Two years and one day ago, I tweeted the following picture:
I was so happy that night. Things were good at school, Christmas was coming, Hapax was out and I was clearly on my way in writing, and I was suffused with love and good will for the people at Black Creek, my coworkers truly becoming my friends.
Less than twenty-four hours after I posted this picture, my life shattered.
I went to choir the next morning. This was December 16th, 2012. The Sandy Hook shooting had just happened, and part of the sermon reflected on the loss of so many lives, the pain their families now carried through the Advent season. I can’t even imagine, I remember thinking, my toes dangling off the back of the kneeler. I can’t even imagine what it would be like, losing someone so close to the holidays.
Less than twelve hours later, I knew.
My father died two years ago today. And honestly, that’s something I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It’s been two years. My dad is dead. He’s been dead for two years. It doesn’t even make any sense that my dad—my vibrant, lively, healthy dad—is dead. But two years? Jesus Christ.
This may be a little trigger-y for a bit. If you want to scroll down, I will put a picture of a cat. Past that, it’s all hope and love again.
Okay. So sometimes, I still need to talk about the horror of that night. Sometimes, I still need to tell the story again. This is, I’ve found, something that happens with grief. Friends and loved ones can be reluctant to bring up the event, in case it makes us sad. Well, guess what? We’re already sad, and talking it through, recapping it, putting it in order again, and again, and again, is the only way that we’re going to process it. Saying it out loud makes it real, but it also brings it out of our heads. It gives a bit of distance, so we can try to understand what the fuck happened.
Even two years later, I still need to tell the story sometimes.
So, around 9:00 pm on Sunday, December 16th, 2012, I was sitting at my kitchen table. A friend was over, doing some rough sketches of Serafine. Shortly, she and my other friend were going to watch Love Actually. I was trying to convince myself that I could totally take another night off studying for exams, because Love Actually was a Christmas tradition and I hadn’t seen it yet that year. Of course, I really needed to study, but—
My phone rang. It was my sister. She explained that she and Mom were coming to fetch me right now, and then we were all going to the hospital, because Dad had had an accident playing hockey.
I was not overly concerned at this point. It wouldn’t be the first time he got hurt. When I was small, he’d nearly lost an eye when he took a hockey stick to the face. Maybe he did lose it this time, I thought. Because I had been in hospitals before, I had the presence of mind to pack my bag with my textbooks and notes. After all, waiting for X-rays and CAT scans took a long time; I’d be able to study while he went through those.
As I tugged my boots on, I suddenly thought of my grandfather. During my first year of university, he’d driven himself to ER, promptly had a massive stroke, and died a week later. Wouldn’t it be awful, if—if—but no. I figured that maybe worst case scenario, Dad had taken a really bad blow to the head. Maybe really, really worst case, there’d be some brain damage, a bit of rehab. But that was super-worst-case. It couldn’t be that bad.
My mom and sister picked me up off the street, and we drove to the hospital. Traffic crawled. I remember the copper-orange of the streetlights. At one point, we crossed the foot of my friend Blythe’s street. I’d just been to her apartment for the first time, and I gazed up the street, wishing that Mom could just turn here, like I was just going to hang out with her.
My grandparents arrived at the same time we did. Some of Dad’s hockey team were already in the waiting room. I knew some of them—they all seemed very shaken. Memories fragment here. I don’t remember exactly what was said. I remember trying to shield my sister, dragging her over to a vending machine around the corner.
A man in scrubs led us into the labyrinth of emergency care behind the receptionist. He had blue scrubs, a long black ponytail. We passed curtained-off alcoves, cots and IVs flush to the wall. As we walked, a curious numbness settled over me. This is the scariest thing I have ever done, I thought. I remember thinking that, but also still hoping that later, the warm flush of relief would come. God, Dad, we were so scared, and for nothing—isn’t that funny?
The man in scrubs led us to a small, cream-coloured room. It had two brown, slippery couches, a shiny black coffee table holding a Kleenex box, and a cross on the wall. That’s when I knew that things were very, very bad. You don’t bring people into rooms with crosses if everything is going to be okay.
The man in scrubs explained that Dad had had a “cardiac event” and had gone down on the ice. Wonder of wonders, there had been a firefighter and a cardiac specialist on the opposing team. CPR had started right away, they’d used a defibrillator right away, and the ambulance had been called right away. Absolutely everything that could have been done had be done, as quickly as possible.
And they’d not yet been successful in resuscitating him.
I may or may not have been slightly aggressive with the doctor. I may or may not have been told to relax. Then we went to see him. Around yet another corner, there was yet another curtain, a sectioned-off portion of emergency. We went behind the curtain.
And I knew, the moment I saw him.
There was no resuscitating. Not anymore. We were long past that. It was disorienting—on the one hand, it was just Dad, lying on a gurney. On the other, he looked so old. Chalk-grey skin, shirtless, tubes going into his nose and mouth, electrodes on his chest. A technician furiously doing compressions. Dad’s mouth gaped open a little, and that’s what really struck me: the way his cheeks sagged inwards, the way there was absolutely no muscle control, everything was just limp. Lifeless. Two years later, and I still sometimes see it. The horror doesn’t lessen with time. You just don’t think about it, until you do, and suddenly, you’re back in that room, with the metallic smells and the beeping, and Dad’s cheeks collapsing on themselves.
We asked how long they’d been doing this.
About forty minutes.
How long could they reasonably keep doing this?
They were about at the limit.
So, if his brain had been forty minutes without oxygen, then—
Then it was time to stop.
I couldn’t touch him. I couldn’t touch him because I knew that he was already cooling, and I was too scared to feel it. And so, cowardly, I stood very close, wanting to touch him one last time, wanting to give one last hug. Someone asked if we wanted a chaplain. “He’s Catholic,” I said. “He needs Last Rites.”
Tears spilling from our eyes, we wandered the emergency department: making calls, trying to figure out next steps, reassuring the hockey team that it wasn’t their fault. I vaguely wondered what the other patients thought. Probably they knew that some lives had just been permanently changed. We’ve all been there. We never think we’ll be the people crying.
I wandered back just as a chaplain began the Lord’s Prayer. I collapsed next to my grandparents and said it too. I don’t think they realized I knew more than “Our Father.” I talked to a cop. I gave dates of birth, addresses. I agreed that yes, I was very young. I stayed with my sister, who was refusing to leave the body.
But then I looked over, and I saw that a rosy red flush was blooming along the underside of Dad’s cheeks. And that is another horrific detail that’s branded itself into my memory. See, for a scene in Hapax, I’d had to research what happens to the body shortly after death, and so I knew precisely what this was. Without the action of the heart to keep blood circulating, gravity will cause it to pool at the lowest points of the body. When a body is lying on its back, that’s the undersides of the arms, the legs, the face…
I was right, I thought.
And then I had to leave so that I could go vomit. I never saw my dad’s body again. (My choice, incidentally, to not stick around for the open-casket portion of the visitation later that week.)
We returned to my mom’s house. I had to send a bizarre text (“Sorry, I can’t study tomorrow. My dad died.”) and then I called my childhood best friend. Numb, shocked, broken, I didn’t want to go to bed, because I dreaded waking up—I didn’t want that moment of remembering what had happened the night before, feeling it fresh all over again.
I think I fell asleep around 5:00 am. I was up by 7:00. I emailed my registrar, asking to defer my exams on Wednesday. I emailed my bosses, asking not to be called that week. And then I called my friend Rachel-the-Anglican-Priest. I’d been in her office the week before, seeking counsel for stress and family tensions. Now I had to explain, “So…new developments…”
This whole thing was so bizarrely scripted.
As promised, the picture of the cat says that things get a little more hopeful from here.
My maternal grandmother and I went to the church around eleven to sort out funeral details. Although my Dad was technically Catholic (and while I still am, technically), they could do a very inclusive service. They could recommend a good funeral home. They could help us through this—it was going to be all right, I had a community at Grace Church that loved and supported me.
I had cried in the hospital, but it had been like the tears were seeping out slowly. My grandmother stepped outside of the office, and then, alone with Rachel, I sobbed for the first time. And when she told me that it was terrible, and unfair, and painful, but that they were all there for me, I believed her. For a while, I’d considered Grace a safe place—but here it was, when I needed it most, as a rock in my life.
Thank you, all of my family at Grace, for doing infinitely more than I could ask or imagine. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Where there is love, God is there.
Around two o’clock, I was at loose ends. My sister had been swept away by her friends and Mom was huddled on the couch with all of the relatives. I paced aimlessly. What would make me feel best right now? I asked myself. Who do I need to be with?
The answer was undeniable, if somewhat surprising.
Blythe. Right now, I need Blythe.
Sure, we were friends. Sure, we saw each other outside of work. But this was heavy stuff. Was it too heavy? I hesitated, looping the kitchen. The answer didn’t change. And so, I texted her, asking if I could come over and escape the madness for a bit. As I sent it, I figured that I’d get a responding text in a few hours, maybe.
She called me before I’d even slipped my phone back in my pocket.
My uncle drove me to her place. At that point, I’d actually only been to Blythe’s apartment one time, so I was a little uncertain as I directed him there. But, soon enough, I was standing outside her door. As I jabbed the doorbell, part of me wondered what on Earth I was doing. The rest was just too numb.
The door flew open. “Hi!” Blythe said. “Come on up!”
Turning, I waved to my uncle, then followed her up the narrow staircase. Maybe we made awkward small talk, I don’t really remember. What I do remember is that Blythe went into the apartment ahead of me. I bent down to take off my boots. When I glanced up, she was standing in the middle of her kitchen, looking at me: not with apprehension, but compassion. Suddenly, absolute certainty rushed over me. This was the right place to be.
She hugged me. She badgered me into eating part of an apple. Gave me odd jobs to distract me. And while the two of us tend to have different accounts of these sorts of things, I think it was then that things changed between us. We were friends before, certainly, but supporting someone in so much pain and shock is an entirely different thing. When I needed someone, she was there without question. I honestly do not think I could have managed those first few months without her.
Thank you, my friend—thank you, and all of my love.
On Wednesday, I went to work. I remember running out of the car, throwing the door open before Mom had really stopped, and booking it through the village. Like Grace, this was my place of safety. This was home. In hindsight, it must have seemed bizarre. Here I was, roaming the village with a haunted expression, dodging crowds of schoolchildren. This was my workplace—why on Earth was I there?
Because I needed to be. And credit to my supervisors and coworkers, they let me do my thing. They let me wander bleakly, surround myself with the people and places I loved. Some people came to the visitation that night (for which I was profoundly grateful, I couldn’t have done that without them—walking into the funeral parlour and seeing the casket, it was heartbreakingly, crushingly real). There was a card, filled with love. My boss sent a handwritten note. I still have all of these things.
Here is the thing about death. For the most part, it doesn’t make sense. If this was a novel, my editor would never let me get away with it. “What? And then he dies? No, that’s stretching credibility too far.”
When death strikes like this, the normal rules cease operating. And so we cry in our friends’ offices. We crash other friends’ dinner parties. We walk around our workplace because reasons. And people, for the most part, are just as stunned as us. Unsure how to react, they do the best they can: opening their arms with love, drawing us close, holding us near.
When you are grieving, nothing makes sense. You worry you’re too sad. You worry you’re not sad enough. You worry about burdening your loved ones. And at the same time—you need, desperately need that human connection. You need to be able to tell the story, as often as it takes. You need to be vulnerable, to cry—and also, sometimes, you need to go skating and live normally for a few hours, away from the sadness.
And if a grieving person comes to you…ask them. Ask them if they need to describe what happened again. Ask them if they just want to sit. Know that they may think they’re fairly functional, but in several months’ time, they will realize that they really, really weren’t.
Love us. That’s all we need.
It saddens me that almost everything that is now important in my life—working full time, Stonecoast, the nice young man, beer, my writing family, my current friendships—happened after Dad died. My life now is completely different from my life two years ago. But that’s what happens.
We heal, but we don’t recover. I will never not be sad about my dad. Every December will be hard for me. The body remembers, longer and more vividly than the mind. The body remembers the fall of light, the weight of the wind, the pattern of the clouds overhead. We don’t get over the loss; we make it a part of us, growing into and around it.
When a writer loves you, you can never die. Dad’s fingerprints touch my work now, even if it’s his death bleeding through again, and again. In the Victorian Dark Fantasy, Sara’s grief plays out alongside my own. In short story after short story, I try to use words to build a ladder down into the abyss, using fiction to go where I can’t.
Two years on, and I am usually happy. Sometimes I am sad, but usually I am happy, and I miss my Dad more than all those words can say.
I sat at the spinning wheel. Grey afternoon light fell through the window behind me. The spinning wheel clicked gently as I moved my foot up and down. Pinch the wool. Draw. Release.
Besides the clicking, the log cabin was quiet. Faint traces of wood smoke lingered, but the hearth was growing colder. With no one else around, I let my mind wander.
Pinch. I hope they’re taking care of him. I wonder if he misses me. I wish I was there—I should be there. Draw. It’s meant to be me. I trust Mairi, but it’s meant to be me.
He’s my son.
Ha! Startled some of you, I bet.
So, here’s what is happening. I think the Victorian Dark Fantasy is starting to gel. The novel has changed throughout Stonecoast—I think the plot’s getting there, now I’m bearing down on voice and character. To help with this, my thoroughly brilliant mentor posed me an interesting challenge:
One thing you might want to do, and this will sound less strange to you as a playwright than to other people, is to go around being each of the main female characters for a while, and do things the way they would do them. How do you feel as those characters? How do you walk and talk?
I laughed in delight upon reading this. So…I thought, grinning, I spend most of my days wearing period-appropriate clothing, doing period things…
Plus…I kind of stole half our buildings.
Heck, I can reconstruct entire scenes in these buildings, mapping out exactly where this character was standing, where that one paused before coming around the corner. It’s like being on a movie set.
So…I have the right clothing (mostly—for two of them, I really need a crinoline, and I only wear that in the brewery), I’m doing the right things, and I’m in the right place. Sometimes, it’s almost a little disorienting.
It’s also taught me a lot.
I’ve always talked with my characters. Usually as mental knitting—on the bus, while walking, during quiet times at work. Just relaxing, asking questions, hearing what the response is. Sometimes full-on conversations develop; Serafine, for instance, rarely shut up once she got going.
It’s one thing to invite a character into your head. Thus far, it’s been quite another to invite them into your skin. Really, really cool, but different. Because this way, I’m not guiding the discussion. I’m not prompting anything. I’m essentially retreating to the sidelines and seeing how my characters assert themselves once they have the space and freedom to do so.
- One worries far more than she lets on; she’s clinging by her fingertips.
- In another time, place, and culture, one could be a geek girl. As it is, she’s sensitive, carefully (and constantly, my God!) analyzing and observing.
- And the last POV character…I don’t think I ever really understood the depths of her possessiveness, her sense of entitlement.
My circumstances definitely give me a leg-up, but it’s also interesting to take characters on field trips. Point out a streetcar, stop in a grocery store. What do they think, how do they react to this world so unlike their own?
It’s been fun—and I still love working on this story, still love exploring these people and their lives. Even after so long (yeah…longer than I anticipated…) the joy hasn’t ebbed.
Let’s just hope that I never, ever answer visitors as my villain.
Actually, that’d be hilarious.
I’ll be good. 😉
Cool Thing of the Week
So, there’s the solar system, right? Then our galaxy, then our “local group” of galaxies, then our galaxy cluster, then our supercluster…and then the filaments.
The thought makes me shiver. So many stars and worlds, so much void between them…
More than anything, it makes me want to write.
I don’t often write poetry. Sometimes I get the odd one, but I almost never share my poems.
But when I do, they become opera arias…
Story time! New Zealand and I adopted each other long ago. I love the landscape, the people, the culture, the history…but when I backpacked around the country by myself, I got a little homesick. To be clear: I had an amazing time, with once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and I do not regret a single second.
And I also missed home.
So, one day while riding the InterCity bus between towns, I stared out the window at the impossibly green, mist-shrouded hills, and I composed some verse in my head. When I got to the backpackers’ that night, I tapped it out on my phone. Several weeks later, when I came home, I transferred it to my computer.
I liked it. Nothing super fancy or experimental; I wanted something simple. It had an interesting meter, though. The pattern of stressed syllables reminded me of someone running. Which was exactly what I wanted. It captured those nights in hostel bunk beds, staring at the bunk above me and trying to work out which direction home lay. I figured the poem might be interesting set to music (again, that very bare, understated pub song feel), but I don’t compose. Heck, I barely write poetry.
I came home. I forgot about it.
Fast forward to January 2013. I was rewriting the libretto for East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon. Since I was eighteen the first go-round and the performance requirements had changed in the interim, I was mostly rewriting from scratch.
Rose (our plucky young heroine) had an aria. There were some duets and trios, several chorus numbers for the kids. But the White Bear/Prince didn’t really have an aria of his own. I started thinking about how the enchanted Prince would feel: roaming through the northlands, lonely and just wanting to be warm again, waiting to come home…
And a spark of emotion and memory flared.
I dug into my files. I found the poem. It already had a strong meter; I’d already wondered if it would work with music.
Time to find out.
I slipped that poem into the opera almost unchanged (I think I altered the tense of one verb, maybe?). And there it’s stayed. My partner in this—composer Norbert Palej—did a beautiful job with the aria. I didn’t tell him what it was really about, and yet he crafted a lovely piece. The music aches.
Nothing you write is ever wasted. You never know when thoughts, emotions, and memories will reappear to inform your creative work. Save it—because someday, it may find its home.
Cool Thing of The Week
You didn’t think I’d go through all that without showing you the poem, right? I mean, it’s part of an opera now: I think I’ve lost any rights to qualms over sharing it!
I was waiting for the passing
Of the bleak and bitter night,
For the fleeing of the shadows
And the coming of the light.
I was waiting for the dawning
Of the absent summer sun,
And the waiting warmth that spurs me
On the distant roads I run.
I was waiting for the tasting
Of the season on the air,
For the old familiar fires
Breathing smoke upon my hair.
I was waiting for the greeting
And the chorus from the hearth,
For the end to all my calling
From the very end of Earth.
I was waiting for the sighing
When I stood before your door.
I am waiting, and so dying –
Waiting just a little more.
For the past few months, I’ve been doing an experiment. See, after my return from Virginia, my friend Blythe came over…and she had something for me.
“I’ve been meaning to give you this for forever,” she said. “But I forgot, and then you were at Stonecoast, and then you were away…”
It was a journal. “It’s Gonna Be Okay: A journal to reassure myself when I’m overwhelmed by the creeping sense of impending disaster and the all-encompassing fears both specified and vague that colonize my mind, body, and soul, all of which, from the completely far-fetched to the sometimes probable, do me no good to contemplate and in fact make me miserable, and even though optimism may be unself-aware and ill-placed, I know I’ll be happier as a blind fool than as a clairvoyant apocalyptic.”
I immediately burst out laughing, becoming increasingly amused as I read the subtitle.
She knows me far too well.
The journal contains a reassuring quotation on the left-hand page, while the right hand side has space for the date, a section for writing, and a “prevailing outlook” for the day. As it happened, I’d just read Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. As previously mentioned, I’d been struck by his habit of writing prose poems on whatever subject tickled his fancy and diving into his memories like a pearl fisher hunting oysters.
So I decided not to use this journal strictly for its intended purpose. I decided to use it for free-writing instead: unedited, rambling meditations. Okay, maybe there were a few times when I did free-write on something that was making me anxious, but for the most part, I turned to my past. I sought out those details that made me exclaim, “Oh! I haven’t thought of that in years!”
I set myself a few rules. Free-write every day. Fill the page. Tick the appropriate “prevailing outlook” box.
From February 28th to May 16th, I only missed one day. Over the past three months, I’ve stumbled across memories and details long buried, holding them up and examining them.
I had a rainbow-coloured basketball that I won in a Read-a-Thon when I was in grade two. I loved that thing. There was a shared driveway behind our house that I dubbed “the alley,” on which I bounced that basketball until its little bumps were worn smooth. I’d forgotten all about it, until now.
Something that I remember very vividly: three days after my dad died, I went to Black Creek. Not to work, just to escape. I remember when my mom dropped me off, I practically threw myself from the car before she’d even really come to a full stop. I remember that weird crouching run to the front doors, fighting to keep my balance.
Fiji’s reddish-brown dirt. The pixelated neon-green frog in a kindergarten computer game. The sense of unbridled freedom when we “went out for lunch” in grade six. The scent of pines that permeated the fort I made for myself (aged nine) in our garden.
These written meditations have unearthed a treasure trove of details. Maybe some of them will emerge in my fiction, maybe not.
But there’s been another benefit, too. I usually wrote in my journal over breakfast. First it became habit. Then it became necessary: a way to collect myself before facing the day ahead. It usually only took ten minutes to fill the page, but they were ten minutes of peace and stillness, ten minutes when my brain shut up and got out of its own way.
The other cool thing? I just flipped through the entire journal, looking at the “prevailing outlooks.”
They’re almost all positive. There are a few “fingers crossed” ones, but mostly, it’s thumbs-up or a-okay. The only thumbs-down I could find was also the only day I ticked two boxes. That day, I was a-okay in general, but also stressing about something very specific.
That means three months of feeling good. There is definitive proof that for three months, I’ve felt good about life almost every single day. Seeing it concretely like that…well, it’s an eye-opener. In a good way.
I’ve filled the journal now. I’ll keep free-writing anyway, in a new notebook. It’s become a game: what can I remember? What can I dredge up? How specific can I get, how far back can I go? It’s a chance to relive and revisit, to keep myself on track.
And to remind myself: it’s gonna be okay. 😉
Cool Thing of the Week
After prolonged despair that we were trapped in perpetual winter, the unfurling leaves became really noticeable this week. On my walk to the subway each morning, I go up a tree-lined street. The leaves are delicate and fuzzy still, but the street is suddenly green, not the barren, spiky brown it’s been for the last six months.
Give it a few more weeks. It’s only going to get better.
The above quotation popped up in my feed this week. Usually, I don’t pay much attention to these sorts of quotes-and-images, but this one struck me. Maybe because I’m back at the dayjob.
As I’ve discussed many times, I steal places pretty shamelessly. From the dayjob, our Second House shows up in my story “After the Winds” as the heroine’s home; it reappears as the Braes’ house in the Victorian Dark Fantasy. Burwick House also shows up in both stories; the Doctor’s House is the main set piece in another. I fell in love with New Zealand, too. Its impossibly green hills roll through the “text-based interactive online game.” If you look closely, you can spot its caves and long white clouds in one of my Stonecoast workshop submissions.
Call it the historian in me, but I like this notion of things we love living on in stories. In fact, I’m writing a story on similar lines: an alternate Toronto, one which contains everything in this city that was lost, destroyed, or covered up and buried.
It all lives on.
Writers are like sponges that way. We absorb everything around us, often not even aware that we’re doing so, and even we don’t know when, where, or how things will rematerialize. It’s like catching partial reflections from shards of mirror. All of these memories and experiences get broken up and glued back together: rearranged, reimagined, and reversed.
Ray Bradbury wrote about this much more poignantly than I can. If you haven’t read Zen in the Art of Writing, go find it. Even if you’re not a writer, his insights can be applied to most creative processes.
In one of the essays, he asks, “What do you want more than anything else in the world? What do you love, or what do you hate…there is zest in hate as well as in love, [and it will] fire the landscape and raise the temperature of your typewriter thirty degrees.”
So what do I love?
Well, specifically looking at how much Black Creek pops up in the Victorian Dark Fantasy…I love the way the sun sheens off the barn roof on crisp autumn mornings. I love the fallen leaves crunching under my boots, the sharp smell of smoke when the fires get lit. I love the steam that curls along the brewery’s ceiling when we cool the wort. I love the way the loaf pans are all dented along one edge, because that is where the peel jams into them as we remove them from the bake-oven. I love the bleached-bone paleness of the bricks inside the bake ovens.
There is joy in these small details, the little things which, as Bradbury says, “…at one time when we were children, were invested with magic for us.” It’s this notion of “looking and re-looking.” What makes this inn, this farmhouse, this hearth different from all the others?
As writers, it’s our job to find out and explain. If we’re writers in love, then part of us already knows.
Cool Thing of the Week!
At last, I have obtained my own teapot and kerosene lamps. My church does an attic sale every May, which means that every April, I volunteer to haul the goods up from the basement. I salivated over the lamps the moment I saw them two weeks ago, so I was very disappointed when I arrived at the sale and couldn’t find them anywhere…but then, one of the sales volunteers exclaimed, “Oh! You’re the girl! We have your lamps!”
My lovely church ladies had stashed them safely away for me, to prevent anyone else from making off with them. My ladies are awesome.
So, my laptop died.
It was never quite the same after I mailed it home from New Zealand. For a while, I had one consistently good USB port, one which was dodgy, and one dead. Then the other day, I noticed that my laptop wasn’t charging…even though it was plugged in.
Unplugging, re-plugging, and all sorts of fiddling did nothing. To make matters even more fun (whee!), I’m currently in Virginia on a three-week interning spin with my dear friends Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris. So, a bit far from home.
Fortunately, Pip and Tee are wonderful people. They drove me to Best Buy and waited while the Geek Squad determined that they might be able to ship my laptop back to Canada, where Future Shop might be able to possibly replace the power port to maybe extend my laptop’s life another couple of weeks.
And then they patted my shoulder as I coughed up the money for a new laptop.
There is never a good time, but this could have been better (oh hai, MFA tuition). But the most striking part of this whole experience was transferring the files from the old machine to this new one. The issue wasn’t one of space (again, wonderful friends that Pip and Tee are, I had the use of all the external drives I could ask for).
No, the main issue was time. Once that battery goes, the old machine’s done.
(And yes, I know about pulling hard drives…but I’m in Virginia. I’m not sure how or if I can get the old laptop home.)
So it was like standing in a burning house, wondering, “What do I save? What do I grab first? What can I leave behind?” All the while knowing that every second of indecision brings you closer to that final shutdown.
It’s probably the historian in me, but I like having links to my own past. Detailed records, a personal archive that is there, even if I rarely dip into it. Maybe it’s a security thing, knowing that I can always reconstruct things if necessary.
Obviously, getting the writing to safety is always top priority when things get squirrelly, which is why I’m actually pretty good about backing things up.
Pictures and music vied for second place. A 2011 family trip to Costa Rica, the last we took before my dad died. My New Zealand photos. Even just images for Black Creek and this blog – more a matter of convenience and posterity, but still.
iTunes is fine, so I grabbed whatever extra stock music and sound effects I could. Luckily, I pulled the raw Hapax files ages ago (they were large and numerous), precisely because of this fear of, “What if I need to go back in one day?”
That’s a fear I face now, with the videos. I got the final cuts of all my Black Creek videos, but very little raw footage or sound files. I can’t see why I would ever need to rebuild those videos from scratch, but if ever someone asked, I probably couldn’t. That worries me, even though it’s completely irrational. Again, I blame my historian streak.
But at the end of the day, the important things are really the things that are me. The writing, the music, the photos. Most other things can be found again, edited again. Music is challenging to replace; writing and photos can be almost impossible.
Which is why I will give the customary “Back your stuff up” speech. When my laptop died, I already had the entirety of my fiction backed up elsewhere. I did go back for a few university essays, but the writing was safe.
Most of my photos are on Facebook (though there are always strays). I’ve used Google Drive more and more lately; it holds the music for the kids’ opera, the videos, and a few other random documents. I have my own intern Dropbox now.
It’s easier than ever to protect your data. Yes, emergencies happen. Yes, the unforeseen is…well, unforeseen. But if you can take any steps to mitigate potential disaster (knowing it’s not always possible)…then please, save yourself the heartache later.
Here are some photos that I would have been sad to lose.
I just returned from my first Stonecoast residency. They set an exhausting pace; it was like a cross between Hogwarts, bootcamp, and a ten-day-long con. Now I work with my mentor for six months, until the next residency.
As much as I’m enjoying Stonecoast thus far, I want to think about other ways to learn. After all, Stonecoast is only two years. A writer’s education continues forever.
I was always the weird kid scribbling stories at the back of the classroom, but I was fourteen when I made the conscious decision to write with an eye to making this a career. Not at fourteen: I never wanted to be a teenage author. But eventually, someday.
And so, I learned. First by reading. I read books on how to write a novel. I read books on being a writer and the creative life. I trawled through websites and writing forums. Said is better than declared, intoned, uttered, or (heaven help me), ejaculated. Agents want your manuscript to be done. Conflict, conflict, conflict. You shouldn’t have characters named John and Joan in the same story. A novel is technically 40,000 + words, but realistically, most run 80,000-120,000.
I wrote a detective story set in 1880s Paris:
Amélie released an almost imperceptible sigh and took Philip’s arm. He expected to go down to the basement again, but perhaps mindful of his dislike of the depressing labyrinth, Amélie instead whisked him to a room near the top of the theatre cluttered with junk. “My office,” she said proudly
“Really?” Philip asked, glancing at the piled-up boxes and props
“No, it’s just one of the many deserted and forgotten offices. So,” she sat behind the desk and rested her chin on her hand, “are you going back to London?”
“My dear girl, I should think not!” He bit back a laugh; she bore an uncanny resemblance to Wallace, sitting like that. “Not while there’s work to be done here.”
“Bon.” A warm glow came into her eyes. “Or should I say ‘capital’?
It wasn’t very good, but I finished it. It was 22,000 words.
Then I discovered these new things called podcasts. Something called The Writing Show popped up first. It was all right; it had a lot of the same information as the books and websites. Then I noticed something called I Should Be Writing.
The woman that hosted ISBW had good information too, but she also made me laugh. A lot. And she was a wannabe writer as well! Just like me! Admittedly, Mur was further along than I was, but she was facing a lot of the same challenges. I learned more. You’re allowed to suck. Even if you’re afraid that an idea has been done, you should write it anyway, because your version will be different. Everyone feels imposter syndrome.
I wrote a fantasy novel, in which an aristocratic girl chafing against society’s restrictions teams up with an ostracized selkie to find three artifacts with the potential to upend magic as they know it.
A slap brought him to his senses. Caora leaned over him, hand drawn back to deliver another one. Adek blocked his face, saying, “What did you do that for?”
Caora’s eyes were red and he could feel the heat of her flushed cheeks. “We have to get out of here,” she said.
“The Stone is gone. We’ve got to get out, the ghosts don’t like us.”
“I’ll explain later. Come on, Adek!” She pulled him up and dragged him across the chamber. Golden light filled it, keeping sighing spectres from touching them. For a moment the cries of the gulls overwhelmed Adek, but then he remembered the Divine and forced himself to plod on. If what she and Caora were saying was true, than the man from Pearl River had two out of the three Stones. Adek’s spirit quailed. Unless they found the third Stone in time….
It was a little better, if derivative. It was 65,000 words. More importantly, there were secondary characters who took on lives of their own and some actual history and politics.
I Should Be Writing had commercials. Some were for other podcasts or websites. But some were almost like movie trailers, and they were very exciting. One day, I surrendered and said, “Fine, just what is this Morevi thing?”
And I discovered podcast novels.
They were awesome, because they were like a hybrid of books on tape and radio plays. The guy (T. Morris? He went by his initial, I guessed?) that wrote and read Morevi was a good actor, and I fell in love with the story. Then, listening to his commercials, I learned that the voice actress with the gorgeous accent also wrote! She wrote about Shakespeare, and she had done one of these podcasts, too! And in her podcast, some guy named Holyfield had also done one!
I consumed them. Morevi, Billibub Baddings, Chasing the Bard, Digital Magic, Weather Child, Heaven, Murder at Avedon Hill, Metamor City: Making the Cut, Nina Kimberly The Merciless, Cybrosis, Brave Men Run, Down from Ten, The Antithesis Progression, Ancestor, Seventh Son….
I learned that there are many different forms of storytelling. Social media offers so many opportunities; big and exciting new things are just around the corner. Most of these people go to “cons,” where they party but also work really hard. The writing world is miniscule, so you shouldn’t be a jerk (of course, you shouldn’t be a jerk in general). There are good ways to behave on social media, and there are bad ways. There is a whole community of writers.
I had a rough time in my last year of high school/first year of uni. I did not write.
And then I wrote a fantasy novel about the end of the world.
Praeton hoisted himself up on the window ledge. Something had spattered on the stone directly beneath it, just beyond the reach of his questing arms. He strained to see, balancing on his elbows, the windowsill cutting under his armpits. Then there were hands on his shoulders. He twisted around and found River steadying him. The gesture impressed him. Most grown-ups would’ve hauled him down.
With River holding him, he stretched his arm a little further and brushed the splatter. At first it felt warm, probably from the stones. Then pain erupted through his finger. He gasped, hugged it close to him. The skin flamed red and swollen. And, coating it, ugly red-black ooze.
“What’s wrong?” The urgency in River’s voice surprised him. She had been so calm before.
Suddenly his head felt very light. The corners of the room rushed away, and he sank to the floor, his back against the wall. Slowly, he lifted his finger to his face. The sharp tang of iron stung his nostrils. Blood.
Darkness devoured the edges of his vision. Somewhere, far away, he heard River calling. He wanted to answer, but his tongue flopped, his jaw wouldn’t unhinge. Then a deafening boom, thunder worse than all thunder combined, shattered his consciousness. Before blackness claimed him, a single word exploded in his skull: HAPAX.
It was 84,000 words long: at last, saleable length.
Because I had learned that Twitter is a good thing, I saw a tweet about an open submissions period at Dragon Moon Press—which I knew about from podcasters. I sent in my book, even though I was already podcasting it, because I didn’t expect it to get picked up.
Only then it did.
And so I learned that you should always read the whole email. Publishing takes a long time. Podcasting is a LOT of work, but it is some of the most fun you will ever have. Contracts are terrifying and exciting all at once. Authors need to do a LOT to promote their own work. Book launches are fun, but there is also intense pressure and a slight slump the next day.
I went to cons. There are good ways to behave. There are also bad ways. Some moderators guide panel discussions and ask probing questions, some try to make it all about them. If you ask people very nicely, they may help you out. Help others if you can. Authors, like actors, always say yes. Assume everyone knows everyone. Never assume someone has read your work. If necessary, you can survive off the food in the con-suite.
I wrote another fantasy novel. It didn’t work, so I focused on another.
My eyelids flickered. I tried to open them, but they were too heavy. I didn’t mind, though. I was sinking into the earth, not weighed down, but secured. A cloak of noises wrapped around me. I was a thread in it, too. My breathing and heartbeat, the rustling of my clothes, they were as much a part of Grey Run as the birds’ trilling.
“I’m ready, atu. I want to meet you.”
A twig snapped in the distance. Leaves crunched. The atu had to be here, somewhere. The atu had to be everywhere. There was something at the borders of my mind, something stirring. If I could just get a bit closer….
A harsher, louder snap.
If I could just get a bit closer, I’d see it, feel it.
Leaves rubbing together. Rhythmic sounds on the earth, soft and stealthy.
It was almost within my grasp. I just needed to stretch out my fingertips, just a little bit farther, because I could almost feel the atu, I was sure of it. It was here, and I was almost there with it—
I promise, I’m still working on the other one:
“The gods don’t listen.” The girl’s voice was stone. “Mostly, I don’t think they care.”
The breath fled Serafine’s lungs. No, this couldn’t be what they thought. “I know what it feels like,” she said softly. “I know what it feels like to shout at them, to ache with all your soul and get nothing. But never, ever believe that they don’t care. Not even for a moment. Promise me that, Aislinn.”
“Did they save your family?” It wasn’t asked harshly. No mockery sharpened the question. Aislinn simply stared at her with those wide, child-like eyes.
“No.” Serafine drew her hand back, clutched it close to her. Nervous, for once.
“Did you ask them to?”
Aislinn turned aside. “Then you forgive easier than me.”
From what I’ve seen, Stonecoast will be a great apprenticeship. Something else I’ve learned, though: writers never, ever stop learning. Pay attention. Watch what other people are doing. Watch how they are doing it. Listen to the currents of conversation. Read. Read more.
And also…conflict, conflict, conflict. You’re allowed to suck. There are many different forms of storytelling. Help others if you can.
One of my required readings for school this term was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Happily, I had already purchased and read this book some years ago. I reread it, and this time, Lamott’s emphasis on short assignments and the one-inch picture frame struck me.
When everything seems too overwhelming and you don’t know what to write about, you write about as much as you can see through a one-inch picture frame (metaphorical or otherwise). At work, there’s a mysterious green bench that appeared on the porch of the big red farmhouse. It’s the green of kids’ green poster paint and my boss exclaimed to me, “It looks like a Christmas bench!”
“The Christmas Bench,” I mused. “It sounds like a kids’ story, where people sit on the bench and learn the true meaning of Christmas and all that stuff. One day, I’ll write it.”
And I kept trying to. I kept scribbling about Christmas and what it means to me, and how it’s changed, but I kept hitting walls and giving up.
Until I remembered the one-inch picture frames.
I’d like to write about Christmas now.
For three Saturdays in December, the pioneer village stays open until 9:30 pm. We do Victorian Christmas things. Oil lamps light the entire village with a soft warm glow (hence, Christmas by Lamplight). Food gets handed out, live music plays, I’m usually down in the brewery slinging beer.
But before all of that, there is dinner.
The table in the middle of our staff room serves as its focal point. Really, they are two long, narrow tables stuck together. They have shiny blue tops and shiny black legs, like the lunch tables you’d find in an elementary school. The chairs have the same shiny black legs and blue seats, but that’s some kind of easily-wiped padding, so they’re not too uncomfortable. Our lunches are split into five separate shifts; there are usually only three to four people around this table at any given time.
Lamplight is different. See, on Saturdays, we close at 4:30. We don’t need to be back out until 5:45. Some people go out. Most people seem to stay. And so, instead of only three or four people, it’s nearly everyone, all brown-bagging their dinner. Although it’s only 4:30, people grab their dinners right away, because there’s always a rush for the microwave. Tupperware and frozen dinners line the counter just in front of it, queuing while their owners claim seats around the table.
It’s always kind of anxiety-inducing when your turn at the microwave comes up, because you’re very conscious of the long line behind you, but at the same time there’s nothing worse than only partially warming your stew and biting into an icy chunk of potato. So you balance and ponder and eventually settle on a time that’s somewhere in the middle, and you probably pull it out halfway through to stir it up and check on it. Inevitably, someone hears the microwave door opening and leaps up. You feel kind of bad that it’s a false alarm, but hey, icy potatoes are gross. And by then, you can usually smell someone else’s dinner, something that smells way better than yours—leftover chicken or pizza or someone else’s stew—and your stomach pinches with hunger.
When your dinner is mostly warmed through, you take it back to the seat that you hopefully saved earlier. There are more people than spaces, so some people are sitting on chairs along the walls with their dinner on their knees, and some are standing by the sink. But maybe you left your reticule, or a water glass, or got someone to guard it for you, so you sink onto your chair. And God help you if your seat is near the back wall or the pop machine because it’s hard to maneuver around all those ballooning hoop skirts.
And then we have dinner together.
Sometimes there are baked goods in the middle for people to share: bread that didn’t sell or cookies that can’t be served to the public, but for the most part, everyone is eating their own meals. And yet, it’s still having dinner together. All of us, at the same time, in one place, talking and laughing and shouting greetings as those coming just for Lamplight sweep down the staircase in their street clothes. A half-dozen conversations fly around the room, and people keep getting up to get more water, or passing coins down the table for pop, or running off to fix their hair or change.
People you never see because they’re not on your shift are there. And people you always see are there. And people you love chatting to but never get to have lunch with are there. It’s near the end of the season, so we’re tired, but we know Lamplight. We’re wrapping things up, both at the village and with each other. Soon, we’ll be scattering for the winter, seeing each other less often, but for right now, we are together. Since it happens every year, I can breathe the sigh of relief that comes with knowing the end of the story.
It warms the cockles of my stony heart. Roughly twenty people who probably would never have met otherwise, melded into one of those strange non-biological family units that we craft from our friends. At Christmas, having everyone together becomes even more poignant because we know that soon we’ll be going our separate ways.
And that’s my one-inch picture frame on Christmas.
No matter what you celebrate, my best to you and those you care about. Stay warm and safe, and have a wonderful time with your friends and family.
When I was a small child, I never went anywhere without a book. In the car (even though it made me ill). At the doctor’s. At grandma’s. In the backyard. Under the covers. Though it makes me sad to admit it, I read for pleasure far more back then.
Part of it comes from the way I was reading. I remember all of these fantastic worlds being so real. I’ve noticed that when kids get into a book, they get really into it. There’s a sense of wonder when kids read: a willingness to engage with the story, almost as if they can slip sideways in just the right way, they’ll fall into the book’s universe.
I read the first Harry Potter at eight and bemoaned the fact that I would need to wait three years for my Hogwarts letter (my parents were torn between amusement and slight concern). By the time I started on Redwall, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere—and yet, somehow, I still have a solid grasp of the Abbey’s layout. Even now, when I squish a bug, part of me wonders if I’ve killed an Andalite or Animorph in morph.
Unless we’re very careful, we lose that wonder somewhere along the way. You experience Kit and Nita’s wizardry differently when there’s rent to be paid and deadlines to be met. Oh sure, you STILL really enjoy it, and read the book in a night, and love and cry for and adore the characters, but it’s not the same as when you’re a kid. The colours are just slightly faded, the edges slightly dulled.
It’s sad. For a writer, it’s terrifying.
I’ve been working to rekindle that sense of wonder. Given my line of work and field of study, I’m always reading to learn. But since finishing my undergrad, I can create my own syllabus. There’s still a lot of fantasy and SF (I’ve finally gotten around to reading Mercedes Lackey’s Arrows of Valdemar and I’m having a rollicking good time), but I’m trying to branch out-of-genre as well.
Slight digression: I got asked recently if I put myself into my writing. It took me a moment to answer. I don’t do self-inserts (“And then, the plucky young street urchin…named Caytee…went and did awesome stuff”) but I’ve noticed that my writing is always stronger when my actual, genuine emotions are in there: love, joy, grief, whatever.
Maybe that’s the way that books become real, whether we’re reading or writing them: we come to them with real emotions, real feelings. We’re not afraid to feel the emotions books create in us and we’re not afraid to transfer our own feelings onto the page.
Knowing how to spot symbolism, theme, allegory…these are all important things. Understanding the craft, appreciating a deft bit of characterization, or questioning an author’s plot choice…also important.
But entering the story on its own terms, opening yourself up to it…that’s not just important, it’s necessary.
What books enthralled you as a child? What books make your spine tingle and your eyes gleam now? What are the books that you close with a pang?
One of my favourite lines in Doctor Who comes right before the Tenth Doctor’s regeneration. As the Doctor is dying, Ood Sigma tells him: “This song is ending, but the story never ends.”
This idea of regeneration, transformation instead of destruction (and sometimes transformation through destruction), fits quite nicely with themes that crop up in Hapax and Strix. There’s a subtle difference, though. The Tenth Doctor’s song is over; the story goes on. My characters’ songs change, but they never actually end. Not really.
Broken down to its simplest level, I guess it really says, “Life goes on.”
And that is a painful, wonderful thing. Today marks exactly eight months since I lost my dad. Some days are harder than others. The magnitude, unexpectedness, and sheer absurdity of what happened shielded me for a long time. Intellectually, of course, I knew. Believe me, no delusions here. In terms of feelings…different story. My dad, have a heart attack? My dad, the healthy, vibrant athlete? No way, no how: not a thing.
Except it was a thing: a stupid, terrible thing that should never have happened, but did anyway.
The glory, the beauty, and the triumph of life is that it continues. The long, hard winter eventually passed into spring. Over the past eight months, some of my friends have had wonderful things happen to them. I’ve had some wonderful things happen to me. The mornings dawned bright and clear. New sheep were born. Our tiny little speck of a planet kept whirling through the cosmos.
It’s really easy to look at all of that and think, “Well, frak. The universe clearly doesn’t care—everything’s ticking right along even though we’re short one awesome person.”
Sometimes I wonder if that’s missing the point. Is it painful to write knowing he’ll never read it? Occasionally. Does it suck knowing he’ll never see another mist-shrouded cottage morning? Absolutely.
But the story never ends. It continues in the love my dad left us. It continues in the blue eyes I have to face in the mirror every morning. “Life goes on” isn’t necessarily a trite platitude, or a bitter cry of resentment. It doesn’t suggest uncaring. Not at all.
It suggests that as permanent and inevitable as death is, life will always find a way. Even in the darkest of times, there are still things which are good. And that can be a huge, huge comfort.
When the Doctor regenerates, he isn’t quite the same. Different looks, obviously, but also a slightly different personality. And yet, despite the differences, he is still—inherently, always— the Doctor. The good doesn’t get through unscathed, but it does get through.
That night eight months ago was the worst night of my life. Most of the time, it still doesn’t feel real. Unless I’m in the grip of a flashback, it’s just a chaotic whirlwind of fragmented memories and sharp edges. To be completely frank, the death of a loved one sucks more than anything else in the universe. I’ve learned a lot, but I’d really rather just have my dad and skip the life lessons.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a TARDIS. I can’t go back and change the outcome. That song ended eight months ago.
But the story—of love, warmth, joy—that never ends. As painful as this is, I’m glad, at least, of that.
PS. Skip to ~2:30 or thereabouts. Get Kleenex first.