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.
Late last week, there was a conversation filtering through Twitter about degrees. Specifically, English degrees. Is it helpful for would-be writers to get their English BA? The tweet that kicked things off said, “No.”
As is typical for Twitter, some people disagreed.
And some people disagreed with those disagreements.
I chimed in briefly, but I have more thoughts that I’d like to explore here.
Cutting right to the quick, my short answer is, “Do whatever you want, it’s your life, but I did not find an English degree particularly helpful—either for writing, or life outside academia.”
“But KT,” the crowds cry. “Didn’t you study history?”
Indeed I did! Primarily because I did not find an English degree particularly helpful. See, I actually bounced around five different majors during my undergrad (it’s a miracle I graduated on time). If I can recall them correctly, they were:
English/Drama (double major)
English/Drama/History (major, two double-minors)
History/Medieval Studies (double major)
I realize that’s only four. For the life of me, I cannot remember the fifth—but I know it was there.
Regardless, looking at my progression through majors reveals a pattern. It took a while, but I gradually left English/Drama (literature-based courses) and settled firmly, finally in History (still liberal arts, but not literature-based). Why?
English was making me hate literature and stories. Even then, I knew I was going to be a writer, and I sensed that hating literature might hinder that goal. Really, it was a fundamental disagreement in teaching philosophies. I wanted to learn how stories worked. I wanted to learn what made them beautiful. I wanted to appreciate them as stories—which means that you’re talking about the themes, symbolism, and politics as well. Those are already part of any well-written piece. Basically, I wanted to talk about the syllabus like a writer.
Instead, I got this:
And so, after a particularly rough American literature class, I went to my registrar and got myself safely ensconced in History (I dropped the Medieval Studies component when I realized I like medieval theology, not medieval history).
Do I regret my decision?
Not at all. Having that history degree let me take a summer job at the museum. The skills I developed through my BA and through museum work let me carve out a dayjob wherein my creative partner and I teach history through theatre. Looking specifically to my fiction, history has all been grist for the mill. Moreover, learning how to do history has greatly impacted the way I write (I spent a long, long time digging through La Corriveau’s court records). And arguably, the museum’s impacted my fiction even more. How many nineteenth centuries have I written?
So for me, as a writer, History was infinitely more helpful than English.
You still need to know your field.
While I could not leave that American lit class fast enough, there were other English classes that did feed into my writing. Even genre writers should be familiar with the classics. I took a twentieth-century literature course in my first year that provided a wonderful survey—I likely would not have read The Sound and the Fury without it, and without that, I likely could not have written the Creepy Play. A Science Fiction course and Old English were useful for still more obvious reasons.
And if you’re not taking English electives (which I do recommend, if you can find the right ones—survey courses are great), you should be prepared to self-teach. As Stephen King so rightly said, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time—or the tools—to write.”
What about Creative Writing MFAs, then?
This could be a whole other post, as MFAs are equally contentious. Responses can range from, “MFAs are scams,” to, “They saturate the market with MFA-style fiction,” to, “Well, I guess, if you’re having a hard time improving on your own…”
You don’t need an MFA to be a writer. Really, you don’t need any degree to be a writer. As long as you are reading and writing lots, you’ll develop the skills just fine.
But degrees make it a lot easier.
I’ve talked about the Stonecoast MFA plenty on this blog. I’ll keep saying the same thing: for me, an MFA helped my writing like nothing else. It was everything I wanted from undergrad English courses. We talked about stories and how they worked. We talked about literature as writers. And I got to practice lots and lots, while more experienced, knowledgeable people provided their input.
When I showed up at Stonecoast, I was technically competent and entirely too cocksure. Stonecoast knocked me down a much-needed peg, it taught me how to be an artist, and it gave me a whole host of other skills—from critiquing, to teaching, to writing prose that’s beautiful as well as technically competent.
Most importantly, Stonecoast gave me the tools to teach myself more effectively. It taught me how to learn from other writers, and it gave me a chorus of phantom faculty in my head. Now, when I’m writing, I have this:
“You’re very clever, but this ending cheats the reader. Stop showing off and go write something better,” “Well, this is nice, but surface-level. How can you write with more density?” “Your architecture is off,” “Oh, yay! This feels like a KT Bryski story! Good work!”
You don’t need an MFA, but I’m sure glad I have mine.
Through all of this discussion, a consistent thread emerges: you learn to become a writer by writing and by reading. An English degree is not necessarily the best for that, because there’s very little writing and you’re reading for an entirely different purpose.
If you can find another degree that feeds your passion, go nuts. I’ve always liked History, and I’ve parlayed it into a job that keeps a roof over my head. Otherwise—yes, find something that allows you to pursue your passion.
And remember: it’s hard to say where things will end up. We don’t always realize when we’ve come to a fork in the road. It’s been six full years since that first summer job; eight since that random spark from The Sound and the Fury lodged in my chest.
At the end of the day, only you know what is best for you. Just make sure that you can write, read, and eat consistently.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Sticking with the madrigals: “April is in my mistress’ face.” This is another Morley piece, and it makes me wish I knew more music theory. Listen to the altos’ line at 0:54. I am sure there’s a term for that very distinctive phrase that ends in that very particular sort of chord, but alas, I do not know it…
The third and final leg of the American Grand Tour is coming to an end. The 2017 Smoky Writers retreat finished yesterday. Still ensconced in Virginia, I’ll be back in my garret midweek.
As mentioned previously, Smoky is one of my favourite events: great friends, great food, and great productivity. I had been planning to start a novel, but quickly found that it wasn’t quite ready—I tend to flail around with my novel openings, and Smoky wasn’t quite the forum for it.
But that’s all right—I wrote three solid short stories, a flash piece, and 4000 words of something that probably needs to be a novella, if not a novel. My stable of short pieces was getting pretty empty as submissions go out, so the situation feels much more secure now.
Of course, it’s difficult to distill the entire week-long experience into a single blog post. But something that came up in many conversations was why Smoky works as well as it does.
Essentially, there are three rules:
- Write new words
- Read new words
- Contribute positively to the community
Simple rules, but important ones. If the retreat can’t keep to them, it falls apart; I hugely respect the organizers for their dedication in defending it. Their leadership has resulted in a safe, productive space that’s also a lot of fun.
You see, writing is largely a solitary endeavour (publishing is not, but writing is). But it is nice to touch base with the people you care about. It’s nice to discuss the functions of short stories over breakfast and alien biology over evening drinks. It’s nice to share specific joys and frustrations with people who get it.
We all want to be understood. That may be why some of us started writing in the first place. We had something to say, and we wanted someone else to hear it. This is why I love conventions and retreats. In addition to the other professional benefits, they are places where connections are made between people who love stories—whether they’re editors, agents, writers, or readers.
And art is about connection, isn’t it? It’s about saying, “I understand,” “I hear you,” “I need to be heard,” “Me too.”
What I think is truly amazing is this: twenty people come together from all different places, all different backgrounds, all different walks of life. Abiding by three rules, we write, and the results vary as much as the people themselves.
We care about each other, and we care about our work. Having both is very, very precious, and they tend to feed off each other. While I’m quite content to write alone in my garret, there is something quite wonderful about being surrounded by people also focused on their creativity.
So, connection and diversity, our strengths. These are what I’ll take with me as I return home to edit (lots), write (lots), and read (lots and lots).
As ever, I am so grateful.
What I’m Listening to This Week
A sprightly madrigal by Thomas Morley: “I love, alas, I love thee.” It weaves effortlessly through unison and contrapuntal sections, ticking along like a perfectly-designed clock. In a way, it reminds me of short stories: it is complete unto itself, and no note could be anything other than what it is.
The American Grand Tour continues! Another short post this week, I’m afraid. This time, I’m happily ensconced in Tennessee for the Smoky Writers Retreat. This is one of my favourite events each year: a week filled with friends, words, food, and booze.
Not only is Smoky an amazingly fun time, it’s super productive. “Her Hands Like Ice,” “The Love it Bears Fair Maidens,” “La Corriveau,” and a good portion of my MFA thesis were all written there. This year, I’m planning to dive into a novel—though I have a pocketful of short stories and a play if I get stuck.
A more thorough recap is coming next week—I’m excited to see what I learn and accomplish this retreat!
What I’m Listening to This Week
Ola Gjeilo again, because I adore him. This is “Across the Vast Eternal Sky,” a transcendent piece about phoenixes and rebirth. Listen for the dance-like piano theme kicking in around 0:45 (bonus: Gjeilo himself is playing it!) and the ascending line at 1:55 that blossoms into a magnificent crescendo.
But also, this is the new novel’s theme song. I wasn’t necessarily expecting that, but one rarely does…
(Apologies in advance for a rambling post; I am very tired!)
As I write this, I’m sitting in the Boston airport, having just left my first Boskone. By the time you read this, I’ll be in Virginia. One week after that, it’ll be Tennessee.
My head’s spinning a little. But hey, all that is still in the future! Right now, I want to talk about Boskone. Run by the New England Science Fiction Association, Boskone is a delightful midwinter con in—where else?—Boston. There’s the usual blurred convention round-up: I met some new friends, caught up with old friends, participated in awesome panels, and had some long, amazing conversations. The organization and programming were stellar.
But whenever I leave a con, I think about what I’m taking away. What lessons have I learned? What was the theme, the overarching idea to ponder?
I’m still mulling. After all, I left the con an hour ago. I think, though, that the main lesson of Boskone is learning to think of myself as a “real” writer.
Let me explain.
When one says, “I’m a writer,” that means many different things. It means that you’re someone who writes—someone who has to write. That, I have no trouble saying. At this point, writing is so integrated into my self-identity that if I stopped, I’d have an existential crisis on my hands.
“I’m a writer” also means that you write professionally. That’s also fine. The museum pays me to write. The Ontario Arts Council deemed me professional. I’ve sold stories and novels. My plays have been produced. Obviously, I have a long way to go, but writing pays the bills.
So why do I struggle to call myself a “real” writer?
After much pondering, I think it’s because I’m comparing myself to the authors I admire. Writers who have sold five, ten, twenty novels. Writers who have collectively won every award. Writers who are loved; writers who cannot cross the bar for running into someone they know; writers who have changed the field.
And I look at them, and I think, “I’m not the same. Not yet. I’ve written and I’ve sold, but I’m not a Real Writer.”
In some ways, that’s true. I’m just starting out. I’m a few steps down the road that some authors have been traversing since before I was born. Of course, of course it takes more time than this.
The writers at Boskone treated me as a colleague. Not as a student. Not as a fan. It’s a little scary—partly because it’s always scary when you get your true desire—but also because changing one’s self-identity is inherently frightening.
I think the lesson of Boskone was being okay with that change. Not turning away, saying, “No, no, this isn’t me,” but embracing it. More than that—owning it.
Thank you, Boskone, and all its attendees; I’m truly grateful.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Over my years at conventions, I’ve learned various strategies for managing social anxiety. Last last year I hit upon Anglican chants as a good way to prepare myself for anxious-making situations. The repetitive tunes do help. But more, I have a strong association between this particular sound and my choir—one of the safest places I know!
Tomorrow kicks off my American Grand Tour! After visiting some friends in New England, I’ll be making my way back to Boston for Boskone 54! I’ve never been to Boskone – and I’ve only briefly been in Boston – so I’m very excited! It’ll be a busy weekend, for sure – here is my schedule!
2:00-3:00, Steam’s Rising: A Proliferation of Punks
- Featuring: James Moore, Me (Moderating), Victoria Sandbrook, Melanie Meadors
5:00-6:00, Nonlinear Narratives
- Featuring: Me, Max Gladstone, Charles Stross, Michael Swanwick, Sarah Smith
6:00-7:00, The Fantasy Writer’s Guide to Beer
- Featuring: Me, Myself, and I.
12:00-1:00, The Inconveniences of Victorian Dress
- Featuring: Me and the Audience! (This is an open discussion – like a museum theatre talkback, wherein I have points I want to hit, but it’s a dialogue rather than me monologuing forever.)
(I haven’t 100% made up my mind what I’ll be reading, but I’m leaning towards “The Love it Bears Fair Maidens.” Or maybe “Wendigo.” I shall ponder. )
- Featuring: Me.
10:00-11:00, When is it a Gimmick?
- Featuring: Me (Moderating), LJ Cohen, John Chu, JM McDermott, Brendan DuBois
12:00-1:00, Science Fiction on the Stage
- Featuring: Jeanne Beckwith, James Patrick Kelly, F. Brett Cox, Gillian Daniels, Me.
1:00-2:00, Shelley and Austin
- Featuring: Theodora Goss, Me (Moderating), EJ Stevens, F. Brett Cox
And then I dash to the airport for a twelve-hour turnaround in Toronto before Blythe and I head straight back down to Virginia. Whee!
If you’re around the con, come say hi!
What I’m Listening to This Week
Oh man. I found this “The Road Home” this week. It’s got that gentle lilt I associate with American hymns – especially those from the south. Understated, but surprisingly emotional.
There were a lot of things we could’ve talked about today. Last week, I had multiple friends suffer loss, which got me thinking again about the nature of grief and the transient randomness of life. Last week, my story “Her Hands Like Ice” appeared in Bracken Magazine, and it might have been interesting to trace its development: from a winter’s observation to published story. Last week, more terrifying things happened in the United States, which renewed my will to resist. Last week, I continued wrestling with difficult, painful thinking about Canada’s 150th anniversary—what, precisely, are we celebrating?
Plus, I’m working through one of my biannual freakouts. I get one around October and one around February: like clockwork, every year. (Here is last February’s.) I’m fairly certain it’s linked to a mild seasonal disorder, which is comforting when I’m convinced that I’m a talentless hack with no future – it’s not Real, it’s linked to the light.
So yeah. A lot going on.
In the end, though, I think this is what I’d like to discuss.
Last week, I read Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: the Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. It’s part memoir, part hymn to writing and art. It’s a short book; funny and poignant by turns. But in one chapter—no, they’re more vignettes, really—in one vignette, she talks about work as being like meditation. The trick to both is this: you must notice when your mind has scampered off like a caffeinated squirrel, and bring it back to centre.
Nothing more, nothing less. Simply coming back to that point of stillness, again and again and again.
In a funny way, it makes me think of canoeing. Dipping your paddle into the water again and again. Developing a rhythm. And if you stop—distracted by mosquitoes, maybe—or alarmed by storm clouds—you simply breathe. Readjust your grip. Begin again.
You do get to a point of stillness, canoeing. (Actually, I’ve got a lot more experience kayaking, but I think the principle’s the same.) The rhythm itself becomes a lifeline. How to you get across the lake? Stroke by stroke. Nothing more, nothing less.All of which to say: I don’t know what lies upstream. There is a lot going on. But I know that I can put my paddle to the water. Again. And again.
What I’m Listening To This Week
I got onto a musical kick this week, listening to Wicked and Moulin Rouge! for the first time in ages. “Come What May” has been on repeat – Moulin Rouge! is one of my very favourite movies. It’s wonderfully opulent, unabashedly sentimental, and utterly romantic: jewel-toned, like a Pre-Raphaelite painting.
It’s so over the top. It works so well.
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.“Tell me what diversity looks like?”
“THIS IS WHAT DIVERSITY LOOKS LIKE!”
“Tell me what equality looks like?”
“THIS IS WHAT EQUALITY LOOKS LIKE!”
Thinking about it, though, there’s one more I would have added:
“THIS IS WHAT OUR BRAVERY LOOKS LIKE!”
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.
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.
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.“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!