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It’s been a very long road for Six Stories.
I’ve been working with this story—in different forms—for three years. Written in 2015, podcasted in 2016, Fringe plans in 2017, Fringe and remount in 2018.
Like I said, a long road.
So the showcase is this Thursday. And what I really want to say is…
Thank you for supporting this story from this first, early scribblings, through to the podcast, through to the stage play. Thanks to everyone who travelled to Toronto this summer, who re-arranged their schedules, who were unquestionably there when I really, really needed you. It all makes my heart really full, you know? Thank you for believing in me when I couldn’t believe in myself.
Canadian Thanksgiving is this weekend, so gratitude is particularly in mind. Yes, it’s been stressful and I’m exhausted, but…
I’m doing theatre. I’m writing. I am so fortunate in the friends and communities I have.
Now, lest this blog post become an Oscar speech, we should probably wrap it here. I hope people enjoy our show. I hope Sam and Joëlle—these two brave, strong, loving heroines—find their place in others’ hearts as much as they have in mine.
Two quick bits of business, before we go:
The Seventh Story will drop in the usual Six Stories feed this Friday. I’m quite pleased with the way it turned out, particularly the narration. There are a few surprises in store—have fun!
Thanks all. Very truly.
What I’m Listening to this Week
This choral piece is pretty—it’s Dan Forrest, but it feels very Eric Whitacre. But it’s not really the arrangement that got me. It’s the text itself, a poem by Jake Adam York. I’ll leave it here:
Forgive me if I forget
with the birdsong and the day’s
last glow folding into the hands
of the trees, forgive me the few
syllables of the autumn crickets,
the year’s last firefly winking
like a penny in the shoulder’s weeds,
if I forget the hour, if I forget
the day as the evening star
pours out its whiskey over the gravel
and asphalt I’ve walked
for years alone, if I startle
when you put your hand in mine,
if I wonder how long your light
has taken to reach me here.
– Jake Adam York
No time for a real post, I’m afraid. November is my crunch month, and we are right in the thick of it. I’m not even doing NaNoWriMo; it’s just that a lot of major things have deadlines now/very soon.
But a quick shout-out to my pal Brandon Crilly, whose encouragement and mutual shaming is keeping me on track.
In lieu of anything else, here’s some pretty art I looked at this week:
What I’m Listening to this Week
I love Morten Lauridsen; his music is so tender and gentle, with a core of strength throughout. This is “Dirait-on,” or, “the Song of the Roses.” I found this lovely translation:
Wildness surrounding wildness, Tenderness touching tenderness, It is your own core that you ceaselessly caress, … as they say. It is your own center that you caress, Your own reflection gives you light. And in this way, you show us how Narcissus is redeemed.
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.
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…
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…
I am walking through my village
Drinking a hot chocolate –
Quickly, because it’s spilling over the sides,
Cresting with each crunch
And rasp of leaves underfoot.
It is – in truth – a little watery,
Tasting of rinsed-out Thermoses
And ice-skating arenas.
But it was given to me in kindness,
And this sweetens it,
And as I walk through my village,
Drinking my hot chocolate,
Geese wing through weakening sunlight,
And my throat goes tickled, tight:
An early foretaste of
My annual laryngitis.
All signs suggest
A long, hard winter ahead.
But for now,
I am walking through my village,
Drinking a hot chocolate,
And it is sweet indeed.
It’s 2007. I’m sixteen. And I’m terrified. I’m sitting on a hard church pew, music in hand. The notes don’t make sense. They make sense for piano, but I can’t just pluck a G out of the air and sing it. Besides, I’m supposed to be singing the harmony, not the melody, but I can’t hear it under all the other voice parts. Tenors, basses, and piano completely bury it, but the sopranos are worst because they actually have the melody and they’re loud and even though I’m singing barely above a whisper, people keep shooting me sideways glances because I keep screwing up and I just want to sing so badly but I can’t do it.
And that’s my first year of choir in a nutshell.
A combination of writing my first real “book” (Phantom of the Opera fanfic) and Toronto getting its first real opera house had given me an insatiable appetite for opera. My younger sister had spent the last year in the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, and I watched the Youth Chorus rehearsals agog.
I wanted to sing like that. So, so badly.
There was, of course, one slight snag.
I couldn’t sing.
Somehow, I got in. I’m still not sure why. Maybe Ann—the music director, a wonderful Texan force of nature—saw how badly I wanted it. Maybe it’s hard enough to find teens willing to sing classical music, and she worried about crushing my interest.
I don’t know. In any case, I was in so far over my head, I couldn’t even see the surface.
Most of the kids in the Youth Chorus had graduated from the CCOC’s younger divisions. Which meant they’d been singing for years. Not only that, they’d been singing together for years. And then there was me: new, and shy, and totally unable to keep up with the music.
I couldn’t even read it. Oh, I mean, I could look at a piece of music and tell you, “Yes, that note is a B, and that’s a sharp, and we’re supposed to get louder over here.” But when it came to matching “note on page” with “note in voice,” I had nothing.
As for technique—I had less than nothing. The voice is an instrument. Like all instruments, you have to learn how to use it. My joining the Youth Chorus was like grabbing a trumpet and expecting to join an orchestra.
All that to say, I was pretty effing terrible. In a choir of burgeoning pros, I was the weakest link. And I wasn’t used to that. My whole life, I’ve been an overachiever and a quick study. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I was used to just…picking things up.
Algebra. French. Soccer. Piano. Never much of a learning curve. Never much angst. Just trying something, and very quickly becoming good at it.
This was the first time that hadn’t happened. Those rehearsals fighting back tears were the first time I wasn’t near the top of the class.
People worried, of course. Ann worried. My parents worried. Every Monday afternoon, dread sat in my throat like a mouthful of cold worms, and every Monday night, I came home sobbing at my own incompetence. But I. Kept. Going. Back. It was stubbornness, sheer and simple—this was the first time something had beaten me, and I couldn’t let that stand.
So I did what anyone does in those situations:
I learned to survive.
Since I couldn’t read the music, I memorized it instead, tracking down recordings of every piece we did. I went to weekly lessons wherein I worked my bum off learning technique (without the mentoring I got from Ann’s daughter Erin, I might well have crashed out). Finally, I decided that if I couldn’t be the best singer, I would be the best chorister—always on time, always prepared, always listening and well-behaved.
“Come on, you guys! Get ready!”
“You don’t count. You’re always ready.”
When I aged out at eighteen, I still wasn’t a strong singer, but I’d passed the initial hurdle. Music had woven itself into my life—to feel grounded and whole, I needed a choir.
By this point, I knew enough about my own voice to realize that opera was not a great match. To the surprise of no one, my voice is very high, very light, and very straight-toned. I don’t have the vocal weight for opera, and I never will. In terms of voice, I’m not built that way.
I am built for church singing.
So I went hunting church choirs. One rainy night in September, I climbed a million stairs to one church’s choir room. I said, “I’m a first soprano,” and the director pointed me to a seat.
Whilst my voice is better suited for church singing, there was an entirely new learning curve to contend with. Hymns that the church ladies knew by heart, but which I’d never seen. The shape and structure and music of the liturgy itself. Psalms.
But the CCOC had given me enough foundation that I could stick things out. Of course, the community helped. The ladies very quickly became like a legion of extra aunts; the men, like older brothers.
Here’s the thing about singing church services, though. There isn’t actually a ton of rehearsal. Anthems get a few weeks of practice, but the hymns and psalms change every time. It was too much music for me to memorize.
So I finally learned to read.
There was no shaft of light and angelic “Alleluia!” as the notes resolved themselves. It happened bit by bit, water wearing away at a stone, until I realized I’d actually been reading the music for a while.
I learned to support. I learned to breathe. I learned to make my voice do what I wanted as we tackled a huge range of music—from Palestrina and Byrd to spirituals. Sure, there is something of an “Anglican hoot” about it, but I’m pleased with the way it’s developed.
And I learned all the ecclesiastical side: the psalms, the hymns, the pulse and pattern of the liturgical year.
But the best thing?
I’m proud that I stuck it out. I’m proud of how much I’ve learned. But in a funny way, I’m even more proud of the battle I fought with myself. It took a long, long time, but I learned to stay with something because I love it, and no other reason.
You see, I’m still not the top of the class. Not even close. I am a competent vocalist. Not great—competent. And in this arena, I’m okay with that. I’m okay with it because for me, it’s all out of love: love for the music, love for my friends, and love for the sheer breathless rush of having a high G hit the church’s vaulted ceiling.
I am a chorister, well and truly. As the hymn goes, “How can I keep from singing?”
What I’m Listening to This Week
We’re returning to Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse Devo. I never thought I’d do this, but here’s…um, well, here’s me. Anglican hoot and all.
For me, the year starts in May. This is wholly a side effect of my dayjob. We go back in May—it’s like how academics get new beginning and carpe diem feelings around September. The calendar year is one thing. On a bone-deep, feeling level, we shape the year according to our own lives.
(Fun story: I once exclaimed to my crazy-smart and priestly friend Rachel, “It’s so cool how the liturgical and agricultural calendars mirror each other so well!” She just laughed.)
So for me, the year falls into two distinct parts: Season and Off-Season. Dayjob and full-time creative work. Museum Months and Winter. They’re both important parts of my life. Usually, I’m chomping at the bit to get back to work. This year’s been so busy that my feelings are more, “Oh…sure! Yes, that would be very pleasant!”
Still happy to go back. It’s just not been foremost in my mind, you know?
I like this idea of thinking of the year holistically. There’s something very comforting about seeing its rhythms as part of a larger context. The off-season is ending, which means that my creative work will slow down. It has to. I’ve been working full days all winter—I can’t add another 30-40 hours/week and expect to maintain the same pace.
But that’s okay, because we’re looking at the larger picture. Just like the agricultural calendar: it’s okay that the fields lie quiet in January. It’s not the time for sowing in January. It’ll be time in the spring. The time will come.
Of course, it’s problematic if you’re spending the entire year with fallow fields. That’s not the point. The point is recognizing that just because things are slower right now this second, it doesn’t mean that you’re screwed long term. As I’ve discussed, I write yearly goals. Knowing the year’s shape helps me slot them in, in their proper seasons.
The big things this off-season were finishing the HEARTSTEALER audiobook, and finishing the first draft of SING TO THE BONES. Heavy lifting, time-intensive projects, best suited for the winter (best suited, not only suited—I wrote HEARTSTEALER during the museum season). Outlining my Ed Greenwood Group novels, writing more short stories, and the odd freelance editing gig? Those fit in more easily around my dayjob.
Everything gets its time, in its time.
Quite frankly, this is how I manage to get everything done. Sure, the chronic insomnia helps, but things go so much more easily if there’s structure. You don’t have to think so much then. Essentially, you’re hacking the calendar. Everything slides into its proper place, at its proper time, and then boom—the off-season rolls around again, and you’ve accomplished rather a lot.
That’s the plan, anyway. I think my favourite winter was still the one we recorded HAPAX, simply because we were all so young and naïve and optimistic…but this one runs a close second.
Cloistered creative work gets a little…insular. While I’ve enjoyed hermiting away, I’m excited to see the apple trees bloom—for the white petals to carpet the grass. I want to meet the new lambs. I want to hear the trees creaking and moaning in the wind; to feel the sun on my arms; to walk through the stillness before we open, when everything seems brand-new and possible.
Everything in its season.
What about you? How do you shape your year?
What I’m Listening to This Week
Totally a guilty pleasure—for me, Celtic Woman is the musical equivalent of cotton candy. Light and fluffy, but damn it makes you feel good.
I wish this song had been released while I was writing Heartstealer. If I was making a fan-video of Charlotte and the Gloaming, I’d score it with this piece. It’s impossible to listen to it and not feel the urge to dance.
The one thing about listening to this group is that it does make me want to write more in the Heartstealer universe. Fortunately, I have a few other Celtic/Irish-flavoured projects in the pipeline…
Wait – we just did Balticon, though. Right? Like, six months ago? No? Okay, I guess it has been a year…
Honestly, I rarely remember that I’m going to cons until the week before, and this year has already been so hectic with plans taking slight detours, academic essays being written, secret projects being recorded, and a fledgling museum theatre program finding its feet. Nevertheless, the fine people of the Balticon Programming Committee have reminded me that I am going to Balticon. Tomorrow, in fact.
Here’s the run-down.
- Getting in around noon.
- Nothing official on the schedule until the Meat-and-Greet. Bring grillable protein and bond with other podcasters in front of the Residence Inn from 5:00 pm until whenever. Meat starts coming off the grill at six.
- 9:00 am: Researching Your Alternate History – Panellist – (Tack)
- D.H. Aire (M), Me, Melissa Scott, Jo Walton
- 10:00 am: Writing Interactive Fiction – Panellist – (Tack)
- Stephen Granade (M), Charlie Brown, Laura Nicole, Me, Patrick Scaffido
- 7:00 pm: Working With Others’ Myths – Moderator – (Salon B)
- Me, Day Al-Mohamed, Aaron Rosenberg, David Sobkowiak, Jo Walton
- 11:00 pm: Balticon Beats (Garden)
- 11:00 am: How To Intelligently Do Horrible Things To Your Characters – Panellists – (Salon B)
- Trisha J. Woolridge (M), Me, Russ Colchamiro, William Galaini, Joshua Palmatier
- 12:00 pm: Collaboration and Intermedia Writing – (Tack)
- Mike Luoma (M), Me, Dave Robison, Aaron Rosenberg
- 4:00 PM: Reading (Chesapeake)
- Sarah Avery, Me, Sarah Pinkser
- No idea what I’m reading, yet. It’ll be a surprise for everyone!
- 8:00 pm : Bars, Inns, and Taverns: Fiction and Reality – Panellist (Derby)
- Steven R. Southard (M), Me, John Skylar, Ada Palmer
- Needless to say, I am VERY excited for this one.
- 9:00 pm: Mom and Dad Let me Watch WHAT? (Chase)
- Me, Andrew Fox, Nate Nelson, the JOHN VAUGHAN
- 10:00 pm: New Media Homecoming Dance in Honour of P.G. Holyfield (Garden)
As per usual, I forget when my flight leaves, but it’s sometime in the afternoon. I’ll be around for a bit in the morning before I catch my train to catch my plane.
And that’s it! Definitely an exciting array of panels with wonderful, wonderful people. I know there will be a few tears this weekend as we remember and celebrate P.G. Holyfield. I also know that there will be lots of laughter, and many more pictures than in years previous.
See you there!
What I’m Listening to This Week
Kathleen Ferrier is one of my favourite contraltos. Lovely, warm, and rich – without being overly dark. And her rendition of “Blow the Wind Southerly” breaks my little heart. Just listen.