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.
I’m tired, and depleted, and there is so very much to be done. But in fairness, it’s not wholly unexpected; this is a transitional period. Heavy lifting and shifting ground comes with the territory. As my mom put it, it’s like a monkey swinging through jungle: you can’t let go of the old vine until you have the new firmly in hand.
(Well, you can—I have done in the past—but you have to accept the risk of falling.)
I’m mostly just whining, to be honest. Because I’m uncomfortable, because I’m tired. But I keep telling myself that things will be better on the other side—I just have to get there.
I have noticed one thing, though: this whole past week, I’ve been yearning to find a secluded cabin and stuff myself with art. Paintings. Books. Music. Preferably surrounded by woods and lakes, with no people around. Introvert heaven.
Which is how I know I’m tired. It’s the spiritual/creative equivalent of my anaemia-driven oyster cravings. This is my subconscious’ way of trying to replenish the energy I’ve put out.
And so I’ve taken some concrete steps (I believe in taking concrete steps). In a month’s time, I’m heading north to Georgian Bay for some trees, water, and dark starry skies. Only for a long weekend, but I’ll take what I can get.
In the meantime, I’ve been stuffing myself with art. Late last week, I took a rare day off. I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite refuges. (The knot in my chest dissolved within minutes of entering the galleries.) It was a fairly short excursion; I mostly wanted to see my favourite paintings and splurge on fancy espresso.
But I did play a little game. Sometimes when I’m learning about my characters, I take them to museums. That is, I wander museums and I let them chatter quietly in the background. What’s familiar to them, what’s weird, what are they drawn to?
For instance, I like Victorian Romanticism and Impressionism, like this:
My protagonist very quickly decided she likes twentieth-century abstract art: “The ones that look broken, but aren’t.”
So I suppose I was working even while off, but I know her better now. I’m not ready to start writing this novel yet, but we’re getting closer…
Then I explored the new Grange Park (gorgeous) and hit the library to restock on books (more CanLit, plus a collection of Octavia Butler shorts).
While I feel vaguely guilty for not working in the midst of so much happening, these are the things which keep me going. They give me enough energy to get through the woods, grab the next vine.
This feels like a turning point. I just need to hold on a while longer.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Back with my pal Handel, and the “Amen” chorus from the end of Messiah. I’ve been absentmindedly singing this all week, albeit with the words to the Sanctus. Not sure what’s happening there.
In any case, enjoy the supporting strings and percussion, along with the graceful dance between the vocal lines. The tenors have a particularly beautiful moment around the 2:19 mark. And at the very end— no uses expectant silence like Handel!
Well, I was right. It was another immensely busy and stressful week. Honestly, it feels like I’m spinning my wheels and getting nowhere fast. That said, I’m hopeful things will calm down once Canada Day is behind us. Once I’ve put myself back together, we can talk about forging ahead.
But for all the worry and work—there have been times when the breeze shifts just right, or the morning light hits, and the past few summers come rushing back all at once.
I loved the summer I started working at the museum. You know that feeling, early in the morning, when the light is gold and the air is fresh, and all things seem possible? Like you’re poised at the beginning, in the moment that holds all the potential? That’s what it felt like, all the time: forget-me-not-sky and dewy grass, lingering lilac and gravel crunching underfoot. It felt like I was finally getting something I’d been craving for such a very long time.
It’s the Southern Ontario Summers of my childhood. Sometimes I feel them when I look at paintings: line and colour flooding all five senses at once. And so, since I’m really too tired for a coherent post this week, here are a bunch of pictures that send me straight into summer.
Mostly turn of the century. Mostly meadows and fields. Mostly light.
I’m sure that says something about Southern Ontario, but I need to sleep now.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Henry Purcell is a cool dude. His semi-opera, “The Fairy Queen” (1692), is also cool. Bright and sprightly, as the Renaissance ought to be, but with quite a bit of depth, too. Heads up: it’s a long one.
Well. That was an immensely busy and stressful week. I would be glad it’s over, but I sense more busy and stressful weeks on the horizon. On the other hand, I did find out that “La Corriveau” has been long-listed for the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, putting me in very much esteemed company. Congratulations to all the long-listers!
So amidst the madness, I’ve been thinking about the various necessities we have in our lives. Not just food/shelter/clothing—but the things that keep us sane and stable enough to handle very busy weeks…and very frightening administrations… The things that help us live, rather than survive.
This whole pondering really started when I came home after a bone-crushing day, noticed my floors were filthy, and immediately wanted to cry. On the flipside, cleaning them made everything so much better.
So what do I need?
Some Semblance of Tidiness
I am not Martha Stewart, nor was meant to be. I live in an Edwardian garret with a cat that delights in destruction. My baseboards are dusty. There’s a few weird stains around.
That’s fine. I don’t need things pristine. I need them neat. If the floor gets a semi-regular mop, the laundry stays done, and the cat litter is monitored, I feel 1000% more human.
This one is tricky. Sleep has long been a challenge for me. The thing is, I can survive on very little sleep. Short-term, five hours is fine. And by “fine,” I mean, “it’s really not, but I function well enough to pretend it is.” And then, I keep doing it, because everything is so fine—
And then we get into trouble. I can’t do long stretches as easily anymore. Besides, when I finally get enough, it feels so good, I rather want to keep doing it…
Have you heard of forest-bathing? It’s a Japanese practice that basically involves being around trees. Just wandering and breathing. There’s something similar at play for me. Every so often, I need to get out. Away from artificial lights, away from computer screens, away from the constantly-pinging network of communication.
Fortunately, Toronto has plenty of wild pockets, if you know where to look. An afternoon in the ravines, and I can handle the world again.
Other People’s Art
Same thing, basically. Creation begets creation, but sometimes you need to refill the well. And more importantly, sometimes you need to connect to what makes you create in the first place. Sometimes you need other people’s art because you are a person too, and I think we all need some art in our lives.
So it’s a lot of reading. Music. Periodically, I go to the AGO and walk around getting drunk on light, colour, and lines.
I’m a weirdly social introvert. Absolutely, I need alone time. In fact, not getting alone time leads to jangled nerves and jittery anxiety.
Too much solitude doesn’t lead anywhere good. And while I’m lucky to have friends across the world—well, it’s not exactly easy to nip down to the US on a whim. Seeing people face-to-face is important to me. Having a drink, seeing a show, talking a walk—I need my friends and family, and I need that time with them.
Flip side of the coin. I need alone time. I need writing time. When I don’t get it—or when it feels threatened—the gnawing little panic starts up. Really, it’s the same sort of feeling you get when you hold your breath too long.
You can hold it for a time—and sometimes, you have to—but eventually, you have to breathe.
So if I feel caught in a tailspin, I’ve learned to check this basic list. Is one of my necessities going unfulfilled? Is there a way to meet that need?
Moreover, four things on this list relate to nourishing the inner life. Which I suppose makes sense, if we’re looking beyond mere survival. And the cool thing about one’s inner life is that it is unique to you.
We all need food and water. Not all of us have similar internal needs. So what about you? What necessities are in your life?
What I’m Listening To This Week
Lots of Phantom and Wicked, for some reason. Specifically, this song. Occasionally, my cold, cold heart does a little shudder and flip—catch me right, and I can be the sappiest sap who ever sapped.
My decision to become a writer was made on a ski lift.
It was March Break, we were visiting friends in Calgary, and it was a long way up. Passing over the snow-covered runs and dark trees, with the sharp-edged Rockies looming to every side, a story idea struck me. Not just a story idea. A novel idea. It was for Phantom of the Opera fanfic, but still. Right there on that ski lift, I decided that a) I was going to write this story, and b) I was going to be a writer.
I was fourteen-turning-fifteen. It’s March Break next week, so that would’ve been…almost exactly ten years ago.
Like most writers, I’d written through childhood, of course. Hosting Lauren Harris at my mom’s house this week has given me the chance to reread an epic ferret fantasy I wrote when I was about ten. I never finished it, which is unfortunate, because good heavens—that cliff-hanger.
But it wasn’t a consistent thing. I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be an Egyptologist. I wanted to be a marine biologist. I wanted to be an astronaut. I really wanted to be a NASA Flight Director.
And now it’s been ten years since I said, “Nope. I’m going to be a writer.”
Reading old writing is like leafing through childhood photos. You look different—oh, that gap-toothed smile, and ouch, those pimples—but you can see the bone structure beneath. You can see the adult who will emerge.
And like childhood photos, old writing has a sense of innocence and play. I had so much fun writing my Phantom story. I remember going to the library and checking out stacks of books about opera and Italy and Paris. Curling up with my hardbound notebook, letting the story spin out under my pen. Everything was so shiny and bright: the early spring mornings of a writing life, when everything is possible and you don’t know about the obstacles yet. You can’t even imagine them, because you’re so wide-eyed and full of wonder.
I hope we keep some of that wonder as we mature into our writing selves. Of course, there’s a naiveté to that “young” writing that makes us cringe when we look back. Experience and maturity—seasoning—they allow for richer, fuller, deeper stories. As you continue writing and reading and thinking, you also start to sort out what sort of writer you are. Almost like you’re deciding what you want to be when you grow up, all over again. Your voice changes, cracks, and eventually breaks. You’ve all seen that here on this blog. Stonecoast was essentially my authorial puberty: when my cute little treble voice finally broke and I decided that when I’m a grown-up writer, I want to make art.
We harden and sharpen in some ways. We lose some of that innocence. Ten years ago, money never crossed my mind; not in a writing context, anyway. It’s an important consideration now. I don’t just think about what would be fun to write. I think about what would be a) fun and b) best for my long-term career. I think about the way I come across on social media, at conventions, over email. The fan-girl instinct is still there, but it’s been heavily trained and reined.
That’s all part of growing up, I think. We lose some of that innocence—I’m not entirely convinced that’s a bad thing. But I really hope we don’t lose the wonder. I really hope that when deadlines are mounting and the rejections are piling up, when the contract needs another round of negotiations and you really need to sell a story soon because it’s been too long and you could use the shot of cash—
When there’s all of that, all the things we don’t even think about when we started out, I really hope we keep the wonder. It’s that excitement when a character springs to life; the sense of astonishment and power as a world knits together; the sheer joy of telling a story. That’s why we got into writing—wherever we started, whenever we started.
That’s why I became a writer, anyway.
It’s been a good ten years.
Here’s to many more, and the wonder they bring.
What I’m Listening to This Week
OMG we pulled this piece out at rehearsal recently, and I’ve been listening to it nonstop ever since. I’ve loved Vivaldi’s Gloria since I joined my first choir. There’s so much I could go on about: the galloping brass and strings, the way it leaps and flashes, the breathless moments of pause (0:30 and 2:02—that is all). You need to do this piece light and quick: not like a brook falling over rocks, like a stream surging ahead.
Of course…because I love this piece, and because it’s so much fun, it does bring out one of my bad chorister habits.
“Keep still,” I’ve been told. “You’re trying to conduct—that’s my job!”
And I laughed aloud, because that’s exactly what it is. On certain pieces—usually ones I know and love—I totally bob and weave all over the choir stalls. I do need to stop it, but it’s hard, because OMG THE MUSIC IS RIGHT THERE.
The off-season ticks along—those four months where I pretty much just hermit and read and write and think. Recently, I’ve been reading everything I can about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. You know them. They’re the brash little band of artists that painted things like this:
And they were wonderfully brassy and idealistic and romantic about it all. Honestly, I’m not always sure why I fall down these rabbit holes of research. Usually, it’s because there’s something I need to learn from it. And there is something the Pre-Raphaelites need to teach me, I just haven’t sorted out what it is yet.
So I was reading Wives and Stunners: the Pre-Raphaelites and their Muses (the author gets a little breathless in spots, but it’s rich with domestic detail), and these lines have been rolling in my head ever since:
Generally speaking, it may be observed that what men do is who they are; sculptors are men of mud, frequently covered in clay and sporting a dusty air; scholars incline to the ink pot and often have calluses, if right-handed, on the third finger of the right hand. As for gardeners and the like, no one knows what bunions, warts, and other deformities their work may have induced…
Wives and Stunners, Henrietta Garnett, p. 283
“Ah,” I thought drily, “so that’s why I have terrible eyesight and wrecked shoulders—I’m a writer.”
I can’t tell how tongue-and-cheek she thinks she’s being, but it’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? What [people] do is who they are. Of course, there are a few ways to look at the idea: in the physical sense, and then in a more metaphorical one.
Physically, she’s probably not far wrong. Although it’s easier to see how work shapes us in physical jobs (the only time I had arm muscles was when I worked in a historic kitchen—all that kneading, carrying, and scrubbing…), sitting and typing has an effect too. I’m a writer. I do not always write in ideal ergonomic conditions. As mentioned, my shoulders are in appalling shape. On the bright side, I type really quickly. Countless hours at the keyboard have overcome my poor fine motor skills; at least, in this arena.
So far, all well and good. Now I want to flip it around.
Who people are is what they do.
Generally speaking, writers like words (she says, tongue firmly lodged in cheek). But seriously, if you don’t love language, why on earth would you become a writer? Writers are detail-oriented. They do not give up easily. They are interested in people and ideas.
Of course, some might be saying, “Well, bully for you. I do data entry. That’s not who I am!”
Well, no. But what else do you do? What hobbies do you pursue? Why those ones? What do you do with yourself outside the office? What does that say about who you are?
Now let’s really stretch the original meaning. Who people are is what they do. Okay, so let’s say your boss gives you credit on a project…but actually, your colleague did most of the work. What do you do?
Aha. Now it gets interesting, doesn’t it? What do you do? It depends entirely on what sort of person you are. And of course, this is precisely what builds characters in stories. We all know this. You never tell the reader what sort of person your character is. You show them. Who they are is what they do.
When you really get down to it, it’s a mirroring effect, back and forth. Who we are informs what we do. And then, often, what we do helps to shape who we are.
So. Who are you?
What I’m Listening to This Week
When I lived in New Zealand, maybe a dozen songs comprised my personal soundtrack. Mostly songs about loneliness and the promise of one day returning home. “The Soft Goodbye” takes me right back there. Shivering in my unheated yellow bedroom, working out which direction pointed to Toronto. Walking the sloping footpaths around the Otago campus, nose stinging from the nearby spice mill’s burnt-coffee reek. The rubber mat and fresh paint smells of the student gym; the tiny, tiled locker rooms; the windowless lecture rooms; my legs aching on the staircase to my one class in the geology building, which had fossils and rock specimens displayed in the hallways.
I loved it, I really did—but I was also terribly, terribly homesick, and I think it’s this paradox that’s finally demanding to be processed through my fiction. Home and exile have been themes in my fiction for four years, but they’re getting a little more overt in my treatment of them, I think.
Anyway. Lovely voices, haunting flute solos at 1:39 and 2:40, drums that drive us forward from 2:45 to a triumphant finish. It’s a goodbye…but it promises a return. That was the most important part for me.
Hope you’ve all been well. The thesis is finally out of my hands—huzzah!—and if I can muster all my strength to make it past Tuesday or so, I think I can finally take a breath.
So recently, my choir held a cabaret night to raise funds for our trip to the UK next year. I think I was meant to be a general dogsbody, but then I said, “I’ll just help set up the bar.” One thing to led to another, and…I spent the rest of the evening bartending.
Which was good. Because here’s the thing: as soon as my bar was set up (and see, even without thinking, it’s my bar), I felt like something had settled on its tracks properly. Everything fell into place. I knew what to do. I was on. I was home.
And it made me think about art, naturally. In his book Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury talks about practice. Through enough practice and time, you can relax. Things become second nature; the very conscious focus on the mechanics falls away. You’re relaxed, but not in an apathetic way. It’s the relaxation when you know a situation.
This is what being behind a bar feels like for me. My first jaunt in the brewery—oh, the awkwardness. The glasses slipped between my fingers, the beer sloshed as I poured, and I was terrified of the dishwasher.
Art’s similar. Look at writers’ first pieces; artists’ first sketches; dancers’ first practices. They tend to be gawky and ungainly, don’t they? Adverbs slipping through the prose, paint sloshing all over, and terror leading up to certain turns. But that’s okay. The mechanics take practice. And here’s the rub: they take time, too.
A lot of time has passed since my first stint slinging beer. Lots of tastings. Lots of tours. Lots of events. Countless glasses poured and bottles lifted. And so, I can relax a little. It’s muscle memory. Once the motion and intention is worked into the body—your mind doesn’t need such a death-grip. It’s free to think about other things: the witty banter, the tasting notes, the fact that there’s a new queue all clutching drink tickets but the gentleman to the right still needs his Guinness.
At that point, you can start exploring ways to push your art. Deepen it. Enrich it. Hearkening back to Mr. Bradbury, fingers and subconscious and story all come together in one motion: an archer releasing an arrow, a beer wench snatching up the correct bottle and pouring exactly four ounces without looking.
When that happens—you got this. You know how to move your wings. And you can fly.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Something old and new at the same time. An old friend has an album out—Erin Cooper Gay gave me my choral mechanics and foundation, so it certainly fits today’s theme! In Black Market, she’s blending indie music with Renaissance and baroque; it’s fresh and spirited, and feels very classic at the same time.
“Manchester” is my favourite track…partly because it’s about a writer (the line “I guess I’ll have to write a sequel” makes me smile). But also because it’s got a lovely, bouncing chorus, and it feels…well again, it feels like something new and something familiar simultaneously—the voice in particular feels contemporary, but listen to the strings in the background. There’s some of your baroque influences. 😉