WRITER & ELDRITCH MONSTER

June 26, 2024

As writers, we are always asking ourselves Where does a story start? Or where should a story start? Or where should my story start? What’s the best place, the most opportune moment, the most enticing gangplank we can extend to someone wishing to board the ship.

Joyce Carol Oates has a good guideline, particularly for short fiction: You start the story where a pattern breaks. If Mr. Smith goes out every morning and fertilizes and weeds his roses and goes back inside and makes breakfast, we’ve got a setting, not a beginning. If Mr. Smith goes out one morning and reaches down for a weed and discovers a severed human hand? Now we’ve got the beginning of a story, because a good story is about imagining what people do when they’re challenged to step out of their complacency.

I suppose under that metric, this isn’t a very good story. But then maybe good stories aren’t what I’m writing.

This time, it began with something that didn’t break the pattern but perpetuated it: a friend posted a little promo graphic that our writers’ guild had put up to encourage people to sign up for a mini-retreat in rural Alberta. (I had seen the graphic a few days before in an email, but had glanced at the location and dismissed it; as with many writer events out here, it doesn’t work for someone without personal transportation.) The friend also posted the text accompanying the graphic, which read (I am pulling from the email):

“Please join us for a weekend of writing and togetherness. This retreat is a perfect opportunity to work on your craft and connect with your peers — don’t miss out!

We are so excited to be welcoming two world-class facilitators, Saskatoon-based poet Leah Horlick and Calgary-based fantasy author, C.L. Polk. You can expect a talk from Leah Horlick as a welcome address on Friday evening, two interactive workshops (one with each facilitator) on Saturday, a group discussion and Q&A session on Saturday evening, and a farewell address from C.L. Polk on Sunday morning. All sessions are optional, and time is otherwise self-directed.

Non-genre prose writers, fear not! While C.L. Polk has made their mark as a fantasy author, a quick look at their Instagram reels will tell you they have sharp insights to share on the craft of plot building, character development, and storytelling. Their workshop and talk at this retreat will focus on the craft of writing fiction.”

(WriteClick newsletter, Writers’ Guild of Alberta, June 5 issue.)

I’m going to say it in case the many, many, many outraged responses didn’t make it clear: that last paragraph is an insult, not a backhanded compliment.

It’s all about that ‘while,’ it’s all about the need to issue a disclaimer whose purpose is to reassure real writers that a genre writer, no, a fantasy author, might have useful skills in the craft of writing fiction. You know. Because that’s the fear. “Fear not!” Fear not: the guild has descended from the clouds with a golden trumpet, and the annunciation is good news: even though they’re a fantasy author, you should still consider this retreat.

It is an insult to an incredibly talented, award-winning author who spends a tremendous amount of time mentoring and supporting other writers, who works their ass off at their craft, and who deserved to be invited to teach and work at this retreat without a fucking disclaimer.

So I was ticked off; let’s just get that out of the way. I was insulted on behalf of genre writers, and on CL’s behalf (they were very gracious about the wording, I must say, much more than I would have been), and on my own behalf, because when does this end? When do we earn an iota of respect from the litfic community, when will we be invited to anything without an apology, a disclaimer, a caveat, without someone saying “Sorry sorry sorry we know we invited a genre writer to speak, but—”

And as often happens, what began as anger on a friend’s behalf transformed—not expanding, definitely not, more collapsing, deliquescing—into sadness on my own behalf, into flashbacks of being treated the same way, of being patronized or shunned or mocked or dismissed for exactly the same reason. I posted a note I had written in February (to myself, in my Keep) remarking on the similarity, and that’s when things really blew up.

Here’s what the note said:

“It’s been nearly a month since Banff and I’m still having vivid, oddly sickening dreams about being excluded, othered… there’s a circle, someone is going around the circle inviting people to participate, to give, to learn, to share, then they get to me — and then they say the name of the next person, the one sitting next to me, instead of mine. I am not rendered invisible. I am hyper-visible, even though no one is looking at me now. It is reasonable and good, in the dream, for them to skip me even though I am in the circle. The surprise and humiliation feel very real. I guess you’re the same you when you dream. But I still think, Oh, I made a mistake, I shouldn’t be here, this is their circle, not the right one… because it is so much worse if I sat down expecting to participate like the others, and was deemed unworthy at that point rather than before the invite went out. They are not being unkind people and that still hurts me. They’re not being mean or rude. They just don’t think I have anything for them. So when I wake up I’m convinced I really don’t.”

It’s a dream, of course. In Banff, during the residency, I was never actually skipped in the critique circles. I participated. Each time I tried to say something useful, and endured the silence after I did, because I had misjudged my feedback; I had not said anything useful at all. I concluded: I’m just not good at this.

I’m a scientist. I was about to say first and foremost, but is that true? These days I am a writer first and foremost. Anyway, I’m a scientist; I trained in science, I took two degrees in science, I got onto the Dean’s List and received scholarships and awards for it, I can draw conclusions based on observed data. What else am I supposed to do with the data?

Here’s something else you can do with data: you can concentrate it into something poisonous and corrosive, you can distill it in silicon-coated flasks, and then you can drink it and let it eat a hole in your softest places.

So that’s what happened the morning I posted my note. I ran all my experiences through the tubing again, I turned up the flame of my burner, and I looked at my writing from that time—not the stories, interviews, contracts, and emails that I was doing as part of my work, but the writing I was doing for myself, my notes and my journal—and I made poison and I drank it and I sobbed all over again, alone at my desk in my little house with my cat at my side.

I didn’t tell anybody how bad Banff was for me, not even my closest friends, certainly not the feedback form. I didn’t tell anyone there were fifteen MFA writers (oh, one working on a doctorate, also, at least that I knew of) and then me, the sole self-taught writer, the only genre author. I didn’t tell them that several of those other writers, my cohort, laughed out loud at our first social mixer when they asked me what I wrote and I said “Sci-fi, fantasy, and horror.” One curbed her laughter and managed, “Oh, I’m sorry! I just never read that stuff, you know?”

That was day one. The days slid past; I didn’t have enough energy to participate in the more active activities and could barely walk down to town; I skipped the unmasked karaoke session where everyone sang into each other’s faces and swore eternal loyalty and love. I said to a few people, “Hey, getting Covid in 2022 fucked me up to the point where I had to quit my job.” I said, “No no, you guys go ahead, have fun.” Maybe it looked like I was shunning them, I don’t even know. The fact was I had to spend most of my time in my studio, moving as little as possible, or in my room, sleeping and trying to recover.

I went to all the critique sessions and the talks from our instructors and the invited publisher. I went to the firepit nights and stood alone with my eyes smarting and my breath wheezing thinly in the back of my throat, unable to walk up to one of the closed circles of people having their own conversations about art and life and fire and smoke. I was surrounded by people and I had never felt lonelier in my life, more useless in my life, more unwanted in my life. They were all so charming and funny and interesting and they all befriended one another instantly, and they popped in and out of each other’s studios brainstorming, asking questions, getting resources, dropping names and connections, working on stories and poetry and scripts and plays, having the time of their lives.

And I trudged up and down the ramps and the stairs with black dots dancing in front of my eyes and I thought about that Ray Bradbury story, about the girl locked in the closet, away from the sun. Just her. Nobody else. I had nothing to give them. I wasn’t useful. They didn’t want anything from me, only each other; our organizers constantly told us how useful it was to be there learning from and working with our peers and all I could think was I’m not their peer. I’m far, far below that. I am not peering at anything at the same level as they are.

I didn’t say all that. I thought it only. Meanwhile, now, in response to the note I had posted I read other people’s stories, mostly genre writers who had fallen afoul of the worst kind of litfic snobs: stories of professors and advisors who had told people to stop writing genre, stop turning it in, stop pretending like that kind of writing was good enough to deserve their time to grade. Stories of people who had wanted to write genre and ended up quitting their MFAs, either from the constant denigration or from advisors who simply refused to let them go on. A few (thank God) stories of people who said “My advisor didn’t mind!” or “I was allowed to continue in my degree!” But mostly it was a litany of genre authors saying Yes, yes, we hear you, you’re not imagining it.

There was a CBC radio spot a couple of years ago that a friend alerted me to, a host talking about my 2021 novella The Annual Migration of Clouds. I listened to it, very pleased that it was receiving some mainstream attention (January 2022), and then he said, “So even though it’s got this post-apocalyptic setting, and even though it’s got this parasite, it’s still… it’s still worth reading because it says something.” And I was surprised but not shocked, because, well. Even though it’s got these speculative elements that I meticulously created and built the entire foundation of the story on, it’s still worth reading. Another disclaimer. I thought at the time: Remember this. This is the closest any of your books will ever get to being accepted by the mainstream, you’ll see.

That same book was eventually up for an Alberta Literary Award and (I’ve told this story before) when the summary was read out (the future, the disease, a fungal parasite), people laughed. The audience laughed, the presenter laughed. I’ve got that on video because a friend told me I should record the flattering jury comments on my book, and I thought she was right, so I held up my phone, and what I got was laughter. No one laughed at the other two finalists (serious, dignified litfic). The book had gotten that far despite its more overt speculative elements, the book had coasted on the label ‘hopepunk’ or ‘climate fiction,’ which took it out of the realm of real sci-fi (which would obviously never be considered), but it could get no further. I knew it wouldn’t win. I put my head down and drank my drink.

The world says: Look at what you’re writing! It’s a joke. Wizards and spaceships, why I never. Why don’t you write a book that says something? Why don’t you write a book that means something?

I’ve been asked in interviews when I’m going to ‘switch’ to ‘real’ fiction. I’ve been told by interviewers “I don’t read this stuff generally, sorry” when they’ve been assigned against their will to ask me about my books. ‘Clouds’ is usually the one they have read because, as discussed, that one bumped up (lightly, impermanently) against the litfic world. But ‘this stuff’ is implied to be apprentice work, the stuff I’m supposed to get out of my system before writing something that might actually be up for a Giller.

(Will an overtly genre book—romance, mystery, horror, science fiction, fantasy—ever get a Giller? My money’s on no. So I would like one, and I would like the cheque that comes with it, but it’s not on my imaginary writer bingo card, let’s put it that way.)

The worst part is that this is all still happening, that people aren’t telling stories from twenty or thirty years ago but three years ago, a year ago, right now. Three weeks ago.

That “while.”

‘Our’ side isn’t immune from its own brand of unimaginative elitism, of course; quite a few replies from het-up genre authors were along the lines of “Oh, well why don’t I just go write a book about a middle-aged professor having an affair with a younger woman and then they’ll love me!” I doubt any of them could name a single novel where that’s the actual premise; it’s just something easy and quick to pick on. Someone else mentioned that litfic only wants your story if it’s about one or more of the three A’s (adultery, abuse, and adolescence) and I did laugh at that one. In Banff I heard an awful lot of what sounded like self-insert or autofiction centred around sensitive adolescent reflection, growing up in a small town, etc. “That’s not what it is,” I was told, even though (by coincidence) the fictional narrator of the piece happened to share every aspect of identity and personality with the writer of the piece, down to (curiously enough) a number of childhood experiences in common.

Literary fiction. Implying in its very name, the very adjective, that everything else is non-literary, lesser in prestige, in value, in quality and worth. Why we sometimes append literary to genre. This book is literary fantasy. This book is literary horror. Meant to elevate it: lift it out of the muck. Often we see transcends genre. Transcends: leaves it behind, floats to some higher plane.

Philip Pullman says in Daemon Voices he sometimes wishes he could write that kind of stuff, but:

“In my own case, for reasons too deeply buried to be dug up, I have long felt that realism is a higher mode than fantasy; but when I try to write realistically, I move in boots of lead. However, as soon as the idea comes to me, for example, of little people with poison spurs who ride on dragonflies, the lead boots fall away and I feel wings at my heels. For many reasons (which, as I say, are beyond the reach of disinterment) I may regret this tendency of my imagination, but I can’t deny it.”

And he also says, about writing for children:

“The model of growth that seems to lie behind that attitude—the idea that such critics have of what it’s like to grow up—must be a linear one; they must think that we grow up by moving along a sort of timeline, like a monkey climbing a stick. It makes more sense to me to think of the movement from childhood to adulthood not as a movement along but as a movement outwards, to include more things… Consequently any adult reading such stuff is running away from reality, and should feel profoundly ashamed.”

This, I’m told, is why litfic writers don’t like genre. It’s stuff for children, or for people who are still thinking like children—people who lack cognitive capacity, who haven’t learned about life yet, who are still prancing along in fairyland ignoring reality or unaware that reality is there. It’s stuff meant for escapism and escapism is bad. We are supposed to be engaging with the real world (or at least adultery, adolescence, and abuse), not looking away from it. And certainly no genre book can do that; it’s all formulaic sludge, isn’t it? Sci-fi is all about lasers and Torment Nexuses, and fantasy is all about incest and dragons, and that’s all very well for the masses.

We had a publisher come in to give a little talk in Banff—about her press, how they work, the physical properties of the on-site equipment (my favourite part), what’s changed in the past 5-10 years, answering questions and so on. I was absently taking notes for the resources document I had started for my writer-in-residence position when I returned, which contained easy-to-find things about writing and publishing that people might need to know (“define sim-subs” “querying: remember to note if no from 1 means no from all” “link to how to set up press kit” etc). I flinched as I wrote down “This press is literary fiction. Elsewise: commercial fiction e.g. SF, fant.” Don’t ever forget, I was told, you write commercial fiction. It doesn’t get the adjective literary. It gets something else. Something carrying a backpack full of subtext: about being disengaged, capitalistic, manipulative even, like the ad-men in prestige TV series.

Commercial fiction appeals to the glands; it is brute and cheap and lazy and all about thrills and titillation. Literary fiction is supposed to appeal to the heart, to the mind. To the soul. Obviously.

(I accidentally cemented this even further by putting my hand up and asking a question I’d heard asked in many cons and panels: “How do you decide on advances for a debut author?” Dear oh dear, that awful genre writer in the back row, asking about money. We’re not in it for the money, you know! And actually I did know that, because on day one, our first session, we were told by the organizer that we cannot be in it (it being writing) for the money. It is apparently only genre writers who write for money. Litfic writers are doing it for love; as if genre writers don’t love what we write, as if we don’t burn with it, as if we don’t throw away our entire futures to write these books that we love, in these genres that we love. The impression I got from that initial talk was “Aww, well of course genre writers love their work, much the way we imagine model kit makers love their assembled models!” I may possibly at that point have been the only person in the room who believed that writing is work and we should be compensated for our work.)

How did this happen? I have no idea, only some suspicions. Maybe if I had an MFA I’d know for sure.

When I was in the library the other day looking for something, I did sense vague thoughts rising to the surface about creative writing degrees, and writing generally, and the writers in my Banff cohort… something like how I had just noticed that all of the books shelved under ‘creative writing’ were about deconstructing texts. Breaking them down to look at symbols, themes, motifs, emotions, whatever (very little breaking them down to ‘what actually happened’). Conversely, it seemed that all the ‘how to actually write a book’ books were aimed at genre: sci-fi, fantasy, thriller, horror, romance, true crime, historical fiction. I got the impression (surely incorrect) that your average MFA doesn’t teach you how to do that.

They just… want you to write something that can then be deconstructed, so that’s how you learn to treat your own work. “What will this look like when someone with a creative writing degree gets their hands on it?” is the impression I got from my fellow Banffketeers as a goal for their writing projects, rather than “What will a reader do with this?” And that was so very strange to me. Maybe, again, it’s strange because I don’t have an MFA. I’m not used to approaching a work with tweezers and scalpels, because why would I bother? (I also feel that a lot of the kind of books I pick up and think “Hmm, one of those MFA wunderkinds wrote this” tends to be a list of ‘things that happened’ rather than an actual story, and ‘a list of things that happened’ is also absolutely endemic in the newer writers I’m talking to at the library. So I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a judgey asshole. But it has always seemed to me that MFAs are writing for other MFAs, not for some hypothetical future reader who does not have an advanced creative writing degree.)

At the Bocas LitFest in Trinidad and Tobago, I went to a session about bibliotherapy, and the instructor asked us to start by writing down a book—it had to be fiction—that had ‘changed our lives.’ Something that had broken us or put us back together, or helped us look at ourselves or the world or our loved ones in a different way, something that fundamentally understood us, or helped us understand ourselves, or got into our bones. Eventually there were about eighteen or twenty titles on the whiteboard. Mine was the only genre book (Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness). I was, again, surprised but not shocked.

I thought, from the book, in the voice of the book: Why can I never set my heart on a possible thing?

The vast majority of people don’t think that a genre book can be life-changing; they’ve never had their hearts or minds changed by one. They’ve never gotten something profound from one, they’ve never extracted real meaning from one, they’ve never found the world illuminated in a new way because of one. Have they?

So. So. Flashbacks, flashback after flashback. It was Thursday and I had been crying on and off all day, as if I were being rejected again, as if the whole world had just said “Actually, we find you mildly offputting, just so you know,” again, as if I were in a circle of turned backs again. I had planned to wear my contact lenses that night (to my own book launch, of all the stupid things) and my eyes were so swollen and crimson that I decided to go with glasses even after I depuffed them. (Both eyedrops and teaspoons in the freezer, pro tip.) And by a huge coincidence of timing (gosh!) one of the Banff residency organizers reached out in a friendly and casual fashion that night as I was eating schnitzel and drinking beer at Bistro Praha. Hey what’s up! Wanna catch up, maybe have a chat? Of course I did, what a lovely gesture, it’s been months, we set up a meeting for Monday.

Monday rolled around; we did have a lovely catch-up. I am one of those people who when you say “So what’ve you been up to?” I actually have to get out a notebook to be like “OKAY LOOK, THERE’S A LIST.” A two-book deal, three books already out this year, launch parties (plural), dozens of interviews and podcasts, short stories, teaching and talking, the intensive I did for the Carl Brandon Society, the literary festival in Trinidad & Tobago (from which I came back without so much as a tan, because we were being shuttled back and forth so efficiently), the keynote and talk for the Federation of BC Writers, the novella session (“And I said to them, I said, why not a novelito?”) I gave for the WGA recently, the winning of a short story collection award.

He graciously let me ramble and brag for something like forty minutes before pointing out, gently, that he’d received an email and decided to reach out. “Oh? What kind of an email?” Well, from someone who said they’d been thinking of applying to Banff for a residency, but seeing how spec fic author Premee Mohamed was treated, now they wouldn’t. Did I want to talk about that?

I did not. I sat perfectly still, feeling tears build up behind my eyes, feeling them filling all the roads and backing up like one of those miles-long traffic jams: thud, thud, thud, thud. I said, “Oh my gosh! Well, I hope they do still apply!” I thought: Someone broke containment and dropped my name, and now it’s me that’s done some reputational damage to the residency. Of course it is. This is my fault. I shouldn’t have said anything.

Counterpoint: what if we all knew less about each other.

I shouldn’t have said anything. I shouldn’t have said anything. I managed to not say anything at the time, didn’t I? I mean, since this person was practically the only person talking to me (aside from some of the wait staff and one very friendly painter in the visual artist cohort that was there at the same time as us), I was at least able to say to him, “I told you, though. I did tell you.”

He said, “I didn’t know it was that bad, though.”

I gave up. We discussed several reasons that this emailer might still like to apply for a residency; we talked about how the time away from one’s regular life (that complacency; the pattern that needs to be broken) can be so helpful; we talked about studio space, which I found tremendously useful. We talked about how you cannot account for group dynamics when you assemble sixteen strangers far from home. We talked about how everyone was an adult and adults have freedom of association, and I pointed out (correctly) that if, say, there had been a guy (for example) that some of us found unpleasant or creepy or like biting on tinfoil—for whatever reason, the reason does not matter—the residency is helpfully set up for women or femmes to avoid him, to not have to work with him, listen to him, encounter him, if we don’t want.

I thought: I was that guy. I didn’t say anything because it’s humiliating to be that guy. It’s depressing and humiliating and there’s no way to make amends; you cannot help if other people think you are like biting on tinfoil unless you wear them down with familiarity, and that will not happen here.

We talked about how all sixteen of us had been chosen specifically for what we could bring to the group and I didn’t point out that for some reason the organizers had chosen fifteen square pegs and one round one, and the other fifteen swiftly self-assembled into a neat structure that did not have room or use for a round peg. And didn’t they notice the imbalance when they were choosing out of the 250 applications? Fifteen MFAs, one self-taught. Fifteen litfic writers, one spec-fic. Fifteen people who had applied with literary fiction samples, who wrote out of love for the language and for the feelings it could evoke, who would never dream of making a living of it, and… whatever I was. A commercial fiction writer. I wanted to say, You couldn’t even have grabbed a couple more of us? Even two or three more? Did no one apply but me?

(I didn’t ask that but as we kept talking I thought: Oh hmm. Did anyone in genre apply but me?!)

He talked about maybe, in the future, doing a speculative fiction-focused residency, since wasn’t it surprising (no) that in 91 years, the Banff Centre had never done one? I nodded as if my entire head were not full and sloshing with saltwater.

To me, this didn’t fix the essential problem—not of my experience (because for all I knew, as I told him, it was just me, it was me they didn’t like, not me being a genre writer) but of the mingling and mixing of MFA writers and self-taught writers, of litfic and genre fic. It was contributing, a little, to the ongoing othering of genre writers, no? We could help each other, I think, we could both use one another as a resource to strengthen different components in our craft… He shrugged. Probably; but it was unavoidable, at least at first. Spec fic needed its own garden to grow in at least a little bit, he suggested, before…

Before the litfic people come in and step on everything, I laughed. Yes, you’re probably right.

Ninety-one years. Nearly a century.

I went back to my photos from the residency and wondered what the others’ photos looked like, lined up in their organized grids. I have mountains, my room, my studio, a picture of my tuna melt at Maclab Bistro, some lichen, a dessert, the laundry room, a rock I bought in town, screenshots of a webinar I took one night. More lichen. Snow. Very few faces, very few smiles.

Another note from January 20:

“That’s the other thing this reminds me of actually. That I worked at a place for nine years, nine full years, and did not make a single friend. I mean not really. I made a few acquaintances… I don’t know. I guess now that I think about it I cannot blame this residency for showing me how alone I am or how I’ve clearly misjudged myself as someone relatively friendly or… or like befriendable, or whatever the real word is, because when you look at the timing, I haven’t been that person for YEARS. I’ve lost the knack or whatever?? Or we only get so much of that ability and I used it all up? So I don’t know, it’s extra sad to see how I keep responding to anyone who’s shown me even the slightest amount of kindness or attention, including the wait staff. I won’t say these were the three worst weeks of my life but I WILL say that if I had gotten into this residency a while back, it would have thrown me into a depressive episode so deep that I probably would not have gotten out of it for months. It’s not that I want them to pay attention to me or even think I’m a “good writer” (by their standards? god forbid), I just want them to take me seriously and not act like I’m writing joke books that contain any less meaning or emotion or vulnerability than theirs.”

I didn’t think I was burning any bridges when I left; I just felt that I had been taught a useful lesson, I had been punished in a useful way, I thought “That’ll teach you to try to associate with your betters” and I intended to vanish back into invisibility when I got home. But now I think with utter despair that maybe I did burn a bridge—not when I left, but when I commented on my friend’s post about that writing retreat with my own note about Banff. I gave the residency lots of positive comments on their feedback form; I wrote a letter thanking the donors for the financial assistance that allowed me to go there. It wasn’t cheap. I didn’t want to sound spoiled or ungrateful or as if I had wasted the time; that was the last thing I wanted. Wasting: how monstrous.

Another note, January 22:

“It’s funny that I wasn’t expecting my predominant feeling here to be misery. Just… unending variations on it, for different reasons that move around several times a day. Part of it is loneliness of course, and the sense of being ostracized. The repetition of “Oh, I don’t read that” of the exact type of thing I write. Being left out (not on purpose) of hikes and walks because I know I’ll just embarrass myself trying to keep up, and that would be another source of misery, and I apparently cannot just say that I am situationally disabled (just here, just now). But also the burning, ineradicable feeling of the old days… of being offered a huge and genuinely undeserved opportunity (like in that lab) and just… wasting it and not knowing why. And knowing that whether I wasted it or not, it whether everybody knew or not, it would never be offered to me again. That kind of breathless sense of falling that you get in dreams, or on rides where you’re allowed to just drop, that’s what I feel here. I was handed this valuable gift and soon everyone will know that I squandered it. And the unhappiness is therefore two things, or just one thing shaped like a circle, feeding on itself. A cause and a symptom and at this point I can’t tell them apart or force them to stop affecting one another. I’m just so… constantly, quietly miserable. It never ends. I want to go home, where I could at least be unhappy and loved. Instead of feeling like all this possibility, all this potential, is just trickling down the drain.
Sorry and also the inability to say anything about it because it will look like I’m fishing for validation (which is just incredibly manipulative) from friends, and from these people, if I’m invited to be part of anything after that, I would know it was out of pity, and who can stand to be pitied? That would be even WORSE. Being the kind of kid that the teacher has to like… quietly pull aside some other kids at recess or whatever and beg or bribe them to be my friend. Or do it in PUBLIC oh my God can you imagine. I’d want to die. I’d RATHER die, given the option. So here I just lie, suffering alone. The only possible good way to suffer.”

And it wasn’t their fault, and it wasn’t the Banff Centre’s fault, and it wasn’t the staff’s fault. It’s just the way things work out sometimes. You shake a box of blocks and fifteen of them line up the right way up and one is upside-down and that’s life. Hell, I told myself, writers are supposed to feel lonely and angsty and oversensitive, right? That’s where the real writing comes from.

(Update: this took me so long to write that another WriteClick email arrived in my inbox and the wording has been changed for that retreat! Now it just says

“Please join us for a weekend of writing and togetherness. This retreat is a perfect opportunity to work on your craft and connect with your peers — don’t miss out!

We are so excited to be welcoming two world-class facilitators, Saskatoon-based poet Leah Horlick and Calgary-based fantasy author, C.L. Polk. You can expect a talk from Leah Horlick as a welcome address on Friday evening, two interactive workshops (one with each facilitator) on Saturday, a group discussion and Q&A session on Saturday evening, and a farewell address from C.L. Polk on Sunday morning. All sessions are optional, and time is otherwise self-directed.”)

Anyway. Anyway. This isn’t a story. This is something else, something more primitive. A vignette, an anecdote. A yawp. You can tell because it doesn’t have a shape, doesn’t have an engine, nothing is propelling it, all the misery is in the past, all the characters are heroes and no one is a villain, there’s just no real antagonism and so no conflict or tension. Just because I hoped I could be a resource or at least a friendly acquaintance doesn’t mean I should get what I hoped; life doesn’t work that way. I’m glad I didn’t get the group tattoo. I did nothing to earn it.

I will go on as I am, writing my books with wizards and spaceships, and we will all continue to move in our different circles of craft and art and commerce and meaning no matter how often the circles touch. And I will continue advising the writers who come to see me at the library that yes, no matter what genre you’re writing, your story matters, you matter, the reasons you’re writing matter, and you should be both compensated and respected. You are not lesser than. Your work is not lesser than. And yes: it is work.

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