A walk in the park

The QWF mentorship has been split in two for me from the beginning, and I don’t mean in the universal sense of Before Coronavirus and After. When April and I first met, we set a goal of pitching my novel for publication, and that deadline fell neatly in the middle of our time together. A synopsis, a cover letter, and the first three chapters were all I had to convince someone to publish my book.

April and I met in person, and I scribbled notes on my hard copy while we discussed my goal and how to get there. Most of her comments came digitally, often with links to a music video relevant to her suggestions. Music is an important language in my relationships, and a key to specific emotions. When our meetings shifted online, because my feedback had always come via e-mail attachments, nothing about the actual work changed. Our discussions were no longer face-to-face, but I find it’s always easier to transition to video when you’re already familiar with someone.

In April, I sent my pitch. I have yet to receive a note of rejection, and I know this means nothing because the pandemic has thrown the entire publishing game in the air. The gears of industry are turning again, but a second wave is on the minds of most. Doubt is heavy in the air. Who knows how much of a delay this will cause in the publishing world? So, I remain patient.

To cope with the increasing chaos everywhere and the consequences of isolation, April and I began going on socially distant walks in our neighbourhoods. We walked along the Saint Lawrence river in Verdun, and the Lachine Canal in Côte-Saint-Paul, got ice cream in Ville-Émard, and talked about everything under the sun. The second half of our mentorship involved reshaping part one of the novel and preparing for the reading at the end of it. Back when we first discussed the reading at the QWF mentorship pizza party, I had no idea what I would possibly read. Of course, I hadn’t written it yet.

April gave me some familiar feedback on my first draft; I’d workshopped individual chapters in two groups, hired someone through the QWF for a professional assessment (to tell me if I was going in the right direction, basically), and got advice from a friend. Everyone agreed on something I already knew deep-down but had forgotten to heed: you don’t summarize a first date. You go into the scene. You show what it looks like when two people start getting to know each other and having that giddy rush of feelings and awkwardness. (In my defense, the rough draft is a time to get the story out onto the page, and sometimes blatant mistakes are made. It’s okay, it’s word vomit, and it’s why we have the editing process.)

So I wrote a walk in the park between two young men who are each starting to hope that the other likes him. I love the insecurity and tension that almost throw sparks in the air when infatuation is strong, so I sent them to Jarry Park.

Toward the end of the mentorship, when I had nine chapters that felt like a solid opening act for my novel, it was pretty clear which story I wanted to tell. Who doesn’t love channeling crush energy into a performance? I practiced in my own voice, and I was excited even though the event had moved from the Comedy Nest to a Zoom meeting. It meant I got to invite my mother and sister to watch, and family is a big part of the book.

My first thank you goes to Marian Rebeiro for fielding my frantic questions in the week leading up to the event. I was convinced my internet connection would crap out and ruin my reading and my experience of everyone else’s. It turns out having your cell phone too near your computer’s wireless adapter can cause interference; I turned it off and stuck it in a drawer for the duration.

I also want to thank the fantastic Faith Paré, whose poetry was entirely spellbinding. I usually have to say a silent word of apology (and in normal times, a spoken one as we chat during intermission or after the event) because I can’t focus on the performers before me, but her delivery was absolutely unignorable and I forgot how nervous I was. Thank you so much for your beautiful work.

Then April made me blush by saying too many nice things about me, and it was my turn. Within a minute, my fingers and face went numb (lack of oxygen, said some part of my brain, but I ignored it and read on) and I got through just as I’d rehearsed it, with specific inflections and pauses for drama, and even if the applause looked like this 👏 it still felt amazing!

It was a joy listening to my fellow mentees, and hearing their mentors give insight to their unique processes, as no two pairings were alike it seems. I spent the entire time on speaker view to better appreciate the readings, and followed audience comments in the chat, which made for a very strange experience. For my reading, I saw only my text on screen, and I don’t know if that made me more nervous. I knew my mom and sister were there, but I couldn’t see their faces.

But they got to be there, and it still happened, and Marian was a perfect host (and thanks again for the e-mails!). Thank you to Lori Schubert and the Quebec Writers’ Federation for giving me this amazing opportunity! Thank you to April Ford for her advice and friendship and music videos to boost my spirits and get me dancing! Her debut novel Carousel is out now and I’m this close to finishing it, so expect a review soon. (Buy directly from the publisher and get 30% off with the code summer20!)

Distance

Is anyone else feeling very Lady of Shalott these days? Locked in a tower, cursed to see the real world only through a magic mirror? I appreciate that it’s for our collective safety, and I feel fortunate to be in a position where I can stay home. Still, it’s fair to be half sick of shadows.

Luckily, it has never been easier to reach out to people I care about. That is, when I have the energy to spare. A lot of my efforts go into keeping myself clean and fed, quieting the onslaught of information and shifting opinions based on new evidence, and responding to messages I receive. I have had moments of total shutdown, I have experienced the curious phenomenon of March lasting a hundred days and April only three, and I have come to the month of May with a stronger sense of purpose.

Let’s call it a mourning period for the Old Normal.

In the New Normal, at least the one we have created so far, many things are still carrying on. I have been continuing meetings with my mentor, April Ford. Her first novel Carousel is out May 14 and available for preorder where books are found! (Please consider purchasing directly from the publisher or your local bookseller.)

Work on Project Claire continues! For the first half of the mentorship, we focused on getting the first three chapters presentation-ready for a pitch. The book is pitched. I am waiting for good news or my very first rejection letter, and either one is an important milestone in the life of an author. Either way, I’m happy about where the beginning of the novel stands.

It also has a title, but I’m choosing to be superstitious about it.

Revisiting erotic scenes in the novel has me thinking about physical contact, and those thoughts are finding their home in a new zine. I feel very good about the story and essay so far. The goal is to have it available for free here as a PDF, with physical copies available for $5 PWYC (an internet search says coronavirus can live on paper for up to five days, please handle mail with caution). I will also carry them around with me once it’s safe to be out among the people.

Speaking of smut, if you’ve been curious about “pumpkin smut latte,” I’ve posted the story “welcome to parc ex” and it is not safe for work. I read it Monday evening at my mentor’s sex and intimacy workshop, then we had a nice conversation about writing process and inspiration and other sexy stories.

What’s the word for the feeling of reading erotic material in your bedroom for an audience?

I’ve signed up for a distance version of Shut Up & Write taking place Saturday, same day as the Violet Hour Book Club. (I had really better be further along in the book by the time this goes live; at the moment, I’ve read the introduction.)

Having something in my agenda not only gives me events to look forward to, it sort of grounds me in time. I’ve printed out a calendar so I can tick off the days, I’m turning the pages of my day calendar with calming quotes, I am trying to prevent that feeling of drifting though the hours with no real sense of which direction I want to go in. It’s okay if I can’t be productive right now, I’ve given myself that permission.

But if I can be, that’s where I’d like to put my energy. There is work I want to do.

Is it always transitions?

I had such good momentum, but autumn turned to winter and a lot of shifting took place.

First of all, I will remind myself to never underestimate the effect of darkness suddenly coming an hour earlier. I feel more pressure to use the daylight to best effect, I get mopey when I haven’t seen a blue sky in too long, and the cold can be a huge deterrent when it comes to enjoying being outside.

There has not been a lack of news.

I have been asked to curate and host an evening of queer storytelling! Chris DiRaddo, who I know as president of the QWF, producer of the Violet Hour, and host of the Violet Hour Book Club; proposed it to me, and I had no choice but to reply, “I’d love to! How do I do that?” I ended up asking several people this question, and their answers led me to ask people I know if they had stories to tell. Everyone’s got a story, but how many of us want to get up on stage and tell it to a room full of strangers?

Then I told a particularly personal story at Confabulation: Games at the Centaur Theatre, revisiting how it felt to actively lie to the partner I was cheating on. The story felt impossible to write, but a conversation with Nisha Coleman gave me the confidence to confront what I was doing (trying to avoid telling the difficult truth) as well as a page and a half of notes to incorporate into a new draft. I got it out, I practiced, and I felt all of the emotions as I told it onstage.

I always remember, but sometimes forget to feel, that whatever scares me the most in my art is what I must absolutely pursue. Like this horrifying memoir idea, but that’s on the back burner because I have a mentorship to focus on!

As of last Sunday, I am dedicating the vast majority of my creative time to working with April Ford, my QWF fiction mentor, on my novel. We already have such plans! I am making lists and trying out different synopses and we will be meeting biweekly for the next few months. There will be a reading! I will shake off this rust and make some progress with this book!

Breaking 50k

Getting out last week’s post felt really good, but there was no real update there, so here we go!

The QWF has a wonderful resource called the Hire-A-Writer directory for people interested in coaching, editing, feedback, etc. Many of the faces there are familiar to me from social gatherings, and a friend of mine recommended Elise Moser from her own experience.

Many of the chapters of my novel have been workshopped on an individual basis, often submitted in pairs of consecutive chapters, but I needed someone to look at a larger piece and tell me whether I’m on the right track. I communicated with Elise, who put me at my ease immediately. After a brief exchange to clarify what I was looking for, I submitted the first six chapters of the novel and tried to put it from my mind and work on other things.

I got feedback a lot quicker than I expected! The short of it is, I am heading in the right direction, even if I have a lot of ground to cover. Elise provided excellent points for me to work on, and as a result I’ve drafted a new opening chapter. This makes my third attempt at beginning this novel, which is fine; the beginning is the most important part. It determines whether a reader continues along this journey with me or moves on to something else.

I’m submitting to my primary writing group, and I can’t wait to hear how they receive the new chapter. I have Elise’s notes for the remainder of the opening chapters, but I’ve been focusing my efforts on completing the rough draft. I have pushed past 50,000 words and nearly completed part two of three; I have seven more chapters outlined and that’s it. The rough draft as currently outlined will be complete.

Facebook was kind enough to remind me that it’s been a year since I sat down and outlined this book. I had recently returned to Louisiana to visit family and those experiences were fresh in my mind. I had been cultivating ideas of home and belonging ever since I moved here to Quebec, some eleven years ago. It feels like I built a framework then, and I have been steadily adding to it for a year so that now I have something that is beginning to take shape.

As slow as progress feels sometimes, I can look back on this and feel proud.

In other news, I’ve been invited to perform a story that appears in Claire at a special pride edition of Confabulation! Tomorrow night, I will be telling the story of how I met Mathieu, which began a chain of events that led to me moving from Lafayette, Louisiana to Blainville, Quebec. Come hear the tale at le Ministère tomorrow at 9:30pm!

A moment of calm

I’ve reached the end of the Confab Storylab, culminating in our breakout performance at the Freestanding Room. It was a great night of awesome stories in an intimate space, I was able to feel fairly laid-back even though part of my brain was screaming about how much improvisation I was about to attempt (like, a lot).

It worked? I had to ask for some outside opinions, naturally; I got caught up in the flow of the story, went off on an unplanned tangent, and wrapped it up as neatly as I could. Telling a story seems to happen in a breathless rush with me, though I don’t feel like I sped through it at all. Those minutes go by in a flash, then I’m bowing my head and retreating to my seat to enjoy the heady rush of a story told.

One of my fellow workshoppers shared a story that centred on the Main Deli, so a few of us went down the road for smoked meat and latkes. My first. Yeah, I’ve been in Quebec 11 years, lived on the island for three and a half, and still had never gone for a smoked meat sandwich. What kind of a Montrealer am I?

A Montrealer-in-progress, obviously.

Since that night, not a lot of work has been done on stories. I have Tinder Tales coming up May 25 at Lord William Pub, I should probably run that by a few people and get some feedback. I have a submission deadline in my calendar for a nonfiction contest organised by the Malahat Review, and a vague notion of what to write for that. QWF’s Shut Up & Write is starting up again, and I am keenly aware that the last session earned me nearly 4,000 words of my novel. I can’t expect that every time, but my word count has not increased in (gulp) months and I need to change that.

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 QWF 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? 🤔

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.

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!

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!

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.