Millennial Gothic at Button Eye Review

My piece, “Millennial Gothic,” a short gothic take on millennial ennui, is now available to read at the Button Eye Review!

Check it out and find out what’s scarier to you – a vengeful ghost or getting an affordable rental property in Vancouver’s current real estate market.

art by Julia Kadel

The Palm Reader at Tatterhood Review

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Art by Manik Roy

I’m happy to announce that “The Palm Reader,” a gentle, soft fantasy story of mine, has been published over at the Tatterhood Review!

Despite her very real abilities, the titular palm reader finds it difficult to connect with people until a strange man shows up with an odd request.



The Mysterious Man in Black murder mystery now available!

Like many other things in the COVID era, my follow-up murder mystery arrived after a little delay and play-testing via Skype! But I’m proud to say it’s finally here!

It’s the Fourth of July, 1957! In Freewell, Nevada, however, folks aren’t too keen to celebrate, not with a recent disappearance and rumors of aliens!

The Mysterious Man in Black is a classic murder mystery party game set in a retro, conspiracy-laden small town, great for beginners, seasoned mystery lovers, and role-playing game fans alike! 

Designed for eight players, this party game takes approximately 3 hours. It can be played in a virtual space or in person. 

Find it for free on Itch.io or Gum Road!

Black Budgie Zine Distro – Launching at Etsy

As some may recall, from those wistful years of 2009 to 2013, I ran an online zine distro, Black Budgie Distro, selling indie projects from around the world.

I think I had more people asking me to sell their zine than I had sales, but that’s something, isn’t it? As I’ve turned back to zines a bit more in the past year, I’ve decided to resurrect Black Budgie, at least in so much as I’ll sell my own work (and maybe anyone else local, should the opportunity arise!)

And I’ve traded Blogspot for Etsy and, well, I guess we shall see how this all plays out!

Check out Black Budgie Distro over at Etsy!

Music was, indeed, Faced: finally reflecting the return of Bill & Ted

My dad was never one to let go of something he believed was a “superior technology.” This means that now, in the year 2020, Dad is still the proud owner of a fully functioning Betamax player. Our family home only ever saw a VHS player once the last video rental store in the area to carry Betamax finally gave up this Ghost of Slightly Smaller Cassettes.

I still have a vague memory of the place, with its musty carpet, nearby All-You-Can-Eat Chinese Buffet, and rack of week-long rentals that included my favourite movie of all time (pun intended): Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

We’d journey here weekly and my dad would always tell my sister and I we could pick out one week-long rental. For a months-long stretch, we rented Bill and Ted over and over and over again. Even the jokes that went right over my head I committed to memory. (Freud’s corndog, for instance, I didn’t even notice until someone pointed it out for me at the ripe old age of twenty-six.) I still say, “Strange things must be afoot,” every time I pass a Circle K. I even stole this t-shirt off an ex-boyfriend before giving it back out of guilt:

What can I say? Wyld Stallyns pairs nicely with weird hats and peanut butter.

Needless to say, years have passed and every time I’ve revisited Excellent Adventure, I enjoy it just as much as I did when I was a kid. (Bogus Journey I just never loved as much, so matter how much I wanted to. I’m sorry!) With the exception of a certain slur*, the film holds up remarkably well. The upright joy and utter sincerity of Bill and Ted were always refreshing, no matter how bitter and cynical either myself or the world seemed to be.

Now, my bitter and cynical days are behind me, tossed on the heap of exhaustion caused by rampant hipsterism. I was just done with irony, tbh. A lot of people were sick of snarky, mean-spirited humour and crass “hot-takes” just intended to provoke. It comes from a position of such privilege and entitlement – the cultural equivalent of a relative who vocalizes his observation regarding the sheer size of your thighs and then claims it was a joke… like he’s the Seinfeld of school yard bullies. It’s exhausting. Really. There’s a point where you’re just… done.

So when the announcement came that the third Bill and Ted movie was on its way at long last, I was not alone in my excitement. But then *gestures to the dumpster fire* happened and… a new Bill and Ted became more than a want; it was a need.

Husband and I certainly did not go see it in a theatre. We aren’t crazy people, and, to be honest, I’m not even sure theatres are open in B.C. But we were certainly willing to fork out whatever they demanded in a rental fee. Thirty years I’d waited for this! I have no idea how much my dad paid to that little video rental place over the weeks that time, but I doubt my $20 eclipsed him.

We had the streaming rental of Bill and Ted Face the Music for 48 hours.

We watched it three times.

Yes, Husband watched it with me all three times and that’s how I know it’s true love, baby.

As I started it for the third time, I wondered if this was a silly thing to waste my weekend on, but, well, these are silly times. I’m thirty-six years old and god damn it, I needed to feel like a six-year-old again, just for a few hours.

But the thing is… I didn’t feel like a six-year-old. At least not just. Because the film wasn’t just silly.

*SPOILERS AHOY*

As much as I loved seeing Bill and Ted hop into the future to meet the various incarnations of their future selves, my favourite part of the Face the Music was their daughters, Billie and Thea. How perfect Brigitte Lundy-Paine and Samara Weaving were aside, after the second and third viewings, I really came to appreciate the thematic nuances of their storyline.

On my first viewing, I wasn’t surprised with the twist that Billie and Ted’s daughters were the ones who wrote the song that saved the world (not to brag, but I, like totally called it after the trailer, when Holland Taylor’s character mentions the song being by “Preston/Logan,” but anyway… yeah *self-satisfied shrug*), but I was surprised at how moved I was by the ending.

Not gonna lie, I definitely teared up at the fact that it didn’t actually matter what the song was, it was the fact that everyone was playing together that saved the world. Christ, I’m tearing up again just thinking about it. In those more bitter and cynical days this would have been written off as cheesy, but fuck those days; it was beautiful.

And then…

AND THEN. The closing credits.

The inset clips of people rocking out in their living rooms, yards, parks or wherever while the various world monuments popped back into place… well. I doubt there’s ever going to be a time (at least in the foreseeable future) when various Zoom-like shots of people in their different homes, all over the world, isn’t going to make me emotional. I’ll be a little old lady in the year 2075 when some awards-show bait uses this convention and I’ll be a blubbering mess while my grand-niblings wonder what the hell is wrong with me.

So after the first viewing, the theme was clear: we’re better together. Music is a universal language and our commonalities will unite us.

And yes, these endings and this theme got me again the second and third viewings, but those second and third viewings, I was able to appreciate the nuance of Billie and Thea’s storyline and how it hinted at a deeper, more mature theme. As they travel throughout time to put together a most excellent bad for their dads, what I loved most is how what convinces the different musicians to join is not an explanation of the situation, but the other musicians playing for them.

Louis Armstrong is convinced by a video of Jimi Hendrix playing guitar, while Armstrong in turn plays his trumpet to convince Hendrix. Hendrix then lures in Mozart by playing his guitar along to Mozart’s piano. Mozart then picks up Ling Lun’s flute and plays it to get her on board, and so on. By Bill and Ted also conceding that their daughters are the ones to write the song underscores another theme (or perhaps just adds another facet to the first).

There’s no such thing as a solitary hero. We’re all on the shoulders of giants, so to speak. We are all part of a continuum, a piece in the larger puzzle. Even a rock hero like Jimi Hendrix was beholden to those before him like Louis Armstrong or Mozart. Even a genius like Mozart had Ling Lun before him. Even Ling Lun – the mythical inventor of music – had someone before her.

The idea that enthralled me as a kid – the idea that anyone, even dudes like Bill and Ted, could be a singular hero that save the world – seems childish now. Because it is childish. It takes the egotistical naivete of a child to think that a single person alone can save the world, to think that there could somehow be a single song so perfect and wonderful that it could save humanity.

This is where Face the Music has evolved and matured from the earlier offerings. While recognizing, as the films always have, that the initial premise – Wyld Stallyns music saves the world – is silly, now they have to reckon with that reality (or, face the music, I suppose). This is where they turn a bit of a storytelling conundrum into a opportunity. There’s a truth underlying this all: Bill and Ted can’t save the world. Not alone. No one can. If we’re going to be grown-ups about this, we need to recognize we’re just a part of a larger whole. No one is going to save us; we have to do this ourselves. We’re not heroes, but we can be heroic.

So many people have said that this was the movie we needed right now, and they’re right. But really, we’ve needed it for a long time.


* I will not repeat it here, but if you know the film you know what I’m talking about and I just wanted to point out that even as a kid, that line never worked for me. Hell, I didn’t even know what it meant beyond my mom’s explanation of “it’s not a nice word.” In the context, however, it didn’t work for me because it seemed to suggest that Bill and Ted were embarrassed by showing affection towards each other, which just struck me as out of character. These two bundles of love who obvious deeply care about each other are red-faced at accidentally letting the other know how much they care? Ridiculous.

Read Trev’s Books (not all of them) at Issuu

Once I shared this with my mother (and the art world), it was safe to share with the world! You can find my latest zine – Trev’s Books: Unpacking My Grandfather’s Library at Issuu.)

Without repeating the zine itself verbatim, this zine is an extremely personal one for me. When my grandfather passed away in January, I inherited his (extensive) book collection, as I was the only other one in the family who could describe themself as a “book person.”

Books were the only thing Grandpa and I had in common so of course unpacking his library was how I worked through a complicated grieving process (if you ever actually work through a thing like that). And, of course, I made a zine about it!

A Breach at Stronghold – now on Gumroad

screen-shot-2020-06-05-at-11.15.34-1A Breach at Stronghold, the murder mystery party game I debuted amongst the privileged elite* back in February is now finally formatted and available for sale and download on Gumroad! This thing was a precious labour of love and an amazing challenge. How do you write a compelling murder mystery, break it into nine, satisfying pieces, and do that all so everyone comes away feeling like you didn’t undermine the character they’ve taken to heart?  The Gumroad download provides PDFs that print easily (if you need to print at all) on 8 1/2 x 11, but I’ve also included a Print variation for tactile beings like myself who love things like long-reach staplers for making booklets and staining paper with tea to fashion cryptic clues. (You can never really get the zinester fully into the digital age.)
*Nine of my most excellent friends who are always up for dinner theatre, gaming, overall shenanigans, or all of the above.

Inspire Courage Crafts

Even in my leisure activities tilt towards geekery. Not content to just crochet granny squares, I started a collection of dice bags for all your favourite polyhedral friends. Not to be outdone, each bag has a character.

Follow me over to Inspire Courage Crafts if your interest is sufficiently piqued.

Museum of the Western World & Trev’s Books with BIBLIOCACHE

As a certain big-eyed ingenue once said, life moves pretty fast sometimes.

We’ve barely got Museum of the Western World printed and it’s already out in the world! So is Trev’s Books! (I’ve also sent them my old classic What I Did on a Saturday Afternoon!)

I was invited by Aaron Moran to contribute new zines to Poor Quality’s BIBLIOCACHE exhibit at the Vancouver Book Art Fair at Emily Carr University. The exhibit runs this weekend from October 18-20, 2019!

Be sure to check it out!

Read Museum of the Western World at Issuu!

Not only have Amy and I put the finishing touches on Museum of the Western World, but the final beast can be perused and pillaged over at issuu!

Museum of the Western World

Behold our works, Ye Mighty!

Museum of the Western World

This summer, Husband and took a jaunty road trip over to Vancouver Island and reveled in the warm vibe of hippies with rose-coloured glasses. Victoria, especially, with its parliament buildings, horse-drawn carriages, and organic foods evokes a weird blend of several bygone eras.

Twice a graduate of UVIC, to Husband, a trip to Victoria always feels like coming home. Even though I’ve only ever visited there myself, I can’t deny it feels the same for me. I think I just recognize that uncomfortable colonial British legacy jarring against a counter-culture optimism. There’s a layer of me painted all over that city.

The last time we were in Victoria was shortly after our wedding for Husband’s thirtieth birthday. Like that visit, this time we went back to UVIC, for Husband to retread the old stomping grounds. What is it with feeling the need to go back to places where we spent such crucial parts of our lives? If they’ve changed, we feel somehow betrayed; but if they’re exactly the same, we’re starkly reminded of how much we’ve changed.

But we went regardless and it was fine. We learned there’s perhaps nothing so steadfast as university campus culture. It’s locked forever in a perpetual 1993.

As a nice contrast to the easy-going university sprawl, we also went to the Royal BC Museum. Now, both of us are definitely museum people… and both of us have been here before. Many times. But it’s been long enough that everything is cast in a slightly different hue. That colonial legacy is less quaint and a bit more… what’s the word…? Enraging.

Husband pointed out that several of the plaques explaining an artifact were prefaced with some sort of phrase that amounts to “We have no idea what this is but…” and then a second phrase that sounds like it was completed by a first-year anthropology student’s Mad Lib. “… it was probably used for some sort of ritual,” is the most common.

For the rest of the trip, I started turning this over in my head. It felt like there was something there… something I could do to make fun of that fact without being disrespectful to the people whose culture these assumptions were made about.

So, like any someone badly in need of an outlet who is inherently dissatisfied with Twitter, I decided to make a zine. I reached out to my cousin, Amy Rajala, who is a pretty talented photographer (with a new roll of black and white film to burn). She photographed some pretty amazing objects around her house and I’m putting text to them.

I’m excited to see where this goes!

Rifling through your Wordhoard

the comparative value of write-ins

Last month, I had the opportunity to participate in a “write-in” as part of the New West Festival of Words 2018. Having never taken part in a write-in before, I admit I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would it just be three hours of writing time? Would it just journalling?

As it turns out, it was an elaborate challenge to my writing process. 

As I got there early, I watched the other nine arrive. I waited with my backpack at my feet, wanting to gauge the crowd before I reacted. Would this be a group of young, laptop wielding sycophants or a group of aging hippies here to talk about their memoirs? Or something a little in-between? Or all of the above?

I watched everyone arrive and warily unload their writing tools. Of the first few to arrive, there were several notebooks, of various types, one laptop, and one iPad. I sighed with relief and withdrew my notebook and two pens. (I always have two pens. It’s anxiety thing. What if one runs out? I can barely handle it if someone asks to borrow one of them.)

As another person joined, he sat down and pulled from his bag a notebook then a pen. Then another pen. Then a pencil. Then an eraser. Then another notebook, this one smaller. Then yet another notebook, this one unruled. And then a whole pencil case.

The woman beside him stared, agog. “Wow,” she either said or I imagined she said. He was unapologetic and just shrugged. “I don’t know what to expect, so I don’t know what I need.”

This was something of a relief to me, because I too am a many-notebooked individual. Emboldened, I immediately pulled out my pencil case, my other notebook, and my pad of lined paper. Different notebooks for different things.

With the ice now broken, we all started chatting and quickly realized that none of us really knew what to expect. So we ventured forth with open minds. And I believe we each got something different out of it. Some of us, perhaps, more than others.

The facilitator guided us through a series of exercises, beginning with brainstorming words to loosen our “wordhoard,” as she called it, quoting Beowulf.  From there, we moved through a series of exercises, from writing one or two lines describing different mothers we knew through to selecting a postcard from a stack and filling out the back, from one fictional person to the next.

Some exercises were more valuable to me than others and I imagine if you had each of us ten participants pick our most and least favourite one, you’d have ten different answers. I’m sure, as well, that many others found this whole session extremely valuable, while others found it hardly worth their Saturday morning.

I guess it all depends on how you work as a writer. Some, who had barely given writing a thought before this, might have been a little confused. Others who had been working their way through a first draft of a single project for seemingly years might have found it priceless. Who’s to say?

For me, who seems to take for granted how easy it is to bash out a first draft, it was a fun exercise, but not much more than that. I met some amazing people–possibly the beginnings of a new writing circle–and got to flex a few rarely flexed muscles.

But there remained something about the process that sat poorly with me and it took me a long time afterwards to really figure out what. I had to pour over my memory of the day and pick out exactly what it was that caught me up.

But I did figure it out. Despite the diversity of different prompts and exercises, they all boiled down to this same structure. The facilitator gave us a prompt. We wrote. We reconvened. Read what we just wrote aloud. Gave each other feedback.

This was beyond nerve-wracking to me. It felt wrong. It  doesn’t match my process in the slightest. A first draft, to me, is figuring out what it is I want to write. Then I go over it, cut it down, rearrange it, smooth over the language and style. I do this a lot before it is even close to something I want someone else to read.

I am certain the structure the facilitator used works for some; it does not work for me. The idea of making each word perfect enough to share with the class (so to speak) right off the bat is the type of mindset that leads to writer’s block. It is far too much pressure and the easiest way for the mind to deal with that is to simply not write.

This is what writer’s block really is: It’s not that the words won’t come; it’s that you’re afraid that those words won’t be good.

And of course that is perfectly understandable when you feel like your first draft is the one you have to share. It’s not a mindset so much as it’s a mental vice.

Thinking this way is something I have worked very, very hard to get away from. It took years for me to let go of the idea that every word I wrote was fair game for an imaginary critic. I had to retrain my brain to accept not only the idea that “first drafts don’t have to be perfect” but also that “first drafts can be utter garbage.”

This is was one of the most important things I ever learned as a writer.

It is only when you let go of the need to be good that you can actually get the real work done.

I think of the people I have met in groups like this write-in. So many of them have spent so long writing their One Big Thing, and in all that time, they’ve just been working on the first draft. But I believe that you have to accept that no matter what you do or how long you spend on it, your first draft will be terrible.

The question is, what do you want to be terrible about it? Do you want it to be something you can easily fix or something huge that requires practically starting over?

Too many people focus on the style that they forget the substance.

So here’s the thing: the reader does not care about every little word.

The reader cares about believable characters, effective world-building, sensible plots, and appropriate pacing. These are the things you lose track of when you focus on making the first draft perfect enough to read to others.

Instead of thinking that the goal of your first draft is to have something you can share with people, think of it this way: The goal of the first draft is just to tell yourself the story. Only you will ever read this.

The goal of the the second, third, and sometimes even fourth drafts are to make sure you have believable characters, effective world-building, sensible plots, and appropriate pacing.

It’s only the final draft–the one you’ll put out there to readers–where every little word even comes close to mattering. Even then, it’s a wordhoard that no one will look too closely at. You’re off the hook.

So start just by telling yourself your story. No one else. Then see where that takes you.

a thought experiment for time travellers

Indulge me this: you’re a time traveller. It’s an ordinary day. The fate of the world is not in jeopardy. No damsels to save. No timelines to correct. To angst to stew over. Everything is perfectly fine. You can enjoy yourself.

So you go to a bar.

And who do you see in that bar, but yourself.

You don’t know if it’s past you or future you. But it is definitely you.

Oh no. You’ve made eye contact.

What do you do?

Do you talk to yourself? Do you run screaming?

What do you do?

Reworking a Draft

when do you just have to let it go?

Everyone knows nothing’s perfect after the first draft.

But how many drafts are you supposed to write? Where is that fine line between honing a work and polishing a turd? When do you accept something as a failure–nay, a learning experience?

I think the answer is when it is holding you back.

Perhaps you’re too focused on that one piece that you’re neglecting to think of others. What you imagined was your opus is now your albatross. Something a colleague once said to me in the editing room, “You just have to let it go, man.”

Let it go.*

Sounds easy, sure. But, wow. It’s not.

It’s a little like getting over a break up. You need time and distance. And, if you decide to get back together again with that opus of yours, start from scratch. Don’t pick up where you left off. Date it for a while before moving in.

Read More »

Finding a Path through the RPG jungle.

I’ve finally done it. I’ve taken the RPG plunge.

In a way, it feels as if this has always been inevitable. I’ve been curious about playing D&D for a long time now; it’s been like this glowing ball of light off in the distance that I’ve only been able to catch glimpses of here and there. It started with scorn, then apathy, then curiosity, then interest, then regret – why had I waited so long?

Friends of mine played D&D in university and I used to tease them about the way a conversation would suddenly become peppered with anecdotes like, “Remember that time you were unconscious for three days and we had to carry you over the mountain into the next village? The tavern wenches were really worried about you.”

I know I was interested then, but it was easier to tease rather than engage. I was never invited to play with them; maybe they would have if I had been more sincerely interested. But the reality was, they were all guys and I was a girl. D&D was a guy thing.

It didn’t have to be expressed so explicitly (few things did*), but I knew implicitly, that this was for them. Not me.

D&D became one of those things that I thus just accepted would never be in my life. It lay behind one of those doors that simple closed as I aged. I’d closed the door and carried down the corridor. The hallway of life moves in one direction.

Or does it?

Before Christmas, Jason reached out. Him and Joe wanted to get a Pathfinder game and would Husband and I be interested in joining.

I did not need to be asked twice.

I approached Husband and framed it nicely, thinking, “If he’s not into it, I’m still playing. IDGAF.”

But, as it turns out, he’s always been interested too and just never had anyone to break that RPG seal with.

So here we are. The first session gone.

I went into our Session 0 all excited about the rogue I was going to play. Or maybe a sorcerer.

Jason and Joe, who were there every step of QLP, both blinked at me. “Uh,” said Jason, “We totally assumed you were going to be a bard.”

Well fuck.

Yes, I am now a bard. A half-elf bard named Petra Vannara who I already love with all my freaking heart.

Alas, it was always meant to be this way.


*It never needs to be stated, you just know. That’s something for the boys. If you ever try to test the unspoken rule, that rule gets spoken. And pretty damned loudly.

Also in university, this same group of guys who played D&D used to go camping a lot. They were all my friends and I had fun hanging out with them; the way they talked about their camping trips was legendary. I asked them once if I could come with them and one of them – Jon – replied, quite abruptly (as was his way): “CAMPING IS GUYS ONLY.”

When I protested, I got the usual excuse: “If we let you come, we’d have to let all the girls come.”

Apparently, one of the guys has a girlfriend who made camping a miserable experience for everyone and they really didn’t want her to come along.

international clash day

= the best playlist ever + a glass of whatever alcohol i had on hand + an unquenchable thirst for social justice

cLASH.jpg

 

Flash Fiction Discussion Thread

Apologies for the cross-post, but I know there are a lot of writers who follow me here!

Over at my other site, I’m starting a discussion thread on flash fiction, that seemingly ubiquitous beast of  the modern age.

Flash fiction has been a weird thing for me to wrap my head around lately, and I really want to hear from more writers about their thoughts. So please, hop over there to share your thoughts!

 

A Happy New Year with Every Day Fiction!

My flash fiction piece “Nineties Kid” appears today at Every Day Fiction.

Happy New Year everyone and it’s an honour to be the last story of 2017, despite how dreadful this year has been. Raise a glass to 2018; live long, prosper… all of that!

This blog has spawned and spread out!

This blog has packed up and moved spawned and spread out!

Find me now at ashleighrajala.com, especially if you’re into writing tips and advice and progress reports. Please find me there and follow!

It’s something of a departure for me to leave behind this mess of irreverence in place of something clean and professional, but alas. (Picture me straightening my half-Windsor as I say that.)

I might still pop in occasionally, as circumstances permit, but, in truth, a lot of this was predicated on the fact that I haven’t really had all that much to blog about besides writing, so I thought making a proper writing blog made the most sense.

I used to blog a lot about family and work and travel, but now my family is kinda off-limits as they’ve sprouted a new generation; my work is much larger than me and difficult to speak about in a humourous / critical way; and we just haven’t been travelling as much because… well, mortgages and stuff. There is so little free time that most of my writing energy goes to actual, honest-to-god writing.

I guess this is what your thirties look like. I do have pictures to post of a Disneyland trip with the whole gang, so that might be fun. That was back in August so I might be able to mine a few posts from that nonsense.

It’s rather sad to leave behind a blog with 2000+ followers and realize that the new one currently has 2. Help me please. Once again: ashleighrajala.com

Breaking Down the Writer’s Block

What do you do when your usual writing techniques and traditions stop working?

First: get rid of the idea that you need the Muse. The Muse is like that friend who always replies that they’re coming to your event and *maybe* shows up at one of them, late and already a little buzzed. If we waited for the Muse every time we sat down to write, nothing would get done.

Second: remind yourself that your process is invisible to the reader. Your reader will engage with a beautiful, clean, finished piece of work; they will not engage with your blood, sweat, tears, and agony. (Nor will they engage with your Muse, for that matter.)

I don’t say this to stress you out or to make you feel like all of this hard work is pointless. It’s not pointless. Quite the contrary: the hard work is the point. You know the saying, “It costs a lot to look this cheap?” Well, it takes a lot of effort to make your writing appear effortless. You are normal. What you are doing is normal. Every writer goes through this. If they say they don’t: they’re either lying or have repressed the memory of the pain, much like with childbirth.

Third: when you’re suffering from writer’s block, don’t think of it like this: “Woe! The Muse has abandoned me! Here I must lie, listless and resigned, until that sweet wonder doth return!” Instead, look at it like this: “Huh. My brain, which craves novelty and structure, has grown bored with this existing system. How can I get it active again?

The power was within you all along!

So, Fourth and Last: you need to trick your brain by changing up your routine. In its attempt to develop the new routine, your brain will shift to learning mode. Learning mode is good! Learning mode means your brain is looking for ways to connect all this new information to old information and make sense of it all. Learning mode means your brain is thinking creatively, which is exactly what you want!

What are some ways to change up your routine? Here are a few examples of things that have worked well for me in the past:

  • Do you normally write on the computer? Try picking up a pen and notebook.
  • Write at home? Try going to a coffee shop or your local library !
  • Still doesn’t work? Try changing the font on your word processor. Hell, even put the thing into columns and pretend you’re writing for a newspaper.
  • Do you normally set aside two hours in the evening to write? Try write in small chunks instead. Give yourself twenty minutes in the morning or on your lunchbreak. Twenty minutes – no more.
  • Do you typically hunker down on one project at a time? Try shifting between two or three or four. Spend five minutes on one project, then close it. Open the next, and type away for five more minutes. Repeat.

In short, think of what you usually do and do the opposite. Because what you usually do isn’t working anymore. Just keep your brain engaged and guessing. There’s a science behind this art. Get creative with your process so you can get creative with your work.

Because, remember, it is a work of art, after all.

the tyranny of fall

leaves-fall-colors-rainbow
Look at this. It’s sickening. 

stairs-1797623_960_720
Totally gauche.

Autumn_leaves_01
I just…. NO. No. No. NO.

boy-sitting-in-park-in-autumn
How dare you, sir?

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Give me a break. That shit is rustic af.

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It’s decorative gourd season once more, motherfuckers.

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Ooooh…… SHIT.

Interview with Polygon for ‘Archie out of Context’

Yes, oh, yes. We all have “side hustles.” There’s a strange implication in that phrase that distinguishes it from “hobby.” And Archie Out of Context is a tad too strange to pass for a hobby. It’s a bit more of an afterthought, really. Certainly not someone I put any work into. But alas. Only seems fitting that it should be so wildly popular.

Read the interview here.

i am not a diy expert – or even amateur – but that hasn’t stopped me yet

Consider this an appendices to the milestone 2.

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A shoddily photographed “before.”

Our kitchen was boring. At least after we stripped the children’s wallpaper and metallic faux-tile adhesive back-splash. I mean, that was a tad more exciting, but still… the interior design equivalent of a six-year-old’s sticker collection.

For the better part of the last year, we’ve been starting at blank plain cupboards, desperate to do something about it. What is your home supposed to be but a reflection of yourself, if you so wish? I’m so sick of the idea of keeping everything in this chrysalis of beige just in case you decide to sell soon.

So, on Sunday, I thought, “Fuck it,” and dug out what paint I had and went to work.

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A shoddily photographed “after.”

I still have blue paint under my nails and our kitchen now looks like the interior design equivalent of a scrapbook mom’s sticker collection, but that’s something of an improvement over a six-year-old’s.

Or so I can tell myself.

the shapes of stories

I noticed this post was sitting in my drafts folder with nothing more than a heading. It’s been sitting there nearly a year. Who knows what the hell I was thinking when I came up with that title.

If the past is a foreign country, one’s past self is a stranger. Or least someone you went to school with a long time ago and now no longer have anything in common with except for a lingering adolescent love of first gen punk rock.

I digress.

What was that post supposed to be about? The shapes of stories? What can that mean?

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It was Vonnegut. Of course. How could I forget.

Borrowing from this general idea, if mapped in two dimensions, there are five story shapes:

  • Up to Down – Tragedy
  • Up to Down to Up Again – Comedy
  • Down to Up – Boring Biopic
  • Down to Up to Down Again – Oscar-Award Winning Biopic
  • Flatline – Vonnegut says Hamlet, but I think a lot of us can generally agree that shit is pretty fucking tragic.

Why did I think this was worth blogging about a year ago? I can’t remember.

Why do I think it’s worth blogging about now?

So I can make a stupid joke at the expense of biopics. That’s about it.

milestone 2: home ownership

This is part two of my re-capping of the last year or so.

2016 was all-around a year of horrors. It is known. Somewhere in the middle of it, Husband and I found out that the apartment we were renting in New Westminster was being sold. This was the second time that had happened to us in less than two years.

This is hardly the worst story anyone who is a renter in the Greater Vancouver area had, but it’s probably about par for the course. In a nutshell, the housing situation in Vancouver has always been terrible for everyone for anyone below upper middle class.*

But in the last few years, housing prices have been swooping upwards at an alarming rate, just like those line graphs of how fucked we are by climate change. And, inversely, rental vacancies have plummeted, just like those line graphs of how likely we are to survive climate change.

Husband and I had been diligently saving for our down-payment for a few years now and, while this was a little ahead of our planned schedule, we thought that rather than just rent another place only to get reno-evicted in a few months, we might as well look to buy.

Our plan had been to first buy a condo in New West, similar to what we’d been renting. We love New West and it really feels like home. We like the small-scale urban feel, as well as the sense of community we have from all our familiar haunts.

The plan was to eventually upgrade to a townhouse somewhere in several years, maybe five. You know, when we were ready to hit the suburbs. But with the way prices were going, we realized that if we didn’t buy a townhouse now, we were likely never going to be able to afford one.

So we started looking at townhouses in Surrey, south of the river and another ‘sphere of influence’ removed from Vancouver. Thus goes the pattern of suburban drift. The four years we spent in New West, we watched it gentrify. We were even at the forefront of that. We are not blameless. It just feels like it all happened overnight.

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Cat shown for scale.

Trying to buy anything was a nightmare. Each place would go on the market, have one open house, and then start taking offers even as early as that night. And forget the listing price. So many offers were coming in, you needed to go sometimes as high as $60,000 or $70,000 higher than listing on your initial offer. There was no negotiating. No saying maybe we should get an inspection first? 

For us, with our typical mortgage and financing, we were competing against cash offers. Mostly boomers who just sold their detached house for over a million (God knows how little they paid for it in the 1980s or 1990s.) and were now looking to downsize. It was a shitty time to be a first-time home-buyer.

But, hey: we are the lucky ones. 

I know this. I keep telling myself this. We are insanely lucky. But so it goes: you always look up but never down. You see those even luckier people who bought a few years ago or who have their parents bankrolling them but never those who will likely be renting the rest of their lives or who will be waiting for a government sea change in order to even have a roof over their heads.

The place we ended up snagging is a bit out of the way and a bit of a fixer-upper. But it’s ours. So now it’s time to learn some DIY.


*If you live in the Greater Vancouver area and have had nothing but blue skies in your housing situation (and if you have actually *gasp* MADE money in the last little housing bubble), then fuck you. I don’t wanna hear it. The rest of us are livid.

milestone 1: blood of my blood

Since I’ve been out for a while, I thought I’d recap a few things that have happened in this last year or so of radio silence.

This is the biggest one.*

I have another nephew! He is my third nephew, the second one named Benjamin, and the first borne by my only sister.

He is an adorable mound of cuddliness. His likes include almost all foods, his doting grandparents, and the family dog.

His dislikes include the Art Knapp train and taking long walks on the beach. This last one I’m assuming. He’s new to this strutting thing and is thus a little wobbly. He can barely handle carpet. I’m sure sand would be right out.

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Sorry, Art Knapp. He just wasn’t that into it. The rest of us bad a blast though.

Anyway, I love all my nephews to bits and if anyone in this world was marked for “Kooky Aunt” status, then hoo boy was it ever me.


*If I don’t say that, somehow it will scar him for life. Don’t ask me how, but the poor kiddo’s got a lot of future grief coming his way from the direction of Auntie Ashleigh. I’m going to throw him this bone.

waking from my writing coma

So I’ve just finished a draft (final?) of something and the feeling is always like finally arriving at your hotel after an incredibly long, grueling, farcical series of misadventures.

It’s over. It’s done. You’re not dreaming.

There’s a tired, weighted sigh of relief… the feeling that holy-shit-I-really-need-a-drink

But what to do now?! (Besides opening the mini-bar, obvs.) The possibilities are overwhelming in their lack of limitations.

And hence: hours of vacant (drunken) staring. Then the abyss stares  back.

It’s kinda like time travel. Or like waking up from a coma.

You try to get in touch with people who have likely forgot you existed. (Hi, guys!)

Maybe, just maybe, you start blogging again.

 

my three dads

There is a line in a movie that I am not ashamed to admit I have seen way too many times* which goes:

“Typical isn’t it? You wait twenty years for a dad and then three come along at once.”

I feel a little like this right now. I’ve had several months of plugging away at a project with all the diligence of an AP English student (which is to say, very little diligence, but we fake it well), and now everything has kind of exploded in my face.

I titled this post ‘my three dads’ because there were three things that immediately jumped to mind, but then I’ve remembered a few more. It’s more like my three dads, plus a couple step-dads, and then that one creepy uncle.

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So, of the original three, I’ve got the three huge projects I’ve been working on /  brainstorming. I’ve basically been in genre fiction mode for quite a while now, which seems to put to bed (without supper!) my whole would-I-rather-write-genre-or-literary-fiction?

There are three novel-length things I’ve been picking through currently, and these are the aforementioned three dads. But let’s just be clear, there is nothing paternalistic about this other a fervent desire to make them proud of me.

By this weird token, I have another first draft of a complete novel waiting for a second draft. Which is to say, a re-write. Call it a step-dad. It lives in my house, but we have a stilted, awkward relationship. Perhaps we can make it work.

(I am also ignored the one complete literary novel, which I have basically chosen to abandon.)

I guess this brings me to the other step-dad and the creepy uncle. Perhaps creepy uncle is too harsh, but what else do you really call a podcast?

Yes. Podcast. And not just one!

Tomorrow, I’ll be recording with several friends, the topic of which shall remain a mystery, while sometime in March, I will join a Riverdale podcast for one episode to espouse my expertise on Archie Out of Context. By expertise, I mean, I have the blog. That’s it. All the expertise.

But nevertheless, I am excited. After months of slow drudgery and toil, everything happens all at once.

It’s given me a nice push so let’s wait and see about the follow-through….


*Mamma Mia! I was raised on ABBA and I have no shame. But, come on, what other films have such a plot that could in any way engender a line such as the one quoted above? Maybe that long-forgotten Michael Keaton classic Multiplicity if you somehow combined it with that other long-forgotten Michael Keaton classic Mr. Mom? Oh that we lived in such a world.

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This always happens. I get 2/3 of the way done my final draft and I decide to start outlining a whole frigging series.

pacific northwest wanderings

 

It was a weekend without much in the way of photo documentation. That tends to happen when you’ve planned a long weekend south of the border following the election of a technicolor nightmare. These are all the Instagram hits.

We stopped briefly in Olympia on the way down to Portland. The briefness of that stop was somewhat diminished by the protests in the streets that blocked us from getting back to the car. (Happy to wait.)

Riots in downtown Portland kept us out of the downtown after dark. We humble Canadians don’t want any trouble, you hear? We had a motel north of the City and across the street from a retro tiki bar and an Izakaya, so that kept us fed and watered for Friday and Saturday. Besides that, all we really came for was, let’s face it, Powell’s. My friends, our library grew three sizes that day.

Sunday Funday was back in Seattle, wandering the usual haunts: Pike Place, Space Needle, traffic on the I-5. Brief, beautiful, and something of a farewell tour, it seems….

accepting my slytherinness

I didn’t join Pottermore for the longest time. My relationship with Harry Potter was intense, but troubled. It oscillated between shameless joy and celebration to cheek-biting scrutiny and critique.

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In one past life, I’d enthusiastically dressed up in costume and painted signs, windows, and children’s faces for the midnight releases at the bookstore. In another, I’d spent two semesters engrossed in academic study as I wrote a dissertation critiquing Rowling’s implicit versus explicit ideologies. (Seems pointless now. Ten years later and Tumblr has my thesis covered.)

Anyway, I finally joined Pottermore and had myself sorted. This seemed a needless formality. I was Ravenclaw. I knew it. I had always known it. I was a Ravenclaw, just like I was a Donatello and a Miranda and a George Harrison. There was no reason to doubt it.

In fact, since childhood, a very significant portion of my self-identification stemmed from this very assumption.

But no.

Lo, I am a Slytherin.

I stared at the screen in shock for several moments and then I told Husband, dismayed.

He replied: “J.K. Rowling wrote that, right? That means it’s canon. That’s, like, the definition of canon.”

I texted Dr. Roommate. If anyone had insight, it was a medical doctor / my former roommate. Her text back read: “That makes sense.”

What. What, what, WHAT.

How the hell did that make sense?

But the longer I thought about it, layers and layers of self-perception began to peel away. I began to look at not what I did, but why I did.

What had made me think I was Ravenclaw to begin with? Well, I was a bit of a swot and I loved to learn. But did I care about knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself?

I was forced to admit not really.

Rather, I realized that I am aware just how much knowledge there was in the world and I want it all. I want to know everything. I don’t learn something and think “Cute. Add that to the collection,” I think, “How can I use that?”

Even when I was a kid, more than learning things, I wanted to be seen as the “Smart Kid.” It was the one thing that came really easy to me and so that is what I focused on.

I had never thought it possible to be Slytherin because I never saw myself as ambitious. I had always viewed ambition on a macro scale. It was the determination to succeed and the willingness to go to any lengths to achieve that success.

That wasn’t me at all. I stuck with a job I settled with. I give up on things way too easily. When something is hard, I back away. Something in my mind simply shuts to it. I avoid, avoid, avoid.

But once I realized that ambition can also work on a micro scale, then it all snapped into place. Anyone who has ever worked with me in any capacity will realized just how over-the-top organized and perfection-driven I am with something I care about. I’m shrewd. And resourceful. And cunning? At times.

Suddenly, it made sense. It totally fucking did. I was never a Ravenclaw. I was a Slytherin and always had been.

There is a reason I quickly give up on things. It’s not laziness, it’s pragmatism. As soon as I think I can’t do it perfectly, I don’t want to do it at all.

When school got hard to manage, I closed down. I skipped class, I curled up until it went away. When film-making got too frustrating, I stopped doing it. There was something so deeply unsettling about watching dailies and realizing there were imperfections I was never going to be able to correct. I couldn’t handle that.

Perhaps that was why I retreated into writing. That, I could control completely.

And perhaps that is why I sit on so many drafts. If I don’t know how to make it perfect, I can’t let it go. And I can’t let it be anything less than perfect. I’m determined.

I’m a Slytherin.

Christ, I really am.

kurt vonnegut’s eight rules for writing fiction

kurt_vonnegut__jr__by_siglarkEight rules for writing fiction:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Source: Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10.

a post from someone who just finished a first draft then needed a cry…

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pixar’s rules of storytelling

Each writer has a different approach to rules. For some, they’re made to be broken, others they are mere guidelines, and even others, they are cliches to be avoided like the plague (guess which one I’m not). 

Anyway, advice in general is like excerpts from the bible: people cherrypick what works for them and ignore the rest.

But when you get stuck, you never know what it is that might help get you unstuck. So it’s good to have something to go to. Who knows? Therein may lie your answer.

These Pixar rules, which have been floating around the interwebs for a while, are an excellent go-to. Thus, I thought I’d share it because it made they’ve made their way to my bulletin board of oh-my-god-help-me-now (pictured).

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Here we go:

  • #1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  • #2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
  • #3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  • #4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  • #5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  • #6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  • #7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  • #8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  • #9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  • #10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  • #11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  • #12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  • #13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  • #14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  • #15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  • #16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  • #17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  • #18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  • #19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  • #20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  • #21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  • #22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Source: Emma Coates, via The Pixar Touch.

travel and the art of mental maintenance: VIII. Broken Down Somewhere in Belgium

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

I can’t remember how it was I found out that the bus had broken down. What I definitely remember is that it was extremely cold.

The bus breaking down did come several hours into a long bus trip from London. From there, we went across on a ferry from Dover to France and into Belgium. From here, the intent was to pass into Germany and then head all the way down to Munich.

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Tess and the Bullshit Bus

And those several hours came after a morning of scrambling to check out of hostel in London, have my wallet stolen, cancel my credit cards, call home to have them get a new debit card from my bank and have it forwarded to a future hotel, and then get to Victoria Station to meet our bus.

If I recall, we barely made it.

Once on the bus, we got our rundown on the Oktoberfest tour from the over-enthusiastic tour guide. All of it can be summarized by the cheekily declared: “There’s a fifty quid penalty for anyone who chunders on the bus.”

It was in the first hour that we met our (as the kids call it these days) squad for the week, Sally and Tess from Australia. They too were up for binge-drinking and risque behaviour but also appreciated the value of quiet-time and slumber.

Many others on the bus did not. Many brought milk crates of beer on board.

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Here I am, reluctantly enjoying said beer.

 

Look how horribly tired I am.

The day presumably passed on with strained social behaviour and blurred views of cows in fields.

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Blurred Cows. New band name. I call it.

And I must have fallen asleep. And that must have been when the bus broke down somewhere in the middle of Belgium.

We were in the middle of a truck stop and the bus was so utterly fucked that the heating didn’t even work. We dug out our sleeping bags and huddled up inside of them for warmth. It was all very tragic and miserable. In our privileged naivete, we probably thought this was what it was like during the war.

This was the entirety of our Belgian impressions. Aside from the cows, of course.

After a while, dawn broke and the diner above the service station opened.

We ambled into there to try to get some sleep.

I recall a stiff neck from diner booths maladapted to sleeping. As the day outside warmed up, we moved outside, legs stiff and wobbly. The other displaced bus partiers were lingering around, splayed across the narrow patch of grass between bus stalls.

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It was like someone had pulled the fire alarm at a rave. Only in the day.

Eventually a new bus arrived. Whether it came all the way from England, I have no idea. But that might account for the Greek epic-style wait.

All I remember is it was night by the time we got to the camp site and all Bri and I did was climb into a flimsy little tent with all the clothes we had layered up over top of each other like Michelin Men, and shivered.

As it turns out, camping in Munich in late September can be a blissfully chilly experience….

the hiatus and moving on

It seems like every time I return to regular posting after something of a hiatus, I have nothing but complaints about what kept me in hiatus.

And I feel like I’ve come out of one of the most stressful times of my life. There are two kinds of stress I experience: time-related stress, where a million things need to be done ohmygodlikerightnow; and, the deeper, more existential stress… the stress that keeps you up at night and never really goes away, only morphs and mutates as you age.

Earlier this year, it was the former. For the second time in less than a year, we had a landlord tell us they were selling the place. It’s definitely not as bad as getting reno-evicted, but it still kinda sucks. The uncertainty is what plagues you. Will you have to move? Should you move preemptively? Where the hell will you move to?

Now, we’d been saving up for a down-payment for a while, but in a real estate market like Vancouver’s, the downpayment milestone is a milestone that always lies on the horizon. You reach your goal but suddenly whoops! Sorry, you ain’t getting a studio apartment in Chilliwack with that!

But maybe we were close enough that we could manage it.

And, oh my god, am I glad we tried. We started looking at townhouses in Surrey.

We love New West and called it home, but, damn. Those townhouses were well over half a million to begin with. For a townhouse. Not even in Vancouver proper. Good luck with a detached home anywhere.

We were just priced out. Simple as. We could have gone for a condo and that was Option #2. We had just heard way too many horror stories about new and old condos alike.

In the month or so that we were looking, prices on townhouses kept going up and up and up. The average price rose by almost $100K in the short time we were looking!

And looking was hell. Multiple cash offers were coming in after one open house. Offers were going for $50K over asking.

So we did end up getting a townhouse in Surrey. It definitely quite suburban and several concessions were made, but, hey, we’re homeowners. And that’s an incredible privilege.

And we got to paint the walls bright colours, which was nice after so many years of white rental walls.

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And there is a farm market a two minute walk away. And a huge park with nature trails.

So it’s been nice.

But the instant that time-suck stress ended, the existential one set in. Life was suddenly entirely different. I miss New West a lot. I don’t really have a routine yet. I’m coping by moping. It’s a time-tested strategy of mine that has never worked.

I’m like a frigging plant that’s been repotted and is a total wuss about it.

Anyway, I feel like I say this biannually, but I’m trying to get around to posting more often, and perhaps about far less navel-gazing crap. That’s the thesis statement.

 

triangulating the text

So a while ago I started posting chapters of a novel online before I panicked and took them down after realizing that they (a) weren’t at the calibre I could achieve, and (b) were not going to be produced as expediently as I hoped.

I’ve since been working on it again.

The pitch for In What World is thus:

Willa and Liz are Brokers: thieves and smugglers for hire who hop realms, solving mysteries and having adventures along the way. Each realm is a genre – Urban Fantasy, Space Opera, Dystopia – and each realm has Rules. It’s time to see if those Rules can be broken.

I decided to shift the tone of book (first in a series maybe?) when I stepped back and started examining what sort of genre satires and parodies I enjoyed myself. And I realized that I preferred riffs on genre that don’t make fun of the genre in as much as they exemplify it.

Think The Naked Gun versus Hot Fuzz. I mean, we all love Leslie Neilsen, but Hot Fuzz is a masterpiece. And you don’t have to get all the jokes in order to enjoy it. You can take it as an action film. You can take it as a satire. Because of this intersection, you can take is as a deeper meditation on genre and storytelling.

I’m at the point where, to get to the heart of each genre/realm, I’ve had to establish a reference point. A generic (literally generic) fog in my head was just not cutting it anymore.

IMG_2193So what I ended up doing was trying to figure out three texts for each realm/genre as I want to showcase it that I would use as three points of a triangle of the genre, with the intersection between then being what I was aiming for.

I’m not necessarily going for the most perfect representation of the genre, but rather what elements I want to pull from it. For instance, my three texts for a pirate realm are Treasure Island, On Stranger Tides and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.

Treasure Island skews classic ur-text; On Stranger Tides brings in the possible supernatural/myth-involved portion (it was the base text for the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie); and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle pulls towards a female protagonist, an outsider to this world, as well as wider historical context.

Is this a ridiculously formal and quantitative way to approach something as subjective as art? Oh hells yes. But, it really helped me find my focus so I could do more than just spout genre references, like, say, National Lampoon.

And I don’t want readers to have to have read Le Morte D’ArthurGrimm’s Fairy Tales, and The Lais of Marie de France into order to “get” the non-specific fantasy realm I’ve dropped my characters in. Rather, these texts contains the elements that have seeped into our implicit and subconscious understanding of this genre.

Anyway, all these texts (expect for the ones I’m still hunting bookstores for) are on my desk for easy reference. It’s a glorious thing.

 

the optimism continues

Today I was given the much-needed reminder that, even though some of the shine has come off the Trudeau Liberals, they are still an infinite improvement over the horrors that came before.

I started working in the Social Planning section of the City a few months ago, and since then, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing non-profits and service providers who do incredible work in Surrey.

I was reminded today how much their jobs have improved tremendously since November 4. Even though we’ve all been much busier, it’s been a “good” busy… more funding, more initiatives, thus more work… from a government that actually seems to care about people.

Even the little things, like giving non-profits a break on their mortgage rate, means a lot for organizations that operate on a shoe-string. It’s a huge turn from a Harper government who told a colleague that affordable housing “wasn’t their mandate.” Ugh.

Anyway, with the state of the rest of the world right now, I am feeling incredibly lucky.

the granny square approach

Momentum, like Mr. Darcy’s good opinion, once lost is lost forever.

Or so it seems.

Something like a particularly nasty cold that lasts a week (especially when it is followed by Husband spending the whole next week sick with said cold) can wreak havoc on my momentum.

Like coming back from vacation, or from an illness, or from a mental rabbit hole of writing on one project, returning to the status quo is difficult. You feel like the Campbellian hero, returning to find the world the same but himself drastically different.

Only  your arc was a helluva lot more pathetic than the hero’s. You find yourself wondering just how the hell you did this day-in, day-out, once upon a time. What was I? Superhuman?

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Losing your momentum is like losing a little bit of yourself. What is all this yarn and how the hell will I ever make it anything?

I kept telling myself there has to be some technique for dealing with this… something I could fall back on when I find yourself in this situation… some easy trick to convince myself it’s all not as difficult as I thought.

I realized when crocheting once, that the idea of holding in my hands the tiny fragment of what will be a finished product is too overwhelming. How can I have this brief string of stitches and imagine it an entire blanket?

It’s so much easier to just… not  do it. I accepted the lack of momentum and gave up.

But obviously, if I kept doing this, I’d never accomplish anything.

So I tried this. I wasn’t going to make an entire blanket, I was going to make one granny square. That was easy. It just took an hour.

And then, when that was done, I made another.

Before I knew it, I had a bag of granny squares. I had a whole fucking blanket!

And, funnily enough, I didn’t even want a blanket anymore. I made pillows instead.

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My point is that everything can be broken down into manageable chunks. Don’t worry about writing that novel; write that chapter. Hell, write that one scene. Or even just two hundred words. Just focus on that.

Just that. And don’t worry about anything else until it’s time.

Before you know it, you’ll have a pillow that’s as sexy as hell.

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Or two. 

Aw, yeah.

upon the difficulties of getting your sh*t together

It’s been a very upside down sort of world I’ve been living in, for good and bad. Which is how it goes, I suppose, when you’re trying to get your shit together, as they so figuratively say.

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What is it about being an adult that means having your shit together? What does that even mean? There’s no textbook definition, obviously, but everyone just seems to know what it means. It requires no analysis or deep thought. It just is. It is your shit. All together. At last.

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When you’ve never had your shit together and this shit has just been all over the place, like all over the place… I’m talking shit in every closet, shit stuffed under the mattress, shit flung at the walls by proverbial monkeys… everywhere. 

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How can you possibly get it all together? This isn’t some easy cleaning, where you just Windex and shove things into drawers. Because the drawers are already full of shit and Windex + shit = messier shit.

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It’s like spring cleaning. You’ve got to haul that shit out, polish it off, throw some away, and then put it all back neatly.

That’s where I’m at. Things are going to be better – my shit will be together – but in the meantime, it’s getting a helluva lot shittier.

state of the union

Since about 2010, I’ve been keeping writing notes in Blueline notebooks. I go through two or three a year. I’ve just started my fifteenth.

It’s remarkably arbitrary when I finish a notebook; I simply run out of pages. From there, I have to plan a trip to Staples, select a notebook. Sometimes they’re all out of my usual model, so I adapt.

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About half-way through, say, 2013 or so, I realized I was carting around not just the current notebook, but also the previous one or two, just because they had notes I still needed to refer to.

So I force myself to take the time to sit down and go through the previous notebook and transcribe notes. Sometimes photocopies must do, stapled into place.

I add post-it flags, highlighting, all that Type A jazz.

And I also started doing a “state of the union” on the front page of every notebook. I list all the various projects and ideas that have been circling my mind like vultures, waiting to pick off some spare moment of creativity and actually be written.

I did all of this yesterday.

The last few months have been crazy. I had to go through the previous two notebooks to do this and I still have more to do.

In that craziness, I’ve had to sit on a few projects just to make room for new ones.

In my state of the unions, projects seem to shake down into two or three tiers.

Tier One includes on-going sagas and projects that have dominated my mental space. Basically, this is Pirates in Space and then anything else that momentarily takes over. It’s like these projects are my immediate family and Pirates in Space is my husband.

Tier Two is other projects that I am actually making decent headway on. They take up decent space in my creative life, but they will always be dropped if Tier One needs me. These are like my extended family and friends.

Tier Three includes brief ideas and things that are only ever half-baked. Maybe one day we’ll become good friends. Maybe one day I’ll even marry them. But right now, they’re just someone on the bus you talked to once, or that guy three cubicles down you know is also into Star Wars.

Let’s just say that Pirates in Space and I are in couples counselling because I’ve been spending a lot of time with other projects lately. A little too much time.

nothing in moderation

Perhaps you have noticed (or not noticed, I haven’t the wherewithal to keep tabs on these things, alas), but I’ve posted the full-text of “Working Title,” my short fiction piece that recently won the Quarter Castle Short Fiction context.

I think I’ve gone on about this before, but this is a piece I’d been sitting on for nearly five years. For me, sometimes I hit a wall with a project where I just don’t know what else to do on it, and so I set it aside. I think it still needs work, but I’ve lost perspective and can no longer look at it objectively. Other times, I finish something and know it’s perfect. I don’t want to change a thing. But then no one else will publish it.

David_Lloyd_George_-_Punch_cartoon_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_17654This piece was a little bit of both. I thought I was finished. No one would publish it. I did some more work. Then I hit a wall, sat on it. Eventually, I read it over again and went, “hey, it’s perfect the way it is.” And still no one wanted to publish it. I sent out several submissions, got back a lot of rejections and a lot of nothing.

I decided to sit on it for a while again. After another chunk of time, I looked at it again, still really liked it, but it was just sitting in a drawer, unpublishable. Perhaps it was the length, I told myself. 4500 words is typically just too long for most publications, but too short for a host of others. Funny, how so many things in the art world come down to mere practicalities.

I began to eye it like a scrap metal dealer. What could I salvage out of this work? Could I take the spine, fashion it into something else? Could I take the framing conceit? Cut out a passage or two here and there and work them into a smaller, more concise story?

No matter what, it felt like butchery. The story was what it was and even if I changed anything, it was as if I was taking it further from its Platonic ideal. Like Michelangelo said about the statue of David, he just cut away the stone that wasn’t David. This story was what it was supposed to be; it just felt right. If you’re a writer or an artist, do you ever feel that way? That there is some true version of your work and you just get a gut feeling of whether you’re there or not?

Perhaps this was what always frustrated me about film. I could find sublime little moments and aspects of the finished work, but I just could never hit that true version. Either the lighting was always just off, or the framing wrong, or the line reading a slightly different take.

Anyway, I digress. With “Working Title,” I was at this point where I was ready to throw my hands up.

But then I found out it won a contest. And another publication wanted to print it too. And I had to write some tough emails.

Nothing in moderation.


Side note: It’s been a busy and ridiculous time for me lately. I will update soon with details on the absurdities of life. As soon as things settle down a bit.

Working Title

We fade in as the sun sets. In Hollywood, they call this “Magic Hour.” It’s brief but timeless in that way that so few things are. The first we will see of Nick is a thirty-five-year-old man: some wrinkles, but ultimately boyish. The production company ensnared a former portrayer of superhero sidekicks and sex-obsessed teens. “Nick” is the actor’s chance for emotional redemption, career resurgence, even an awards show run, perhaps. So Nick is now tall, dark, bankable, and far-more handsome than he should be.

But in this world of magic hours he is awkward and pitiable. We know this because his suit is wrinkled. And mismatched. He is only wearing it because it would not fit in his backpack. That lumbering thing pokes out over his head; it contains inside it everything he still wants in the world.

There is a close-up on his feet as they stand an inch from the Welcome mat. His shoes were once nice, but they badly need a polish. Welcome mat or not, this house is not much. It is easily sixty years old, which is old enough for the City not to have any records.

Sofia, the woman Nick has come for, once found an old inspection card in the basement when they were renovating the laundry room. She kept it and admired the faded ink scrawl dating to 1963. She felt an odd, sincere connection to the building inspector who had a problem with the dividing wall for the laundry room. She tried to explain to her husband this weird connection she felt, and how she wondered if the inspector was still alive. If he was, when had he retired? What was he doing now? Did he remember their house? Her husband shook his head; no, he did not understand. She smiled politely and left the room. Three weeks later, alone in the shower, she suddenly and randomly cried about this.

All the camera shows is the Welcome mat, though.

The door opens. It appears empty until we pan down and there is the dark, curly head of an adorable moppet. There is no place for ugly kids in movies.

Nick freezes. He knows now. Now only did Sofia marry, she reproduced. He should have expected this, he thinks, but he did not. He only thought of Sofia as the transient waif, the big-eyed pixie of his youth. The one exempt from the realities of the present. If he had thought to search, he would have found her on Facebook; he would not be as shocked and guileless as he is now.

All the camera shows, though, is his wide eyes and slack jaw. Nick steps off the top step: the pain, the unease, the pure idiocy of his actions spread plainly across his face.

And it fades to black. Because that is what happens when the filmmaker doesn’t know what else to do. And then we’ll get the title, which hasn’t been decided yet, but it will be in a hand-written font perhaps, because this is a personal story. But it won’t be hand-written. Not really. It will be one font selected from a list by an editor and once crafted by a graphic designer at Microsoft who doesn’t even work there anymore.

By now we are fading back in. But Nick is gone. So is the Welcome mat. So is the moppet.

We are in Romania. A titlecard tells us it is “1980.” Two children run through the streets. It is the streets of “Old Europe,” a place that exists as though it were solely the product of fantasy novels and painted postcards. It is supposed to be Romania, but it’s really Prague. The buildings are garish and stone with cobbled streets: all wet after a rain. The cinematographer had a field day. He dreamed of The Third Man, but this was not to be shot in black and white and so he will always feel like something was lost.

The two children run: a boy, a girl. Nick, Sofia. Aged ten. They wear the clothes that years of Oscar-baiting films have led us to believe children wore in second-world countries. The filmmaker pauses to wonder if the Second World truly exists anywhere any more. He knows it once referred to the Communists. Does it now figure as what the label intends: those neither First World nor Third World, but rather that vague untimely grey area in between? Did the phrase now just refer to anyone who belonged on neither a GAP billboard nor a Red Cross pamphlet? Did it just refer to anyone who was neither Us nor Them?

He doesn’t know. At all. When pressed, the responsibility for Sofia’s dress and the cobbled streets and the grey of the skies lies with his production design team, his costume designer, his Art Director, his cinematographer. He knows the costume buyer hunted through old thrift shops on the poor side of town. No room for political correctness when results were demanded.

Ten-year-old Sofia wears a dress: the fabric is rough cotton, the pattern not gingham, not checks, not houndstooth even, but some kind of black and white pattern with squares. It hurts his eyes a little. The dress looks like it was stitched by a mother at a Singer sewing machine sometime in the mid-eighties, working off a Butterick pattern, then left to fall victim to moths and dustbunnies on a creaking rack at a charity shop in the suburbs.

But on Sofia, in the streets of Romania—Bucharest, it is supposed to be—it reflects innocence in a black and white world. To the child Sofia, black and white mean nothing more than the colours on her dress. The world around her is dull shades of grey, even Nick, in his grey gym shorts and grey t-shirt, blends into the street. But she is radiant against the background, her dress pulling her from the monochromatic world. It is far more effective on the eyes than any colour. It seems as though Sofia is the only thing in focus in the entire world on screen.

She is running before him, his little legs flailing to keep up with her. Their giggles pierce the silence soundscape.

Nick is calling after her, his voice still sounding like laughter. In fact, we think it is until a subtitle appears below. They are laughing in Romanian, a language unfamiliar to any western ear.

“Sofie! Sofie!” he cries, “Wait! Wait!”

“Hurry, Nikolae,” she shrieks in return, “Hurry!”

Two kids skipping through Romania. It is not Bucharest they should be in, but Timisoara. But the American audience does not know the difference, and only Bucharest rings with any kind of familiarity.

It is someplace not here. The people are white but they are not western. The Second World: the world that ceased to exist in 1989, leaving a gaping hole in how we understand the structure of humanity.

And thus the narrative cannot move chronologically. Mostly because the filmmaker realized the permeable fabric of time—that time is a fabric full of holes like a mesh lingerie bag—and all we have is memory, not chronology.

Because the filmmaker knows psychology; it was his major. He spent five years in university going through the motions, knowing he would write. Desperately, he tried to understand people so he could write them better. It never did work for him as planned; he sometimes reflected (while staring at the pulpy rind of a discarded garnish, letting the bourbon work its fingers over the knots of his brain) that he should have spent more time watching how people act rather than studying how they think.

Especially if he wanted to write movies.

In movies everyone acts; no one thinks.

But it did give him this: Nick’s imagined history of his own life. The way humans remember time. The distant past is more vivid than the recent past. Later, he claimed his structure is inspired by Slaughterhouse-Five.

Thus, his lead character, Nick, the one in whom he’s placed all of his neuroses and damaged childhood memories, adores Slaughterhouse-Five, and every other Vonnegut along with it. The camera only sees a flashback: Nick in a now-empty apartment, packing his backpack. Slaughterhouse-Five is shoved on top. Nick clings to the book for a reason. It has sat on his shelf for eighteen years with all the other empty promises and broken aspirations.

He will crack open that book when he boards that plane back to Romania, with Sofia beside him or not. Even the filmmaker does not yet know if she will be beside him.

As Nick rises to his feet, he leaves the room. It’s just a small room, a cheap apartment that he will feel no sadness in leaving. He disappears from the room and, as the door closes behind him, the slam jolts us back into another reality.

The screen crackles with faded pictures. They peel back like a blister: old Polaroids stuck in the frame of a gilded mirror. Cracks run in the glass and the Polaroids hang uselessly, their plastic undersides bounce back their reflection, all these little squares of black stuck behind the images.

Sofia’s Polaroid camera was purchased after she and Nick arrived in Vancouver. She bought it with her first paycheque from The Bay. She still has it somewhere even though she hasn’t taken a photo with it for years. By some sick stab of fate, only a few months before Nick arrived on her doorstep, Polaroid announced it was discontinuing the instant film: another piece of Sofia descended into shards of nostalgia.

The camera pans gently across each lost moment of time.

In faded shades of orange and pink, the sun rises over English Bay.

Sofia’s voice rings over the images: “Sometimes I get well into the day, like ten or eleven before I’m convinced I’m actually still alive.”

The yellow sulfur piles on the North Shore look the same in 1992 as they do now.

“I walk to work sometimes, when the bus isn’t too crowded. This is how the days I sometimes think I died in my sleep start. I touch nothing, no one, because sometimes it works out that way.”

The totem poles in Stanley Park: a perfect tourist trap and just as contrived and forgettable.

“I really start to think I’m dead when things don’t happen like they should. An automatic door won’t open until someone else walks up; the hand dryer in the bathroom doesn’t come on; someone cuts in front of me in the hall… all as if I don’t exist. After a while, I started keeping a mirror at my desk just to make sure I still cast a reflection. This is what had been running through my head the day I first met Ted. He sees me. I exist.”

An ordinary street in Vancouver. Sofia told Ted she just liked the look of the stucco houses.

Another one, this one a closer frame, the white side of only one house, washed out by the Polaroid’s imperfect light. Just an ordinary house, she told Ted. But it’s not. She and Nick lived in that basement for nearly two years. Their first home.

“Now every morning, I have Lucy jumping on my bed.  ‘At least you know you’re alive,’ I tell myself, ‘At least you know you’re alive.’“

The filmmaker had thought this himself; it is a direct part of his soul that he had given to Sofia like some unholy, unwanted gift.

But it doesn’t make the final cut.

“No voiceovers,” said the producer, “We can get it in a glance.”

The filmmaker keeps projecting: he watches Sofia climb out of bed, pulling up Lucy and passing her over to Ted, still groaning and tired, tangled in the bed sheets, that look on her face of grateful joy.  He projects the inner hollow clanging of those empty distant fears collapsing around her, bouncing throughout the shell of her like a pinball. “Am I alive? Am I alive? Is this it? Is this life?”

Perhaps that’s just his projection; perhaps she just looks… happy.

No, that won’t do.

Sofia is not happy. Sofia is haunted—he’s made these notes in his journal—Sofia sometimes wishes she died in Bucharest—sometimes she thinks she did.

The filmmaker cannot really recall his first introduction to the Romanian Revolution of 1989; nor does he recall much of 1989, as he was only six years old at the time. His lack of context means nothing he figures, since his parents were fully formed adults at the time and they recall nothing of it.

Wikipedia helps. The filmmaker edges his First World, middle class guilt to the side of his mind while he creates Nick and Sofia. He does his best to gain context of Romania in late 1989. Romania was the only Eastern Bloc country where change happened with violence, with a revolution, with an execution.

The filmmaker can’t help but read the bare facts and smile in the cinematic romance of it all. He feels a glee he felt when he was told the story of Lenin’s Revolution back in his high school history class. No one died but a Bolshevik in the October Revolution (or so he learned), but 1,104 died in Romania that week (or so says Wikipedia).

Wikipedia told him what happened like a broadcaster tells the story of a football game. It was good for keeping score, but the filmmaker needed to pull out the people who had been there.

Wikipedia said nothing of the families. He saw photos of corpses in morgues. What if they had children? Children nearly grown: children too old to be taken care of but still young enough to get lost.

He wrote of Nick and Sofia.

He wrote of their childhood suddenly yanked from underneath them as their families died. He wrote of them as childhood sweethearts, their places in each other’s hands, their implied promises, their sudden tossing into the world like one dumps old keepsakes from a shoebox.

He wrote of their struggle to find a place in the world, of their fleeing to Canada, of their emotional and legal inability to return to Romania, of the fact they spent eighteen years losing each other as well: each other, the last piece each had of childhood, the last finger each had holding onto home.

The filmmaker wrote this because he was nearing thirty and wished more than anything that someone had dumped him upside down and said “You’re an adult now,” because he had no idea when his childhood ended or how. He just noticed one day it was gone, like a book someone borrowed without telling you but you don’t realize it’s gone until you randomly think of reading it again then can’t find it and inexplicably weep.

The filmmaker’s childhood home is now under a row of condominiums.

It’s a very Canadian tragedy, he thinks, as he tries to distance himself from the experience. Instead, he projects his pain and isolation onto Nick, whom he credits, due to the sheer qualification of having lived through a revolution, as being more worthy of the pain.

But the camera catches none of this: none of the filmmaker’s neuroses, or intellectual bankruptcy, or failed attempts to validate his life.

The camera captures Nick.

Nick’s jacket, from that mismatched suit, hangs off the back of a chair in the kitchen. We have not established the geography of Sofia’s house yet, so we do not know how far into her home she has led him, but they sit on a sofa. At least he does. She hovers. Has she just stood up or is she going to sit down? No one really knows.

The filmmaker wants words on the screen. He knows they should be too scared to speak in depth. But in movies dialogue tells the story and so they must talk. They must talk charmingly and plainly and fantastically. He knows they probably would not really be able to do this, but they must.

“Nick,” she sighs, batting lashes formed over an hour in a makeup artist’s chair, not in a cracked mirror like Sofia would have done.

“Sofia, listen,” he starts, “Please don’t kick me out.”

After a telling pause, she replies, “I wasn’t going to.”

He smiles.

A wide shot at last shows us the room. No one has replaced the wall paper in years, the furniture is worn-in and toys clutter the space. It’s a house, plain and lived-in.

“Sofia,” he continues, “I, I…” he trails off.

“How long has it been, Nick?”

“Ten years.”

“Wow. Already. Where does time go?” She tells it as a joke, a knowing nod to the realization that time speeds up as we age. The actress is wiser than himself, the filmmaker realizes, he pulled it from thin air, as a cliché, something to show the lack of intimacy that ten years has brought to Nick and Sofia. But she delivers the line with an old world-weary self-assurance and a biting dig. Where have you been for ten years? Why have you left me here?! she could be saying.

“Yep,” says Nick, “I can’t believe you’re married.”

She stares at him pointedly: “Yes, you can. You just can’t believe it’s not you I married.”

Sofia feels a pure joy. She’s wanted to say this to Nick since her wedding day. She thought of him every day of her marriage. He never felt gone. She feels like Penelope, but, abandoned and spiteful, she took up with the last suitor. And now Odysseus returned and Penelope wonders why now, of all days?

But all we see is a small threat of a smile as a crossfades takes over. A white stucco house flutters in, looking exactly as it did in Sofia’s old Polaroid. The lawn needs to be mown and watered: patches of thin brown grass intermingle with stringy green weeds in a strange blend of dead and thriving. This is East Vancouver in 1990.

The man living upstairs who will cash their cheques for the next two years stands on the front step, arms crossed over a pot belly. The belly has only been there for about five years; it bloated quickly like a balloon attached to a helium tank. Were he to lose weight, he’d have stretch marks.

The day looks bright; it might be spring or even a cool summer. Sofia steps forward, her lips slowly churning out into a smile. The wind catches her hair, sending a tussle of black waves swirling around her face. As the sun streaks through the soft lens, her hair is not quite black, we realize, just a dark brown with a russet shimmer.

This rusty shine lends itself well to the rusty feel of this old memory.

Her fingers reach out towards Nick. A wave of reluctance passes over his face, but he takes her hand.

Come on,” she says in Romanian. Their first English lessons will begin only a few weeks from now. They will practice as best they can with each other: the words will form awkwardly in their throats, sounds and shapes of a thousand tongues entwined. The meanings will ramble on endlessly in their brains, like cows in a pasture with no idea of their purpose. The language will eventually take hold in a pidgin mix that for months will only make sense to the two of them like some absurd idioglossia.

Sofia will have been working at The Bay for months with her twisted tongue before she actually feels confident speaking English to anyone besides Nick. Even their landlord, a man whose sentences run no more than three words apiece, will make her feel small.

“Come on,” she repeats.

Nick’s face looks the same as it does when he is thirty-five. This is because as much as movies claim to be magic, they can’t reverse time. The world of facelifts and botox and celluloid youth means nothing, not when Nick is supposed to be under twenty but is actually thirty-five.

They’ve tried. They’ve changed his hair. His clothes are different too. They’ve tried to match them to 1990 without dating them. Nick cannot be a joke in an old tracksuit. Nick is a timeless hero: a forlorn figure the filmmaker can pour himself into. He wears a plain shirt, a dark burgundy that would prove richer had the fabric not faded and thinned with the years. His jeans are slim cut; faded too. Everything is faded, even the film this scene has been shot with.

Sofia smiles again. “Nicolae, come on.” She winks. Her lips are crooked but lovely. They are so dark they leap from her face.

Together, they walk up the front path. The filmmaker chose a close-up on their feet: Sofia’s feet, larger than he would have imagined for a woman intended to be perfect, step along the cracked walkway. Weeds grow between the broken concrete: spindly spires of green; buttercups and clovers. She’s not looking and crushes a small, yellow flower with her step.

The same foot is now tapping eighteen years later against a linoleum floor. A kettle is whistling away in the background. “Do you still take it the same way?”

Her English is strong. Eight years living with a Canadian have done that.

Da,” he replies, “Vă aduceți aminte?”

Yes, read the subtitles, Do you remember?

Her face stares blankly. The lines the years have given her show themselves. She knows that she still has a bit of an accent. With effort, she can repress it. She can manipulate her tongue into a crude impression of Ted. From Vancouver, his Canadian sounds nearly Californian at times. She hides her accent from customers at The Bay, from other parents on the playground, and from the less refined of Ted’s relatives.

She hides it now. “Yes, I remember.”

As she turns to pull some mugs from the cupboard, the filmmaker watches her move so stiffly. He knows Nick’s words have worked their way into her muscles, tightening and tensing them. Sofia has been uneasy from the moment she saw him standing on the welcome mat, but somehow it’s much worse now that she heard their language.

She hadn’t spoken it in fifteen years, the filmmaker knows. Not since she last spoke it with Nick. As she spent so long learning English, a part of her wondered if, with each new word that formed in her head, a word of Romanian would forever be gone. She’d done nothing to try to hold on to them; at times she even thought they were never coming back.

It is not the language of now; it is not the language of purgatory, English is.

It feels wrong running into her ears and draining down through her body. It soaks through every pore: the way she can feel Nick’s mouth making the words, the way she can see them spelling themselves out in the air, the way she feels her head vibrate with memories shaking themselves free of the confines she’s kept them in. Sofia can taste the words: listless and bittersweet.

“You speak so well,” he offers, the knees of his suit fresh with sweat from the palms of his hands.

She does not look at him. “So do you.”

Two mugs land heavily on the tile countertop: ceramic clacks against ceramic in a way that brings images of a broken plate into her mind.

They outfitted the white stucco house with thrift store castoffs. Stoneware plates from the seventies are set gingerly into the clean side of the kitchen sink, soapy froth sliding down in search of the drain. Nick’s hands, puckered and pink, reach in and grab it.

Their kitchen is small and barely distinguishable from the living room. The filmmaker knows that the sparse collection of furniture threadbare and rickety had been left behind by previous tenants. The wobbly table is covered by a layer of melamine and a dozen plastic bags.

Sofia is humming to herself; her arms are stuffed in the sink up to her elbows.

Nick runs a tea towel over the plate then slides it into the cupboard. Two identical plates are already in there and nothing else.

Dropping the last plate into the clean side of the sink, Sofia pulls the drain. As she turns to Nick with the murmurings of a cheeky grin, her wet hands fall in unison upon his chest. He jumps back with a laugh and two fresh handprints on his burgundy shirt.

What are you doing?!” he shrieks in Romanian.

She only laughs, which sounds the same in every language.

As he steps back towards her, leaning in for a kiss, the plate slips from his hands, falling to the ground.

But he kisses her anyway.

And it feels as though the plate was in shards before it even hit the floor.

Now Sofia passes a mug of tea to Nick. The gesture carries with it an insincere formality. She has handed mugs of tea to grandmothers and co-workers and strangers with the same kind of rigidity. The mug holds the lacquered shell of an Ikea catalogue. She has eight identical ones in the cupboard. They are the mugs reserved for guests.

Sofia’s mug was a gift from Lucy last year, picked from the shelves of Hallmark, gilded with sentimentality and saccharine intent. As Nick sits awkwardly on the couch, Sofia has yet to find a seat. She leans against the kitchen table instead.

Her eyes flit to the lumbering backpack. “So, where are you going?”

The filmmaker knows a dozen words are passing through his mind, scrolling through like entries in a thesaurus: the airport, abroad, Europe, the old country, Romania, Bucharest. He stares solidly at her while deciding how to answer.

“Home.”

Sofia pulls out a chair and falls into it.

“I see.”

“You’re wondering why, aren’t you?”

She nods.

“I don’t know, Sofie, I don’t know.” Her fingers twitch around the mug with the sound of her name.

As the filmmaker watches their eyes study each other carefully, Sofia’s trailing over the ripples of the fabric of his clothes, Nick’s over every line on her face.

The filmmaker does not close his eyes to dream.

And there, as Nick’s eyes take in this small patch of Sofia’s skin: that tiny spot on her neck, where the slope into her shoulders begins; the camera lingers.

And lingers.

She breathes. We can hear the sigh: the purity and innocence simultaneously cast down with the weight of the evening, no – the weight of the last eighteen years.

So simple but so melodramatic, the filmmaker thinks as he puts works to paper: “A weighted sigh.” But the actress, she nails it. It is everything he felt in Sofia.

It is beyond words, something he realizes either speaks to his profound lack of ability or to the true profound nature of this moment: this sigh as it exists.

Can a sigh encompass all that? All his frustrations and joys, all of himself? All of Sofia? All of Romania? All of 1989?

Can a film?

Sofia’s sigh as Nick watches her breathe is a moment of fiction and he thinks of truth. What truth ever existed in there? Did it lose itself or was it created? Did it begin then fade with each layer of retelling or did it never exist then was slowly given life?

The filmmaker does not know. Nick does not know. Sofia does not know. No one knows how it will end.

And so it does not. It does not end. It only stops. We cut to an image of a sunrise, as promised. The screen fills with those beautiful solar flares, at once natural, silent, and again a stark reminder of the screen before us.

And then we fade to black.

The credits roll.


Originally published in WomenArts Quarterly Journal, Volume 3, Issue 5, July 2015 and Quarter Castle Chronicles, Volume One, September 2015.

“Every day takes figuring out all over again how to f***ing live.”

The above quote comes from the marvellous Deadwood, out of the mouth of the marvellous Calamity Jane.

And I’m really feeling it right now.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted much of anything. Life is like that. Peaks and valleys. Hills and troughs. I feel like this is a lesson I’ve figured out before. Subsequently forgotten. And then had to learn all over again.

I was remembering how elated I was a year ago, nine months ago, six months ago. I was in a huge writing groove. I was feeling especially prolific. I thought I’d finally figured it out.

I’ve been writing. A lot.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve neglected this blog… and a variety of other social (media) endeavours. I thought I’d finally learned the way around the block. I’d finally mastered the steps and now I was ready to dance (a cliched, but apt metaphor).

I worked. I worked and worked. I worked really hard.

But it didn’t work. And I didn’t realize it until I thought it was done and I took a look at the first page and went nope. I just knew it wasn’t right.

And then I felt like bashing my head against a wall because I knew something was wrong with it, but I had absolutely no idea what. I’d done everything right, I told myself. I learned my lessons. I figured out what I had to do and I did it. And I worked really fucking hard at it.

But it still wasn’t right.

This made no sense to me. How was I still failing at this novel that I have been turning over and over for five years now? I’d written other things that came out perfect the moment I vomited them onto the page.

Why was this one not working?!

Maybe it was fundamentally flawed somehow. Maybe it was the great impossible thing. Maybe I should just abandon it completely.

I thought of this as well, and it just as easily could have been the title of this post instead: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose.” (ST: TNG)

But I couldn’t drop this project. Other projects I’ve abandoned, yes, but this one is like a child. I would be like Dumbledore dropping baby Harry off at the Dursleys… but only after realizing he’s a squib and deciding that it’s probably best to sever all ties completely.

Anyway. This all caught me at a rough time.

Januarys are usually brutal, to be sure, but it’s been especially so as of late. I’ve been down a rabbit hole.

A rabbit hole is how I come to think of my mental isolation, the feeling of being more or less trapped in my own mind, like an invisible barrier keeps me alone with my own thoughts and other human beings are difficult to connect with.

A rabbit hole… a euphemistic trick perhaps, allowing me to frame in a palatable way what is probably some form of depression, anxiety, seasonal affectiveness disorder, some combination of the above, or something else altogether.

A rabbit hole can also happen when I am very deeply entrenched in writing something. The two very often coincide, but they are markedly different. The former is characterized by negativity and the latter by positivity.

The two coincide, but writing does not make me depressed. Rather, writing is often an outlet helping me cope. Writing is how I climb out of the rabbit hole. It is how I work through things.

I’ve found that something pushes me down a rabbit hole, but, like Alice, everything I encounter down there is some surreal version of things that have subconsciously been plaguing me for ages. Weeks, months, years, my whole life even.

Writing turns these surreal things over and lets me examine them. Sometimes it doesn’t help, but sometimes I can exorcise old ghosts. So, in a way, even though these rabbit holes are dark and difficult, I need them. They are a valuable part of who I am. They let me focus. They push me to work my way out.

But this recent rabbit hole – and I say this having just clawed my way out – was a doozy. Something pushed me down a rabbit hole in October (nothing too severe, but work stress and uncertainty, which always brings up a lot of anxiety), and there I lingered through the Christmas season, forcing myself through. It was okay; I was writing a lot. I could still see the thin circle of sky above.

And then, thinking I had just clawed my way out, I read that first page of a finished draft and thought nope.

And then Grandma died.

That almost sounds like a punchline. And perhaps I need it to be.

My grandmother had been dying of Alzheimer’s for over ten years. Alzheimer’s is strange because it does funny things to the grieving process. It takes someone aways from you long before they are physically gone. You can hear their voice and look in their eyes, but they don’t look back and see you.

I don’t want to go into details about my grandma yet, at least not now. I already spoke about her at the funeral, and that was the closest I could come with words for a while. I’m not good at putting frustrations and grief into literal words. I need to put it into a story. That’s what stories are for, after all. Grief and everything grief can represent.

Stress about work and money is one thing. Fear for the future is rational.

But grief is something entirely different. Grief is fear for the past. And that is irrational. It’s already over, isn’t it? We can’t change it.

But we can change it. And we do. We change it everything a memory slips or shifts. Every time a photograph passes into new hands. Every time a story gets another layer of embellishment.

We don’t just grieve for those dead, we grieve for the past we shared with them. We grieve for the time we can’t revisit. What does it feel like to know that your childhood is gone forever? How immense is that weight?

Grief is different every time. There’s no pattern we can fall back on. We figure it out all over again every time we go through it.

That was what I clawed my way out of this rabbit hole learning: if I want to grieve, if I want to write, I have to figure it out all over again every time. There’s no one learning process to this. There’s no end date or final exam. It all shifts beneath us. What works one day won’t work the next.

Every day takes figuring out all over again how to fucking live.

 

the dream of the nineties is alive in ottawa

I spent most of the day yesterday being excited about the new Liberal cabinet. Inexplicably excited. Uncharacteristically excited.

It was easy to understand why. Gender parity, increased diversity, a medical doctor as Minister of Health, a Nobel laureate scientist as Minster of Science, a Paralympian as Minister of Sport and Persons with a Disability, this badass defence minister, and this incredible woman as Minister of Justice. And not to mention this epic mic-drop.

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A hell of a lot of people feel the same way.I don’t really need to explain why. It’s obvious.

But for me it went beyond excitement. It was relief. I felt happy and optimistic on a level much deeper and more profound than I am comfortable admitting in this cynical world.

The reason why took me a while to realize, but when I did, it was so simple: I feel like I have my future back.

I know that sounds naive and extreme, but I don’t mean it in that way that people like to frame as “whiny millennial.” I mean it in a much more fundamental human way.

Allow me to explain:

I was born in 1983. My formative years were the 1990s. I grew up during a time characterized by what some people like to disparagingly call “political correctness gone mad.”

But for me, there was nothing “mad” about it. It was about respect. We were told that Canada was a cultural mosaic, not a melting pot; that diversity was strength and we respect other cultures and beliefs. How was it possibly “mad” to not use racist slurs? I had friends who were people of colour and I certainly wouldn’t have ever wanted to offend them.

Nor did I understand why affirmative action was “mad” either. Affirmative action is not simply letting someone do something because they weren’t a white male but it is providing them an opportunity to do something they had previously been held back from because they weren’t a white male. I understood this because I had had arguments with gym teachers who didn’t want to let me play hockey with the boys when I knew I was just as good as most of them.

So all these recent cries of merit over gender were frustrating because all that implied was that somehow women don’t have merit but men do. Holy hell, people, weren’t we over this bullshit by now?

When I became an adult and “entered the real world,” I didn’t understand a lot of the racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on*, because as a kid I was told that these would be gone by the time we grew up. People would know better by then.

It wasn’t just the official PC slogans drilled in my head at school that made me think this, it was diverse representation in the media as well. Of course, it wasn’t perfect representation, but as kids my age watched sitcoms with gay protagonists, with female protagonists, and with entire families of colour, we were too young to wonder whether or not it was “progressive” or “representative,” to us it simply was.

That representation promised us a world of diversity, multiculturalism, gender parity, and equal rights regardless of sexual orientation.

But that wasn’t the world we entered.

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I remember being surprised in 2003 when Canada legalized same-sex marriage. (Yeah, that’s right. We did it twelve years ago. Under a Liberal government.) But I wasn’t surprised because it was happening; surprised because it hadn’t happened already. In my young naivete, it never occurred to me that two people of the same gender could not get married. How absurd! Didn’t they know that there was a same-sex wedding on Friends in 1996?

Becoming an adult in the 2000s was a slow realization that the world was full of more bigots, chauvinists, and homophobes than I ever imagined possible. Certainly, I don’t think there were more of them than there were in the 1990s, but I definitely think the obligation to be politically correct around a child vanished when I became an adult. They could lob racist jokes my way and ignorantly expect me to chuckle along.

As the majority of my twenties were spent under Harper’s Conservatives (basking in the rays of the Bush Administration), the Dream of the Nineties began to slowly wither away. With Obama’s election down south, we held out hope. But then conservative Americans in their panicked death-throes doubled-down in their assholery and this opened the floodgates to bigots north of the border. People who told racist jokes seemingly in confidence now felt emboldened to do it out loud or even in print.

After a Conservative majority in 2011, it was all-too-easy to give up hope. The apathy set in. The rudeness of this apparent awakening was no longer an open sore. It has scabbed over and was starting to scar.

This was the harsh reality of the world, we realized. We were never really promised anything. There was nothing to promise. It was all a lie. A beautiful dream, but nothing more. We were lied to.

And it only got worse.

By 2015 we had a government that wanted to force a women to take off her niqab to swear her oath as a Canadian citizen. That is not the tolerant and multi-cultural Canada I was told I lived in.

Perhaps things had to get worse before they could get better. Perhaps we had to get to this point before we finally demanded change. Perhaps we just needed a leader who seemed just as fed up and frustrated as the rest of us. Who knows. But here we are. And, oh my god, does it feel good.

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* Don’t even get me started on the environment. I am THRILLED that we now have a Minister not just for the Environment but also explicitly for Climate Change. It boggles my Captain Planet-addled mind how this didn’t happen sooner.

Interview with Ashleigh Rajala

Another shameless plug. This time an interview with Quarter Castle Publishing. Behold, my majesty!

I have to admit that I love talking about my writing process.

It forces a level of self-reflexivity that I think is healthy, as well as provides a valuable time to reflect on the effectiveness of my process.

Also, I am vain.

(Also also… that picture of me had a plate of pierogis artfully cropped out.)

Quarter Castle Publishing

Author InterviewAshleigh Rajala of New Westminster, British Columbia, is the author of Working Title, the winning submission in Quarter Castle Publishing’s first short story writing contest.

Recently Quarter Castle Publishing interviewed Ashleigh.

QCP: When did you decide to become a writer?

Ashleigh: I remember a moment as a book-obsessed child where I realized that someone created those books and that I too could do that. The first story I wrote was about a dinosaur, and my mum sewed a cover onto it and everything. Sadly, this opus has been lost to history. So I never really decided, it was just something I have always done.

QCP: Do you write every day? If not, how many days do you dedicate to writing?

Ashleigh: I write every day. Sometimes life gets in the way, but that’s okay. But I try to never let myself stop if I’m feeling blocked or less than…

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Introducing Ashleigh Rajala

#shamelessplug

Quarter Castle Publishing

Ashleigh Rajala of New Westminster, British Columbia, is the author of Working Title, the winning submission in Quarter Castle Publishing’s first short story writing contest.

Here’s a sample from the short story.

We fade in as the sun sets. In Hollywood, they call this “Magic Hour”. It’s brief but timeless in that way so few things are. The first we will see of Nick is a thirty-five-year-old man: some wrinkles but ultimately boyish. The production company ensnared a former portrayer of superhero sidekicks and sex-obsessed teens. “Nick” is the actor’s chance for emotional redemption, career resurgence, even an awards show run, perhaps. So Nick is now tall, dark, bankable and far-more handsome than he should be.

But in this world of magic hours he is awkward and pitiable. We know this because his suit is wrinkled and mismatched. He is wearing it only because it would not fit in…

View original post 449 more words