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.
“If we jump back two or three years,” I told my therapist, “there was so much I was afraid of losing. But after all the changes last year, there’s nothing to be scared of anymore. The apocalypse already happened.”
“Well,” she said. “You’re a science fiction [sic] writer. What do you do, in a post-apocalyptic world?”
I thought. “You rebuild.”
This has been an ongoing theme for the better part of a year. Chapters closing, change, regeneration, rebirth. Maybe it’s silly, but I thought the intense period of transition was pretty much done.
After all, I changed jobs, I changed apartments, I changed a lot of relationships. What else was left?
I forgot about rebuilding.
So I left my therapist’s office thinking about living in the post-apocalypse. Maybe that sounds dire, but I think it’s actually quite apt.
What is an apocalypse, anyway?
Etymologically speaking, it’s a revelation (as in, “The Book of…”). The word apocalypse derives from the Greek apokaluptein, or “uncover.” In that sense, I suppose, it’s a cutting to the truth of things, a stripping away of the false and outmoded to some insight underneath.
More generally, it’s a passing of an age—the cessation of a certain way of life. Apocalypse might be the twilight of the gods or the elves sailing into the west, and it’s also a lot of very big life changes hitting very close together.
So—what do you do, in a post-apocalyptic world?
I forgot about (or failed to acknowledge) the work that comes after change.
See, here’s the thing. Let’s say you go through A Time. And you survive. Because of course you do—you’re tougher and more resilient than you know.
“Well!” you say. “That sucked, but it’s over. Things will get easy now.”
Except you need to rebuild, and rebuilding is still transition. Imagine everything at equilibrium—the old world, the caterpillar. Then comes dissolution and discomfort—an asteroid, the darkness of the cocoon.
Equilibrium doesn’t return immediately after that. There’s carving out a new homestead from the rubble; there’s the vulnerable butterfly drying its wings before it can fly.
And that’s okay, that’s all part of the process. It just means it takes longer than you think to reach a “new normal.” There’s a descent and then an ascent. The pause when the dust settles isn’t the end; it’s a beginning.
But I was a little surprised to hear my own words.
There’s nothing to be scared of, anymore.
What can you do, when you’re no longer scared?
Post-apocalypse is also post-revelation, post-insight, post-truth. Last year, I learned so, so much. As I’ve said elsewhere, I feel like I’ve spent the last eight years becoming. Now that I’m this person, what next?
How do you live a post-apocalyptic life?
I’m still chewing all this over, obviously. But in the short term, it’s been a good reminder to be more patient with myself—even as I feel like I’m underachieving in a lot of ways. But maybe I’ve applied too narrow a scope to “achievement.”
Surviving is tough. It takes a lot of energy.
But there’s nothing to be scared of, anymore. There’s only rebuilding. There’s only the work.
And if the former things are passed away—if we’re making all things new—then why not build the most beautiful and the best that you can?
What I’m Listening To This Week
We keep it honest here. This week is “Ashes” from Deadpool 2. Yep. That Deadpool. Like most people in the comment section, I listened to it expecting a quick chuckle…but it’s actually really good?
Plus, the whole refrain of “let beauty come out of ashes” resonates right now for obvious reasons.
‘Tis the season—I’ve just finished my annual writers’ retreat. As per usual, it was a week of fabulous friends, food, and words. Plus, beer and hot tubs. Rockstar life, basically.
I wrote last year about a moment I had at the retreat. It was one of those insights that cut to the quick. Towards the retreat’s end, I was sitting out alone in the hot tub…
It was nearing the golden hour, sunlight spilling over the mountains. The sky was endless, cloudless blue; the woods rang with the singing of birds and frogs. I settled into the hot tub with a book. My beer rested beside me.
And sitting there—sated with finished stories, dear friends typing inside, spring unfolding across the mountains—I could think only:
Enjoy this now. It won’t always be like this.
And I was right. Last year was rather a lot, and it was good to carry that moment inside me, returning to it whenever I felt like drowning in the midst of everything. This year, I had the mirror-version insight.
When the retreat finished, we broke the drive back from Tennessee into two parts. After a lovely dinner, I headed back to my hotel room—and crashed. Curled on the bed with some choral favourites, slightly dazed. For the first time all week, I was entirely alone. In the silence of my own thoughts, without friends around, I suddenly ached.
I missed my cat, down to the bone. I missed my choir friends and girlfriend and family. I missed my apartment and my own bed. After a fantastic (and full) week, I suddenly felt lonely.
But of course, I have novel rewrites due soon. So I sat in an American hotel room, booted up my computer, and got to work. Rockstar life, right? As I poked at revisions, the thought came—
This is the other part of it.
This is the rockstar life. This is part of the career I want.
See, sometimes creative life is hot tubs and intense productivity in the mountains. Or going to conventions and meeting cool writers and book people. Heck, sometimes it’s wandering in the woods and soaking in the trees.
But sometimes it’s getting work done…even in anonymous hotel rooms far from home.
Because it’s all about the work, in the end. Word by word, draft by draft. So this is going to keep happening. I want my writing career to include travel and work. Sitting there, I asked myself, “Are you good with this? Really, truly, are you good?”
And the answer was, “Yes.”
So this is the other part of it. I still wouldn’t change it for the world—but I’ll always love coming home.
PS. I suppose I ought to give a retreat report:
- One story I need to trash
- Two stories that are probably pretty close to done
- One flash I’m unsure of
- Two stories that need heavier revision
- Also, novel rewrites.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Ah, Cherubino, the hormone-riddled adolescent boy most often played by a woman. He’s one of my favourite characters in opera; I love the fluidity of trouser roles. We’ve had a version of “Non so più” here before, but this is a wonderfully cinematic version that is queer af.
We’re deep into Beer Magic revisions this week! My wonderful agent and I had a great phone call about the novel and thoughts for the next draft. It involved much pacing around the apartment while we thought out loud—and also lots of leaping to my laptop/notebook to jot things down.
Fortunately, it doesn’t need a massive structural overhaul. Even so, this is what my office looks like right now:
I’m not sure I’ve talked about my notecards, but they’re an essential part of my initial plotting process and later-draft revisions. My method is kind of-sort of adapted from Holly Lisle’s notecard plotting workshop. She uses notecards to throw scene ideas down and weave a plot from thin air.
I find it difficult to plot that way. My stories tend to marinate for a long time in my head and then burst out in a torrent. But part of the marinating process is getting a roadmap. And that’s where the notecards first come in.
The first step is knowing the major plot points. Beginning, catalyst, midpoint, crisis, ending. It’s the barest of five-act structures. (Note that I usually don’t know the climax yet—I have no idea how the crisis gets resolved into the ending.) But whatever, I write all of those scenes down on notecards.
By then, there are usually some few discrete flashes of story floating around. Unconnected scenes, moments from a mental movie trailer. Those get their own notecards as well. Usually, it’s just a single line or a few words—enough to trigger the scene in my head.
Then we get away from the desk! I start laying cards out on the floor: main plot points first. Gradually, an order starts suggesting itself for the unconnected scenes. More importantly, I can see where gaps appear in the plot. “If B is here and G is here, what has to happen in-between?”
Eventually, a basic point-by-point outline emerges from the morass of notecards. That outline gets transferred into a Word doc (I don’t worry about assigning scene POVs yet—that happens in the moment), and then I write the book.
That sounds like it should be more complicated. But that’s all it is. I follow my map and I write the book.
But then the notecards come back!
After the first draft, some scenes inevitably need to get moved. Or maybe there’s the same POV for a million years in a row and it needs to get broken up. I’m sure there are programs to help play with the structure of an ms, but I’m an analogue kind of person.
I lay my notecards out again. This time, I include the POV character (assuming more than one). Sometimes I even colour-code them, so that I can tell narrators at a glance!
And the re-arranging begins. For me, the tactile nature of physically moving scenes helps me hold the entire story in my head. I can literally see and manipulate the structure.
Would this method work for everyone? Of course not. But that’s the way it goes, right? You mess around, adapting advice and experience until you find something that works for you.
Onwards with rewrites!
What I’m Listening to this Week
It was another Ešenvalds week. We had “Long Road” on here not that long ago, but the poetry is so good, I had to return to it.
Oh, thy bright eyes must answer now
When Reason with a scornful brow
Is mocking at my overthrow!
Oh, thy sweet tongue must plead for me
And tell why I have chosen thee!
Okay, so there are these three women, right? All writers. Frustrated by the lack of opportunity around them, they decide to make their own damn opportunities. They devise a plan to get published. They’re going to start with a collection of poems first, to build a platform, and then they’ll do novels—deliberately plotting novels different than anything they’ve written before.
It could be happening now, except it’s totally the Brontë sisters, and yes, I was watching the film To Walk Invisible this past week.
Why I have persevered to shun
The common paths that others run
And on a strange road journeyed on,
Heedless, alike of wealth and power—
Of glory’s wreath and pleasure’s flower.
Admittedly, I’m not done yet. But I’ve always been a Brontë fan. I love their poetry, and I like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (I could never get into Agnes Grey, though—sorry, Anne!). And of course, they introduced Jane Eyre in high school, and of course, the Brontës’ personal narrative resonated with my teenaged writer-self.
They made up their own fantastic world and wrote reams of stories set in it! They were governesses in various terrible places! They had enough of that and pursued writing with remarkable tenacity! Emily and Anne died young and it was super sad!
These once indeed, seemed Beings Divine;
And they, perchance, heard vows of mine,
And saw my offerings on their shrine.
But careless gifts are seldom prized
And mine were worthily despised.
It was interesting to contrast To Walk Invisible with another work that made my teenaged writer-self ache: Ernest Hemingway’s A Movable Feast.
Since I last read it a decade ago, I mostly remembered it as, “Ernest Hemingway writes in cool Parisian cafés with famous writers.” This reread, it struck me as more, “Ernest Hemingway drinks a lot and references making love pretty creepily.” Then I did a cursory search for more context and ran up against the usual issues with memoirs (and Hemingway, quite frankly). He’s certainly not objective and the manuscript was edited with various motives after his death.
Not quite what I remembered.
For all that, something still tugs at me. There is a sense of community—running into friends in cafés and bookshops and being interested in each other’s work. But I couldn’t help thinking…
A Movable Feast never mentions doubt. There’s a lot of drinking and gallivanting, but Hemingway never seems to question the likelihood of his own success.
The Brontës draw up a freaking battle plan, because they know the odds are against them. And they’re going to Do The Things regardless.
My darling pain that wounds and sears
And wrings a blessing out from tears
By deadening me to earthly cares;
And yet, a king, though Prudence well
Have taught thy subject to rebel.
Two different forms of confidence, I suppose. I’m glad I reread A Movable Feast…but I’m even more grateful to return to the Brontës. They have a steely, grim confidence that’s missing from Hemingway’s cafés and bars. It’s the kind of self-assuredness that gives no quarter, but also takes nothing for granted.
And am I wrong to worship, where
Faith cannot doubt, nor hope despair,
Since my own soul can grant my prayer?
Speak, God of visions, plead for me
And tell why I have chosen thee!
Walking invisible, perhaps…but determined to share in the feast.
PS. The poem referenced throughout is “Plead For Me,” by Emily Brontë!
What I’m Listening to this Week
“O great mystery…”
I listened to Morten Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium” while watching the lunar eclipse last week. True, it’s a little schmaltzy, but it was perfect for the occasion. And yes, I hard-core love the intense crescendo around 4:10.
I don’t want to get into the Marie Kondo “you should only have thirty books” thing more than I already have, because I’ve been gnashing my teeth all week and the quote was taken out of context and it’s wrong. However, I was looking at my books and I got a pang.
I have a lot of books about the Victorian era, Toronto history, and beer. And just for a moment, the sad thought flashed across my mind, “I don’t need these anymore; that chapter’s done…”
But that’s ridiculous.
True, I’m not immersed in Victorian history in quite the same way. But that’s the beautiful thing about writing. All of our loves and interests filter down into the creative mulch. (Terroir is perhaps a fancier word, but I do think mulch more accurately describes the subconscious breaking-down-and-reconstituting of things.) As long as I keep writing about the time period, I don’t have to leave it.
In a way, this idea fits within Marie Kondo’s philosophy. The whole point of her system is that if it sparks joy, you keep it, whether that’s books or clothes or shoes. The same approach applies to writing. If robots fighting in space spark joy for you, you write about those robots and have fun. If magic beer in Victorian Toronto gets your heart beating faster, you rock on with that.
(I’ll be spending the next month or so on Beer Magic rewrites, incidentally.)
Sometimes we overlook the value of joy in and of itself. Things don’t always have to be useful. Some things just make you happy. Like this little guy:
And likewise, I think writers can get so tangled up in the grind, the self-doubt, and the relentless striving, we lose sight of what we really enjoy. Look into your mulch. What have you got down there, in the dark? There’s probably some stuff you can let go of—I certainly have motifs that I’ve outgrown.
But there are always the themes and images that sing to you, the ones that make you catch your breath and sit straighter in your chair. You know, the things that spark joy.
Those things? Yeah. Keep those.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Okay, okay, it’s so overdone…and I adore the Rossetti text in the original “The Rose”…
But this is nice with strings, too. 🙂
Well. That was…quite a year.
2018 was life changes and personal growth all the way through. Not just writing-wise, either! I moved. I left my museum job after eight years. I did a lot of work on my anxieties and various relationships. I met amazing people, strengthened some pretty important friendships, and then things took a super delightful turn right at the end.
When I look at where I was in January, versus where I am now, the gulf seems staggering.
And it was staggering, going through it. Earlier in the year, I wrote about feeling like the Doctor going through a regeneration: lots of flash and fire and stumbling about the TARDIS. Or it felt like a caterpillar going into its cocoon. Did you know that caterpillars liquefy when they do that? Everything breaks down into messy goo and then it reconstitutes itself into a butterfly.
There was a lot of messy goo in 2018. Sitting at this end of December, I feel like the Doctor flailing about figuring out how their new body works (and whether they like pears)…or like the butterfly waiting for its wings to dry out.
Let’s be honest: a lot of people probably feel this way. On a broad scale, 2018 was packed with Sturm und Drang. Many of us feel shaken and battered.
But we’re still here. Still caring for each other. Still learning/remembering to care for ourselves. And I don’t know, people seem cautiously optimistic for 2019? Like we’ve been through the fire this year and found ourselves far stronger than we imagined. What will we do, knowing that?
I don’t know. I’m looking forward to finding out.
Goodbye, 2018. You closed some big chapters—let’s turn to a new page.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Lots of madrigals this week! Particularly this Thomas Morley gem. First of all, it’s an over-the-top flirtatious dialogue, which brings me considerable joy—and of course, it’s performed with absolutely straight faces. The lower voices’ harmonies are especially chilling; I’m so here for the tenors’ intervals on the word “tormenting.”
Another year, another slew of amazing books! A ton of incredible fiction came out this year—and I read some older chestnuts as well. It was difficult to narrow the field to five particular favourites, but I have done it! (And of course, this doesn’t discount any of the other books I read).
In roughly the order I read them, here is…
What I Read and Loved in 2018
(For the sake of transparency, * denotes an author with whom I’m also friends!)
Leaving behind her fashionable West Coast life, Maggie Black comes to the Southwestern desert to pursue her passion and her dream. Her mentor, the acclaimed poet Davis Cooper, has mysteriously died in the canyons east of Tucson, bequeathing her his estate and the mystery of his life–and death.
Maggie is astonished by the power of this harsh but beautiful land and captivated by the uncommon people who call it home–especially Fox, a man unlike any she has ever known, who understands the desert’s special power.
So…I adore Terri Windling: her fiction, her art, and her blog. I knew I’d love this novel, too.
And I did. It is everything I love: myth lurking in the shadows, art, and stunning landscapes. This contemporary-yet-ageless-myth style of fantasy reminds me a lot of Charles de Lint (no surprise, they’ve worked together) and I am entirely here for it.
Firefly meets The Fast and the Furious in this science fiction adventure series that follows a crew of outcasts as they try to find a legendary ship that just might be the key to saving the universe.
A washed-up treasure hunter, a hotshot racer, and a deadly secret society.
They’re all on a race against time to hunt down the greatest warship ever built. Some think the ship is lost forever, some think it’s been destroyed, and some think it’s only a legend, but one thing’s for certain: whoever finds it will hold the fate of the universe in their hands. And treasure that valuable can never stay hidden for long….
Queer lady space pirates treasure-hunting and racing. There is a lot going on in this book, and it’s all great. I particularly love Alex’s work with characterization and it’s wonderful to watch them coming into their own. This is a strong book with a strong voice, and it’s getting well-deserved accolades!
PLUS, the sequel drops tomorrow!! Check out A BAD DEAL FOR THE WHOLE GALAXY!
While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.
Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last best hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much more terrifying than anything she could imagine.
Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel the rez, unraveling clues from ancient legends, trading favors with tricksters, and battling dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.
As Maggie discovers the truth behind the killings, she will have to confront her past if she wants to survive.
Welcome to the Sixth World.
Wow. Just…wow. I absolutely loved Roanhorse’s story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience (TM)” in Apex last year, so I was stoked to read her debut novel. And goodness, it was worth the long library queue. Gripping plot, steely characters with achingly nuanced relationships, and rich worldbuilding—this is a gritty, bloody world. So good.
THE ULTIMATE HEIST
Belisarius is a Homo quantus, engineered with impossible insight. But his gift is also a curse—an uncontrollable, even suicidal drive to know, to understand. Genetically flawed, he leaves his people to find a different life, and ends up becoming the galaxy’s greatest con man and thief.
But the jobs are getting too easy and his extraordinary brain is chafing at the neglect. When a client offers him untold wealth to move a squadron of secret warships across an enemy wormhole, Belisarius jumps at it. Now he must embrace his true nature to pull off the job, alongside a crew of extraordinary men and women.
If he succeeds, he could trigger an interstellar war… or the next step in human evolution.
Some stories have their authors’ personality and passion embedded into their DNA to such an extent, it’s like seeing them in book form. That’s how I felt about THE QUANTUM MAGICIAN. It’s just so…Derek.
Which is a good thing: Derek is a shining light in SFF in general and Canadian SFF in particular. This book doesn’t shy away from hard science and tough questions—but it’s also hilarious. Like, genuinely, incredibly hilarious…even as some of this world’s darker implications made me run cold.
An ancient society of witches and a hipster technological startup go to war in order to prevent the world from tearing itself apart. To further complicate things, each of the groups’ most promising followers (Patricia, a brilliant witch and Laurence, an engineering “wunderkind”) may just be in love with each other.
As the battle between magic and science wages in San Francisco against the backdrop of international chaos, Laurence and Patricia are forced to choose sides. But their choices will determine the fate of the planet and all mankind.
In a fashion unique to Charlie Jane Anders, All the Birds in the Sky offers a humorous and, at times, heart-breaking exploration of growing up extraordinary in world filled with cruelty, scientific ingenuity, and magic.
Okay, so I’m a little late to the party with this one. But I’m so glad that I’m here now. This is a delightfully charming book with a confident, playful voice. I love the interplay between magic and science, talking birds and talking AIs. This feels very much like Diane Duane’s “Young Wizards” series grew up, donned hipster glasses, and catapulted into the Millennial experience.
The Only Harmless Great Thing is a heart-wrenching alternative history by Brooke Bolander that imagines an intersection between the Radium Girls and noble, sentient elephants.
In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.
These are the facts.
Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.
The bonus round is usually for short stories, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this novelette (that’s right—novelette, NOT novella). The writing is beautiful, the voice unwavering and lyrical. In relatively few pages, Bolander sketches deep characters and a deeper mythos. Haunting, gorgeous, and quivering with anger, this story will be rattling around my head for a while.
What did you read and love in 2018? Drop off your recommendations below!
What I’m Listening to this Week
I love writing to Arvo Pärt’s music. The mystic, minimalist feel is perfect for drafting – and since I’ve been working on a few new short stories, he’s getting consistent play lately!
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’d like to tell a story.
About a year ago, I was heading to a Christmas party when I learned that Six Stories, Told at Night had gotten into the Toronto Fringe. That’s a story I’ve told before.
This is a Christmas party with lots of (choral) music-types. Fantastically nerdy conversations abounded. After a few pints, a friend and I were talking in the hallway about Toronto’s two big Christmas shows—Handel’s Messiah and the National Ballet’s The Nutcracker—and how many people tend to be a “Messiah” person or a “Nutcracker” person, and—
“Hold on,” quoth I, “what if you combined them?”
“The music of Messiah,” I continued, flush with possibility and good ale, “and the story of The Nutcracker!”
My friend giggled.
“But who may abide the nut of his cracking?” I sang. Then, to the tune of the Hallelujah chorus, “O Nutcracker! O Nutcracker!”
We giggled some more and eventually I went home, and that should’ve been the end of it.
Except that in the morning, it was still funny. New words to “There were shepherds” dripped from my fingers easily enough. And for a few months, I poked at the idea again and occasionally threatened to put this show on.
“It wouldn’t be too hard,” quoth I (so innocent, then!). “You just need a piano and people who know Messiah.”
On and off, on and off, I wavered back and forth. And then Blythe had the brilliant idea of using it as a fundraiser for Gangway! Theatre Co., and we were off to the races. For the first time, I seriously considered what I needed:
Quartet of soloists
Thanks to awesome, dedicated friends…uh, we got all those things. Yes, certain parts were harder than I anticipated. Like my poetry, my parody seems to prefer spontaneity—sitting down to a keyboard and messing with Messiah for realsies was less footloose and fancy-free than I expected. Also, as I learned with Six Stories, there are always tiny maddening logistical things that crop up like black flies.
Will it be funny? I mean, I think it’s funny. The choir thinks it’s funny. People outside a cross-section of classical music nerds?
This was an anxiety-making moment over the last week.
But we’re doing it. The hilarious drunk idea has become a real show, hitting the Comedy Bar mainstage (945 Bloor St. West), November 13th at 9:30 pm. And I’m proud: I’m proud of the musicians, proud of my friends, and proud we got this sucker to the stage. We actually went for it.
Comfort ye, my people. For unto us, Nutcracker comes!
What I’m Listening to this Week
But of course…