Inspirations and Resolutions

I guess these are those interesting times we’d been taught about in school, huh?

As a child of the ’70s, the first thirty years never felt like they carried the import of being an era the way each and every day of 2020/2021 has. Like all of us, I’m about ready to live days that won’t make the cut for history textbooks of the future. Or VR Histori-casts, or whatever.

The challenges of emergency mental health (high risk, constant emotional intensity, predictable unpredictability, violence, variety, etc.) have mostly intensified under the vagaries of the pandemic (staff shortages, overall distress increases, fragmented primary care, increased access to opioids/overdoses, etc.). And as the mental health surges tend to follow the medical health surges, I have to say that I’m really not looking forward to the spring (or the years to come…?)

But, enough of that. It’s been a wonderful year for personal growth and this next one is positioned to be even better.

Back in 2010, a writing workshop leader, Michaela Roessner encouraged me to consider a low-residency MFA in writing. I couldn’t do it at the time, and for the next ten years I couldn’t bring myself to really consider the time and financial commitment to make it happen. But thanks to Covid, and online pivots, it became a doable possibility. And Michaela was right.

At the first residency at VCFA I was so nervous and overwhelmed with impostor syndrome, I could barely babble out an answer to any personal question. In every interaction I felt myself over-compensating or retreating with embarrassment.

Had I ever even really read a book? Have I ever truly written? What am I doing here?

But now, it’s 2022, and I sit with close to 250 pages of new fiction, at least thirty books read that I truly had not known existed twelve months ago, and a feeling of community. I am privileged to say that I may come through the pandemic with work I’m proud of, an expanded education, and new friends (that I’ve yet to meet in person). That is far from bad.

I write this in part because for the last ten years, as I searched for information on MFAs, I found my way to discussion boards with a binary classification of benefit/evil. For me, someone who had stalled in his creative work, who needs the structure of deadlines and invested readers, and whose vacation allowance sat sadly idle for two years, this has been lovely.

This last term, I’ve worked under Douglas Glover, who pushed me into new forms and approaches to creative generation. While Doug writes about many things (Don Quixote, slavery, the early Canadian colonies), as he told me in one our conversations, is always writing about love.

Which has highlighted something for me, especially going into my third residency. Every writer will tell you what they write about. Just this week I’ve heard writers say they write about families, intergenerational trauma, geography, child abuse, identity, the mythic. Well-established writers and apprentices alike can boil down thousands of hours of creation and creativity into a single word or idea!

Whaaaaaaa–?

A potential advisor asked me to tell him about my work. There I was, as tongue-tied and blank as I was a year ago. Not this time, as an impostor, I can stare at the stack of pieces I’ve sweat through and accept that I’m a writer. No, it’s no longer about verbs. I write. I read. I have read and written and critiqued and shared and published. The next step is different.

What do I write? Who am I as a writer? What do I want to do with all these words?

Sure, there’s the perspective that the market will decide, the stuff that sells, the stuff that gathers interest will point the way, but for the next year, it’s not about the market. I have a thesis to do, more work to create, and I have to (get to?) make decisions. I can write and collect and focus my work on whatever is meaningful to me. Forget agents and publishers, at least for a moment: as a writer what is it that I will make?

This year I wrote about Medusa and superhero furniture and the soul and love without commonality and suicide and Kafka and Zeus and about mothers who get to control their kids’ aging and a dozen other things both silly and sad. But, I’m still searching for the words that I feel comfortable to define it all.

It is daunting, yes, but also so damned exciting. And it’s great to not be doing it alone.

Dream (?)

One of the few rewards of being a terrible sleeper is that I dream a lot. Twenty years ago I was even featured in Janet Sonenberg’s book Dreamwork for Actors, but mostly I experience hours of wandering NYC or some tropical paradise and can’t find a way to the subway/airport. Every once in a while, though, something breaks that mold.

A few weeks ago I met Robin Williams. He showed up in the middle of the night in my unconscious and lectured me. Not Good Will Hunting Robin Williams or Dead Poets’ Robin Williams but dead, ghost-ish Robin Williams. I have realized in the weeks that followed that it was recently his seventieth birthday (and soon, the anniversary of his death) from which I can infer that a Twitter comment may have stuck in my craw. Day residue, we can call it, or not.

The crux was this, paraphrased or reconstituted, or whatever.

“Most people,” said Robin. “Live life looking over their shoulder. They’re constantly turning back, watching for Death sneaking up on them. Don’t do that.”

“Run toward Death. It’s where you’re headed anyway. Don’t try to avoid it, live in fear of it, cower and shuffle away from it. Accept it and sprint whatever distance you get.” Do it consciously, he seemed to be saying, as hard and as fast and as intentionally as you can. Do not live recklessly, do not hasten the end, but don’t let fear ruin the race.

Other stuff happened. I think Michael Douglas showed up and gave a rendition of his Greed is Good speech from Wall Street. By that time Robin was gone back whence he came.

I awoke with that idea seared into my brain: Run toward Death.

There are generally two interpretations. The scientific side that accepts this as a projective narrative on neuronal impulses firing in some yet-to-be-fully-understood manner, or that my sleeping brain channelled wisdom from beyond the grave.

This time, I don’t know that it matters. From wherever the direction originated, it seems I have some running to do.

Middling

Middles get a bum rap. Sometimes they’re not so bad. Middles are usually things in progress, at neither extreme of beginning (incompetence) or ending (mastery). The pandemic has been difficult because it’s been one long middle, with only glimpses of an end. Unlike the pandemic though, the middle of an enjoyable process is a pretty okay place to be.

I just past the mid-point of my first term in my Master’s program. It’s going smashingly. I’m kicking myself that I waited this long. There is a qualitative difference in my growth that is difficult to capture. Having spent so many years reading craft books and reading and writing, there is nothing mind-blowingly new, no extra-secret secret I’ve been let in on (yet). The difference is the expectation I have on myself, the permission and expectation to grow and develop. It’s like I’m out of the “who would publish this?” mindset and into a “what’s the best you can do with this story?” Learning more and more about this wacky imagination of mine, and my advisor, Bret Lott, has been supportive and encouraging and has given me a yearlong reading list of “my people”.

As I prepare my next packet’s story (about student housing haunted by a ghost who loves David Hasselhoff), I am thinking a lot about work versus the work. Artists use that phrase a lot, but it’s a very different thing than work elsewhere. It’s not assigned, not driven by external expectations, yet no less real.

On another note, I’ve been a fan of crosswords for many years. Probably took hold in medical school and got me through all the immunology lectures. My NYT streak has been going well:

But I got to try my hand at the real stuff this past weekend at the ACPT. I was registered to go last year, but got to try the virtual format, and have a much better idea of just how high the bar gets. How’d I do? About a thousand contestants in the individuals bracket.

509th. Pretty much the middlest middle I could hope for!

The New Normal

November. November? November!

Grueling, inspiring, humbling, horrifying. 2020–the year words fail to capture.

It had to be lived to be believed.

My work hasn’t changed considerably this year. As an emergency psychiatrist, mental health crises have continued and so I’ve just had to use my hands a lot more to communicate through PPE. Okay, there’s been a little more to it, but I’ve still been able to meet (!) new people every day of work, and feel valued and valuable. That isn’t true of many people, so I do consider myself fortunate.

I left NYC nine years ago now. Is it weird that most of my dreams still occur in my old apartments, elevators, or street corners there? Oddly, I never dream in Canadian. But one of the loose ends I left there was improv training at the Upright Citizens Brigade. As a weird quirk of the pandemic, however, they are now teaching improv online. Who would have predicted that a virus would allow me to re-connect with the Harold? It’s felt good though, to complete what I’d started ten years ago. I feel grateful for that.

And, speaking of improv, not only have I been able to do bi-weekly shows online with Oakville Improv, but I’ve been able to perform with people all over the world (India, LA, Hawaii), and even did a Maestro show with the Hideout Theatre in Austin, TX. Opportunities that I could not have imagined in 2019. Texas? Pretty cool.

But there is a restless, angsty anhedonia that has gripped me the last few months. I have found myself picking up and putting down books, wearing my carpet thin with pacing, endlessly googling things like “what should I do” as if Google is the Oracle at Delphi. But after some soul searching and staring at way too many eBay “research” purchases, I’ve decided to commit to writing the book that’s been haunting me for the last five years. And to do that, I’ve enrolled in a MFA program. Between extended deadlines and remote residencies, it’s an opportunity that I can (hopefully) make work. Surprising!

So, in these admittedly challenging times, I’m reminded that there is some awesomeness to be had.

Bosphoros Hat Trick, Zoomprov

My globe-trotting cousin Ryan Pyle and I had another conversation this weekend on Instagram Live. It will be up on YouTube in a few weeks. Trying to stay sane in the world of data and information was the general topic. Conditions that I don’t think our monkey brains were ever meant to tackle. To my mind, just as the novel coronavirus is an infectious agent that prays upon our unprepared biological vulnerabilities I kinda think that media/information is equally preying on our vulnerabilities.

Ryan’s aiming for a full hundred of these calls and has interviewed a wide range of eclectic individuals, so they’re worth checking out (as are his adventures in general).

And in these devastating times that are potentially devastating to live theater, I’ve been regularly playing with the team at Oakville Improv Theater Company semi-regularly. I know they have lots of things planned from fundraisers to classes to shows. I kind of hope we can find a way to bring live green-screening into the improv world, but I’d settle for just hearing laughter at the moment.

The Stranded Nomad

My cousin Ryan Pyle, happens to be one of those intrepid explorer-types. His work has been all over the place (New York Times, Discovery Channel, BBC, etc.), but little of it makes its way onto Canadian broadcasting.

When the whole Covid-19 situation hit, he found himself trapped in Istanbul–one of three guests in a 500-room hotel. Obviously an adventure unto itself.

He hosted an Instagram Live chat last Sunday where we chatted Istanbul’s veterinary practices, quarantine fever, and mental health. Good conversation with an interesting guy, we may do another one soon depending on how well sanity prevails in this current crisis.

He released the video on his YouTube channel, it’s worth checking out his stuff, especially if you’re stir crazy in your own four walls. I’m partial to his Extreme Treks series, which is streaming on Amazon Prime if you’ve got it.

Draft!

notes

Back in 2011, while we were expecting our second child, an idea took hold that I was really excited about. The first 20,000 words came out without any difficulty, then trickled, then stopped.

I became so stuck on the accuracy of one issue, that it shut me down for a few years. I researched the hell out of coin-flip probability. In my mind, a reader would scoff at my character’s poor study design and deem the whole thing unbelievable. The fact that it is a novel about fictional science was irrelevant. What kind of neuroscientist would run such a small n

And so the premise lay dormant for a few years, but I couldn’t quite forget it. So instead, I enrolled at UCLA’s Extension School and tried to use the idea as the plot for a movie. Science! Research ethics! Morality! Well, I couldn’t quite get it to work. So back it went.

Until last year, when I showed the opening to a friend who demanded an ending. Like the Neil Gaiman advice:

“How do you do it? You do it. You write. You finish what you write.”

And so, I dug it out. And combined drafts. And outlined and index carded and ruminated on the whole thing.

And finished.

75k. A draft, but a draft nevertheless of something quite unique that only I can tell.

The Grey Line (or terminator, or twilight zone) divides day and night. It is the point where dark and light meet. It is only visible to outside observation.

Yay!

 

Opinion fatigue

I’m sick of opinions. It seems the bane of modern existence that we are drowning in them. And so, any negligence of this bloggy venture can be interpreted as ennui of opinionation (opinion nation?), my own included.

So, in lieu of opinion, an update?

I spent a quick two days in Venice this September doing research for my ever-expanding, ever-in-progress, magnum opus. I’ve been to Venice before, but in the off season, and alas, Sigmund Freud’s visit of 1895 occurred at the end of August, so I had to brave the city in the bright glare of late summer.

Sucks, huh?

This is my first go at a historical speculative project, and it was helpful to swim in the Adriatic and sip coffee at the Caffe Quadri the way Freud did. It was also good to see a few of the palazzi and landmarks that will be featured.

When I was a kid, I had a map of Maine on my wall. I’d never been to Maine, but being the Stephen King fan that I was, I’d drawn out and pinned many of the sites for his books and short stories. Maine was a fictitious fantasy world for me in those days, filled with clowns and demons and vampires. This trip to Venice had a deja vu quality as my brain tried to reconcile a fantasy and the real world.

Early in the book, there’s a scene in which Einstein nearly drowns. As it turned out, my hotel was minutes away, and I ended up walking past the location I’d written about, over a dozen times, each time imagining a teenaged Einstein going overboard, floundering in the lagoon below.

The problem with a grandiose premise is that it demands a grandiose finale. I think that it’s slowly coming into focus, but may need to make a return trip at Carnevale.

Sucks, huh?