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Necessities

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.

Sufficient Sleep

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…

“Sleep,” William Powell Frith (1872).

Nature

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.

The Art Gallery of Ontario: one of my favourite places in Toronto.

Face-to-Face Time

I’m a weirdly social introvert. Absolutely, I need alone time. In fact, not getting alone time leads to jangled nerves and jittery anxiety.

But—

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.

Balticon 2015: I ADORE these gentlemen.

Writing Time

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.

“Jo Seated on the Old Sofa,” by Norman Rockwell (1938).
I feel an immense kinship with this painting…

So What?

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?

Anon!

KT

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.

 

 

Liminal and Literary

When I was a wee sprogget of 16, I went to tour a university. They had a creative writing undergrad, you see, and I’d somehow wrangled a one-on-one with one of the instructors. She seemed distant, impervious to my earnest charm.

Until I asked brightly, “So, do you teach genre fiction as well, or is it all literary?”

She recoiled like I’d slapped her. “Oh, no,” she hissed. “We only teach literary fiction.”

And so I did not attend that university.

Photo de Katie Bryski.

I ended up at the University of Toronto, instead.

Through my late teens and undergrad, I similarly avoided  anything smacking of “literary fiction.” Meandering vignettes of people sitting on park benches, pondering the banality of existence? Dysfunctional families in the woods? Giants of the literary canon deriding my chosen genre as nothing more than space-faring octopi?

To hell with all that. I was a speculative fiction writer. I was interested in telling good stories.

Have I mentioned that I was incredibly arrogant through my late teens and undergrad?

In any case, I took a half-credit Science Fiction course, which is probably one of the best moves I’ve made. We started with Darko Suvin, forged ahead from Weinbaum to Gibson, and highlighted LeGuin and Tiptree along the way. My final paper contrasted notions of bodily autonomy in “Boojum” (Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear) and “Bloodchild” (Octavia Butler).

Quite a literary analysis, if you think about it.

Then I did my Stonecoast MFA. We’ve talked about it before – that was when my authorial voice started to change. And there—I learned that perhaps “literary” didn’t mean what I’d thought. Perhaps it wasn’t just “the opposite of genre fiction.” So what was it?

It was introspective. It was character-driven. It was devastating. It was lyrical and elegant.

Literary was an approach.

And literary could still have magic and spaceships.

Dysfunctional families in the MAGIC woods!

So I’ve been undergoing another reading regimen. In some ways, I still feel like an interloper: scuttling across the border to see what I scavenge and bring back to my fantasy. But startlingly, I sometimes recognize myself in the small villages, the bitter-dark humour, the pervasive loss, the tension between things beautiful and grotesque…

Of course, humans like to classify things. We like to label ourselves. That’s what we do. And genre markers are a useful common language for markets, authors, and readers.

But I’m feeling my way towards a strange, interstitial space. Not terribly surprising: I’ve always been fascinated by the liminal. It’s the place betwixt-and-between, where we gleefully borrow principles, turn them inside-out, and blur the lines as we cross them.

That’s what I’m writing towards, I think. It feels right.

KT

What I’m Listening to this Week

Have I done Carmina Burana before? I guess it doesn’t matter; it’s what I was listening to this week.

It’s an Orff cantata, using poems from a medieval manuscript called – appropriately – Carmina Burana, or, “Songs from Beuern.” The “O Fortuna” movement is the one everyone knows.

Two main things. 1) I love the contrast between driving whispers and orchestral cataclysm. It’s the Wheel of Fortune going up and down, you know? And 2) Those lyrics. They are. The most. Metal. Lyrics. EVER.

The Speedy and Me: Or, why my second career is entirely unsurprising

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.

Wee KT on the left.

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.

A fifteen-year-old innkeeper’s daughter.

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.

Image result for devil's horseblock

“It’s the Devil’s Horse – ” (WHOOMPH) It’s the Devil’s Horseblock, a rocky pinnacle rising 100 feet from the lake’s depths, breaking the surface just enough to spear passing ships. (Image courtesy http://www.oceanscan.com/sidescan/speedy.htm)

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.

“Last Flight of the Speedy,” by Peter Rindlisbacher. (courtesy http://www.friendsofpresquile.on.ca)

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.

-KT

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.

 

 

Under Pressure

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.

So.

This hermitage.

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.

 

I love this painting, but I’ve searched high and low and cannot find the artist’s name. If you know it, please send it my way so I can link properly!

 
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.

So.

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.

Liz Hand’s advice: always applicable.

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.

-KT

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.

Bowls and Burnout

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.

Much love,

KT

What I’m Listening To This Week

Ah, Celtic Woman, my guilty pleasure. 

False Starts

I’m in the beginning throes of a new novel, which feels an awful lot like making your entrance in an unfamiliar choral piece. If you can get your starting pitch, things usually stay more-or-less on track. Landing sharp or flat? It’s difficult to stop the piece falling apart when you’re wrong-footed from the first note. 

I usually forget how much flailing about I do at the beginning of a story. And then because I never remember the angst, the flailing feels disastrous, and I freak myself out.

And so, I thought it would be instructive to remind myself exactly how common false starts are for me:

Hapax

First attempt:

It was a clear evening, one of the first of summer. A warm breeze wound through the City, caressing friends drinking outside taverns and lovers strolling through narrow streets. Plucking guitars floated over conversation and laughter, occasionally joined by soulful tenors. The golden stones that formed the City’s buildings still carried the heat of the noonday sun. Overtired children and the elderly clustered on them; the latter thanked the warmest spring in memory for driving away the chill winds that usually made one last appearance. And above, the stars, ever twinkling: familiar constellations smiling on the summer night. The Ox, the Hunter, the Vineyard, all the old friends that heralded the beginning of the new season.

(Then there’s an extended bit where two old men eat chicken and talk. Seriously.)

…because reasons.

Eventually:

The time, at last, had come.

A new star ignited over the City. Like a drop of blood glinting in the darkness, it blazed in the Serpent, brighter than any other star in the constellation. Under the starlight, the City crouched in the night, perched atop its plateau. Sheer cliffs fell away on every side; if not for lack of water, it could have been an island.

No breeze stirred the warm air. In narrow alleys, shadows stretched as quiet and endless as the gorges beyond the City.

Time passed. The stars danced on.

Heartstealer

First attempt:

Sara had not felt so ill since her first glimpse of her husband’s headstone. That had been nearly six weeks ago, and plenty of stomach-turning moments had filled the emptiness between. Yet juddering along a country road in a carriage with shot springs ranked high among them. Sara clenched her hands in her lap, gritting her teeth each time the horses pounded over a half-buried stone or fallen branch. To her amazement, the coach’s other two passengers slept. An older woman leaned against the side of the coach, while a towheaded boy nestled into her.

Eventually:

I had not felt so ill since the funeral. The stagecoach rattled over the road and my teeth rattled in my skull. I kept watching the road ahead, even though dust streaked the windows. We jolted again. A large rock or another half-buried stump. There hadn’t been macadamized roads since several towns back, and since we’d left the train station at Ossington, the road had only gotten rougher. Too slow—I just wanted to get this journey over with.

The Love it Bears Fair Maidens

First attempt:

Sophie clutches her knife tight, watching the unicorn across the pit.

(That is, apparently, as far as I got. It was bad.)

Eventually:

The hunt begins as it always does: with quarry, bait, and hunter.

Six Stories, Told at Night

First attempt:

This is the first story.

Once, there were two girls who lived in a little village far in the north of Québec. Let’s say the younger girl was seven, and the older one was ten. When you told me this story, you didn’t say what the girls looked like, but I always imagined that they looked like us.

The older girl had flashing dark eyes and knees covered in bruises. Her mouth quirked at the corners. The younger girl, her friend…well, she was paler. Frailer. Just a wisp, her grand-mère always said, just a bit of thistledown that would blow away in the wind.

Eventually:

This is the first story.

I’ve got this friend Joëlle, right? She moved in when I was seven. She was ten—a big kid. Only she wasn’t much bigger than me. Bruised knees and these huge, haunted eyes. Mom made sure she got an extra slice of pizza at our first sleepover, that’s how skinny she was when she arrived.

Her Hands like Ice

First attempt:

When my sister rose for the third time, we called the vampire-hunter.

He came in the stillness between afternoon and dusk: that suspended, grey time that happens only in winter. From the forest he came, shouldering a leather pack, and he went straight to the inn. There, by the smouldering hearth, he spread a cloth over the scarred taproom table and opened a glossy walnut box with hinged lid. In the firelight, the wood gleamed, and his onlookers—the entire village, it felt like—pressed closer.

Eventually:

The hands of the vampire-hunter move like spiders, and I hate them. They creep over our kitchen table, avoiding the plates of sausage and country bread my mother has laid out. They scuttle along the sides of a polished walnut case. Quick fingers, sly fingers—they lift belts and let brass buckles fall with a clink, clink, clink. They ease the lid up. Inside, his tools rest on velvet the colour of old blood. My mother chokes on a gasp; my father will not look.

*

You get the point. Sometimes, vestiges of an early attempt survive, but really, it takes me a while to figure out the tune.

Worth remembering, as I flail about with this novel…

ALSO:

My friend Lauren Harris recently revealed the cover of her upcoming YA urban fantasy UNLEASH.

Check out more details and pre-order here!

KT

What I’m Listening to This Week

Even after all these years, I have a soft spot for the French horn. Here, I love the dialogue between the horn (basses supporting) and the rest of the orchestra, especially the building tension around the 1:30 mark. Also, those devastating accidentals around 2:20.

And it’s Mozart. Of course it’s exquisitely well put-together.

Fancy Desks and Kitchen Tables

“When I am fabulously wealthy,” I tell myself, “I shall buy the fanciest of desks.”

After all, I am a writer. My desk is my ship’s bridge, my nest, and my second home. Nor am I alone in pondering my desk. Most writers tend to be a little finicky about their work setup. Sometimes it’s rooted in superstition—if I have the right workspace, I will make the right words. Sometimes, it’s sheer, Pavlovian habit—when I sit in this spot, with the light so and the music thus, the words come.

Here are some of the desks that I tell myself I would buy, if I had the money.


Big, solid desks, with strong lines. Dark woods, heavy woods. Historical flair, though that shouldn’t be surprising. Ample storage space.

That last one is important for me. I need space to spread out. There are plenty of secretary desks out there that would be sufficient for my laptop, but not the stack of notes, papers, and books.

Drawers are important too: for pens and pencils, scissors and business cards, vitally important records and the pieces of paper that aren’t quite as important, but that I’ll probably need close to hand. Bonus points if the desk comes with a secret drawer.

So that’s my ideal desk: enormous, historic, handsome wood, lots of drawers.

Here is my current desk:

It’s actually a really good desk. I’ve had it since I moved out from my parents’, so maybe…five years, almost? It’s a solid wooden desk with sufficient storage space, but what makes it a really good desk is the top.

The top, you see, did not come with the desk. It is a massive, heavy, beautifully treated piece of wood that we placed atop the desk. It’s not connected or anything. No nails, no screws, no joining. It’s just so heavy that it sits there without moving. Mostly I forget that it’s a separate piece.

When I dream of super fancy desks, I’m mostly just indulging in idle dreams of luxury. Because here is the ironic thing—

I don’t write at my desk.

Or, to be more precise, I don’t draft at my desk.

I write blog posts at my desk. I handle correspondence and social media from my desk. Research, essays, audio, video, and prose editing…that all happens here. But drafting fiction?

Nearly all of the Creepy Play and Sing to the Bones were written on my couch. Most of my short fiction has been written either in odd corners of Tennessean cabins, or at my kitchen table.

I don’t write at my desk.

Sometimes, I wonder why that is. It might well be a mental thing. Writing at the kitchen table or the couch implies that we’re just messing around, it’s not Serious For Real Writing, and thus my inner critic shuts up. I’d say there’s an element of physical comfort, but I wrote “The Love it Bears Fair Maidens” variously half-lying on a bed and scrunched on one end of a couch.

(I realize that’s not terribly ergonomic. I promise that I do try to avoid the injuries that come with the writing life. Mostly.)

We may become superstitious about our workspaces, but we don’t need much, do we? Just a place to sit or stand, and a place to rest a notebook or laptop. That’s it. And there is something special about those late nights at the kitchen table—when it’s just you and the words, spinning whole worlds from memory and dream. Maybe the connection feels easier to grasp with bare hands.

After all…it doesn’t really matter where you write, as long as you are writing.

But one day, I’m buying that desk.

-KT

What I’m Listening To This Week

You thought we were done with madrigals, didn’t you? Hahaha, no. Here’s another piece from our good friend Thomas Morley. It gets me in a spring-like mood—about time, after this last burst of winter.

Particular things I dig: the drum like a skipping heartbeat under the flute, and the harmonies around the “fa la la la’s.” The parts don’t weave around each other as in other examples from this period—but it’s still delightful.

Writing Darkness

So the big thing this week is that I finished the second draft of the Creepy Play: my Southern (Ontario) Gothic family tragedy. And you guys, there was one night—I was expanding a scene between the mother and her adult daughter. Remember, this play is an angst-fest. The mother is a roiling, toxic pit of darkness, and her daughter’s an angry, hurt young woman who can be a) the most gentle, genuinely caring person in the play, or b)  casually crueller than anyone else.

The Creepy Play in a nutshell. I have looked for the artist, but cannot find a name. If you come across it, let me know!

Anyway, the scene was rolling along, but then I had to step back. I stumbled to my couch, squished in beside Guinness, and I cried.

Not because I’m a delicate flower. But because I understood the mother’s darkness. I understood her daughter’s anger. I saw what made these broken, anguished people the way they are.

“Autumn Evening,” Eilif Peterssen (1878)

And of course, it isn’t real. No more than a dream is. But it is distressing nonetheless, and so I wanted to talk about self-care when writing difficult scenes.

Except that a listicle feels trite. “Have a hot shower!” “Listen to comforting music!” “Read fluff!” Hopefully, you already know that.

(For the record: I listened to a lot of Anglican/Gregorian chant while writing the Creepy Play—I needed the familiar tone and repetitive tunes to stay grounded.)

So.

Sometimes, we have to look into the darkness. I’m not only talking about creative-types, here. Sometimes, we all have to do it. We need to shine a light into the furthest corners of our heads—and not look away. It’s hard.  No one likes seeing the darkness smile back when they look in the mirror.

“If all that’s inside me…what does that say about me?”

It says that humans are complex creatures, and we are all a mix of wonderful, noble, loving tendencies and awful, cruel, damaging ones. The best way to grapple with the darkness, I think, is to understand it. Not glorifying it; not revelling in it – but understanding.

And to do that, we need to enter it. Safely, carefully—this is where the hot showers and comforting music come in.

It’s really hard.

So what do we gain, doing it?

Connection, I think. Empathy. The ability to look at that hurt, angry young woman and say, “Yes, I can feel that too.”After all, the darkness is always worse when you don’t know what’s in it.

The trick is remembering to keep hold of the light. This has been a deeply uncomfortable play to write, and there will be another draft—but I know I’m better for having written it. I hope it serves its eventual audience, too.

Onwards…

-KT

What I’m Listening to This Week

For ages, I’ve been noodling the idea of borrowing polyphonic principles for my fiction. The climax of the Creepy Play is basically written that way: voices in counterpoint with each other, passing the melody back and forth, emphasizing certain phrases and motifs against each other…

Vivaldi isn’t precisely polyphony, but this section from his Gloria is what I was thinking of. Listen to the parts enter one by one, different ideas emerging to prominence and then sinking again (especially the tenors around 0:50, mirrored by the altos while the basses take the melody back). It’s a single whole—that interplay fascinates me.

 

 

Victorian Writing Advice

Okay. Wow. Hi. I just spent the last week performing for six hours a day in the museum’s Sherlock Holmes program. It was incredibly fun, and also very taxing—both physically and mentally. But hey, it’s over, so life should settle down somewhat.

Besides that, I was reading The Ladies’ Guide to True Politeness and Perfect Manners: or, Miss Leslie’s behaviour book, written by Miss Eliza Leslie and published in various editions from 1839 onwards (I had the 1864 edition). And guess what?

It has advice for authors!

“Jo Seated on the Old Sofa,” by Norman Rockwell (1938).
I feel an immense kinship with this painting…

I sat there reading and shaking my head—because it’s more-or-less the same advice we get today. I greatly enjoy the image of hoop-skirted young ladies eagerly setting about preparing their manuscripts. Because of course, I did the same (minus the hoop skirt). Some things don’t change—wannabe writers are one of them, apparently.

I’ve pulled out some choice tidbits. Enjoy!

Chapter XX: Conduct to Literary Women

“On being introduced to a female writer, it is rude to say that “you have long had a great curiosity to see her.” Curiosity is not the right word. It is polite to imply that, “knowing her well by reputation, you are glad to have an opportunity of making her personal acquaintance.”

Still good advice for conventions, I think.

 

“When in company with literary women, make no allusions to ‘learned ladies’ or ‘blue stockings,’ or express surprise that they should have any knowledge of housewifery, or needle-work, or dress; or that they are able to talk on ‘common things.’ It is rude and foolish, and shows that you really know nothing about them, either as a class or as individuals.”

Admittedly, I don’t get this much. But it is interesting to place it in historical context—Miss Leslie is trying really hard to show that authoresses are women, too!

 

“Recollect that to a woman who gets her living by her pen, ‘time is money,’ as it is to an artist. Therefore, encroaching on her time is lessening her income.”

Yep. I love people. I love socializing. But yep.

 

“Long manuscripts are frequently sent for the revisal ‘at leisure’ of a person who has little or no leisure. Yet in the intervals of toiling for herself, she is expected to toil for some one else; probably for a stranger whom she does not know, in whom she can take no interest, and who has evidently ‘no writing in her soul.’ If, however, the modest request is kindly complied with, in all probability to the corrections will only give offence, and may perhaps be crossed out before the manuscript is offered to the publisher, who very likely may reject it for want of these very corrections.”

Something tells me Miss Leslie has personal experience with this. Something tells me that many modern-day authors do as well.

Writing Girl by W. Gramatté, c. 1920:

“Writing Girl,” by W. Gramatté (ca. 1920). Wrong time period, but I like the image. 🙂

Chapter XXI: Suggestions to Inexperienced Authors

“Before you commence your manuscript, take a quire, and prepare each sheet by splitting it all down the folded side, with a sharp paper-cutter, thus dividing it into half-sheets. You can do this better on a flat table than on the slope of a desk. Keep your left hand pressing down hard on the quire, while you are cutting it with your right.”

Scrivener? Microsoft Word? WordPerfect? An app on your iThing? Whatever you use, just remember—at least we don’t have to prepare our own writing paper anymore.

 

“The printers will gladly dispense with covers, ribbons, and fairy-like penmanship, in favour of a plain legible hand, pages regularly numbered, and leaves written on one side only.”

No coloured paper, no extra fills, no fancy fonts. Standard manuscript format, my friends.

 

“If the publisher lives in your own town, it will be sufficient to roll up the manuscript in clean white paper, twisted at each end, and wafered in the middle. But however short the distance, write on the outside of the paper the full direction of the publishing office; that, in case of its being dropped in the street, any person finding it may know exactly where to take it.”

The thought of a Victorian urchin finding a rolled-up manuscript in the street, reading the address, and hustling it off to the appropriate publisher’s just makes me happy. And also glad for electronic submissions.

 

“Keep a memorandum-book for the express purpose of setting down whatever relates to your literary affairs. Insert the day when you commenced a manuscript, the day when you finished it, and the day on which it went to the publisher.”

Still good advice. I have an Excel spreadsheet.

 

“If the printer’s boy can wait, you had best correct the proofs while he stays.”

Of course. What else is the printer’s boy doing? This was the very last sentence in the two chapters concerning literary etiquette—and it strikes me as quintessentially Victorian.

See? Kinship!

And now – more rewrites on the Creepy Play!

-KT

What I’m Listening to This Week

Tchaikovsky this week—the “Hymn of the Cherubim.” It’s a slow, heavy progression of chords, with the darkness and richness that I associate with much Russian choral music. Until the sopranos have a glorious surge around 2:30. A little disquieting, but very beautiful.

Degrees and Kinds: On Writers and English Majors

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)

History (specialist)

I realize that’s only four. For the life of me, I cannot remember the fifth—but I know it was there.

Me, sometime around third year.

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?

“Baking Bread,” Helen Allingham (date unknown).
This painting makes me very happy because it has a bake oven, and Victorian rural kitchens have become intensely familiar and comforting to me. You will note many such kitchens in my fiction.

So for me, as a writer, History was infinitely more helpful than English.

However—

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…

Okay, so.

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.

I developed “the cut-glass voice.” (Image courtesy: http://www.rubylane.com)

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.

-KT

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…