Pondering two separate-but-related things this week. First, I went to At Home with Monsters, the Guillermo del Toro exhibit currently on at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The exhibit purports to bring patrons inside del Toro’s home, “Bleak House.” It features art and books he holds dear, along with costumes and models from his films.
It’s a fascinating look into the creative “mulch” from which an artist’s work grows. The exhibit drew largely from del Toro’s childhood influences: a conservative Catholic grandmother, fairy tales, comic books and movie monsters. (No wonder I like the man’s work so much.) Montages from his films then show how those influences translate to his art.
It occurs to me that while the exhibit references his physical house, it’s mostly about home in a metaphorical sense. What mental furnishings does del Toro have; what relics from childhood and family tradition lie semi-forgotten in the attic of his mind, hauled back to light when least expected?
We all have such a mental home, of course, outfitted with whatever pieces we’ve picked up along the way. Which relates to my second pondering…
I’ve been thinking about my dad a lot this week. Partly, it’s the season. The fifth anniversary draws nigh in a month or so, which…fuck. Partly, this tends to happen around Remembrance Day, with all our choral pieces focused on death, loss, and memorializing.
Thinking about my mental home, grief and loss feature pretty prominently. Look at the fiction I’ve written since he died. It shows up again, and again, and again, like I’m telling myself the same story in hopes that this time I’ll understand the ending.
(Spoiler: I never do.)
But there was an unexpected thought in all this. I don’t have to be afraid anymore. See, for a good few years after Dad died, my operating rule was that – eventually- everyone dies or leaves. No one was for Keeps. No one stayed forever. Sometimes that assumption was consciously articulated; sometimes it just underlay everything, like the lowest, half-heard rumble from an organ.
It runs all through my fiction: this obsessive fear of loss. Sometimes, that works (Six Stories). Sometimes, it doesn’t. (I can name probably half-a-dozen short stories off the top of my head.)
But here is something I’m still trying to puzzle through. Grief and loss and death are my monsters—some of them, anyway. They live in my mental house with me; I’ll never get their stains out of the carpet and wallpaper.
But I’m not afraid, precisely, in quite the same way.
It’s a bit like my fear of Medusa (who also appeared in the del Toro exhibit, to my equal delight and dismay). Medusa’s a monster in my house too. But I’m not afraid—in fact, I’ve co-opted the gorgon image for myself, turning a symbol of my utmost dread into something powerful, strong, protective.
She’s a monster I live with. Though I fear her, I’ve got the power, now.
We all have monsters. I think their appearance in our art is inevitable. I’m not sure that you can write about them while you’re still afraid of them. I think that for art to be successful, you need to have some distance from it, to let it work as art in itself, rather than a veiled autobiography. Art is synthesis, not straight translation.
And my roundabout point is that I think grief and loss are finally undergoing the same transformation for me. My monsters, my furnishings, but not something that controls me. Rather, something I can co-opt, something I can drag out from the attic when they’ve mouldered into something less recognizable, rather than using them straight-from-the-box.
What can you write, if you’re not afraid?
I’m not entirely sure. I guess we’re going to find out.
PS. For more information about At Home with Monsters, click here. I will definitely be returning; my one regret is that I had an appointment to keep, and so rushed more than I would’ve liked.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Love me some Ralph Vaughan Williams, but I’d never heard this cantata before now. According to the accompanying notes, “Dona Nobis Pacem” was written in response to “…war, or the deepening sense of trouble which by the mid-1930s seemed set to explode into war.”
Equally disturbing and reassuring as a whole, the second movement (starting around 4:00) is one of the most intense and angry choral pieces I’ve heard in a while. I think we know one of Vaughan Williams’ monsters. Also listen to the quiet, driving drums and baritone in the fifth movement (26:40)…before the choir explodes into more anguish, followed by a glorious final movement.
It was late 2011, and I was at a Thai restaurant with Blythe and my old roommate Gavin, discussing how we’d produce Hapax-the-Podcast. At some point, conversation turned towards the museum, and their nighttime Christmas celebrations.
It got too busy down in the brewery, according to Blythe. It was really a two-person job, those nights. But no one else was Smart-Served, so.*
*SmartServe = certification you need if you want to sell/serve alcohol in Ontario.
So I was twenty—and I wanted to look cool—so I said, “I’ve got my SmartServe.”
It was meant to be a one-off. One night, help out, thanks and see you. But from the moment I stepped into the brewery, I fell utterly and completely in love with it.
When I was a kid, I did what my parents called “deep dives.” For months—years, sometimes—I’d delve into various pet passions, but way more intensely than you’d expect.
Wolves, man. I knew absolutely everything about wolves.
Ancient Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty.
The Phantom of the Opera.
I was that seven-year-old walking around the ROM’s Egypt collection taking notes on a clipboard. And you know what? I think I’d almost forgotten how happy I was just learning. Drinking in knowledge as quickly and deeply as I could, for no other reason than—it caught my interest.
Looking over the past few years—I think beer was the last thing I dove into just because.
Oh, I’ve had other interests. Remember last winter, when I was all into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood? That was awesome, but I wouldn’t characterize it as a “deep dive.” I read some books and watched some documentaries, but I don’t know nearly everything.
And I know an awful lot about the nineteenth century, particularly 1800s Toronto. But there’s a slightly mercantile edge to that. I really enjoy learning about them, but half my mind is always storing away tidbits for later use in day-jobbery or writing.
It’s less spontaneous. Less innocent, somehow.
Learning about beer served no obvious purpose. I just liked it. Learning about it made me happy.
After that first night in the brewery, I did what I always do: I wandered off and buried myself in books. For eighteen months, more or less, I learned everything I could. When a regular spot opened in the brewery, I was waiting.
I wrote a blog. I sampled a lot of beers and developed my palate.
Beer became my thing.
But I didn’t just learn the difference between ales and lagers, IBUs and SRM, Vienna malt and Fuggles hops. In the brewery, you had to lead tours and guide tastings. Gregariousness was the order of the day. You had to set strangers at ease; keep conversation going; think on your feet.
But something else happened, too. Have you guys noticed, beer is a hot topic right now? For the first time in my life, I knew about a COOL THING. I had this vast storehouse of information that people actually wanted. And I was becoming confident enough to share it effectively.
Then beer crossed over into my writing life.
I often think that the skills I’ve learned at the museum and at conventions reinforced each other. Panels are like stationary tours; tours are like a moving panel. And I figured out something very cool:
Beer is an excellent party trick.
Many people like beer. Many people have favourite beers. Many people know enough about beer to hold a conversation. For me—still shy, under it all—it’s a brilliant ice-breaker. Like Concerned Children’s Advertisers said in the early nineties, “Everybody’s got a thing!”*
*Canadian Nineties Kids got these PSAs on TV. If you have not heard the jingle for “Don’t You Put it in Your Mouth,” you have not truly lived.
I keep coming back to the joy I felt, all those hours I ploughed through histories of brewing and beer style guides. Back then, beer wasn’t anything professional. It wasn’t a party trick. It wasn’t even my thing. Not yet. It was neat, and that was it.
We all need passions like that, I think. Loving something for no obvious reason, pursuing our own interests down rabbit holes. It adds depth and richness to our lives, the way love always does. I think sometimes we’re reluctant to pick things up just because – we can’t justify the time, we don’t see how it’s useful, we’re afraid how it might reflect on us.
But we never know where it will all lead. After six (!) years of studying beer, I know my life would have been much poorer without it.
Everybody needs their thing. What’s yours? 😀
What I’m Listening to this Week
There’s quite a lot happening in “The Gallant Weaver.” I could go on about the soprano lines echoing each other, or the beautiful solid chords in the lower voices, but I’m also exhausted, so have a listen for yourselves!
Frost has crept into the mornings. At the day job, there are a few hours during which I rely on a woodstove. If there’s no fire, there’s no heat in the building, and there’s really only so long that you can shiver and watch your breath rise dragon-like to the ceiling.
Last week, the woodstove required a fair bit of running around. First, I had to remember to bring newspaper to start the fire, because I knew we were almost out. Then there wasn’t any wood, so I had to go to another building, collect some, and carry it over. Once I’d gotten the wood inside, I had to go find the ash bucket and clear out the oven. Then, finally, I could set about building my fire.
Now, the thing with woodstoves and hearths is that each one is different. You need to know their quirks. This particular stove has a small fire box. That is, it can’t take very much wood, especially not at first.
So I’ve learned to burn just one log at a time, until there’s a good bed of hot coals. Once you’ve got that, the stove will burn just about anything—and quickly!—and the building starts to warm up. But you can’t rush it. If you stuff the box with logs, the fire smothers and you have to start all over.
It takes time to do it properly. Look at how many little tasks comprise starting the fire! It’s been a nice thing about working in a historic setting: this acknowledgement of the fact that sometimes things take longer. There are more steps involved.
It’s especially nice given how preoccupied we often are with convenience and instant gratification. We can pop dinner in the microwave. Summon a car on our phones. Send messages immediately—and see when the other party’s read them. We’re so used to the instant, I think we’ve forgotten how to slow down. We’ve forgotten how to take the smaller tasks in their own turn.
I’m guilty of wanting instant gratification too. Watching more established writers can feel like watching other people tend a roaring fire whilst you shiver in front of an empty stove.
But it takes time to do things properly. As we move through our careers, it’s like we’re all building fires. You can’t just toss matches at logs and expect a blaze. You have to move through the other steps first: writing apprentice pieces, trying new things, failing, getting rejections, getting the first publication, the first good review, the first convention, the first rejection that really hurts…
All the little tasks add up. They’re all part of the process. And so, just as I’m patient with my fire, I’m learning to be patient with myself, too.
That’s the plan, anyway!
What I’m Listening To This Week
Since it’s Halloween tomorrow, all my favourite autumn songs have featured prominently. Specifically, the Souling Song. It’s one of those songs with many versions. I learned slightly different lyrics, but this rendition is good fun too.
Ah, I do love the year’s turning….
I’ve started baking again. During my undergrad, I did it all the time: bread, cakes, cookies, scones. In hindsight, I was pretty adventurous. Then life happened, time slipped away, and it was just so much easier to buy bread from the bakery up the street.
But then a few things happened.
First of all, an old mentor counselled me to stop living in my own head so much. “You are twenty-six years old,” she said. “So go out! Have fun! Do things! Have the experiences you’ll be writing about for the next twenty years.”
She’s right, of course. For the past few weeks, I’ve been seeking out experiences: going to the opera, meeting new people, contracting food poisoning…
And getting back to baking, because that’s always helped me get out of my head.
I mean, it’s physical: from measuring ingredients and shaping dough, to the washing-up afterwards. The motion of my hands—feeling dough, watching egg whites stiffen, all those sensory things—helps shut my brain up. It gives it something else to focus on. Those quiet moments—especially when kneading bread—sometimes give the subconscious enough space to breathe, enough to whisper.
There’s also something magical about baking. You’ve got all these ingredients that are inedible by themselves, but when you combine them the right way and add the right amount of heat, they become something delicious!
And there are baking traditions! Cut Xs in the loaf so the Devil doesn’t get into it. (Also, it lets the heat in. Toss a pinch of salt over your left shoulder for luck, because it’ll go in the Devil’s eye. You need to treat yeast like a guest: give it something to eat, a soft bed, and keep it warm (i.e. make sure you have a fermentable sugar source, don’t shock it by chucking it directly into hot water, and dough rises faster in the warmth).
See…sometimes, if you’re looking for magic, you need to make it your own damn self.
That’s the point of my mentor’s advice, isn’t it? If you want magic, go make it. The old saw about coaxing the muse to the desk holds true…but you don’t want her to find you empty-handed.
If nothing else, you might get some baked goods out of it!
What I’m Listening To This Week
I’m noodling a story with a countertenor in it. Countertenors are males who can sing into the contralto/mezzo-soprano range. It’s a very distinctive voice type: I enjoy them precisely because it’s a little uncanny. There’s something about the vocal quality; you know it isn’t a female voice, despite being in the typical female range.
And then there’s pieces like this. I also quite enjoy Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and this is beautifully sung. But the idioms don’t quite match, so it’s also…unearthly. Which is precisely what I’m hoping for with this story, so there you go. Enjoy!
It is that time again! This weekend, I will be in Ottawa for Can-Con: the Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature. This is one of my very favourite cons, and I’m excited for stellar programming, good friends, and lively conversations.
What’s my schedule for the weekend? I’m glad you asked!
8:00 pm: Alternate History Live Challenge (Charlotte Ashley, Anatoly Belilovsky, Me, Mike Rimar, and Matthew Johnson)
9:00 pm: The Fantasy Author’s Guide to Beer (Me)
3:00 pm: Writing Games: It’s Big Literature Now (Geoff Gander, Kate Heartfield, M. Elizabeth Marshall, Me Moderating)
7:00 pm: Readings (Me, David Nickle, Kate Story)
8:00 pm: Asexual Identities (Andrew Barton, S.M. Carriere, Dianna Gunn, Kelsi Morris, Me Moderating)
IDK, we should probably get the organizers some coffee and pastries.
In Ottawa that weekend? Come say hi, and hang out with cool people! Also, today is Canadian Thanksgiving, and I am thankful for all of you!
What I’m Listening to this Week
This piece kind of reminds me of high school. But also, it fits the feel/mood/emotion of the novel. I have always loved how the solo voice comes in with the main motif around 2:45—and promptly catches at 3:05.
It all started with that damn table.
We have a table that we use for performances. It’s big. Solid wood. Pretty heavy, but I could shift it myself, which made me proud. “Stronger than I look.” “Wiry muscles.” “I can do it.”
Until suddenly, I couldn’t.
Then I started getting a feeling like standing on the edge of the high dive: pounding heart and shortened breath. Only I’d be reading a book on my couch, Guinness curled at my feet.
“I think you may have a bit of anxiety,” my doctor said.
But that damn table. That damn table kept getting heavier. During shows, my breath control shook like a faulty foundation. I couldn’t switch from sprinting around the stage to strolling on singing. I had a blood test done and got so tired that I crashed a friend’s house to steal a half-hour nap between work and choir.
Most importantly: I couldn’t write. Oh, I’d try. I’d sit down with an outline and a heap of images and an idea of where I wanted the story to go, but the words came out like mud: ugly and thick. I know what it’s like to soar on story, and I was barely crawling.
And so I felt very bad about myself.
I said some not-very-nice things to myself.
I called my mom a lot.
Then the doctor called with entirely unsurprising news. Anaemia. Again. Though my iron stores are not objectively low, apparently I kind of suck at making blood.
But more than that—I think I burnt myself out. Too many late nights. Too little recovery time. Too much weight on my shoulders; too much stress that I’d simply swallowed down until my body said, “F*** you, f*** this, I quit.”
So I made an agreement with myself: a week off. Any previously booked appointments and commitments, I’d do, but nothing else. No writing, no submitting, no worrying about writing. Just reading, music, and early bedtimes. At that point, I was desperate enough to try anything.
We’re nearing the end of that week, and it’s been…hard. In creative and freelance careers, busy-ness is next to godliness. We must always be working. Always eager for more. If we cannot—if we cannot produce, if we buckle under the constant strain—we take it as a sign that our secret fears are true—we are not tough enough for this vocation. We may as well go home.
It’s easy to call shenanigans on that when someone else is going through it. It’s a lot harder when it’s you.
As I’ve said before: in order to have a long, fulfilling creative life, we need to not die in the process. Sometimes that means sharpening the saw. Taking a week off. Getting one’s health in order.
You cannot create if you are dead or dying.
And yes, I’m still working on it. Honestly, the sense of failure is hard to shake. “I did nothing this week! I’m not a real writer! I’m falling behind!” But at the same time, taking time now can save time later on. Along with making the road more pleasant. I hear treks are easier when one has sufficient red blood cells.
So I’m taking care of my creative life by taking care of myself. And pretty soon—
I’ll be moving that damn table, all by myself.
What I’m Listening to this Week
I’ve been listening to this young man for a while: boy sopranos like this don’t come along very often. His voice is doing some really interesting things as it matures. The distinctive treble “ring” may be gone—but it’s getting the unearthly, uncanny quality of a good countertenor (especially in the lower register), and the mezzo notes are exquisite.
In any case, hats off to a very fine musician!
I have just returned from three days’ camping along Georgian Bay. It was stunningly beautiful landscape and a much-needed break, but now I am exhausted. As such, no real post this week: just some pictures and a very special “What I’m Listening to this Week.”
What I’m Listening to this Week
“Wanderer’s Lullaby,” by Adriana Figueroa, is a gently lilting piece based on a music box theme. The lyrics are perhaps a little self-indulgent, but they are also exactly what I needed to hear this week.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Toronto’s green spaces: the ravines, the parklands, the rivers. Partly, it’s novel research. But also, it’s keeping me grounded. Rooted, if you will. (Terrible pun. Sorry, not sorry.)
Over the past few months, I’ve realized something. When I move through the urban streetscape, it’s a very visually oriented experience. Yes, traffic rumbles and horns honk and the stoplights all have auditory signals, but I’m mostly relying on my eyes. And it goes without saying that this is my experience: someone differently sighted will have an entirely different way of interacting with the city.
But in the ravines and along the ponds, I rely on my ears much more. Rustling leaves and sudden splashes, birdsong and squirrel yells—that’s how I put together the thousand tiny dramas unfolding all around me. Sight comes later: you hear a plaintive warbling, then spy the baby bird in a hollow tree. Catch the whisper of a cattail blowing the wrong way, then notice the frog chilling in its shadow.
Really, though, it’s all the senses working together. Except taste. As lovely as the ravines are, it’s probably not a good idea to lick anything you find in them. Digression aside, the trees become a sort of tapestry around you, with eye, ear, nose, and touch all working together to create a living, holistic picture of what’s happening.
It humbles you. To become part of that scene, you need to become part of the scenery, too. And so, you must become quiet. You must become still. You must get outside your own head and worries and actually notice the chipmunk and squirrel staring each other down in the branches above.
I’m not articulating this well, but—it’s like moving from first-person to third-person. We aren’t the centre of the universe, in the woods. We’re one more drama, one more set of noises. And when you start to let go of all the preoccupations—when you actually listen—the details start emerging more and more quickly, like stars coming out in the evening. First one, then another, and another.
Lurking frog. Dragonfly landing on water lily. Fish cruising in its shadow.
And it occurs to me that writing can be the same way. Writing isn’t about us, the authors. It’s about the stories. But I think, like people blustering through the woods, scattering birds and breaking branches, we sometimes get so caught up in ourselves that we can’t hear what the story is doing. We can’t become part of it because we are so focused on ourselves: the Writer.
So we need to become quiet, still, and get outside our own heads. Actually listen to the story: that sure little voice inside, persistent as birdsong.
For me, if I can get into the headspace I find in the ravines—calm and open, joyful and humbled—I think the writing should start to pick up. I hope so, anyway.
What I’m Listening to this Week
“Jauchzet dem Herren,” by Heinrich Schütz. We’re doing it in choir soon, but it’s been in my regular listening rotation for a few years. I like double-choir pieces, where one choir answers another or follows the first like a round. Seeing how they fit together is immensely satisfying, and you get this super exciting building effect from the echoes.
I had an epiphany this week: no one cares that I have an MFA.
Another epiphany immediately followed: no one should care.
It all sounds much more dramatic than it was, really. Sometimes after shows, visitors ask us, “So…did you, like, go to school for this or something?”
“I went to theatre school!” inevitably draws admiring murmurs and follow-up questions. “I have my Masters in Creative Writing!” not so much.
It’s a silly thing. I hate the small, venomous part of me that bristles at it. But you know what? We all have our vanities and our arrogances, and I want to be honest. It is such a silly thing, but sometimes it really sucks.
What helps is remembering why I got an MFA. I didn’t get it for glory. I got it so that I could become a better writer. No other reason. Degrees and workshops and grants are all very nice—but having them isn’t what matters. What matters is what you do with them.
Forging new opportunities.
And writing isn’t full of much glamour anyway. We tend to be paid last and least. We’re generally the silent partner, drafting proposals in the basement. Like good sound editing, good writing is often invisible, which doesn’t help if you’re after recognition.
GOBLIN 1: The Snow Queen doesn’t make any sense without goblins. We’ve got the most important part: there’s no story without us.
GOBLIN 2: But after this, we’re never seen again. No glory, no thanks, no nothing!
GOBLIN 1: It could be worse. (Pause) We could be playwrights.
The Snow Queen: a Pantomime, by Me (2016).
So if not for fame and fortune, why write?
Because we must; because we’re artists. But I’m not going to say, “Forget external validation.” That’s not realistic; most humans like praise. When you’ve worked really hard on something—put your heart and soul into it—pulled off the impossible on sheer grit and nerve—of course you want a clap on the back. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But to counterbalance that craving, we need an even stronger core of self-assurance and self-knowledge. Because the praise won’t always come. The kudos won’t. The appreciative murmurs won’t. And when that happens, an inner, steely kernel will keep you going. That’s your compass: external validation is a nice boost, but you don’t want to steer by it.
At the end of the day…yeah, I have a hungry ego. And I’ve worked to temper it, because it doesn’t have any place in the creative process. What good is praise and validation if you don’t value what you do? “Believe in yourself” sounds so cliché, but if you don’t, who will?
I think it’s one of the hardest things we face, as artists. Putting the mitts back on, wiping our faces, and striding out into the silent ring. But if you can know—if you can know, deep down—that what you’re doing is good and worthwhile—
Then the fight is already won.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I found “Dacw ‘Nghariad” by accident and immediately became obsessed. It’s one of those pieces that make stories flash before your eyes. Pretty sure this is a lullaby for my new novel’s protagonist… Of course, she’s not Welsh, but we’ll forget about that for now.
I’m tired, and depleted, and there is so very much to be done. But in fairness, it’s not wholly unexpected; this is a transitional period. Heavy lifting and shifting ground comes with the territory. As my mom put it, it’s like a monkey swinging through jungle: you can’t let go of the old vine until you have the new firmly in hand.
(Well, you can—I have done in the past—but you have to accept the risk of falling.)
I’m mostly just whining, to be honest. Because I’m uncomfortable, because I’m tired. But I keep telling myself that things will be better on the other side—I just have to get there.
I have noticed one thing, though: this whole past week, I’ve been yearning to find a secluded cabin and stuff myself with art. Paintings. Books. Music. Preferably surrounded by woods and lakes, with no people around. Introvert heaven.
Which is how I know I’m tired. It’s the spiritual/creative equivalent of my anaemia-driven oyster cravings. This is my subconscious’ way of trying to replenish the energy I’ve put out.
And so I’ve taken some concrete steps (I believe in taking concrete steps). In a month’s time, I’m heading north to Georgian Bay for some trees, water, and dark starry skies. Only for a long weekend, but I’ll take what I can get.
In the meantime, I’ve been stuffing myself with art. Late last week, I took a rare day off. I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite refuges. (The knot in my chest dissolved within minutes of entering the galleries.) It was a fairly short excursion; I mostly wanted to see my favourite paintings and splurge on fancy espresso.
But I did play a little game. Sometimes when I’m learning about my characters, I take them to museums. That is, I wander museums and I let them chatter quietly in the background. What’s familiar to them, what’s weird, what are they drawn to?
For instance, I like Victorian Romanticism and Impressionism, like this:
My protagonist very quickly decided she likes twentieth-century abstract art: “The ones that look broken, but aren’t.”
So I suppose I was working even while off, but I know her better now. I’m not ready to start writing this novel yet, but we’re getting closer…
Then I explored the new Grange Park (gorgeous) and hit the library to restock on books (more CanLit, plus a collection of Octavia Butler shorts).
While I feel vaguely guilty for not working in the midst of so much happening, these are the things which keep me going. They give me enough energy to get through the woods, grab the next vine.
This feels like a turning point. I just need to hold on a while longer.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Back with my pal Handel, and the “Amen” chorus from the end of Messiah. I’ve been absentmindedly singing this all week, albeit with the words to the Sanctus. Not sure what’s happening there.
In any case, enjoy the supporting strings and percussion, along with the graceful dance between the vocal lines. The tenors have a particularly beautiful moment around the 2:19 mark. And at the very end— no uses expectant silence like Handel!