To Sweet’s alarm and delight.
If you’re in Toronto on the morning of Saturday, June 8, and can make it to the wonderful Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy, check out the Academic Conference of Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy (ACCSFF). The program looks erudite and engaging. Especially (say I, from a place of profound bias), this portion, which I hear will include “fairy tales/fables, (world) mythologies, monomythic story structure (the Hero’s Journey), Caitlin Sweet’s The Pattern Scars, the “Gormenghast” series, and a slew of other things.”
Oh, Titus: I am not worthy…
I used to be a voracious reader. During the endless summers when I was 11, 12, 13, I’d walk down to the local library every week. I’d get out seven books and read one a day, sprawled on a lawn chair in the backyard, or propped with my back against the brick by the front door and my thighs bobbing off the hot cement stoop. I remember the cover of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong as if it were in my hands now. John Christopher’s The City of Gold and Lead, too. And John Wyndham’s battered Penguin Classic edition of Consider Her Ways and Others. I stared at the cover of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon so intently that I imagined I might slip right through it and end up scrambling to catch up to that stately, wonderful woman on her stately, wonderful horse. (Though it wasn’t the summer when I read that one. I remember slapping it casually down on my desk in grade 7 homeroom, hoping for some sad, misguided reason that my classmates would notice its heft.)
Then high school. Lord of the Flies affected me so deeply that I had trouble writing the requisite journal “reflections” about it. Lives of Girls and Women made me admit, grudgingly, that Canadian literature could be OK. (Maybe it was the masturbation scene?)
University. From The Wide Sargasso Sea to No Pain Like This Body to La casa de Bernarda Alba (a play, but it still counts) to all the novels I continued to read in my spare time, including on the train to and from Montreal (If on a winter’s night a traveler, whose cover I also see still, when I close my eyes): I continued, voracious.
At some point between first daughter and second, I stopped being voracious. This seemed reasonable: I had a baby, a toddler; another baby, another toddler. I was tired. I was trying to revise my own book, then books—no time for anyone else’s. Forget greedy hunger: I stopped reading altogether.
I remember the night I started again, after at least four years without a novel. It hit me all of a sudden, hard—a sucker-punch of loss that all those other body blows (divorce, a new home, a new job) had masked. I was at Bakka-Phoenix, Toronto’s wondrous science fiction/fantasy bookstore. My U of T writing students were downstairs filling out their course evaluations; I was upstairs with Bakka’s surpassing awesome manager, whom I’ve known for years and years. “Help,” I said to her, suddenly, stupidly almost crying. “I keep starting books and not finishing them. I haven’t read a whole book in years. I need to read a book.”
She plucked one off the shelf with her usual combination of authority and empathy. “Here,” she said, pressing Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl into my hands. “Start with this.”
I opened it on the subway. I read the first two sentences and started, suddenly, stupidly, to cry. I finished it three days later, feeling a mixture of triumph and humility.
I read some more books. Then I didn’t. A few more years went by. More classes; more books of my own authorship to fret over; a full-time job. And yet there they were again: the ragged claws of hunger. (“Too sentimental”?)
Two weeks ago I pulled Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory off Peter’s bookshelf. I read it in four days, almost entirely on the subway to and from work. When I finished it, I took some deep breaths and shook myself free of the stark, violent, fatalistic, tragic Scottish wilds of Frank Cauldhame—and I reached randomly for a Flannery O’Connor collection.
I’m halfway through it now. First of all: if I’d known how insanely, wrenchingly similar Banks and O’Connor were, I probably would have decided to devote my commute to Jane Austen instead. Only now I’m in it: the beauty and the menace; the relentless, awful, delicious inevitability of cruelty and love. And I’m toast. My back’s stuck to fuzzy red subway seat, not sweaty summer brick, but the feeling’s the same. Incoherent gratitude. Triumph and humility.
Then she recognized the feeling again, a little roll. It was as if it were not in her stomach. It was as if it were out nowhere in nothing, out nowhere, resting and waiting, with plenty of time.
There’s a certain kind of emotional upheaval that has absolutely no sense of scale. It’s incoherent, both random and hardwired. I have no idea what to do with it except write about it.
My daughter’s heading down to the Eaton Centre this weekend with a friend, who’ll come and sleep over at our place afterward. When I was almost 14, I used to head down to the Eaton Centre with my best friend Alison. Alison died of cancer when we were 30. I just read an article in the Toronto Star about a 14-year-old named Katelyn who’s dying of cancer and wanted to experience a prom. Katelyn’s prom came to her, in her hospital bed.
I met my first love for dinner last week. I went to my first prom (or, in Canadian parlance, “formal”) with him. It was almost unbearably good to see him, last week. It made me feel old and young, as strong and vulnerable as I ever was, at 18.
Katelyn’s skin looks like yellow paper. She’s bald, and there’s an oxygen mask covering her nose and mouth. Her date bends over her hospital bed, holding a corsage.
There are pictures of my first love and me in my parents’ backyard, posing dramatically in front of the hostas. There’s a corsage on my wrist. My hair is braided and coiled and pinned, strung with baby’s breath. Alison acted as advisor, re: the hair.
My daughter doubles over laughing, as we watch Freaks & Geeks. She pushes her own thick dirty blonde hair out of her face with a hand all sticky with kiwi juice. The cat in her lap stretches hugely but does not wake.
Alison’s skin looked like yellow paper too, in the end. I washed it, moments after she died. I smoothed her dark cap of post-chemo hair. I kissed her forehead.
My first love’s hair is thinning, but his smile is exactly the same.
Katelyn has a spectacular smile. I can tell that someone’s employed the anti-red-eye function in this photo, because her pupils are so incredibly black. She’s gorgeous. This picture was taken before the others in the prom series. Her arms, here, aren’t so thin. Her skin is perfect, from forehead to cheeks to upraised knee. She looks brave. I can’t tell what her expression is in the other photos, because of the oxygen mask.
My daughter bends over the cat and rubs his belly. She’s going to the Eaton Centre in a couple of days. It’ll be her first such foray without me. I know I’ll be relieved when she and her friend walk in the door, dropping coats and boots and bags all over the hallway.
Alison and I made popcorn in a big yellow bowl. We always swore we’d stay up late, but she always fell asleep before midnight.
I don’t know what to do with all this. Even writing isn’t enough.
My elder daughter is 13.5. When I was her age, I was obsessed with taking things in. I wrote often, and copiously, in my journal—about a lot, but especially about The Feeling. This was the sensation that struck me when the wind was high, or the guy I liked waved to me while playing handball against the brick wall of the school. It made me want to write. It was a wild, strange, hopeful, hopeless feeling, and I filled pages, contemplating it. I wrote that The Feeling made me awake. It was an unsettling sort of wakefulness, because I couldn’t quantify or define it (though I tried, on innumerable sheets of 3-ring binder paper).
When I was in my mid-twenties, I discovered a show called My So-Called Life—and my god, there it was, after so many years: The Feeling. The protagonist and her best friend: the forces of change and coolness pulling them apart, then, tentatively, back together. The notes left in lockers. The tears. The huddling in childhood bedrooms, whispering promises and apologies. The obsessive and horrible sweetness of first love. The awkward, mostly unspoken love between self and parent.
I just re-watched this show with my 13.5-year-old daughter. Now, in my divorced-and-remarried 40s, I felt it all again—and then some. “Then some” = Things I Had Not Experienced, at 25.
The parents! They love each other. They’re tired of each other. They’re just plain tired. They snipe and squabble; they wear pyjamas to bed; they’re jealous of other people even as they desire other people. Their jobs suck them dry. They long for longing—the kind that belonged to long ago; the kind that might belong to a vague, dangerous future.
I’ve been the girl aching for the best friend who found other, cooler friends. I’ve been the pyjama’d wife who’s aching, just because. And now here I am, sprawled out in bed with my daughter, who’s digging at a pomegranate, her eyes on Jordan Catalano and Angela Chase. My daughter, who’s with me but also far, far away, in her own head.
We’ve watched other programs. Genre ones, mostly: Sarah Connor Chronicles; Battlestar Galactica; Buffy and Angel and Firefly; the original Prisoner. And I dozed. Without fail, about halfway through (having just thought, triumphantly, “I’m AWAKE! Look at me, so awake!”), I’d fall asleep. I’d miss explosions, uprisings, amazing special effects, heavy-duty genre emoting. My daughter would have to fill me in later, while I was putting her to bed.
My eyes didn’t close once, as we watched My So-Called Life.
I’m a lover of genre. Science fiction, fantasy—love it. And yet only this show about teenagers and their parents has kept me awake at 10:30 p.m., lying in bed with my kid and my husband and a bunch of cats. Only this show has made me remember The Feeling, in all its uncertain, unbearable, undefinable glory.
Once upon a time there lived a girl. She slept in a lovely little cottage made of gingerbread and candy. She was always asleep. One morning she woke up and the candy had mould on it. Her father blew her a kiss and the house fell down. She realized she was lost. She found herself walking down a crowded street, but the people were made of paper, like paper dolls. She blew everyone a kiss goodbye and watched as they blew away.
– written by Angela
I write about writing, here. So why do I sometimes bristle when other people write about writing?
Having done a good deal of thinking, between the typing of the previous sentence and this one, I’ve decided it’s not simply about content; it’s about intent, and tone.
When authors describe their own authorial travails, whether humorously or seriously, I lap it up. When authors opine lightheartedly about How to Date a Writer, or Why it’s So Very Odd and Unique Being a Writer and Not an Accountant, I, yes, bristle.
Are writers more special than accountants? What about lion tamers?
The dark, now not-so-secret truth is that I do consider writing more special than accountancy. This is partly because there’s not a thing about accountancy that I comprehend (in the same way that Mr. Anchovy failed to comprehend lion taming). Also, I cope with the low-level, mundane stress of my day job because I have writing to turn to, when the working day is done. This makes writing special. I don’t think it’s mystical, though. I don’t think my author friends are taxonomically different or smarter or quirkier or madder or more addictive than my 9-5 friends. I don’t think that informing non-writers that they should expect quirky madness from their writer paramours is enlightening and/or amusing—because this particular kind of humour is driven by an insidious, earnest condescension.
I talk to my students about my own writing process. I incorporate personal anecdotes into my online lessons. This is what I know, and it’s all I have to go on. I also trip over myself to say, “This is my experience. This isn’t What Should Be.” Then (and now) I fret. Are the capitals disingenuous? Is my attempt at non-judgmental accessibility actually indicative of a deep-seated and horribly insecure superiority?
At this point I could say, “Authors are so over-analytical!” But no. This is about me, not about some Platonic form of The Author. (Capitals are important, dammit!)
“Lighten up,” someone might say, having read and enjoyed How to Date a Writer. And, though I’ve just tried—how would you argue with that?
We’re waiting for a storm, here in over-sensitive, whingey, smelling salts-requiring Toronto. Yes: there will be SNOW! Radar and every single local news station say so. And we prepare, mostly by gathering in each other’s cubicles and talking about how fervently we hope we won’t see each other tomorrow.
We may well end up seeing each other tomorrow—but the waiting-to-find-out part is deeply satisfying. Which has made me ponder the act of waiting itself.
Having watched Buffy and Angel and sundry other series, Peter and Elder Daughter and I are making our way through My So-Called Life. When I first watched this show, I had to wait for a week between episodes. Now we’re doing one per night—which, tragically, means we’ll be done very soon.
Peter and I blew through Homeland. We gobbled up Breaking Bad three at a time. Rome, seasons 1 and 2, in a weekend. Yes, we had to wait for seasons to end before we did this—but the payoff was instant narrative gratification. Once upon a time, the waiting was everything. You had to be home on a particular night to see your favourite show. You had to peruse the TV listings to see if one of your favourite movies might be on that week. There were no videos, let alone DVDs. George Lucas refused to allow the (three real) Star Wars movies to be shown on TV for years and years after they came out. So you waited, never sure if agony or ecstasy would prevail.
And music! No iTunes to provide any track you might desire. No: you hunched over your clock radio, clutching your tape recorder, your second and fourth fingers poised to press “Play” and bright red “Record” simultaneously, should the song you desired beyond expression happen to come up on Q107′s playlist. (God forgive me, one of those songs was “Ebony & Ivory.” It was a Beatles-related madness. I ended up profoundly disappointed.) You trekked down to Sam the Record Man to flip through endless rows of records, and you carried your finds home and set them on the turntable* and hunkered down by the fuzzy brown speakers that were nearly as big as you—or maybe you found nothing, and went home cranky.
I didn’t want this to be an anti-technology screed. I didn’t want it to be a self-indulgent, “Just look at how pure and simple things were in my day!” paean. As usual, this is intended as autobiography, not sermon. And yet. I look at my daughters. I watch them download. I watch them watch things, right away, the moment they think of them. I watch them on iPods and laptops; I watch them message friends in fragments that don’t require an extra-long phone cord that wends its way through the family room and into a quieter, more private space. And I wonder how it feels to be so instantly gratified, so much of the time.
Waiting for Godot. Waiting for Guffman. Waiting for a Miracle.
The snow has started; I can see waves of it, illuminated by streetlights. The waiting feeling is still in me, though. What will the world look like tomorrow morning? I can’t wait to find out.
*Elder Daughter has an apple-red turntable at her dad’s, on which she plays David Bowie and U2, REM and the Beatles (though not solo Paul, with Stevie Wonder). Nothing, in fact, is purely ebony and ivory.
I struggled, before and during the writing of this. Ron didn’t want anyone except a chosen few to know about him. And yet I’m writing this. He’s dead, so I can. Hence the struggle.
Part of this is selfishness, because this is a story I want to tell. Part is principle, because this is an important story.
Peter has written about his father’s life. I had none of this context. In 2009, I met a sad, sweet old man whose dentures were never quite anchored, who could never even half finish the Admiral’s Platter at Red Lobster, though he always asked for it. A man who was stolid and steady and almost entirely non-defensive about his faith, which meant that he and Peter had chronically unsatisfying but also reliably non-violent conversations about it. He kept chocolates in the fridge. He was handsome and frail. One evening while Peter was in another room, he spoke earnestly to me of the importance of having let his sons make their own choices, then said, in low tones, “But it is my greatest regret in life that none of them found God.” He tried to order port at the Oakville Oliver & Bonacini, and the server thought he said “pork”, and laughter ensued. Sometimes these dinners were all Peter and me, trying to make conversation. On rarer occasions, his dad would speak suddenly, apparently out of the blue: “Does she know about me? Have you told her?” “I think a lot about how hard it must have been for you when we moved here.”
He always wanted us to come back to his place after dinner and watch a video (yes, VHS) or DVD. Peter brought Alien along, once, and his dad watched it (and napped a little), and when it was over declared the guns implausibly big and noisy. After one dinner, though, we didn’t go straight into the living room; he ushered us into his office and eased himself into his desk chair. He cast about in his computer files until he found the one he wanted: a podcast by and for young, gay Christians. We listened to the intro for a minute or two, and then Ron said, “What I want you to hear is later on…” and clicked until he found the place. “Time for listener email,” one of the hosts said. The other: “We have a really special one for you tonight.” And he read a message from a 92-year-old, who wrote of his longing to be “normal”; of his hope, as much younger man, that marriage would “cure” him; of his remorse at having caused his wife pain when he could no longer hide what he was. Though, he stressed in his email, he had never had any homosexual encounters. Not a single one. And now he was so old that he knew his dream of companionship would never be realized.
Ron had hardly spoken during dinner. Now his hand shook a little on the mouse as we all listened to what he had to say—to the young, gay Christians whose lives were so different from anything he’d known; to us.
This post would have horrified him—yet all I want to do is honour him. I hope that’s OK.
Sometimes I complain about teaching. In fact, about three weeks into any given course, I tend to have a fair-to-middling-sized meltdown. I’m working 9 to 5; I’m critiquing 50 pages of student writing a week instead of writing my own stuff; my free time has gone from two nights a week to one; I’m drained, weary, drowning in track changes but parched in every other way.
The thing is, though, that I love teaching. Years after I read them, images from my students’ stories stay in my mind—and those of you who know me will understand what a triumph this is (for I’ll watch an episode of Homeland or Firefly and forget, the next day, how it ended). I remember the student who wrote like Cormac McCarthy, but also, gloriously, like himself. I remember a boat surrounded by a sea of blueberries; I remember a white bull who appeared in a snowstorm, in the Annex, and spoke. I remember ancient automatons, broken-hearted Reapers, Aces and Magpies, smartass swords, loyal, angry brothers and lonely weres. New worlds and dying ones.
These classes go way beyond the writing. I’m lucky enough to still be in touch with many of my former students. And I’m lucky enough to have students who go from reading free writes aloud in a stifling classroom in University College to landing a four-book deal with St. Martin’s Press.
Case in point: Leigh Evans. She called me Gandalf, almost from the beginning. She trusted me with the first draft of something she wasn’t sure was going to be a book. Only it was a book—and it’s about to be four.
And Anna, whose unpublished book (read by both me and my elder daughter) has just been longlisted for an award (though this seems not to have been formally announced, yet).
Pride, yes. Hey, I had something to do with this! But also pure, unadulterated, altruistic joy.
A new class started two days ago. The meltdown should be coming in about 2.75 weeks. But already there are ryphoons, skawps, spaceships, burr slings, enigmatic lowlanders, kick-ass lady mechanics, possible dead guys, a flame-bleeding Rumour, and a lonely, lost, teenager who’s about to discover, to her and everyone else’s chagrin and wonder, that she’s something special.
So, to all you once and future students of mine: a multitude of very slightly melted-down thanks.
Once, long ago (in 2001), I saw the Shire for the first time. On-screen, it was exactly as I’d always pictured it in my head: verdant and rolling, suffused in golden-green light. And when Frodo leapt up from the foot of that perfect Shire tree, he looked right too. He moved right. He and his surroundings were one big, glorious, rich, suspension-of-disbelief-inducing vision, and I gave myself to it, tearily.
Two days ago, I went back to the Shire—and it wasn’t the same.
I was aware how tenuously fresh The Hobbit was on Rotten Tomatoes, and was expecting to be underwhelmed. I did end up enjoying it. Yes, the soundtrack was relentless—but just when I’d be thinking it was too much, a leitmotif would come skirling through the noise, and then I’d think, “Ooooh, there’s the ring/Shire/Frodo/Gandalf theme!” and subside into a nostalgic haze. Yes, some of the characters’ motivations could have been more clearly set up (it wouldn’t have taken long—say, 45 seconds, which could easily have been shaved off all that underground running about on precarious goblin bridges). Yes, a couple of the dwarves (including their king) didn’t look remotely like dwarves, but like men who might have stepped up to pledge their swords to Aragorn. And yes, I missed Aragorn. But these were quibbles.
The more-than-quibble, though; the reason the Shire and all its inhabitants looked so very different: they were rendered via 3D HFR 48 frames-per-second technology. Unlike other viewers who’ve weighed in on the subject, I didn’t adjust within the first ten minutes and then surrender myself to a state of super high-def magic. Director and photographer Vincent Laforet points out that this technology might work really well with nature documentaries or football games, and I imagine this is probably true. (He points out a whole lot of other things I wholeheartedly agree with, and breaks down the technical issues in ways I almost understand.) But this is a fantasy we’re talking about. And super high-def kills fantasy.
To belabour the point: Middle Earth is not the Real World. And, totally paradoxically, the more real it looked, the more aware I was of the artifice that had gone into making it. I know that other viewers have found that the hyper-realism evoked by the HFR drew them more fully into the story, but it left me feeling awkward and impatient—as if I were watching director’s cut deleted scenes instead of the real movie. Now, to be clear: when I got the director’s cut DVDs of the other three movies, I devoured the deleted scenes and unedited footage. I found this both as intimate and as distancing as looking at an x-ray—at starkly-lit images of the bones that lay beneath the captivating, gorgeous flesh of the films. The Hobbit, though, was an endless, deleted-scene skeleton.
Of course, this very, very subjective response springs from my long and personal relationship with fantasy. It’s a relationship that began on the page—and the images I conjured from the words I read were all pretty fuzzy. I liked them that way. Ergo, my reactions to fantasy covers were entirely clear-cut: dream-like, impressionistic landscapes featuring distant, crumbling architecture of some sort, and maybe some shadowy human beings, were great (Mark Robertson’s Titus Groan covers, for example, or Roger Garland’s and Pauline Baynes’ Lord of the Rings ones.) Photo-realistic, close-up human beings (Darrell K. Sweet’s [no relation] on the Wheel of Time covers, say): ugh.
Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.
I’m having one of my patented meltdowns. It’s midway through one of my U of T terms, and I’m doing a lot of critiquing. Also, I’m now over a month into a new job, still feeling slightly unbalanced, certain I’ll screw up big-time, any day. I’ve been chipping away at the same goddamn scene in my Minoan Beauty & the Beast novel for months now—getting nowhere fast, except perhaps for that place where I cry and pummel the ground.
“I can’t do it,” I gasp. I’m sitting on the couch in our living room. It’s a supremely comfortable couch: dark blue, cushy, full of cats. Tall Science Fiction Writing Husband Peter nods at me with equal parts understanding and dread.
“Can’t…write! No…routine!” Which is to say: I wrote my third book in a small notebook, which fit perfectly into my lap as I traversed the city by streetcar, from home to work. I wrote my second book in my then-basement, whilst one daughter was at kindergarten and the other was napping upstairs. Routines. Moments, however fleeting, that were given over to writing, day after day, until the books were done.
“No…time! Gah! Blargh!”
Peter holds my hands. He’s so focused he’s barely noticing all the cats. “How about evenings?” he says. “After work. Why don’t you take 45 minutes then, somewhere?”
Funny thing: I’m always exhorting my students to resist old patterns and be open to new ones—to go longhand after years of computer, or café after an era of solitary confinement at home. And yet. It never occurred to me that I could write after work. That my girls were big enough to manage without me for 50 minutes.
My husband, the visionary. I dissolve a little more—gratefully, this time.
I’m trying out this brave new thing. I’ve discovered that there are chairs at a particular Second Cup that are also cushy (though lacking in cats). I’ve discovered that I’m as susceptible to and inspired by distraction as I ever was. An old, bedraggled woman insisting she’d put $30 on her card earlier that week and not comprehending (stridently) that the card is empty; a mother asking wearily whether the breakfast sandwiches are grilled; a 4-year-old girl demanding that the mother pick her up and swing her; that mother swinging the girl so that her boots nearly touch the counter with the milk and stir sticks. The girl laughing, and everyone in the entire place smiling—including me, sitting in a cushy chair, trying to write about a bull-boy and a labyrinth.
This just might work. Stay tuned.