Another first

I’m not freaking out, you’re freaking out!

In a mere two days, I will be performing at Tinder Tales for the very first time! I’ve run through my story enough to figure out which words sound awkward together and which beats I want to really hit. I might have an ending, but I’m not too sure on that yet.

The ending is crucial. I want something that will close the story and let the audience know that it’s over before I bow my head and return to my seat. I’m not looking to tie everything up with a nice bow, but there needs to be a certain resonating thought that signals the story is over.

It hasn’t happened every time, but usually I come to the event with a clear idea of how I want the story to end. It may not be memorised word for word, but I know more or less what I want to say and I try to make my way there naturally.

All this to say, I have a vague idea of where I want this story to land, and a little over 48 hours to refine that idea without over-rehearsing my story. Come out to Lord William Pub on Saturday night to see if I stick the landing!

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.

So many stories

April has been a fantastic month.

The Confab Storylab has been rolling right along. giving me new tools and tricks to play with in my storytelling. The more I advance with these techniques, the more I understand that I am going to have to try things different ways before I ultimately settle on my way. As someone raised gifted with a huge fear of failure, this is mildly terrifying.

Luckily, workshops like these provide a safe environment to fail in. I told a story that I had barely written a rough draft for, and got a page full of notes on how to develop it. Last week, we were asked to take a familiar story and improvise part of it. Going off-script is taking a huge leap outside of my comfort zone. I like my lists, I love my threes, I enjoy hand-picking sensory details that firmly plant my audience in my story.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover I do less floundering than anticipated. It’s not pretty, but it’s very real, and that is often the more desirable trait in storytelling. Watch me get lost in a moment on stage while I search for words to bring you into it with me.

May promises to be exiting as well! The storylab is putting on an intimate breakout event where I’ll get to experiment a bit. I am also performing at Tinder Tales on May 25 at Lord William Pub. Who doesn’t love awkward dating stories? I’m excited to share one of mine (oh, there are many!) with a room full of strangers.

Working hard

I have been giving 100% at my new job, and any new learning experience is mentally exhausting, so there has not been much writing going on. I’ve done some editing for my Confabulation performances, but nothing much apart from that.

My gut reaction is to feel bad for my lack of productivity in terms of creative work, but ultimately this isn’t a useful line of thought. I’ve still come so far in such a relatively short amount of time, I can allow myself to put things on pause while I focus on establishing myself in my new workplace. Once my job becomes more routine, I’ll have more energy for creative endeavours.

Despite not having touched my novel, I have been keeping busy with stories.

I’ve joined another storytelling workshop, this one part of Confabulation and presented by the wonderful Matt Goldberg. There are a lot of familiar faces, and I’m really excited to see what we learn from each other and Matt in the coming weeks.

I was invited to participate in Confabulation’s Audience Favourites show, bringing back my very first performance from December. Having told a couple more stories since, I found ways to improve upon my earlier performance, as well as the text itself.

It was a night for feelings! Each of the other storytellers brought tears to my eyes. You could feel the entire room with them during their most powerful moments, there were these stunning silences. I opened the second half with my own emotional story, reliving the feelings I was relating, keeping them just under control so my voice didn’t break. It felt amazing.

A refreshingly tearless experience was Taylor Tower‘s retelling of a story she had showed us in workshop, and getting to see it told live was an entirely separate experience. I already knew the twists and turns, but a masterful performance has you right there with the storyteller each step of the way, even when you know what comes next. I was delighted.

There is also something to be said about being in the room while a story is being told. A recording cannot capture the energy of an audience waiting with bated breath to find out what happens next. Tension is nearly tangible, silences and dramatic pauses ring out, it’s magical.

So the novel has been set aside for a moment, but there is still a sizable stack of pages on my desk and they aren’t going anywhere. I’ve taken a break before and been able to get back into the voice this book needs. I just need to look over the outline and read the latest chapter and I should be able to carry on from there.

Back to work

I meant to come here and catch up sooner; I even brought my laptop down to Vermont in hopes of catching up with my writing life. It’s a bit harder than I remembered to get things organised when starting a new job, and packing up and leaving for a few days means I can’t bring all of my writing stuff with me.

I did manage to critique a piece for my gay writing group, but mostly my evenings were spent going to bed early and listening to the howling mountain wind. Vermont was beautiful, Stratton was lovely; but that wind. I declined to buy earplugs at Jean Coutu before we set off, so that’s on me.

Just before leaving for Vermont, I got to tell another story at Confabulation. Twice. The Shortest Story is an annual event, and having experienced the frenetic energy once, I can’t wait to do it again.

It was awesome to chat with other storytellers and hang out backstage. As always, it’s a pleasure to listen to what everyone shares, and I got to see most everyone else’s performances. There’s no theme, so we got to hear a bit of everything.

A really interesting thing about getting to tell a story twice in one night is that I got the first crowd’s reaction, and figured out what to play up or draw out. It’s easier to relax when you’ve already told your story once and it went well. And I had a drink in the green room during intermission, so by the time I got up to tell my story again, I felt amazing and I think it was better than the first time.

Now, between that and work, I haven’t made much time for writing. I met with both my writing groups this week and received wonderful feedback that asks the sort of questions I’m too close to come up with myself. I’ve scrawled all over the print copies for the eventual revision, but I’m still firm about saving that for later. I still have a lot of ground to cover with the rough draft, and I have to balance that with work now.

I cannot possibly express just how relieved I am to finally be receiving incooooooooome. Unemployment loses its charm extremely quickly.

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.

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. 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!

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!