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.
I have a friend from Stonecoast visiting this week, which means there has been lots of gallivanting and little else. So not much musing today, just updates.
I’m a Sunburst nominee?
So last Monday, I posted about this strange, transitional sense I’ve been having. And the minor crises of self-esteem. Then I opened Twitter…
…and found the awesome and talented Kelly Robson congratulating me.
Having “La Corriveau” on the longlist was a huge honour; I honestly never expected it to go any further than that. This is likewise a huge honour—look at that list! Go back and look at the longlist! There is serious talent there!
It’s very humbling. And I’ve always been fond of “La Corriveau.” If nothing else, the historic Marie-Josephte Corriveau was a remarkable woman: I hope I’m doing her some justice.
The Sunburst winners will be announced sometime this fall.
Starting in September, I’ll be producing the Apex Magazine podcast!
This was unexpected, but delightful news! I’ve missed working with sounds—as everyone predicted when Six Stories wrapped up, I love podcasts too much to quit them entirely. Not only is Apex a wonderful team, it seems like the perfect balance: I’m just producing. That cuts down on time and workload, but still lets me keep a toe in the pool.
At the moment, I’m busy cultivating a stable of narrators. So yes, you’ll be hearing more from Blythe. I’m also excited to bring some new voices to your ears, too!
And that’s about it for the week. Things continue to tick along. We shall see where we end up.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Sometimes, the hardest thing about finishing a story is leaving the world. I was very fond of Heartstealer and Skarland. This piece brings me right back to the northern woods and autumn hearths…
“But where do you get your ideas?”
So I was coming home from the pub and I saw this bike propped against a tree:
It looked like he’d been stolen, stripped for parts, and abandoned. Such terrible sadness pervaded; I wondered about his owner. I saw him flying down Toronto streets, strong and fast and free, so proud to be carrying his rider—who in my head is now a twenty-something woman at U of T.
“I was a good bike,” he whispered.
Then I continued on, and I noticed it was a full moon. And isn’t it cool, how you can see the “seas” on its face—those plains of basalt called maria. Gazing up at the moon, I thought about what moons look like from other planets’ surfaces. I mean, our moon is pretty big and bright—like a silver dollar—but what if it was little? Or a vibrant colour? Or lumpy?
Also, I could totally see how the maria look like a face: two eyes and a gaping, slightly horrified mouth. The human brain always seeks patterns, which is neat. Except in Chinese tradition, it’s a rabbit. And I could see it two ways: either a rabbit on his side, or a rabbit with exceptionally long ears.
While looking at the sky, I also saw the Big Dipper, which made me think of an Indigenous Canadian myth in which Robin, Chickadee, and Moose Bird are hunting the Great Bear across the sky. It’s an eternal hunt that plays out through the seasons, year after year, and that kind of Cosmic Dance is very humbling and thrilling all at once. Plus, it’s a cool story.
So I kept walking and I saw a big orange cat padding by on business. When she reached certain front steps, she stopped and rested. Then a little grey cat came trundling along, rounded the corner, and—
Both cats noticed each other at the same time.
They froze. The little grey cat kept one paw in hanging in mid-air. A great tension filled the night: the little grey cat hesitating, the big orange cat staring imperiously.
But then the little grey cat trotted towards the other, they bunted heads, and the night was calm once more.
By this point, I was nearly home. Because it is summer, many of my neighbours were sitting on their porches, cigarettes burning through the night like fireflies. Harsh young voices barked from the main street: a counterpoint to the low, constant murmurings of Italian.
“Did she really?” an older woman said. “I never thought—shows him, eh?”
And an Alice Munro-esque situation sprang into glorious colour: mundane tragedy become epic in proportion, repressed emotion and women breaking free.
And then I was home.
“But where do you get your ideas?”
A ten-minute walk, a starry night, an open soul.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Have you read Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books? They’re cool—I devoured Arrows of the Queen growing up. Anyway, Misty is also an accomplished filk musician; her books have a folk music tradition all their own.
“Battle Dawn” has always been my favourite: I fell in love with the driving rhythm the first time I heard it. And that voice…!
Another addition to the new novel’s playlist.
So I’ve seen Moulin Rouge! three times over the last week. Partly it’s because the music got well and truly stuck in my head (as we’ll see in What I’m Listening to this Week), but also, I feel like a little kid with their favourite story.
“Tell it again!”
“Um…they still fall in love. It still doesn’t end well.”
And it got me thinking. In a funny way, I feel like I imprinted on this particular story very young. Not just Moulin Rouge! per se, though that was the first variant I encountered. Moulin Rouge! is itself mostly a riff on La Traviata with some strains of La Bohème. La Traviata, of course, is the operatic adaptation of a mid-Victorian play called La Dame aux Camélias. In turn, that play was adapted from Alexandre Dumas fils’ novel of the same name.
Lots of variations, all essentially the same story: a courtesan and an earnest young man; impossible love; self-sacrifice through deception; and of course, consumption.
Doomed love and unabashed romanticism—what can I say? It’s my catnip. La Traviata remains my favourite opera, and I’ve never survived Act Three dry-eyed.
And looking at my fiction, I can see echoes here and there. Not necessarily in courtesans and consumption, but in some of the themes, the feel…the motif of impossible love.
I think that some stories do leave their mark on us quite deeply. They find touchstones within us, and so resonate through our own works. Asking why is kind of like asking why we have recurring dreams. There is something deep in our subconscious that sings the same song back, and so it makes sense that these are the stories we return to again and again—even if we’re not entirely sure why.
Sometimes, they’re wholly unexpected. Honestly, I find myself returning to Neuromancer more than people might expect. I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favourite books—not like La Traviata is my favourite opera; not like East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon is my favourite fairy tale. But there’s a bit towards the end that’s never left me.
Beyond ego, beyond personality, beyond awareness, he moved, Kuang moving with him, evading his attackers with an ancient dance, Hideo’s dance, grace of the mind-body interface granted him, in that second, by the clarity and singleness of his wish to die.
And one step in that dance was the lightest touch on the switch, barely enough to flip—
and his voice the cry of a bird
3Jane answering in song, three
notes, high and pure.
A true name.
Neon forest, rain sizzling across hot pavement. The smell of frying food… But all of this receding, as the cityscape recedes…as the roads and crossroads scribed on the face of a microchip, the sweat-stained pattern on a folded, knotted scarf.
William Gibson, Neuromancer
Fantasy author can’t get over the climax of a seminal cyberpunk work? Say what?
It’s the moment of transcendence, you see. That’s what I keep trying to answer, in my own way. And that’s really it: some stories, you keep trying to write back to, subconsciously or not.
For me, this all gets back to the idea that we write what we don’t understand. We write what confounds us, perplexes us, what the mind cannot quite work through. I’m not sure that it always does, of course. Some stories echo in us forever.
And so we keep singing back to them.
What stories resonate in you?
PS. A reminder that Lauren Harris’s YA novel UNLEASH released last week! Do you like gritty urban fantasy and kickass heroines? You can get your copy here!
What I’m Listening to This Week
Really, all of Moulin Rouge! but let’s just say, “One Day I’ll Fly Away,” which is a song to which I never really paid attention before this week. SPOILERS, it shows up as a devastating motif later, but I like it here as a way to show another side of Satine’s personality. It’s really the only time in the film we see her in (assumed) privacy, not performing for other people.
Last January, I set myself a goal of writing a weekly blog post. Mostly as a discipline thing; partly for writing practice; partly to lay a foundation for the future. Overall, I’ve been good at sticking to that goal.
Except for last week. There wasn’t a blog post last week.
Actually, there wasn’t much of anything last week. I posted a poem to Facebook and a sunrise to Instagram, but that’s about it. I deleted all my social media apps from my phone and tablet. Sometimes I’d pop into Facebook on a browser for a quick peek, but only rarely.
See—I try to keep my social media activity mostly positive. Oh, I’ll post a sigh of despair over the latest shenanigans down south or the odd frustration, but mostly—if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
And so I stayed real quiet.
There’s another principle I try to keep: you don’t look in other people’s bowls. Actually the real quotation goes, “The only time you look in your neighbour’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough.” The thing with social media is that everyone’s bowls are on display all the time. And everyone’s tilting their bowl, and adjusting the lighting, and fiddling with filters to make sure that they look as good as possible.
And I just—I wanted to take my bowl and leave the table and sit quietly by myself for a little while. I didn’t want to worry about hiding its cracks. I didn’t want to expend the effort disguising how empty it’s gotten. In a weird way, I felt ashamed; like, why am I even at this table with a bowl like this?
I just wanted to sit quietly by myself. I wanted to remember why I love my bowl. And I wanted to take a good, hard look at it and say, “Okay. This isn’t working anymore. What now?”
So I spent my time reading a lot. Lots of magical realism. Lots of CanLit and Southern Gothic. Lots of fiction that skates the line between literary and genre (the irony is—after spending years and years rebelling against the literary—it’s calling me pretty strongly right now).
I listened to a lot of music.
I went for walks in the woods.
It was like leaving a noisy, noisy party and entering into silence again. I’ve been feeling pretty jangled up inside. The solitude’s been like a cool compress for the soul.
But even I can’t hermit forever. Last week, I dipped a toe back into the community—I grabbed a pal and went to the monthly Chiaroscuro Reading Series. Confession: I almost bailed at the last minute.
“I can’t,” I said. “I can’t smile and small talk today. I can’t be on my best behaviour.”
But bailing at that point would’ve been terribly unfair to my pal. And I knew, deep down, that it’d be good for me.
And you know what? I saw a bunch of people I normally only see at conventions. Like, right there! Because we actually all live in the same city! Whoa! I had some really nice conversations and cake. My pal got to meet one of his favourite authors, which seemed like a lovely moment for both.
And I remembered that I like writing. I like the fantastic and speculative. I like this community. A lot.
But since this whole experience has the whiff of burnout, I think I need to achieve better balance. Not only loving my bowl, but finding a place at the table where I can still hear myself think.
So I’m not quite back to the table, yet. I need a little more time with the quiet. But I’m edging closer to my seat.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Ah, Celtic Woman, my guilty pleasure.
I’m in the beginning throes of a new novel, which feels an awful lot like making your entrance in an unfamiliar choral piece. If you can get your starting pitch, things usually stay more-or-less on track. Landing sharp or flat? It’s difficult to stop the piece falling apart when you’re wrong-footed from the first note.
I usually forget how much flailing about I do at the beginning of a story. And then because I never remember the angst, the flailing feels disastrous, and I freak myself out.
And so, I thought it would be instructive to remind myself exactly how common false starts are for me:
It was a clear evening, one of the first of summer. A warm breeze wound through the City, caressing friends drinking outside taverns and lovers strolling through narrow streets. Plucking guitars floated over conversation and laughter, occasionally joined by soulful tenors. The golden stones that formed the City’s buildings still carried the heat of the noonday sun. Overtired children and the elderly clustered on them; the latter thanked the warmest spring in memory for driving away the chill winds that usually made one last appearance. And above, the stars, ever twinkling: familiar constellations smiling on the summer night. The Ox, the Hunter, the Vineyard, all the old friends that heralded the beginning of the new season.
(Then there’s an extended bit where two old men eat chicken and talk. Seriously.)Eventually:
The time, at last, had come.
A new star ignited over the City. Like a drop of blood glinting in the darkness, it blazed in the Serpent, brighter than any other star in the constellation. Under the starlight, the City crouched in the night, perched atop its plateau. Sheer cliffs fell away on every side; if not for lack of water, it could have been an island.
No breeze stirred the warm air. In narrow alleys, shadows stretched as quiet and endless as the gorges beyond the City.
Time passed. The stars danced on.
Sara had not felt so ill since her first glimpse of her husband’s headstone. That had been nearly six weeks ago, and plenty of stomach-turning moments had filled the emptiness between. Yet juddering along a country road in a carriage with shot springs ranked high among them. Sara clenched her hands in her lap, gritting her teeth each time the horses pounded over a half-buried stone or fallen branch. To her amazement, the coach’s other two passengers slept. An older woman leaned against the side of the coach, while a towheaded boy nestled into her.
I had not felt so ill since the funeral. The stagecoach rattled over the road and my teeth rattled in my skull. I kept watching the road ahead, even though dust streaked the windows. We jolted again. A large rock or another half-buried stump. There hadn’t been macadamized roads since several towns back, and since we’d left the train station at Ossington, the road had only gotten rougher. Too slow—I just wanted to get this journey over with.
Sophie clutches her knife tight, watching the unicorn across the pit.
(That is, apparently, as far as I got. It was bad.)
The hunt begins as it always does: with quarry, bait, and hunter.
This is the first story.
Once, there were two girls who lived in a little village far in the north of Québec. Let’s say the younger girl was seven, and the older one was ten. When you told me this story, you didn’t say what the girls looked like, but I always imagined that they looked like us.
The older girl had flashing dark eyes and knees covered in bruises. Her mouth quirked at the corners. The younger girl, her friend…well, she was paler. Frailer. Just a wisp, her grand-mère always said, just a bit of thistledown that would blow away in the wind.
This is the first story.
I’ve got this friend Joëlle, right? She moved in when I was seven. She was ten—a big kid. Only she wasn’t much bigger than me. Bruised knees and these huge, haunted eyes. Mom made sure she got an extra slice of pizza at our first sleepover, that’s how skinny she was when she arrived.
When my sister rose for the third time, we called the vampire-hunter.
He came in the stillness between afternoon and dusk: that suspended, grey time that happens only in winter. From the forest he came, shouldering a leather pack, and he went straight to the inn. There, by the smouldering hearth, he spread a cloth over the scarred taproom table and opened a glossy walnut box with hinged lid. In the firelight, the wood gleamed, and his onlookers—the entire village, it felt like—pressed closer.
The hands of the vampire-hunter move like spiders, and I hate them. They creep over our kitchen table, avoiding the plates of sausage and country bread my mother has laid out. They scuttle along the sides of a polished walnut case. Quick fingers, sly fingers—they lift belts and let brass buckles fall with a clink, clink, clink. They ease the lid up. Inside, his tools rest on velvet the colour of old blood. My mother chokes on a gasp; my father will not look.
You get the point. Sometimes, vestiges of an early attempt survive, but really, it takes me a while to figure out the tune.
Worth remembering, as I flail about with this novel…
My friend Lauren Harris recently revealed the cover of her upcoming YA urban fantasy UNLEASH.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Even after all these years, I have a soft spot for the French horn. Here, I love the dialogue between the horn (basses supporting) and the rest of the orchestra, especially the building tension around the 1:30 mark. Also, those devastating accidentals around 2:20.
And it’s Mozart. Of course it’s exquisitely well put-together.
Okay. Wow. Hi. I just spent the last week performing for six hours a day in the museum’s Sherlock Holmes program. It was incredibly fun, and also very taxing—both physically and mentally. But hey, it’s over, so life should settle down somewhat.
Besides that, I was reading The Ladies’ Guide to True Politeness and Perfect Manners: or, Miss Leslie’s behaviour book, written by Miss Eliza Leslie and published in various editions from 1839 onwards (I had the 1864 edition). And guess what?
It has advice for authors!I sat there reading and shaking my head—because it’s more-or-less the same advice we get today. I greatly enjoy the image of hoop-skirted young ladies eagerly setting about preparing their manuscripts. Because of course, I did the same (minus the hoop skirt). Some things don’t change—wannabe writers are one of them, apparently.
I’ve pulled out some choice tidbits. Enjoy!
Chapter XX: Conduct to Literary Women
“On being introduced to a female writer, it is rude to say that “you have long had a great curiosity to see her.” Curiosity is not the right word. It is polite to imply that, “knowing her well by reputation, you are glad to have an opportunity of making her personal acquaintance.”
Still good advice for conventions, I think.
“When in company with literary women, make no allusions to ‘learned ladies’ or ‘blue stockings,’ or express surprise that they should have any knowledge of housewifery, or needle-work, or dress; or that they are able to talk on ‘common things.’ It is rude and foolish, and shows that you really know nothing about them, either as a class or as individuals.”
Admittedly, I don’t get this much. But it is interesting to place it in historical context—Miss Leslie is trying really hard to show that authoresses are women, too!
“Recollect that to a woman who gets her living by her pen, ‘time is money,’ as it is to an artist. Therefore, encroaching on her time is lessening her income.”
Yep. I love people. I love socializing. But yep.
“Long manuscripts are frequently sent for the revisal ‘at leisure’ of a person who has little or no leisure. Yet in the intervals of toiling for herself, she is expected to toil for some one else; probably for a stranger whom she does not know, in whom she can take no interest, and who has evidently ‘no writing in her soul.’ If, however, the modest request is kindly complied with, in all probability to the corrections will only give offence, and may perhaps be crossed out before the manuscript is offered to the publisher, who very likely may reject it for want of these very corrections.”
Something tells me Miss Leslie has personal experience with this. Something tells me that many modern-day authors do as well.
Chapter XXI: Suggestions to Inexperienced Authors
“Before you commence your manuscript, take a quire, and prepare each sheet by splitting it all down the folded side, with a sharp paper-cutter, thus dividing it into half-sheets. You can do this better on a flat table than on the slope of a desk. Keep your left hand pressing down hard on the quire, while you are cutting it with your right.”
Scrivener? Microsoft Word? WordPerfect? An app on your iThing? Whatever you use, just remember—at least we don’t have to prepare our own writing paper anymore.
“The printers will gladly dispense with covers, ribbons, and fairy-like penmanship, in favour of a plain legible hand, pages regularly numbered, and leaves written on one side only.”
No coloured paper, no extra fills, no fancy fonts. Standard manuscript format, my friends.
“If the publisher lives in your own town, it will be sufficient to roll up the manuscript in clean white paper, twisted at each end, and wafered in the middle. But however short the distance, write on the outside of the paper the full direction of the publishing office; that, in case of its being dropped in the street, any person finding it may know exactly where to take it.”
The thought of a Victorian urchin finding a rolled-up manuscript in the street, reading the address, and hustling it off to the appropriate publisher’s just makes me happy. And also glad for electronic submissions.
“Keep a memorandum-book for the express purpose of setting down whatever relates to your literary affairs. Insert the day when you commenced a manuscript, the day when you finished it, and the day on which it went to the publisher.”
Still good advice. I have an Excel spreadsheet.
“If the printer’s boy can wait, you had best correct the proofs while he stays.”
Of course. What else is the printer’s boy doing? This was the very last sentence in the two chapters concerning literary etiquette—and it strikes me as quintessentially Victorian.
And now – more rewrites on the Creepy Play!
What I’m Listening to This Week
Tchaikovsky this week—the “Hymn of the Cherubim.” It’s a slow, heavy progression of chords, with the darkness and richness that I associate with much Russian choral music. Until the sopranos have a glorious surge around 2:30. A little disquieting, but very beautiful.
The third and final leg of the American Grand Tour is coming to an end. The 2017 Smoky Writers retreat finished yesterday. Still ensconced in Virginia, I’ll be back in my garret midweek.
As mentioned previously, Smoky is one of my favourite events: great friends, great food, and great productivity. I had been planning to start a novel, but quickly found that it wasn’t quite ready—I tend to flail around with my novel openings, and Smoky wasn’t quite the forum for it.
But that’s all right—I wrote three solid short stories, a flash piece, and 4000 words of something that probably needs to be a novella, if not a novel. My stable of short pieces was getting pretty empty as submissions go out, so the situation feels much more secure now.
Of course, it’s difficult to distill the entire week-long experience into a single blog post. But something that came up in many conversations was why Smoky works as well as it does.
Essentially, there are three rules:
- Write new words
- Read new words
- Contribute positively to the community
Simple rules, but important ones. If the retreat can’t keep to them, it falls apart; I hugely respect the organizers for their dedication in defending it. Their leadership has resulted in a safe, productive space that’s also a lot of fun.
You see, writing is largely a solitary endeavour (publishing is not, but writing is). But it is nice to touch base with the people you care about. It’s nice to discuss the functions of short stories over breakfast and alien biology over evening drinks. It’s nice to share specific joys and frustrations with people who get it.
We all want to be understood. That may be why some of us started writing in the first place. We had something to say, and we wanted someone else to hear it. This is why I love conventions and retreats. In addition to the other professional benefits, they are places where connections are made between people who love stories—whether they’re editors, agents, writers, or readers.
And art is about connection, isn’t it? It’s about saying, “I understand,” “I hear you,” “I need to be heard,” “Me too.”
What I think is truly amazing is this: twenty people come together from all different places, all different backgrounds, all different walks of life. Abiding by three rules, we write, and the results vary as much as the people themselves.
We care about each other, and we care about our work. Having both is very, very precious, and they tend to feed off each other. While I’m quite content to write alone in my garret, there is something quite wonderful about being surrounded by people also focused on their creativity.
So, connection and diversity, our strengths. These are what I’ll take with me as I return home to edit (lots), write (lots), and read (lots and lots).
As ever, I am so grateful.
What I’m Listening to This Week
A sprightly madrigal by Thomas Morley: “I love, alas, I love thee.” It weaves effortlessly through unison and contrapuntal sections, ticking along like a perfectly-designed clock. In a way, it reminds me of short stories: it is complete unto itself, and no note could be anything other than what it is.
I was all ready to write a post about T.S. Eliot and a particularly evocative line of his, but then this happened:
At the very least, you’ve probably heard about this. Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton. He was booed. Following the show, the cast made the following statement:
“We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
By any objective standard, it’s a measured, civil statement. Pence said he “wasn’t offended.” But of course, this happened:
So here’s the thing. The theatre is not—never has been—ought not to be—a safe space. Naturally, we need to talk about what we mean by “safe space.” The theatre ought to be a safe space in that it contains sufficient fire exits and Ministry of Labour-approved standards of workplace safety. The theatre ought to be a safe space in that it
….is a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability. (Advocates for Youth)
But that, pals, is just common decency and courtesy.
A theatre ought not to be a safe space in that it is a space free from dissent, protest, and conflicting viewpoints. Drama, lest we forget, is founded on conflict. Not just conflict within the plot and characters of a piece, either. Theatre has always served—as one of its many functions—as a forum for the oppressed, the marginalized, the voiceless, and the Other.
Dissecting the history of politics-in-theatre would take a book, not a blog post, but I’ll point to Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed” (theatre as means of promoting social/political change), Bertolt Brecht and epic theatre (political theatre aimed at commenting on/changing social processes), Athenian satire plays (aimed at commenting on/changing the Athenian democracy), and even theatre-in-education (while generally not overtly political, TIE encourages students to form, test, and evaluate their own opinions on various subjects…by using theatre techniques to assist in reaching educational goals).
Do you notice any themes here?
Theatre as agent of change. Theatre as commentator. Theatre as means of education. This is what good theatre does. This is what good art does. And this is why the arts are not—will never be—ought never be—safe. Good theatre does not only entertain. Good theatre provokes. Good theatre forces reconsideration and re-evaluation of deeply held beliefs. Good theatre provides a space in which to empathize with the Other.
And I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here. Theatre is a commentator and change agent. What else is new?
What’s new is that this may not seem so self-evident in years to come. And that’s why it is important to speak out about it—so that we don’t lose sight of what theatre does. Have you ever noticed, autocrats tend to go for artists early on? This is why. Art pushes back; it always has. What’s more, it is damn good at commenting and fostering change—because art makes the makes the Other familiar; and the familiar, Other. When the Other isn’t the Other anymore—when they’re human, when there’s common ground—it becomes a lot harder to oppress them.
Granted, there has been some debate about whether it was appropriate for the cast to address Pence. Honestly, I’m not sure they could have avoided doing so. Every incarnation of art is a product of its time, and Hamilton is perhaps more so than most. In this particular political climate, this particular play would have completely undermined its own thesis by keeping silent. Hamilton is the “Other” America—the America that did not vote for Trump. Pence, of course, is free to see whatever shows he likes, but we all understand, “Ev’ry action has its equal, opposite reaction.”
So yes, it was appropriate. It was respectful. It was not harassment. But nor was it a particularly safe move. It was something far more—it was brave.
We’re going to need more of that sort of bravery in the years ahead. May we all have the courage to speak out and provoke. May we all have the courage to not be safe.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Oh, I should probably put a Hamilton song in solidarity, but that’s not what I was listening to this week. It’s a little early, but bring on the Christmas music. This week, it was Pearsall’s arrangement of “In Dulci Jubilo.” It’s a macaronic piece, which means it throws together Latin and English willy-nilly. It’s also rather heartbreaking in the final verse, yearning, “Oh, that we were there!”
It’s 2007. I’m sixteen. And I’m terrified. I’m sitting on a hard church pew, music in hand. The notes don’t make sense. They make sense for piano, but I can’t just pluck a G out of the air and sing it. Besides, I’m supposed to be singing the harmony, not the melody, but I can’t hear it under all the other voice parts. Tenors, basses, and piano completely bury it, but the sopranos are worst because they actually have the melody and they’re loud and even though I’m singing barely above a whisper, people keep shooting me sideways glances because I keep screwing up and I just want to sing so badly but I can’t do it.
And that’s my first year of choir in a nutshell.
A combination of writing my first real “book” (Phantom of the Opera fanfic) and Toronto getting its first real opera house had given me an insatiable appetite for opera. My younger sister had spent the last year in the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, and I watched the Youth Chorus rehearsals agog.
I wanted to sing like that. So, so badly.
There was, of course, one slight snag.
I couldn’t sing.
Somehow, I got in. I’m still not sure why. Maybe Ann—the music director, a wonderful Texan force of nature—saw how badly I wanted it. Maybe it’s hard enough to find teens willing to sing classical music, and she worried about crushing my interest.
I don’t know. In any case, I was in so far over my head, I couldn’t even see the surface.
Most of the kids in the Youth Chorus had graduated from the CCOC’s younger divisions. Which meant they’d been singing for years. Not only that, they’d been singing together for years. And then there was me: new, and shy, and totally unable to keep up with the music.
I couldn’t even read it. Oh, I mean, I could look at a piece of music and tell you, “Yes, that note is a B, and that’s a sharp, and we’re supposed to get louder over here.” But when it came to matching “note on page” with “note in voice,” I had nothing.
As for technique—I had less than nothing. The voice is an instrument. Like all instruments, you have to learn how to use it. My joining the Youth Chorus was like grabbing a trumpet and expecting to join an orchestra.
All that to say, I was pretty effing terrible. In a choir of burgeoning pros, I was the weakest link. And I wasn’t used to that. My whole life, I’ve been an overachiever and a quick study. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I was used to just…picking things up.
Algebra. French. Soccer. Piano. Never much of a learning curve. Never much angst. Just trying something, and very quickly becoming good at it.
This was the first time that hadn’t happened. Those rehearsals fighting back tears were the first time I wasn’t near the top of the class.
People worried, of course. Ann worried. My parents worried. Every Monday afternoon, dread sat in my throat like a mouthful of cold worms, and every Monday night, I came home sobbing at my own incompetence. But I. Kept. Going. Back. It was stubbornness, sheer and simple—this was the first time something had beaten me, and I couldn’t let that stand.
So I did what anyone does in those situations:
I learned to survive.
Since I couldn’t read the music, I memorized it instead, tracking down recordings of every piece we did. I went to weekly lessons wherein I worked my bum off learning technique (without the mentoring I got from Ann’s daughter Erin, I might well have crashed out). Finally, I decided that if I couldn’t be the best singer, I would be the best chorister—always on time, always prepared, always listening and well-behaved.
“Come on, you guys! Get ready!”
“You don’t count. You’re always ready.”
When I aged out at eighteen, I still wasn’t a strong singer, but I’d passed the initial hurdle. Music had woven itself into my life—to feel grounded and whole, I needed a choir.
By this point, I knew enough about my own voice to realize that opera was not a great match. To the surprise of no one, my voice is very high, very light, and very straight-toned. I don’t have the vocal weight for opera, and I never will. In terms of voice, I’m not built that way.
I am built for church singing.
So I went hunting church choirs. One rainy night in September, I climbed a million stairs to one church’s choir room. I said, “I’m a first soprano,” and the director pointed me to a seat.
Whilst my voice is better suited for church singing, there was an entirely new learning curve to contend with. Hymns that the church ladies knew by heart, but which I’d never seen. The shape and structure and music of the liturgy itself. Psalms.
But the CCOC had given me enough foundation that I could stick things out. Of course, the community helped. The ladies very quickly became like a legion of extra aunts; the men, like older brothers.
Here’s the thing about singing church services, though. There isn’t actually a ton of rehearsal. Anthems get a few weeks of practice, but the hymns and psalms change every time. It was too much music for me to memorize.
So I finally learned to read.
There was no shaft of light and angelic “Alleluia!” as the notes resolved themselves. It happened bit by bit, water wearing away at a stone, until I realized I’d actually been reading the music for a while.
I learned to support. I learned to breathe. I learned to make my voice do what I wanted as we tackled a huge range of music—from Palestrina and Byrd to spirituals. Sure, there is something of an “Anglican hoot” about it, but I’m pleased with the way it’s developed.
And I learned all the ecclesiastical side: the psalms, the hymns, the pulse and pattern of the liturgical year.
But the best thing?
I’m proud that I stuck it out. I’m proud of how much I’ve learned. But in a funny way, I’m even more proud of the battle I fought with myself. It took a long, long time, but I learned to stay with something because I love it, and no other reason.
You see, I’m still not the top of the class. Not even close. I am a competent vocalist. Not great—competent. And in this arena, I’m okay with that. I’m okay with it because for me, it’s all out of love: love for the music, love for my friends, and love for the sheer breathless rush of having a high G hit the church’s vaulted ceiling.
I am a chorister, well and truly. As the hymn goes, “How can I keep from singing?”
What I’m Listening to This Week
We’re returning to Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse Devo. I never thought I’d do this, but here’s…um, well, here’s me. Anglican hoot and all.