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Two Lessons

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.

“Jacob Wrestling with the Angel,” Alexander Louis Leloir (1865).

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…

Go smaller

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.

Pseudo-sibling angst.

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.

Liz Hand’s words are always applicable.

Go smaller.

Tell your stories.

Keep going.

We got this.

-KT

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.

Under Pressure

Okay, pals, let’s have some real talk. I wasn’t going to post this, but I think I need to get it out, and I can’t think of a better forum.

So.

This hermitage.

I doubt it caused any ripples, but I have been spending the last two weeks sitting quietly by myself. Basically, I got overwhelmed, and my response to being overwhelmed is to withdraw and shut up. The root wasn’t deadlines or workloads or anything. It was this immense pressure that I put on myself:

WRITE ALL THE THINGS. APPLY FOR ALL THE THINGS. LAUNCH ALL THE THINGS.

For obvious reasons (chiefly, I’m not a perpetual motion machine), I couldn’t.

And then I felt awful.

And then I went away to sit by myself.

 

I love this painting, but I’ve searched high and low and cannot find the artist’s name. If you know it, please send it my way so I can link properly!

 
Honestly, the worst part has been feeling like I’ve been letting people down. My creative partner. My mentors. My friends. I’ve joked that my creative ventures are predicated on making certain people proud…but deep down, it’s not really a joke, is it?

Rationally, I know—I know—the need for external validation is deadly. The drive has to come from inside. At the end of the day, the internal engine is the only one upon which you can rely.

But it’s hard. Giving this some good, solid thought, I don’t have a problem with motivation. I’ll write ‘til the cows come home, because that’s all I know how to do.

But the fear of disappointing people is my Achilles’ heel. Not living up to potential.  Being a flash in the pan. “That’s nice, but what have you done lately?” is both my inspiration and my nightmare.

Yes, I know. This is an insane amount of pressure to put on one’s self.

So.

What does one do?

I’ve been trying to ease the pressure by reminding myself that this isn’t a race. If I keep working, then when it’s time, things will happen in their course.

That’s the most important thing, I think. To keep working. To set aside the expectation and the pressure and the fear of disappointment and just keep going.

Liz Hand’s advice: always applicable.

In many ways, to keep working is an act of faith. With no idea where the road goes, we set off.

I’m slowly venturing back into the world. And rest assured—I’m still working.

-KT

What I’m Listening To This Week

One night this past week, I had beer and watched Moulin Rouge! and it was just what I needed. This song has been stuck in my head since.

Small Pleasures and Seeing Beauty

Happy Saturday. For a lovely, wonderful change, I am not at work today. Instead, I am holed up in my garret, which means that instead of slinging beer and/or performing, I will be attending to writing and/or related administrivia.

I actually finished the rough draft of a larger-ish project earlier this week. Now whilst I wait for feedback with bated breath, I’m returning to various grant application guidelines. Because I like my garret and paying rent is the honourable thing to do. However, application deadlines meant that this 20k project got pushed out in the span of about a week. I’ve written faster than that, for longer stretches, but I finished this piece absolutely exhausted. The past three nights have been all about Pokémon and reading other people’s words. For pleasure.

I’m wiped. And I’m not used to this level of post-project fatigue. Which tells me that I might be a) iron deficient, b) juggling too much, or c) out of the habit of writing like the wind for days on end. Or all of the above, which links to the perennial question of How I’m Doing.

So far this month, How I’m Doing is a spectrum ranging from Mostly Keeping It Together to Thrashing About Like A Grief-Beached Whale. Fortunately, since starting this project—i.e. since getting back into a writing discipline—it’s been more the Keeping It Together side of things. And getting back into a writing discipline reminded me of something else:

I love writing. I really do love it.

Funny how we can forget that, isn’t it? Sometimes, I think we get so bogged down with anxieties of publishing and contracts, theses and submissions, where your next meal is coming from and good God, I’m never getting this story placed, we lose sight of the sheer, unabashed joy of putting words on the page. You know, the reason we got into this in the first place…because it definitely wasn’t for fame and fortune. We’re wiser than that.

I had a similar epiphany at work. I was taking some laminated photos back to the mill—as one does, in my line of work—and I came the long way back, because it was a beautiful day, I had a few spare minutes, and why the hell not? Behind the mill, there’s a path that loops around the mill pond. Only a modest copse separates us from a busy intersection, but once you get on that path…the city seems to fall away. The rumble of cars fades, replaced by buzzing insects and chirruping birds. It smells like summer again.

You could be out somewhere in Prince Edward County. It’s incredible.

IMG_3693

So I’m walking along, enjoying all this beauty, and then as I emerged from the brush onto the bridge overlooking the pond, I startled the resident heron. He’s been around as long as I have, but I hadn’t seen him in ages. And—

Well, this.

FullSizeRender

Despite everything, I still love this place. It’s still home. Later, as I waited for a tour, I caught myself listening to the trees creaking in the wind. And smiling. It’s that kind of love which delights in the tiny, quirky, and idiosyncratic. Those miniscule beauties get so easily lost. As with writing, it’s good to pause every once in a while, to take the long way back and see them afresh.

How many times have I walked right past this channel? How often do I pause to remark that it's really cool?

How many times have I walked right past this channel? How often do I pause to remark that it’s really cool?

Now to the bookstore, to spend a forgotten gift card on fancy notebooks for another larger-ish project. Because it’s my day off, I have a gift card, and why the hell not?

KT

What I’m Listening to this Week

Something a little slower and more sedate this week: Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte. Translation: Pavane for a Dead Princess. (Again, I promise, I’m fine.) Actually, Ravel didn’t really have any particular dead princesses in mind when he wrote this: it was a nostalgic metaphor.

In any case, I’ve been listening to the orchestrated version, because I still have a weakness for horns after all these years. The piano version is excellent too, but oh, that haunting, hollow melody echoing from the rush of strings…. It reminds me of the final lines of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

It’s the piece’s momentum that does it, despite the melancholy. Gentle and constantly moving forward. The piece made a lot more sense when I learned a pavane is a type of dance. Of course it is. Also worth noting: the absolutely ethereal, fantastical section starting around 3:40, when the strings shimmer and we finally pass the melody from the horns. And the ending could stand as a definition for “emotional closure.”

My Dad: Two Years On

Two years and one day ago, I tweeted the following picture:

ChristmasTree2012

I was so happy that night. Things were good at school, Christmas was coming, Hapax was out and I was clearly on my way in writing, and I was suffused with love and good will for the people at Black Creek, my coworkers truly becoming my friends.

Less than twenty-four hours after I posted this picture, my life shattered.

I went to choir the next morning. This was December 16th, 2012. The Sandy Hook shooting had just happened, and part of the sermon reflected on the loss of so many lives, the pain their families now carried through the Advent season. I can’t even imagine, I remember thinking, my toes dangling off the back of the kneeler. I can’t even imagine what it would be like, losing someone so close to the holidays.

Less than twelve hours later, I knew.

My father died two years ago today. And honestly, that’s something I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It’s been two years. My dad is dead. He’s been dead for two years. It doesn’t even make any sense that my dad—my vibrant, lively, healthy dad—is dead. But two years? Jesus Christ.

This may be a little trigger-y for a bit. If you want to scroll down, I will put a picture of a cat. Past that, it’s all hope and love again.

Ready?

Okay. So sometimes, I still need to talk about the horror of that night. Sometimes, I still need to tell the story again. This is, I’ve found, something that happens with grief. Friends and loved ones can be reluctant to bring up the event, in case it makes us sad. Well, guess what? We’re already sad, and talking it through, recapping it, putting it in order again, and again, and again, is the only way that we’re going to process it. Saying it out loud makes it real, but it also brings it out of our heads. It gives a bit of distance, so we can try to understand what the fuck happened.

Even two years later, I still need to tell the story sometimes.

So, around 9:00 pm on Sunday, December 16th, 2012, I was sitting at my kitchen table. A friend was over, doing some rough sketches of Serafine. Shortly, she and my other friend were going to watch Love Actually. I was trying to convince myself that I could totally take another night off studying for exams, because Love Actually was a Christmas tradition and I hadn’t seen it yet that year. Of course, I really needed to study, but—

My phone rang. It was my sister. She explained that she and Mom were coming to fetch me right now, and then we were all going to the hospital, because Dad had had an accident playing hockey.

I was not overly concerned at this point. It wouldn’t be the first time he got hurt. When I was small, he’d nearly lost an eye when he took a hockey stick to the face. Maybe he did lose it this time, I thought. Because I had been in hospitals before, I had the presence of mind to pack my bag with my textbooks and notes. After all, waiting for X-rays and CAT scans took a long time; I’d be able to study while he went through those.

As I tugged my boots on, I suddenly thought of my grandfather. During my first year of university, he’d driven himself to ER, promptly had a massive stroke, and died a week later. Wouldn’t it be awful, if—if—but no. I figured that maybe worst case scenario, Dad had taken a really bad blow to the head. Maybe really, really worst case, there’d be some brain damage, a bit of rehab. But that was super-worst-case. It couldn’t be that bad.

My mom and sister picked me up off the street, and we drove to the hospital. Traffic crawled. I remember the copper-orange of the streetlights. At one point, we crossed the foot of my friend Blythe’s street. I’d just been to her apartment for the first time, and I gazed up the street, wishing that Mom could just turn here, like I was just going to hang out with her.

My grandparents arrived at the same time we did. Some of Dad’s hockey team were already in the waiting room. I knew some of them—they all seemed very shaken. Memories fragment here. I don’t remember exactly what was said. I remember trying to shield my sister, dragging her over to a vending machine around the corner.

A man in scrubs led us into the labyrinth of emergency care behind the receptionist. He had blue scrubs, a long black ponytail. We passed curtained-off alcoves, cots and IVs flush to the wall. As we walked, a curious numbness settled over me. This is the scariest thing I have ever done, I thought. I remember thinking that, but also still hoping that later, the warm flush of relief would come. God, Dad, we were so scared, and for nothing—isn’t that funny?

The man in scrubs led us to a small, cream-coloured room. It had two brown, slippery couches, a shiny black coffee table holding a Kleenex box, and a cross on the wall. That’s when I knew that things were very, very bad. You don’t bring people into rooms with crosses if everything is going to be okay.

The man in scrubs explained that Dad had had a “cardiac event” and had gone down on the ice. Wonder of wonders, there had been a firefighter and a cardiac specialist on the opposing team. CPR had started right away, they’d used a defibrillator right away, and the ambulance had been called right away. Absolutely everything that could have been done had be done, as quickly as possible.

And they’d not yet been successful in resuscitating him.

I may or may not have been slightly aggressive with the doctor. I may or may not have been told to relax. Then we went to see him. Around yet another corner, there was yet another curtain, a sectioned-off portion of emergency. We went behind the curtain.

And I knew, the moment I saw him.

There was no resuscitating. Not anymore. We were long past that. It was disorienting—on the one hand, it was just Dad, lying on a gurney. On the other, he looked so old. Chalk-grey skin, shirtless, tubes going into his nose and mouth, electrodes on his chest. A technician furiously doing compressions. Dad’s mouth gaped open a little, and that’s what really struck me: the way his cheeks sagged inwards, the way there was absolutely no muscle control, everything was just limp. Lifeless. Two years later, and I still sometimes see it. The horror doesn’t lessen with time. You just don’t think about it, until you do, and suddenly, you’re back in that room, with the metallic smells and the beeping, and Dad’s cheeks collapsing on themselves.

We asked how long they’d been doing this.

About forty minutes.

How long could they reasonably keep doing this?

They were about at the limit.

So, if his brain had been forty minutes without oxygen, then—

Um.

Then it was time to stop.

I couldn’t touch him. I couldn’t touch him because I knew that he was already cooling, and I was too scared to feel it. And so, cowardly, I stood very close, wanting to touch him one last time, wanting to give one last hug. Someone asked if we wanted a chaplain. “He’s Catholic,” I said. “He needs Last Rites.”

Tears spilling from our eyes, we wandered the emergency department: making calls, trying to figure out next steps, reassuring the hockey team that it wasn’t their fault. I vaguely wondered what the other patients thought. Probably they knew that some lives had just been permanently changed. We’ve all been there. We never think we’ll be the people crying.

I wandered back just as a chaplain began the Lord’s Prayer. I collapsed next to my grandparents and said it too. I don’t think they realized I knew more than “Our Father.” I talked to a cop. I gave dates of birth, addresses. I agreed that yes, I was very young. I stayed with my sister, who was refusing to leave the body.

But then I looked over, and I saw that a rosy red flush was blooming along the underside of Dad’s cheeks. And that is another horrific detail that’s branded itself into my memory. See, for a scene in Hapax, I’d had to research what happens to the body shortly after death, and so I knew precisely what this was. Without the action of the heart to keep blood circulating, gravity will cause it to pool at the lowest points of the body. When a body is lying on its back, that’s the undersides of the arms, the legs, the face…

I was right, I thought.

And then I had to leave so that I could go vomit. I never saw my dad’s body again. (My choice, incidentally, to not stick around for the open-casket portion of the visitation later that week.)

We returned to my mom’s house. I had to send a bizarre text (“Sorry, I can’t study tomorrow. My dad died.”) and then I called my childhood best friend. Numb, shocked, broken, I didn’t want to go to bed, because I dreaded waking up—I didn’t want that moment of remembering what had happened the night before, feeling it fresh all over again.

I think I fell asleep around 5:00 am. I was up by 7:00. I emailed my registrar, asking to defer my exams on Wednesday. I emailed my bosses, asking not to be called that week. And then I called my friend Rachel-the-Anglican-Priest. I’d been in her office the week before, seeking counsel for stress and family tensions. Now I had to explain, “So…new developments…”

This whole thing was so bizarrely scripted.

As promised, the picture of the cat says that things get a little more hopeful from here.

CuteKitteh

My maternal grandmother and I went to the church around eleven to sort out funeral details. Although my Dad was technically Catholic (and while I still am, technically), they could do a very inclusive service. They could recommend a good funeral home. They could help us through this—it was going to be all right, I had a community at Grace Church that loved and supported me.

I had cried in the hospital, but it had been like the tears were seeping out slowly. My grandmother stepped outside of the office, and then, alone with Rachel, I sobbed for the first time. And when she told me that it was terrible, and unfair, and painful, but that they were all there for me, I believed her. For a while, I’d considered Grace a safe place—but here it was, when I needed it most, as a rock in my life.

Thank you, all of my family at Grace, for doing infinitely more than I could ask or imagine. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Where there is love, God is there.

Around two o’clock, I was at loose ends. My sister had been swept away by her friends and Mom was huddled on the couch with all of the relatives. I paced aimlessly. What would make me feel best right now? I asked myself. Who do I need to be with?

The answer was undeniable, if somewhat surprising.

Blythe. Right now, I need Blythe. 

Sure, we were friends. Sure, we saw each other outside of work. But this was heavy stuff. Was it too heavy? I hesitated, looping the kitchen. The answer didn’t change. And so, I texted her, asking if I could come over and escape the madness for a bit. As I sent it, I figured that I’d get a responding text in a few hours, maybe.

She called me before I’d even slipped my phone back in my pocket.

My uncle drove me to her place. At that point, I’d actually only been to Blythe’s apartment one time, so I was a little uncertain as I directed him there. But, soon enough, I was standing outside her door. As I jabbed the doorbell, part of me wondered what on Earth I was doing. The rest was just too numb.

The door flew open. “Hi!” Blythe said. “Come on up!”

Turning, I waved to my uncle, then followed her up the narrow staircase. Maybe we made awkward small talk, I don’t really remember. What I do remember is that Blythe went into the apartment ahead of me. I bent down to take off my boots. When I glanced up, she was standing in the middle of her kitchen, looking at me: not with apprehension, but compassion. Suddenly, absolute certainty rushed over me. This was the right place to be.

She hugged me. She badgered me into eating part of an apple. Gave me odd jobs to distract me. And while the two of us tend to have different accounts of these sorts of things, I think it was then that things changed between us. We were friends before, certainly, but supporting someone in so much pain and shock is an entirely different thing. When I needed someone, she was there without question. I honestly do not think I could have managed those first few months without her.

Thank you, my friend—thank you, and all of my love.

On Wednesday, I went to work. I remember running out of the car, throwing the door open before Mom had really stopped, and booking it through the village. Like Grace, this was my place of safety. This was home. In hindsight, it must have seemed bizarre. Here I was, roaming the village with a haunted expression, dodging crowds of schoolchildren. This was my workplace—why on Earth was I there?

Because I needed to be. And credit to my supervisors and coworkers, they let me do my thing. They let me wander bleakly, surround myself with the people and places I loved. Some people came to the visitation that night (for which I was profoundly grateful, I couldn’t have done that without them—walking into the funeral parlour and seeing the casket, it was heartbreakingly, crushingly real). There was a card, filled with love. My boss sent a handwritten note. I still have all of these things.

Here is the thing about death. For the most part, it doesn’t make sense. If this was a novel, my editor would never let me get away with it. “What? And then he dies? No, that’s stretching credibility too far.”

When death strikes like this, the normal rules cease operating. And so we cry in our friends’ offices. We crash other friends’ dinner parties. We walk around our workplace because reasons. And people, for the most part, are just as stunned as us. Unsure how to react, they do the best they can: opening their arms with love, drawing us close, holding us near.

When you are grieving, nothing makes sense. You worry you’re too sad. You worry you’re not sad enough. You worry about burdening your loved ones. And at the same time—you need, desperately need that human connection. You need to be able to tell the story, as often as it takes. You need to be vulnerable, to cry—and also, sometimes, you need to go skating and live normally for a few hours, away from the sadness.

And if a grieving person comes to you…ask them. Ask them if they need to describe what happened again. Ask them if they just want to sit. Know that they may think they’re fairly functional, but in several months’ time, they will realize that they really, really weren’t.

Love us. That’s all we need.

It saddens me that almost everything that is now important in my life—working full time, Stonecoast, the nice young man, beer, my writing family, my current friendships—happened after Dad died. My life now is completely different from my life two years ago. But that’s what happens.

We heal, but we don’t recover. I will never not be sad about my dad. Every December will be hard for me. The body remembers, longer and more vividly than the mind. The body remembers the fall of light, the weight of the wind, the pattern of the clouds overhead. We don’t get over the loss; we make it a part of us, growing into and around it.

When a writer loves you, you can never die. Dad’s fingerprints touch my work now, even if it’s his death bleeding through again, and again. In the Victorian Dark Fantasy, Sara’s grief plays out alongside my own. In short story after short story, I try to use words to build a ladder down into the abyss, using fiction to go where I can’t.

Two years on, and I am usually happy. Sometimes I am sad, but usually I am happy, and I miss my Dad more than all those words can say.

MovieNight

-KT

 

Alone by Myself in Solitude: an introvert’s trials

So, in order to get time off for Stonecoast this July, I traded a whole bunch of shifts at work…which has resulted in me working eleven days straight. Right before that, I worked ten days straight—I had a day off in between the two stretches. Plus, I write at night.

I shouldn’t complain. I know people who work more hours, longer stretches, more stressful jobs.

But darn it, I really just want to sit alone by myself for a day. In the dark. And silence. Without people. Alone.

Huzzah for introversion!

As most people know, introversion isn’t about shyness or anti-sociability. It’s about energy production. Introverts generate energy within themselves, and lose it during social interaction. Important caveat: the energy loss varies from person to person. Chilling with friends takes energy, but significantly less than dealing with irate customers or dozens of strangers at a party. By contrast, extroverts generate energy through social interaction, and lose it when they have to be alone.

So ideally, for an introvert, life should look something like this:

IntrovertGraph

And for an extrovert:

ExtrovertGraph

Energy loss more-or-less equals energy generation. For introverts, that means that they get enough alone time to balance out the social interaction (which, while fun, is expensive, energy-wise). Extroverts get enough people time to compensate for the times that they’re alone. Everyone is happy.

It doesn’t always work this way.

Sometimes, like at cons, the creative environment and awesomeness of seeing everyone face-to-face masks the energy loss. That’s why so many introverts collapse after conventions; we’ve been steadily losing energy all weekend, we just haven’t really noticed. Adrenaline does the same thing. We had a fairly busy weekend in the brewery recently—and man, I was flying.

Sample! Growler! Growler sample growler! RETURN GROWLER SAMPLEGROWLERSAMPLESAMPLE!

And then I went home and promptly crashed.

Since Balticon, however, my own graph has looked more like this:

SadIntrovertGraph

It’s out of sync. My alone time isn’t enough to pay for the energy I’m spending on work, writing, and various other things. Think of a bank account. If my paycheque is suddenly slashed from $500 to $100/month (I’m using round numbers, bear with me), I’ll go into debt if I keep trying to pay my $200/month rent (again, I am pulling these numbers from the air).

Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, your energy source is just as important as food and water. Extroverts need people. Introverts need solitude. Force them to go too long without their generator of choice, and bad things happen.

All of which explains my own exhaustion and irritability. Yeah, I’ll own up to that—I’m trying very, very hard, and I feel terrible after snapping at people, but it happens.

Oh hai. I see you there. Trying to take my precious, precious energy.  (Wikimedia Commons)

Oh hai. I see you there.
(Wikimedia Commons)

But what can we do? After all, at some point, every one of us will go through stretches like this.

Setting boundaries and limits helps, I think. I am protecting my few off-days. Communication, as well: explaining to people that you love them, AND ALSO need to sit alone by yourself in such solitude that you cannot even sense the presence of another human being.

And of course, knowing yourself and maybe planning for those stretches. For me, some of these extra shifts were unexpected; I’m trying to roll with it, but having strategies in place—carving out time with/without people, allowing yourself breaks, getting enough sleep and such, which I admit I struggle with—might have made this easier.

Ah well. Only a few more days. And then—

This:

-KT

Cool Thing of the Week

Apparently, I’m getting a reputation as a lush! My ten-year-old self would be horrified. Two people sent me the same link to 18th century drink recipes—I raise my eyebrow at the ones with egg and cream, but some of them actually look quite good!

Of Dead Laptops and Back-ups

So, my laptop died.

It was never quite the same after I mailed it home from New Zealand. For a while, I had one consistently good USB port, one which was dodgy, and one dead. Then the other day, I noticed that my laptop wasn’t charging…even though it was plugged in.

Unplugging, re-plugging, and all sorts of fiddling did nothing. To make matters even more fun (whee!), I’m currently in Virginia on a three-week interning spin with my dear friends Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris. So, a bit far from home.

Fortunately, Pip and Tee are wonderful people. They drove me to Best Buy and waited while the Geek Squad determined that they might be able to ship my laptop back to Canada, where Future Shop might be able to possibly replace the power port to maybe extend my laptop’s life another couple of weeks.

And then they patted my shoulder as I coughed up the money for a new laptop.

There is never a good time, but this could have been better (oh hai, MFA tuition). But the most striking part of this whole experience was transferring the files from the old machine to this new one. The issue wasn’t one of space (again, wonderful friends that Pip and Tee are, I had the use of all the external drives I could ask for).

No, the main issue was time. Once that battery goes, the old machine’s done.

(And yes, I know about pulling hard drives…but I’m in Virginia. I’m not sure how or if I can get the old laptop home.)

So it was like standing in a burning house, wondering, “What do I save? What do I grab first? What can I leave behind?” All the while knowing that every second of indecision brings you closer to that final shutdown.

It’s probably the historian in me, but I like having links to my own past. Detailed records, a personal archive that is there, even if I rarely dip into it. Maybe it’s a security thing, knowing that I can always reconstruct things if necessary.

Obviously, getting the writing to safety is always top priority when things get squirrelly, which is why I’m actually pretty good about backing things up.

Pictures and music vied for second place. A 2011 family trip to Costa Rica, the last we took before my dad died. My New Zealand photos. Even just images for Black Creek and this blog – more a matter of convenience and posterity, but still.

iTunes is fine, so I grabbed whatever extra stock music and sound effects I could. Luckily, I pulled the raw Hapax files ages ago (they were large and numerous), precisely because of this fear of, “What if I need to go back in one day?”

That’s a fear I face now, with the videos. I got the final cuts of all my Black Creek videos, but very little raw footage or sound files. I can’t see why I would ever need to rebuild those videos from scratch, but if ever someone asked, I probably couldn’t. That worries me, even though it’s completely irrational. Again, I blame my historian streak.

But at the end of the day, the important things are really the things that are me. The writing, the music, the photos. Most other things can be found again, edited again. Music is challenging to replace; writing and photos can be almost impossible.

Which is why I will give the customary “Back your stuff up” speech. When my laptop died, I already had the entirety of my fiction backed up elsewhere. I did go back for a few university essays, but the writing was safe.

Most of my photos are on Facebook (though there are always strays). I’ve used Google Drive more and more lately; it holds the music for the kids’ opera, the videos, and a few other random documents. I have my own intern Dropbox now.

It’s easier than ever to protect your data. Yes, emergencies happen. Yes, the unforeseen is…well, unforeseen. But if you can take any steps to mitigate potential disaster (knowing it’s not always possible)…then please, save yourself the heartache later.

Here are some photos that I would have been sad to lose.

KT

069

Dad tanned. I do not.

Arriving at the Dunedin flat. Too mundane for Facebook, but it brings me right back.

Arriving at the Dunedin flat. Too mundane for Facebook, but it brings me right back.

I like the perspectives no visitors see.

I like the perspectives no visitors see.

I do like the furballs...

And I do love the furballs…

Welcome 2014!

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.

Podcasting

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.”

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.

Arohanui, guys.

And so….

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.

Um…you know I live here, right?

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.

KT

When The Book Doesn’t Work

It’s a sickening feeling when you realize your book doesn’t work.

Dread lodges in the pit of your stomach like a stone. You can try to deny it, you can try to push onwards, you can rationalize until you’ve nearly convinced yourself, but there’s no escaping the certainty:

The book doesn’t work.

I’ve started Strix for the third time. Third time through, third completely different story. Honestly, this is less rewriting, more throwing the book out and writing a brand-new one with the same premise. I’m finally liking it again, which is a HUGE deal for me. Rewriting was definitely the right choice.

But getting there – oh man, the most painful writing experience I’ve had yet. Though I’m still in the trenches, shell-shocked and clutching my rifle, I think I have a few battle scars. Possibly even a helpful word or two:

You are chained to nothing

Every draft of Strix, from the first half-hearted attempt I started before Hapax even sold, to the draft before this current one, started with the same sentence. Every. Single. Bloody. Time. I was chained to my protagonist, to the idea of what I wanted my protagonist to be, and when it became clear certain elements weren’t working, I shoehorned them in because I thought they “should” be there.

Don’t do this. The thing you most want to keep might be dooming your story over and over and over. “Murder your darlings,” be ruthless, and don’t be afraid to throw the kitchen sink out the window.

Maybe not your computer, though….

Why are you writing this?

That being said, you need to know why you are writing this story. What is the story’s heart, what is its essence that keeps you banging your head against it? That cannot get thrown out. Well, it can, but then you’re writing an entirely different book.

The premise of Strix is the same. The notion of a sweeping soteriological arc through my universe’s entire history is the same. That’s what drew me to it. I needed to keep that.

Nothing is wasted

I’ve lost count of my Strix drafts. I wrote 40,000 words of an early version before Hapax had even sold, then trunked it (even then, clearly, I knew something was wrong). Some elements from the official Strix 1.0 carried to Strix 2.0. Some elements from Strix 2.0 carry to Strix 3.0. Nothing from Strix 1.0 shows up in 3.0.

That’s ok. Because I couldn’t have written 2.0 without 1.0. They were practice drafts.

This is me writing Strix 1.0. This is me writing Strix 1.0 in Dunedin, New Zealand. This is me writing Strix 1.0 in Dunedin in…oh, MAY OF 2012. (Also, look how short my hair is! I may or may not need a haircut….)

Get backup

Think of the people you know. Friends, acquaintances, coworkers, neighbours, dog park pals, whatever. Is there someone who enjoys reading books like the books you write? Is it someone who is clever and insightful, who understands how stories work, who isn’t afraid to be honest, and whose opinion you value?

Approach them very nicely. Ask, very politely, if they will beta read for you.

And if they say yes—oh, it can be such a lovely relationship.

Beta readers catch things you won’t. They’ll read the story as readers, but informed and purposeful readers. I have several friends who are kind enough to read my early drafts and I’m incredibly grateful for them.

Of course, while you need people to ask the hard questions, you also need people who will hold your hand when it’s midnight and you’re sobbing at their kitchen table. Sometimes, if you’re very lucky (and I am), these people are one and the same.

Writing may look like a solitary occupation, but no one’s really alone in this.

Make yourself accountable

Which is what I’m doing right now. Here’s the deal: I leave for my very first Stonecoast residency on January 10th. I am not taking Strix with me. Not going to happen, I need it done before I leave.

Which means I need to reach the end of the story in a little under a month.

End of story.

By writing an average of 3000 words/day, I can make it. In the two nights I’ve been writing Strix 3.0, I’ve reached 6,600 words. So far, I’m on target!

But I am putting it here, on this blog, officially:

Done By Stonecoast

Hold me to this. And if you’ve got a project you need finished, January 10th is as good a deadline as any, right? Join the fun!

KT

Fighting Silence

I’ve been trying and failing to write a blog post for weeks. Not because I have nothing to say. I’ve tried to write posts about writing dialects, dipping into new genres, updates on the Victorian Dark Fantasy, the fact that I’m going to Stonecoast, collaboration with other writers, collaboration with other creative-types…

Inevitably, they end in despair and files deleted unsaved. I’ll get to about this point, actually, and then my fingers freeze and my mind races. Who would want to read this? Who wants to read anything I write? I can’t write ads for cereal boxes. Look at me, about to gut Strix and start it over for the third time. My writing sucks, and hey, I could also be a better friend, sister, daughter, employee….

I haven’t deleted this draft yet. This is progress.

Many writers are prone to fits of insecurity and self-doubt. We all know the stereotype: the tortured writer pulling their hair out, utterly convinced they’re nothing more than a hack.

Sometimes, it isn’t about writing.

My paralyzed silence isn’t entirely writing-related. A while back, I was informed that by asking my friends for help following my dad’s death, I was being a self-absorbed burden on the people I loved most.

It still bothers me.

For the past few weeks—about as long as I’ve been struggling to write anything—anxiety over my friends has been tearing me to pieces. Are they sick of me? Why can’t I just be my old self again? I totally am a burden. I’m no fun. Who in their right mind would want to hang out with this sack o’ sad?

And if I had a nickel for every time someone’s said, “That’s ridiculous. We’re your friends,” I could enjoy a lovely early retirement at the age of 22.

Right here, at this point right…now, I really want to give up on this blog post and withdraw back under my covers. Let’s see if we can make it through.

Because here is the connection. I’ve become scared to come out of my shell in real life, for fear that people will just think, “Pfft, KT, still sad over everything. Why can’t she keep her thoughts inside like a big girl?”

What that comment did several months ago was punch every button in my psyche, confirm every whisper that says, “You’re worthless, they don’t like you, they just feel sorry for you, and you’d better watch it because I don’t think you read social cues well enough to tell the difference.

“No one cares.”

And it’s that last one that’s damning for writers in particular. For fiction to work, people have to care. There is no tangible benefit to fiction. Not like there is to something like deck-building. If a deck-builder comes to my house and I pay them money, I get a deck at the end. If I go to a bookstore, buy a book, and read it, I have a book.

But I didn’t pay money for a bundle of processed wood product. Really, I paid for things that don’t exist: characters, places, and events that someone made up. Also a whole bunch of new thoughts, ideas, and feelings…but those only come if I’m willing to invest some part of myself into the figments of someone else’s imagination. Fiction doesn’t work if no one cares.

But if you’ve somehow convinced yourself that no one cares about you, the intrinsic, essential you, then it logically follows that no one would care about the products of your mind.

That “X” button at the top right hand corner looks tempting…but I will finish this.

I’ve been spending a lot of time hiding out in my room because I can’t face imposing myself on my housemates. I’m quiet in choir because it’s easier to stay behind the safety of my walls. My days in the brewery are my saving grace because I’m distracted by things I love, but I can run the historic kitchen on autopilot—and autopilot is dangerous because it lets me spend too much time in my own head.

Silence feels safer. But silence inevitably spirals into nights lost to tears and nightmares. And inevitably reminds me of the Silence:

It’s the same with writing. Not writing feels safer. But none of us got into writing because it seemed safe. We got into writing because there was something we had to say, some story we had to tell.

I have to tell stories about six-winged redheaded goddesses and rural villages hiding dark secrets. I have to talk about my heroes’ endless searches for safe harbours and the terrible costs of my villains’ isolation and rigidity.

And sometimes I just have to say:

I am sad.

– KT

We did it. Thank you for reading.

Pace Yourself

With NaNoWriMo starting tomorrow, word count and pace-of-writing has been on my mind. For those unfamiliar with the term, National Novel Writing Month challenges writers to write 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s 1667 words per day.

Word count’s a really personal thing. Some people have bigger ones, some have smaller ones, but as long as yours works for you and gets the job done, it’s probably fine.

*Snerk*

(Yes, I’m twelve. Why do you ask?)

I’m a fast writer and I can slog. In my third year of university, I made the wonderful discovery that armed with a decent outline, I could write a paper in a day. A hard, brutal, brain-numbing day, but a single day.

StJohnEssayme

Well, that was fun.

When writing Strix 2.0, I was motivated to push it out very quickly. I rewrote the novel essentially from scratch from late April to late June: 80,000 words in about two months, averaging 2000 words/day.

Then I wrote the Victorian Dark Fantasy. There was no pushing involved with this book. It gushed out (*snerk*) from late July to late September: 100,000 words in about two months, averaging 2000 words/day with a few 5000-7000 word days.

I’m not convinced this way is better.

After all, here we are in late October, and what have I done since then?

Pretty well nothing. I rested for two weeks while my betas read, and then I’ve spent the last two weeks editing. I’ve written a few blog posts and such for the day job. Looking at my Whiteboard of Doom, I see several things due in the next two weeks, all of them hitting just when I’m really, really tired.

This is the thing: writing is draining. Not just in terms of long nights, it’s draining in that you’re pulling out raw emotion, distilling it down, and putting it on paper. For me, this was particularly true of the Victorian Dark Fantasy. In one sense, it was an easy book to write, because the words wouldn’t stop flowing. In another, it was incredibly difficult for precisely the same reason.

When I was a little kid, I ran a lot of cross-country. My strength lay in pacing—I understood that if I went off the start line like gangbusters, I’d be too tired to finish. Far better to take a steady pace and pass the early leads later on.

I don’t seem to be very good at that while writing. I charge out of the gate and sprint the whole way, and I think the only reason I haven’t collapsed so far is that I’m young and spry and excessively caffeinated.

It’s a weird balance, though. On the one hand, yes, I’d love to take things slowly and not feel exhausted by the end of every project. I’m reminded of Spoon Theory: you only have so many spoons, so you need to consciously choose how to spend them. But at the same…there are so many things I want to write. There are so many stories to tell. And frankly, writing’s been pretty important to the ol’ budget this year.

I guess finding the happy balance between WRITING ALL THE THINGS and not dying is another aspect of professionalism. Full time authors can’t burn out, because then their circumstances become very precarious. If you don’t write, you don’t eat—so it’s probably best to ensure you can write consistently for years and years to come. The secret I need to learn is that word count means very little if it kills you.

So to all of you starting NaNo tomorrow: best of luck, have fun, write as much as you are able—and take care of yourselves. We’re all here cheering!

-KT