What do you call a writer who isn’t writing?
It’s a funny old thing, this writing business. The surest way to fail is to stop. But—“There’s no such thing as writers’ block,” we tell each other. It’s something else.
Fear. Perfectionism. Lack of discipline. Failing nerves. Poor health.
To be honest, I never really thought about it that much. It had never really happened to me.
I started writing “for real” ten years ago and never looked back. Steady, consistent, quick. There was always something, some project. As I went through the Stonecoast MFA, I watched people graduate and just…stop.
I sympathized and supported, of course. But in my marrow, I didn’t quite understand.
How do you just…stop?
It happened slowly. I suspect it usually does.
As you may recall, last year was a lot of theatre and life changes. I spent the summer navigating two plays, various short fiction pieces, and a 177,000-word interactive fiction novel, launched into another indie production in October, and then found myself thoroughly burned out. A lot of personal stuff was happening too, and I just…couldn’t.
So I rested. Refill the well, you know. Until Christmas. Then in early January, I signed on with my agent and I hummed contentedly through rewrites on the Beer Magic novel. The Smoky Writers’ retreat followed in February and I had no issues churning out stories.
(Granted, most still need a gutting, but…)
But under all this Doing Stuff lurked a tendril of unease.
I sold one of my Smoky stories very quickly. But I didn’t really have a lot else on submission.
I’ll write a few more, I told myself. No big deal.
Okay, whatever. Maybe it’s time to write this novella.
I’ve got a rough plot outline for the novella. A decent handle on the characters. I think it’ll be neat.
But my fingers lay wooden.
“I’ve spent the last hour rewriting the same two hundred words,” I told my author-friend Aly.
“Shake that off, my dude. Get out of your head somehow.”
It’s an elementary mistake, of course. Obsessing over the same few paragraphs. You’re supposed to just write and circle back later. Shitty first drafts, fix it in post, you can’t edit a blank page. Things we’ve all heard a million times.
I knew that.
I knew better than that.
Loathing myself, I went to bed. I’d try again. In the morning. When I was well-rested.
It came up in therapy.
“It’s an identity crisis thing, and it’s a business thing, and it’s…”
It was the most emotional I’ve ever gotten in front of my therapist. My dead father? Leaving Black Creek? Closing an important chapter? All fine, all delivered in measured tones, all with witty asides.
Talking about my inability to write had me on the verge of tears.
“Have you talked to any of your writer friends about this?” my therapist asked gently.
“Isn’t your partner an editor? Wouldn’t she be a good support?”
“I mean, yes, but—”
But if I told people, it was real.
“The level of emotion here suggests that it’s important to you,” my therapist said. “Consider talking to someone.”
When I feel shitty about my writing, I withdraw from my community. It’s not great (understatement), but it’s an imposter syndrome response. I don’t deserve to be there; I’m not a real writer; I’m choked with shame.
I talked to Aly again. By “talked,” I mean, “I vented a lot of angst, snapped at her, and then virtually fled into the bushes.”
I stewed for a few more days, stories sparking and dying. Probably Jen would be a good support.
“I’m scared,” I said.
Talking about it with her helped. So did imagining what my Stonecoast mentors would tell me. Chill and keep trying, probably. Even if I had to throw the words out.
Another friend runs a daily flash prompt. I started doing it. Just to keep the fingers moving. Just to massage some of the stiffness from my brain.
Words. Not good words. But words nonetheless.
Like someone recovering from illness, I altered my “diet.” Setting aside Hugo ballots and recommended reading lists, I returned to fairy tales—the Andrew Lang books, Kay Nielsen’s illustrations, Yeats’ collection of Irish folktales, the Mabinogion.
Angela Carter. Lord Dunsany. Ursula K. Le Guin’s essays. A few more recent things: Charles de Lint and Kat Howard.
For the first time in five years, I had nothing on submission. My closed laptop mocked me.
I kept reading.
“Why haven’t you talked to anyone?” my therapist asked.
Shame. Fear. A certain self-protective instinct.
But mostly shame.
Amidst all this, I was doing a research project for Black Creek Pioneer Village. Sourcing newspaper articles, letters, diaries, illustrations, and ephemera…
…and writing three very short plays.
I left the plays until last, of course. In some reptilian part of my brain, the old instinct persisted. “It’s fine, I can bang out six pages super quickly.”
That’s what I had always done. Always.
…and I did?
It took a while to register.
I sat down. I wrote the scripts. I finished them. Like old times. Like this was something I’ve trained for; something I’ve done for ten years.
And yes, of course—these were characters I knew inside out, for a very specific purpose and a client I lived and breathed for ages.
But the muscles still worked.
Once bitten, twice shy. I’m still scared. I’m scared to write this. Nervous about not being seen as professional, I guess. Deathly frightened of showing real vulnerability.
But the scripts helped. Writing those proved that the machine still works. I can still write. Everyone’s right: the words haven’t turned to ash in my skull.
Ideally, this is where the eighties montage comes in. I’d blast a playlist of motivational music, burn the midnight oil in creative frenzy, and turn that novella in by next Tuesday.
Only it doesn’t quite work that way. I still haven’t figured this out. I can still write, but something else is going on. Maybe it’s fear. Maybe it’s lingering burnout. Maybe it’s simply that everything changed very suddenly and I haven’t caught up with myself yet.
What do you call a writer who isn’t writing?
You call them, “trying.” You call them, “recovering.”
You call them a “writer.”
Because they still are. The words will come back. I have to believe that.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Johnny Cash somehow found his way into my listening this week. And with him, a song for the novella:
I can see more of it, now. Fingers crossed.
“Gahhhhhh KT, you left, why are you still talking about this?”
Because whilst I pretend to have a heart of ice, I’m actually the sappiest sap that ever sapped. Also, I needed time to process. You know how it is. Emotions, man. Emotions.
So as everyone knows, I left my museum dayjob at Christmas. And here’s the thing about that particular dayjob: you need to be a little bit in love for it to work long-term. It’s hard work—mentally, physically, emotionally—and in many ways, it’s not just a job. It really is like living in a small village.
When I started, I was nineteen years old and painfully shy. Like, painfully. So naturally, I got a job where I needed to initiate conversations with strangers all day long.
Best exposure therapy ever.
I honed those people skills at Black Creek, and then I took them to conventions. I transferred tour banter to presentations and workshops. I adapted my History Actor chatter for podcasts. It’s not overstating to say that the job changed me—it gave me the tools and support to find my voice. And then, to use it.
So I fell in love with the village. I still love it. After so long, how could I not? Every board, every nail, every twig. The bucolic setting and physical work intersected with my life at exactly the right time.I’ve always done better among trees; I’m always calmer outside my own head…
I loved autumn mornings, before anyone else had really arrived. I loved the roofs sheening against the blue October sky, the smoked tang of fall winds in my nostrils and leaves crunching underfoot. I loved the way the air stirred—the year turning, but not settling just yet—too much to do, yet. I loved going into my building and starting my fire, that first rush of heat warming cold fingers.
To the surprise of no one, this setting bled into my fiction a lot.
I run. Down the lane, towards the village proper. Chimneys stab the bright sky like fingers. No curls of smoke lie against the blue. At the blacksmith’s, I stop. Clanging metal shatters the muffled quiet. If he is working, the forge must be lit. It must be.
I creep inside his shop. Sunlight shines off whitewashed walls. The blacksmith stands over his anvil, striking again and again. As the floorboards creak beneath my feet, he glances up. Frost coats his cheeks so that they gleam.
She liked gardening, but baking was her favourite. In their house, Marie positioned a little table just so—close to the hearth, so the bread would rise better, but near enough to the window that the sunlight fell across her work, and she could gaze across the rippling barley to the forest on the far side.
One morning, Jean-Luc builds the fire high in the bake-oven. When it is this cold, the dough lies sluggish beneath his hands. As he kneads it, he glances out the window. A skeletal shape stands by the cottage opposite. He blinks, twisting for a better look, but then the door creaks and distracts him.
Black Creek has totally infused itself into my creative mulch. It’s part of my terroir now—I suspect my fiction will always carry the taste of wood-smoke.
And the people—
You could probably write a whole book just on the people. The strong female mentors who took me under their wings; the colleagues I laughed and drank with (at pubs, not onsite); the visitors who bemused and amused and very often moved me…
I’m richer for all of them.
(I almost forgot: working in the brewery sparked my fascination with beer, so there you go. An important hobby and facet of my author life, born at Black Creek!)
It was a wonderful place to work. It was a bizarre place to work. It was a beautiful playground to grow and explore and test myself.
For a very long time, it was home.
But it feels right, heading out now. It feels like I’ve spent the last eight years becoming this person, whoever I am now. With that complete, it’s time to see what this person can do. I’m already doing things for my new dayjob, there are so many adventures lined up for 2019, and I can’t wait to dive into this new chapter.
Thank you, Black Creek. Until we meet again!
What I’m Listening To This Week
Because reasons. 🙂
Good news, everyone! The audiobook version of HEARTSTEALER is now available from Audible.com! If you recall, I spent a good chunk of this off-season editing this thing, so it’s delightful to have it out in the wild, ready to be purchased.
Blythe does a fantastic job narrating. Naturally, she was my first choice. Both for sheer talent, and also, becomes this book comes from such a specific period of my life.
“Grief hadn’t made me weak. It had made me stronger than I’d ever known I could be.”
It was such a strange, full-circle feeling, hearing her speak those words. Because it’s true. I figured that out about grief a long time ago: I believed it then, I believed it when I wrote it, and I believe it now.
The thing with spending 130 hours listening to someone read your words aloud is that you hear more in them. Yes, HEARTSTEALER came from a place of great grief…but also from a place of great love. Love for a place, and love for the people I found there.
So, thank you. Thank you to everyone who’s had a hand along the way…and thank you most especially to Blythe. I know it was not an easy project—luckily, I also knew your talent would be more than a match for it!
Now before we get too maudlin, here’s some fun statistics:
Total word count: 105,000
Total running time: 12 hours, 9 minutes.
Total editing time: 130 hours (best guess)
Total time between first handshake and audiobook release: Seven months.
Distinct speaking characters: 61
Distinct voices: 65
Distinct voice actors: 1
Buildings gleefully borrowed: I count 10, but probably more.
Voice talent cursed: Lost count.
Voice talent praised: Also lost count, but it was more.
So—check it out, tell your friends, and most importantly:
If you enjoy it—either the story, the performance, or both—please, for the love of Cthulhu, leave a review. It honestly helps so very, very much. And in this case, it helps both me and Blythe. So hey, boosting two artists for the price of one. Sounds like a deal I could get behind.
Or very craftily and deliberately orchestrate. You know. Either way.
Cheers, everyone. Thanks again, and enjoy the ride to this remote northern village, full of old hurts, older magic, and things that stalk the night…
What I’m Listening To This Week
MOAR VERDI AND TRAVIATA!
La Traviata is still my favourite opera. When I hear the prelude, I’m fifteen again. Because I was a really, really cool fifteen-year-old, obviously. Anyway, the prelude pretty much encapsulates the entire opera in three minutes. The first minute or so is super moody, delicate strings with a wilting-flower melody (spoiler: La Traviata does not end well).
Alfredo is our main romantic man here. His theme starts around 1:20. Hear how earnest he sounds? Only then—scary minor chords at 1:53. This is the operatic equivalent of going DUN DUN DUN. Our lady Violetta herself follows at 2:10 or so: a lovely, flippant little tune. You can practically see her bare shoulders and flipping hair. Listen to the contrast between the two…
The opera in a nutshell. 🙂
Tonight is my last night in my little blue room.
I moved into this house four years ago with two boys. One of them was my friend’s boyfriend, and I’d met the other once at a party. They were desperate for a third person, I was desperate for housing: I won out over another person primarily because I don’t smoke. We were supposed to stay there for two years—until we finished our undergrads—and then go our separate ways.
Instead, I was the one constant in a revolving door of roommates. Some were good; others, less so. I always liked the dynamic I had with the first two boys. I love the stability and laid-back dynamic my current housemates bring. The ones in-between—well, that’s in the past now.
But I’ve always been here, in this room. I loved the colour the moment I walked in: pale blue, with a damask pattern on one wall. In this room, I got the email accepting Hapax for publication. I’ve produced many, many podcasts; written many essays; ploughed through Heartstealer; enjoyed countless cups of tea and conversation with friends.
It’s been my space. My room. While I was in New Zealand, I missed it bitterly. (My room in Dunedin was yellow. It was nice, but it was never really mine. Not the way this room is mine.) To put it in perspective, I’ve been in this room about half as long as I stayed in my room in my Mom’s current house, the one I consider my childhood home.
And it’s my last night.
It’s a strange feeling. It doesn’t quite feel real, yet. Of course, tomorrow night, I’m going to sleep here, in this small blue room with its east-facing window, because that’s what I do, right? That’s what I’ve always done, for the past four years…
Mind you, I’m not moving very far. Just up a flight of stairs to the one-person apartment on the top floor. See, I’ve been in this house for four years, and I’ve fallen in love with the neighbourhood. The woman in the shoe shop down the street calls me “ragazza” and helps me find “business shoes, you pay good price, your boss thinks you’re one million dollars.” The gents in the second-hand bookstore keep their eyes open for books on beer and brewing. I’ve got my pal and writing buddy Erik Buchanan two streets away.
Plus, my landlord is sane and reasonable. Not always a guarantee in Toronto.
So when the top-floor apartment became available, I jumped. Yes, it’s small. Yes, it’s odd. Yes, it’s a garret. But it’s a one-person garret. When my housemates finish their graduate degrees and move on in September, I can stay. Not in my small blue room, perhaps, but in my weird, rambling house.
It’s funny. Almost everything important in my life was meant to be temporary. This house was supposed to be a two-year spin, at best. Now, it looks like I’ll be here for the foreseeable future. I planned to sing with the choir at Grace Church for four months. Six years on, and I’m getting confirmed at the end of May. Black Creek was a summer job. Going into my fifth season, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. Heck, even the brewery was meant to be a one-off thing.
Somehow, imperceptibly, almost without realizing, I’ve put down roots. In no way does my life resemble the life I imagined when I first stepped into my dormitory room in first year. But that’s okay. I don’t think I had a good vision of what I wanted my life to look like then, anyway. Back then, it was about survival, nothing more.
Nevertheless, I certainly didn’t foresee this. I didn’t foresee these friendships, or these career plans, or this little blue room in a weird rambling house on a leafy green street.
The move tomorrow feels a bit like a sea-change. There will be chaos, and anxiety, and discomfort, and probably clipped tones and tears. But it’s not an ending. It’s not even a sequel. It’s simply the end of a chapter.
I will miss you, little blue room. We’ve had some good times. But I won’t be far away.
What I’m Listening to This Week
My first year with Grace Church, we went on a choir tour to New York City. I was all of eighteen, which meant that I counted officially as a member of the “women’s choir,” and thus did not need a chaperone. You know, unlike those tiny seventeen-year-olds in the “children’s choir.”
Anyway, we sang a few services in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, a truly massive cathedral that provided my model for the Ecclesiat in Hapax. One of the pieces we did came from the film The Shadowlands—“Veni Sancte Spiritus,” by George Fenton.
I love the chant feeling in this piece. Although it starts with tenors, I usually sing it up the octave, by myself, at all hours. Although the back-and-forth between the ATB parts is interesting, we really get rolling once the sopranos enter around the 0:50 mark.
Incidentally, the climbing intervals and high note in the soprano solo is really fun to sing. No, I’ve never had the solo myself…just around the house. And we end on a high, solid Amen. What more can one ask for?
For the last few days, I’ve been sitting down at the keyboard, putting on music (mostly medieval and/or Christmas music—trust me on this one) and puttering around. I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions about Heartstealer, delving into the history and backstory that’s hinted at in the novel, but never fully explained. Peering at the bits of worldbuilding I’ve already written, turning those fragments over in my head to see how they fit into a greater narrative. Every so often, characters’ thoughts emerge, like this snippet from Mairi’s brother Iain…
“Mairi had a knack for the trouble. Not a man would deny that. But as Mum did be telling me long-suffering Da, Mairi was a good girl. Sure, she’d roll her eyes once and have the lads smitten for always, but that was as far as it went: smiles, giggles, eye-rolling. With every man, there came the point where she backed away like a trapped fox, her smile turning hard and her eyes turning frightened.
The lads never saw it. I did. And then, inexplicably, the rift would grow between her and him, until for some reason he never chanced to see her as much as before.
Until Arthur, I don’t think she kissed a man.”
Iain’s not a major character. I don’t intend for him to be a POV character. And yet—it’s another side, another bit of practice and insight to throw on the pile.
This noodling around, this personal Q+A, this introspection and scraps of scenes that will likely never go further—it’s always been integral to my novel-writing process. It’s only recently that I’ve figured out what I’m doing.
I’m sketching. Just like painters making studies before embarking on large projects, I’m sorting things out, drawing broad strokes with eraser and pencil before bringing out the paints. It’s an exciting time, full of possibility and potential. Of course, it’s also a little frustrating, because I haven’t had a novel for a long, long time, and I miss the feeling of being in the middle of one. But I’m not ready quite yet. If I started now, I’d just get paint all over the place.
Hopefully by the time the season opens at Black Creek, I’ll be sizing up my canvas. 😉
What I’m Listening to This Week
Some people eat food seasonally. I listen to music seasonally. Mid-March is filled with solemn, melancholic music.
So it’s weird for me to put the Christmas music back on. It’s important for this story, though. The Boar’s Head Carol is a fairly obscure medieval carol, referring to the custom of serving an entire boar’s head during Yuletide festivities. It’s been sung at Oxford for 500 years, complete with a procession featuring the boar’s head.
Most importantly for this part of the writing process, this carol puts me back to a very specific time and place: Black Creek, just before Christmas, which is where I need to be for this novel. Because I listened to this song obsessively last December, listening to it now brings back the smell of oranges and cloves, sharp winter winds and smoky hearths; the feel of wool against my skin; the suspended, muted grey afternoons.
That’s our landscape this time around.
So, in order to get time off for Stonecoast this July, I traded a whole bunch of shifts at work…which has resulted in me working eleven days straight. Right before that, I worked ten days straight—I had a day off in between the two stretches. Plus, I write at night.
I shouldn’t complain. I know people who work more hours, longer stretches, more stressful jobs.
But darn it, I really just want to sit alone by myself for a day. In the dark. And silence. Without people. Alone.
Huzzah for introversion!
As most people know, introversion isn’t about shyness or anti-sociability. It’s about energy production. Introverts generate energy within themselves, and lose it during social interaction. Important caveat: the energy loss varies from person to person. Chilling with friends takes energy, but significantly less than dealing with irate customers or dozens of strangers at a party. By contrast, extroverts generate energy through social interaction, and lose it when they have to be alone.
So ideally, for an introvert, life should look something like this:
And for an extrovert:
Energy loss more-or-less equals energy generation. For introverts, that means that they get enough alone time to balance out the social interaction (which, while fun, is expensive, energy-wise). Extroverts get enough people time to compensate for the times that they’re alone. Everyone is happy.
It doesn’t always work this way.
Sometimes, like at cons, the creative environment and awesomeness of seeing everyone face-to-face masks the energy loss. That’s why so many introverts collapse after conventions; we’ve been steadily losing energy all weekend, we just haven’t really noticed. Adrenaline does the same thing. We had a fairly busy weekend in the brewery recently—and man, I was flying.
Sample! Growler! Growler sample growler! RETURN GROWLER SAMPLEGROWLERSAMPLESAMPLE!
And then I went home and promptly crashed.
Since Balticon, however, my own graph has looked more like this:
It’s out of sync. My alone time isn’t enough to pay for the energy I’m spending on work, writing, and various other things. Think of a bank account. If my paycheque is suddenly slashed from $500 to $100/month (I’m using round numbers, bear with me), I’ll go into debt if I keep trying to pay my $200/month rent (again, I am pulling these numbers from the air).
Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, your energy source is just as important as food and water. Extroverts need people. Introverts need solitude. Force them to go too long without their generator of choice, and bad things happen.
All of which explains my own exhaustion and irritability. Yeah, I’ll own up to that—I’m trying very, very hard, and I feel terrible after snapping at people, but it happens.
But what can we do? After all, at some point, every one of us will go through stretches like this.
Setting boundaries and limits helps, I think. I am protecting my few off-days. Communication, as well: explaining to people that you love them, AND ALSO need to sit alone by yourself in such solitude that you cannot even sense the presence of another human being.
And of course, knowing yourself and maybe planning for those stretches. For me, some of these extra shifts were unexpected; I’m trying to roll with it, but having strategies in place—carving out time with/without people, allowing yourself breaks, getting enough sleep and such, which I admit I struggle with—might have made this easier.
Ah well. Only a few more days. And then—
Cool Thing of the Week
Apparently, I’m getting a reputation as a lush! My ten-year-old self would be horrified. Two people sent me the same link to 18th century drink recipes—I raise my eyebrow at the ones with egg and cream, but some of them actually look quite good!
I sat at the spinning wheel. Grey afternoon light fell through the window behind me. The spinning wheel clicked gently as I moved my foot up and down. Pinch the wool. Draw. Release.
Besides the clicking, the log cabin was quiet. Faint traces of wood smoke lingered, but the hearth was growing colder. With no one else around, I let my mind wander.
Pinch. I hope they’re taking care of him. I wonder if he misses me. I wish I was there—I should be there. Draw. It’s meant to be me. I trust Mairi, but it’s meant to be me.
He’s my son.
Ha! Startled some of you, I bet.
So, here’s what is happening. I think the Victorian Dark Fantasy is starting to gel. The novel has changed throughout Stonecoast—I think the plot’s getting there, now I’m bearing down on voice and character. To help with this, my thoroughly brilliant mentor posed me an interesting challenge:
One thing you might want to do, and this will sound less strange to you as a playwright than to other people, is to go around being each of the main female characters for a while, and do things the way they would do them. How do you feel as those characters? How do you walk and talk?
I laughed in delight upon reading this. So…I thought, grinning, I spend most of my days wearing period-appropriate clothing, doing period things…
Plus…I kind of stole half our buildings.
Heck, I can reconstruct entire scenes in these buildings, mapping out exactly where this character was standing, where that one paused before coming around the corner. It’s like being on a movie set.
So…I have the right clothing (mostly—for two of them, I really need a crinoline, and I only wear that in the brewery), I’m doing the right things, and I’m in the right place. Sometimes, it’s almost a little disorienting.
It’s also taught me a lot.
I’ve always talked with my characters. Usually as mental knitting—on the bus, while walking, during quiet times at work. Just relaxing, asking questions, hearing what the response is. Sometimes full-on conversations develop; Serafine, for instance, rarely shut up once she got going.
It’s one thing to invite a character into your head. Thus far, it’s been quite another to invite them into your skin. Really, really cool, but different. Because this way, I’m not guiding the discussion. I’m not prompting anything. I’m essentially retreating to the sidelines and seeing how my characters assert themselves once they have the space and freedom to do so.
- One worries far more than she lets on; she’s clinging by her fingertips.
- In another time, place, and culture, one could be a geek girl. As it is, she’s sensitive, carefully (and constantly, my God!) analyzing and observing.
- And the last POV character…I don’t think I ever really understood the depths of her possessiveness, her sense of entitlement.
My circumstances definitely give me a leg-up, but it’s also interesting to take characters on field trips. Point out a streetcar, stop in a grocery store. What do they think, how do they react to this world so unlike their own?
It’s been fun—and I still love working on this story, still love exploring these people and their lives. Even after so long (yeah…longer than I anticipated…) the joy hasn’t ebbed.
Let’s just hope that I never, ever answer visitors as my villain.
Actually, that’d be hilarious.
I’ll be good. 😉
Cool Thing of the Week
So, there’s the solar system, right? Then our galaxy, then our “local group” of galaxies, then our galaxy cluster, then our supercluster…and then the filaments.
The thought makes me shiver. So many stars and worlds, so much void between them…
More than anything, it makes me want to write.
“I think the word this year,” quoth Tee Morris at the Shared Desk live cast this past Balticon, “is perspective.”
Sitting in the audience, I couldn’t help agreeing. “Perspective” fits this year’s convention on many levels, both in terms of my professional path and in terms of the people walking that path with me. Cons always function as creative pressure cooker and reset point for me: a place to get fired up, but also to take a sober look around and ask, “Whither hence?”
So let’s look at the community first. At any con, there are always “I love you, man,” moments. This Balticon felt like those moments lasted for four days straight. This was one of the first cons I’ve been to where I could walk into a room and know more people than not. More than that: I could walk into a room and have more friends than acquaintances.
That’s growth. And I felt calmer and more confident than at any other con. Lauren “Scribe” Harris put it well, remarking that this crowd has become like family; we don’t need to be ON around each other all the time.
So, perspective: I am very, very lucky. I have always said this, but it’s good to be reminded of it. One of the strengths of the writing community is that it is a true community. We come from all different walks of life, all different parts of the world, we are all different ages. As such, we can teach and support each other in so many diverse ways. Sometimes – especially with social media, where mini-scandals erupt like bushfires – it’s easy to forget the fact that really, the broader community is driven and united by the same passion: for good stories, good writing, and dragons and starships and suchlike.
Seriously. I love you, guys.
The flip side of all the hugging and socializing is the cold, hard look at the professional path. 2013 was a lost year, but 2014 is almost half-over. Where am I going? What are my goals: short, medium, and long-term? How can I get there?
One simple thing for starters: I need to be producing more. Yes, yes, dayjob and schooling, we’ve all heard that before. When I put my mind to it, I can write a LOT. Like, a LOT. Part of the problem has been working harder, not smarter…I say yes to ALL THE THINGS, relying on youthful energy to bull through. That works, but then I’m too drained for MY projects.
It’s partly a matter of prioritizing, partly of allocating my energy better. And I do mean energy – I have the time, I’m just too exhausted to do anything with it. Thinking of this along the lines of an energy budget might help. As might…you know…actually getting sufficient sleep and iron.
Perspective: this was the sickest I’ve ever been after a con. Probably coincidence, but maybe also indicative of the fact that I was running on empty beforehand; I just didn’t have the reserves this time around.
The other perspective gained dovetails with some advice from Stonecoast. Here’s the thing: I write often and well. On a purely technical side, my prose is already pretty clean. That got me a head start, but relying on technique isn’t really enough. Diving into analogy, I could put out table beers that taste fine and ferment in 24 hours…but I want to put out really complex, aged porters. Lagers. Heck, let’s say some 16-year-old scotch. It’s remembering to focus on art as well.
But the only way to get there is to keep writing: well and often. Refine those techniques. Use that head start like a springboard. Depth will come with time – but only if I keep writing, learning, and growing.
Perspectives, man. Perspectives.
COOL THING OF THE WEEK
EAST O’ THE SUN AND WEST O’ THE MOON premiered last night. The kids have SO much to be proud of – they did a great job with a very challenging score and libretto (Norbert and I did not pull punches). Also, I truly do have amazing family and friends… 🙂
For the past few months, I’ve been doing an experiment. See, after my return from Virginia, my friend Blythe came over…and she had something for me.
“I’ve been meaning to give you this for forever,” she said. “But I forgot, and then you were at Stonecoast, and then you were away…”
It was a journal. “It’s Gonna Be Okay: A journal to reassure myself when I’m overwhelmed by the creeping sense of impending disaster and the all-encompassing fears both specified and vague that colonize my mind, body, and soul, all of which, from the completely far-fetched to the sometimes probable, do me no good to contemplate and in fact make me miserable, and even though optimism may be unself-aware and ill-placed, I know I’ll be happier as a blind fool than as a clairvoyant apocalyptic.”
I immediately burst out laughing, becoming increasingly amused as I read the subtitle.
She knows me far too well.
The journal contains a reassuring quotation on the left-hand page, while the right hand side has space for the date, a section for writing, and a “prevailing outlook” for the day. As it happened, I’d just read Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. As previously mentioned, I’d been struck by his habit of writing prose poems on whatever subject tickled his fancy and diving into his memories like a pearl fisher hunting oysters.
So I decided not to use this journal strictly for its intended purpose. I decided to use it for free-writing instead: unedited, rambling meditations. Okay, maybe there were a few times when I did free-write on something that was making me anxious, but for the most part, I turned to my past. I sought out those details that made me exclaim, “Oh! I haven’t thought of that in years!”
I set myself a few rules. Free-write every day. Fill the page. Tick the appropriate “prevailing outlook” box.
From February 28th to May 16th, I only missed one day. Over the past three months, I’ve stumbled across memories and details long buried, holding them up and examining them.
I had a rainbow-coloured basketball that I won in a Read-a-Thon when I was in grade two. I loved that thing. There was a shared driveway behind our house that I dubbed “the alley,” on which I bounced that basketball until its little bumps were worn smooth. I’d forgotten all about it, until now.
Something that I remember very vividly: three days after my dad died, I went to Black Creek. Not to work, just to escape. I remember when my mom dropped me off, I practically threw myself from the car before she’d even really come to a full stop. I remember that weird crouching run to the front doors, fighting to keep my balance.
Fiji’s reddish-brown dirt. The pixelated neon-green frog in a kindergarten computer game. The sense of unbridled freedom when we “went out for lunch” in grade six. The scent of pines that permeated the fort I made for myself (aged nine) in our garden.
These written meditations have unearthed a treasure trove of details. Maybe some of them will emerge in my fiction, maybe not.
But there’s been another benefit, too. I usually wrote in my journal over breakfast. First it became habit. Then it became necessary: a way to collect myself before facing the day ahead. It usually only took ten minutes to fill the page, but they were ten minutes of peace and stillness, ten minutes when my brain shut up and got out of its own way.
The other cool thing? I just flipped through the entire journal, looking at the “prevailing outlooks.”
They’re almost all positive. There are a few “fingers crossed” ones, but mostly, it’s thumbs-up or a-okay. The only thumbs-down I could find was also the only day I ticked two boxes. That day, I was a-okay in general, but also stressing about something very specific.
That means three months of feeling good. There is definitive proof that for three months, I’ve felt good about life almost every single day. Seeing it concretely like that…well, it’s an eye-opener. In a good way.
I’ve filled the journal now. I’ll keep free-writing anyway, in a new notebook. It’s become a game: what can I remember? What can I dredge up? How specific can I get, how far back can I go? It’s a chance to relive and revisit, to keep myself on track.
And to remind myself: it’s gonna be okay. 😉
Cool Thing of the Week
After prolonged despair that we were trapped in perpetual winter, the unfurling leaves became really noticeable this week. On my walk to the subway each morning, I go up a tree-lined street. The leaves are delicate and fuzzy still, but the street is suddenly green, not the barren, spiky brown it’s been for the last six months.
Give it a few more weeks. It’s only going to get better.
The above quotation popped up in my feed this week. Usually, I don’t pay much attention to these sorts of quotes-and-images, but this one struck me. Maybe because I’m back at the dayjob.
As I’ve discussed many times, I steal places pretty shamelessly. From the dayjob, our Second House shows up in my story “After the Winds” as the heroine’s home; it reappears as the Braes’ house in the Victorian Dark Fantasy. Burwick House also shows up in both stories; the Doctor’s House is the main set piece in another. I fell in love with New Zealand, too. Its impossibly green hills roll through the “text-based interactive online game.” If you look closely, you can spot its caves and long white clouds in one of my Stonecoast workshop submissions.
Call it the historian in me, but I like this notion of things we love living on in stories. In fact, I’m writing a story on similar lines: an alternate Toronto, one which contains everything in this city that was lost, destroyed, or covered up and buried.
It all lives on.
Writers are like sponges that way. We absorb everything around us, often not even aware that we’re doing so, and even we don’t know when, where, or how things will rematerialize. It’s like catching partial reflections from shards of mirror. All of these memories and experiences get broken up and glued back together: rearranged, reimagined, and reversed.
Ray Bradbury wrote about this much more poignantly than I can. If you haven’t read Zen in the Art of Writing, go find it. Even if you’re not a writer, his insights can be applied to most creative processes.
In one of the essays, he asks, “What do you want more than anything else in the world? What do you love, or what do you hate…there is zest in hate as well as in love, [and it will] fire the landscape and raise the temperature of your typewriter thirty degrees.”
So what do I love?
Well, specifically looking at how much Black Creek pops up in the Victorian Dark Fantasy…I love the way the sun sheens off the barn roof on crisp autumn mornings. I love the fallen leaves crunching under my boots, the sharp smell of smoke when the fires get lit. I love the steam that curls along the brewery’s ceiling when we cool the wort. I love the way the loaf pans are all dented along one edge, because that is where the peel jams into them as we remove them from the bake-oven. I love the bleached-bone paleness of the bricks inside the bake ovens.
There is joy in these small details, the little things which, as Bradbury says, “…at one time when we were children, were invested with magic for us.” It’s this notion of “looking and re-looking.” What makes this inn, this farmhouse, this hearth different from all the others?
As writers, it’s our job to find out and explain. If we’re writers in love, then part of us already knows.
Cool Thing of the Week!
At last, I have obtained my own teapot and kerosene lamps. My church does an attic sale every May, which means that every April, I volunteer to haul the goods up from the basement. I salivated over the lamps the moment I saw them two weeks ago, so I was very disappointed when I arrived at the sale and couldn’t find them anywhere…but then, one of the sales volunteers exclaimed, “Oh! You’re the girl! We have your lamps!”
My lovely church ladies had stashed them safely away for me, to prevent anyone else from making off with them. My ladies are awesome.