It is that time again! This weekend, I will be in Ottawa for Can-Con: the Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature. This is one of my very favourite cons, and I’m excited for stellar programming, good friends, and lively conversations.
What’s my schedule for the weekend? I’m glad you asked!
8:00 pm: Alternate History Live Challenge (Charlotte Ashley, Anatoly Belilovsky, Me, Mike Rimar, and Matthew Johnson)
9:00 pm: The Fantasy Author’s Guide to Beer (Me)
3:00 pm: Writing Games: It’s Big Literature Now (Geoff Gander, Kate Heartfield, M. Elizabeth Marshall, Me Moderating)
7:00 pm: Readings (Me, David Nickle, Kate Story)
8:00 pm: Asexual Identities (Andrew Barton, S.M. Carriere, Dianna Gunn, Kelsi Morris, Me Moderating)
IDK, we should probably get the organizers some coffee and pastries.
In Ottawa that weekend? Come say hi, and hang out with cool people! Also, today is Canadian Thanksgiving, and I am thankful for all of you!
What I’m Listening to this Week
This piece kind of reminds me of high school. But also, it fits the feel/mood/emotion of the novel. I have always loved how the solo voice comes in with the main motif around 2:45—and promptly catches at 3:05.
It all started with that damn table.
We have a table that we use for performances. It’s big. Solid wood. Pretty heavy, but I could shift it myself, which made me proud. “Stronger than I look.” “Wiry muscles.” “I can do it.”
Until suddenly, I couldn’t.
Then I started getting a feeling like standing on the edge of the high dive: pounding heart and shortened breath. Only I’d be reading a book on my couch, Guinness curled at my feet.
“I think you may have a bit of anxiety,” my doctor said.
But that damn table. That damn table kept getting heavier. During shows, my breath control shook like a faulty foundation. I couldn’t switch from sprinting around the stage to strolling on singing. I had a blood test done and got so tired that I crashed a friend’s house to steal a half-hour nap between work and choir.
Most importantly: I couldn’t write. Oh, I’d try. I’d sit down with an outline and a heap of images and an idea of where I wanted the story to go, but the words came out like mud: ugly and thick. I know what it’s like to soar on story, and I was barely crawling.
And so I felt very bad about myself.
I said some not-very-nice things to myself.
I called my mom a lot.
Then the doctor called with entirely unsurprising news. Anaemia. Again. Though my iron stores are not objectively low, apparently I kind of suck at making blood.
But more than that—I think I burnt myself out. Too many late nights. Too little recovery time. Too much weight on my shoulders; too much stress that I’d simply swallowed down until my body said, “F*** you, f*** this, I quit.”
So I made an agreement with myself: a week off. Any previously booked appointments and commitments, I’d do, but nothing else. No writing, no submitting, no worrying about writing. Just reading, music, and early bedtimes. At that point, I was desperate enough to try anything.
We’re nearing the end of that week, and it’s been…hard. In creative and freelance careers, busy-ness is next to godliness. We must always be working. Always eager for more. If we cannot—if we cannot produce, if we buckle under the constant strain—we take it as a sign that our secret fears are true—we are not tough enough for this vocation. We may as well go home.
It’s easy to call shenanigans on that when someone else is going through it. It’s a lot harder when it’s you.
As I’ve said before: in order to have a long, fulfilling creative life, we need to not die in the process. Sometimes that means sharpening the saw. Taking a week off. Getting one’s health in order.
You cannot create if you are dead or dying.
And yes, I’m still working on it. Honestly, the sense of failure is hard to shake. “I did nothing this week! I’m not a real writer! I’m falling behind!” But at the same time, taking time now can save time later on. Along with making the road more pleasant. I hear treks are easier when one has sufficient red blood cells.
So I’m taking care of my creative life by taking care of myself. And pretty soon—
I’ll be moving that damn table, all by myself.
What I’m Listening to this Week
I’ve been listening to this young man for a while: boy sopranos like this don’t come along very often. His voice is doing some really interesting things as it matures. The distinctive treble “ring” may be gone—but it’s getting the unearthly, uncanny quality of a good countertenor (especially in the lower register), and the mezzo notes are exquisite.
In any case, hats off to a very fine musician!
I have just returned from three days’ camping along Georgian Bay. It was stunningly beautiful landscape and a much-needed break, but now I am exhausted. As such, no real post this week: just some pictures and a very special “What I’m Listening to this Week.”
What I’m Listening to this Week
“Wanderer’s Lullaby,” by Adriana Figueroa, is a gently lilting piece based on a music box theme. The lyrics are perhaps a little self-indulgent, but they are also exactly what I needed to hear this week.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Toronto’s green spaces: the ravines, the parklands, the rivers. Partly, it’s novel research. But also, it’s keeping me grounded. Rooted, if you will. (Terrible pun. Sorry, not sorry.)
Over the past few months, I’ve realized something. When I move through the urban streetscape, it’s a very visually oriented experience. Yes, traffic rumbles and horns honk and the stoplights all have auditory signals, but I’m mostly relying on my eyes. And it goes without saying that this is my experience: someone differently sighted will have an entirely different way of interacting with the city.
But in the ravines and along the ponds, I rely on my ears much more. Rustling leaves and sudden splashes, birdsong and squirrel yells—that’s how I put together the thousand tiny dramas unfolding all around me. Sight comes later: you hear a plaintive warbling, then spy the baby bird in a hollow tree. Catch the whisper of a cattail blowing the wrong way, then notice the frog chilling in its shadow.
Really, though, it’s all the senses working together. Except taste. As lovely as the ravines are, it’s probably not a good idea to lick anything you find in them. Digression aside, the trees become a sort of tapestry around you, with eye, ear, nose, and touch all working together to create a living, holistic picture of what’s happening.
It humbles you. To become part of that scene, you need to become part of the scenery, too. And so, you must become quiet. You must become still. You must get outside your own head and worries and actually notice the chipmunk and squirrel staring each other down in the branches above.
I’m not articulating this well, but—it’s like moving from first-person to third-person. We aren’t the centre of the universe, in the woods. We’re one more drama, one more set of noises. And when you start to let go of all the preoccupations—when you actually listen—the details start emerging more and more quickly, like stars coming out in the evening. First one, then another, and another.
Lurking frog. Dragonfly landing on water lily. Fish cruising in its shadow.
And it occurs to me that writing can be the same way. Writing isn’t about us, the authors. It’s about the stories. But I think, like people blustering through the woods, scattering birds and breaking branches, we sometimes get so caught up in ourselves that we can’t hear what the story is doing. We can’t become part of it because we are so focused on ourselves: the Writer.
So we need to become quiet, still, and get outside our own heads. Actually listen to the story: that sure little voice inside, persistent as birdsong.
For me, if I can get into the headspace I find in the ravines—calm and open, joyful and humbled—I think the writing should start to pick up. I hope so, anyway.
What I’m Listening to this Week
“Jauchzet dem Herren,” by Heinrich Schütz. We’re doing it in choir soon, but it’s been in my regular listening rotation for a few years. I like double-choir pieces, where one choir answers another or follows the first like a round. Seeing how they fit together is immensely satisfying, and you get this super exciting building effect from the echoes.
I had an epiphany this week: no one cares that I have an MFA.
Another epiphany immediately followed: no one should care.
It all sounds much more dramatic than it was, really. Sometimes after shows, visitors ask us, “So…did you, like, go to school for this or something?”
“I went to theatre school!” inevitably draws admiring murmurs and follow-up questions. “I have my Masters in Creative Writing!” not so much.
It’s a silly thing. I hate the small, venomous part of me that bristles at it. But you know what? We all have our vanities and our arrogances, and I want to be honest. It is such a silly thing, but sometimes it really sucks.
What helps is remembering why I got an MFA. I didn’t get it for glory. I got it so that I could become a better writer. No other reason. Degrees and workshops and grants are all very nice—but having them isn’t what matters. What matters is what you do with them.
Forging new opportunities.
And writing isn’t full of much glamour anyway. We tend to be paid last and least. We’re generally the silent partner, drafting proposals in the basement. Like good sound editing, good writing is often invisible, which doesn’t help if you’re after recognition.
GOBLIN 1: The Snow Queen doesn’t make any sense without goblins. We’ve got the most important part: there’s no story without us.
GOBLIN 2: But after this, we’re never seen again. No glory, no thanks, no nothing!
GOBLIN 1: It could be worse. (Pause) We could be playwrights.
The Snow Queen: a Pantomime, by Me (2016).
So if not for fame and fortune, why write?
Because we must; because we’re artists. But I’m not going to say, “Forget external validation.” That’s not realistic; most humans like praise. When you’ve worked really hard on something—put your heart and soul into it—pulled off the impossible on sheer grit and nerve—of course you want a clap on the back. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But to counterbalance that craving, we need an even stronger core of self-assurance and self-knowledge. Because the praise won’t always come. The kudos won’t. The appreciative murmurs won’t. And when that happens, an inner, steely kernel will keep you going. That’s your compass: external validation is a nice boost, but you don’t want to steer by it.
At the end of the day…yeah, I have a hungry ego. And I’ve worked to temper it, because it doesn’t have any place in the creative process. What good is praise and validation if you don’t value what you do? “Believe in yourself” sounds so cliché, but if you don’t, who will?
I think it’s one of the hardest things we face, as artists. Putting the mitts back on, wiping our faces, and striding out into the silent ring. But if you can know—if you can know, deep down—that what you’re doing is good and worthwhile—
Then the fight is already won.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I found “Dacw ‘Nghariad” by accident and immediately became obsessed. It’s one of those pieces that make stories flash before your eyes. Pretty sure this is a lullaby for my new novel’s protagonist… Of course, she’s not Welsh, but we’ll forget about that for now.
This week, I kicked a few more pieces of the new novel into place, which felt good. It’s at a peculiar stage: I know the general plot arc, but I’m not ready to start writing. Partly, I need to know the characters better. But also, there’s more substance and under-the-surface thinking I need to figure out.
It felt too superficial. A colourful facade with nothing beneath. And so, I’ve been continuing my research: not only delving into Toronto history, but also theories of the Gothic and the sublime.
Including this roundtable on Southern Ontario Gothic!
Coles’ notes: Southern Ontario Gothic blends realism with terror, generally through explorations of family dysfunction, decay, decrepitude, and repressed trauma. In Southern Ontario. The conversation is well worth watching in full, especially for its characterization of Canada as a haunted country, which suggests a way to reconcile some artistic problems I’ve been having.
I was particularly struck by Jane Urquhart. First of all, because she reminds me of Elizabeth Hand—slightly in mannerism; greatly in her razor intelligence.
But also, because of this:
I think that, as an author, I write about what intrigues me, and then it’s later that somebody else decides that whether or not I’m part of some kind of movement.
The genre was handed to the writer. The writer did not think to him or herself—“I know, I’m going to write something in the Southern Ontario Gothic genre.” I don’t think writers think like that. They don’t invent genres.
It was interesting. It’s not even that I necessarily disagree with her—I just want to explore these ideas further.
I think there is often a bumblebee-doesn’t-know-it-can’t-fly phenomenon going on with the development of new literature. Look at steampunk: K.W. Jeter only coined the term after he, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock had produced early examples of it. And once you have a name for something, once you have tropes—that’s when the family resemblances start appearing in subsequent works, whether the author intended them or not.
So what about when the genre is already established? I mean, the Creepy Play was initially code-named “Southern Ontario Gothic.” I wrote the script knowing exactly which genre it was.
But then—as Urquhart said, the genre was handed to the writer. I didn’t fit the story to the genre; I fit the genre to the story. (“Oh, wow, this is a dysfunctional family shot through with degeneration and repression—in Southern Ontario—I think I know what shelf this goes on!” rather than, “I want to write SOG, so I’d better build a family on the brink of collapse…”)
Going further with the bumblebee theory, I know some writers who refuse to read anything in their genre, for fear of contamination. For me, though—I fall back on my Stonecoast training. If you’re writing a Gothic novel, you read other Gothic novels. You read the early ones; you read the most recent; you read the literary criticism surrounding them. It’s important to understand where the genre came from, how it developed, and what people are saying now. Because it’s a dialogue—and you’re part of it. How can you contribute if you don’t know what’s been said before?
As for writing what intrigues me—I’m intrigued by the haunted, the degenerate, the many shades of family dysfunction. I’m intrigued by the liminal space between realism and the fantastic: the place where the worlds cross. I’m intrigued by the mountain of CanLit I’ve consumed this year: but I want to add magic.
So no—I don’t think (most) writers set out to create genres. But I think it is useful to have some idea of what you’re working with; what you intend to do. It’s like painting: tempera, oils, and watercolours all behave differently, and they all create different effects.
Perhaps we don’t name the movement. But surely, we imagine its form and colours…
What I’m Listening to This Week
I cycled back to a lovely Scottish-Gaelic piece. There’s still something about this music that makes me want to write all the things…
I’m tired, and depleted, and there is so very much to be done. But in fairness, it’s not wholly unexpected; this is a transitional period. Heavy lifting and shifting ground comes with the territory. As my mom put it, it’s like a monkey swinging through jungle: you can’t let go of the old vine until you have the new firmly in hand.
(Well, you can—I have done in the past—but you have to accept the risk of falling.)
I’m mostly just whining, to be honest. Because I’m uncomfortable, because I’m tired. But I keep telling myself that things will be better on the other side—I just have to get there.
I have noticed one thing, though: this whole past week, I’ve been yearning to find a secluded cabin and stuff myself with art. Paintings. Books. Music. Preferably surrounded by woods and lakes, with no people around. Introvert heaven.
Which is how I know I’m tired. It’s the spiritual/creative equivalent of my anaemia-driven oyster cravings. This is my subconscious’ way of trying to replenish the energy I’ve put out.
And so I’ve taken some concrete steps (I believe in taking concrete steps). In a month’s time, I’m heading north to Georgian Bay for some trees, water, and dark starry skies. Only for a long weekend, but I’ll take what I can get.
In the meantime, I’ve been stuffing myself with art. Late last week, I took a rare day off. I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite refuges. (The knot in my chest dissolved within minutes of entering the galleries.) It was a fairly short excursion; I mostly wanted to see my favourite paintings and splurge on fancy espresso.
But I did play a little game. Sometimes when I’m learning about my characters, I take them to museums. That is, I wander museums and I let them chatter quietly in the background. What’s familiar to them, what’s weird, what are they drawn to?
For instance, I like Victorian Romanticism and Impressionism, like this:
My protagonist very quickly decided she likes twentieth-century abstract art: “The ones that look broken, but aren’t.”
So I suppose I was working even while off, but I know her better now. I’m not ready to start writing this novel yet, but we’re getting closer…
Then I explored the new Grange Park (gorgeous) and hit the library to restock on books (more CanLit, plus a collection of Octavia Butler shorts).
While I feel vaguely guilty for not working in the midst of so much happening, these are the things which keep me going. They give me enough energy to get through the woods, grab the next vine.
This feels like a turning point. I just need to hold on a while longer.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Back with my pal Handel, and the “Amen” chorus from the end of Messiah. I’ve been absentmindedly singing this all week, albeit with the words to the Sanctus. Not sure what’s happening there.
In any case, enjoy the supporting strings and percussion, along with the graceful dance between the vocal lines. The tenors have a particularly beautiful moment around the 2:19 mark. And at the very end— no uses expectant silence like Handel!
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:
So, I had a post all written about the existential anxiety caused by the threat of nuclear war.
But then, this tweet…
…became only the second-worst thing to happen last week.
There have been so many words of fury and mourning spoken about the events in Charlottesville, but I’ll add mine anyway. Through Saturday, I alternated between cold anger and heartbrokenness.
Three people are dead. That it happened in Virginia heightened my emotions – if I have adopted any state, it’s Virginia – but really, it would’ve been equally reprehensible in any state.
This is 2017. We should not be tolerating Nazis. We should not be apologists for them. We should not even see them. The world fought a war about that very fact. It was this whole entire thing.
And my anger spins into froth because – have they learned nothing? Do they have no awareness? How does one read the diary of Anne Frank – look at the photos of mountains upon mountains of shoes – listen to survivors’ interviews and testimony – visit concentration camps – and not see that this is evil? How does one see that evil and embrace it anyway?
There are no two sides to this. There is the side of evil and that of right. Right is not always polite. It is not always tender or gentle. Sometimes it is loud and uncomfortable, because right is brave, always.
A vague cop-out about “all sides” is cowardice that makes my stomach turn.
“We want to preserve what we have,” says neo-Nazi Peter Cjvetanovic. And yes, unwittingly, he laid it all out. They want to preserve a system which favours them and them alone. They want to maintain their privilege and overpowering voice. They want to stay at the top, even if they must crush everyone else to do it.
Based on the widespread condemnation, I hope – desperately – that we are seeing the spasmodic death throes of a way of life that is passing. The dinosaurs must have raged too, when they saw the night falling.
The events of this weekend are indeed America. They could be Canada, too. They are the result of decades of ossified racism, misogyny, and inequality. But this is not who we must be. We know who we want to be – let us work harder than ever to get there.
“In spite of everything,” Anne Frank wrote, “I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
I believe that too. Now let us prove it.
And let us not fall into nuclear war, either.
What I’m Listening to This Week
A long one this week: I’ve just been running Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame while I work. It’s a 14th century polyphonic mass, and it is gorgeous. The way the parts fit together is so different from my usual Renaissance polyphony—and I love the ornamental quavers so very, very much.
It’s been a hard week for writing. Don’t get me wrong: lots of writing is happening. But there are so many different projects going on, I struggled to steal a few hours to write a short story. And then, when I finally sat down at my computer, the words wouldn’t come. I wrestled it like Jacob with the angel, eked out 1500 words, decided they were terrible, started again and got 1400…
And I’m back to square one.But I also think I have sorted out what’s wrong with the story. You see, I had to remind myself of two major lessons this past week…
This is a lesson I’ve been learning from my dive into CanLit. Alice Munro does this incredibly well. A woman goes to meet a man in Stratford, and it’s devastating. A young girl kissed a pilot decades ago, and your heart breaks. They’re plots that loop back upon themselves, layering in backstory and inferences. And these small, mundane tragedies, once magnified, become absolutely epic.
Similarly, I finished Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel yesterday. In simplest terms, an old woman flees into the woods and remembers her life.
You guys, I cried so much.
Narrowed focus. Details that catch and tear like fish-hooks. These are stories that dive deeper and closer, spiralling like a Mandelbrot set.
That’s what I want to explore. For now, anyway.
You can only write your stories.
Of course, when the thread of the story snapped, I threw myself into a tailspin. Obviously, the problem was me. My story doesn’t have the gut-wrenching emotion of Keri Hulme. Or the intellectual depth of Theodora Goss. Or the hypnotic quality of Cat Valente. Or the weirdness of Kelly Link, or the sheer storytelling oomph of Kij Johnson, or the beautiful cruelty/cruel beauty of Aimee Bender.
Of course it doesn’t. I’m not those writers.
I’m KT Bryski. Whatever I write has to come from me. In the end, it has to be my voice, my heart, my story.
And I thought: what did I write, before the stress and tension took hold? What did I write before I was afraid? What did I write when no one was watching?
I went back to one of my few pre-Stonecoast short stories: “After the Winds,” in When the Hero Comes Home Vol. II. Guess what I found?
A northern village.
The yearning for home.
Motifs of breaking free, healing, and finding one’s place.
It was all there. Those are the things that constitute the heart of me. While I’d do some things differently now, it was good to see that, really—I know who I am. I know what matters to me. It’s all there inside: I just need to trust it.
And so I’d add…
Keep Going.Go smaller.
Tell your stories.
We got this.
What I’m Listening to this Week
“Vale Decem” from Doctor Who, because the following line from “The End of Time” popped into my head:
This song is ending, but the story never ends.
This is a transitional time. Some songs are ending, which is painful and exhausting. But the story—the story never ends. Also, add an extra 10 points to this piece for an ethereal countertenor.