I was getting ready to go out when the news of Ursula K. Le Guin’s passing broke across my Twitter. An odd little noise slipped my mouth—somewhere between an “Oh!” and a gasp. Then I burst into tears.
I rarely cry at public figures’ deaths. (The Queen is an exception—I guarantee you, I will cry when the Queen goes to her rest.) But Ursula K. Le Guin is different. She isn’t just a “public figure,” or even just “an American novelist.” She was one of the greats: a lodestar around which to orient.
Over the past week, many people have written many touching tributes. I can really only flail and sputter, “But—but—but—Le Guin!” But I’d like to point out something interesting about this whole writing thing.
You can apprentice with any damn writer you like. Putting your words—your brain-stuff—into print creates a certain kind of immortality. And if you’ve got an author’s words, you can learn from them. In an odd, beautiful way, we can dialogue with the dead.
This is what people mean when they ask, “So who are your influences?” Who shaped you, who spoke to you, who made your heart sing, who taught you?
Who are you arguing with?
Who are you writing back to?
Who do you secretly (or not-so-secretly) want to impress? To connect with?
Over time, I think, we build an inner gallery of teachers. Sometimes, we’ve actually worked with them (I have internalized several Stonecoast mentors’ voices—hi, Jim!).
But sometimes, we’ve come to know them through their words alone. I never met Le Guin. In the back of my head, I maybe hoped we’d one time stand in the same room, but it seemed kind of like hoping to catch a comet.
So I read her fiction and loved her fiction. It made me look at things differently and re-evaluate not only my writing, but my life, my baseline assumptions about the world’s workings. Like all good teachers, she challenged and prodded and pushed me further than I thought we’d go.
But beyond her fiction—it was this particular book.
The Language of the Night is a collection of essays about science fiction and fantasy, theory and craft. It is one of my personal Foundation Texts, underpinning the way I understand fantasy.
Now, the kind of writing I am attacking, the Poughkeepsie style of fantasy…is a fake plainness. It is not really simple, but flat. It is not really clear, but inexact. Its directness is specious. Its sensory cues—extremely important in imaginative writing—are vague and generalized; the rocks, the wind, the trees are not there; are not felt; the scenery is cardboard, or plastic. The tone as a whole is profoundly inappropriate to the subject. (Le Guin, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.”)
When the genuine myth rises into consciousness, that is always its message. You must change your life. (Le Guin, “Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction.”)
For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life that they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom. (Le Guin, “Why Are Americans Afraid Of Dragons?”)
You see it, right? In her essays, she’s doing precisely the same thing she did in her fiction. She is challenging us. She is pushing us past the solar system’s last orbit, into the vast wealth of interstellar space beyond; from the shallows to the open sea; to what feels comfortable to what is Truth.
She did that not just for us writers individually, but for the genre as a whole. She lifted speculative fiction to what it could and must be; the thing we were too timid to dream until she showed us how.
So now we’ve lost our lodestar. But we have her map, in the form of her words. There’s only one thing to do, really. Keep going. That’s what any teacher wants, in the end: for their students to drift free and explore past the edges of the map.
Thank you, Ursula K. Le Guin. You will always be our teacher.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I love Vivaldi, and I’m absolutely fascinated with this piece. The title’s a total spoiler, but I was researching female tenor/basses for reasons, and I can’t stop listening!
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.
This is a difficult post to write. It’s painful and awkward, and potentially upsetting. Which is also why it’s important.
This year is “Canada’s 150th birthday.” It’s the sesquicentennial of “our nation’s birth.” Break out the beavertails, deck yourself with maple leaves, and bask politely in our universal health care and handsome prime minister, eh?
This is complicated.
I’m going to start with the simplest quibbles first and work my way up. On a purely historic, pedantic note, “Canada” was an entity long before 1867. Europeans have been calling it that since the 1530s. Indigenous populations were here millennia before that. This is the 150th anniversary of the British North America Act taking effect, that’s all.
That’s just me being persnickety. Let’s move on to the hard stuff.
We have a reputation, we Canadians. We’re polite. We apologize a lot. We’re tolerant, diverse; we value multiculturalism.
Look, there’s no easy way to say this: we treat Indigenous peoples appallingly, and we have for well over 150 years.
I’m not even sure where to start. With residential schools? With broken treaties? With erasure from the historical narrative? The effing garbage-fire of that “Appropriation Award” controversy? Repeated drinking-water crises on Canadian reserves? Epidemics of suicides? The 1,181 indigenous women murdered and missing between 1980 and 2012? The fact that those are only the documented cases?
And it’s not just in the past. It’s not just something that happened in 1867, or 1787, or 1653, or 1535. We’re not done. It isn’t over because it’s 2017: the same history plays out again, and again, and again. How could we be over it, when our country rests on the foundation of such a colonial legacy?
Add another layer of complexity: generally speaking, I’m happy to be Canadian. It’s in every bio I write. “KT Bryski is a Canadian author and playwright…” There are many things that Canada does well. We’ve a lot to be proud of.
But we’re also this:
And hey, while we’re at it, we’re also this:
And yet, we are also these things:
And I don’t know. I don’t have answers. I don’t have suggestions. All I have is a thorny mass of conflicted feelings that I’ve been trying to sort through for over a year.
But perhaps there are two things to consider:
Canada tells itself that we are pluralistic. Our ideal nation-self is one which contains multitudes.
Then perhaps – does “all of the above” get closer to an answer? Can multiple Canadas coexist simultaneously? Can I have strong ties and affection for my country, whilst also being ashamed of its cruelties and failures?
Because Canada does have things of immense beauty and kindness. It also has many things which are horrific beyond words. There is light – I do believe that – but we’ve clung to our “sunny ways” for so long, we have failed to acknowledge and remedy our darkness.
And to even begin to do that, we need to do the very thing that, historically, we suck at.
We need to listen.
Listen. Own it. Listen some more. Repeat.
Happy Canada Day.
What I’m Listening to this Week
A remixed English folk ballad, because reasons. Here’s “The Three Ravens,” which kind of forgets about the ravens halfway through and becomes an allegory instead. You know, as a lot of old English poetry does.
But there’s some beautiful harmonies that remind me vaguely of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. I’m slowly starting to ponder a novel – and I suspect I’ll be listening to this song much more in the coming months.
Okay, pals, let’s have some real talk. I wasn’t going to post this, but I think I need to get it out, and I can’t think of a better forum.
I doubt it caused any ripples, but I have been spending the last two weeks sitting quietly by myself. Basically, I got overwhelmed, and my response to being overwhelmed is to withdraw and shut up. The root wasn’t deadlines or workloads or anything. It was this immense pressure that I put on myself:
WRITE ALL THE THINGS. APPLY FOR ALL THE THINGS. LAUNCH ALL THE THINGS.
For obvious reasons (chiefly, I’m not a perpetual motion machine), I couldn’t.
And then I felt awful.
And then I went away to sit by myself.
Honestly, the worst part has been feeling like I’ve been letting people down. My creative partner. My mentors. My friends. I’ve joked that my creative ventures are predicated on making certain people proud…but deep down, it’s not really a joke, is it?
Rationally, I know—I know—the need for external validation is deadly. The drive has to come from inside. At the end of the day, the internal engine is the only one upon which you can rely.
But it’s hard. Giving this some good, solid thought, I don’t have a problem with motivation. I’ll write ‘til the cows come home, because that’s all I know how to do.
But the fear of disappointing people is my Achilles’ heel. Not living up to potential. Being a flash in the pan. “That’s nice, but what have you done lately?” is both my inspiration and my nightmare.
Yes, I know. This is an insane amount of pressure to put on one’s self.
What does one do?
I’ve been trying to ease the pressure by reminding myself that this isn’t a race. If I keep working, then when it’s time, things will happen in their course.
That’s the most important thing, I think. To keep working. To set aside the expectation and the pressure and the fear of disappointment and just keep going.
In many ways, to keep working is an act of faith. With no idea where the road goes, we set off.
I’m slowly venturing back into the world. And rest assured—I’m still working.
What I’m Listening To This Week
One night this past week, I had beer and watched Moulin Rouge! and it was just what I needed. This song has been stuck in my head since.
Last week, I had a dream—one of those dreams that makes you wonder if sometimes we really don’t just leave our bodies for a bit and go walking on another plane.
In the dream, I was in a train station. It’s one I’ve visited in dreams before: the station a little way out of town, but still pretty close to the big junction. (My dream-geographies are remarkably consistent.) A writer whom I deeply respect and admire was hanging out too, waiting for the train. After some chit-chat, I said:
“Everyone else taught me how to write. You taught me how to be an artist.”
All the next day, the dream stayed with me, seeping into the sunlight as only certain dreams do.
Everyone else taught me how to write. You taught me how to be an artist.
Every so often, the sleeping brain figures things out. Craft and art: slightly different aspects of the creative self, aren’t they? Here then, is my theory. Just like we all have public, private, and innermost selves, I think that writer types are three selves as well: writer, author, and artist.
To my mind, the writer is the craftsperson. The Writer-Me is the one who managed to get Hapax published—clean, solid, functional prose and a well-crafted story. She’s the one who beat her head against POV for months until it finally clicked. She’s the one whose voice broke—from clean, solid, functional prose to a distinctive sharpness and lyricism.
The Writer-Self dissects other people’s books like kids taking apart radios to see how they work. She delights in seeing exactly how a plot twist or character arc was constructed. She tries to articulate why some stories just don’t do it for her.
She’s writing presently—she preferred writing presently to writing right now, because of the homophone in the line—but she’s sharing the job with someone else.
I draw a distinction between writer and author. If you like, you can picture a parallel between author/writer and public/private.
So the Author-Self handles the social media, and she’s the one who does readings and sits on panels. She’s aware of how she presents: she’s the most outgoing version of myself, and she tries very hard to be gracious and polite, even when she’s exhausted, because that’s just good manners.But more than that—it’s the Author-Self who does the business side. She maintains the submissions spreadsheet: which stories are with which markets, when they were sent, and their current status. She reads contracts and records earnings. She’s the one who learned to podcast, and create e-book files, and edit video, and lead workshops, and customize a blog, because those are all important authorial skills.
But there’s one more…
ArtistThe hardest one to get a handle on. The Artist is the one who makes stories sing. She’s the one that gives warmth and life to the skeleton so carefully wrought by the Writer. She’s the one who has to create, needs to create. She’s very probably the one who had the dream in the train station.
But the Artist isn’t just a self, it’s a way of life. It’s a way of seeing and breathing and being. And so the Artist is the one who wanders galleries and gets drunk on light and colour. Certain pieces of music make her cry, or gasp, or conceive a creepy, creepy play.
It’s the Artist who pays attention to the small things: apple blossoms and held-back tears. It’s the Artist who rises to the big things: love, and injustices, and fear. She looks to the Other and tries to understand.
She believes in fairy tales.
She wants to make her own.
But the thing is…
They’re not wholly separate, these aspects of ourselves that make up a creative self. They’re interdependent; they need each other. So I guess, as with so many things, it comes down to balance: the harmony of many parts moving as one.
Because really, they are one.
Now rock on with your bad selves! 😉
What I’m Listening to This Week
A cheerful little madrigal by John Bennett. Actually, it’s not cheerful at all; it’s about wanting to cry so much you drown in your own tears. As one does, I suppose.
But it is very beautiful; there are some wonderful chords in there, particularly around the “springtides” section. I also love when the upper and lower voices start dialoguing with each other, before returning to a four-way conversation.
Until last week, I snickered at the name “Pigeon Forge.” It sounds like a made-up name, doesn’t it? The name alone has always struck me as the Platonic ideal of a small town in the Deep South. I mean, listen to it: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.The Tennessean towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains. For me, they’re the gateway to an annual writing retreat I take with ~20ish dear friends. And yeah, until last week, I dismissed them as “the weirdest places I’ve ever been.”
Until last week, this is what I saw:
The main street unfurls like a midway, flashing lights and sugary music spilling onto crowded sidewalks. On one side, a collection of concrete faux-log cabins nestles like a sanitized vision of an alpine village. Olde Time Photography Studios and Olde-Fashioned Candy Shoppes stand every few paces, while black bears grin from neon t-shirts, chipped ceramic mugs, and motel doorways (TV WIFI POOL).Outside of Gatlinburg, signs proclaim JESUS SAVES right next to others announcing GUNS GUNS GUNS. Pickup trucks trundle past with plywood bumpers, and rusted-out trailers sit on hills, and Biblically-themed parks and theatres abound.
Until last week, I snickered. And believe me, it feels very uncomfortable to say that. Giving myself a long, hard stare, I see a blend of big-city blindness, liberal arrogance, and Canadian smugness.
“So typical. So kitschy.”
Then the fire happened.
Last week, wildfire (possibly “human-caused”) broke out in the mountains and swept with little warning into Gatlinburg, fuelled by the region’s worst drought in a decade. Within hours, swathes of mountainside and residences were destroyed, and 14,000 people were evacuated. At time of writing, 13 people are dead and 1000 buildings have been damaged or destroyed.
Our retreat cabin is right in the danger zone, so we stayed glued to the incoming reports. As more data rolled in, I was stunned.
- “[FARM] has a field for evacuated livestock. No charge. Call [Suzy] at [NUMBER].”
- “Shelter for pets available at [LOCATION].”
- “Biologists reluctant to leave Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, fearing for animals.”
- “Dolly Parton is giving $1000 a month to victims of Tennessee wildfires.”
- “Thank you for your prayers.”
- “We’re okay. Thank you for your thoughts.”
- “Thank you.”
With all the tourists, it’s easy to forget that Gatlinburg is a town of only 4000 people. The more I read, the more I glimpsed a tight-knit community, generous and kind-hearted. My throat closed up.
I was wrong about Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. I was so very wrong.
Coming on the heels of the US election and the subsequent soul-searching on the political left, this feels particularly poignant. It is so, so easy to see the JESUS SAVES signs and forget about the genuinely fervent faith enclosed within those walls. It is so, so easy to wander through a fake village and laugh at the concrete snow, not seeing the livelihoods that happen behind the STAFF ONLY doors. And this is the sort of easy self-absorption that we cannot afford. Not ever, but especially not now.
In a cabin outside Gatlinburg, I wrote both “La Corriveau” and “The Love it Bears Fair Maidens,” my first pro short fiction sales. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge will always claim a very special place in my writer’s heart.
If you enjoy my fiction—particularly those stories—may I request something?
Will you help me give back to Gatlinburg? I’ve done some digging: most donations of food, supplies, and money need to be dropped off in person, but if you’re far away—
And a relief fund for locals and businesses has been established by the Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Donations can be mailed to:
PO Box 1910
Pigeon Forge, TN
All my best, Tennessee. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I will never, ever look at you the same way again.
What I’m Listening to this Week
I’ve never listened to Dolly Parton before, but now seems like a good time to start…
Once, in the distant days of my youth, I was at a ChiZine reading series talking to Canadian fantasy author Caitlin Sweet. She was very kind to me (she ended up being the final, encouraging push to send Hapax into the world), and I’ll never forget the advice she gave me:
“Don’t worry about getting published too early.”
She went on to explain that publishing too early sets up expectations: both for you and by you. It can mess with your head. It tends to leave you perpetually insecure that you’re not living up to the promise and potential of your youth.
Naturally, I sold Hapax less than a year later. Go figure.
Anyway, she was right on some counts. I’ve gotten a lot better at managing insecurities, but there is sometimes a certain worry that things are taking “too long,” that I’m not living up to the expectation set. While I’m pleased with what I’ve accomplished so far, I’m nowhere near where I want to be.
So I did a little research.
I pulled up some stats on twenty-four modern science fiction and fantasy authors. Some have been at this for a few decades. Some are new to the scene. Some are American; some Canadian; some British. Some are friends. (Hi, Mur! Hi, Pip! Hi, Jim!) Some, I’ve never met. All are still writing; all are authors I admire.
Specifically, what I wanted to find out what this: how much time passed between an author’s First Sale, and their Big Sale?
By Big Sale, I mean the sale that you look at, and say, “Yes, they’ve arrived.” The sale that made them as authors. It was less black-and-white than you’d think. Some authors took the fairly traditional route of starting with a short story in a small magazine and then eventually landing a novel deal with one of the Big Five.
For those who are primarily short-story writers, I looked for the first big award: the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy Award, etc.
For one mostly-independent author, I went with the year they left their dayjob.
So a mixture of strict criteria, and saying, “Eh, I guess this makes sense?” Here’s what I found:
The average gap between an author’s First Sale and their Big Sale was 5.75 years.
Of course, looking at the data, there are some outliers. For some authors, their First Sale was their Big Sale, and they’ve been churning out fiction ever since. Conversely, three authors had more than ten years pass between the two.
Generally speaking, though, the bulk of my sample fell within 4-6 years.
There are some theories I can put forth for this Five-Year Gap. First of all, in the case of novels, you’re looking at an 18-month lag time…at least…between acceptance and publication. Add to that the agent hunt, which can take a year, and that goes part-way to explaining it.
Otherwise…dude, after your first sale, you’re still growing. I return once again to my “boy soprano’s breaking voice” analogy. When the first cracks in your voice appear, you don’t go straight to singing bass. You might wander around the different parts for a while until you settle. Even if you can hit the notes, the full richness and technical mastery of an adult voice won’t come until later.
Similarly, there’s still a period of growth that happens with new authors. And sometimes, I suspect, the gap between sales may be sheer dumb luck, or lack thereof, or other priorities.
Because Caitlin Sweet was right and I retain some neuroticism over my relative youth, I also examined biographical information, where available. If a birth date wasn’t on an author’s Wikipedia page, I didn’t hunt too hard for it.
Looking purely at biography, most authors seem to make their First Sale in their late twenties to early thirties, and their Big Sale in their mid-thirties to early forties. Again, there are outliers (looking at you, Rachel Swirsky). The age range, I suspect, probably has to do with the emotional maturity that develops through the twenties. Lots of university kids write well; there’s not always the same depth, which is to be expected.
One interesting thing I noted: the younger an author was when making their First Sale, the longer the gap tended to be until their Big Sale (Swirsky aside). This lends credence to my “emotional maturing = better writing” theory, and seems to jive with Kelly Robson’s thoughts on being a “late bloomer.”
Of course, comparing your career to others’ is rarely touted as a good idea. That way, madness lies. I mean: look at all my outliers! Everyone follows their own path!
…but sometimes, it is comforting to look at trends. We all follow our own paths, but it’s nice to see if you’re going in the same general direction. Looking at my own data, my First Sale was Hapax in 2012.
I haven’t made my Big Sale, yet. But looking at the charts, I seem to be right on track. 🙂
What I’m Listening to this Week
Regular readers know of my love for Ola Gjeilo’s music. Guess what??? I got to see him this weekend at a choral concert! (I also saw my lovely former collaborator, composer Norbert Palej.)
I hadn’t heard the “Credo” portion of Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass before, and it totally captivated me. Listen to the frantic, pulsing strings: totally captures the rush of urban life. The “crucifixus” motif around 4:24 is a jagged little heartbreak, and of course, I’m a sucker for the last driving, thundering two minutes.
With Six Stories, Told at Night merrily dropping episodes, I’ve been reflecting on two much earlier plays I wrote. This was ages ago, when I was all of sixteen/seventeen. I’d written one play about an author who falls in love with her character—he’s onstage, but only she can see/hear him, which results in much hilarity and absurd humour. The second was a play written in response to that first play. It was a very pointed criticism of art criticism, in which characters debate the meaning of an abstract statue, resulting in much hilarity and absurd humour.
Both were pretty clever. Even at the time, though, I had whispers in my ear saying, “There’s a difference between being clever and being good.”
Being sixteen/seventeen, I ignored those whispers and merrily churned out more clever writing. Most of it wasn’t very good. But what do I mean, about the difference between clever and good?
Clever skims the surface. Clever is slick. Clever is a neat idea—perhaps even an original idea—perhaps even a good idea—but it isn’t followed through as fully as it could be. That’s the thing about cleverness, you see. It’s quick—the flash of a firefly, bright for a moment and gone.
Clever gets you praise. Clever makes you laugh.
Good makes you think.
John Scalzi’s written about this very topic, as it relates to young writers. If I may quote him, he noted that, “There’s nothing wrong with being clever, and it’s possible to be clever and good at the same time. But you need to know when clever is not always the best solution.”
I think that an important difference is this: with cleverness, there is usually an element of showing off. Like we said—the flash of a firefly. It can be easy to get distracted by the surface show, and not realize that there’s very little of substance underneath. So when Scalzi says you can be clever and good at the same time, I suppose that means you’ve got both the shiny, slick exterior trappings, as well as something of greater depth.
It’s really hard to do. Again, I think this is partly because cleverness directs its energy towards itself—look at me, my smarts, my humour—whereas things that are good direct themselves outwards, striving to connect to something within the audience. In a way, then, good cleverness needs to be oddly unaware of itself.
Recently, I wrote a story with a clever ending…but something about it nagged at me. I heard Jim Kelly’s voice in my ear, whispering, “Yes, yes…you’re very clever, but this ending cheats the reader. Try again, and write something good.”
The same whispers I heard eight years ago—cleverness is a tendency I need to watch in myself—but this time, I listened. I wrote a different ending. We’ll see if it’s a good one.
But hey, we’re learning!
Before we go…you want to see some of this play, don’t you? All right. Fine. I’d say to bear in mind that I was seventeen, but…well, anyway…here it is. The sculptor’s uncle has run into a haughty art critic.
SAGE: Vince, Vince, Vince. Of course art should be enjoyed by everyone. But it should be commented upon and criticized by those who have the training for the job.
VINCE: What if commenting on art is part of the enjoyment?
SAGE: Your opinion does matter, just not as much as the opinion of someone who’s right. Now, if you’ll excuse me, they’ve erected another work by the south end, and I must see it.
VINCE: But wait, your write-up, it’ll be…
SAGE: A cutting exposé of the depraved messages infiltrating our cherished public spaces through rampant narcissism.
VINCE: Look, we can patch this up. Maybe… (He rummages in his pocket.) Maybe Queen Elizabeth can convince you to be a little kinder?
SAGE: What are you implying?
VINCE: (Looks through his wallet) Or maybe you can have a threesome with William Lyon Mackenzie King?
SAGE: Are you suggesting I have sexual relations with a dead prime minister and the Queen of England?
VINCE: No! All I meant was-
SAGE: Never mind family ties; this is why you so adore this monstrosity! Clearly, you are too emotionally immature to understand the wrongness of this statue… and you’re dependent on perverted fantasies!
VINCE: I was trying to bribe you, all right?
SAGE: Oh. That is hardly better! Sexual intercourse can be a wonderful and natural act, but money appeals only to the greed-driven, consumerist levels of the soul.
And then I had an elderly couple whose sole purpose was to wander onstage every so often and offer a dose of absurdity (they later partially resurrected themselves as Old Mabel):
ETHEL: George? Have you a sweetie?
GEORGE: Why, yes!
ETHEL: I like sweeties.
GEORGE: As do I.
ETHEL: Is it an orange sweetie, or a lemon sweetie?
ETHEL: Neither? Then… George, can it be?
GEORGE: Yes! It is a cherry sweetie!
ETHEL: Splendid! (Pause) George, have you only a single sweetie?
GEORGE: Yes, but I shall give it to you.
ETHEL: I couldn’t eat your only sweetie, heavens no. It would be terribly selfish of me.
GEORGE: Then I know what we shall do. We shall purchase other sweeties!
ETHEL: Sweeties are very nice to suck on.
GEORGE: They are. Do you suppose they make scotch sweeties?
ETHEL: Shall we ask?
GEORGE: I think we shall. To the shopkeeper!
They wander offstage.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Sigh…I do like Ola Gjeilo. This week, I’ve been playing a lot of “Unicornis Captivatur.” The text is a Latin chant from the Engelberg Codex, a compilation of chants from ~1400s Switzerland.
Basically, the wounded unicorn is presented to the court, it heals itself, there’s a lot of fairly conventional Christ metaphors, but also phoenixes and hydras eating crocodiles alive from the inside. (Listen for Idrus intrat crocodilum, around 1:45.)
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: