I was recently sifting through my previous blog, which is now locked away in the interwebz forever. It was called A WANDERING MIND and it was almost exclusively for poetry. Circa 2007-2010. It carried hundreds of poems upon its crooked little back. The thing I notice when I occasionally pull it up to have a read is that the poems were, by and large, inauthentic. Or, if you will, fictional. Sure, I occasionally pulled out an authentic retelling or heart-truth. But everything was cloaked and shrouded…presented from a place of darkness with just the tiniest hint of a back-lit glow to the authentic. I was writing from a place of self-repression.
I give you exhibit A. In way of preamble, I wrote it on March 30th, 2008. I never burlapped a thing in my life. Hydrangeas? The word must have sounded pretty to me at the time. The bloody things do not have winter limbs…if you do it right. I don’t recall EVER being in Penetanguishene. Or on a train heading north, for that matter. My father was never dying. What’s a Plymouth? I couldn’t pick one out of a line-up.
Things to Do Today
Remove the snow
from the burlap shrouds
encasing the hydrangeas,
ready their limbs for rebirth.
Take the train north
where screams of ennui
will be muffled, go unheard.
Call my dying father,
speak of ’72 Plymouths
getting air on railroad tracks
long since removed.
Light the candles
on the sky white mantle,
watch the flames flicker
and later disappear.
post-amble? Come to think of it, I did own something in that poem. I remember the weightlessness of going over railroad tracks while climbing a steep hill in a car. It’s a glorious feeling to get air. Especially if there’s music on the radio at the time. It’s all Dukes of Hazzard and what not.
The more I scour the old poetry, the more I think I should rewrite it with my freer post self-repression mind. When you live with a secret like childhood sexual abuse, you shift everything to fit into little boxes. Even all the things you want and need to be authentic are slightly askew. Simply because you’re not the you you were supposed to be (and you never will be–you are a changed version of what you would have could have been). Your walls and barriers and safe places BLOCK OUT just as much as they RESCUE AND SAVE. So, really, until you face the demons…there is no winning.
That poem had almost nothing to do with me. And just like the hundreds of other poems that came from that period of my writing life, I had no recollection of having written it. It is as separate from my psyche as War and Peace is. I don’t know if you’re aware or not, but I did not write War and Peace. It can also be said that I didn’t write any of the poems that came from the dark era. But I did. It’s a conundrum. How can you own something that is not connected in some way to who you are?
On the same day that I wrote the above poem, I wrote one that perhaps I can still feel a bit of connection to. My go-to novel to use as a template for the perfect novel has always been The Great Gatsby, so the admiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of those things that is constant in my life…it was there in the darkness and it is here in the light. I suppose a vestige of who we are is always there, whether or not we choose or try to access it.
Ode to F. Scott Fitzgerald
And I will dig up his grave,
and wonder at the box
in which he is kept.
And I will adorn
myself with his bones,
wear them like a coat
my fragile body.
And if he be but dust
I will swallow
to have him inside me.
And all for the sake
of an image
will I suffer
of my madness.
“and the curtains
and the rugs
and the two young women
to the floor”.
And for that
I will adorn myself
with his bones,
wear them like a coat,
Wrap myself in wonder
and partake of his dust.
Perhaps it need stay in the darkness. From what I can gather, I dug up the old sport and ate his dust. These are things of darkness, I’m sure. But thus is the extent of my hero worship of his writerly abilities. So, I’ll own it still. It gets to stay.
I’m not sure what this blog post is about. I just feel the need every now and again to revisit the writer I used to be. I don’t try to judge him or weigh the texts of my past with the texts of my now. I don’t need to know that I improved, and I certainly don’t need to know that I haven’t. I just feel that–whatever it is that I find–I accept it for what it is. Something I wrote while on my journey. As with life and each step we take to get us to the step we’re about to take and the place in which we find ourselves, our past writing is what has brought us to who we are now. Just own it. Don’t be ashamed of it. Don’t discard it. Like the bad memory that made you who you are, the bad poem also had a hand in shaping the writer you have become.
Acceptance of self. It’s a good thing.
On the same day I wrote the two above poems, I wrote this one on apologies. I have no idea where my mind was at…but I won’t apologize to myself for having written it. I am writer, hear me roar.
Prelude to an Apology
We’ll let the devil
Tongue our eyes,
And drink our light
In gulps divine.
We’ll let the saints
Stomp our dreams
And teem inside,
The dust divine.
The awkward silence,
Awake the night
We walk in vengeance,
And just a slight of hand
Away from wonder,
Our own mythology,
but never will we offer
Things we straddle
And preen to pretty,
The often considered
But never whispered
Hushed and hidden apology.
Be your writing. And remember to look back on the journey every now and again…
Once upon a time there was a magical place. It was in a land far, far away. And also quite near. It came to be that a hundred thousand brave warrior knights had heard of this magical place. Or forty or so, at least, give or take.
They set out on a rather long journey. For some it was far, and for others it was simply near. But even those brave warrior knights (let’s just call them writers, shall we) who came from near understood the metaphorical distance of the journey…the farness of their nearness, as it were.
It was such a grand time that was had by all that they decided to do it again. And again. And again. And again. The event became a yearly festival/spectacle of writerly endurance, wonder, and mirth.
This faraway land is known as Huntsville, in the province of Ontario, in the land of Canada. The magical place is not really a place, per se, but an event. Actually, I prefer to think of it as a Spectacular Spectacular. Of sorts.
Why do I bring this event up today? Because registration is as much a spectacle as the event itself these days. Writers clamor to get in to this thing! With room for only 40 (ish) and rumours of its delightfulness spreading both far and wide (or near and far—as it were), it is getting increasingly difficult for a writer to procure his/her seat at the gala. As in, it is nigh on impossible.
And every March, like warriors of old, we stand before our keyboards on the night of registration and wait for the seconds to tick off… and for the virtual gate to open so we can scurry about and type our way into this yearly magical emporium of madness.
When the time comes and the gate opens, the Internet feels the tug of love from all points across Ontario as the virtual worms of registration information make their way to the Mother Ship of this Spectacular Spectacular up in the snowy northern outpost of Huntsville.
And at the end of registration night, there are virtual bodies scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding… Wait, no… sorry, I somehow channelled Jim Morrison for a second there. No bodies. BUT… there are, both near and far, those ecstatic to be ON THE BUS and those melancholy to have missed it.
Yes… I’m talking about the MUSKOKA NOVEL MARATHON again. My skin prickles tonight in the knowing that registration approaches. It is neither near nor far on the horizon. And I want to call myself among the tribe of #MNM2016 participants. I want it, I want it, I want it!
Where else in all the world can one writer sit in the same room as 40+ others and do nothing but write for 72hrs? Nowhere. Where else can one take communion with a writing community more vibrant, alive, exhausted, miserable, exuberant, joyful, angry, and insane? Nowhere. Where else can one come together with a group of like-minded people for a cause close and true to all of their hearts? Nowhere.
The Muskoka Novel Marathon Fundraiser for literacy in Simcoe Muskoka County is more than a fundraiser to raise money for literacy, and it’s more than the greatest weekend retreat for writers on the globe. It’s a religion and it’s a cult. But don’t tell anyone. We’d have writers coming from… well, coming from near and coming from far to be a part of the worshipping. We’d have to go underground just to exist. That’s how spectacular spectacular our 72hr novel writing (and I swear to God that’s all we do!!) Marathon happens to be.
This is why writers begin to lose sleep through February and early March. They imagine themselves not registering in time, not securing one of the coveted spots at the July Marathon, not being a part of the most magical writing weekend of the year. And they spend their time at their keyboards, fingers at the ready… Awaiting the opening bells of the registration melee that opens the chaotic yearly ritual.
We want to be there. We want to be fierce warriors against illiteracy and we want a weekend of writing bliss. Whether we come from near or far… We just want a seat at the table. The journey to the Muskoka Novel Marathon… it’s all about words.
Check out the MUSKOKA NOVEL MARATHON WEBSITE!
As with life and love, so too goes the story. The heart of every great story lies in how it makes one feel. To make a reader laugh is a magical thing, but to illicit tears is just as golden. To do both is to deliver the goods as a storyteller.
I have always had a soft spot for the song The Glory of Love from the Bette Midler movie Beaches. It’s just one of those songs that encompasses the journey of life, and emphasizes the important equalizing balancing concept of yin and yang. It’s a good lesson for life and it’s a good lesson for fiction/non-fiction writing.
In the song, Bette sings:
You’ve got to win a little, lose a little
Yes, and always have the blues a little
And that’s the truth. It is important to carry the blues with you through life. It’s a balancing act to carry both joy and blues at once, but it’s also highly effective. To get the balance right in fiction/non-fiction is golden. Sure, everybody loves to laugh. There’s not many things better than experiencing a literal laugh-out-loud moment while your face is buried in a book. It’s so fulfilling.
One author who makes me laugh so hard and so much that I become a little shell-shocked and teary-eyed is David Sedaris. But the golden wand Sedaris waves before I get to the end of his stories and observations quite often has me teary-eyed for other reasons as well. In just a few short pages he can have me both laughing to tears and crying to tears…in such a stealth way that both emotions catch me completely off guard.
Why is Sedaris capable of this tremendous feat? Why does his reader experience such a roller-coaster of emotions in such a short space of time? He makes himself vulnerable. He makes himself authentic. He allows the reader to see the raw and the uncomfortable and the awkward and the honest. Writers have SO many things in their writerly toolbox. But if you don’t offer them up in a cloak of vulnerable authenticity, you could very well miss your mark. And it’s not just the sorrow that can be delivered this way, either. Sometimes laughter comes from the writer’s ability to take away the curtain and allow the reader to see just how vulnerable they are willing to make themselves. It’s often the absurd situations that give us the most to be embarrassed and ashamed of that are also the best wells from which to draw up a big ole bucket of laughter. Whether it’s non-fiction or fiction, it works. Make the reader squirm when your character squirms. Make them spit out their coffee in shock over your relived accounting of hysterical humiliation. Make them ache when your character aches. Deliver your words with honesty and reverence, even when, like David Sedaris in ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY, you’re talking about the clump of shit in the toilet that isn’t yours and that won’t flush away and that you don’t want to be blamed for by your fellow party goers on the other side of the washroom door.
Life is laughter. Life is tears. Life is joy and sorrow, combined in a dizzying swirl of unpredictability. That’s a lesson that everyone learns on their own. When incorporating these things into your writing, the lesson is to just go for authenticity, relate-ability, sincerity. Don’t try too hard. If you try too hard, you lose the edge of vulnerability and sincerity. A good reader can tell when you’re trying to manipulate their emotions. Don’t try to make them cry. Tell them something that causes them cry naturally. Don’t try to make them laugh. That’s like saying, “Okay, please laugh now.” Just make your story honest. And don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself or your character.
Nothing feels better than a good ole lose-yourself-in-laughter moment, but you also have to let your poor heart break a little. That’s the story of, that’s the glory of…writing and reading.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Or, so says Carson McCullers. I think it is no coincidence that when I thought of the content of today’s post, I thought of the title of that book. But it was another book I had in mind when I wanted to touch on today’s topic. WHEN EVERYTHING FEELS LIKE THE MOVIES is the book I wanted to bring up. But in borrowing the title of McCullers’s classic, I realized that her book also applies to the subject at hand.
Take this excerpt from the Wiki page for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (henceforth referred to as THIALH):
When published, the novel created a literary sensation, enjoying a meteoric rise to the top of the bestseller lists in 1940; it was the first in a string of works by McCullers that give voice to those who are rejected, forgotten, mistreated or oppressed.
Now, from what I recall THIALH was an extraordinary read. Admittedly, it’s been a few years now (perhaps decades) since I last delved into it. But it speaks to what I had in mind in the same way When Everything Feels Like the Movies (henceforth referred to as WEFLTM) speaks to it.
It would seem that there is, at times, an expectation of the writer to perhaps write the story that wants to be read by the masses. Be it the latest fad, trend, hashtagable getbehindable cause, or what have you. That expectation often feels a bit white bread in nature. Don’t interrupt the status quo. Don’t shake the foundations. Don’t deride the sleeping village that does not want to be awoken.
And then along comes a delightful little dish like WEFLTM or THIALH, books that challenge the envelope of comfort-ability. Books that break down walls and cause discussion. Books that people rail against. When I get the extreme pleasure of reading such a book, I am immediately grateful for the courage of the author, the agent, the editors, the publisher… The author has decided to write the story that was in their heart. The rest of the chain decided to embrace, love, champion the story.
It shouldn’t be a brave thing to write on a subject matter, concept, or theme that speaks to you. A great story trumps all other considerations. If you have a story inside you, don’t check on outside influences for permissions or viability before telling it. Sure it’s a risk to tell the story your way. It may not be the story that the world is looking for at the moment, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell it. Maybe the world will fall in love with the story they didn’t know they wanted to read.
Sure, you risk telling a story that may never see the light of day in the publication world. Even then it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell it. Every time a writer sits down to tell a story they are taking a risk. Why take a risk on the latest trend? Why take a risk on an expectation? Listen to your heart. It may very well be a lonely hunter…but it is also who you are. It’s where you live, wherein you will discover your authenticity.
If you write for ‘the man‘ you run the risk of inauthentic voice, of grasping for the hot trend. Trailblazers like Raziel Reid and Carson McCullers are trailblazers not because they were selling something that wasn’t already there in all its neon glory in the real world. They are/were trailblazers because they don’t/didn’t give a damn about anything but telling the story that spoke to them. They stepped on lines, crossed borders, took risks with topics and subjects as an aside to storytelling…not in order to shock or dismay or discomfort the bookburning crowd.
I think of what could have happened with WEFLTM, if someone didn’t take a chance on its perceived vulgarity, and I cringe. Some rallied against it, saying it was NOT Young Adult (personally, I challenge their understanding of the young adult market…and of young adults in general). I mean, it was the most authentic YOUNG ADULT voice I think I ever read. When it was nominated for CANADA READS and the GOVERNOR GENERAL’S AWARD…that’s all the validation the author, agent, publisher needed. They all took risks with that book and all the risks paid off. Why? Not because it crossed the line, not because it shocked, not because it was obscene (as some would have you believe), but because it was a damn fine story! One of the best young adult novels I have ever read.
What happened after the GG nomination was just noise. Ignorant people being affronted is as age-old as Puritanicalism itself. I, for one, am ecstatic that Raziel Reid walked the walk. They had a story to tell and they told it. It was the heart of a writer who wrote that story, not expectation. Expectation might have wanted a story like WEFLTM…but I’m betting dollars to donuts that that just is not the case. Expectation doesn’t like to take chances. Sure, it loves high concept and something new…but edgy and raw? Probably not so much. But sometimes it’s the books that come out of nowhere that impact the reader the most. There was a big gaping hole in the young adult market that was just screaming to be filled by When Everything Feels Like the Movies. I’m thrilled that Reid wrote the story they imagined in their heart, come what may. Reid knew its validity as a YA story…just as the publisher understood the same. Is that courageous? Maybe…more like authenticity firing on all synapses, if you ask me. They all just knew.
In short, I guess what I am trying to say, is to be a fearless writer. Don’t consider your subject matter above your story. Don’t not write something because you’re afraid to tackle a hot-button issue. Don’t look for the trend and then write to it (if you know anything about trends and publishing, you already know that the trend in the marketplace is a year or two or three away from the trend at the agent/publisher level…so it’s virtually impossible to strike out at the beginning of a trend unless you already wrote the book and arrived on the first wave of the trend).
Take a look at the synopsis of WEFLTM:
School is just like a film set: there’s The Crew, who make things happen, The Extras who fill the empty desks, and The Movie Stars, whom everyone wants tagged in their Facebook photos. But Jude doesn’t fit in. He’s not part of The Crew because he isn’t about to do anything unless it’s court-appointed; he’s not an Extra because nothing about him is anonymous; and he’s not a Movie Star because even though everyone know his name like an A-lister, he isn’t invited to the cool parties. As the director calls action, Jude is the flamer that lights the set on fire.
Before everything turns to ashes from the resulting inferno, Jude drags his best friend Angela off the casting couch and into enough melodrama to incite the paparazzi, all while trying to fend off the haters and win the heart of his favourite co-star Luke Morris. It’s a total train wreck!
But train wrecks always make the front page.
TRAIN WRECKS ALWAYS MAKE THE FRONT PAGE. But stories told exquisitely are not always about shock-value, even though they may shock. Sometimes, they just catch a thing in its spotlight at just the right moment. Do you have a story you’re afraid/nervous to tell? You’ll never know if it’s good enough, if you don’t write it. Courage in writing is just a matter of following your heart…and ignoring the expectations of others. It’s your story. Don’t let others tell you it won’t fly before you even get it out. You never know unless you try.
From my review of WEFLTM:
When Everything Feels Like the Movies is essentially the story of a teen who is larger than the small town that could never truly contain them. What sets it aside from other stories about breaking out of the small and into the limelight is that the character who is struggling to be contained is trans. Jude (Judy) deals with bigotry at every turn…including at home. But she is still able to dream big and have such lofty glamorous goals for herself. Her almost vulgar egoism and arrogance is a delight. Where it should turn a reader off, it endears her to them. We see the raw vulnerability in her swaggering confidence and self-love. True sarcasm comes not from pride, but from the shaky ego that wants to emulate pride. Jude is such a flawlessly written flawed character. He will remain one of my favourite characters for a long time to come.
Read the full review of WEFLTM HERE at Try This Book On For Size