A story about love

January began with a ton of work on my novel: two meetings of Shut Up & Write with the Quebec Writers’ Federation, writing dates with my friend Lisanne, submitting to my writing workshop again. To keep from getting burnt out, I also like to take time to work on side projects, and since I’d told myself that I’d pitch to any Confabulation theme that inspired a story, I haven’t stopped.

February’s theme was “First Comes Love…?” and what love story is more important to me than the one that had me pick up my life, learn another language, and settle over a thousand miles away from home?

I got the news on my way to work after Shut Up & Write. Lisanne got to see me jump up and down on the métro like a fool, then we parted ways and I worked my last shift at Mohawk Barbier. I had the pleasure of workshopping my story with Deb VanSlet, who I had just seen perform a story at January’s show, “Rites of Passage,” so I knew I was in good hands.

This is a story I have told countless times in countless ways, because everyone wants to hear how a boy from the heart of Cajun Country ended up relocating to Montreal, where the winds blow as cold as -40 (it’s the same in Celsius and Fahrenheit) in the dead of winter. In its simplest form, boy meets boy, boy visits boy, boy learns French and gets married and moves to another country. Heartwarming!

Of course, real life is a bit less bright and shiny—I am divorced, after all—but for a moment I did feel that way, and looking back I really feel an overwhelming fondness for a choice that has led to so many amazing experiences. It was lovely to call on those memories and relive that bubbly beginning, and to share it with a room of strangers.

There’s something magical about it, and that’s why I’ll keep pitching and keep sharing stories.

In other news, I attended my first meeting of the Violet Hour Book Club, where I said basically nothing, but enjoyed listening to others talk about queer literature. We had read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, which stunned me with its beauty and heartbreak and world so greatly removed from my own. I can’t wait to find out what we’re reading next.

My writing workshop also met for the first time this year! I’ve done so much work on the novel that it was hard to remember what I had submitted; the new first two chapters. Just like back in the day with Yggdrasil, I started the story a little too late, and needed to go back and establish some things. So these were the first two out of eight or so chapters that detail Simon’s time in Montreal before he flies down to Louisiana. I have some characters to flesh out, some scenery to paint in greater detail, and some voices to differentiate. It was great to get feedback again, especially the comments highlighting what I need to fix. I mean, it’s also great to hear what people think I’m doing well, but it’s those blind spots that make beta readers essential to any project.

Upcoming projects include a couple of submissions I’m eyeing, each of which would require me to write a new piece. I’ve got a concrete idea for the one with the later deadline. I’ve also drafted a story for Enfabulation, donc c’est en français and doesn’t that scare the shit out of me, but there’s a first time for everything.

I have already been a member of the Quebec Writers’ Federation for an entire year, most of which I’ve been active, attending events and meeting people and participating in workshops. What a year it’s been. Maybe I’ll have to write about that next; I love my cheesy little inventories of what I’m grateful for and blah blah blah. I’m a sap, I just have to dose the moment with a sufficient taste of sarcasm before things get too saccharine.

Now how do I have Simon tell Fabien some version of the story I told last Saturday? 🤔

Momentum and mountains

One of my most common excuses for not doing writing is that I don’t have a decent place to write. Since September of last year, I have a home office, but it hasn’t felt like an inviting place: there have been boxes and recyclable bags left unpacked since the move, the bare walls make a horrible echo, and there’s been a spare monitor at my feet when I sit at my desk.

No more.

I’ve been tackling various parts of my home in the past few days, finally claiming these spaces instead of leaving projects unfinished. I alphabetised my DVD rack and pared down my collection to what fit on the shelves. I mounted a painting, a canvas, and a poster. I came into my home office and emptied boxes.

One of these boxes was filled with a stack of papers that I had basically packed that way, the mountain on top of the file cabinet. Tax documents for annual income, investment and loan statements, the instruction manual for my toaster oven. Luckily, I bought hanging folders and labels years ago, so I started sorting through the pile, making a new folder whenever it was necessary (FIVE just for writing!). In short order, the mountain had been ground down and sifted into separate containers, clearly identified, easy to find if need be.

I had started with a simple task, and let the momentum from that carry me until the office was nearly done! I did take a break to eat something—this the result of ONE cup of coffee—and instead of returning to the physical stuff, I updated my CV and came here. Still time well spent, imo.

These are all things that I could have done at any time during the past four months, though I expect my neighbours are grateful I don’t typically use the hammer after dark. It just seemed like so much, and the thought of even starting with one tiny thing felt impossible. I at least had to clear a space and take down a box and grab a marker… it becomes easy to make excuses, easier to maintain them, even in the face of guilt.

I gave myself the benefit of having started and completed other projects, like reorganising my DVDs. I also put on an energetic playlist and had caffeine singing in my veins. I may have a box, a pair of rollerblades, and some paper garbage to take care of; but that seems like nothing against the mountain of papers I’ve already conquered. I’ll get it done.

I’m a writer because I write

Last year was amazing in terms of establishing who I am as a writer in my own mind. I have struggled with this identity in the past, especially since any declaration is immediately followed with the question, “What have you published?” It’s a common measure of a writer’s worth; since I have nothing published, I often felt worthless as a writer.

My therapist was the one to suggest that I join a community of writers. This led me to a state of panic; who am I compared to these “real” writers, will they judge me, and so on. I have found support and encouragement and friendship within the Quebec Writers’ Federation, and that has done a lot to fuel my creative drive. Even before I met anyone from the organisation, I threw myself into my work so that I would have something of substance to discuss with these other writers.

I have started a new novel that I have a deep emotional connection to. I have participated in a storytelling workshop and found a new way to create and express myself that is extremely gratifying. I have further solidified in my mind that I am a writer, despite having nothing published, because I write.

So what have I been writing lately?

Work on the novel continues at a satisfying pace. I am nearly at 30,000 words, and I believe I can finish a rough draft by spring. My bid for publication continues as I submit short stories to literary reviews, consequently increasing my body of work and giving me a lot more evidence to present to my impostor voice. I have also kept up writing stories and submitting them to Confabulation; I loved being on that stage and I can’t wait to feel that again.

I’m looking for work, but at least I will be able to use the extra time to my advantage.

Confabulation

One of the things that I learned about in my storytelling workshop is Confabulation, a personal storytelling event with monthly themes. I had an idea for December’s “Family Stories,” but that event was set for December 8 and the idea was all that I had. Still, I reached out to ask when the submission deadline was, and dove into expanding my idea.

It took me a week to work up to a third draft; I was satisfied enough to submit. By this time it was December 2, so I was not at all surprised to receive a message the next day stating that the event was full. Oh well, better luck next time.

Two days later, I woke up to a facebook message from Nisha telling me to check my inbox. I practically flew out of bed and ran to my computer.

Someone dropped out and I was being invited to take their spot! It’s December 5, the event is in three days. Luckily, I would be workshopping my story with Nisha, so I eagerly awaited her notes while I got ready to go to work.

The next three days passed in a bit of a blur; I read her notes, tried to process them throughout the day, and came up with edits that I would apply as soon as I got home. There would be more notes the next morning. By Friday night, I started to recite what I had and time it, cutting out parts that sounded clumsy, changing the wording to better fit how I speak.

I arrived just before 7:00, was directed to a coatroom where I changed out of my boots, and went into the room. I had been to Confabulation once before at the Centaur; this month’s event was being held at the Phi Centre, and the setup was a little different. Lots of seating, and really fucking close to the stage. I helped myself to some water and chatted with a fine trio of people while waiting for everyone to arrive.

Matt Goldberg explained to me how things would work, took me up on stage, and offered a lot of encouragement. Standing on that stage, even before the chairs were filled, was nerve-wracking, but I appreciated getting a chance to be in that space before it was time to perform. He told me I’d be going third, closing out the first half, and I picked a seat toward the back. Nisha asked how I was feeling, I gave her the short version, and I started working to mentally prepare myself.

I was able to forget my stress a bit as I watched the first two storytellers; I got pulled into their tales, and was able to enjoy their performances. Then Matt is introducing me and I realise I have to pee; I walk up to the stage repeating my thought of confidence, confidence; and as I stand up there before the microphone I notice that my mouth is completely dry and I have to open it and speak.

As at the showcase, the performance passes in a blur. I had to draw out this one pause because my voice was about to break, I was getting choked up by my story. The utter lack of moisture in my mouth was only an annoyance, and before I knew it, I was singing the final line, “There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea.”

It was incredible. I knew I’d fucked up in a couple moments, but no one else seemed to  have noticed, or to mind. My workshopmates Amy and Manoosh were there and offered hugs, Nisha gave me a hug, and strangers thanked me for sharing. I had this stupid grin on my face, trying to process this elation and digest this experience, definitely wanting more.

Thank you to Matt Goldberg for letting me step in at the last minute.

HUGE thank you to Nisha Coleman for workshopping this story with me and providing critical feedback and words of encouragement. You’ve been there since the beginning and I was so happy to get to work with you on this.

Thank you to everyone who came to listen, and who expressed appreciation of my story. I learned a lot in writing it, and look forward to discovering more as I mine my past for new stories.

Finally, thank you to my grandfather, Eugene Hebert. I think of you every time I play the guitar.

Lukas Rowland: Storyteller

Monday evening, I got up on stage and told my first personal story in front of an audience. I was given the honour of closing our showcase, where we presented eight weeks of hard work. It was amazing to see how everyone’s stories had evolved from the beginning, and I was extremely proud of my fellow workshop participants.

I was captivated by their stories to the point that I didn’t feel nervous until we were applauding the next-to-last performer. Taylor got up on stage and said lovely things about our work, then she introduced me and I tried very hard to remember the performance tips that we had received a couple weeks ago. I keep repeating confidence in my head, and tried to exude that as I approached the stage with butterflies in my stomach.

I took a moment, and then launched into my story.

I could feel that I was roaring through it entirely too quickly. I sensed two parts of my mind: the story, which almost seemed to have a life of its own; and the storyteller, critically analysing and offering nudges for course correction. Slow down, said the storyteller, and the story complied. I felt myself ease into it, then the storyteller fell silent and I was fully into the tale I was telling.

It was incredible. Having an audience to laugh at the funny moments, or shift in their seats at the awkward ones. I felt that they were with me in the story, and I knew by their applause at the end that they appreciated it. I had people I didn’t know come up to me afterward and share kind words that had me beaming.

I want to thank my fellow storytellers for their support and bravery during this journey. Adjani, Ellie, Manoosh, Arielle, Rachel, Hayley, and Amy; your stories were beautiful and I was so glad to see your hard work bring them to the versions you presented.

Finally, an enormous thanks to Nisha Coleman and Taylor Tower for presenting this workshop. You told us from the very first week that we were already storytellers, but that didn’t really sink in until we all went up on stage. Thank you so much for this incredible adventure! I can’t wait to do this again!

Creating content

Last week, stories were on my mind, but there’s a lot more going on in my writing life. I have a hard deadline for my application for a writing residency in New Orleans; I submitted a piece to my writing workshop that is meant to serve as my writing sample, and got great feedback that I need to incorporate into a new draft. I have until nearly the end of the month, but the piece has been sitting long enough, it’s time to get my hands dirty again.

Another important piece of feedback from my workshop was that the story seems to be starting too late; in the previous first chapter, Simon gets the phone call that begins his return to the South. There is nothing established about his relationship with the South, with Montréal, with his family. These things need to be present in the reader’s mind so that the gravity of his journey south is understood.

Since getting this feedback, I have been envisioning the novel in three parts: Montréal, Louisiana, and back. I have been working to flesh out part one and provide motivation for Simon: why did he leave, why has he never been back, who is he and what is his relationship with his place of birth and the place he has chosen to make his life? His relationships with people are clearer in my mind, I really need to dig into how he feels about Home, and what that means to him.

A lot of these feelings have been coming out as I explore the past in my storytelling workshop. I don’t know how much of the past will end up in the novel, I want it to have the immediacy of being set in a “present” time, the past being referenced in anecdotes or perhaps flashbacks. Still, it has been fun to explore these old memories, and discover how much lies beneath the surface. For instance, if I’m telling someone a story from my past, I’ll recall the major events, but it’s only in the telling that other details I thought I’d forgotten begin to emerge. I’ve been doing a lot of free writing to suss out some of those details.

The main storytelling project will be the story I’ll perform at the end of the workshop, and I’m doing work on that week after week and looking forward to each meeting on Monday night for more guidance and encouragement. I’m excited to perform this evolving tale, I’m tapping into high school experience, speech and debate, band, I’ve been on stage before and felt exhilarated by that energy. Really, it’s just telling a story to strangers, and I do that all the time already.

I attended another schmoozer October 30 in a silly mask I picked up at Pharmaprix: all red and black and clearly designed for a woman, with a matching lace collar and big, red jewels made of plastic. This was a joint event by QWF and ELAN, so there were artists present from many disciplines. I spoke with a translator, a juggler, a musician; we all do the same thing in different ways, and it was nice to spend a couple hours chatting with other creative folk. Maybe I’ll convince myself to bring my business cards next time, and stop telling people, “Well, I haven’t actually written anything yet,” when I really mean that I’m unpublished. Not for lack of trying, this has been a great year for getting myself out there!

Telling stories

So I said the writing had taken a backseat in the move, but that isn’t fully accurate. Before my moving weekend drew to its conclusion, I had the first meeting of a personal storytelling workshop that I signed up for after seeing it in a QWF post. Honestly, I had barely read the description: my eyes seized on personal and storytelling and I thought, “I’m writing a novel loosely based on my life, this could be something interesting.”

I was woefully unprepared for how interesting it would be.

We have explored by listening to several stories in-class, and I also attended Confabulation for the first time to get a better sense of what we’re meant to be doing. The very first homework exercise had me listening to a song from my adolescence in a dark room and crying my eyes out at the rush of images and memories. The second part of the exercise was to free write for fifteen minutes, and in a rush of song lyrics and boys’ names came the seeds of a story.

After a couple more meetings, I had a vague idea about a story I would tell involving a cat and three big, bearded men huddled around her in a veterinarian’s office. I freewrote on that in my notebook (which I have started to carry around everywhere and sort of romantically think of as my spellbook, silly boy) and then I sort of worked that into a first draft as I was typing it up. I sent e-mails to the presenters of the workshop, the fantastic duo of Nisha Coleman and Taylor Tower, here presented alphabetically by way of explaining that they are equally enthusiastic, informative, and encouraging in this terrifying new adventure.

As I had discovered with my latest submission and the beginning of my novel, there is something frightening about uncovering feelings, especially those felt during younger and more tumultuous years, and putting them into a work that is meant to be shared. At the same time, there is catharsis and liberation, a feeling of breathing a heavy sigh and feeling a weight lift up from my shoulders. I’ve talked about it in therapy, and these authentic sentiments will be the ones that will resonate with readers and make them care about the characters I write.

So I wondered if the cat story was personal and essential enough. I had sent an e-mail to Nisha and Taylor to get their opinions; I didn’t even have a proper draft for comparison, just the typed-up version of that first freewriting exercise.

What I had done that night but forgotten, is write a set of notes on the back of the exercise, talking about feelings and impressions and how utterly unprepared I was for those floodgates to open. I was doing homework for a writing workshop, this was not something my therapist had assigned. Still, the experience rang familiar due to recent work with feelings, so there was something comforting in the flood.

Then comes our latest meeting last Monday, where we are told that we are being split into pairs and telling our story, such as it is, to a partner.

In my mind: what the fuck? I haven’t decided yet! I haven’t even written the story that might be the better one to do!

We were reassured that this was not important: great emphasis was placed on the fact that the state of our story at this time was immaterial, what we needed was to present elements of it and see how an outsider reacted to them. I listened to my partner’s story with interest, completed my role for her part of the exercise. Then it was my turn to invent something. Well, not invent, the story was something that had happened, the events were real, but now I had to spin them together from whatever written spew had come forth after I cried over a song.

The start was awkward. I apologised (which we had been instructed not to do, as my partner reminded me) and started it with a drive. A few words in and I feel the story sort of support me, not take over exactly, but there was a natural flow that I felt this needed to have. I improvised here and there with details, my brain sometimes snatching ideas up at the last moment. The ending definitely left something to be desired.

Then it was my partner’s turn to talk, and I took a page of notes based on her comments that I brought home and immediately hammered into a first, typed draft. Now it exists. Now it can be printed and torn apart and lines can be drawn, elements can be added to reinforce the bones of this story. I took a vague sort of something and refined it into a messy beginning which may bear little to no resemblance to the final product, which I will perform on stage. Here again, a frisson of fear and excitement. I’m thinking back to my speech and debate days, although that was always a prepared piece where I simply added my performative interpretation. This was going to be me getting up and sharing an intimate part of my life with strangers.

How thrilling!

Moving

At one week, I managed to give myself a break. It’s one week, I’ll catch up soon.

Then one week became two, and three, and so on.

I felt so good about having posted here for several consecutive weeks, so each new date missed made me feel more and more guilty.

Let’s be honest: it’s no big deal.

My life has been swallowed by the move I’d been planning for months. There were boxes to pack, installations and deliveries to schedule, furniture to be selected. I grew more irritable. I hated being at work, and I could barely force myself to meet deadlines for my writer’s group.

The big day went by fairly smoothly thanks to the help of some friends. Over a dozen boxes of stuff, then over a dozen boxes of furniture to assemble. I had given myself a long weekend, knowing I’d need the time, and even so I ended up having a meltdown by the third night.

Months of stress should have ended once we moved into our new apartment, right? Right?!

My foolish brain, which could only focus on immediate goals, failed to clue in to the fact that the move was merely a step; there was (is) still lots to do, and that is (was) okay. It took us days to find the remote. My books are not completely unpacked. We are still a few chairs short of a set (cue rimshot).

So what if the writing and the blog have taken a bit of a backseat to life? This is an important time, I need to be in this moment and carve out time and space to relax. It is essential that I move at my own pace. Maybe someday I’ll put this into a story and laugh at how overwhelming the experience has been.

In the meantime, I’m doing my best to feel at home and slowly regain my previous rhythm. More on that next week.

Walking

It’s sticky hot in Montréal and I’m already regretting my decision to walk as much as I have today. I had convinced the boyfriend that Home Depot was close enough, that it wasn’t that warm, blah blah blah. We got to sit inside while I applied for financing so we could have appliances delivered to our new apartment, but when it was done and the iced coffee was gone, it was back into the sweltering summer air. We parted ways, and I continued deeper into the Mile End to meet Lisanne for a writing session.

I’ve made it a good five minutes from the store, though it felt like thirty, when I check my phone and get the news that our destination is closed. She’s relocated to la Panthère Verte, which isn’t much further, and I make it there in no time. We greet, I dump my bag, and line up to order. We share a nice meal, me with lots of picking around unexpected mushrooms, and take out our laptops.

The only problem is, the place has filled up a bit and gotten a bit livelier. It’s great ambiance for a date or a friendly debate, but not so much for setting in for some serious writing. No matter, it’s Mile End, there’s bound to be a cozy café we can work in.

We step back out into the miasma and head down Saint Viateur in search of a quiet place. It’s early on Saturday evening, surely folks are having dinner or predrinking before going out. We step into one place, but the vibe is all wrong, there’s bustle and children and noise noise noise. Back out again.

As we walk, we see restaurants and bars, not what we’re looking for. There are any number of cute boutiques, but we’re not here to shop. Before long, we reach Park Avenue (which is always avenue du Parc in my head, #sorrynotsorry) and realise that we’re near where we sat to write last time.

Naturally, we turn left, go back to that same café, and get some solid work done. I broke 10,000 words and nearly finished my sixth chapter. I also had an amazing pistachio chocolatine and a delicious iced mocha, so thanks, Caffè in Gamba! Next time, we’ll just cut the crap and head straight there.

I was so pumped with how much work I got done that by the time we said our goodbyes, I decided to walk the full half hour back home. Fortunately, it had cooled a bit by then, but the bounce in my step wore off before I could make it all the way upstairs. But then I got to collapse into bed and have a very relaxing evening, so it’s still a victory.

Dreams of autumn

I attended my first session of QWF’s Shut Up & Write, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. I was able to wrap up the third chapter of Claire and get a fourth out in three hours, including the novel’s first sex scene, which was interesting to write while in a room full of people. I left feeling accomplished and buoyant, and went and spent entirely too much money at Lush.

As I write more of this Louisiana project, I am exploring strange little corners of memory that I haven’t visited in a while. I don’t think my recollections are pristine, and I get a freedom from that to fudge details even further. This is meant to be fiction; the truest parts will be the emotions I felt. I hope I can successfully weave those into these alternate versions of events.

In the vein of digging up my thoughts on the past, I have signed up for a workshop on oral storytelling. I haven’t the faintest clue where to start, and the description specifically mentioned a focus on the difference between oral and written storytelling, so I think I have a lot to learn. I’m excited to see where this takes me.

I’m also looking forward to having a regular schedule to follow. My writing workshop is meeting infrequently enough to feel quite irregular. Part of what is holding me back is that I’m moving in a month and would like to start a routine that I can do at home. That’s not much of an excuse, though. I could treat myself to a nice drink and snack somewhere public. I often look at people in restaurants and cafés with a bit of envy; there’s no reason I can’t be them.

Then once I move and have proper spaces to write in, I can fix myself some tea and put on some good music to work to. The bf is fine with my writing time here, so I doubt there will be any problem once we have even more space to occupy. Meanwhile, we’re sharing a studio with a kitchenette and no bathtub and I’m hunched over my laptop on the bed. My back feels marvelous.

So I have my next meeting with my workshop soon, a brand-new workshop starting up, and a positive change in the home situation coming up. The start of fall is going to be a beautiful time.

Also, people are absolutely shitting on Tim Hortons’ pumpkin spice menu, I’m pretty sure they’re irredeemable at this point. R.I.P.

Of course, it’s been damn hot this week, so dreams of autumn feel slightly out of reach. Here’s hoping there’s a change in the wind soon.