Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
To Russia, with Pen
I’ve noticed a curious trend in my writing recently to do with the setting of my stories. First question of course is how does one “notice” their own trend, aren’t I the one setting them? To that I answer that you’d be surprised what you don’t notice about your writing until you’ve had a chance to step back and take a look. Specifically, in my case I’ve been setting more of my stories in Russia, and with a particular slant to them as well.
Thinking back on my high school churn of short stories, I can’t recall any of them being explicitly set in Russia except one – the mostly autobiographical story of a kid with a heart condition trying to play hockey (don’t worry folks, knock on wood but this seems to have resolved itself – the heart condition, not the hockey, which is an affliction that refuses to leave me). There was another one that was loosely based on the events of one of the bombings of the Russian parliament in the early post-Soviet Union days, but it was set in an otherwise nameless fictional European country. An odd pattern give how much of writing advice is “write what you know”.
This seems to have begun to shift in the past few years.
Firstly, my second novel that I’m currently 70K words into is set predominantly in Russia. You can read more about it here but the gist is that someone who immigrates from Russia as a kid wakes up in his mid-twenties back in Moscow living the life he would have supposedly led if he had never left. Some parts are set in Canada, but otherwise it’s a Russian-set novel through and through.
Secondly, my third long-form writing project, which recently surpassed 15K but is still in the experimental stage is an autobiographical (or possible semi-autobiographical, since I’m still toying with this) accounting of my relationship with my father set against my immigrant experience. Most of this takes place in Canada but since I immigrated after I’d turned thirteen Russia plays a prominent role here as well.
And finally are my short stories. My production of these has slowed down considerably and I think on average I’ve completed about two a year for the last few years. Still, two out of the last four that I’ve worked on are set exclusively in Russia, with a curious common theme between them. The one that I completed last year, “Grisha and Kolya”, follows two kids, one who has a developmental delay and the other who bullies him regardless, not for his disability, but his perceived class privilege. The other, "Snowdrops", is about an older woman living by herself just above the concrete overhang of a Soviet-era apartment block and her struggles with a juvenile delinquent who keeps throwing things out of their apartment to smash right outside her window.
Both of these stories are pure fiction, but draw heavily on my own experience in Russia, including elements of myself lurking in the background, as I use the stories to try to deal with some of of the mistakes from my childhood.
It’s a shift to be sure, and not entirely a mysterious one.
High school wasn’t exactly an encouraging environment for me to explore my Russianness, as I found mostly what my identity earned me was a heavy dose of bullying. This time in my life I was trying to figure just how “Canadian” I could be given my background, and learning how heavy the first part of the hyphenation of “Russian-Canadian” would be.
Over the years, like Canadian society has finally begun to do, I’ve started moving past the “hyphenated” identity, allowing both to exist independently in the amounts that are true to myself and not some externally-dictated vision of what I should be. I think for this reason I’ve felt more comfortable drawing on my Russian influence directly, since each foray no longer threatens to envelop me in an identity crisis in the same way. I’m excited as to where this new direction in my writing will lead me.
My favourite author, Kazuo Ishiguro, set his first two novels in Japan, even though he emigrated from that country at the age of five. Not to say that I’m anywhere close to expecting the same kind of success, but it’s a great source of inspiration, and who’s to say what will happen next.
If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught me anything is that my job has limited public utility in a time of crisis. Don’t get me wrong, I’m plenty busy doing my small part along with thousands of colleagues in helping the largest university in the Province function during these difficult times, but this is background work, like floating cloud #4 in a grade school production. The real difference-makers at this point are healthcare professional, grocery store workers, delivery people, teachers, and many others I have surely missed.
But while I certainly can’t use my lawyering to make the world a brighter place, I was hoping I could at least do something with my writing. I had mentioned in my previous post that art is important to provide hope in troubled times, and while my own contribution to the literary art has been paltry so far, I found something in my completed works that I thought I would share. “Nightfalls” is one of my older stories and I was very fortunate to have it published in The Nashwaak Review last year. So here it follows in its entirety – an earlier rumination on the perseverance of hope in a dark world. I hope you enjoy it.
It was a cold and windy August evening on the West Coast. Beach goers that looked forward to a nice walk in shorts and sandals were bundled up in autumn jackets desperately hiding their necks behind their collars. The circle of the sun had already dipped into the sea, and slowly melted into the water. The sunset licked the sky with beautiful scarlet tongues and many had stopped to take pictures or to simply hold hands and enjoy the solar descent.
Jonas sat on a park bench and read a book, occasionally glancing up at the mountains that were bathed in an increasingly brilliant pink light. To his right there was a stream that ran under a stone bridge and into a pond. A duck had waddled from the stream up to his feet and quacked a few times to get his attention. Jonas peered over the pages of the book and the bird turned its head sideways and waited. Having nothing to pacify the duck with, he reluctantly returned to his novel. The duck continued to stare quizzically, but eventually gave up and clumsily made its way to the next bench.
It was then, in the middle of a sentence, when he turned his head to the west. He didn’t hear anything; no one had heard anything, but no matter what they were doing, they all jerked their heads to the spot where the bloody orange disc of the sun disappeared beyond the horizon. A cold summer evening had turned much colder.
Bored and without a light by which to read, Jonas got up from the bench, scaring the duck back into the water. A chill had made him shiver. This chill didn’t come from the wind that had snuck its way under his jacket, rather, it had come from within, and spread to the tips of his fingers. He felt an overwhelming presence, as if something was bearing down upon him from the heavens, threatening to make him one with the dirt. He looked up and joined the crowd in standing mesmerized with their noses pointed upwards. A river of black birds had bisected the sky, with every creature heading out where the sky met the sea. All had strained to watch the ominous procession until their necks were sore, as black spot after black spot made its pilgrimage west. No one could say where the river had begun, for it still flowed by the time it was dark, and the birds had dissolved into the black of the night. Jonas walked home stepping through puddles, though it hadn’t rained since the Tuesday of the previous week.
Few slept well that night. Most had tossed and turned and stared at their ceilings, making revisions of various livestock in their heads. Some stayed up to read by the light of a desk lamp, while others simply stayed on their porches, and waited for the sun to come up. And they had waited and waited, but the sunrise wouldn’t come.
Jonas found himself sitting up in bed at three in the morning, without a moment’s rest behind him but with no intention of going back to sleep. He thought he could still hear it – the river as it passed over the city, and the many coarse cries of the birds overhead. The sound was lost somewhere in the wind and it got louder every time he closed his eyes. He went to get a drink of water, and then returned to his bed, where he lay on his back and waited with the others.
The first cries of sorrow had quickly turned into a chorus. As the truth took over, one by one the voices realized that they had been robbed. As the morning slowly turned into the afternoon, there were few who could not face it – the sun had refused to return. Jonas went out into the street, hoping that the darkness was merely a figment of his apartment’s imagination. There, underneath the sub-orange glow of a queue of street lamps, lost and confused souls wandered without a purpose. They all shuffled east in an involuntary daze, searching for the love that stood them up. Jonas watched their faces, pale with fear, the eyes glazed over, and he was drawn to join them. But he held back, retreating into the shadows of the building, shutting the door to his room and praying that this cosmic prank would soon end.
Come next morning, the word ‘morning’ had become obsolete. The night had taken over. It proclaimed the earth as its domain and it had begun to seep into every corner and every heart. It transformed everything it touched and it drew the hope out of every victim. There were stories being passed down about how one felt the cold fingers of the night reach deep inside them, and pull out a thin thread and while it pulled you felt cold and empty, and once it was gone you felt fine but different. No one could really say what was changed except they all knew that they lost something and would never get it back. It was swallowed by the night and they needed daylight to find it, and that is when the final traces of hope had begun to wash from humanity.
Yet, few had resolved to live in a world where time was banished to clocks and watches. No one was willing to make a graveyard out of a planet that was united by a single time of day. And so humanity had come together to wretch the day away from the night. They needed to create a new morning, and a new sense of life amidst death. And thus the night had shattered and split in two. The true night became a time when the lights would all go out. Inside and outside, the surface of the Earth would be consumed by shadow, an invented darkness made so that the day could still hold meaning. Only the moon that drifted overhead and the immortal stars pierced the night.
Day was the hum of the television sets and the glow of chandeliers. It was seeing people outside walking their dogs under the street lamps and talking loudly under the neon signs of corner stores. Smiles crept back onto the faces of pedestrians that Jonas passed on his way home. Once more he occasioned to hear laughter, and a little spark of joy invaded his heart.
Yet the merciless night would not cease its onslaught.
It was an evening, sometime in the month of September when all had already retired to their homes and sipped tea by the candlelight and talked about the days filled with sunshine. Like a jug of icy water drained down their shirts they felt something cascade down their spines that made them all jump up and run to look outside. United by a new horror, they all stood by their windows, and watched the skies with tears in their eyes. On the night of a new moon, when the stars were the only sign that the planet had not fallen out of existence and was still drifting through the universe, those little specs of light were extinguished. Like a shower of sparkles at the end of the fireworks they sizzled and died, and everyone knew that they would soon forget what the moon looked like. The night had consumed the world in an impenetrable cloak of darkness, and they were all left to shiver in a blind panic that fell on them every day.
Once again the Earth drifted through space as a dim sphere, as if mankind never invaded it, never decorated its surface with its inventions. In the pitch black of the night, when even if you strained your eyes you couldn’t make out the contours of your own hand, it was hard to imagine that you weren’t the last person left alive. Lovers touched fingertips in the dark, reminding each other that they were not alone. It was a world without a fifth sense; blind and scared. All would fall silent once the lights would go out. Motionless and tense, in the hours when sight was obsolete, they longed to hear the planet breathing, the world still existing, the night not yet delivering its coup de grace.
One evening, when the world was preparing for another night, Jonas couldn’t find a place for himself in his own home. Restless, as if constantly prodded by a thousand little needless, he went outside when everyone else flooded indoors. He walked along emptying streets, peering into the alleyways where the creatures of the night were already stirring into wakefulness. Those people he had passed eyed him suspiciously and he responded by pursing his lips into a feeble specter of a smile. Aimless yet determined, he pushed through the streets against a current he could not see.
Almost an hour later, only minutes before the dawn of a new night, he found himself on a highway. Once, it had bustled with cars racing up and down its six lanes. Now, he sat on the median, his legs dangling off the concrete divider as he slowly scanned in each direction, seeing nothing but the shimmer of downtown in the distance. Across the road from him, beyond the concrete fence that was scratched up by speeding cars, there was a forest. The trees had barely stood out against the sky, but he could still see them sway, and hear the wind that was caught in their leaves. It was a howling sound that was the siren song of nature, drawing people in, and never letting them out.
They’d already begun to forget the sight of an endless ocean sparkling in the sunlight, and the blue sky that stretched for miles. Forests were gaping black traps that threatened to consume anyone who dared to try to find their way through. Nature had shut its gates and people were reduced to wandering a world of grey concrete and tinted glass, all illuminated by the barren glow of electricity.
His gaze was pushed back onto the highway, his mind warning him about the dangers of daydreaming. Far off to his left where the road went over the hill, he thought he saw someone else. The figure lethargically roamed across the street and disappeared into the shadows of the forest.
Even in large crowds that flooded the streets during the day, Jonas felt alone. Though around him he could see faces, human faces by all accounts, he still felt like he was the only living organism that bobbed in a sea of marionettes. Phantoms that were sent to bring nothing but deceit. Now, in the presence of a shadow he couldn’t be sure was human, he felt the loneliness budge and begin to slip away. He felt that he was not alone, that there was still another soul that drifted like him, in need of answers, instead of just accepting the night, embracing it, and letting it fill every pore. There was still dreaming in the world, naïve as it may have been.
He dwelled on that silhouette as he sat in the middle of the road. What had they come for and where had they gone? What did they think of all of this and had they been able to think at all? Had it been a he or a she? The possibility of a conversation stirred in him a fearful curiosity. It had been months since he talked to anyone. By then he was sure that he would end his days by dissolving into the dark of the night and not reappearing the next morning. He’d be forgotten faster than the moon.
The word had jolted to life an image that had been hibernating for longer than he wanted to admit. He looked up at the sky in the vain hope that he may see a sliver of a crescent, and for the first time ever he saw the unreal beauty of the street lights. They stood defiantly, and they kept the darkness out. They protected him and asked for nothing in return. Like sentinels over a flickering candle they kept the feeble flame alive, so those like Jonas could live to look at them and be thankful.
He hopped down from the concrete slab of the median and the dull echo rolled out over the asphalt. As he walked towards the nearest lamppost, he could hear the sound of his every foot step, in sync with the heartbeats that told him that he was still alive. The short walk felt like a trek; like a journey across a desert whose destination was a drop of dew hanging from a single leaf. He stood under the street light – dead centre of the circle it had drawn on the ground. There was no sound on the street except for the trembling of the light bulb over his head.
He closed his eyes and let the light shine on his face. Behind the murky red glow of his eye lids he imagined the sun. He imagined that instead of the cool wind blowing over his face he felt the warmth sent down from above. At any moment he could open his eyes and be beautifully blinded, and walk around with a green patch floating wherever he looked. He breathed in what he imagined was a warm summer breeze, until he couldn’t take in anymore. As he exhaled, the bulb let out a quiet ‘snap’ and the trembling stopped.
He could no longer tell whether his eyes were open or closed. He blinked in the darkness. He could still see the faint outline of the bulb, but it was merely the dying retinal image – the mind grasping for as long as it could. While his eyes adjusted, the phantom image disappeared, and he was left with nothing. He continued to look up.
There was a sky above him, though he couldn’t be sure. Once, so long ago that he had to wonder whether it was true, it had been littered with stars. The Milky Way was a silver river that flowed from one horizon to the next, and the moon washed fields in a pure blue light. During the day, the sky would be on fire, torched by a mythical creature called ‘the sun’. Now the sky made its own colours. On the dark background, Jonas began to make out dancing waves of navy blue, and slivers of a black violet. There was a tinge of decaying green and the morbid hue of a scabby brown. The shapes and patterns danced in his vision, the night showing all its best evening dresses. He could no longer tell whether this vision was real, or came from inside him – the labour of a mind still longing for wonders. The twisted kaleidoscope continued to spin.
Dizzy, and almost falling into the void that engulfed him, he suddenly heard a ‘pop’ to his left. It came from above, and sounded like a burst of air escaping through tightly shut lips. He turned his head in the direction of the sound, and that’s when he saw it. It glowed with a piercing white light that was almost green and fell from the sky in a smooth arc. It was chased by a long flowing tail that broke apart at its tip into a myriad sparks. A star cast down from the heavens, but nothing like the shooting stars he had seen while bright skies still existed.
The sight of the beautiful glow rushed through his mind and beat its way through hardened layers to reignite him. He watched the shooting star wide-eyed, and with his mouth agape, tracing the line of its movement. It couldn’t have lasted for more than a minute but it felt like hours, like a whole other lifetime had passed before it hit the ground and disappeared in the fields beyond the road.
Once again he was left in the impenetrable dark, yet this time, it could not penetrate into him. He felt the glow from the star inside him, radiating, pushing the black out and keeping it frustrated and stalking around him. Without a second thought, he ran. He ran though he couldn’t see anything around him, couldn’t even be sure he moved at all. The blackness remained unchanged, though he could hear his footsteps and he could feel his breath getting shorter.
Quickly, he felt a sharp pain in his knees and he fell forward. His hands caught something coarse and he knew they were scraped. He cursed himself for forgetting about the concrete median. He climbed over it, and limped across the other side of the highway, knowing that another obstacle awaited him at the end. His steps were impatient, and his heart was racing, and as soon as he felt the slab tap his knee he let go of thinking. Immediately he hopped over and found himself rolling down a small hill and landing into some tall grass. Picking himself up, he bolted once again in the direction of where he saw the star fall into the fields.
He had no idea how far away it was, nor how much he ran. He was only aware of the uneven surface under his feet and the uncomfortable burning that was building in his chest. The air smelled of damp earth and decaying hay. There was something so natural and untainted in that aroma he was sure that he was alone. Humans did not exist, could not exist, but were rather a legend passed between the different parts of his mind.
There was a ditch separating two fields and he found himself elbow deep in sludgy water. He could hear the drops drip into the ditch water as he pulled out his hands. He couldn’t see what was on them and he was glad of it. In the blinding darkness, Jonas could hear the wind knocking the reeds against each other, but the water was so still it made no sound. He heard the whisper of rustling stalks rolled across the field ahead of him. He could feel that it was close, sensed that it fell somewhere nearby and that with this last stretch he could reach it.
He climbed out of the depression and burst into the thicket of waste-high wheat. He pushed past the grass while he was pulled along on the invisible line he drew for himself. He was sure he had long veered off-course; made a circle. He was squinting and cringing in anticipation of finding himself tripping onto the highway again, and bleeding onto the asphalt in defeat. He would lie there until morning, when the lights would come on again and someone would find him. And then he would go home and watch the sun on TV and cry. He hadn’t cried since it started.
When he thought that he must have passed it, he almost did. Standing and wheezing, he looked down onto the faint glow pulsating from the broken soil. He fell to his knees, exhausted. The sweat stained his face and trickled down his back. He could taste it on his lips that were dry from heavy breathing. There was a sharp pain in his chest, and if he had fallen down then and died it would not have surprised him. Yet it had all begun to melt away. The pain faded, the sweat no longer bothered him. There was no sound and no more cold, and the wind had ceased to howl. Instead there was only the tranquility of a cocoon that wrapped itself around Jonas as the faint glow reflected in his pupils.
Gently, he pushed his trembling hands through the dirt and scooped it out. She was a perfect sphere. Alive with its own light, almost blinding and hurting. He looked around and saw that the wheat was still golden like it had been in August. The forest beyond the highway was flush with green, the trees looking like living giants instead of swaying skeletons. When he looked up he could see that the sky directly above him was tinted blue – a slight break that made it seem like the whole thing had cast off the shadow. He laughed. And he let his tears fall onto the star where they disappeared. For the first time since the sunset, it rained, and again the birds had begun to sing. Jonas knew how lucky he was to be there; he trembled at the thought. To be there when the raindrops pattered on the soil and the chirps filled the air. To be there clutching the precious fallen star. To be there when it started. A hailstorm of light.
A year ago, shortly before I started this blog, I was a writer with only a single published credit to my name – a third-place finish in a contest run by a trade journal. Just under a year later, I have three literary journal publication credits, and recently reached a new exciting milestone – my first publication in a physical printed journal.
Yesterday my copy of the Nashwaak Review Volume 40/41 arrived, and it contained one of the most exhilarating things for a writer – my name in print. Although I talked a bit about my short story “Nightfalls” and its acceptance last year, I once again want to thank everyone involved with the Nashwaak Review at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick who saw merit in my story and thought it was worthy to be published in their journal. Without your hard work and dedication, writers like me may never be able to find a platform to share their writing.
It was pretty exciting showing the journal off to everyone, and particularly pointing out to my kids their dad’s name in the journal. They’re both huge bookworms and it was such a special feeling showing them that their dad contributes to these things, too. The older one assumed it was a published version of the bedtime story I’ve been crafting for them for weeks, and I said maybe one day. Because this is a print publication I’m not able to share it with you directly, but you may find it at your local library if you’re in the New Brunswick area, or else order it from them directly. Either way, I wanted to talk a bit more about the story itself, hopefully serving up some helpful advice along the way.
Without retelling the whole story here, I first want to touch on what Nightfalls is about. The premise is that one day, the sun sets and it never rises again. Eventually, the light from the moon and the stars also disappears, and humanity is forced to create its own cycle of day and night by regularly shutting off all the lights and plunging the world into impenetrable darkness.
The story follows the protagonist, Jonas, as he struggles with his own feelings of hopelessness, despair, and apathy in a world cast into inexplicable darkness, until he discovers something that may just bring back a light of hope into a dark world. As you can see, an element of magic realism that was present in my first publication, Ursa Major, and to a lesser extent in Slippers, is also present in this story. It seems to be my most successful genre so far, which has got me to rethinking my writing lately.
Often I hear of new writers who say they’re bursting with creative energy, but they don’t know what to write. I think “Nightfalls” is the perfect example of the fact that inspiration can strike from anywhere. I was driving down a dark highway from a friend’s wedding, contemplating my existence up until that point, and wondered what it would be like if the streetlights up ahead were the only light left in the world. Granted, the formation of the story itself was more involved than that, but that is essentially all it took – a single thought on the drive home. So if you want to be a writer, and you’re searching for something to write, don’t try to have the next great novel implanted firmly in your head before you write the first word. All it takes is a single image, as ephemeral as a shooting star, to start putting your story together.
“Nightfalls” ended up being deeply personal to me. Though starting off as a casual thought it quickly grew into something bigger. If I recall the timing correctly, I had just graduated with my Bachelors and was ready to go to law school. I attended the wedding of a good high school friend and ruminated on the difference between my high school self and who I had become four years later, perhaps convincing myself I was now so mature when the next decade would bring arguably even bigger changes. I needed to both self-reflect, put a lid on some things, and do something kind at the end of a long journey. So I ended up gifting this story to my married friend and her husband.
While not a love story, “Nightfalls” is about hope, and every long-term relationship should be built in some way on hope. Hope for a limitless future with your partner. The story is about finding light at the end of a tunnel, and when you end up with someone you love as much as you love the whole world, that’s what it should feel like – that everything before was a little bit bleaker.
Nightfalls was written ten years ago and it showed its age. My writing had advanced significantly since then, and it underwent a couple of “post-completion” revisions over the years. My wife has long tried to convince me to leave my old writing alone. She is right of course but there was something about some of those old stories I couldn’t let go. So as I picked up my publication efforts in earnest earlier this year, I thought that now that I was in my thirties I would give some of them a final coat of polish, promising myself that if they didn’t get published in this form to just accept it and move on. I don’t know about you, but I develop a sort of familial attachment to old completed works, especially ones that have sat in the “good” pile for so long. It brings me immense joy to finally see it succeed.
But at the same time, I wound up sitting on conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I know I need to move on and not dwell over things conceived and written when I was essentially a different person. Yet on the other hand, I want to bring these stories to life and share them with the world. I think what it ultimately comes down to is the same thing that applies to any writing rules, and that is that there are no hard rules that are applicable to everyone in every situation. That’s why I recommend taking each piece of writing advice you sea not as a piece of a puzzle or another step in this grand instruction manual of writer-hood, but rather as an ingredient to throw in a pot. Some ingredients you use more, others less, the flavours interact with each other in different ways, and at the end of the day, you get the kind of writer that you’re comfortable with. So do you in the best way only you know you can.
As recently as my previous post I mentioned that I had a few short stories accepted earlier last year that were still waiting on their publication. Well I had a pretty pleasant start to the new year and am happy to report that “Slippers” has now been published on the Prairie Journal website. You can find it at the following link by clicking my name in the left column that lists author names under “2019” and then selecting “Slippers” rather than “Biography” from the drop down that appears: "Slippers" on the Prairie Journal website.
I can’t express enough the gratitude I have to the Prairie Journal editors who have found merit in my story and have so kindly helped me share it with the rest of the world. Also quite happy that it’s an online publication so I can easily share with you all another piece of my writing.
“Slippers” had originally been written as an entry to The Advocate’s annual short story competition. The Advocate is a publication for British Columbia lawyers that includes academic writing, columns and local legal news, but also does this annual writing competition where each submission has to be at least tangentially related to something about the law. The Advocate was actually the publication that gave me my first big break. Back in 2013, my short story “Spider Silk” won third place in the competition and was published in their July issue.
“Spider Silk” was a dense story into which I managed to pack the entire court proceedings for an emancipation application of a domestic android. His main argument? He was in love, and therefore deserved the same rights as humans, instead of being sold for parts because his owner hit some rough financial times. It was a soft science fiction story (or is it “speculative fiction”? I can’t keep up) reminiscent of my earlier writing in terms of content but obviously not in writing quality otherwise it would have never gotten published.
I had prepared a number of short story for the same contest since then but none have won. With “Slippers”, it wasn’t much a surprise – the connection to law is fairly remote considering the winners that get picked year after year, and the protagonist could have been easily working in any number of high-demand professions.
I guess this story would have come about when I started feeling my first pangs of burnout at the law firm, before I’d taken any of the steps to get out and go in-house. That would explain why I don’t exactly treat that type of work-life “balance” kindly in the story.
As for the story itself, I’m afraid there’s not much more than meets the eye, unlike my long-winded rant about everything that went into my last published story, "Ursa Major". I wanted to explore this sense of emptiness that comes with the loss of a loved one. The emptiness was then contrasted with the personified demons that move into the house in earnest and fill in the empty space. It is a story about the dark that invades when the light retreats, and how to find that spark to push back the demons once more.
Fun fact here is how I visualized the little demons that haunt my protagonist. I based them largely on the gremlin that takes apart the school bus from that “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” parody in the Simpsons’ Little Treehouse of Horror IV, except without the hair and the overbite. Probably one of my first early clues of how much animation is an influence on my writing and how my writing works best when imagined as animation rather than “real life”. This is a realization that has been slowly dawning on me over the last year and I’m sure I will share more about that later.
So there it is, hope you have enjoyed my story and a little peak into the process behind it. Hopefully there are many more to come.
Try Us Again
For those of you that have been following me over the last year, you would have seen me talk about how seriously I have taken my publication efforts this year. To be clear, I don’t have any finished novels as of today, so these efforts have focused on my short stories.
In 2018, through perseverance in the face of an endless string of rejections, many lunchtimes spent in front of Netflix and publisher websites and with, of course, a little bit of luck, I managed to get my short story, Ursa Major, published on the Passages North website.
I’ve received another three acceptances since then, though none of them have yet to culminate in actual publications, but by early summer, I found that I exceeded my own expectations for the year. And I’m glad that left me flying high, because it seems that my well of good luck was tapped dry. Since then it’s been an endless string of rejections, and because of my very concerted efforts to keep sending submissions, the rejections have been a real deluge in the latter half of 2018 (by the way, the busiest time for these has been Christmas, so … thanks for that, I guess?).
So this is when you stare at all those unfortunalies and regretablies and “pls delete this number” (okay, that one didn’t happen but I’m not the only one who reads this in between the lines, right?) and dig deep for a little self-administered pep talk.
Firstly, you’re never alone. Not to say that you can’t indulge in complaining and self-pity once in a while just because everyone experiences it, but that you don’t have to feel so lonely about it. You’re not the most miserable writer in the world because you received three rejections in one week. We’re all out there doing more or less the same thing, pouring our hearts and souls into a piece of writing that we then willfully submit for the judgement of others.
Sometimes we’ll get unequivocal but politely-worded ‘no’s, but sometimes even in the rejection we’re able to find a ray of light. It was one of these instances that prompted me to write this post – three short words that can act as a hook to hang my hopes on.
A couple of months ago I mailed a short story to a fairly prestigious journal (I don’t want to name names because I’m not sure what the etiquette is on that but let’s just say if they ever publish me I will be pretty dang ecstatic). I checked the mail on New Year’s Eve and found an envelope that was addressed to me in my own handwriting. I still get this giddy feeling of excitement and dread any time I get one of my self-addressed envelopes back, and it makes me miss the days when most submissions were done by mail rather than through Submittable or other online submission portals.
As I’m opening the envelope, I can tell the contents is pretty thin so I kind of know what to expect at that point, and out falls a small piece of paper that accounts for their form rejection letter. The name of the short story is handwritten at the top, the generic rejection text apologizes for the form letter, but at the bottom of the note they added a short message: “Try us again”.
I don’t live in a world of four and five-star Amazon reviews, or bestseller lists, or author signing tables. I live in a world where three short words like “try us again” can mean the difference between looking down and looking up. It means there’s an editor out there who chose not to publish my story, but gave me hope that it was mostly the work of serendipity. They, who read hundreds if not thousands of short stories a year, asked me to send them one more, and that to me means the world.
It’s a funny feeling, trying to build some wings out of such a small phrase, but therein lies my advice to you. I think there is a temptation among writers, especially those starting out, to glamorizing the suffering of the art. We shouldn’t derive inspiration from the grind, or from proving ourselves or others wrong, or from whatever sense of suffering and conquest we feel as we write.
Instead, look for the brightness that breaks through the dark. Did someone like your turn of phrase? Did they complement you on your vocabulary? Did they point out how concise that email was? Did anyone ever say to you “well said” or to “keep writing”? Take every single one of these instances and build yourself a fire. Even if you’re not finding traditional writing success, this is what makes you a writer. The world isn’t able to ignore what you are and in that you can find comfort.
Don’t clutch those rejections tightly but let them flow through you, discarding them like autumn leaves ready for the spring buds. So with that simple note that arrived on the eve of the new year, I have my motto for the next one: try us again. And with that, I will keep trying. I will continue my existing efforts of getting published, I will write more new stories, and I will try new things that may or may not succeed. And I encourage you to do the same: forget Yoda’s “Do or do not, there’s no try” and build all those tries into a ‘do’.
Silence - A Christmas Short
There are times when I occasionally want to write out a scene without any intention of it growing into anything bigger. I think of these little side projects as self-inflicted writing prompts. Depending on my mood, they may be more or less like free-writes, but the goal is to just write without much concern over how it would fit into a short story or a novel. Sometimes they are a tidbit of lore from a larger work, but again, they’re written for the sake of writing, and can always be reworked (even if I’m just using the tip of the iceberg) into something else. Since I have no intention of incorporating these little writing assignments into anything, I figured that this blog would be the perfect place to share them.
This particular piece came out of me brainstorming what I would make “a lonely New York Christmas” look like. So without any further backstory, here a piece called “Silence”. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone, my next update will come in the newly minted 2019.
The peppermint stick came to rest against the lip of a mug that proudly bore the epithet “novelty-sized”. Carefully dipping the tip of her tongue into the hot chocolate, Nora decided that it was just on the right side of scalding, and should last for the whole opening of the movie, in time for Buddy the Elf to walk through the Lincoln Tunnel after crossing the sea of swirly twirly gum drops. The movie had been her fireplace since she was a kid – the radiant glow she could warm herself with during the holiday season.
Nora crossed the three steps from her kitchen counter to the couch, which was another generous two steps from the door to her bedroom. The snow was heavy enough to fall through the narrow gap between her building and the one next door and the fat flakes outside the window glittered in the reflected glow of the television set.
Her phone responded to her readiness to settle in for the evening by ringing. His name came up on the caller ID, and after a game of chicken with the answering machine, she finally picked up. Following an exhausted silence, the voice on the other end of the line spoke, “Nora?”
She took another deep breath before acknowledging his existence. “Yes, Spencer?”
“I’m in New York.”
It wasn’t the opening she had hoped for but at the same time it didn’t surprise her. Her patience for her older brother’s voice was limited and if this was what he was going to spend it on, then she was glad to know he hadn’t changed a bit and she could continue to brood on her feelings guilt-free.
“Okay,” then, magnanimously, “for how long?”
“Okay.” She wished there was a verbal equivalent of texting someone with a lowercase ‘k’, but this had to do. She wondered why he was calling, today of all days, after more than three years of silence, and then a thought struck her. “You’re just stuck overnight because of the snow, aren’t you?”
After the guilty sigh from the other end of the line finally came she put her phone in her lap and looked at it with her thumb poised over the hang-up button. Faint whimpering sporadically emanated from the receiver, including a drawn out “Hello?” She blamed the overwhelming smell of peppermint, and the twinkling of multicoloured lights from the neighbour’s window, for her putting the phone to her ear again. “What?”
“It’s Christmas Eve,” he stated matter-of-factly, as if it was the only reminder she needed to invite him over for some hot ham and turkey, so they could drink spiked eggnog and reminisce about that hilarious time he moved out without even warning her.
“Merry Christmas?” There was only a faint trace of a question, as if the question mark had been hastily erased but its ghostly outline remained.
“Merry Christmas I guess.”
“So what are you up to?” He permitted a bit of pep, a morsel of hope, to enter his voice.
“It’s Christmas Eve, Spencer,” she got up from the couch and walked to the window. An inch of snow had settled on the lid of the dumpster below, “I’m out with friends.” Yes, at the quietest house party ever thrown in Manhattan.
A lot had been dredged up the moment she saw the caller ID, memories she thought she was doing a good job of burying. Waking up that morning and finding a note slipped under her bedroom door, saying he couldn’t handle their parents anymore, paragraphs explaining what he had to endure as if she hadn’t seen it herself and was with him on the receiving end all her life, failing to even casually slip in a hint of apology. The three months it took her to finish her senior year and then another three before she scraped together enough money and courage to move out. Hearing from mutual friends rumours about how well he seemed to be doing while she went through the gauntlet of humiliating first jobs in a city that had too many stories like hers to care for her personally. Finally feeling settled into her new life even though most dinners were prepared in the microwave and Christmas Eve was spent with a Will Ferrell movie. Pushing deep inside the bile she tasted whenever she imagined her role model and protector just chickening-out one morning and leaving her to grow up overnight and learn to fend for herself. And the pride knowing that wherever he was, she had more dignity crammed into her tiny apartment then he would ever get to know for the rest of his life. The things she imagined she would get to tell him if they ever came face-to-face to remind him that he never even deserved a sister.
She stirred her hot chocolate. It was no longer perfect, but it was not the only thing that cooled. With his pathetic little ‘oh’, that betrayed all the guilt that went into delaying this call and then finally making it, her anger had cracked as well. The first couple of rocks shifted as a precursor to a landslide that she knew she now had no hope of stopping.
“Yes?” Another clattering of rocks.
She let him ruminate for a long moment on a deep sigh.
“Next time you’re in New York … call me.”
He spoke more eloquently with his silences than he ever could with his own words.
“Thanks,” and after a pause, “Bye Nora.”
“Goodbye Spencer,” she said and hung up.
She put her phone on silent and placed it on the kitchen counter. Outside, a siren wailed through the streets. Someone was having a worse Christmas Eve than she was.
Spencer was right. He never said anything, he never had to in front of her, but he was right. She let herself grow deaf to his prolonged silence. Across the city, and soon to be across the country, they shared something again. A faint shimmering star of hope. And the responsibility to keep its little flame alive.
Ursa Major - the bear who came
I’m flying pretty high right now. I received some good news on the eve of my first week off in eight months and that is that my short story, Ursa Major, got posted on the Passages North bonus content website. I’ve shared the news of its acceptance in an earlier post, but now it’s become a reality so I wanted to let you guys know that you can read the whole thing here.
Once again, a big thank you to the folks at Passages North who saw something in my story and decided to share it with the world. You’ll always have a special place in my heart.
I recommend reading the story before you move on with this entry, as I’m about to write about my writing, which will either be the really easy, or I’m about to have regrets.
Firstly, I want to say, I have no idea how this whole thing started. This is probably the most unusual of my stories, but looking at Nightfalls, the other story that’s scheduled to be published in December, it’s perhaps not entirely out of character. Just one day I happened to be brainstorming and thought of the first line in a form quite similar to the final version. What if someone had an appointment with a bear?
The next natural question was of course why would someone have an appointment with a bear? No, scratch that. My first thought was whether I was losing my mind, and when I reasonably concluded that I was probably still sane, that’s when I went deeper into the story.
The next inspiration came from Babylon 5, my favourite sci-fi television show whose praises I have sung before and will sing again at any given opportunity. Very early in the series, a character named Londo Mollari of the Centauri claims that his people have recurring dreams of their death, and G’Kar, one of the other main characters in the show, was the man he always dreamed would choke the life out of him. If you want to find out more, better watch the series, but I won’t spoil it here. It was just such a delicious plot device to examine choice and destiny, it seemed perfect for a story where a pre-scheduled meeting can be arranged with a wild animal. There’s one more very subtle B5 reference in there. Let me know if you can spot it.
So with the first line and that element in place, the story kind of rolled along. But it’s a prime example of never shying away from seeking inspiration wherever you can find it. The layout of the cabin in my mind was mostly based on this vacation home in Egmont, British Columbia where we hosted my best friend’s bachelor party. The childhood dream sequence was based on the first nightmare I can remember, except there the villain was a wolf (there’s a Russian lullaby that very nonchalantly tells you not to sleep on the edge of a bed or a grey wolf will chomp on your side. Thanks for that, motherland). And that bit where the narrator bites his own arm to fool the bear into thinking he tasted gross, was based on my own night-time ingenuity, except it actually worked while dream-me smirked: “Stupid bear; I’m delicious.”
As much as the mostly nonsensical narrative was fun to write, before it was done I had a pretty good idea of what it was about. And I decided to double down on my interpretation, trying to hammer the point home like a screw. By the time the first draft was done, it was about 25% longer than the final product. It didn’t feel right. So don’t worry, it never does. It’s okay to question your writing because sometimes you produce a block of misshapen stone. But that sculpture is still hiding somewhere inside.
So I trimmed all the parts where I thought I was beating my reader over the head with what I was trying to say. Philosophical thoughts that perhaps sounded good on their own (or horribly pretentious, I guess we’ll never know since into the dustbin they went) sounded shoehorned-in when read in context.
So off I went, murdering my darlings without shame until arriving almost at the version that you now see.
But something still didn’t feel right. Like a picture hung on the wall that’s stubbornly askew. And so it sat, in a form that I thought was final, for a few weeks, with me occasionally reading the last couple of paragraphs trying to figure out not only what it was missing, but what it ultimately was trying to say. The theme was there in my head from early on, but not its essence. Like many of my readers, I too was confronted by a work that just came out me and offered no explanation and apology. It was a different sort of feeling. Normally I’d set out on my writing with a goal in mind and tailor it to that goal. But this was different. The writing came first, and the goal one day just clicked into place.
I can’t tell you how I figured it out, mostly because I don’t want to tell you what “it” was. I’ve got my own interpretation and I think most interpretations are as legitimate as mine, unless completely antithetical to my writing. In any case, I arrived at my own personal version of what the ending was about, and realized that I needed one final brushstroke to bring it completely in line with that vision.
And thus the penultimate paragraph was formed and sealed the oddest tale I have spun to date.
I’ve had people tell me the story made them laugh, others who said it made them pause. Others still who rightfully chastised me for sending them into the dictionary – my vocabulary here was admittedly self-indulgent. It’s been really cool to see people react to my writing. It’s one of the reason why I write, not just for the pleasure of it but to see the effect it has on people.
It’s like being in a relationship and feeling your partner’s body react to your touch. I feel a similar intimate emotion when others comment on my writing. So I hope Ursa Major had an effect on you, whatever that might be.
Counting my chickens
I’m going to go ahead and count my chickens. Mostly because they’re already in the process of hatching, but also because I’m pretty darned excited about these chickens. I’ve been trying to get my short stories published since I was in high school. Back then, my methods were crude, and submission guidelines were at best skimmed, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up on some lifetime blacklists across literary journals in Canada. Let the past stay in the past, unless you want to revel in my pain and read a bit more about my old writing exploits.
My efforts had become more organized and respectful over the years, but they still bore no fruit. My greatest short story success was from The Advocate, which is a publication produced by the Law Society of British Columbia and distributed mostly to BC lawyers. It’s an industry journal, but they do run an annual short story competition for stories that in some way relate to the topic of law and lawyers. So my first official publication was when my short story “Spider Silk” won third-place in their competition and scored me a $100 gift certificate to Chapters. And as much as I will be eternally grateful to the judges at The Advocate for my first break, I hungered for that literary publication.
Then I decided that this was going to be the year. It sounds stupid and simple but it was neither of those things. I wanted this to be done. I needed this to be done. So I rolled up my sleeves, threw myself into research of publications, created spreadsheets to track my progress (I’m all about the charts), finished new stories and refreshed older drafts. 2018 would be the year that I would finally break through.
And it seems that it’s exactly what’s happening. After wave upon wave of rejections crashing over me, Passages North, the annual literary journal sponsored by Northern Michigan University, has kindly chosen to publish my short story “Ursa Major” in their online bonus content. It was the shortest story I had every written (about 1,700 words), so it’s a perfect fit for an online platform. And once it’s up on their website, I would be able to share it with all of you, which is basically the icing on the cake.
It felt like a glacier had all but slid off my chest. Once you’ve heard the word ‘no’ a hundred times, none of those stories about famous authors getting a tonne of rejections really provide any comfort anymore. You feel like you’re going to be that one writer who’s just not good enough. And then it happens that you made something you love and someone else loves it too, and suddenly you feel years of battered self-esteem come falling off.
I barely had enough time to bask in the glow of this success, when I got another email. Now one of my older stories “Nightfalls”, one I refused to stop believing in, has been picked up by the Nashwaak Review to be published towards the end of this year. So thank you to the good folks at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick for the opportunity to be published in Canada.
And just like that, after a decade and a half of misses I now have two hits.
Now here’s where we get to those proverbial chickens. I’m not an overly superstitious person, but I have my quirks. This one I probably got from my dad who would often tell clients: “See you next week, unless something happens.”
“What might happen?” They would inevitably ask, and then he would shrug and respond: “I dunno, I could die.”
So I do have this sense of too-good-to-be-true dread that this, too, will die. But my excitement outweighs the fear, which is why I’m sharing this with you now even though the actual publications are still a ways away. I will of course be posting more about it closer to the dates, unable to contain my giddiness.
I know it sounds a bit dumb but my happiness about this can’t be understated. Something that has formed a part of my internal identity for so many years has finally become a part of my external identity as well. You can read a little bit more in this entry about how long I’ve been writing, and it’s really humbling to have those efforts paid off.
So thank you for staying tuned in the meantime and hopefully these are just the first steps for more exciting things to come.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.