Late last week, there was a conversation filtering through Twitter about degrees. Specifically, English degrees. Is it helpful for would-be writers to get their English BA? The tweet that kicked things off said, “No.”
As is typical for Twitter, some people disagreed.
And some people disagreed with those disagreements.
I chimed in briefly, but I have more thoughts that I’d like to explore here.
Cutting right to the quick, my short answer is, “Do whatever you want, it’s your life, but I did not find an English degree particularly helpful—either for writing, or life outside academia.”
“But KT,” the crowds cry. “Didn’t you study history?”
Indeed I did! Primarily because I did not find an English degree particularly helpful. See, I actually bounced around five different majors during my undergrad (it’s a miracle I graduated on time). If I can recall them correctly, they were:
English/Drama (double major)
English/Drama/History (major, two double-minors)
History/Medieval Studies (double major)
I realize that’s only four. For the life of me, I cannot remember the fifth—but I know it was there.
Regardless, looking at my progression through majors reveals a pattern. It took a while, but I gradually left English/Drama (literature-based courses) and settled firmly, finally in History (still liberal arts, but not literature-based). Why?
English was making me hate literature and stories. Even then, I knew I was going to be a writer, and I sensed that hating literature might hinder that goal. Really, it was a fundamental disagreement in teaching philosophies. I wanted to learn how stories worked. I wanted to learn what made them beautiful. I wanted to appreciate them as stories—which means that you’re talking about the themes, symbolism, and politics as well. Those are already part of any well-written piece. Basically, I wanted to talk about the syllabus like a writer.
Instead, I got this:
And so, after a particularly rough American literature class, I went to my registrar and got myself safely ensconced in History (I dropped the Medieval Studies component when I realized I like medieval theology, not medieval history).
Do I regret my decision?
Not at all. Having that history degree let me take a summer job at the museum. The skills I developed through my BA and through museum work let me carve out a dayjob wherein my creative partner and I teach history through theatre. Looking specifically to my fiction, history has all been grist for the mill. Moreover, learning how to do history has greatly impacted the way I write (I spent a long, long time digging through La Corriveau’s court records). And arguably, the museum’s impacted my fiction even more. How many nineteenth centuries have I written?
So for me, as a writer, History was infinitely more helpful than English.
You still need to know your field.
While I could not leave that American lit class fast enough, there were other English classes that did feed into my writing. Even genre writers should be familiar with the classics. I took a twentieth-century literature course in my first year that provided a wonderful survey—I likely would not have read The Sound and the Fury without it, and without that, I likely could not have written the Creepy Play. A Science Fiction course and Old English were useful for still more obvious reasons.
And if you’re not taking English electives (which I do recommend, if you can find the right ones—survey courses are great), you should be prepared to self-teach. As Stephen King so rightly said, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time—or the tools—to write.”
What about Creative Writing MFAs, then?
This could be a whole other post, as MFAs are equally contentious. Responses can range from, “MFAs are scams,” to, “They saturate the market with MFA-style fiction,” to, “Well, I guess, if you’re having a hard time improving on your own…”
You don’t need an MFA to be a writer. Really, you don’t need any degree to be a writer. As long as you are reading and writing lots, you’ll develop the skills just fine.
But degrees make it a lot easier.
I’ve talked about the Stonecoast MFA plenty on this blog. I’ll keep saying the same thing: for me, an MFA helped my writing like nothing else. It was everything I wanted from undergrad English courses. We talked about stories and how they worked. We talked about literature as writers. And I got to practice lots and lots, while more experienced, knowledgeable people provided their input.
When I showed up at Stonecoast, I was technically competent and entirely too cocksure. Stonecoast knocked me down a much-needed peg, it taught me how to be an artist, and it gave me a whole host of other skills—from critiquing, to teaching, to writing prose that’s beautiful as well as technically competent.
Most importantly, Stonecoast gave me the tools to teach myself more effectively. It taught me how to learn from other writers, and it gave me a chorus of phantom faculty in my head. Now, when I’m writing, I have this:
“You’re very clever, but this ending cheats the reader. Stop showing off and go write something better,” “Well, this is nice, but surface-level. How can you write with more density?” “Your architecture is off,” “Oh, yay! This feels like a KT Bryski story! Good work!”
You don’t need an MFA, but I’m sure glad I have mine.
Through all of this discussion, a consistent thread emerges: you learn to become a writer by writing and by reading. An English degree is not necessarily the best for that, because there’s very little writing and you’re reading for an entirely different purpose.
If you can find another degree that feeds your passion, go nuts. I’ve always liked History, and I’ve parlayed it into a job that keeps a roof over my head. Otherwise—yes, find something that allows you to pursue your passion.
And remember: it’s hard to say where things will end up. We don’t always realize when we’ve come to a fork in the road. It’s been six full years since that first summer job; eight since that random spark from The Sound and the Fury lodged in my chest.
At the end of the day, only you know what is best for you. Just make sure that you can write, read, and eat consistently.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Sticking with the madrigals: “April is in my mistress’ face.” This is another Morley piece, and it makes me wish I knew more music theory. Listen to the altos’ line at 0:54. I am sure there’s a term for that very distinctive phrase that ends in that very particular sort of chord, but alas, I do not know it…
Welcome back! Last week, we looked at some great fiction from a talented bunch of authors. This week, our year-in-review continues with Things I Did In 2016.
Every year on New Year’s Day, I sit down with a piece of 8.5 x 11 paper and a Sharpie, and I write down my creative goals for the year. I ask myself, “When we get to December 31st, what do I want to have accomplished?”
Here was my list for 2016:
Let’s go through these one by one.
Write first draft of Sing to the Bones
I did that in February. It was insane. In hindsight, I have mixed feelings about writing a novel that quickly, but I’m also not sure that I could do it any other way.
This was a novel that I had to let sit for a while (I also had to go to Ireland to really get it right in my head). I spent October editing it to a second draft, and sent it to readers again. I’m waiting on a few last notes to come back, and I intend to start agent-hunting in the New Year.Finish scripts for Pod-Con
Man, we didn’t even touch this. For those newcomers, this is a podcasted musical that Lauren Harris and I wanted to write. However, I’m moving away from audio fiction, so I’m not sure this is still in the cards. Honestly, I’d mentally removed it from the list.
Produce Folklore somehow
Folklore was an early code-name for Six Stories, Told at Night. Making this list in January, I knew grant decisions wouldn’t go out until March. I figured if I didn’t get the money, I’d throw it up on Audible or something. But as it happened, the Ontario Arts Council did give us the grant, and so this one-woman audio drama rolled out exactly as hoped…although the response was even warmer than I’d dared dream!Write a play: Southern Ontario Gothic
That was November! It was slightly less insane than writing Sing to the Bones. This will get edited around the New Year, and hopefully I can haul some actors in to read it in late January/early February.
Write and submit short stories to pro markets
Really, I wanted to put, “Sell a short story to a pro market,” but I can’t control whether my stories get bought, so I didn’t. But that was the real goal, deep in my heart of hearts.
And I did sell stories to pro markets! “La Corriveau” sold to Strange Horizons and “The Love it Bears Fair Maidens” just came out at Apex. “Wendigo” also won the Toronto Star Short Story Contest, which I will count as publication (hey, most government arts councils do).Outline TEGG novels
I did that! Sort of. Enough that I can knock off the first novel of the trilogy in summer 2017.
So…I achieved my creative goals. But as is my wont, I felt like I could’ve done more, like I could’ve tried harder. Then I realized that I did more than what I’d put on the list. Looking at the year in its entirety, this is What I Did In 2016:Got my Masters’ degree
Wrote the first draft of a novel
Edited three manuscripts for other people
Wrote eight short stories
Wrote the first draft of a full-length play
Wrote two pantomimes for the museum dayjob
Wrote, produced, and released a s***-tonne of videos for the museum dayjob
Got an Ontario Arts Council grant to produce Six Stories, Told at Night
Produced and released Six Stories, Told at Night
Produced and released the Heartstealer audiobook
“Don’t Read This Story” came out at Daily Science Fiction
Sold “La Corriveau” to Strange Horizons
Sold “The Love it Bears Fair Maidens” to Apex
Won the Toronto Star Short Story Contest with “Wendigo”
Wrote/currently producing “On Thin Ice” for the final season of Tales From the Archives
Edited the first draft of a novel into the second draft
Was a guest at Can*Con
Became an Active Member in SFWA
Sold one more story, details to come.
…so do I still feel like I could have done more?Absolutely. Much like Alexander Hamilton, I will never be satisfied. On the one hand, I think that’s a good thing. Hunger goes a long way in this business. On the other hand, that perpetual ache is something I’m going to have to learn to live with.
But while I might not be completely satisfied, I am pleased. Very pleased. See, in 2015 one of my Stonecoast mentors told me that I was on the cusp, to be patient, and to just keep working as hard as I could. Some big breaks came my way in 2016. I don’t think I’ve tipped over the cusp yet, but I feel a lot closer, and I’m excited to see what 2017 brings!
What I’m Listening to this Week
Y’all know I’m honest with this segment. Last week I saw my colleague Devon Hubka’s one-woman show Everything I Need. It was a delightful exploration of her love of theatre and pursuit of acting. This song recurred as a motif throughout:
Not only is it ridiculously catchy, the lyrics speak to me, particularly in light of this week’s post. No room for doubt—just shut up and dance.
Like many writers I know, I keep quotations at my desk. As with most people, they represent an eclectic mix of memories, aspirations, and feelings. Now, I like seeing what words other writers use for compasses. Here, then, are mine:
There’s a reason this picture has shown up a few times. It’s one of the most important of the bunch. Shortly after I graduated, Elizabeth Hand and I had a long, lovely conversation. This is how she finished it. At any stage of a career, it all comes down to this, doesn’t it?
From Doctor Who (the beautiful Vincent Van Gogh episode, more specifically). My writing goes dark, more often than not. While it’s all very well – easy – to hit the reader that way, there has to be more to a story than emotional button-pushing and personal catharsis.
Another contribution from Liz: this is from a poem by Theodore Roethke. She put this on the easel during our first workshop, and it’s stayed with me since. The voice of the story is always there. Often, we simply need to centre ourselves, breathe, and listen to it.
From another friend: Dave Robison. During my first Smoky Mountain Writers’ retreat, I joined a renegade critique group that met to offer criticism after cocktail hour. I read a story about undead French-Canadian steampunk cyborgs (of course). After the silence that followed, this is what Dave said.
This probably deserves its own blog post, but I have to believe it. I have to. Words aren’t coming? You’re going to win a Hugo one day. Rejection letter? You’re going to win a Hugo one day. Feeling frightened, alone, and talentless? Dust yourself off and keep going, because you’re going to win a Hugo one day.
Of course, it seems terribly arrogant to presume that, but I think a weird mix of arrogance and humility is part and parcel of the writing mindset. In any case, it’s proven a lifeline, a beacon, something to drive my ship towards. Can’t ask for more than that, can you?
Okay, so this is probably the most idiosyncratic of the bunch. Earlier this year, I read The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars, by Steven Brust. It was part of Terri Windling’s series of fairy tale retellings. It’s about a painter and it’s about a Hungarian fairy tale. It’s mostly about art and creation. Throughout, the narrator asks, “Bones?” He explains that in traditional Hungarian fairy tales, it’s a way of asking if the listener is still awake, if they want more.
And then the story continues.
When I’m beaten, and exhausted, and battling a three-day migraine (I was doing so well with migraines, for a while), I look just past my monitor. There, on one of many whiteboards, the question waits.
And inevitably, my tired brain mumbles, “Tiles.”
And then the story continues.
Can’t ask for more than that, can you?
What I’m Listening to This Week
We’re finally going to Dublin! The choir flies out at the end of this week, so naturally, when it’s not tour music, I’ve been listening to all sorts of Irish music. I’ve heard other versions of “Óró Sé do Bheatha Bhaile,” but none like this. Loosely translated, it runs something like, “Oh-ro, welcome home, Oh-ro, welcome home, now that summer’s coming!”
It’s a rebel song, and it’s the intensity of the vocalists that gets me here. It’s sparking something in the back of my mind: possibly a way to fix the novel I drafted earlier this year (Dublin will be part choir tour, part research trip….)
It’s mid-July, and I’m not in Maine.
It’s the first Stonecoast residency since I graduated. Today is Monday, which means it’s the third day of workshops. The groups have bonded by now. Follies is tomorrow. The Secret Firstie Meeting probably hasn’t happened yet. People are starting to get a little tired, but there’s still very much a feeling of, “Residency will last forever!” It’s not the same as the second half. After the Break Day, everything just goes on an ever-faster slide to the end.
And here I am, in Toronto.
A very large part of me misses Stonecoast. For two years, my twice-annual trek to Maine has been part Hogwarts, part con, and part summer camp. I miss hopping off the airport shuttle onto beautiful green Bowdoin campus. You’d pick up your packet and name tag from Matt at the front desk, drag your stuff into the dorms—such sterile white halls, but oh, what wonderful people! It’s hot. Of course it is. But the air is full of moisture (we’re close to the ocean) and everything feels possible.
The bar at the Brunswick Tavern is used to us by now. Oh, that long porch with the spindly metal chairs and tables, and that small-but-mercifully-air-conditioned lobby, and the room where we had readings, with the windows letting the evening light in and the ridiculous pattern of that carpet.
Everything felt possible at Stonecoast. Everything was morning and potential and wonderful things yet to come. And of course—the people are a big part of that. Our wonderful faculty, our fellow students—each cohort slowly emerging with its own distinctive personality.
Part of me feels like Peter and Susan, barred from Narnia. And yet—perhaps a bigger part of me knows that this is right, that I’ve graduated, that I had my time at Stonecoast and now it’s time to move on.
See, Stonecoast is a finite thing. You get two years, and then you’re on your own. This is part of the magic: it’s precious because it’s so short. It’s not meant to be the point of the journey—it’s a waystation—a place in the coastal shallows where you ready yourself for the open ocean ahead.
And so, there’s understandably some trepidation, post-graduation. You’re on your own. The defined structure is gone. Now’s the time to take everything you’ve learned and use it. There’s some pressure in that. I want to make the faculty proud. I want to put my time in Maine to good use. And I don’t want to disappear beneath the waves. I don’t want to return to dry land. I don’t want the wonder and potential of those Stonecoast years to fade into the hum of dayjob and ordinariness and Everyday Life.
So yeah, pressure. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It spurs me on. It makes me keep trying. Honestly, I know I’ve done some good stuff post-Stonecoast. It’s not enough. It won’t ever be enough. I don’t think that’s a bad thing either.
See, the thing about Stonecoast is that while it’s an MFA that you pay for, it is also a wonderful gift and opportunity. For two whole years, you get top-notch instruction. You get peers. You get friendships, and experiences, and challenges, and memories. You get so very much—and then it’s up to you.
I don’t want to squander the gift I’ve been given.
I want to be one of the ones who make it.
But even as I yearn for Bowdoin’s sun-filled quad and gorgeous Maine mussels and IPA, I’ve realized—Stonecoast isn’t just a place. It isn’t just a program. It’s a community, and it’s the principles of that community.
Stonecoast changed my life. Sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true: I shudder to think where my writing would be without it. Really, it’s where I grew up, as a writer and a person. For me, residencies are done, but I’ll always have Stonecoast as my compass.
For those graduating this residency: congratulations, and remember—this is where the real work begins.
For those incoming and continuing: take care of our community—leave it even better than you found it.
For our faculty and administration—thank you.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Ah, Schubert, we meet again. For whatever reason, the phrase “Death and the Maiden” came floating through my head this week. It may be the title of a new short story; I’m not sure. In any case, it got me thinking about this piece.
In parts, it could almost be sweet…almost. Instead, it’s largely discordant and creepy: a nightmarish dance that makes me see crumbling gothic castles and flickering candlelight.
Picture this: there’s eighteen of us backstage at a performing arts high school in Freeport, Maine. Actually, we’re in the band practice room. Linoleum floors, stray music stands, drum kit and harp shoved against the walls. Kat’s changing into her grad dress in a supply closet while Kelly-from-the-Book-Table corrals us and fastens our Masters’ hoods, because none of us can figure the damn things out.
Then we file into the auditorium to the delicate strains of “Pomp and Circumstance,” as arranged for guitar. We are tightly gripped by the elbow before being sent out. Alongside a push, we receive either a whispered, “Congratulations,” or “Walk slow!”
(Guess which I got? :D)
And then there’s speeches. I kind of forget that novelist Aaron Hamburger is giving our commencement speech until about halfway through, because it’s mostly a really good story. Names are called, and we trip across the stage one-by-one to receive our diplomas. Then, when we’ve all got one, the Dean of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Southern Maine calls us to rise.
I paraphrase, but he says something like, “These candidates brought before me have completed all their requirements of study, and come well-recommended by their faculty. Therefore, by the power vested in me, I confer upon you all, respectively, by your disciplines, the degree of Master of Fine Arts.”
And I thought, “Oh, shit.”
See, I’ve spent the last two years calling myself a “secret grad student.” Oh, the Stonecoast MFA Program is work. Absolutely. But it never felt like schoolwork. It felt more like an apprenticeship—like I’d troop into the woodshop in the evenings and have a master cabinetmaker show me tools and inspect my carving.
Or maybe it was more like Jedi training. The point is that it didn’t feel like school.
But in two years, I learned far more than I can express here. The difference in my writing before-and-after Stonecoast is striking. Arriving at Stonecoast, I knew how to string together clean, functional sentences. Leaving, I know a lot more about being an artist.
Most of all, I grew up. Looking back, I arrived with a strange mix of arrogance and insecurity—that special mix possessed only by twenty-two-year-olds who’ve had some lucky breaks. Stonecoast isn’t a harsh “break-down/rebuild” program…but the faculty and students challenged me, tempered me, encouraged me, pushed me. Yes, Stonecoast made me a better writer, but it also made me a better person.
I learned about beauty, artistry, and grace under pressure.
I learned about cutting to the heart of things, balancing objective insight with gleeful delight, and the importance of irreverence.
I learned that kindness and shrewdness are not mutually exclusive.
I learned about picking yourself up, no matter what, and writing from one’s heart of hearts.
I learned about sheer grit, and the absolute refusal to collapse and give in.
I learned the beauty of form and architecture, and the heights we may climb when we join hands with other artists.
I learned, once again, that the sweetest people often write the darkest things…and that’s pretty awesome.
I learned the sheer joy of devoting one’s self to one’s art, and the warmth of a truly open heart.
From the administration team, I learned about dedication and organization and going way, way above and beyond the call of duty.
From my fellow students, I learned about friendship and community and unconditional acceptance.
Thank you. Thank you all. You’ve left your fingerprints all over my life and art.
Two years ago, a frightened little girl stepped off the plane in Portland. I am no longer that girl. Two years in sunny coastal waters have given me strength and love and resources I never knew I had. Armed with these lessons and lifelong friendships, I’m excited to venture into the depths.
Honestly, it’s like Pokémon Gold/Silver/Crystal: once you beat the Elite Four and become a Pokémon Master, you get a whole new world to explore.
“When you get home,” Aaron said, “take your degree out and look at it. Own it. And then roll up your sleeves, and get back to work.”
What I’m Listening to this Week
My friend and occasional co-writer Lauren Harris introduced me to Mary-Jess while I was in Virginia last month. She’s got one of those sweet, pure soprano voices: quite high and light. This piece is my favourite thus far; it’s unsticking a novel point for me, and I absolutely adore the crescendo into the runs on “glorious.”
And it seems fitting, given the whole “starting a new chapter” thing. 😉
Welcome back to the Stonecoast blog train. And how timely, because I’ve just received my signature pages. Their international journey took them to Boston—to be signed by my advisor—and then to Maine—for my second reader’s signature—and now they’re briefly back with me in Toronto before I send the entire thesis to the MFA office. I’ve not been fretting. Not at all.
Anyway, today my Stonecoast comrades and I are discussing genre. As in, what’s our genre, why that genre, what is genre…?
I’m primarily a fantasy author. It tends towards dark fantasy, but we’re not talking full-blown horror. I like historical fantasy too, and I’ve written steampunk on occasion. I’ve yet to write any hard SF. The closest I’ve gotten is my quirky romp of an RPG, though one thesis short story could maybe be soft SF.
And right away, you have an idea of the types of stories I tell, even if you’ve never read anything of mine.
I write stories that have magic. Sometimes they get a little scary and grim, but that’s not their main focus, nor will you find gore. Steampunk suggests Victoriana, gears, and perhaps a touch of whimsy. I don’t write stories centred on technology and scientific concepts very often; even my stories without magic focus mainly on people.
You can tell this because different genres carry different sets of expectations. In the “Fantasy” section of the bookstore, we expect different stories than in the “Thriller” section. And we judge them according to those expectations as well, which means that genre frames the reader’s experience of the story at hand.
For example, I have strongly resisted attempts to classify my novel Heartstealer as “steampunk.” Why? Simple—it does not meet the expectations for the steampunk genre. Yes, it is set in a pseudo-Victorian society. But that’s about the only similarity it shares with steampunk. Magic may be present in steampunk, but it tends to be something lurking in the shadows. In Heartstealer, it’s front-and-centre: an integral part of the story. Steampunk frequently features societies powered by advanced steam technology. Heartstealer has none of that.
Rather than being a creative re-imagining of the Victorian era, Heartstealer is fantasy, set in a world that is not our own, but shares our Victorian age’s social structures, psyche, fashions, and technology.
As a “steampunk” novel, it’s not a very good example, because it does not meet those expectations. As a “historical dark fantasy,” I think it does much better.
So do you write to genre expectation, then?
A harder question that it seems. I think when you start any story, you have a rough idea of where it might fall. If there’s spaceships and warp drives, you’re probably not writing a Western, for instance. You know your direction. The more nuanced, particular sub-classifications can come later. Okay, so you know right away that it’s a SF story—but is it a space opera, or soft SF, or a science fantasy, or military SF, or a first contact story? That, you may know only after you’ve finished the thing and taken a good look at it.
Because here’s the thing: I think genre is mostly useful for telling readers how to approach a given story. It gives them a framework in which to work. Is it the be-all and end-all? No, but it’s an efficient shorthand.
Really, it’s like our goats at the museum. They’re walked on leashes, and whenever I see them from the corner of my eye, I invariably think, “Wow, what ugly dogs.”
Then I look again and think, “Wow! What cute goats!”
Different approaches yield different expectations yield different responses. Make sure your readers know whether your story’s a dog or a goat.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Oooh, something awesome. The “Dies Irae” and “Tuba Mirum” movements from Verdi’s Requiem. We maybe know Verdi more for this operas—and my goodness, that theatrical streak shows here. This could basically just be the opera setting for the apocalypse.
Those initial bangs, his favourite trick of passing the line between parts…this is a glorious cacophony of sound and fury. Until suddenly things quiet. And that’s even more terrifying.
And oh, those trumpets beginning at 2:25- Verdi’s a freaking genius. See, in Revelations, there’s meant to be trumpets to signify the ending of ages and coming of judgements. These are them. Right here. That’s what they would sound like, I’m pretty sure. Seriously, just grab a set and actors, and you pretty much have Revelations for the stage.
And next on the train…
My fellow steampunk-lover, J.R. Dawson! She is a highly talented writer with whom I’ve had the distinct pleasure of workshopping. Which means that I got to read snippets of her fabulous YA steampunk novel. A strong voice in our Stonecoast community, I will miss her upon graduation. Also, her blog is really pretty.
Check her out, and head onto the next stop here!
Criticism is part and parcel of the writing life. It’s funny, though—I always assumed that my general anxiety around evaluations would be my biggest stumbling block as a writer. As I’ve gone along, though, I’m discovering that I’m…ok with criticism.
More than that, actually. Even though I still get nervous as anything, I also crave it. Editorial criticism, anyway. Reviews are a different topic; let’s save them for another day.
I had two larger critiques come in recently: one for the first half of my Interactive Text-Based Online Game (hereinafter codenamed “The Game”) and one for my first Stonecoast packet. By the time this post goes live, I will have already Skyped with my mentor about her comments on said packet.
In both cases, they seemed to approach the topic of criticism quite carefully. Naturally, that set Anxiety screaming, “The other shoe is going to drop! The other shoe is going to drop! Wait for it wait for it wait for it!”
And then it was fine.
By “fine,” I don’t mean, “Everything was sunshine and rainbows and unicorns and fluffy bunnies.” There are things to fix: mostly coding for The Game, mostly the main character in the Victorian Dark Fantasy. So, not necessarily minor things, but still—
That’s it? I’m not missing an extra page of critique? Because really, those are good things to know. Frankly, if an editor ever said that a piece was perfect and there was nothing to change, I’d get very nervous.
There’s always something to change.
Also, it’s never about you.
That’s the piece that I seemed to have learned, almost by accident. It’s that ability to step back and look objectively at a piece and say, “Yes. I see where this doesn’t work. Ok.” No different than someone saying, “Hey, one leg of that chair is a bit longer than the others.” Are you going to sit there on a wobbly chair denying it, or are you going to wobble for a minute, testing it, and then pull out the saw?
Of course, there are times when you whip out the measuring tape and realize, no, you’re right. Sometimes that happens. You just have to be sure.
(For instance, there was a query about fireplaces that sent me on a quest that was really fun – but also took way too long considering that all I did with my diagrams and photos was show them to my roommate.)
Caveat here: I’ve been lucky as a writer, in that all my editors and workshop members have mastered that balance of being respectful and kind and also not pulling punches. Personal attacks in critiques are not ok. I’ve never had that happen, but they kind of defeat the critique’s main purpose: making the work better.
Remember, it’s not about you. That goes both ways.
Like so many things, anticipation is usually worse than the actual event. I wish I could return to my 14-year-old self and say, “Hey, look! It’s going to be fine—honestly, it doesn’t hurt and you actually feel good after!”
Maybe the knee-jerk fear reaction never really goes away, but learning to love the whip makes it a lot easier to manage. As one of my Irish drinking songs says:
What would you do if the kettle boiled over?
What would I do, but to fill it again?
What would you do if the cows ate the clover?
What would I do, only set it again?
I can’t wait to get these pieces polished! 😉
It’s strange, chatting to the people in various spheres of my life. The verdict on 2013 seemed mostly unanimous: it was a year that knocked a lot of people flat. Sure, there were good moments, but the consensus generally seems to be cautious optimism to embrace the New Year.
I don’t usually do resolutions…but there are a few things to which I’m looking forward, and which I’d like to accomplish this year.
The Book Formerly Known as Strix
This. Book. Oh my God. This book. My frustrations with Strix are infamous. For whatever reason, this book kept kicking my knees in all through 2013. Fortunately, Gabrielle is a wonderful, patient editor who helped me morph it into a new book (albeit one with the same premise).
So far as I’m concerned, Strix is dead. Not every book lives, which is a terrible, hard thing to learn. But! But but but! I’m incredibly excited by this new book. Since there is no longer a strix in it (the adage “murder your darlings” became my personal mantra, chanted as I huddled in the corner of my darkened room), I can’t call it that anymore.
When it comes out depends on how fast I write. Possibly spring 2014? Whether I podcast it depends on too many factors to guess right now.
Victorian Dark Fantasies
I had so much fun writing the VDF. I think it’s a solid book and this year, my goal is to shop it around. We’ll see what happens. And since I realized halfway through that it’s not necessarily a standalone novel, a sequel may be in the cards.
After all, I’d love to send my dynamic duo south. There are more politics and history to explore there, and for one character, that lovely northern accent may start becoming a slight problem….
Back to School
When I graduated last June, I declared that I was taking a break from academia.
Then Stonecoast emailed.
And so in ten short days, I’ll be boarding a plane to Portland, ME, for my first Stonecoast residency. Doing my MFA there definitely falls into the “If You Told Me This Two Years Ago, I Would Have Laughed At You” file. I’m astonished and nervous and ridiculously excited and slightly sick to my stomach all at once.
My goals: learn stuff, write better, keep on top of everything.
God, I miss podcasting. I’m making more time for it in 2014. Mostly, things are in the “Seekrit Projikt,” “vague planning and idea-bouncing” stage, but expect more Canadian accents in your headphones this year.
Friends and Family and Such
At the end of my last grief counselling session, the therapist said, “Well! It sounds like you have some really good people around you.”
“Yes,” I answered, without missing a beat. “I do.”
2013 found me leaning on my friends far more than I’d usually be comfortable with. But they were there. You know who are you are, and I thank you with all my heart.
But being a functional human being and paying some of that kindness back/forward is a major life goal for me this year. For the first time since my dad died, I feel on an even keel. I feel capable of being a good friend and actually contributing to my various relationships again.
My metaphor for 2013 is thus. Imagine coming home and seeing a wrecking ball and gaping muddy pit where your house used to be. You’re shocked and devastated, and can’t conceive how this could happen. As you sort through the ruins, you realize that some things are too broken to save. Others are way stronger than you ever imagined.
Eventually, you clear out most of the wreckage. Then you find someone strengthened your existing foundations and installed some new ones, too. While the loss is heartbreaking, you can build something entirely new and utterly wonderful on top of it.
May 2014 be a year of building. All of my best, to all of you.
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.