So the big thing this week is that I finished the second draft of the Creepy Play: my Southern (Ontario) Gothic family tragedy. And you guys, there was one night—I was expanding a scene between the mother and her adult daughter. Remember, this play is an angst-fest. The mother is a roiling, toxic pit of darkness, and her daughter’s an angry, hurt young woman who can be a) the most gentle, genuinely caring person in the play, or b) casually crueller than anyone else.Anyway, the scene was rolling along, but then I had to step back. I stumbled to my couch, squished in beside Guinness, and I cried.
Not because I’m a delicate flower. But because I understood the mother’s darkness. I understood her daughter’s anger. I saw what made these broken, anguished people the way they are.And of course, it isn’t real. No more than a dream is. But it is distressing nonetheless, and so I wanted to talk about self-care when writing difficult scenes.
Except that a listicle feels trite. “Have a hot shower!” “Listen to comforting music!” “Read fluff!” Hopefully, you already know that.
(For the record: I listened to a lot of Anglican/Gregorian chant while writing the Creepy Play—I needed the familiar tone and repetitive tunes to stay grounded.)
Sometimes, we have to look into the darkness. I’m not only talking about creative-types, here. Sometimes, we all have to do it. We need to shine a light into the furthest corners of our heads—and not look away. It’s hard. No one likes seeing the darkness smile back when they look in the mirror.
“If all that’s inside me…what does that say about me?”
It says that humans are complex creatures, and we are all a mix of wonderful, noble, loving tendencies and awful, cruel, damaging ones. The best way to grapple with the darkness, I think, is to understand it. Not glorifying it; not revelling in it – but understanding.
And to do that, we need to enter it. Safely, carefully—this is where the hot showers and comforting music come in.
It’s really hard.
So what do we gain, doing it?
Connection, I think. Empathy. The ability to look at that hurt, angry young woman and say, “Yes, I can feel that too.”After all, the darkness is always worse when you don’t know what’s in it.
The trick is remembering to keep hold of the light. This has been a deeply uncomfortable play to write, and there will be another draft—but I know I’m better for having written it. I hope it serves its eventual audience, too.
What I’m Listening to This Week
For ages, I’ve been noodling the idea of borrowing polyphonic principles for my fiction. The climax of the Creepy Play is basically written that way: voices in counterpoint with each other, passing the melody back and forth, emphasizing certain phrases and motifs against each other…
Vivaldi isn’t precisely polyphony, but this section from his Gloria is what I was thinking of. Listen to the parts enter one by one, different ideas emerging to prominence and then sinking again (especially the tenors around 0:50, mirrored by the altos while the basses take the melody back). It’s a single whole—that interplay fascinates me.
So I’m still writing the Creepy Play. This play remains without title for now, though in my earliest notes, it was code-named Southern Ontario Gothic. I feel like I had a good title in that hazy darkness between wake and sleep last night, but it’s gone this morning.
Anyway, we’re at the point where Act II shatters into Act III. Everything is The Worst for our characters, and there’s maybe 25% of the script left to go. It’s a Point of No Return: structurally, but also writing-wise.
See, I’ve noticed something with my long-form fiction. There’s always a point where the story ceases to be optional. You sit there, typing, and suddenly you know—just know in the deepest level of your gut—that you’re going to finish today, tomorrow, in the immediate future. There’s no longer a choice about it. The story has to come out.
It’s not a happy feeling, exactly. Nor is it a negative one. It’s just grimly determined. I ran cross-country as a kid, and it reminds me of the 75% mark of a race. You’re exhausted. Your legs hurt. Breath burns up your throat.
But you know the finish line is close, so you keep going. No matter how tired, you couldn’t stop even if you wanted to. The feeling mirrors the one near the start of a long piece—the feeling when you know, instinctively, that the story’s survived the awkward beginning and that tender little shoot isn’t going to wither after all.
The more I write, the more I notice these instinctive reactions. This story’s going to survive. This one is broken too deep for me to fix. I’m going to finish this play today or tomorrow.
Experience, I guess, just as a runner learns to listen to their own body.
That’s really all for now. I’m tired. My legs hurt. Breath’s burning up the back of my throat as our characters struggle and break and reveal who they really are.
But the finish line is close. I couldn’t stop, even if I wanted to.
What I’m Listening to This Week
The first movement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater is one of my favourites. It was written for soprano and alto, but there’s a staggeringly beautiful version done solely by strings. After some digging, I found it.
So much of the heartbreak is in the grace notes: it’s the voice cracking, the heart stuttering. And throughout—listen to the bass line, the relentless broken chords. It’s another heartbeat, a pulse driving us inexorably to the end.
A while back, a friend sent me a link to this post: a ridiculous and then all-too-real look at a day in the writer’s life. I laughed, because it was true. Then I laughed, because if I didn’t, I might cry. And I thought – what does my day look like?
Around the same time, I realized I’d be adapting Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen into a 15-minute Christmas Pantomime in a very short, concentrated burst. “What better day to examine?” quoth I. “I shall document writing this script!”
And so I did. Here is an admittedly-not-wholly-typical day for me: in which I wrote The Snow Queen in a day.
9:22 am. Awaken, as Guinness has decided that enough is enough and he would really like breakfast. Since I was only up until 1 am or so, I feel slightly groggy, but mostly rested.
10:16 am. After coffee, Cheerios, shower, and dealing with cat, I am ready to start researching The Snow Queen. First up, an English translation of Hans Christian Anderson’s original, downloaded to Kindle.
10:37 am. Realize that when Blythe gave me a synopsis of the story on the bus, she neglected to mention the Crow that randomly sends Gerda on a wild goose chase. At the end of the story, he’s DEAD. And no one cares all that much. WTF kind of story is this?!
His tame sweetheart is a widow, and wears a bit of black worsted round her leg; she laments most piteously, but it’s all mere talk and stuff!
10:55 am. Read another translation, just to make sure the nuances are consistent. Crow still snuffs it.
11:16 am. Turn my attention to the Shelley Duvall “Faerie Tale Theatre” adaptation. It is eighties-tastic.
11:46 am. Knowing that Blythe grew up with this series explains a few things about her.
11:58 am. I would make a GREAT Robber Girl. Don’t tell me otherwise.
12:03 pm. Well, that’s creepy as f***.
12:27 pm. Lunch of grilled cheese and corn chips, because I’m seven.
1:21 pm. Back to it with another eighties-tastic adaptation…
1:36 pm. Sigourney Weaver does ALL the voices in this. The characters’ lips don’t even move. It’s like an audiobook with accompanying pictures. I guess that’s ONE way to cut costs. That said, she has a very versatile voice. Start pondering what audio roles I would write for her.
2:02 pm. Pull out whiteboard. Assemble a skeletal plot. Tally up characters. Request final instructions from project lead before writing starts.
2:16 pm. Attend to dayjob costumes, because EVERYTHING is getting washed this weekend.
3:52 pm. Still waiting. Gripped by sudden anxiety regarding garret’s cleanliness (or lack thereof). Clean furiously. Admire new Pine-Sol floor cleaner. I can indeed both see AND smell a difference!
5:27 pm. Writing will begin post-dinner: pasta, rapini, tomatoes, and mussels. I like these sorts of meals because it looks like something an adult might eat, but takes like, 15 minutes to make.
6:02 pm. Sit at desk. How the f*** long is this meant to be, anyway? How long was the other pantomime I wrote?
6:16 pm. Frolic about on Twitter.
6:31 pm. OKAY WE’RE STARTING NOW.
6:35 pm. Stare at screen. Realize I have no idea how to start. And I only have ten pages, tops. Softly mutter, “Tabarnac.”
6:36 pm. Frolic about on Twitter.
7:01 pm. It’s okay, it’s okay, we can do this. Make it through an excruciating first page. Then I find my rhythm. Writing feels a bit like building a house of cards: it’s taking shape, you’ve got the groove, it’s great – and it also feels like it’s a breath away from collapsing around your ears.
7:22 pm. Can I make a reference to every song on the Frozen soundtrack? Only one way to find out.
8:46 pm. Audio break, because I realize I forgot to send Lauren our Words of a Feather audio.
9:11 pm. Back to the script. It’s either fine or dreadful. I’m not sure which, but we’ll keep going.
10:07 pm. AHAHAHA I HAVE FINISHED. ALL SHALL LOVE ME AND DESPAIR.
10:08 pm. Text Blythe.
10:19 pm. Internet woes. Call Bell and express my displeasure again. While waiting, quickly scan script and fix most egregiously bad prose. Decide that it’s pretty good for a first bash-through.
10:54 pm. Finally manage to send script off.
11:16 pm. “Katie this is fabulous!”
11:17 pm. Accept praise. Mentally start making edits. (Gerda should possibly not say, “Really?” three times in a row.)
11:30 pm. Frolic about on Twitter.
11:47 pm. Sleep.
And that’s how I wrote a treatment of The Snow Queen in a day. Again, my writing days don’t always look like this. Perhaps in the off-season, we’ll try this again… 😉
What I’m Listening To This Week
This piece floated through my head this week – appropriate enough for Remembrance Day on Friday, I suppose. It’s a lovely choral setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Remember.” Pieces like this really should be treated like monologues: there’s a dramatic arc, intention, a goal and change. This choir gets that across pretty well – particularly in the rising urgency around 1:25.
Last night was the first time I got to hear scenes from East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon performed by the kids.
“Uh, so I’m a really late addition,” I told the ticket-takers. “I hope I have tickets? Katie Bryski?”
One rifled through envelopes. “Who’s your chorister?”
“Oh, um, I don’t…” I awkwardly pointed to the giant sign a few metres away. “I wrote that.”
Thank goodness I made it out in the end. My synthesized score gives some idea of the music, but really, it has nothing on the human voice.
The piano thrummed the opening chords. I heard Norbert’s winds, the beautiful, aching yearning that characterizes this opera. I clutched my companion’s hand as the kids took their collective breaths, opened their mouths…
Those were my words. Those were my words, brought to life right in front of me. I’d been joking all evening about feeling like this:
Except it wasn’t just me. That’s the beautiful thing about writing for theatre. It’s never just you. We made this. My collaborator, Norbert Palej, is a stunningly talented composer. From a gorgeous wind motif, to witty (and biting) musical jokes, to incredibly complex duets and trios, I hear something new every time I listen to it.
And the kids. Man, those kids. They did it. They nailed it. Sure, this was only a few excerpts—but they got it. With accompaniment, with Norbert’s music, with the kids’ voices…it actually sounded like a real opera. Because somehow, it wasn’t real yet before. Not when I was tapping out meters on my desk while eating Jamaican patties. My own words hit me in a totally different way than they ever have before.
I haven’t even seen staging, set, or costumes yet, and each of those things represents another talent. Plus there’s the direction. Plus there’s the chamber orchestra.
So many different aspects, so many different people putting their work and creativity. Theatre is greater than the sum of its parts—its magic comes from this synthesis. And for me, experiencing my words brought to life—whether through a straight play, a podcast, an opera—is a high unlike any other. Even…and I almost hesitate to say this…even a book launch, or seeing my stories in anthologies or magazines isn’t the same.
Theatre lives. Theatre breathes. Theatre does different things than printed words, unlocks and punches a different part of my brain.
Yes, I write novels and short stories. Those will likely comprise the bulk of my writing. But as long as that magic remains in the theatre, I suspect that I shall always write for the stage in some way. There’s so much strength, potency, and love in collaboration; how could I not?
Now to prepare myself for that opening night energy. Just under three weeks until premiere.
Cool Thing of the Week
Obviously, this bear. This is one of 100 polar bears made by the CCOC. He is the polar bear from East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon, and he’s wearing a t-shirt with the CCOC logo.
And he sings music from the opera. The kids recorded a short segment that plays when you squeeze his paw.
Let me say that again.
This bear freaking sings words that I wrote!
This is one of the coolest things I have ever seen. I’m still in shock, actually.
Oh man, oh man, oh man…