Pondering two separate-but-related things this week. First, I went to At Home with Monsters, the Guillermo del Toro exhibit currently on at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The exhibit purports to bring patrons inside del Toro’s home, “Bleak House.” It features art and books he holds dear, along with costumes and models from his films.
It’s a fascinating look into the creative “mulch” from which an artist’s work grows. The exhibit drew largely from del Toro’s childhood influences: a conservative Catholic grandmother, fairy tales, comic books and movie monsters. (No wonder I like the man’s work so much.) Montages from his films then show how those influences translate to his art.
It occurs to me that while the exhibit references his physical house, it’s mostly about home in a metaphorical sense. What mental furnishings does del Toro have; what relics from childhood and family tradition lie semi-forgotten in the attic of his mind, hauled back to light when least expected?
We all have such a mental home, of course, outfitted with whatever pieces we’ve picked up along the way. Which relates to my second pondering…
I’ve been thinking about my dad a lot this week. Partly, it’s the season. The fifth anniversary draws nigh in a month or so, which…fuck. Partly, this tends to happen around Remembrance Day, with all our choral pieces focused on death, loss, and memorializing.
Thinking about my mental home, grief and loss feature pretty prominently. Look at the fiction I’ve written since he died. It shows up again, and again, and again, like I’m telling myself the same story in hopes that this time I’ll understand the ending.
(Spoiler: I never do.)
But there was an unexpected thought in all this. I don’t have to be afraid anymore. See, for a good few years after Dad died, my operating rule was that – eventually- everyone dies or leaves. No one was for Keeps. No one stayed forever. Sometimes that assumption was consciously articulated; sometimes it just underlay everything, like the lowest, half-heard rumble from an organ.
It runs all through my fiction: this obsessive fear of loss. Sometimes, that works (Six Stories). Sometimes, it doesn’t. (I can name probably half-a-dozen short stories off the top of my head.)
But here is something I’m still trying to puzzle through. Grief and loss and death are my monsters—some of them, anyway. They live in my mental house with me; I’ll never get their stains out of the carpet and wallpaper.
But I’m not afraid, precisely, in quite the same way.
It’s a bit like my fear of Medusa (who also appeared in the del Toro exhibit, to my equal delight and dismay). Medusa’s a monster in my house too. But I’m not afraid—in fact, I’ve co-opted the gorgon image for myself, turning a symbol of my utmost dread into something powerful, strong, protective.
She’s a monster I live with. Though I fear her, I’ve got the power, now.
We all have monsters. I think their appearance in our art is inevitable. I’m not sure that you can write about them while you’re still afraid of them. I think that for art to be successful, you need to have some distance from it, to let it work as art in itself, rather than a veiled autobiography. Art is synthesis, not straight translation.
And my roundabout point is that I think grief and loss are finally undergoing the same transformation for me. My monsters, my furnishings, but not something that controls me. Rather, something I can co-opt, something I can drag out from the attic when they’ve mouldered into something less recognizable, rather than using them straight-from-the-box.
What can you write, if you’re not afraid?
I’m not entirely sure. I guess we’re going to find out.
PS. For more information about At Home with Monsters, click here. I will definitely be returning; my one regret is that I had an appointment to keep, and so rushed more than I would’ve liked.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Love me some Ralph Vaughan Williams, but I’d never heard this cantata before now. According to the accompanying notes, “Dona Nobis Pacem” was written in response to “…war, or the deepening sense of trouble which by the mid-1930s seemed set to explode into war.”
Equally disturbing and reassuring as a whole, the second movement (starting around 4:00) is one of the most intense and angry choral pieces I’ve heard in a while. I think we know one of Vaughan Williams’ monsters. Also listen to the quiet, driving drums and baritone in the fifth movement (26:40)…before the choir explodes into more anguish, followed by a glorious final movement.
It was late 2011, and I was at a Thai restaurant with Blythe and my old roommate Gavin, discussing how we’d produce Hapax-the-Podcast. At some point, conversation turned towards the museum, and their nighttime Christmas celebrations.
It got too busy down in the brewery, according to Blythe. It was really a two-person job, those nights. But no one else was Smart-Served, so.*
*SmartServe = certification you need if you want to sell/serve alcohol in Ontario.
So I was twenty—and I wanted to look cool—so I said, “I’ve got my SmartServe.”
It was meant to be a one-off. One night, help out, thanks and see you. But from the moment I stepped into the brewery, I fell utterly and completely in love with it.
When I was a kid, I did what my parents called “deep dives.” For months—years, sometimes—I’d delve into various pet passions, but way more intensely than you’d expect.
Wolves, man. I knew absolutely everything about wolves.
Ancient Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty.
The Phantom of the Opera.
I was that seven-year-old walking around the ROM’s Egypt collection taking notes on a clipboard. And you know what? I think I’d almost forgotten how happy I was just learning. Drinking in knowledge as quickly and deeply as I could, for no other reason than—it caught my interest.
Looking over the past few years—I think beer was the last thing I dove into just because.
Oh, I’ve had other interests. Remember last winter, when I was all into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood? That was awesome, but I wouldn’t characterize it as a “deep dive.” I read some books and watched some documentaries, but I don’t know nearly everything.
And I know an awful lot about the nineteenth century, particularly 1800s Toronto. But there’s a slightly mercantile edge to that. I really enjoy learning about them, but half my mind is always storing away tidbits for later use in day-jobbery or writing.
It’s less spontaneous. Less innocent, somehow.
Learning about beer served no obvious purpose. I just liked it. Learning about it made me happy.
After that first night in the brewery, I did what I always do: I wandered off and buried myself in books. For eighteen months, more or less, I learned everything I could. When a regular spot opened in the brewery, I was waiting.
I wrote a blog. I sampled a lot of beers and developed my palate.
Beer became my thing.
But I didn’t just learn the difference between ales and lagers, IBUs and SRM, Vienna malt and Fuggles hops. In the brewery, you had to lead tours and guide tastings. Gregariousness was the order of the day. You had to set strangers at ease; keep conversation going; think on your feet.
But something else happened, too. Have you guys noticed, beer is a hot topic right now? For the first time in my life, I knew about a COOL THING. I had this vast storehouse of information that people actually wanted. And I was becoming confident enough to share it effectively.
Then beer crossed over into my writing life.
I often think that the skills I’ve learned at the museum and at conventions reinforced each other. Panels are like stationary tours; tours are like a moving panel. And I figured out something very cool:
Beer is an excellent party trick.
Many people like beer. Many people have favourite beers. Many people know enough about beer to hold a conversation. For me—still shy, under it all—it’s a brilliant ice-breaker. Like Concerned Children’s Advertisers said in the early nineties, “Everybody’s got a thing!”*
*Canadian Nineties Kids got these PSAs on TV. If you have not heard the jingle for “Don’t You Put it in Your Mouth,” you have not truly lived.
I keep coming back to the joy I felt, all those hours I ploughed through histories of brewing and beer style guides. Back then, beer wasn’t anything professional. It wasn’t a party trick. It wasn’t even my thing. Not yet. It was neat, and that was it.
We all need passions like that, I think. Loving something for no obvious reason, pursuing our own interests down rabbit holes. It adds depth and richness to our lives, the way love always does. I think sometimes we’re reluctant to pick things up just because – we can’t justify the time, we don’t see how it’s useful, we’re afraid how it might reflect on us.
But we never know where it will all lead. After six (!) years of studying beer, I know my life would have been much poorer without it.
Everybody needs their thing. What’s yours? 😀
What I’m Listening to this Week
There’s quite a lot happening in “The Gallant Weaver.” I could go on about the soprano lines echoing each other, or the beautiful solid chords in the lower voices, but I’m also exhausted, so have a listen for yourselves!
I had an epiphany this week: no one cares that I have an MFA.
Another epiphany immediately followed: no one should care.
It all sounds much more dramatic than it was, really. Sometimes after shows, visitors ask us, “So…did you, like, go to school for this or something?”
“I went to theatre school!” inevitably draws admiring murmurs and follow-up questions. “I have my Masters in Creative Writing!” not so much.
It’s a silly thing. I hate the small, venomous part of me that bristles at it. But you know what? We all have our vanities and our arrogances, and I want to be honest. It is such a silly thing, but sometimes it really sucks.
What helps is remembering why I got an MFA. I didn’t get it for glory. I got it so that I could become a better writer. No other reason. Degrees and workshops and grants are all very nice—but having them isn’t what matters. What matters is what you do with them.
Forging new opportunities.
And writing isn’t full of much glamour anyway. We tend to be paid last and least. We’re generally the silent partner, drafting proposals in the basement. Like good sound editing, good writing is often invisible, which doesn’t help if you’re after recognition.
GOBLIN 1: The Snow Queen doesn’t make any sense without goblins. We’ve got the most important part: there’s no story without us.
GOBLIN 2: But after this, we’re never seen again. No glory, no thanks, no nothing!
GOBLIN 1: It could be worse. (Pause) We could be playwrights.
The Snow Queen: a Pantomime, by Me (2016).
So if not for fame and fortune, why write?
Because we must; because we’re artists. But I’m not going to say, “Forget external validation.” That’s not realistic; most humans like praise. When you’ve worked really hard on something—put your heart and soul into it—pulled off the impossible on sheer grit and nerve—of course you want a clap on the back. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But to counterbalance that craving, we need an even stronger core of self-assurance and self-knowledge. Because the praise won’t always come. The kudos won’t. The appreciative murmurs won’t. And when that happens, an inner, steely kernel will keep you going. That’s your compass: external validation is a nice boost, but you don’t want to steer by it.
At the end of the day…yeah, I have a hungry ego. And I’ve worked to temper it, because it doesn’t have any place in the creative process. What good is praise and validation if you don’t value what you do? “Believe in yourself” sounds so cliché, but if you don’t, who will?
I think it’s one of the hardest things we face, as artists. Putting the mitts back on, wiping our faces, and striding out into the silent ring. But if you can know—if you can know, deep down—that what you’re doing is good and worthwhile—
Then the fight is already won.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I found “Dacw ‘Nghariad” by accident and immediately became obsessed. It’s one of those pieces that make stories flash before your eyes. Pretty sure this is a lullaby for my new novel’s protagonist… Of course, she’s not Welsh, but we’ll forget about that for now.
So, I had a post all written about the existential anxiety caused by the threat of nuclear war.
But then, this tweet…
…became only the second-worst thing to happen last week.
There have been so many words of fury and mourning spoken about the events in Charlottesville, but I’ll add mine anyway. Through Saturday, I alternated between cold anger and heartbrokenness.
Three people are dead. That it happened in Virginia heightened my emotions – if I have adopted any state, it’s Virginia – but really, it would’ve been equally reprehensible in any state.
This is 2017. We should not be tolerating Nazis. We should not be apologists for them. We should not even see them. The world fought a war about that very fact. It was this whole entire thing.
And my anger spins into froth because – have they learned nothing? Do they have no awareness? How does one read the diary of Anne Frank – look at the photos of mountains upon mountains of shoes – listen to survivors’ interviews and testimony – visit concentration camps – and not see that this is evil? How does one see that evil and embrace it anyway?
There are no two sides to this. There is the side of evil and that of right. Right is not always polite. It is not always tender or gentle. Sometimes it is loud and uncomfortable, because right is brave, always.
A vague cop-out about “all sides” is cowardice that makes my stomach turn.
“We want to preserve what we have,” says neo-Nazi Peter Cjvetanovic. And yes, unwittingly, he laid it all out. They want to preserve a system which favours them and them alone. They want to maintain their privilege and overpowering voice. They want to stay at the top, even if they must crush everyone else to do it.
Based on the widespread condemnation, I hope – desperately – that we are seeing the spasmodic death throes of a way of life that is passing. The dinosaurs must have raged too, when they saw the night falling.
The events of this weekend are indeed America. They could be Canada, too. They are the result of decades of ossified racism, misogyny, and inequality. But this is not who we must be. We know who we want to be – let us work harder than ever to get there.
“In spite of everything,” Anne Frank wrote, “I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
I believe that too. Now let us prove it.
And let us not fall into nuclear war, either.
What I’m Listening to This Week
A long one this week: I’ve just been running Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame while I work. It’s a 14th century polyphonic mass, and it is gorgeous. The way the parts fit together is so different from my usual Renaissance polyphony—and I love the ornamental quavers so very, very much.
It’s been a hard week for writing. Don’t get me wrong: lots of writing is happening. But there are so many different projects going on, I struggled to steal a few hours to write a short story. And then, when I finally sat down at my computer, the words wouldn’t come. I wrestled it like Jacob with the angel, eked out 1500 words, decided they were terrible, started again and got 1400…
And I’m back to square one.But I also think I have sorted out what’s wrong with the story. You see, I had to remind myself of two major lessons this past week…
This is a lesson I’ve been learning from my dive into CanLit. Alice Munro does this incredibly well. A woman goes to meet a man in Stratford, and it’s devastating. A young girl kissed a pilot decades ago, and your heart breaks. They’re plots that loop back upon themselves, layering in backstory and inferences. And these small, mundane tragedies, once magnified, become absolutely epic.
Similarly, I finished Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel yesterday. In simplest terms, an old woman flees into the woods and remembers her life.
You guys, I cried so much.
Narrowed focus. Details that catch and tear like fish-hooks. These are stories that dive deeper and closer, spiralling like a Mandelbrot set.
That’s what I want to explore. For now, anyway.
You can only write your stories.
Of course, when the thread of the story snapped, I threw myself into a tailspin. Obviously, the problem was me. My story doesn’t have the gut-wrenching emotion of Keri Hulme. Or the intellectual depth of Theodora Goss. Or the hypnotic quality of Cat Valente. Or the weirdness of Kelly Link, or the sheer storytelling oomph of Kij Johnson, or the beautiful cruelty/cruel beauty of Aimee Bender.
Of course it doesn’t. I’m not those writers.
I’m KT Bryski. Whatever I write has to come from me. In the end, it has to be my voice, my heart, my story.
And I thought: what did I write, before the stress and tension took hold? What did I write before I was afraid? What did I write when no one was watching?
I went back to one of my few pre-Stonecoast short stories: “After the Winds,” in When the Hero Comes Home Vol. II. Guess what I found?
A northern village.
The yearning for home.
Motifs of breaking free, healing, and finding one’s place.
It was all there. Those are the things that constitute the heart of me. While I’d do some things differently now, it was good to see that, really—I know who I am. I know what matters to me. It’s all there inside: I just need to trust it.
And so I’d add…
Keep Going.Go smaller.
Tell your stories.
We got this.
What I’m Listening to this Week
“Vale Decem” from Doctor Who, because the following line from “The End of Time” popped into my head:
This song is ending, but the story never ends.
This is a transitional time. Some songs are ending, which is painful and exhausting. But the story—the story never ends. Also, add an extra 10 points to this piece for an ethereal countertenor.
My life seems to change drastically every seven years or so. We’re not quite due for a shake-up yet, but it’s been on my mind. Maybe it’s the whole “turning 26” thing. My friends are buying houses, getting married, having babies. Stuff’s getting real…
…whilst I continue to frolic about like a bohemian Peter Pan. There’s a quotation from the end of Barrie’s book that haunts me:
[Peter] had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know; but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be forever barred.
But then I started actually thinking about the future. I have no idea how things are going to end up, and it seems a bit silly to fret too much. It all changes every seven years, right?
And so I started thinking slightly differently. Not what will happen?
What do I want for myself?
I’ve never cleaved closely to the conventional narrative, after all. I know that I won’t buy a three-bedroom semi-detached home in midtown Toronto. I know my relationships and family won’t look conventional. We’re not just outside the box: we left it squished three miles down the road. So if the “should be” isn’t a thing…
What do I actually want?
There’s another poem that speaks to me:
Mine be a cot beside the hill;
A bee-hive’s hum shall soothe my ear;
A willowy brook that turns a mill,
With many a fall shall linger near.
The swallow oft beneath my thatch
Shall twitter from her clay-built nest;
Oft shall the pilgrim lift the latch,
And share my meal, a welcome guest.
Around my ivied porch shall spring
Each fragrant flower that drinks the dew;
And Lucy at her wheel shall sing
In russet gown and apron blue.
The village church among the trees,
Where first our marriage vows were given,
With merry peals shall swell the breeze
And point with taper spire to Heaven.
-Samuel Rogers (1763-1855)
That’s all. That’s it.
Essential. Real. Meaningful.
Just need to keep that close.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I’ve been working on a thing that’s required a lot of fantasy-style music. Here’s a lively piece from Heather Alexander!
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.
I turn 26 on Wednesday. On the one hand, I know that’s nothing. On the other, this tweet feels scarily accurate:
So, 26. Aging aside, there’s been a strange shift in the wind, lately. It’s nothing I can quite put my finger on, but it feels like change is coming, thunder rolling in the distance.
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
– “Kubla Khan,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
My twenties have been relatively comfortable thus far, all things considered. Yet it somehow feels like a chapter is closing. One age ending; another beginning. I don’t know—maybe it’s just birthday feelings.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. I had an interesting conversation the other day about writing at different stages of life. Generally speaking, I agree with Theodora Goss’s theory that to write a certain story/novel, you must first become the sort of person who can write that story/novel. Kelly Robson echoes similar thoughts in her wonderful essay “On Being a Late Bloomer.”
Those thirty years didn’t just make me a writer. They made me a good writer. That paralyzing self-doubt morphed into a keen sense for quality in my own work. When I write something that stinks, I can usually smell it. I’ve been reading for more than forty years, so I have thousands of great books and stories banked for information and inspiration. And best of all, I have a lifetime’s worth of unplumbed material to draw on—I’ve seen the world in all its glory and ugliness.
– Kelly Robson, “On Being a Late Bloomer,” Clarkesworld
Point is, all stories originate from somewhere inside of us. If it isn’t in there somewhere, we can’t pull it out. We can fake it—manufacture a piece with a shiny veneer that crumbles at a touch. But you can’t write the story – not for real – until conditions are right inside you.
Which is why young writers’ works have such a short shelf life. I’d write things, return to them a year later, and immediately see the delta. “I don’t write like this anymore,” I’d say. It was the same feeling you get from examining old photos.
“That was just five years ago—why do I look so young?”
Of course, there’s another implication to all this. If you’ve changed enough, it can make it hard to return to old worlds, old stories. Occasionally, I get asked if I’d ever write another story in the Hapax universe.
And you know what? I don’t think I could. I wrote Hapax at nineteen.
- I still had two parents.
- I’d never been in love.
- I’d never really grieved.
- I had never even considered working in museums.
- I hadn’t met my dearest friends and collaborators.
- I hadn’t failed very much.
- I hadn’t gallivanted around the Antipodes by myself for two months.
- There are hundreds of amazing books/stories I hadn’t read.
I’ve changed enough that the world doesn’t fit anymore. Sure, I could resurrect characters and pick up the mythology (I will say that Hapax’s theology still pleases me), but I wouldn’t write the same sort of story. It’s like leaving Narnia. Once the door is closed, it’s closed.
Of course, 19-year-old KT definitely couldn’t have written any of the short stories I’ve done over the past few years. She couldn’t have written Six Stories or the Creepy Play. Of course not—I wasn’t yet the person who could.
So when I think about falling into a new stage of life, part of me is excited. Or at least, curious. After all, look at all the growth in the past seven years. Where will I be in seven more? What sort of stories will I be able to tell then? By the time my twenties draw to their close, what person will I be?
I don’t know, of course. Perhaps that’s part of the fun—or at least the journey. There’s a lot of stories I haven’t told yet.
But just you wait.
What I’m Listening to this Week
An unexpected piece. “Can’t Help Falling in Love” floated through my head early last week, and it’s been on repeat ever since. Obviously, I’d heard the song before—but I’d never really listened to it.
Yes, I can be a ridiculous sap. But those gentle, lilting broken chords and the velvet richness of Elvis’ lower register—
It’s a lullaby.
When I was a wee sprogget of 16, I went to tour a university. They had a creative writing undergrad, you see, and I’d somehow wrangled a one-on-one with one of the instructors. She seemed distant, impervious to my earnest charm.
Until I asked brightly, “So, do you teach genre fiction as well, or is it all literary?”
She recoiled like I’d slapped her. “Oh, no,” she hissed. “We only teach literary fiction.”
And so I did not attend that university.Through my late teens and undergrad, I similarly avoided anything smacking of “literary fiction.” Meandering vignettes of people sitting on park benches, pondering the banality of existence? Dysfunctional families in the woods? Giants of the literary canon deriding my chosen genre as nothing more than space-faring octopi?
To hell with all that. I was a speculative fiction writer. I was interested in telling good stories.
Have I mentioned that I was incredibly arrogant through my late teens and undergrad?
In any case, I took a half-credit Science Fiction course, which is probably one of the best moves I’ve made. We started with Darko Suvin, forged ahead from Weinbaum to Gibson, and highlighted LeGuin and Tiptree along the way. My final paper contrasted notions of bodily autonomy in “Boojum” (Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear) and “Bloodchild” (Octavia Butler).
Quite a literary analysis, if you think about it.
Then I did my Stonecoast MFA. We’ve talked about it before – that was when my authorial voice started to change. And there—I learned that perhaps “literary” didn’t mean what I’d thought. Perhaps it wasn’t just “the opposite of genre fiction.” So what was it?
It was introspective. It was character-driven. It was devastating. It was lyrical and elegant.
Literary was an approach.
And literary could still have magic and spaceships.So I’ve been undergoing another reading regimen. In some ways, I still feel like an interloper: scuttling across the border to see what I scavenge and bring back to my fantasy. But startlingly, I sometimes recognize myself in the small villages, the bitter-dark humour, the pervasive loss, the tension between things beautiful and grotesque…
Of course, humans like to classify things. We like to label ourselves. That’s what we do. And genre markers are a useful common language for markets, authors, and readers.
But I’m feeling my way towards a strange, interstitial space. Not terribly surprising: I’ve always been fascinated by the liminal. It’s the place betwixt-and-between, where we gleefully borrow principles, turn them inside-out, and blur the lines as we cross them.
That’s what I’m writing towards, I think. It feels right.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Have I done Carmina Burana before? I guess it doesn’t matter; it’s what I was listening to this week.
It’s an Orff cantata, using poems from a medieval manuscript called – appropriately – Carmina Burana, or, “Songs from Beuern.” The “O Fortuna” movement is the one everyone knows.
Two main things. 1) I love the contrast between driving whispers and orchestral cataclysm. It’s the Wheel of Fortune going up and down, you know? And 2) Those lyrics. They are. The most. Metal. Lyrics. EVER.
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.