My dear friends Erik and Katrina got married this weekend! It was a gorgeous ceremony, an awesome party after, and of course, wonderful people in attendance. As a bonus, there were friends I usually only see at cons: not nearly often enough.
Back around the Nebulas, I thought about what a funny thing convention culture is. Conventions are like pocket universes—full of people you love, but strangely separate from everyday life. They’re business and social life rolled into one, and when we land in Ottawa, Baltimore, Boston, wherever—we simply pick up where we left off in whichever city hosted us last.
Looking at my friends at this wedding, I met half at World Fantasy, and half at Ad Astra. (Fittingly, that includes the couple: I met Erik at one, Katrina at the other.) And I’m a little misty-eyed to think—from these conversations in carpeted hallways, these moments stolen from conference rooms and hotel bars—we become part of others’ lives in such a meaningful way.
One of the beautiful things about cons is how they act as a nexus point. My friends range across Canada and the United States: from the Deep South to New England to Ontario, and over to the West Coast. I never would have met them if we weren’t drawn to these cities like moths to a flame.During the dancing on Saturday, I had a little shiver of joy. Seriously, it was really cool. We’d gone from panels to dance floors, readings to toasts, hugs of goodbye to hugs of congratulations. It’s been a lot of experiences in many different contexts.
Writing can be terribly lonely. It’s easy to feel isolated. This weekend was a beautiful reminder of the friendship that brings joy to the road.
Erik and Katrina: you looked beautiful, your joy was palpable, and I wish you many happy years together.
What I’m Listening to this Week
You all know that I’m unflinchingly honest in this section. Last week, we had 14th century sacred music. This week, we have Taylor Swift. Yes, I have a few of her songs in my library. And this week, this one got firmly lodged in my ears:
I have a friend from Stonecoast visiting this week, which means there has been lots of gallivanting and little else. So not much musing today, just updates.
I’m a Sunburst nominee?
So last Monday, I posted about this strange, transitional sense I’ve been having. And the minor crises of self-esteem. Then I opened Twitter…
…and found the awesome and talented Kelly Robson congratulating me.
Having “La Corriveau” on the longlist was a huge honour; I honestly never expected it to go any further than that. This is likewise a huge honour—look at that list! Go back and look at the longlist! There is serious talent there!
It’s very humbling. And I’ve always been fond of “La Corriveau.” If nothing else, the historic Marie-Josephte Corriveau was a remarkable woman: I hope I’m doing her some justice.
The Sunburst winners will be announced sometime this fall.
Starting in September, I’ll be producing the Apex Magazine podcast!
This was unexpected, but delightful news! I’ve missed working with sounds—as everyone predicted when Six Stories wrapped up, I love podcasts too much to quit them entirely. Not only is Apex a wonderful team, it seems like the perfect balance: I’m just producing. That cuts down on time and workload, but still lets me keep a toe in the pool.
At the moment, I’m busy cultivating a stable of narrators. So yes, you’ll be hearing more from Blythe. I’m also excited to bring some new voices to your ears, too!
And that’s about it for the week. Things continue to tick along. We shall see where we end up.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Sometimes, the hardest thing about finishing a story is leaving the world. I was very fond of Heartstealer and Skarland. This piece brings me right back to the northern woods and autumn hearths…
I turn 26 on Wednesday. On the one hand, I know that’s nothing. On the other, this tweet feels scarily accurate:
So, 26. Aging aside, there’s been a strange shift in the wind, lately. It’s nothing I can quite put my finger on, but it feels like change is coming, thunder rolling in the distance.
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
– “Kubla Khan,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
My twenties have been relatively comfortable thus far, all things considered. Yet it somehow feels like a chapter is closing. One age ending; another beginning. I don’t know—maybe it’s just birthday feelings.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. I had an interesting conversation the other day about writing at different stages of life. Generally speaking, I agree with Theodora Goss’s theory that to write a certain story/novel, you must first become the sort of person who can write that story/novel. Kelly Robson echoes similar thoughts in her wonderful essay “On Being a Late Bloomer.”
Those thirty years didn’t just make me a writer. They made me a good writer. That paralyzing self-doubt morphed into a keen sense for quality in my own work. When I write something that stinks, I can usually smell it. I’ve been reading for more than forty years, so I have thousands of great books and stories banked for information and inspiration. And best of all, I have a lifetime’s worth of unplumbed material to draw on—I’ve seen the world in all its glory and ugliness.
– Kelly Robson, “On Being a Late Bloomer,” Clarkesworld
Point is, all stories originate from somewhere inside of us. If it isn’t in there somewhere, we can’t pull it out. We can fake it—manufacture a piece with a shiny veneer that crumbles at a touch. But you can’t write the story – not for real – until conditions are right inside you.
Which is why young writers’ works have such a short shelf life. I’d write things, return to them a year later, and immediately see the delta. “I don’t write like this anymore,” I’d say. It was the same feeling you get from examining old photos.
“That was just five years ago—why do I look so young?”
Of course, there’s another implication to all this. If you’ve changed enough, it can make it hard to return to old worlds, old stories. Occasionally, I get asked if I’d ever write another story in the Hapax universe.
And you know what? I don’t think I could. I wrote Hapax at nineteen.
- I still had two parents.
- I’d never been in love.
- I’d never really grieved.
- I had never even considered working in museums.
- I hadn’t met my dearest friends and collaborators.
- I hadn’t failed very much.
- I hadn’t gallivanted around the Antipodes by myself for two months.
- There are hundreds of amazing books/stories I hadn’t read.
I’ve changed enough that the world doesn’t fit anymore. Sure, I could resurrect characters and pick up the mythology (I will say that Hapax’s theology still pleases me), but I wouldn’t write the same sort of story. It’s like leaving Narnia. Once the door is closed, it’s closed.
Of course, 19-year-old KT definitely couldn’t have written any of the short stories I’ve done over the past few years. She couldn’t have written Six Stories or the Creepy Play. Of course not—I wasn’t yet the person who could.
So when I think about falling into a new stage of life, part of me is excited. Or at least, curious. After all, look at all the growth in the past seven years. Where will I be in seven more? What sort of stories will I be able to tell then? By the time my twenties draw to their close, what person will I be?
I don’t know, of course. Perhaps that’s part of the fun—or at least the journey. There’s a lot of stories I haven’t told yet.
But just you wait.
What I’m Listening to this Week
An unexpected piece. “Can’t Help Falling in Love” floated through my head early last week, and it’s been on repeat ever since. Obviously, I’d heard the song before—but I’d never really listened to it.
Yes, I can be a ridiculous sap. But those gentle, lilting broken chords and the velvet richness of Elvis’ lower register—
It’s a lullaby.
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.
Okay, pals, let’s have some real talk. I wasn’t going to post this, but I think I need to get it out, and I can’t think of a better forum.
I doubt it caused any ripples, but I have been spending the last two weeks sitting quietly by myself. Basically, I got overwhelmed, and my response to being overwhelmed is to withdraw and shut up. The root wasn’t deadlines or workloads or anything. It was this immense pressure that I put on myself:
WRITE ALL THE THINGS. APPLY FOR ALL THE THINGS. LAUNCH ALL THE THINGS.
For obvious reasons (chiefly, I’m not a perpetual motion machine), I couldn’t.
And then I felt awful.
And then I went away to sit by myself.
Honestly, the worst part has been feeling like I’ve been letting people down. My creative partner. My mentors. My friends. I’ve joked that my creative ventures are predicated on making certain people proud…but deep down, it’s not really a joke, is it?
Rationally, I know—I know—the need for external validation is deadly. The drive has to come from inside. At the end of the day, the internal engine is the only one upon which you can rely.
But it’s hard. Giving this some good, solid thought, I don’t have a problem with motivation. I’ll write ‘til the cows come home, because that’s all I know how to do.
But the fear of disappointing people is my Achilles’ heel. Not living up to potential. Being a flash in the pan. “That’s nice, but what have you done lately?” is both my inspiration and my nightmare.
Yes, I know. This is an insane amount of pressure to put on one’s self.
What does one do?
I’ve been trying to ease the pressure by reminding myself that this isn’t a race. If I keep working, then when it’s time, things will happen in their course.
That’s the most important thing, I think. To keep working. To set aside the expectation and the pressure and the fear of disappointment and just keep going.
In many ways, to keep working is an act of faith. With no idea where the road goes, we set off.
I’m slowly venturing back into the world. And rest assured—I’m still working.
What I’m Listening To This Week
One night this past week, I had beer and watched Moulin Rouge! and it was just what I needed. This song has been stuck in my head since.
Last January, I set myself a goal of writing a weekly blog post. Mostly as a discipline thing; partly for writing practice; partly to lay a foundation for the future. Overall, I’ve been good at sticking to that goal.
Except for last week. There wasn’t a blog post last week.
Actually, there wasn’t much of anything last week. I posted a poem to Facebook and a sunrise to Instagram, but that’s about it. I deleted all my social media apps from my phone and tablet. Sometimes I’d pop into Facebook on a browser for a quick peek, but only rarely.
See—I try to keep my social media activity mostly positive. Oh, I’ll post a sigh of despair over the latest shenanigans down south or the odd frustration, but mostly—if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
And so I stayed real quiet.
There’s another principle I try to keep: you don’t look in other people’s bowls. Actually the real quotation goes, “The only time you look in your neighbour’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough.” The thing with social media is that everyone’s bowls are on display all the time. And everyone’s tilting their bowl, and adjusting the lighting, and fiddling with filters to make sure that they look as good as possible.
And I just—I wanted to take my bowl and leave the table and sit quietly by myself for a little while. I didn’t want to worry about hiding its cracks. I didn’t want to expend the effort disguising how empty it’s gotten. In a weird way, I felt ashamed; like, why am I even at this table with a bowl like this?
I just wanted to sit quietly by myself. I wanted to remember why I love my bowl. And I wanted to take a good, hard look at it and say, “Okay. This isn’t working anymore. What now?”
So I spent my time reading a lot. Lots of magical realism. Lots of CanLit and Southern Gothic. Lots of fiction that skates the line between literary and genre (the irony is—after spending years and years rebelling against the literary—it’s calling me pretty strongly right now).
I listened to a lot of music.
I went for walks in the woods.
It was like leaving a noisy, noisy party and entering into silence again. I’ve been feeling pretty jangled up inside. The solitude’s been like a cool compress for the soul.
But even I can’t hermit forever. Last week, I dipped a toe back into the community—I grabbed a pal and went to the monthly Chiaroscuro Reading Series. Confession: I almost bailed at the last minute.
“I can’t,” I said. “I can’t smile and small talk today. I can’t be on my best behaviour.”
But bailing at that point would’ve been terribly unfair to my pal. And I knew, deep down, that it’d be good for me.
And you know what? I saw a bunch of people I normally only see at conventions. Like, right there! Because we actually all live in the same city! Whoa! I had some really nice conversations and cake. My pal got to meet one of his favourite authors, which seemed like a lovely moment for both.
And I remembered that I like writing. I like the fantastic and speculative. I like this community. A lot.
But since this whole experience has the whiff of burnout, I think I need to achieve better balance. Not only loving my bowl, but finding a place at the table where I can still hear myself think.
So I’m not quite back to the table, yet. I need a little more time with the quiet. But I’m edging closer to my seat.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Ah, Celtic Woman, my guilty pleasure.
Late last week, there was a conversation filtering through Twitter about degrees. Specifically, English degrees. Is it helpful for would-be writers to get their English BA? The tweet that kicked things off said, “No.”
As is typical for Twitter, some people disagreed.
And some people disagreed with those disagreements.
I chimed in briefly, but I have more thoughts that I’d like to explore here.
Cutting right to the quick, my short answer is, “Do whatever you want, it’s your life, but I did not find an English degree particularly helpful—either for writing, or life outside academia.”
“But KT,” the crowds cry. “Didn’t you study history?”
Indeed I did! Primarily because I did not find an English degree particularly helpful. See, I actually bounced around five different majors during my undergrad (it’s a miracle I graduated on time). If I can recall them correctly, they were:
English/Drama (double major)
English/Drama/History (major, two double-minors)
History/Medieval Studies (double major)
I realize that’s only four. For the life of me, I cannot remember the fifth—but I know it was there.
Regardless, looking at my progression through majors reveals a pattern. It took a while, but I gradually left English/Drama (literature-based courses) and settled firmly, finally in History (still liberal arts, but not literature-based). Why?
English was making me hate literature and stories. Even then, I knew I was going to be a writer, and I sensed that hating literature might hinder that goal. Really, it was a fundamental disagreement in teaching philosophies. I wanted to learn how stories worked. I wanted to learn what made them beautiful. I wanted to appreciate them as stories—which means that you’re talking about the themes, symbolism, and politics as well. Those are already part of any well-written piece. Basically, I wanted to talk about the syllabus like a writer.
Instead, I got this:
And so, after a particularly rough American literature class, I went to my registrar and got myself safely ensconced in History (I dropped the Medieval Studies component when I realized I like medieval theology, not medieval history).
Do I regret my decision?
Not at all. Having that history degree let me take a summer job at the museum. The skills I developed through my BA and through museum work let me carve out a dayjob wherein my creative partner and I teach history through theatre. Looking specifically to my fiction, history has all been grist for the mill. Moreover, learning how to do history has greatly impacted the way I write (I spent a long, long time digging through La Corriveau’s court records). And arguably, the museum’s impacted my fiction even more. How many nineteenth centuries have I written?
So for me, as a writer, History was infinitely more helpful than English.
You still need to know your field.
While I could not leave that American lit class fast enough, there were other English classes that did feed into my writing. Even genre writers should be familiar with the classics. I took a twentieth-century literature course in my first year that provided a wonderful survey—I likely would not have read The Sound and the Fury without it, and without that, I likely could not have written the Creepy Play. A Science Fiction course and Old English were useful for still more obvious reasons.
And if you’re not taking English electives (which I do recommend, if you can find the right ones—survey courses are great), you should be prepared to self-teach. As Stephen King so rightly said, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time—or the tools—to write.”
What about Creative Writing MFAs, then?
This could be a whole other post, as MFAs are equally contentious. Responses can range from, “MFAs are scams,” to, “They saturate the market with MFA-style fiction,” to, “Well, I guess, if you’re having a hard time improving on your own…”
You don’t need an MFA to be a writer. Really, you don’t need any degree to be a writer. As long as you are reading and writing lots, you’ll develop the skills just fine.
But degrees make it a lot easier.
I’ve talked about the Stonecoast MFA plenty on this blog. I’ll keep saying the same thing: for me, an MFA helped my writing like nothing else. It was everything I wanted from undergrad English courses. We talked about stories and how they worked. We talked about literature as writers. And I got to practice lots and lots, while more experienced, knowledgeable people provided their input.
When I showed up at Stonecoast, I was technically competent and entirely too cocksure. Stonecoast knocked me down a much-needed peg, it taught me how to be an artist, and it gave me a whole host of other skills—from critiquing, to teaching, to writing prose that’s beautiful as well as technically competent.
Most importantly, Stonecoast gave me the tools to teach myself more effectively. It taught me how to learn from other writers, and it gave me a chorus of phantom faculty in my head. Now, when I’m writing, I have this:
“You’re very clever, but this ending cheats the reader. Stop showing off and go write something better,” “Well, this is nice, but surface-level. How can you write with more density?” “Your architecture is off,” “Oh, yay! This feels like a KT Bryski story! Good work!”
You don’t need an MFA, but I’m sure glad I have mine.
Through all of this discussion, a consistent thread emerges: you learn to become a writer by writing and by reading. An English degree is not necessarily the best for that, because there’s very little writing and you’re reading for an entirely different purpose.
If you can find another degree that feeds your passion, go nuts. I’ve always liked History, and I’ve parlayed it into a job that keeps a roof over my head. Otherwise—yes, find something that allows you to pursue your passion.
And remember: it’s hard to say where things will end up. We don’t always realize when we’ve come to a fork in the road. It’s been six full years since that first summer job; eight since that random spark from The Sound and the Fury lodged in my chest.
At the end of the day, only you know what is best for you. Just make sure that you can write, read, and eat consistently.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Sticking with the madrigals: “April is in my mistress’ face.” This is another Morley piece, and it makes me wish I knew more music theory. Listen to the altos’ line at 0:54. I am sure there’s a term for that very distinctive phrase that ends in that very particular sort of chord, but alas, I do not know it…
The third and final leg of the American Grand Tour is coming to an end. The 2017 Smoky Writers retreat finished yesterday. Still ensconced in Virginia, I’ll be back in my garret midweek.
As mentioned previously, Smoky is one of my favourite events: great friends, great food, and great productivity. I had been planning to start a novel, but quickly found that it wasn’t quite ready—I tend to flail around with my novel openings, and Smoky wasn’t quite the forum for it.
But that’s all right—I wrote three solid short stories, a flash piece, and 4000 words of something that probably needs to be a novella, if not a novel. My stable of short pieces was getting pretty empty as submissions go out, so the situation feels much more secure now.
Of course, it’s difficult to distill the entire week-long experience into a single blog post. But something that came up in many conversations was why Smoky works as well as it does.
Essentially, there are three rules:
- Write new words
- Read new words
- Contribute positively to the community
Simple rules, but important ones. If the retreat can’t keep to them, it falls apart; I hugely respect the organizers for their dedication in defending it. Their leadership has resulted in a safe, productive space that’s also a lot of fun.
You see, writing is largely a solitary endeavour (publishing is not, but writing is). But it is nice to touch base with the people you care about. It’s nice to discuss the functions of short stories over breakfast and alien biology over evening drinks. It’s nice to share specific joys and frustrations with people who get it.
We all want to be understood. That may be why some of us started writing in the first place. We had something to say, and we wanted someone else to hear it. This is why I love conventions and retreats. In addition to the other professional benefits, they are places where connections are made between people who love stories—whether they’re editors, agents, writers, or readers.
And art is about connection, isn’t it? It’s about saying, “I understand,” “I hear you,” “I need to be heard,” “Me too.”
What I think is truly amazing is this: twenty people come together from all different places, all different backgrounds, all different walks of life. Abiding by three rules, we write, and the results vary as much as the people themselves.
We care about each other, and we care about our work. Having both is very, very precious, and they tend to feed off each other. While I’m quite content to write alone in my garret, there is something quite wonderful about being surrounded by people also focused on their creativity.
So, connection and diversity, our strengths. These are what I’ll take with me as I return home to edit (lots), write (lots), and read (lots and lots).
As ever, I am so grateful.
What I’m Listening to This Week
A sprightly madrigal by Thomas Morley: “I love, alas, I love thee.” It weaves effortlessly through unison and contrapuntal sections, ticking along like a perfectly-designed clock. In a way, it reminds me of short stories: it is complete unto itself, and no note could be anything other than what it is.
(Apologies in advance for a rambling post; I am very tired!)
As I write this, I’m sitting in the Boston airport, having just left my first Boskone. By the time you read this, I’ll be in Virginia. One week after that, it’ll be Tennessee.
My head’s spinning a little. But hey, all that is still in the future! Right now, I want to talk about Boskone. Run by the New England Science Fiction Association, Boskone is a delightful midwinter con in—where else?—Boston. There’s the usual blurred convention round-up: I met some new friends, caught up with old friends, participated in awesome panels, and had some long, amazing conversations. The organization and programming were stellar.
But whenever I leave a con, I think about what I’m taking away. What lessons have I learned? What was the theme, the overarching idea to ponder?
I’m still mulling. After all, I left the con an hour ago. I think, though, that the main lesson of Boskone is learning to think of myself as a “real” writer.
Let me explain.
When one says, “I’m a writer,” that means many different things. It means that you’re someone who writes—someone who has to write. That, I have no trouble saying. At this point, writing is so integrated into my self-identity that if I stopped, I’d have an existential crisis on my hands.
“I’m a writer” also means that you write professionally. That’s also fine. The museum pays me to write. The Ontario Arts Council deemed me professional. I’ve sold stories and novels. My plays have been produced. Obviously, I have a long way to go, but writing pays the bills.
So why do I struggle to call myself a “real” writer?
After much pondering, I think it’s because I’m comparing myself to the authors I admire. Writers who have sold five, ten, twenty novels. Writers who have collectively won every award. Writers who are loved; writers who cannot cross the bar for running into someone they know; writers who have changed the field.
And I look at them, and I think, “I’m not the same. Not yet. I’ve written and I’ve sold, but I’m not a Real Writer.”
In some ways, that’s true. I’m just starting out. I’m a few steps down the road that some authors have been traversing since before I was born. Of course, of course it takes more time than this.
The writers at Boskone treated me as a colleague. Not as a student. Not as a fan. It’s a little scary—partly because it’s always scary when you get your true desire—but also because changing one’s self-identity is inherently frightening.
I think the lesson of Boskone was being okay with that change. Not turning away, saying, “No, no, this isn’t me,” but embracing it. More than that—owning it.
Thank you, Boskone, and all its attendees; I’m truly grateful.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Over my years at conventions, I’ve learned various strategies for managing social anxiety. Last last year I hit upon Anglican chants as a good way to prepare myself for anxious-making situations. The repetitive tunes do help. But more, I have a strong association between this particular sound and my choir—one of the safest places I know!
Until last week, I snickered at the name “Pigeon Forge.” It sounds like a made-up name, doesn’t it? The name alone has always struck me as the Platonic ideal of a small town in the Deep South. I mean, listen to it: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.The Tennessean towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains. For me, they’re the gateway to an annual writing retreat I take with ~20ish dear friends. And yeah, until last week, I dismissed them as “the weirdest places I’ve ever been.”
Until last week, this is what I saw:
The main street unfurls like a midway, flashing lights and sugary music spilling onto crowded sidewalks. On one side, a collection of concrete faux-log cabins nestles like a sanitized vision of an alpine village. Olde Time Photography Studios and Olde-Fashioned Candy Shoppes stand every few paces, while black bears grin from neon t-shirts, chipped ceramic mugs, and motel doorways (TV WIFI POOL).Outside of Gatlinburg, signs proclaim JESUS SAVES right next to others announcing GUNS GUNS GUNS. Pickup trucks trundle past with plywood bumpers, and rusted-out trailers sit on hills, and Biblically-themed parks and theatres abound.
Until last week, I snickered. And believe me, it feels very uncomfortable to say that. Giving myself a long, hard stare, I see a blend of big-city blindness, liberal arrogance, and Canadian smugness.
“So typical. So kitschy.”
Then the fire happened.
Last week, wildfire (possibly “human-caused”) broke out in the mountains and swept with little warning into Gatlinburg, fuelled by the region’s worst drought in a decade. Within hours, swathes of mountainside and residences were destroyed, and 14,000 people were evacuated. At time of writing, 13 people are dead and 1000 buildings have been damaged or destroyed.
Our retreat cabin is right in the danger zone, so we stayed glued to the incoming reports. As more data rolled in, I was stunned.
- “[FARM] has a field for evacuated livestock. No charge. Call [Suzy] at [NUMBER].”
- “Shelter for pets available at [LOCATION].”
- “Biologists reluctant to leave Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, fearing for animals.”
- “Dolly Parton is giving $1000 a month to victims of Tennessee wildfires.”
- “Thank you for your prayers.”
- “We’re okay. Thank you for your thoughts.”
- “Thank you.”
With all the tourists, it’s easy to forget that Gatlinburg is a town of only 4000 people. The more I read, the more I glimpsed a tight-knit community, generous and kind-hearted. My throat closed up.
I was wrong about Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. I was so very wrong.
Coming on the heels of the US election and the subsequent soul-searching on the political left, this feels particularly poignant. It is so, so easy to see the JESUS SAVES signs and forget about the genuinely fervent faith enclosed within those walls. It is so, so easy to wander through a fake village and laugh at the concrete snow, not seeing the livelihoods that happen behind the STAFF ONLY doors. And this is the sort of easy self-absorption that we cannot afford. Not ever, but especially not now.
In a cabin outside Gatlinburg, I wrote both “La Corriveau” and “The Love it Bears Fair Maidens,” my first pro short fiction sales. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge will always claim a very special place in my writer’s heart.
If you enjoy my fiction—particularly those stories—may I request something?
Will you help me give back to Gatlinburg? I’ve done some digging: most donations of food, supplies, and money need to be dropped off in person, but if you’re far away—
And a relief fund for locals and businesses has been established by the Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Donations can be mailed to:
PO Box 1910
Pigeon Forge, TN
All my best, Tennessee. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I will never, ever look at you the same way again.
What I’m Listening to this Week
I’ve never listened to Dolly Parton before, but now seems like a good time to start…