I finished the initial read-through of the Beer Magic novel this week. At this stage, that’s just a simple read for overall content; I need to get a sense of the novel in its entirety before I can pinpoint its weaknesses. Mostly, I flagged plot snags and weak patches as I went:
And I noted things to explore in more depth later:
But when I finished the read-through, I still wasn’t sure what the key to the novel was. I hadn’t found it—the truth that will steer the novel to its final form. I didn’t know what the novel’s thing was.
See, my long-form fiction pieces all have things associated with them. Hapax is a line of falling dominoes. Heartstealer is a lobster trap. Six Stories, Told at Night is a Ferris wheel. Do these images ever explicitly appear in any of those works?
No. That imagery isn’t for the reader. It’s for me. It’s how I hold the entire story in my head, and how I figure out the structure. If I know what the novel is—I know its DNA. The entire story unlocks itself.
I’ve got a novel in the trunk that never found its shape. It shows: that novel has a deep structural flaw, it kind of meanders about, and while I still love it (as you do), it never cohesively hung together.
So what’s Beer Magic?
After thinking it over, I realized a common element between my other novel’s “objects.” Falling dominoes, lobster trap, Ferris wheel—they’re all active objects. None of them just sit there. None of my novels are stones, or couches, or spoons. They all have a goal attached to them—they do things.
And they act upon the reader. They represent how I want to move the reader through the novel. The object is the end goal, an invisible structural principle that underlies the entire story.
The Beer Magic’s object was on the tip of my tongue last night, but I had to sleep. Lying in the dark, I kept thinking, and thinking, and then…
You know those funnel-shaped black hole demonstrations? Like the one at the Ontario Science Centre? You launch marbles into the machine and they spin around and around, always inevitably drawn to a centre point?
I liked it. I latched onto it. But when I woke up this morning, I thought of something else:
The labyrinth at Chartres cathedral.
Walking the labyrinth is a spiritual exercise. Symbolically, it combines a circle’s wholeness with the inexorable forward momentum of a spiral. Once you enter the labyrinth, you’re drawn inevitably towards its centre, even when the path seems to verge further away from it. The Chartres labyrinth is also a fine example of spiritual geometry: it’s built along a cruciform shape, with four quadrants, and an invisible 13-pointed star underpinning the entire structure.
I also love this note from another labyrinth: The centre of the circle is geometrically the point of perfect balance, also called the “still point.”
The black hole machine and the labyrinth have a commonality, of course: that inescapable pull to a central point.
I’m really excited for these revisions now.
What I’m Listening To This Week
I love folk songs and drinking tunes. They touch the same nerve that fairy tales do—and they’re often stories themselves, set to music.
This was another hard week, at least in terms of my feeling like an effective human being. And so in lieu of a real post, here’s a quick State of the KT.
Six Stories, Doing Its Best: Rewrite’s trucking along, albeit with a tough knot to untie in the middle.
Apex Magazine Podcast: Both episodes recorded and scored, awaiting intro and show notes from me.
Auditions for Six Stories, Shouted by Day: The first round happened this past weekend, callbacks are this coming weekend. That is a blog post in itself, pals.
March Break Tomfoolery: DONE.
Beer Magic Novel: Currently sitting at 81k. Expecting this draft to hit 105k. Scrambling to finish before my Smoky Writers’ retreat.
Smoky Prep: I have gathered a collection of short story ideas and plots that will be interesting to explore through the week. I really want to do shorts again because I know if I don’t write them at Smoky, I likely cannot think about them until April.
Choice of Games: Removed from my February worrying. It’ll be tight, but I have a plan.
OAC Grant Application: IN. SUBMITTED. OUT OF OUR HANDS.
Mysterious Contract: Trucking along. In all honesty, it’s been a nice palate cleanser.
Gangway! Theatre Co. Shenanigans: I feel guilty that I’ve been less present than I would like, but Blythe seems fairly blithe about it all. (It’s funny, because it’s a pun.)
And so we go. It is entirely possible that I have bitten off more than I can chew, and as I’m looking at the calendar…the Mysterious Contract wraps just after Easter. I think I shall take the week between that and dayjobbery resuming to have a real, long, actual rest.
What I’m Listening To This Week
I like Ralph Vaughan Williams’ work. He went around collecting and adapting folksongs from around the British Isles – some of his output is sacred, some secular. This is a secular piece, one of those classic “I will love you until the seas boil and the rocks melt” kind of songs. But it is very soothing and lilting and lovely.
Frost has crept into the mornings. At the day job, there are a few hours during which I rely on a woodstove. If there’s no fire, there’s no heat in the building, and there’s really only so long that you can shiver and watch your breath rise dragon-like to the ceiling.
Last week, the woodstove required a fair bit of running around. First, I had to remember to bring newspaper to start the fire, because I knew we were almost out. Then there wasn’t any wood, so I had to go to another building, collect some, and carry it over. Once I’d gotten the wood inside, I had to go find the ash bucket and clear out the oven. Then, finally, I could set about building my fire.
Now, the thing with woodstoves and hearths is that each one is different. You need to know their quirks. This particular stove has a small fire box. That is, it can’t take very much wood, especially not at first.
So I’ve learned to burn just one log at a time, until there’s a good bed of hot coals. Once you’ve got that, the stove will burn just about anything—and quickly!—and the building starts to warm up. But you can’t rush it. If you stuff the box with logs, the fire smothers and you have to start all over.
It takes time to do it properly. Look at how many little tasks comprise starting the fire! It’s been a nice thing about working in a historic setting: this acknowledgement of the fact that sometimes things take longer. There are more steps involved.
It’s especially nice given how preoccupied we often are with convenience and instant gratification. We can pop dinner in the microwave. Summon a car on our phones. Send messages immediately—and see when the other party’s read them. We’re so used to the instant, I think we’ve forgotten how to slow down. We’ve forgotten how to take the smaller tasks in their own turn.
I’m guilty of wanting instant gratification too. Watching more established writers can feel like watching other people tend a roaring fire whilst you shiver in front of an empty stove.
But it takes time to do things properly. As we move through our careers, it’s like we’re all building fires. You can’t just toss matches at logs and expect a blaze. You have to move through the other steps first: writing apprentice pieces, trying new things, failing, getting rejections, getting the first publication, the first good review, the first convention, the first rejection that really hurts…
All the little tasks add up. They’re all part of the process. And so, just as I’m patient with my fire, I’m learning to be patient with myself, too.
That’s the plan, anyway!
What I’m Listening To This Week
Since it’s Halloween tomorrow, all my favourite autumn songs have featured prominently. Specifically, the Souling Song. It’s one of those songs with many versions. I learned slightly different lyrics, but this rendition is good fun too.
Ah, I do love the year’s turning….
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.
I’ve been looking for this video for years:
If you’re not keen to watch the whole thing—this is a film about the HMS Speedy, a schooner that sank in 1804 carrying many prominent members of Upper Canada. She wrecked attempting to enter the Newcastle Harbour, near modern-day Brighton, Ontario. The surrounding peninsula is now a provincial park where I spent many idyllic childhood summers.
Plus, The Wreck of the Speedy was the first piece of museum theatre I ever encountered.
From ages 2-16-ish, Presqu’ile Provincial Park was the happiest place in my world. It wasn’t backwoods camping, but there were outhouses and forest trails and fossils to find in the bluffs.
But my favourite thing was the Lighthouse. Sure, the Nature Centre was pretty cool with its live turtles, taxidermy birds, and light-up map of Lake Ontario. But I was always impatient to get back on my bike (left unlocked, obvi) and keep cycling down the road to the Lighthouse and its Interpretive Centre.
History, man. History.
The Interpretive Centre is attached to the 1848 lighthouse keeper’s cottage. It houses artifacts dredged up from the lake; there’s a documentary about the 1920s entertainment scene; you can Go for a Dive! at a series of video monitors.
But the best thing—the best thing—was this movie.
I’m not sure when it went in. Maybe when I was seven or eight? Anyway, I was entranced. Like, hanging-over-the-railing entranced. Like, I knew the history better than the interpreters. Like, I totally had the entire script memorized at one point.
First of all, a sunken ship that’s never been found is pretty cool. (Although I learned in adulthood that they found it ages ago.) But also – that video made it real. It turned names into people, dates into tragedy.
For those late to the party, my dayjob is thus: my co-creator and I use theatre and its associated techniques to educate people in museum settings.
Explained badly: I pretend to be dead people to teach you a lesson.
So here was this…this play. Filmed, yeah, but still a play, smack dab in the middle of the artifacts, maps, and dive footage. And it punched me in a way nothing else did. Of course, as a wee one, I couldn’t articulate why. But having worked as a museum theatre professional for a few years—sure. Let’s take a look.
We start with a chaotic opening. Storms! Shouting! Ship going down! It grabs one’s attention right away—it’s a bold choice to start with something this distressing, though some details escape if you don’t have background context.
Then it’s an interesting format: monologues from various crewmembers and passengers interwoven with our guide/host—Captain Charles Selleck, the one sort-of-witness. Selleck’s character makes this video work: we need an anchor, an emotional hook to hang our hats on.
Now, whoever wrote the script does a decent job weaving historical facts with human drama. Name-dropping runs rampant (who’s Richard Formaldi?), but there are some gems of interpretation:
“Never enough money. Never enough material. Never enough men!”
Succinct, informative, and charged with emotion. BAM.
A wide range of characters speak their piece: the low-class seaman, the beleaguered captain, the officials and judges. This all predicts the 21st century emphasis on diversity of voices and perspective.
But I realize now, one voice is missing.
The whole reason for this voyage was to transport a prisoner and attendant court participants to Newcastle for trial. A Chippewa man named Ogetonicut was accused of murdering fur trader John Sharpe. Ogetonicut’s brother had been killed by a white fur trader a year prior, and Ogetonicut had been promised a trial…that never happened. This all gets rather glossed-over in the video.
And Ogetonicut never gets a monologue of his own. We never hear the prisoner’s perspective: his rationale for his actions, what he thought of the Speedy’s dilapidated condition, how he felt as the water closed in. It’s a glaring weakness in an otherwise strong piece.
Because it is strong, otherwise. For a tiny interpretive centre in a relatively small provincial park, this was insanely well done. It showed me what museum theatre could be, long before I even knew what museum theatre was.
This is how I know it worked. After the video—after the display cases and gift shop—I’d go to the Lighthouse itself. And I’d stand on the point and stare hungrily at Lake Ontario, imagining the Speedy lying on the cold lake bed. There, I would promise myself that I’d find it someday. I’d finish the story begun in the interpretive centre.
Obviously, I didn’t find the Speedy. But in a strange way, I am finishing the story begun at Presqu’ile. Too often, I say that I never envisioned myself in museums—that it was all a very happy accident.
Then I remember this video, and realize—no, no.
It was all inevitable.
PS. I’m at the SFWA Nebula Conference this week. Find me. Frolic. Come to my Beer Talk on Friday evening.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I finished the final (for now) edits on Sing to the Bones. To set the mood, I listened to a lot of Western/cowboy music while editing. I stumbled across this piece entirely by accident, but it is very beautiful.
Excitement! I have a story out today! (Read it here!) “La Corriveau” is available over at Strange Horizons. I absolutely love the magazine and the fiction they publish, so I’m honoured for my story to be included in their ranks!
If you heard Six Stories, Told at Night, “La Corriveau” may be familiar. Marie-Josephte Corriveau was actually a real person. She was accused of murdering her second husband, she was hanged, and then, her body was suspended in a gibbet like this:
All sorts of legends grew up around her. She was a witch, she met with Satan, she actually had seven husbands. Myself, I looked at the cage and figured it would lend itself well to steampunk.
To get some more background information on 1700s Québec, I started researching La Corriveau…
..and fell down a rabbit hole, wherein the historic record is utterly fragmented and often contradictory. As a historian, I couldn’t piece together what really happened. Did she kill her husband? Was she abused? Was there a cover-up? Since she was tried by an English court martial, were things lost in translation?
I didn’t know.
So, sitting in the media room of a cabin in Tennessee, I stopped trying to tell the real story. I tried to tell her story – all her stories – the story of the witch and the story of the woman. As with much of my fiction, “La Corriveau” has an unusual structure, but that’s the only way I could figure out how to do it.
In all these explorations into Canadian folk tales, La Corriveau has been one of my favourites. She is a fascinating woman…partly because, from what I can tell, she started out incredibly ordinary. I am quite fond of this story, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed the research and writing!
What I’m Listening To This Week
An old Broadway standard: “Who Can I Turn To?” from The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. This isn’t the precise version I’m familiar with – I know Louise Pitre’s rendition best, which is considerably slower and sultrier (I think she described it as the song that closes out the club, one last vodka in hand).
In any case, it’s a poignant little mix of heartbreak and grit. Enjoy!
Yesterday, I pushed back my chair in the Historic Programs office with a heavy, exaggerated sigh. Supervisor glanced up. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“This monologue. I can’t make it good.”
Assistant Supervisor popped his head up too. “What are you having trouble with?”
“Making it good.”
As I then tried (partly successfully) to explain, it was more a struggle of art than pedagogy. Museum theatre, as we’ve discussed before, holds museum and theatre equally. I knew my historical information. I knew the concepts I want the visitors to learn. But I was struggling to make good theatre—to map history onto theatrical architecture and create some semblance of story arc and character development.
I think I got it in the end. Maybe. We’ll see. I’ll feel better once my partner-in-crime has taken a look.
But it was interesting, because the one thing that’s coming much more easily is voice. My character is a sixteen-year-old tavern-keeper’s daughter named Delilah. She lived in the inn with her mother and older brother (her father died when she was eleven). Then her mother died when she was sixteen. Then her brother died three years later. Then Delilah married some farmer’s son in a township quite far away, had five children, and died herself in 1908.
The way we chose these characters was thus: we looked for people who were a) connected to our buildings, and b) roughly the right age, at c) roughly the right time.
Delilah fit the bill, and I like taverns. And so we began getting acquainted.
It’s a different process than, say, writing a musical about Alexander Hamilton. There are no biographies of these people. There are biographical facts, which you can compile into a vague sketch, and then you take your best, most responsible guesses.
So Delilah was sixteen in 1872, not going to school. Her mother had been running the inn for a while. The 1871 census reveals they were taking in boarders, which suggests that the railway that was laid in 1856 really did take a bite out of the business they’d been getting from the stagecoach line.
Okay, so, what would the experience of a person in that situation be like? How would different types of personalities react to that situation? Maybe Delilah loved helping around the inn, and flitted about like a bright, spirited young belle. Maybe she was super moody, and bitter that she was no longer in school.
There’s no way to know.
So you take what you do know, and you blend it with art. I am most comfortable playing characters that are freaking Energizer Bunnies. So by virtue of the actor playing her, we see a version of Delilah that’s a little naïve, very earnest, and who wants so, so badly to be helpful. She’s a puppy on a sugar rush.
But the deeper you dig, the more details emerge to fill in the picture you’re creating. I’ve sorted out most of her family tree. Delilah lived surrounded by aunts and uncles (all from her mother’s side). She had about a million cousins, approximately half of whom are also named Delilah. And it’s a family that seems to shuffle relatives around as needed. Elderly Grandpa James is living at the inn in 1861. By 1871, a cousin mini-Delilah is staying there (oddly, mini-Delilah’s brothers are staying with yet another uncle across the street…I wonder why they split the kids up, but I also wonder if that’s where both my Delilah and mini-Delilah went after her mother dies).
Again, there’s no way of telling what it was really like. But you want to believe the best, don’t you? This pattern of taking relatives in suggests—to me, with my eternal optimism—that it was a fairly tight-knit family. The fact that all of Delilah and half of her million cousins are named after their grandmother suggests the same.
You take what you know of history, and you take what you know of people. Delilah marries some guy named Wesley, from a township really far away. It perplexed me, until I realized he had relatives who lived near Delilah. Among them: a girl named Celestia who was a year older.
So…a girl about your age, who lives nearby, and you marry her cousin (I’m not sure of the degree of cousin-hood, but it’s something). Of course, I’m going to project my own history onto it, and hope that Delilah and Celestia were friends—that of course, Delilah married her friend’s relation.
No way to know—maybe Celestia was incredibly bitter about it. But the census tells me that Celestia also wasn’t in school (seems about half the teenagers in Scarborough were). It tells me that she has two siblings who probably needed a lot of help—“unsound mind” is a terrible and vague term, but it’s all the census provides.
So two girls the same age, both not in school, both with fairly heavy family obligations.
From what I know of people…I imagine it was nice to have someone who understood. In my art—related to, but ultimately separate from the pure history—I make the choice that they were friends. And so another bit of shading, another bit of context.
I’ve been deeply involved in this girl’s history for about a year now. It’s very strange, because I do feel a connection and emotional investment, and I know her family tree about as well as my own…and I have no way of know what she was really like. More than anything, I’d love to see a photograph—I’d love to see her face—but I don’t even have that.
But that’s what museum theatre is all about, isn’t it? Translating those stark facts into something human, and forging connections out of smoke and dust.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Well, actually, I’m listening to the song “Non-Stop” from Hamilton, but it’s not online anywhere. With June looking like a crunch month, it’s been my motivation/training montage song:
How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive?
How do you write like you need it to survive?
How do you write every second you’re alive?
Of course, based on the way the musical ends, I probably shouldn’t identify with Hamilton too much… But as I said, no versions online. So here’s a general Hamilton montage.
If you’ve not heard the news—my story “Wendigo” has won first place in the Toronto Star Short Story Contest! (You can read it here!) Now in its 38th year, this is considered one of the largest such contests in Canada, so that’s very exciting. Especially since while “Wendigo” asks a lot of difficult questions about art and artists…it’s also a straight-up fantasy story about cannibal ice-monsters.
But hey, “Six Stories” is also straight-up fantasy about faeries and folklore figures—and it got Ontario Arts Council funding. I seem to be doing well with Canadian cultural institutions this year.
It’s interesting—in the three (?!) years since I finished my undergrad, I’ve gotten a taste of the creative life’s feast-famine cycle. Admittedly, it’s a baby taste. Full-time writing with training wheels. Still, it’s good practice.
This has been a feast year, and I’m VERY grateful. So far in 2016…
- I got three full manuscript editing gigs
- Plus one partial that still helped
- The OAC funding came through
- This contest totally surprised me
And that’s the work I’m getting paid for now. It feels weird listing it all out. Talking about the business end of things feels uncouth, sometimes. But the business end is important. If you want to be a full-time writer, you need to face it eventually. At the end of the day, you need to ask, “Can I live off what my writing brings in? If so, how? If not, what can I do?”
Most people take dayjobs. I’m lucky enough that mine directly feeds my writing. I’m also lucky that I’m happy there. It’s a double-edged sword, though, because it’s seasonal.
Eight months = guaranteed paycheque.
Four months = KT makes a go as a full-time writer.
As long as my year-round writing can cover that off-season, I’m happy. Partly, it’s a matter of pride. I want to be able to say that my writing keeps the rent paid and the fridge full. And the uninterrupted four months of creative time are important to me. I don’t want to have to take a serving/retail job to make ends meet. I’d write less, and the goal is to write more—to eventually hit the point where I don’t need the museum.
(Although I suspect that I’d cut back my time, rather than bail on them entirely. I love it too much. It’s good for my writing. It keeps my social skills from rusting away. It’s home.)
So, you lay out what’s important to you. What you’re willing to compromise on (I’ll take on extra responsibilities around the house for cheaper rent) and what you’re not (I really don’t want to take a serving/retail job). For me, I’ve made the current arrangements work for three years.
But I’ve been crazy lucky. This was a feast year. 2014 was a feast year (Yeti’s Parole Officer and the East o’ the Sun libretto saved my bacon).
Last year was a famine.
There weren’t really any editing gigs. No major projects. No big sales. I’d squirreled some of my libretto paycheque away, so I survived, but I’ll admit that the wolf got a little close to the door. Then last fall, a number of things hit at once (I’ll miss my Stonecoast pals, but not the tuition) and I heard stealthy paws under the window again.
Feast and famine. For a long-range planner—a planner who needs a back-up plan, always, just in case—it can be maddening. Creative work is uncertain by nature. You can’t predict when the next feast will come, how long the next famine will last. Even when you do get lucrative projects, you can’t always guarantee when you’ll see the money. Advances come in lumps. For freelance gigs, I usually get paid half upfront, half on completion.
Uncertainty is the nature of the beast, but you can prepare as best you can. I have an emergency fund: rent and living expenses for a few months. Beyond that, I’m careful with money when it does come; always anticipating another stretch of famine. I’m thinking about what I could jump on right away—what contacts I could tap, what gigs I could land, what I could pull together quickly, if needed.
And yes, I’d totally pick up another day-job if necessary. Of course I would. I like eating and paying rent.
It’s another part of the writing life, one that bears careful pondering. For other takes on the business/monies end, check out these posts by my former Stonecoast mentor Theodora Goss and my pal Marie Bilodeau. They’ve much more experience at this than I do!
Hopefully, your feasts are long and your famines of inconsequential duration. 🙂
What I’m Listening to This Week
After all that talk about full time writing, I’m insanely close to returning to work. While I love gallivanting about like a bohemian artist, it does feel like it’s time to go back. I miss our shared desk. I miss the brewery. I miss gallivanting about like a Victorian guttersnipe. I miss walking through the village in the early morning, when the air is clear and dewy and everything feels brand-new…
So here’s a sentimental little piece, based on Dvořák’s New World Symphony. It always starts running through my head, this time of year.
It’s well into April, which means that the off-season is rapidly drawing to a close. In a few short weeks, I’ll be back at the museum, giving brewery tours and teaching people about history through theatre. I can tell we’re getting close, because a reptilian part of my brain is stirring.
“Hey,” it whispers. “Hey, you know what’s cool? Theories of theatre in education. Knowledge is power. Let’s learn some theories now. Let’s get ready to test them.”
Which explains the following stack of books:
And you know what? I love it. I know the season doesn’t start for a few weeks, but I love sitting in my garret, absorbing all of these theories. It reminds me of the year spent trying to get this drama program launched in the first place. Because the brewery is totally my supervillain lair, I spent hours on my barstool stomping terms and discourse and case studies and arguments into my brain.
It’s another side of my creative life. And what I’ve learned over the last few years is this: I’m not just keen on museum theatre because it’s theatre. I’m keen on it because it’s museum theatre. Shockingly, I like teaching in non-traditional settings. The particular challenge of museum theatre is that it has to be good history, it has to teach effectively, and it still has to work as a piece of art in itself.
Or, as I eventually summarized for myself:
- Sound pedagogy
- Responsible history
- Artistic merit
That’s a lot of points to hit. Sometimes it’s tricky to manage them all. But it’s precisely that paradox and challenge that keeps me engaged.
And I know, I know. My unabashed enthusiasm and general nerdiness about the whole thing leads to a lot of rolled eyes. Not everyone wants to hear about how the actor-teacher is really a hybrid role—or how Theatre in Education isn’t just “didactic theatre” or “education with tinsel,” it’s really an altogether different form of stagecraft—and Freeman Tilden’s Six Principles of Interpretation totally apply to museum theatre—and oh man, when you take evolving technologies into account, especially social media, the opportunities for what you can do just explode, and—
See? Rolled eyes.
But I think two things:
- This is an evolving art form. Who wouldn’t want to explore uncharted territory?
- It’s a way to genuinely reach people, to help them learn about history. I think that’s important.
I guess that’s another thing that fascinates me about museum theatre: the sense that it’s doing real, important work. It’s not just doing the same old, same old. It’s learning about what other people have done, synthesizing all that into theories, and then testing those theories over and over again. It’s developing new theories. It’s carving out a new spot in the scholarship.
That’s all well and good. It’s nice to feel like a trailblazer. But for me—the compulsive drive comes from why we do this. I see no reason why theatre and museums should be odd bedfellows. In the end, they seek to forge connections between people. They foster understanding; they encourage empathy. They ask you to step beyond yourself, to take on the role, perspectives, shoes of another. Done well, they offer multiple meanings, multiple voices, create a safe place for debate and conflict.
Done well, both museums and theatre remind us what it means to be human, and to share human experiences.
Naïveté? Maybe. Youthful idealism? Perhaps.
Nerdy? Of course.
But this is my other love. This is my passion, alongside writing about dark fairy tales and magic worlds and cannibal ice zombies. So I go back to my books, back to my theories and thoughts—and I wait for the audiences and the testing and the warm summer sun.
Excitement and joy and love. Sure, it may be nerdy, but you take these things where you can find them, don’t you? 😉
What I’m Listening to This Week
Apparently I wasn’t doing enough this year. A new novel is whispering to me. And I know it’s serious, because it has a theme song. All my novels have theme songs—all the ones that survive, anyway. Hapax had “I am the Day,” Heartstealer had “Mari’s Wedding,” and Sing to the Bones has “Lord of the Dance.”
This novel is too new and delicate to discuss much right now. Instead, here’s the song that’s driving it:
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.