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Pride, Respect, and Audacity

I’ve been thinking about pride lately. Alas, as they occasionally do, my thoughts began spinning. Oh God, am I secretly an awful person and no one bothered to tell me? Am I really awful, like seriously un-talented, and I haven’t been able to hear the sniggers over my own pride ringing in my ears?

It’s been a fun week.

And of course, as many writers are wont to do, I got sucked into a Second-Guessing Spiral of Doom. Well, if I’m not as good as I thought at one thing…maybe I’m wrong about EVERYTHING ELSE. Maybe I should just put my head down and not call any attention to myself at all.

Coming March 2015

Coming March 2015

Except I have HEARTSTEALER coming out next month, so that’s not really an option.

And therein lies the paradox many authors face: we have both insane self-confidence and crippling insecurity. To even dare submit a story – heck, to even show it to another human being – you need to think that it’s good. If you don’t honestly think, “This story is so good, people I’ve never met will give me money for it,” then why are you wasting your time? Not to mention the editors’ time?

That’s not all, either. When you have sold things, you can very rarely get away with proceeding to sit quietly in the corner. Doesn’t matter how good your books are – if people can’t find them, they’re a whole lot less likely to buy them.

All of which means: if you are overly self-deprecating – because, hey, I’m just some Canadian kid who hasn’t actually done all that much – if you never speak up and out, if you deflect all attention away from you, if you don’t aggressively seek opportunities… Well, it’s still possible to have a career, but you’re setting up a lot of roadblocks for yourself.

So we can’t do away with pride. Great. That doesn’t help my roiling anxiety.

But then I thought: is taking pride in one’s work different from being proud?

Google didn’t have an answer. I wonder, though, if maybe we should be talking about respecting one’s own work. So not inflating one’s ego by extolling its virtues, but simply giving it the time and attention it needs. Part of respecting one’s work – and I think this is the key difference – is being able to accept criticism to make it better.

Because the difference between egoism and respecting the work is this: what’s it about? If it’s about YOU, and how it makes YOU feel, and why isn’t anyone paying attention to YOU – in other words, if it’s entirely personal – then we may be looking at pride.

If it’s about the work…accepting criticism that might hurt your feelings in order to make the work better, making the writing (not you and your awesomeness) the main focus, doing what you can to make sure the work gets what it needs…that might be a different matter.

Remembering too that no work is perfect. We can strive to make it so. We’ll never get there, but that’s no reason not to try. But when criticism comes a-knocking…it may spur your future works on to be even better, and future works need just same amount of respect. (And if your ego is a bit, uh, puffier, you may find people less inclined to read your future works, so there’s that angle on this whole “respect the work” thing too.)

There’s another word I’d like to throw out: audacity.

Audacity_Logo.svg

No, not that Audacity. The actual dictionary definition of audacity, which is, “the willingness to take bold risks.” This is a term that’s become very important to me, and not just because of the sound editing program.

It’s a good counterpoint to pride. Recently, I had a conversation in which it was suggested that if I’m self-publishing HEARTSTEALER, I must be very proud of it.

I have worked very hard on HEARTSTEALER. I believe in it. I believe there’s a place for it out there. But what this whole endeavour boils down to is audacity. This is a bold risk. Every time I’ve reached out to people for help, that’s audacity. My relentless pushing at the dayjob? Audacity. Also, sheer stubbornness, but that’s another post.

*cough*

*cough*

And podcasting. To have the sheer audacity to suggest to people that they might really like to spend their afternoons recording dialogue, and no worries, you’re totally going to figure out this whole audio editing thing before it goes live…

I like the term audacity because of the element of risk. Someone who is too over-confident doesn’t see any risk involved in these activities. Why would they? They’re awesome, so clearly, everything will work out. And when you don’t see the snakes, that’s when you get bit.

Creative types who push the envelope, who suggest new things, who pull other people aboard—they may not have any idea if it’ll actually work. Hence, it’s a risk. Being proud means assuming the dangers will never touch you. Having audacity means you see the dangers, and you’re willing to try anyway.

So respect your work. Be grateful with criticism, gracious with praise.

And above all: be audacious.

-KT

What I’m Listening To This Week

Oh, man, I love me some Verdi. La Traviata was the first opera I ever heard, and it’s still one of my favourites. Courtesan meets guy, courtesan loses guy, guy briefly reconciles with courtesan, courtesan dies of consumption.

Yeah, I consistently cry through the third act. Sue me.

Si ridesta in ciel l’aurora takes place after a party at Courtesan Violetta’s house: the dawn is breaking in the sky, and it’s time for the guests to go home. I love the exuberant, galloping introduction here. Also, Verdi writes really, really well for choruses: the lower and upper voices pass the melody off, back and forth, getting progressively louder and more intense, until we burst into a triumphant climax at 0:36, complete with crashing percussion.

The melody becomes almost march-like, nearly militaristic, and then the original light, peppy tune ushers us out. Sidebar: this modern production looks super interesting. Love where they placed the chorus, and how Violetta is left all alone…with a spinning clock, because her time is running out, get it???

Critiques: A Writer’s Unlikely Love

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! 😉

-KT

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.

Eight Months

One of my favourite lines in Doctor Who comes right before the Tenth Doctor’s regeneration. As the Doctor is dying, Ood Sigma tells him: “This song is ending, but the story never ends.”

10DoctorRegen

Brings me to tears. Every time.

This idea of regeneration, transformation instead of destruction (and sometimes transformation through destruction), fits quite nicely with themes that crop up in Hapax and Strix. There’s a subtle difference, though. The Tenth Doctor’s song is over; the story goes on. My characters’ songs change, but they never actually end. Not really.

Broken down to its simplest level, I guess it really says, “Life goes on.”

And that is a painful, wonderful thing. Today marks exactly eight months since I lost my dad. Some days are harder than others. The magnitude, unexpectedness, and sheer absurdity of what happened shielded me for a long time. Intellectually, of course, I knew. Believe me, no delusions here. In terms of feelings…different story. My dad, have a heart attack? My dad, the healthy, vibrant athlete? No way, no how: not a thing.

Except it was a thing: a stupid, terrible thing that should never have happened, but did anyway.

The glory, the beauty, and the triumph of life is that it continues. The long, hard winter eventually passed into spring. Over the past eight months, some of my friends have had wonderful things happen to them. I’ve had some wonderful things happen to me. The mornings dawned bright and clear. New sheep were born. Our tiny little speck of a planet kept whirling through the cosmos.

It’s really easy to look at all of that and think, “Well, frak. The universe clearly doesn’t care—everything’s ticking right along even though we’re short one awesome person.”

Sometimes I wonder if that’s missing the point. Is it painful to write knowing he’ll never read it? Occasionally. Does it suck knowing he’ll never see another mist-shrouded cottage morning? Absolutely.

But the story never ends. It continues in the love my dad left us. It continues in the blue eyes I have to face in the mirror every morning. “Life goes on” isn’t necessarily a trite platitude, or a bitter cry of resentment. It doesn’t suggest uncaring. Not at all.

It suggests that as permanent and inevitable as death is, life will always find a way. Even in the darkest of times, there are still things which are good. And that can be a huge, huge comfort.

Ood Sigma looks like Cthulhu, and his voice is vaguely unsettling…but it’s weirdly comforting nonetheless.

When the Doctor regenerates, he isn’t quite the same. Different looks, obviously, but also a slightly different personality. And yet, despite the differences, he is still—inherently, always— the Doctor. The good doesn’t get through unscathed, but it does get through.

That night eight months ago was the worst night of my life. Most of the time, it still doesn’t feel real. Unless I’m in the grip of a flashback, it’s just a chaotic whirlwind of fragmented memories and sharp edges. To be completely frank, the death of a loved one sucks more than anything else in the universe. I’ve learned a lot, but I’d really rather just have my dad and skip the life lessons.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a TARDIS. I can’t go back and change the outcome. That song ended eight months ago.

But the story—of love, warmth, joy—that never ends. As painful as this is, I’m glad, at least, of that.

– KT

PS. Skip to ~2:30 or thereabouts. Get Kleenex first.

When you SHOULDN’T be writing

For a number of years, I Should Be Writing has been both one of my staple podcasts and an inspirational mantra. Personally, I’ve found it useful in re-directing my focus. Facebook’s hold is a lot easier to break when you can exclaim out loud, “Wait a second—I should be writing!”

It’s a principle we hear a lot. Writing every day keeps you writing, every day. A writer is someone who writes. Write or die. Don’t break the chain. The first rule is write. BIC: Bottom In Chair.

Again, all good ideas. If you’re spending your time on the Internet, TV, and random chores that really could wait a few hours, and getting a few hundred words every few days, your chances of finishing that story/novel/script are about nil.

However, this write-at-all-costs mindset overlooks the fact that sometimes, you really shouldn’t be writing.

I learned this the hard way. Looking back through the archives, I realize that I have been blogging about Strix/The Next One for far too long. This book has taken me too long. Partly, this is because I couldn’t find the way into the story. Partly, I realize in hindsight, I was writing when I shouldn’t have been.

Let’s rewind. Exactly one year ago, I was in New Zealand, starting Strix. I was experiencing culture shock. I was homesick. I was adapting to a new university. I was in a somewhat-difficult living situation. Then I was backpacking, never in one place for more than three days, writing in noisy hostels after being outside from sunrise to sunset.

The book I wrote was not very good.

MillPond

Yes, I missed this.

When you look at how it was written, that’s perhaps not terribly surprising. Of course, I don’t want to pin all of Strix’s problems on the circumstances—realistically, I just didn’t do a very good job—but they certainly didn’t help.

While I was editing Strix, a lot of family stuff was happening. At one point, I was overwhelmed enough to stumble into a priest’s office.

A week after that, my dad died unexpectedly.

And yet, I still tried to edit the damn thing. I gave myself an extra month, ignored everyone telling me to take it slow, and churned out a first pass before fleeing to Virginia for a few days.

My first real, slow sinking feeling occurred when I realized I’d forgotten to include chapter twelve…and my first readers hadn’t noticed.

I sent Gabrielle an apology, and worked feverishly on a new first pass. A few weeks later, I got this DM: “I finished Strix. Can we chat?”

End result? I’m all but starting from scratch. And yes, Gabrielle was absolutely right (I cannot stress enough just how fortunate I am to work with her). It will be a much better book this way, and where before Strix felt like an obligation, now I’m actually excited to write it. And yes, she not only gave me permission to share this, she suggested it.

Hindsight is a powerful tool. Again, I take responsibility for Strix’s problems; I chose to keep writing in the face of advice to the contrary. However, it’s possible that if I had waited, I might not have found myself in the current situation.

This is what it felt like.

Sometimes, it seems like we think we can push through anything, write through anything. After all, suffering feeds art, right? We can write through pain, turn it into grist for the mill, and ignore all stress and exhaustion in the name of our art.

Well, no.

There’s a guilt that builds up around not-writing. It can be blessing and curse: it keeps you writing, but sometimes it creates anxiety over “not being a writer” where there really isn’t cause for it. As regards to turning hardship into story…yes, this can be done. Writing is cheaper than therapy. However, there is a caveat. One of the best pieces of advice that I received (which I nodded at, agreed with, and then promptly didn’t act on) came from my ever-wise friend Blythe:

“You shouldn’t use things until you’ve dealt with them.”

Yeah. That.

Homesickness in Dunedin and grief in Toronto. Both colour Strix—neither did so in terribly effective ways. Mentally, psychologically, spiritually, I wasn’t ready. And that’s ok. If you are not ready, if you are not able, it is ok not to write. In fact, you probably shouldn’t be writing. It is easy to think in absolutes and hold writing above all else, but it can be damaging, and that hurts the quality of your work.

If you are in great physical or emotional pain, you may not write well.

If you are undergoing major life changes, you may not write well.

If your environment lacks stability, you may not write well.

If you have other major upheavals happening—work, family, whatever—that must be dealt with and require a great deal of energy, you may not write well.

Really, it’s ok. It’s natural, it’s human. But it’s worth recognizing. Know your limits, and know that waiting in the short term may save you lots of work in the long run. Sometimes, admitting, “I can’t” is braver than saying, “I’ll try.”

I’m still not functioning at 100%, but I know that I am functioning well enough, and that my current circumstances are peaceful and stable enough, to try Strix again. For reals, this time.

Best wishes to all of you on your own journeys—and remember to rest, if you need to.

-KT

Let’s Talk

So. Today is Bell Canada’s “Let’s Talk” Day.

Mental health is important to me. That means that today, I’m going to be talking about some uncomfortable stuff. It’s uncomfortable for me, too—sharing on the great wide interwebz. If you don’t feel that this is a topic for you, this is the time to stop reading. It’s ok, I’m not offended. I’ll see you next time.

Still with me?

Ok.

This is a topic that tends to get swept under the rug, alluded to with vague euphemisms, or avoided altogether. And yet, it’s so, so important, especially for creative-types. Research shows that we are much more likely to experience mental health issues than the general population, but the fact remains that they’re prevalent even in the general population.

Issues with mental health are not a sign of weakness. They are not a sign that you are “crazy.” They are not indicative of any failing. They can and do happen to anyone.

And yet there is this stigma. While it is perhaps better than it was even earlier in my lifetime, it is nowhere near gone. And so, the majority suffer in silence. The silence makes everything worse. Trust me, it does. The lack of understanding from other people, the intense fear and shame at carrying this “secret,” the loneliness and isolation…

So, let’s talk.

I have anxiety.

That probably surprises a grand total of absolutely no one. While I manage it a lot better than I used to, I’m sure everyone at school and work has seen me in the grip of an anxious flare-up at least once—those few moments of sheer panic before I can get things under control again. Or, they’ve seen the more subtle manifestations. For as long as I can remember, my biggest issue in social situations has been initiating contact. As my family puts it, I can’t say, “Can I play, too?” I find it very, very difficult to say, “Hey, can I get a ride?” “Hey, wanna grab coffee?” “Hey, let’s catch a movie.” Even if I know the person well. Even if I know the answer is likely to be “yes” (this is where I really appreciate my friends who understand my quirks…and then make me get over them).

I have had depression.

For years, I suffered largely in silence. Hapax was essentially me clawing my way out of the darkness. I needed to prove to myself that light could win, that the rigid, self-loathing thoughts were wrong. I needed to see that the Seraph could beat the Angel.

And she does. Repeatedly.

Am I better? Yes. Yes, I am better, and I know I would not be without a metric shit-tonne of hard work on my part, and even more understanding, love, and support from the people around me.

Am I cured?

No. The anxiety is just part of day-to-day life. I’m aware of it, aware of the need to manage it. It’s almost like asthma: knowing you should carry a puffer and avoid triggers. As for the depression…I view it as being “in remission.” Just like cancer, you can be symptom-free and utterly functional, with no trace of the disease left in your body.

Except you always know it might come back.

Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you had the one bout, and that’s it.

But you always know it might come back, and so you monitor it for the rest of your life.

Now one other thing: and this makes people really uncomfortable.

Grief.

Grief is hard. There’s no way around that one. Grief is hard, and not just on the person experiencing it. Like ripples in a pond, it affects people across that person’s life. People never know how to respond to it. If I had a penny for every time someone’s told me, “I don’t know what to say,” I would have a very large pile of useless metal.

Here’s the thing, though. There is no right or wrong answer in grief. Ok, the cop telling me, “Oh, you’re so young!” at the hospital, steps away from the gurney, was not terribly helpful. Neither was the person who cheerfully asked me at the visitation if I was “on Christmas vacation yet?”

Aside from those things: love, really, is all that matters. Anything said with love is helpful. Anything done with love is helpful. Some people simply texted, “Thinking of you.” I have a wonderful card filled with variations on, “I’m sorry.” Simple, simple messages, but each one was like a hug. Each one reminded me that people care.

Grief doesn’t make sense. It isn’t logical. It has no set pattern. Emotions swing wildly minute to minute. What was triggering today is comforting tomorrow, and vice versa. It takes time. And yes, all of that is hard on the people surrounding the bereaved. After all, the grieving person is volatile, irrational, preoccupied. Supporting them as they work through it requires so much patience and strength. Believe me, I know, and I am so grateful for everyone who’s stood by me.

Too often, I think, we shut down negative emotions. We try to keep them inside, for fear of being a burden, or for fear that people will grow tired of us. Certainly, I’ve noticed that tendency in myself. This is the most I’ve talked about it in a long, long time. At the same time, I don’t want my sadness and my tragedy to be the defining characteristic of me and my interactions with people. That’s not fair to them (I sometimes wonder if people are themselves grieving, mourning the old, pre-loss Katie), and it’s not healthy for me.

And yes, there have been people who have been unable to cope. I have lost friends through this. I don’t think there’s much that hurts worse. Someone you valued so much, turning their back in your most vulnerable moment, partly because it’s your most vulnerable moment…it hurts so very much, because it’s just loss heaped up on loss. (Please don’t freak out and wonder if I’m talking about you. If you’re reading this right now, I can almost guarantee it’s NOT you.)

But it just makes us treasure those who remain even more highly. Again, all things done with love. Sitting with someone. Going for coffee. Talking and laughing and pretending things are normal for a few hours. Even folding laundry and grocery shopping.

None of it—grief, depression, anxiety—are really comprehensible, not if you haven’t experienced it, and often not to the person in the midst of it. But in the end, what matters is that we have compassion. We hope for the strength to speak, and listen, and love. My own personal reserves of emotion are very low right now. But they won’t be forever, and I pray that in future, I can show the same love to others that has been shown to me.

That can’t happen in silence. This is about reaching out. Reach out to me, to friends, to family, to professionals. Accept that it doesn’t make sense, and that there might not be an answer. Have faith that eventually, it will get better.

And love. That’s the most important thing of all.

I’m glad we talked.

– KT

PS. LINKS

Kids Help Phone: http://www.kidshelpphone.ca/teens/home/splash.aspx

Canadian Mental Health Association: http://www.cmha.ca/mental-health/find-help/

Centre for Suicide Prevention: http://suicideinfo.ca/

Mental Health America: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/go/help

American Crisis Hotlines: http://suicidehotlines.com/national.html

British Mental Health Infoline: http://www.mind.org.uk/help/advice_lines

Mental Health Council of Australia Helplines: http://www.mhca.org.au/index.php/help

New Zealand Ministry of Health: http://www.health.govt.nz/yourhealth-topics/health-care-services/mental-health-services

Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand Resource Finder: http://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/resourcefinder/listings/resource/73/support-groups/#content-222

A Sad Interlude

For those who have not yet heard, my father passed away suddenly on the night of Sunday, December 16th, 2012. As people have pointed out, I’m not very old myself, so he must have been quite young.

He was.

This was completely unexpected. This was the phone call that you never expect to get, the phone call that only happens to other people. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Calvin and Hobbes, we’re all “someone else, to someone else.”

There will be time for processing and grieving in the days, weeks, and months ahead. This is really just a note to say that all my various projects have entered into a state of flux. There are two episodes remaining in Hapax-the-Podcast. It is possible, but unlikely, that they will be released on schedule (although, frankly, I do tend to throw myself into work at times like this, so who knows).

Hapax is not on hiatus. I’m just asking that you don’t hold any expectations for now.

Likewise for The Next One…although again, work helps me.

If any good can come from this, it’s recognizing afresh that there are some pretty incredible people in my life. Since Sunday, I have received many hugs, many thoughts, and many prayers. People have fed me, driven me places, and just held me. My extended family, my choir ladies and clergy, my friends, and the writing/podcasting community… you have all been so, so wonderful, and I’m deeply grateful for you. My mom, sister, and I could not make it through this without you all.

It’s difficult for me to be vulnerable. It’s difficult for me to ask for help, to say, “Actually, yes, I need people right now.”

But people have been there. People have said, “I’m here. I don’t know what to do, but I’m here.”

I don’t know what to do either. I think that simply being there is enough: hugs, thoughts, texts, and prayers.

So, to recap.

I am with my family. I am so grateful to have such an amazing network of support. My various projects will be done when they are done.

And while we should have had longer, I am so grateful for the twenty-one-and-a-half years I had with my dad.

Keeping a Cool Head

I know I typically post towards the end of the week, but I did have a few things I wanted to discuss.

I now have all four of my essays back. Three of the four went as expected, and I was happy. Perhaps I got complacent. Actually, I did get complacent, because the last one absolutely blindsided me.

I passed, but it’s a great deal lower than the marks I usually get, and I’m not pleased. For those who know me well, this is (for once) not a case of my having ridiculously high standards. Trust me, you would not be pleased either.

So: shock, and if I’m being honest, some anger. And as long as I am being completely honest, my first instinct was to snap, to rave, and vent.

But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m taking a second, sober look, and I think that, in this case, the principle of “Pick Your Battles” applies.

This was not the most amazing piece of academic writing I have ever produced. The others weren’t my best either, but they were still better. However… I’m on exchange. Yes, it is called Study Abroad for a reason, but realistically, I’m here just as much for the learning outside the classroom. I can learn history anywhere. There are some things about myself, and about life, that I can only learn in New Zealand. Presumably for this reason, every class I take here is judged at home on a pass/fail basis. As long as I pass, I get the credit, but the mark will never, ever show up on my University of Toronto transcript, and does not factor into my GPA.

So really, it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter. I’m not saying that in a nihilistic way, but rather in a “it is not particularly relevant to my ultimate goals” kind of way. When I’ve cooled off, I’ll see if there’s anything I can learn from the comments, but otherwise, getting upset over a paper that will not affect my GPA or my grad school prospects seems like a waste of energy.

Moreover, it reminds me that the time is coming when I’ll be looking at reviews, which is the other reason why I am choosing to let this go. When I get my first negative review, am I going to rant? No, of course not. I don’t want to be That Person. Again, this is training to Pick Your Battles.

The “good” thing about rejection, bad reviews, and bad essays is that you can usually learn something from them. But if not… then perhaps a bit of perspective helps. One bad review in a heap of good ones loses some of its bite. One bad essay in three years of university looks less like an indictment of my academic skills and more like a bump in the road. And when I think about all the things I’ve done and seen in New Zealand… I know that those experiences are far more valuable to me as a person than one more A would be.

As I mentioned earlier, I do set high standards for myself. I want to do well. I want to write well, and tell good stories, and perform good history. But when things don’t go as I’d hoped… well, then I simply ask for the ability to handle them with grace and dignity.