I’m writing this on the first Sunday of Advent. Among other things, Advent is a season of waiting and preparation—and a fresh page, as the start of a new liturgical year. For me, it’s also an introspective pause before the dayjob season ends and the regular New Year begins.
But I think most people turn introspective, this time of year. That’s what all the year-end wrap-up posts and summaries are about, right? They’re a chance to tie up loose ends and look back over our shoulders before turning the next corner.
What did you accomplish this year? What goals do you have for next year?
Where are you, right now? Are you happy, here? What will you change, as we move forward again?
So our thoughts run, as the days get cold and the nights grow long. In this weather, there’s more space to spend time with yourself.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll get to the lists of “What I Read in 2018” and “What I Did in 2018.” But for today—I’ve realized something, in my introspecting.
Years ago, I wrote a poem entitled, “What I Want.” You can read it here, but this is the pertinent stanza:
I want you to find me,
Some Tuesday afternoon
When we aren’t doing anything.
I want you to pause,
Just for a moment,
“I read your story –
It was really good.
I liked it.
I’m so proud of you.
And you know what?
I think I’ve found precisely that, but it wasn’t in the place I expected. It’s like the thing where you see someone out of context and don’t recognize them. So much our perception is built on preconception, the essentials get clouded.
Sometimes, I think, our goals are closer than we believe. It’s just that we want so badly for things to look a certain way—we don’t always realize when we’ve attained them. Maybe this is why the idea of “success” is so slippery. We clutch at specific images—book deals, signings, awards, fans. But sometimes, those are stand-ins: symbols for something deeper.
What do you want, really? Have you already found it?
Something to consider, as the year passes ever more quickly away!
What I’m Listening To This Week
More Ešenvalds! Yes, “Long Road” is the same ethereal, dreamy choral music we’ve been hearing a lot lately. But it’s all too pertinent right now. I might be crying.
I’ve been rereading Ursula K. Le Guin’s excellent essay collection, The Language of the Night, most particularly “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” which examines the importance of language and style in writing fantasy. Le Guin’s main thesis is that fantasy isn’t defined so much by wizards and dragons. What makes it fantasy is the style: “The style, of course, is the book…If you remove the style, all you have left is a synopsis of the plot.” (Le Guin, The Language of the Night, p. 94).
She hastens to add, “I speak from the reader’s point of view. From the writer’s point of view, the style is the writer…Style is how you as a writer see and speak” (ibid).
Which is certainly true. Style can be learned, imitated, affected—but we all have a style that is uniquely us, as personal as our fingerprints or speaking voice.
But I was thinking—I have a story coming out in Lackington’s at the end of this month that’s a very different style than my other fiction. It’s contemporary and snappish (the editor called it “almost hardboiled,” which delighted me to no end). And yet—it’s still me.
As usual, I turn to music to help me understand my own writing process.
First, some technical things: vocal registers.
Vocal pedagogy is its own delight, but for our purposes, let’s talk about chest voice, head voice, and the break. Super simply (I apologize), chest voice is the low part of the vocal range, head voice is the upper part, and the break is that frustrating bit in the middle.
There’s a difference singing across registers. Physically, of course, but also in terms of intention.
And yet, it’s still the same voice—used differently, resonating in different places, useful for different types of music (I would die trying to sing descants in my chest voice).
For me, this is a useful way to think about writing. Some stories sit in my chest voice. Some sit in my head voice. Same voice, same style, just applied differently.
(As a sidebar that really deserves its own blog post, I think that the same logic applies to fairy tales. Tolkien famously described a “fairy-story” as “…one which touches on or uses Faërie, whatever its own main purpose may be…” (Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, p. 16). Much like how fantasy isn’t defined by wizards and dragons, fairy tales aren’t defined by wee sprites. I think defining “fairy tale” comes down to register, rather than plot motifs or tropes—a “Faerie voice,” if you will. But I digress.)
But wait, there’s more!
Even within the same register, vowels change the sound dramatically! Consciously adapting vowels is an important skill for choristers; just like adapting vocabulary, syntax, and vernacular is important for writers.
Good singers can sing across all genres of music. Sure, it may sound different, but it’s always them, always their style. Good writers do the same—and that’s what I’m aiming for.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Christmas has started at the dayjob, so bring on the Christmas/Advent music! It’s going to be a fun six weeks. Here’s a macaronic piece already getting considerable play on my rotation:
I’ve been getting an interesting question lately, as a general trend. And it’s a question that’s very difficult to answer.
“How long did it take you to write that?”
It leaves me scrambling because I’m never sure what they mean. Or more accurately, what they think they mean. Is it just the actual sitting-and-typing draft work? Or are we including outlining and research? Does editing time count? The early rambling noodling I do with every project? Or does the clock start the moment the idea sparked in my brain?
For me, at least, they’re all different answers. Generally, I say something like, “Writing the first draft took X time, but I’ve been thinking about it since Y.”
But even then, I need to do some personal archaeology.
Take A CANTICLE OF LIGHT. One of those “On This Day” posts appeared on my Facebook this evening. My former housemate’s cat lies on two whiteboards that pretty clearly show CANTICLE ponderings.
The photo is dated May 2016. Except then I put the play aside for a few months. It ended up being a NaNoWriMo project of sorts—I banged the first draft out in about five weeks. Which sounds pretty quick, but again, it’d been bouncing around my skull for ages.
What’s the right answer? Very few people want to hear about skull-bouncing time.
Besides, that’s not even counting editing. As far as I remember, I had a table read in February 2017. I forget when Missed Metaphor offered to produce it, but it must have been summertime, because I do remember a) wearing shorts, and b) walking home through a warm, sticky night.
Then things got busy, so I put edits on hold. The final draft got finished around December.
So was it five weeks to write? Was it a year? Was it a year of editing even though I took months off to deal with other projects?
But here’s the kicker. I remember sharing very, very early CANTICLE thoughts in 2014. One character had a different name, the ages were different, and the plot wouldn’t have worked—but it was still CANTICLE, in zygote form.
Really, all my projects are like this. Quick drafting times, really long gestations.
And all of those phases are “writing.” The long periods between editing where the story reshapes itself in the dark. The white-hot rush of fingers on keys. The sporadic poking at outlines and characters.
Sitting on the bus, musing about a boy with two sisters.
It’s similar to the museum, where visitors look at a saddle or a tin lantern or a dress and ask, “How long does that take?” I mean, I get it. It’s an easy hook in. A yardstick. It’s a way to quantify something overwhelming, and to relate it to one’s own experiences.
But the honest (if frustrating answer) is, “As long as it needs.”
How very true, for all our arts.
Also, while we are here: CANTICLE and SIX STORIES updates!
SIX STORIES has begun rehearsals and now we’re sourcing props, costumes, and set. The landing outside my apartment has become an impromptu theatre storage space.
CANTICLE’s fundraiser was a delightful evening! Great talent, great people, great fun! Tickets are available to purchase here! (We run May 30th – June 2nd.) Next stop: the Box Theatre!
What I’m Listening To This Week
You know I keep it honest here. When things get particularly stressful, I bust out the Anglican chants. The repetitious tunes help calm the squirrel-brain—it’s my comfort music!
Sorry, friends. I’ve got very little wit or wisdom to offer this week. Between the horrific van attack in Toronto, returning to the dayjob, and a swamp of work, it’s been a bit of a blur.
I did get out to the McMichael Gallery of Canadian Art, which is a wonderful place I visit far too infrequently. It was an absolutely lovely day—the kind that keeps you going through the slog.
Since we’re here, I’ll take this opportunity to remind the Internet that the “Six Stories, Told at Night” GoFundMe continues until Wednesday—and it’s been an incredibly humbling experience. We have well surpassed our initial goal and we both want to thank you all from the bottom of our hearts. Let’s see how far we can get by Wednesday night. (Our Faerie Queen needs her crown, after all!)
And with that, I’m off to the ravines for some much-needed time with my trees.
What I’m Listening To This Week:
I found this totally by accident, but it makes me think SO MUCH of A Canticle of Light. More importantly, it pulls me back into that family. I’m not sure that I’m completely done with those characters yet…
Heavy weekend, my friends. Between the astonishing images from the March For Our Lives, the shattering speech from Emma Gonzalez (if you haven’t seen it, please do), and loss striking several friends, words are a little hard to find right now.
But it’s been a weekend for perspective.
I’ve been so worried. Deadlines and submissions, work and striving. But in the end—well, those things seem small compared to everything else. If nothing else, this is a good reminder to come up for air and actually look around at life—to remember who we are, what we cherish, and what kind of life we want for ourselves.
This isn’t to say, “don’t sweat the small stuff,” mind you. Sometimes, the small stuff is the most important. Having a picnic brunch on the choir room floor is small stuff, but honestly, the fellowship and love fed my soul more than anything else this weekend.
It’s the unimportant stuff that gets in the way. The chatter, the noise, the pettiness that creeps like invasive vines through our lives. And it’s hard, because those things often feel very important. The trick is to find the signal in all the static, and lock onto it with everything you’ve got.
When the chips are down, when the clock’s running out—what matters most to you?
Go that way. We’ll walk together.
What I’ve Been Listening To This Week
A story title got Gibbons’ “O Clap Your Hands” stuck in my head. It’s like clockwork: wind it up and watch it spring forth to its natural end:
It’s been a little while, hasn’t it? Last week was March Break, which meant that I spent daytimes performing in an interactive mystery…and my nights madly writing something on deadline.
I got a wee bit tired.
But hey, we’re here. It’s done. This interactive mystery has really been a story that’s taken five years to tell, as subplots from different years built upon each other. It’s been an incredible experience and unlike any storytelling/scripting I’ve done before.
It’s also time to say goodbye to this arc. And goodbye to actually performing in it.
I have mixed feelings.
On the one hand—oh my goodness, it was so much fun. It was improv and it was playwriting. In a funny way, it was chaos theory. Mostly, it was playing with the visitors and with each other. Our main (anti)heroine—Miss Moriarty, sister to the nefarious professor—is a wonderful example of Blythe and I riffing off each other. Like light reflected in doubled mirrors, the character passed back and forth so that she truly is a joint creation.
Other characters kind of emerged from nowhere and never left, and we grew to love them, too. A whole cast and world emerged. How incredible is that?
There’s something on the wind. It’s time to move on. This fits with the general rhythms of this year so far. Things are starting to happen; my energies are flowing in new places. Six Stories, the Prophecy Foretold and A Canticle of Light go up within six weeks of each other. Other theatre shenanigans wait in the wings. (See what I did there?)
It’s scary, of course. In any field, it’s so easy to stay in the shallows. It’s comforting there. You know the pond; you know the fish.
But eventually, that starts to become the problem.
It makes me think about why we say, break out of our comfort zone. It’s never ease out, withdraw from, slip gently through. It’s always break out, or step out—purposeful, definitive actions. They’re actions that you have to mean. You can’t do them by accident.
What else can I do? Where’s the next blank space on the map? What’s the next dragon?
I’m not entirely sure. That’s the scary thing, in all this. But I just think—if we don’t try—if we don’t stretch our fingertips to their utmost—if we stay at the surface and ignore the deeper water—
What are we missing? What parts of ourselves we will skim right over? What could have been? For me, that’s all scarier than taking a leap of faith. If you don’t try, you’ll never know, right?
Besides, I remain a steadfast optimist. When you leap, the universe tends to leap with you.
What I’m Listening To This Week
“Dinogad’s Smock” is a very, very old melody. The first two minutes are a lovely lullaby—the counting and spoken sections after 2:15 twig something in me. It’s a little uncanny, and incredibly beautiful.
I was getting ready to go out when the news of Ursula K. Le Guin’s passing broke across my Twitter. An odd little noise slipped my mouth—somewhere between an “Oh!” and a gasp. Then I burst into tears.
I rarely cry at public figures’ deaths. (The Queen is an exception—I guarantee you, I will cry when the Queen goes to her rest.) But Ursula K. Le Guin is different. She isn’t just a “public figure,” or even just “an American novelist.” She was one of the greats: a lodestar around which to orient.
Over the past week, many people have written many touching tributes. I can really only flail and sputter, “But—but—but—Le Guin!” But I’d like to point out something interesting about this whole writing thing.
You can apprentice with any damn writer you like. Putting your words—your brain-stuff—into print creates a certain kind of immortality. And if you’ve got an author’s words, you can learn from them. In an odd, beautiful way, we can dialogue with the dead.
This is what people mean when they ask, “So who are your influences?” Who shaped you, who spoke to you, who made your heart sing, who taught you?
Who are you arguing with?
Who are you writing back to?
Who do you secretly (or not-so-secretly) want to impress? To connect with?
Over time, I think, we build an inner gallery of teachers. Sometimes, we’ve actually worked with them (I have internalized several Stonecoast mentors’ voices—hi, Jim!).
But sometimes, we’ve come to know them through their words alone. I never met Le Guin. In the back of my head, I maybe hoped we’d one time stand in the same room, but it seemed kind of like hoping to catch a comet.
So I read her fiction and loved her fiction. It made me look at things differently and re-evaluate not only my writing, but my life, my baseline assumptions about the world’s workings. Like all good teachers, she challenged and prodded and pushed me further than I thought we’d go.
But beyond her fiction—it was this particular book.
The Language of the Night is a collection of essays about science fiction and fantasy, theory and craft. It is one of my personal Foundation Texts, underpinning the way I understand fantasy.
Now, the kind of writing I am attacking, the Poughkeepsie style of fantasy…is a fake plainness. It is not really simple, but flat. It is not really clear, but inexact. Its directness is specious. Its sensory cues—extremely important in imaginative writing—are vague and generalized; the rocks, the wind, the trees are not there; are not felt; the scenery is cardboard, or plastic. The tone as a whole is profoundly inappropriate to the subject. (Le Guin, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.”)
When the genuine myth rises into consciousness, that is always its message. You must change your life. (Le Guin, “Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction.”)
For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life that they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom. (Le Guin, “Why Are Americans Afraid Of Dragons?”)
You see it, right? In her essays, she’s doing precisely the same thing she did in her fiction. She is challenging us. She is pushing us past the solar system’s last orbit, into the vast wealth of interstellar space beyond; from the shallows to the open sea; to what feels comfortable to what is Truth.
She did that not just for us writers individually, but for the genre as a whole. She lifted speculative fiction to what it could and must be; the thing we were too timid to dream until she showed us how.
So now we’ve lost our lodestar. But we have her map, in the form of her words. There’s only one thing to do, really. Keep going. That’s what any teacher wants, in the end: for their students to drift free and explore past the edges of the map.
Thank you, Ursula K. Le Guin. You will always be our teacher.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I love Vivaldi, and I’m absolutely fascinated with this piece. The title’s a total spoiler, but I was researching female tenor/basses for reasons, and I can’t stop listening!
I think the pre-Raphaelites are my off-season thing. Here we are, two weeks into January, and I’ve already put several books on hold at the library. I mean—I’ve been thinking about creative relationships, which got me reading again about Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal…and Janey Morris…and Fanny Conforth…
Complicated relationships, complicated art. Those are ponderings for another time, though.
But in the course of my wanderings, I stumbled across this quotation by William Morris:
Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
Which I quite like. I think it’s a little more forgiving than Marie Kondo’s axiom that all our possessions should spark joy. Many of mine do; concentrating on joy helped me purge many more.
But in the end, I also need a screwdriver in the house, and a screwdriver is very useful. (Which is a kind of joy, I suppose? In the end, I think both writers are saying the same thing; Morris just resonates with me better.)
Now, Morris’ quotation is timely for two reasons. Reason the First: the garret is looking a little cluttered. When I moved up here, I purged a TON of stuff. A full garbage bag came out of my desk drawers alone. There really isn’t that much space up here, you see, and there’s nothing like moving to help you decide what’s necessary in your life.
But stuff creeps back in over time. Christmases and birthdays can’t quite match pace with the rate of purge. Also, I got a cat, which is basically like having a furry toddler—he comes with a lot of paraphernalia as well. The toys, my friends. The toys are everywhere.
So decluttering. Focusing on those things useful and beautiful. Cool.
But it’s not just the garret. Here is Reason Number Two. It occurs to me that “have nothing that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” is a pretty good compass for life and fiction in general.
I’ve been asking myself this as I move through the Beer Magic novel. “Why is this here? What is this scene doing? Where is the conflict? What did these paragraphs accomplish in the overall story?” Already, I know I’m going to have to purge a lot of words. My best guess is that Beer Magic’s first draft is going to run about 110k—I’d like the final draft to hit 100k.
Reading what I’ve got thus far, my prose is cluttered. Extra scenes are gumming things up; some words are neither useful, nor particularly beautiful.
That’s fine for now. It’s a first draft. But I’d like to keep that in mind for the rest of the process: useful and beautiful. Ideally, every particle of our fiction should be both. Each word should punch above its weight; the best prose does three (or four) things at once; you’ve heard this all before.
But if it’s not useful or beautiful—
Why is it here?
Things to ponder, as I charge forward with the draft and sort out my apartment.
What I’m Listening to this Week
I suspect I will not have time for much short fiction until after Beer Magic and the “Six Stories” stage adaptation are done. But the first movement in Gustav Holst’s “Seven Part-Songs” is making me itchy.
Full transparency: on hearing it for the first time, I may have uttered an expletive. The text is just so evocative and entirely my aesthetic.
The other songs are lovely too—it’s always nice to find pieces arranged specifically for women’s voices. I particularly liked the round arrangement of the fourth song (6:10, “When First We Met”).
Pondering two separate-but-related things this week. First, I went to At Home with Monsters, the Guillermo del Toro exhibit currently on at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The exhibit purports to bring patrons inside del Toro’s home, “Bleak House.” It features art and books he holds dear, along with costumes and models from his films.
It’s a fascinating look into the creative “mulch” from which an artist’s work grows. The exhibit drew largely from del Toro’s childhood influences: a conservative Catholic grandmother, fairy tales, comic books and movie monsters. (No wonder I like the man’s work so much.) Montages from his films then show how those influences translate to his art.
It occurs to me that while the exhibit references his physical house, it’s mostly about home in a metaphorical sense. What mental furnishings does del Toro have; what relics from childhood and family tradition lie semi-forgotten in the attic of his mind, hauled back to light when least expected?
We all have such a mental home, of course, outfitted with whatever pieces we’ve picked up along the way. Which relates to my second pondering…
I’ve been thinking about my dad a lot this week. Partly, it’s the season. The fifth anniversary draws nigh in a month or so, which…fuck. Partly, this tends to happen around Remembrance Day, with all our choral pieces focused on death, loss, and memorializing.
Thinking about my mental home, grief and loss feature pretty prominently. Look at the fiction I’ve written since he died. It shows up again, and again, and again, like I’m telling myself the same story in hopes that this time I’ll understand the ending.
(Spoiler: I never do.)
But there was an unexpected thought in all this. I don’t have to be afraid anymore. See, for a good few years after Dad died, my operating rule was that – eventually- everyone dies or leaves. No one was for Keeps. No one stayed forever. Sometimes that assumption was consciously articulated; sometimes it just underlay everything, like the lowest, half-heard rumble from an organ.
It runs all through my fiction: this obsessive fear of loss. Sometimes, that works (Six Stories). Sometimes, it doesn’t. (I can name probably half-a-dozen short stories off the top of my head.)
But here is something I’m still trying to puzzle through. Grief and loss and death are my monsters—some of them, anyway. They live in my mental house with me; I’ll never get their stains out of the carpet and wallpaper.
But I’m not afraid, precisely, in quite the same way.
It’s a bit like my fear of Medusa (who also appeared in the del Toro exhibit, to my equal delight and dismay). Medusa’s a monster in my house too. But I’m not afraid—in fact, I’ve co-opted the gorgon image for myself, turning a symbol of my utmost dread into something powerful, strong, protective.
She’s a monster I live with. Though I fear her, I’ve got the power, now.
We all have monsters. I think their appearance in our art is inevitable. I’m not sure that you can write about them while you’re still afraid of them. I think that for art to be successful, you need to have some distance from it, to let it work as art in itself, rather than a veiled autobiography. Art is synthesis, not straight translation.
And my roundabout point is that I think grief and loss are finally undergoing the same transformation for me. My monsters, my furnishings, but not something that controls me. Rather, something I can co-opt, something I can drag out from the attic when they’ve mouldered into something less recognizable, rather than using them straight-from-the-box.
What can you write, if you’re not afraid?
I’m not entirely sure. I guess we’re going to find out.
PS. For more information about At Home with Monsters, click here. I will definitely be returning; my one regret is that I had an appointment to keep, and so rushed more than I would’ve liked.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Love me some Ralph Vaughan Williams, but I’d never heard this cantata before now. According to the accompanying notes, “Dona Nobis Pacem” was written in response to “…war, or the deepening sense of trouble which by the mid-1930s seemed set to explode into war.”
Equally disturbing and reassuring as a whole, the second movement (starting around 4:00) is one of the most intense and angry choral pieces I’ve heard in a while. I think we know one of Vaughan Williams’ monsters. Also listen to the quiet, driving drums and baritone in the fifth movement (26:40)…before the choir explodes into more anguish, followed by a glorious final movement.
I had an epiphany this week: no one cares that I have an MFA.
Another epiphany immediately followed: no one should care.
It all sounds much more dramatic than it was, really. Sometimes after shows, visitors ask us, “So…did you, like, go to school for this or something?”
“I went to theatre school!” inevitably draws admiring murmurs and follow-up questions. “I have my Masters in Creative Writing!” not so much.
It’s a silly thing. I hate the small, venomous part of me that bristles at it. But you know what? We all have our vanities and our arrogances, and I want to be honest. It is such a silly thing, but sometimes it really sucks.
What helps is remembering why I got an MFA. I didn’t get it for glory. I got it so that I could become a better writer. No other reason. Degrees and workshops and grants are all very nice—but having them isn’t what matters. What matters is what you do with them.
Forging new opportunities.
And writing isn’t full of much glamour anyway. We tend to be paid last and least. We’re generally the silent partner, drafting proposals in the basement. Like good sound editing, good writing is often invisible, which doesn’t help if you’re after recognition.
GOBLIN 1: The Snow Queen doesn’t make any sense without goblins. We’ve got the most important part: there’s no story without us.
GOBLIN 2: But after this, we’re never seen again. No glory, no thanks, no nothing!
GOBLIN 1: It could be worse. (Pause) We could be playwrights.
The Snow Queen: a Pantomime, by Me (2016).
So if not for fame and fortune, why write?
Because we must; because we’re artists. But I’m not going to say, “Forget external validation.” That’s not realistic; most humans like praise. When you’ve worked really hard on something—put your heart and soul into it—pulled off the impossible on sheer grit and nerve—of course you want a clap on the back. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But to counterbalance that craving, we need an even stronger core of self-assurance and self-knowledge. Because the praise won’t always come. The kudos won’t. The appreciative murmurs won’t. And when that happens, an inner, steely kernel will keep you going. That’s your compass: external validation is a nice boost, but you don’t want to steer by it.
At the end of the day…yeah, I have a hungry ego. And I’ve worked to temper it, because it doesn’t have any place in the creative process. What good is praise and validation if you don’t value what you do? “Believe in yourself” sounds so cliché, but if you don’t, who will?
I think it’s one of the hardest things we face, as artists. Putting the mitts back on, wiping our faces, and striding out into the silent ring. But if you can know—if you can know, deep down—that what you’re doing is good and worthwhile—
Then the fight is already won.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I found “Dacw ‘Nghariad” by accident and immediately became obsessed. It’s one of those pieces that make stories flash before your eyes. Pretty sure this is a lullaby for my new novel’s protagonist… Of course, she’s not Welsh, but we’ll forget about that for now.