Last January, I set myself a goal of writing a weekly blog post. Mostly as a discipline thing; partly for writing practice; partly to lay a foundation for the future. Overall, I’ve been good at sticking to that goal.
Except for last week. There wasn’t a blog post last week.
Actually, there wasn’t much of anything last week. I posted a poem to Facebook and a sunrise to Instagram, but that’s about it. I deleted all my social media apps from my phone and tablet. Sometimes I’d pop into Facebook on a browser for a quick peek, but only rarely.
See—I try to keep my social media activity mostly positive. Oh, I’ll post a sigh of despair over the latest shenanigans down south or the odd frustration, but mostly—if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
And so I stayed real quiet.
There’s another principle I try to keep: you don’t look in other people’s bowls. Actually the real quotation goes, “The only time you look in your neighbour’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough.” The thing with social media is that everyone’s bowls are on display all the time. And everyone’s tilting their bowl, and adjusting the lighting, and fiddling with filters to make sure that they look as good as possible.
And I just—I wanted to take my bowl and leave the table and sit quietly by myself for a little while. I didn’t want to worry about hiding its cracks. I didn’t want to expend the effort disguising how empty it’s gotten. In a weird way, I felt ashamed; like, why am I even at this table with a bowl like this?
I just wanted to sit quietly by myself. I wanted to remember why I love my bowl. And I wanted to take a good, hard look at it and say, “Okay. This isn’t working anymore. What now?”
So I spent my time reading a lot. Lots of magical realism. Lots of CanLit and Southern Gothic. Lots of fiction that skates the line between literary and genre (the irony is—after spending years and years rebelling against the literary—it’s calling me pretty strongly right now).
I listened to a lot of music.
I went for walks in the woods.
It was like leaving a noisy, noisy party and entering into silence again. I’ve been feeling pretty jangled up inside. The solitude’s been like a cool compress for the soul.
But even I can’t hermit forever. Last week, I dipped a toe back into the community—I grabbed a pal and went to the monthly Chiaroscuro Reading Series. Confession: I almost bailed at the last minute.
“I can’t,” I said. “I can’t smile and small talk today. I can’t be on my best behaviour.”
But bailing at that point would’ve been terribly unfair to my pal. And I knew, deep down, that it’d be good for me.
And you know what? I saw a bunch of people I normally only see at conventions. Like, right there! Because we actually all live in the same city! Whoa! I had some really nice conversations and cake. My pal got to meet one of his favourite authors, which seemed like a lovely moment for both.
And I remembered that I like writing. I like the fantastic and speculative. I like this community. A lot.
But since this whole experience has the whiff of burnout, I think I need to achieve better balance. Not only loving my bowl, but finding a place at the table where I can still hear myself think.
So I’m not quite back to the table, yet. I need a little more time with the quiet. But I’m edging closer to my seat.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Ah, Celtic Woman, my guilty pleasure.
I’m in the beginning throes of a new novel, which feels an awful lot like making your entrance in an unfamiliar choral piece. If you can get your starting pitch, things usually stay more-or-less on track. Landing sharp or flat? It’s difficult to stop the piece falling apart when you’re wrong-footed from the first note.
I usually forget how much flailing about I do at the beginning of a story. And then because I never remember the angst, the flailing feels disastrous, and I freak myself out.
And so, I thought it would be instructive to remind myself exactly how common false starts are for me:
It was a clear evening, one of the first of summer. A warm breeze wound through the City, caressing friends drinking outside taverns and lovers strolling through narrow streets. Plucking guitars floated over conversation and laughter, occasionally joined by soulful tenors. The golden stones that formed the City’s buildings still carried the heat of the noonday sun. Overtired children and the elderly clustered on them; the latter thanked the warmest spring in memory for driving away the chill winds that usually made one last appearance. And above, the stars, ever twinkling: familiar constellations smiling on the summer night. The Ox, the Hunter, the Vineyard, all the old friends that heralded the beginning of the new season.
(Then there’s an extended bit where two old men eat chicken and talk. Seriously.)Eventually:
The time, at last, had come.
A new star ignited over the City. Like a drop of blood glinting in the darkness, it blazed in the Serpent, brighter than any other star in the constellation. Under the starlight, the City crouched in the night, perched atop its plateau. Sheer cliffs fell away on every side; if not for lack of water, it could have been an island.
No breeze stirred the warm air. In narrow alleys, shadows stretched as quiet and endless as the gorges beyond the City.
Time passed. The stars danced on.
Sara had not felt so ill since her first glimpse of her husband’s headstone. That had been nearly six weeks ago, and plenty of stomach-turning moments had filled the emptiness between. Yet juddering along a country road in a carriage with shot springs ranked high among them. Sara clenched her hands in her lap, gritting her teeth each time the horses pounded over a half-buried stone or fallen branch. To her amazement, the coach’s other two passengers slept. An older woman leaned against the side of the coach, while a towheaded boy nestled into her.
I had not felt so ill since the funeral. The stagecoach rattled over the road and my teeth rattled in my skull. I kept watching the road ahead, even though dust streaked the windows. We jolted again. A large rock or another half-buried stump. There hadn’t been macadamized roads since several towns back, and since we’d left the train station at Ossington, the road had only gotten rougher. Too slow—I just wanted to get this journey over with.
Sophie clutches her knife tight, watching the unicorn across the pit.
(That is, apparently, as far as I got. It was bad.)
The hunt begins as it always does: with quarry, bait, and hunter.
This is the first story.
Once, there were two girls who lived in a little village far in the north of Québec. Let’s say the younger girl was seven, and the older one was ten. When you told me this story, you didn’t say what the girls looked like, but I always imagined that they looked like us.
The older girl had flashing dark eyes and knees covered in bruises. Her mouth quirked at the corners. The younger girl, her friend…well, she was paler. Frailer. Just a wisp, her grand-mère always said, just a bit of thistledown that would blow away in the wind.
This is the first story.
I’ve got this friend Joëlle, right? She moved in when I was seven. She was ten—a big kid. Only she wasn’t much bigger than me. Bruised knees and these huge, haunted eyes. Mom made sure she got an extra slice of pizza at our first sleepover, that’s how skinny she was when she arrived.
When my sister rose for the third time, we called the vampire-hunter.
He came in the stillness between afternoon and dusk: that suspended, grey time that happens only in winter. From the forest he came, shouldering a leather pack, and he went straight to the inn. There, by the smouldering hearth, he spread a cloth over the scarred taproom table and opened a glossy walnut box with hinged lid. In the firelight, the wood gleamed, and his onlookers—the entire village, it felt like—pressed closer.
The hands of the vampire-hunter move like spiders, and I hate them. They creep over our kitchen table, avoiding the plates of sausage and country bread my mother has laid out. They scuttle along the sides of a polished walnut case. Quick fingers, sly fingers—they lift belts and let brass buckles fall with a clink, clink, clink. They ease the lid up. Inside, his tools rest on velvet the colour of old blood. My mother chokes on a gasp; my father will not look.
You get the point. Sometimes, vestiges of an early attempt survive, but really, it takes me a while to figure out the tune.
Worth remembering, as I flail about with this novel…
My friend Lauren Harris recently revealed the cover of her upcoming YA urban fantasy UNLEASH.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Even after all these years, I have a soft spot for the French horn. Here, I love the dialogue between the horn (basses supporting) and the rest of the orchestra, especially the building tension around the 1:30 mark. Also, those devastating accidentals around 2:20.
And it’s Mozart. Of course it’s exquisitely well put-together.
“When I am fabulously wealthy,” I tell myself, “I shall buy the fanciest of desks.”
After all, I am a writer. My desk is my ship’s bridge, my nest, and my second home. Nor am I alone in pondering my desk. Most writers tend to be a little finicky about their work setup. Sometimes it’s rooted in superstition—if I have the right workspace, I will make the right words. Sometimes, it’s sheer, Pavlovian habit—when I sit in this spot, with the light so and the music thus, the words come.
Here are some of the desks that I tell myself I would buy, if I had the money.
That last one is important for me. I need space to spread out. There are plenty of secretary desks out there that would be sufficient for my laptop, but not the stack of notes, papers, and books.
Drawers are important too: for pens and pencils, scissors and business cards, vitally important records and the pieces of paper that aren’t quite as important, but that I’ll probably need close to hand. Bonus points if the desk comes with a secret drawer.
So that’s my ideal desk: enormous, historic, handsome wood, lots of drawers.
Here is my current desk:
It’s actually a really good desk. I’ve had it since I moved out from my parents’, so maybe…five years, almost? It’s a solid wooden desk with sufficient storage space, but what makes it a really good desk is the top.
The top, you see, did not come with the desk. It is a massive, heavy, beautifully treated piece of wood that we placed atop the desk. It’s not connected or anything. No nails, no screws, no joining. It’s just so heavy that it sits there without moving. Mostly I forget that it’s a separate piece.
When I dream of super fancy desks, I’m mostly just indulging in idle dreams of luxury. Because here is the ironic thing—
I don’t write at my desk.
Or, to be more precise, I don’t draft at my desk.
I write blog posts at my desk. I handle correspondence and social media from my desk. Research, essays, audio, video, and prose editing…that all happens here. But drafting fiction?
Nearly all of the Creepy Play and Sing to the Bones were written on my couch. Most of my short fiction has been written either in odd corners of Tennessean cabins, or at my kitchen table.
I don’t write at my desk.
Sometimes, I wonder why that is. It might well be a mental thing. Writing at the kitchen table or the couch implies that we’re just messing around, it’s not Serious For Real Writing, and thus my inner critic shuts up. I’d say there’s an element of physical comfort, but I wrote “The Love it Bears Fair Maidens” variously half-lying on a bed and scrunched on one end of a couch.
(I realize that’s not terribly ergonomic. I promise that I do try to avoid the injuries that come with the writing life. Mostly.)
We may become superstitious about our workspaces, but we don’t need much, do we? Just a place to sit or stand, and a place to rest a notebook or laptop. That’s it. And there is something special about those late nights at the kitchen table—when it’s just you and the words, spinning whole worlds from memory and dream. Maybe the connection feels easier to grasp with bare hands.
After all…it doesn’t really matter where you write, as long as you are writing.
But one day, I’m buying that desk.
What I’m Listening To This Week
You thought we were done with madrigals, didn’t you? Hahaha, no. Here’s another piece from our good friend Thomas Morley. It gets me in a spring-like mood—about time, after this last burst of winter.
Particular things I dig: the drum like a skipping heartbeat under the flute, and the harmonies around the “fa la la la’s.” The parts don’t weave around each other as in other examples from this period—but it’s still delightful.
So the big thing this week is that I finished the second draft of the Creepy Play: my Southern (Ontario) Gothic family tragedy. And you guys, there was one night—I was expanding a scene between the mother and her adult daughter. Remember, this play is an angst-fest. The mother is a roiling, toxic pit of darkness, and her daughter’s an angry, hurt young woman who can be a) the most gentle, genuinely caring person in the play, or b) casually crueller than anyone else.Anyway, the scene was rolling along, but then I had to step back. I stumbled to my couch, squished in beside Guinness, and I cried.
Not because I’m a delicate flower. But because I understood the mother’s darkness. I understood her daughter’s anger. I saw what made these broken, anguished people the way they are.And of course, it isn’t real. No more than a dream is. But it is distressing nonetheless, and so I wanted to talk about self-care when writing difficult scenes.
Except that a listicle feels trite. “Have a hot shower!” “Listen to comforting music!” “Read fluff!” Hopefully, you already know that.
(For the record: I listened to a lot of Anglican/Gregorian chant while writing the Creepy Play—I needed the familiar tone and repetitive tunes to stay grounded.)
Sometimes, we have to look into the darkness. I’m not only talking about creative-types, here. Sometimes, we all have to do it. We need to shine a light into the furthest corners of our heads—and not look away. It’s hard. No one likes seeing the darkness smile back when they look in the mirror.
“If all that’s inside me…what does that say about me?”
It says that humans are complex creatures, and we are all a mix of wonderful, noble, loving tendencies and awful, cruel, damaging ones. The best way to grapple with the darkness, I think, is to understand it. Not glorifying it; not revelling in it – but understanding.
And to do that, we need to enter it. Safely, carefully—this is where the hot showers and comforting music come in.
It’s really hard.
So what do we gain, doing it?
Connection, I think. Empathy. The ability to look at that hurt, angry young woman and say, “Yes, I can feel that too.”After all, the darkness is always worse when you don’t know what’s in it.
The trick is remembering to keep hold of the light. This has been a deeply uncomfortable play to write, and there will be another draft—but I know I’m better for having written it. I hope it serves its eventual audience, too.
What I’m Listening to This Week
For ages, I’ve been noodling the idea of borrowing polyphonic principles for my fiction. The climax of the Creepy Play is basically written that way: voices in counterpoint with each other, passing the melody back and forth, emphasizing certain phrases and motifs against each other…
Vivaldi isn’t precisely polyphony, but this section from his Gloria is what I was thinking of. Listen to the parts enter one by one, different ideas emerging to prominence and then sinking again (especially the tenors around 0:50, mirrored by the altos while the basses take the melody back). It’s a single whole—that interplay fascinates me.
Okay. Wow. Hi. I just spent the last week performing for six hours a day in the museum’s Sherlock Holmes program. It was incredibly fun, and also very taxing—both physically and mentally. But hey, it’s over, so life should settle down somewhat.
Besides that, I was reading The Ladies’ Guide to True Politeness and Perfect Manners: or, Miss Leslie’s behaviour book, written by Miss Eliza Leslie and published in various editions from 1839 onwards (I had the 1864 edition). And guess what?
It has advice for authors!I sat there reading and shaking my head—because it’s more-or-less the same advice we get today. I greatly enjoy the image of hoop-skirted young ladies eagerly setting about preparing their manuscripts. Because of course, I did the same (minus the hoop skirt). Some things don’t change—wannabe writers are one of them, apparently.
I’ve pulled out some choice tidbits. Enjoy!
Chapter XX: Conduct to Literary Women
“On being introduced to a female writer, it is rude to say that “you have long had a great curiosity to see her.” Curiosity is not the right word. It is polite to imply that, “knowing her well by reputation, you are glad to have an opportunity of making her personal acquaintance.”
Still good advice for conventions, I think.
“When in company with literary women, make no allusions to ‘learned ladies’ or ‘blue stockings,’ or express surprise that they should have any knowledge of housewifery, or needle-work, or dress; or that they are able to talk on ‘common things.’ It is rude and foolish, and shows that you really know nothing about them, either as a class or as individuals.”
Admittedly, I don’t get this much. But it is interesting to place it in historical context—Miss Leslie is trying really hard to show that authoresses are women, too!
“Recollect that to a woman who gets her living by her pen, ‘time is money,’ as it is to an artist. Therefore, encroaching on her time is lessening her income.”
Yep. I love people. I love socializing. But yep.
“Long manuscripts are frequently sent for the revisal ‘at leisure’ of a person who has little or no leisure. Yet in the intervals of toiling for herself, she is expected to toil for some one else; probably for a stranger whom she does not know, in whom she can take no interest, and who has evidently ‘no writing in her soul.’ If, however, the modest request is kindly complied with, in all probability to the corrections will only give offence, and may perhaps be crossed out before the manuscript is offered to the publisher, who very likely may reject it for want of these very corrections.”
Something tells me Miss Leslie has personal experience with this. Something tells me that many modern-day authors do as well.
Chapter XXI: Suggestions to Inexperienced Authors
“Before you commence your manuscript, take a quire, and prepare each sheet by splitting it all down the folded side, with a sharp paper-cutter, thus dividing it into half-sheets. You can do this better on a flat table than on the slope of a desk. Keep your left hand pressing down hard on the quire, while you are cutting it with your right.”
Scrivener? Microsoft Word? WordPerfect? An app on your iThing? Whatever you use, just remember—at least we don’t have to prepare our own writing paper anymore.
“The printers will gladly dispense with covers, ribbons, and fairy-like penmanship, in favour of a plain legible hand, pages regularly numbered, and leaves written on one side only.”
No coloured paper, no extra fills, no fancy fonts. Standard manuscript format, my friends.
“If the publisher lives in your own town, it will be sufficient to roll up the manuscript in clean white paper, twisted at each end, and wafered in the middle. But however short the distance, write on the outside of the paper the full direction of the publishing office; that, in case of its being dropped in the street, any person finding it may know exactly where to take it.”
The thought of a Victorian urchin finding a rolled-up manuscript in the street, reading the address, and hustling it off to the appropriate publisher’s just makes me happy. And also glad for electronic submissions.
“Keep a memorandum-book for the express purpose of setting down whatever relates to your literary affairs. Insert the day when you commenced a manuscript, the day when you finished it, and the day on which it went to the publisher.”
Still good advice. I have an Excel spreadsheet.
“If the printer’s boy can wait, you had best correct the proofs while he stays.”
Of course. What else is the printer’s boy doing? This was the very last sentence in the two chapters concerning literary etiquette—and it strikes me as quintessentially Victorian.
And now – more rewrites on the Creepy Play!
What I’m Listening to This Week
Tchaikovsky this week—the “Hymn of the Cherubim.” It’s a slow, heavy progression of chords, with the darkness and richness that I associate with much Russian choral music. Until the sopranos have a glorious surge around 2:30. A little disquieting, but very beautiful.
Late last week, there was a conversation filtering through Twitter about degrees. Specifically, English degrees. Is it helpful for would-be writers to get their English BA? The tweet that kicked things off said, “No.”
As is typical for Twitter, some people disagreed.
And some people disagreed with those disagreements.
I chimed in briefly, but I have more thoughts that I’d like to explore here.
Cutting right to the quick, my short answer is, “Do whatever you want, it’s your life, but I did not find an English degree particularly helpful—either for writing, or life outside academia.”
“But KT,” the crowds cry. “Didn’t you study history?”
Indeed I did! Primarily because I did not find an English degree particularly helpful. See, I actually bounced around five different majors during my undergrad (it’s a miracle I graduated on time). If I can recall them correctly, they were:
English/Drama (double major)
English/Drama/History (major, two double-minors)
History/Medieval Studies (double major)
I realize that’s only four. For the life of me, I cannot remember the fifth—but I know it was there.
Regardless, looking at my progression through majors reveals a pattern. It took a while, but I gradually left English/Drama (literature-based courses) and settled firmly, finally in History (still liberal arts, but not literature-based). Why?
English was making me hate literature and stories. Even then, I knew I was going to be a writer, and I sensed that hating literature might hinder that goal. Really, it was a fundamental disagreement in teaching philosophies. I wanted to learn how stories worked. I wanted to learn what made them beautiful. I wanted to appreciate them as stories—which means that you’re talking about the themes, symbolism, and politics as well. Those are already part of any well-written piece. Basically, I wanted to talk about the syllabus like a writer.
Instead, I got this:
And so, after a particularly rough American literature class, I went to my registrar and got myself safely ensconced in History (I dropped the Medieval Studies component when I realized I like medieval theology, not medieval history).
Do I regret my decision?
Not at all. Having that history degree let me take a summer job at the museum. The skills I developed through my BA and through museum work let me carve out a dayjob wherein my creative partner and I teach history through theatre. Looking specifically to my fiction, history has all been grist for the mill. Moreover, learning how to do history has greatly impacted the way I write (I spent a long, long time digging through La Corriveau’s court records). And arguably, the museum’s impacted my fiction even more. How many nineteenth centuries have I written?
So for me, as a writer, History was infinitely more helpful than English.
You still need to know your field.
While I could not leave that American lit class fast enough, there were other English classes that did feed into my writing. Even genre writers should be familiar with the classics. I took a twentieth-century literature course in my first year that provided a wonderful survey—I likely would not have read The Sound and the Fury without it, and without that, I likely could not have written the Creepy Play. A Science Fiction course and Old English were useful for still more obvious reasons.
And if you’re not taking English electives (which I do recommend, if you can find the right ones—survey courses are great), you should be prepared to self-teach. As Stephen King so rightly said, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time—or the tools—to write.”
What about Creative Writing MFAs, then?
This could be a whole other post, as MFAs are equally contentious. Responses can range from, “MFAs are scams,” to, “They saturate the market with MFA-style fiction,” to, “Well, I guess, if you’re having a hard time improving on your own…”
You don’t need an MFA to be a writer. Really, you don’t need any degree to be a writer. As long as you are reading and writing lots, you’ll develop the skills just fine.
But degrees make it a lot easier.
I’ve talked about the Stonecoast MFA plenty on this blog. I’ll keep saying the same thing: for me, an MFA helped my writing like nothing else. It was everything I wanted from undergrad English courses. We talked about stories and how they worked. We talked about literature as writers. And I got to practice lots and lots, while more experienced, knowledgeable people provided their input.
When I showed up at Stonecoast, I was technically competent and entirely too cocksure. Stonecoast knocked me down a much-needed peg, it taught me how to be an artist, and it gave me a whole host of other skills—from critiquing, to teaching, to writing prose that’s beautiful as well as technically competent.
Most importantly, Stonecoast gave me the tools to teach myself more effectively. It taught me how to learn from other writers, and it gave me a chorus of phantom faculty in my head. Now, when I’m writing, I have this:
“You’re very clever, but this ending cheats the reader. Stop showing off and go write something better,” “Well, this is nice, but surface-level. How can you write with more density?” “Your architecture is off,” “Oh, yay! This feels like a KT Bryski story! Good work!”
You don’t need an MFA, but I’m sure glad I have mine.
Through all of this discussion, a consistent thread emerges: you learn to become a writer by writing and by reading. An English degree is not necessarily the best for that, because there’s very little writing and you’re reading for an entirely different purpose.
If you can find another degree that feeds your passion, go nuts. I’ve always liked History, and I’ve parlayed it into a job that keeps a roof over my head. Otherwise—yes, find something that allows you to pursue your passion.
And remember: it’s hard to say where things will end up. We don’t always realize when we’ve come to a fork in the road. It’s been six full years since that first summer job; eight since that random spark from The Sound and the Fury lodged in my chest.
At the end of the day, only you know what is best for you. Just make sure that you can write, read, and eat consistently.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Sticking with the madrigals: “April is in my mistress’ face.” This is another Morley piece, and it makes me wish I knew more music theory. Listen to the altos’ line at 0:54. I am sure there’s a term for that very distinctive phrase that ends in that very particular sort of chord, but alas, I do not know it…
The third and final leg of the American Grand Tour is coming to an end. The 2017 Smoky Writers retreat finished yesterday. Still ensconced in Virginia, I’ll be back in my garret midweek.
As mentioned previously, Smoky is one of my favourite events: great friends, great food, and great productivity. I had been planning to start a novel, but quickly found that it wasn’t quite ready—I tend to flail around with my novel openings, and Smoky wasn’t quite the forum for it.
But that’s all right—I wrote three solid short stories, a flash piece, and 4000 words of something that probably needs to be a novella, if not a novel. My stable of short pieces was getting pretty empty as submissions go out, so the situation feels much more secure now.
Of course, it’s difficult to distill the entire week-long experience into a single blog post. But something that came up in many conversations was why Smoky works as well as it does.
Essentially, there are three rules:
- Write new words
- Read new words
- Contribute positively to the community
Simple rules, but important ones. If the retreat can’t keep to them, it falls apart; I hugely respect the organizers for their dedication in defending it. Their leadership has resulted in a safe, productive space that’s also a lot of fun.
You see, writing is largely a solitary endeavour (publishing is not, but writing is). But it is nice to touch base with the people you care about. It’s nice to discuss the functions of short stories over breakfast and alien biology over evening drinks. It’s nice to share specific joys and frustrations with people who get it.
We all want to be understood. That may be why some of us started writing in the first place. We had something to say, and we wanted someone else to hear it. This is why I love conventions and retreats. In addition to the other professional benefits, they are places where connections are made between people who love stories—whether they’re editors, agents, writers, or readers.
And art is about connection, isn’t it? It’s about saying, “I understand,” “I hear you,” “I need to be heard,” “Me too.”
What I think is truly amazing is this: twenty people come together from all different places, all different backgrounds, all different walks of life. Abiding by three rules, we write, and the results vary as much as the people themselves.
We care about each other, and we care about our work. Having both is very, very precious, and they tend to feed off each other. While I’m quite content to write alone in my garret, there is something quite wonderful about being surrounded by people also focused on their creativity.
So, connection and diversity, our strengths. These are what I’ll take with me as I return home to edit (lots), write (lots), and read (lots and lots).
As ever, I am so grateful.
What I’m Listening to This Week
A sprightly madrigal by Thomas Morley: “I love, alas, I love thee.” It weaves effortlessly through unison and contrapuntal sections, ticking along like a perfectly-designed clock. In a way, it reminds me of short stories: it is complete unto itself, and no note could be anything other than what it is.
(Apologies in advance for a rambling post; I am very tired!)
As I write this, I’m sitting in the Boston airport, having just left my first Boskone. By the time you read this, I’ll be in Virginia. One week after that, it’ll be Tennessee.
My head’s spinning a little. But hey, all that is still in the future! Right now, I want to talk about Boskone. Run by the New England Science Fiction Association, Boskone is a delightful midwinter con in—where else?—Boston. There’s the usual blurred convention round-up: I met some new friends, caught up with old friends, participated in awesome panels, and had some long, amazing conversations. The organization and programming were stellar.
But whenever I leave a con, I think about what I’m taking away. What lessons have I learned? What was the theme, the overarching idea to ponder?
I’m still mulling. After all, I left the con an hour ago. I think, though, that the main lesson of Boskone is learning to think of myself as a “real” writer.
Let me explain.
When one says, “I’m a writer,” that means many different things. It means that you’re someone who writes—someone who has to write. That, I have no trouble saying. At this point, writing is so integrated into my self-identity that if I stopped, I’d have an existential crisis on my hands.
“I’m a writer” also means that you write professionally. That’s also fine. The museum pays me to write. The Ontario Arts Council deemed me professional. I’ve sold stories and novels. My plays have been produced. Obviously, I have a long way to go, but writing pays the bills.
So why do I struggle to call myself a “real” writer?
After much pondering, I think it’s because I’m comparing myself to the authors I admire. Writers who have sold five, ten, twenty novels. Writers who have collectively won every award. Writers who are loved; writers who cannot cross the bar for running into someone they know; writers who have changed the field.
And I look at them, and I think, “I’m not the same. Not yet. I’ve written and I’ve sold, but I’m not a Real Writer.”
In some ways, that’s true. I’m just starting out. I’m a few steps down the road that some authors have been traversing since before I was born. Of course, of course it takes more time than this.
The writers at Boskone treated me as a colleague. Not as a student. Not as a fan. It’s a little scary—partly because it’s always scary when you get your true desire—but also because changing one’s self-identity is inherently frightening.
I think the lesson of Boskone was being okay with that change. Not turning away, saying, “No, no, this isn’t me,” but embracing it. More than that—owning it.
Thank you, Boskone, and all its attendees; I’m truly grateful.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Over my years at conventions, I’ve learned various strategies for managing social anxiety. Last last year I hit upon Anglican chants as a good way to prepare myself for anxious-making situations. The repetitive tunes do help. But more, I have a strong association between this particular sound and my choir—one of the safest places I know!
There were a lot of things we could’ve talked about today. Last week, I had multiple friends suffer loss, which got me thinking again about the nature of grief and the transient randomness of life. Last week, my story “Her Hands Like Ice” appeared in Bracken Magazine, and it might have been interesting to trace its development: from a winter’s observation to published story. Last week, more terrifying things happened in the United States, which renewed my will to resist. Last week, I continued wrestling with difficult, painful thinking about Canada’s 150th anniversary—what, precisely, are we celebrating?
Plus, I’m working through one of my biannual freakouts. I get one around October and one around February: like clockwork, every year. (Here is last February’s.) I’m fairly certain it’s linked to a mild seasonal disorder, which is comforting when I’m convinced that I’m a talentless hack with no future – it’s not Real, it’s linked to the light.
So yeah. A lot going on.
In the end, though, I think this is what I’d like to discuss.
Last week, I read Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: the Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. It’s part memoir, part hymn to writing and art. It’s a short book; funny and poignant by turns. But in one chapter—no, they’re more vignettes, really—in one vignette, she talks about work as being like meditation. The trick to both is this: you must notice when your mind has scampered off like a caffeinated squirrel, and bring it back to centre.
Nothing more, nothing less. Simply coming back to that point of stillness, again and again and again.
In a funny way, it makes me think of canoeing. Dipping your paddle into the water again and again. Developing a rhythm. And if you stop—distracted by mosquitoes, maybe—or alarmed by storm clouds—you simply breathe. Readjust your grip. Begin again.
You do get to a point of stillness, canoeing. (Actually, I’ve got a lot more experience kayaking, but I think the principle’s the same.) The rhythm itself becomes a lifeline. How to you get across the lake? Stroke by stroke. Nothing more, nothing less.All of which to say: I don’t know what lies upstream. There is a lot going on. But I know that I can put my paddle to the water. Again. And again.
What I’m Listening To This Week
I got onto a musical kick this week, listening to Wicked and Moulin Rouge! for the first time in ages. “Come What May” has been on repeat – Moulin Rouge! is one of my very favourite movies. It’s wonderfully opulent, unabashedly sentimental, and utterly romantic: jewel-toned, like a Pre-Raphaelite painting.
It’s so over the top. It works so well.
Like approximately three million people worldwide, I participated in the Women’s March this past Saturday. The Toronto march began on the steps of the Ontario Legislature: signs in hands, pink pussyhats on heads, and chants ringing out into the January air.“Tell me what diversity looks like?”
“THIS IS WHAT DIVERSITY LOOKS LIKE!”
“Tell me what equality looks like?”
“THIS IS WHAT EQUALITY LOOKS LIKE!”
Thinking about it, though, there’s one more I would have added:
“THIS IS WHAT OUR BRAVERY LOOKS LIKE!”
Speaking up and out is a very brave thing to do. Saying, “No,” is brave. Choosing to love is brave. It made me think, once again, of my favourite book: Not Wanted on the Voyage, by Timothy Findley.
Not Wanted on the Voyage is a magic realist retelling of Noah’s Ark that gives a sharp critique to patriarchy and voices to the voiceless. In one scene, Mrs. Noyes (Noah’s wife) comforts bears during a storm on the ark, despite her terror of/anger towards them. Later, she muses:
“Cruelty was fear in disguise and nothing more…[and wasn’t] fear itself nothing more a failure of the imagination? That was why Mrs. Noyes had been afraid of bears. She had not been able to imagine consoling them.”
-Timothy Findley, Not Wanted on the Voyage.
When I look at Noah in Not Wanted, when I look at Trump, at the people railing against immigrants, the LGBTQIA+ community, minorities, Indigenous populations, women…I see a similar streak of fear. Look at their eyes. Listen to their tone of voice. You see it too, don’t you? These awful, cruel, immoral people—they’re all so scared.
Being scared is fine. Let’s be quite clear about that. But fear comes with a choice. You can act in spite of fear. You can love. Or you can let fear decay into hatred and cruelty. You see, being brave isn’t something you are. Being brave is something you choose: over and over and over.
It’s a hard choice to make, of course. Choosing bravery is exhausting. When you’re brave, you confront that fear: whether yours, or someone else’s. In choosing bravery, you imagine another way.
But that is the choice that three million people made this past weekend. It’s the choice that many millions more make in their own spaces. We’ll have to remake and recommit to it even more in the near future.
And yes, bravery is a choice that I will make in my fiction. If fear is a failure of the imagination—then let there be new stories to challenge it. Rewrite the characters and change the ending. Undermine the dominant narrative.
Bring people to a place where they can imagine consoling bears.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Puccini’s “Crisantemi” (Chrysanthemums) is a devastating little elegy for strings. I love the constant tension between fragile delicacy and driving momentum. It’s a restless, unsettled piece. Apt, since Puccini composed it for the death of the Duke of Savoy (chrysanthemums are a symbol of death in Italy). In places, it almost makes one think of rain – perhaps a brooding, ruminative walk through evening drizzle.