret drawer.
So that’s my ideal desk: enormous, historic, handsome wood, lots of drawers.
Here is my current desk:
It’s actually a really good desk. I’ve had it since I moved out from my parents’, so maybe…five years, almost? It’s a solid wooden desk with sufficient storage space, but what makes it a really good desk is the top.
The top, you see, did not come with the desk. It is a massive, heavy, beautifully treated piece of wood that we placed atop the desk. It’s not connected or anything. No nails, no screws, no joining. It’s just so heavy that it sits there without moving. Mostly I forget that it’s a separate piece.
When I dream of super fancy desks, I’m mostly just indulging in idle dreams of luxury. Because here is the ironic thing—
I don’t write at my desk.
Or, to be more precise, I don’t draft at my desk.
I write blog posts at my desk. I handle correspondence and social media from my desk. Research, essays, audio, video, and prose editing…that all happens here. But drafting fiction?
Nearly all of the Creepy Play and Sing to the Bones were written on my couch. Most of my short fiction has been written either in odd corners of Tennessean cabins, or at my kitchen table.
I don’t write at my desk.
Sometimes, I wonder why that is. It might well be a mental thing. Writing at the kitchen table or the couch implies that we’re just messing around, it’s not Serious For Real Writing, and thus my inner critic shuts up. I’d say there’s an element of physical comfort, but I wrote “The Love it Bears Fair Maidens” variously half-lying on a bed and scrunched on one end of a couch.
(I realize that’s not terribly ergonomic. I promise that I do try to avoid the injuries that come with the writing life. Mostly.)
We may become superstitious about our workspaces, but we don’t need much, do we? Just a place to sit or stand, and a place to rest a notebook or laptop. That’s it. And there is something special about those late nights at the kitchen table—when it’s just you and the words, spinning whole worlds from memory and dream. Maybe the connection feels easier to grasp with bare hands.
After all…it doesn’t really matter where you write, as long as you are writing.
But one day, I’m buying that desk.
What I’m Listening To This Week
You thought we were done with madrigals, didn’t you? Hahaha, no. Here’s another piece from our good friend Thomas Morley. It gets me in a spring-like mood—about time, after this last burst of winter.
Particular things I dig: the drum like a skipping heartbeat under the flute, and the harmonies around the “fa la la la’s.” The parts don’t weave around each other as in other examples from this period—but it’s still delightful.
So the big thing this week is that I finished the second draft of the Creepy Play: my Southern (Ontario) Gothic family tragedy. And you guys, there was one night—I was expanding a scene between the mother and her adult daughter. Remember, this play is an angst-fest. The mother is a roiling, toxic pit of darkness, and her daughter’s an angry, hurt young woman who can be a) the most gentle, genuinely caring person in the play, or b) casually crueller than anyone else.Anyway, the scene was rolling along, but then I had to step back. I stumbled to my couch, squished in beside Guinness, and I cried.
Not because I’m a delicate flower. But because I understood the mother’s darkness. I understood her daughter’s anger. I saw what made these broken, anguished people the way they are.And of course, it isn’t real. No more than a dream is. But it is distressing nonetheless, and so I wanted to talk about self-care when writing difficult scenes.
Except that a listicle feels trite. “Have a hot shower!” “Listen to comforting music!” “Read fluff!” Hopefully, you already know that.
(For the record: I listened to a lot of Anglican/Gregorian chant while writing the Creepy Play—I needed the familiar tone and repetitive tunes to stay grounded.)
Sometimes, we have to look into the darkness. I’m not only talking about creative-types, here. Sometimes, we all have to do it. We need to shine a light into the furthest corners of our heads—and not look away. It’s hard. No one likes seeing the darkness smile back when they look in the mirror.
“If all that’s inside me…what does that say about me?”
It says that humans are complex creatures, and we are all a mix of wonderful, noble, loving tendencies and awful, cruel, damaging ones. The best way to grapple with the darkness, I think, is to understand it. Not glorifying it; not revelling in it – but understanding.
And to do that, we need to enter it. Safely, carefully—this is where the hot showers and comforting music come in.
It’s really hard.
So what do we gain, doing it?
Connection, I think. Empathy. The ability to look at that hurt, angry young woman and say, “Yes, I can feel that too.”After all, the darkness is always worse when you don’t know what’s in it.
The trick is remembering to keep hold of the light. This has been a deeply uncomfortable play to write, and there will be another draft—but I know I’m better for having written it. I hope it serves its eventual audience, too.
What I’m Listening to This Week
For ages, I’ve been noodling the idea of borrowing polyphonic principles for my fiction. The climax of the Creepy Play is basically written that way: voices in counterpoint with each other, passing the melody back and forth, emphasizing certain phrases and motifs against each other…
Vivaldi isn’t precisely polyphony, but this section from his Gloria is what I was thinking of. Listen to the parts enter one by one, different ideas emerging to prominence and then sinking again (especially the tenors around 0:50, mirrored by the altos while the basses take the melody back). It’s a single whole—that interplay fascinates me.
Okay. Wow. Hi. I just spent the last week performing for six hours a day in the museum’s Sherlock Holmes program. It was incredibly fun, and also very taxing—both physically and mentally. But hey, it’s over, so life should settle down somewhat.
Besides that, I was reading The Ladies’ Guide to True Politeness and Perfect Manners: or, Miss Leslie’s behaviour book, written by Miss Eliza Leslie and published in various editions from 1839 onwards (I had the 1864 edition). And guess what?
It has advice for authors!I sat there reading and shaking my head—because it’s more-or-less the same advice we get today. I greatly enjoy the image of hoop-skirted young ladies eagerly setting about preparing their manuscripts. Because of course, I did the same (minus the hoop skirt). Some things don’t change—wannabe writers are one of them, apparently.
I’ve pulled out some choice tidbits. Enjoy!
Chapter XX: Conduct to Literary Women
“On being introduced to a female writer, it is rude to say that “you have long had a great curiosity to see her.” Curiosity is not the right word. It is polite to imply that, “knowing her well by reputation, you are glad to have an opportunity of making her personal acquaintance.”
Still good advice for conventions, I think.
“When in company with literary women, make no allusions to ‘learned ladies’ or ‘blue stockings,’ or express surprise that they should have any knowledge of housewifery, or needle-work, or dress; or that they are able to talk on ‘common things.’ It is rude and foolish, and shows that you really know nothing about them, either as a class or as individuals.”
Admittedly, I don’t get this much. But it is interesting to place it in historical context—Miss Leslie is trying really hard to show that authoresses are women, too!
“Recollect that to a woman who gets her living by her pen, ‘time is money,’ as it is to an artist. Therefore, encroaching on her time is lessening her income.”
Yep. I love people. I love socializing. But yep.
“Long manuscripts are frequently sent for the revisal ‘at leisure’ of a person who has little or no leisure. Yet in the intervals of toiling for herself, she is expected to toil for some one else; probably for a stranger whom she does not know, in whom she can take no interest, and who has evidently ‘no writing in her soul.’ If, however, the modest request is kindly complied with, in all probability to the corrections will only give offence, and may perhaps be crossed out before the manuscript is offered to the publisher, who very likely may reject it for want of these very corrections.”
Something tells me Miss Leslie has personal experience with this. Something tells me that many modern-day authors do as well.
Chapter XXI: Suggestions to Inexperienced Authors
“Before you commence your manuscript, take a quire, and prepare each sheet by splitting it all down the folded side, with a sharp paper-cutter, thus dividing it into half-sheets. You can do this better on a flat table than on the slope of a desk. Keep your left hand pressing down hard on the quire, while you are cutting it with your right.”
Scrivener? Microsoft Word? WordPerfect? An app on your iThing? Whatever you use, just remember—at least we don’t have to prepare our own writing paper anymore.
“The printers will gladly dispense with covers, ribbons, and fairy-like penmanship, in favour of a plain legible hand, pages regularly numbered, and leaves written on one side only.”
No coloured paper, no extra fills, no fancy fonts. Standard manuscript format, my friends.
“If the publisher lives in your own town, it will be sufficient to roll up the manuscript in clean white paper, twisted at each end, and wafered in the middle. But however short the distance, write on the outside of the paper the full direction of the publishing office; that, in case of its being dropped in the street, any person finding it may know exactly where to take it.”
The thought of a Victorian urchin finding a rolled-up manuscript in the street, reading the address, and hustling it off to the appropriate publisher’s just makes me happy. And also glad for electronic submissions.
“Keep a memorandum-book for the express purpose of setting down whatever relates to your literary affairs. Insert the day when you commenced a manuscript, the day when you finished it, and the day on which it went to the publisher.”
Still good advice. I have an Excel spreadsheet.
“If the printer’s boy can wait, you had best correct the proofs while he stays.”
Of course. What else is the printer’s boy doing? This was the very last sentence in the two chapters concerning literary etiquette—and it strikes me as quintessentially Victorian.
And now – more rewrites on the Creepy Play!
What I’m Listening to This Week
Tchaikovsky this week—the “Hymn of the Cherubim.” It’s a slow, heavy progression of chords, with the darkness and richness that I associate with much Russian choral music. Until the sopranos have a glorious surge around 2:30. A little disquieting, but very beautiful.