Thursday, 25 October 2012

I pushed you down deep...

Every so often, my friend D. expresses something that she does that she questions the ... well, sanity, of. She gets into stories, she invests in fictional characters, to the point of feeling so much she wonders if it's healthy. I remember her questioning this. I remember her wondering if it's a good thing, although I'm fairly certain she knows it's a great thing.

She invests and is affected because she lets them be real. That's an amazing display of humanity, if there ever was one. She believes in humanity so much that she will believe in those constructed in someone's mind.  In a sense, though, a character is no less real than you or I. In a sense, characters are only as strong as we let them be. This could be contradictory statements if it wasn't for the fact that the people we know in our everyday lives are only ever as human, as layered, as real and complex as we allow them to be. We have to open our minds, not to mention our hearts, in order to let those we know be whole people to us.

It is all too easy to make someone the bad guy. Sometimes it is easier to be angry than it is to understand what motivates them, especially when it's different from what motivates us. It's equally easy to deify someone we love, to put an individual on a pedestal. It's even easier to do this to the dead.  The dead can never prove us wrong. The dead cannot disprove our conclusions. The dead cannot give fresh evidence of their imperfect humanity. They simply are, as we choose to remember them. It is not fair. They refuse to answer our questions, and they continue to leave us hanging until we make our own peace with who they were, with every part of who they were, whether we knew it or not.

No one is easy, not even the characters in fictions. Perhaps that is what makes them so real. There is something so real about blatant imperfection, about obvious flaws, about the exaggerated emotions dramatic storytelling provides us. They do the things we are afraid to try, they are more cruel and more kind than we have the guts to be. Characters are the natural extension of our own desires, of our curiosities about human nature. We must be drawn to characters who display qualities that baffle us.

Joss Whedon is quoted as having said something to the effect of "you have to really want to write about superheroes to do so" and he is right. To write about heroism, you have to see the world in a strange way: you have to see the horror of human beings, but you also have to be able to see the sheer potential of humanity to live up to its brilliance. We can be incredible, but we can be incredibly horrible too. To see heroism, you have to look past the horror to the cracks where the good stuff is shining through. The horror will always be there. People will always be mean, selfish, greedy and paranoid, but they will also always be brave, honourable, faithful and stubbornly passionate about the truth they believe in. You can't make people 'good' or 'peaceful' and maybe that's a good thing. We need to be constantly questioning ourselves, as individuals and a species. It is what improves us, it is how we evolve.

Sometimes it's easier to analyze the world by telling a story. We create alternate realities to examine ourselves, our prejudices, our weaknesses, our dreams. We create imaginary people who are worse than we dare be, or more courageous. Those people aren't 'real' but I know I wish some of them were. Those fictional creations make me want to be more like them, they make me strive to be more courageous, to be stronger, to be more forgiving of people I once thought I'd never be capable of forgiving. It is often fictional characters who make me want to improve myself, who show me how I might be better.

I admire real people who inspire these qualities, but often it is harder to find real-life examples of people to look up to. They are, like estranged loved ones and abandoned friendships, harder to see clearly because we are too close to them. Characters are not part of our lives, they do not offend us personally, they cannot wrong us or hold a grudge against us. It is easier to forgive their weaknesses, their displays of pain, their inconsistencies. If only it was so easy to see ourselves and our loved ones as objectively as we see our favourite characters...

Sometimes it is easier for me to tell myself stories about my life as though they were someone else's life. I hand over the psychological analysis to the experts, but it is easier to see the themes of your own life when they are written down as though they belong to someone else. It is easier to see your weaknesses, to see your strengths, to see how far you have come.

I love fictional characters because they give us a way to dream, to wish ourselves into other worlds, but I love them most when they help to show how complicated life can be, how imperfect people you love can end up being, how fallible even the strongest among us are when our core is threatened. We are, after all, only human, even those of us who were created in the minds of another and live only on a page or a silver screen.

Tonight, I was listening to the song "Bring on the Wonder" by Susan Enan, which plays over the last few minutes of a second-season episode of Bones. The song always hits me somewhere inside, because it's all about beauty, wonder, but also about repression and redemption. At least, it is to me. Everything is always going to affect each of us differently, but I think we are all looking for a little wonder, be it in the news, on the pages of a novel, or for an hour each week on our favourite television show. We all want something to wonder at, to make us feel deeply. We are all looking for an excuse to dream, a reason to believe that we are capable of heroism.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Running For Home

I've been having a bit of a throwback week. The other night I listened to the Matthew Good Band album 'Underdogs' which was my favourite album in grade 8/9. MGB has a song (off a later album) called Running For Home. I've always loved it. It's the chapter-soundtrack to a chapter in one of my stories. I associate it with that feeling you get every so often, that painful need to be home that instant even if you don't want to go. I keep thinking that someday I'll get my baby grand piano back and learn how to play the song.

I came back to Ottawa with the intention of it being a stop-over point on my way to my ultimate destination (Montreal). I was going to do the social rounds, empty out my storage locker, get rid of a lot of old stuff and then keep heading east to Montreal. Instead I've realize I need to stay for a while. This decision is not made without some serious hesitation. Ottawa is not an easy place for me. I left for a reason. I left because this is where I grew up, and because that life, that family, that person I once was doesn't exist anymore. I can't see this place with the kind of fondness some of my friends must. It is not that safe harbour in the storm. It is not the place you go back to at Christmas. I have not spent a Christmas here since 2005, and that was a wretched experience I have no wish to relive or repeat.

But I need to be here right now. There are people here who I love and who I have missed with all my heart and I am not ready to leave again. I was shocked to hear myself say this last night. I was talking with my father's wife, trying to figure out why I've been stalling finding a job and a place to live in Montreal. I honestly wasn't sure what the hold-up was. I like Montreal. It's a great city. I feel natural as breathing there. Only... I keep holing up in my father's basement ripping apart old dolls clothes to make a quilt instead of looking for a new job or a new apartment in Montreal. I thought I'd want out of here after a week or two, but I don't. That comes as a shock to more that just me.

My papa and I have had a rocky relationship. That tends to happen when your collective world implodes and both of you fall apart, and in falling apart, fall apart. Apart, into pieces, and apart, away from each other.  I've only just got him back, and I don't want to leave that. It's embarrassing how much I've missed him, how much I've missed having a parent. I don't want to move away somewhere inaccessible again so soon. I want to hang out with him, have dinner with him a few times a week, just see him.

And my cousin. I love my cousin, K, so much, and I have missed her so much. Even after not having seen her regularly for what has to be something like 8 years, she and I have fallen into a strange routine of hanging out and talking shop (she's a writer, too) and watching dumb/awesome/silly movies and TV shows. I've missed my family, how we all have strange things in common. Maybe it's genetics, maybe it's just learned behaviour. I don't know if it matters.

There are so many others who I've missed, people I ran away from years ago because I just didn't know how to process their love, because it wasn't the love I needed, the love I'd lost. It wasn't that I didn't appreciate the effort, I just didn't know what to do with it. So I ran west, as far west as I could go without hopping on a boat.

Running away never solves anything. It makes it easier to let go though. What no one tells you is how it feels to come home again, once you've spent enough time away. It's not as hard as I imagined. I don't hate it here. I don't love it here, either, but I don't hate it. It doesn't hurt like I thought it might. That's what I was running from, after all. Pain is never fun, but it's worse when it's everywhere, blanketing a city like permafrost. You can't get warm and fuzzy and feel safe in a place like that. So you run. You run all the way to the ocean, hoping it will be far enough. Maybe it was far enough, but eventually, you get sick of salt water and, like a little salmon, you need to head home to the rivers where you were born.

I'm back, and it feels weird. I'm going to stay a while though. I don't have the heart to leave, even if it does hurt to be back. At least the pain is bearable now, now that I've grown used to the cold.

So here I am, running for home.

Monday, 15 October 2012


It’s the crisp, chemical smell of the ice, of metal slicing through it, the heat of a zamboni melting the surface.

The hum of the generator, the AC on full blast.  The perfect escape in August when you’re sweating off ten percent of your weight in water just sitting in the sun.

Like the hum of a river, constant.  Not the sea that comes in waves crashing to the shore. The noise is perpetual, consistent, like a Buddhist chant.

Trails of skate marks under a layer of freshly melted ice.

Melted and refrozen, the deeper grooves never fully disappearing, creating a layered web of trails, paths that have been carved out, then melted, rewritten.

Ladner, BC
circa 2008

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Wide Awake

That's the Katy Perry song I'm listening to on repeat for no apparent reason. It makes some kind of sense though. "I'm falling from cloud nine" ... I get that feeling, the feeling of falling, reeling back to earth after living in a strange sort of dream state for an extended period of time.

That free fall has been one prolonged state of being for the past two and a half years or so. I realize that's a long time to be free falling, but it's the truth. Sometimes it takes a while for you to realize you're falling instead of flying. Sometimes, you were flying so high for a while that you didn't notice how far you had to fall.

There were a couple of years of my life that I lived in a strange dream-state. 2008. 2009. The first little bit of 2010. And then reality caught up with me and I lost my way and began to lose altitude. At some point I had to come back down to Earth. I'm glad I did though. There were a lot of Earthly matters that needed taking care of. My real life in the real world isn't nearly as much fun as the world I've created in my head, but it's the one that dictates my imaginary world, that decides if and when I can make that imaginary world a reality.

I'm speaking of writing, of course. I'm speaking of the very real, very crappy job I worked for three years, convinced that a job at night (still full-time, 40 hours a week) would allow me to finish a degree I didn't really want to complete and to write the books I actually did want to complete. Life has a funny way of getting in the way. It slithers between your plans like a snake and takes a bite out of you when you least expect it. My job exhausted me. I didn't have the energy to write. I barely had the energy to get out of bed in the mornings. And I hated it, which made it all the more unbearable. Granted, there were things I liked about the job. I could pay all my bills and live comfortably (when I didn't have tuition to pay), and I ... well, I could pay my bills. That's the only really good thing. I met a couple of really good people, people I hope I know for the rest of my life. But that's not enough to keep a person going. (If you don't believe me, work a thankless job for a tiny tyrant with a bad temper for minimum wage for a few months and get back to me...)

I've known I wanted to be a writer for a few years now. I *AM* a writer in that I write things. I write lots of stories. I have an entire, insane, detailed, baffling world in my head. What I really want to be is a Published Writer. I haven't made much of an attempt to make that happen. Yeah, I've sent out a few query letters, but I really haven't thrown myself into it. The reason? For a long time, I questioned myself. I wasn't sure if I was ready to commit myself to something like a novel I'd written, to let it define me.

It's taken me three years to be ready. Three years to be willing to make the effort of writing query letters and trying to sell my stories to someone else, someone who hears this stuff day-in, day-out. Trust me, writing a novel is easier than writing the query letter. For me, at least.

I've never been comfortable 'selling' myself or my work. I've always believed that if someone likes my stuff, they like my stuff and if they don't, they don't. I'm not entirely comfortable telling people why I'm awesome. Don't mistake this for me having self-worth issues, it's more just that I hate having to tell people what to like. I figure we all know what we like and we're not going to be won over by a pretty description.

Only the publishing business is one of selling. I have to sell my story idea (and the manuscript) to an agent, who has to sell it to a publisher, who has to sell it to the readers. That's a lot of selling. I've known this logically for a long time, but I've never been entirely comfortable with it.

A book my cousin lent me, a book about introversion, got me thinking about why all this makes me uncomfortable. The book is 'Quiet' by Susan Cain. It's (nominally) about introversion, but it's also about the shift in Western ideals from that of the Ideal Character (think Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice) to the the Ideal Personality (think any entertainer ever and every pseudo-celebrity of the modern era). It's all about the value of different types of people and the value of different approaches.

It got me thinking that maybe there's a way I might actually be able to write a query letter without feeling like I am selling out. I'm not shy, but I have realized over the past few years that I am quite introverted. This is not a new thing, it's just a better understanding of myself, of what an introvert actually IS, and the realization that I am one. I am confident. I like myself and I can deal well with people in social settings. I am not uncomfortable in my skin. I do, however, need my alone time. I need time to think, time to write, time to be with myself and no one else. I need to be alone in my head, I need time to reflect on things or I become incredibly irritable and deeply unhappy.

This realization has developed over the past few years and it feels a lot like waking up, and being rested enough to see things more clearly. I can see how I left myself fly up into a dreamy stratosphere in 2008 and 2009. I needed to escape my life because it wasn't something I liked. I needed something to believe in, and here was this wonderful daydream of friendship and success and love that was so much more appealing than the slog of everyday life.

Thing is, it wasn't real. It never was real. It was a daydream and I couldn't make it a reality because reality has rules and green cards and the life I really want doesn't really line up with the kind of reality that would get me the things others imagined for me and for themselves as part of that reality. My reality is so simple. I want to write. I want to be happy. I want to belong somewhere. I'm still not sure where I belong, but I'm going to keep looking.