After Math

Apparently the months have crept on. One of the odd experiences I’ve had these years, be it pandemic-related or no, is an inconstancy of time. A day doesn’t pass that I don’t wonder if it’s Fall or Winter, January or June, let alone the date. I’m always feeling like some old record player whose needle has been put down on the wrong track.

In January, which I do strongly recall, I graduated on a rooftop in Rome from my MFA program at VCFA. It was a fantastic experience, yet one one which justified all the reasons why I did the degree in the first place: I need something to write for!!

Well, six months later and I’m back to submitting short pieces, back to working on long pieces, and back to the rigamarole of disappointment, disgust, and ennui.

All that said, I just attended a novel retreat that was quite fantastic, primarily to help articulate all the old rules that aren’t visible when there’s a course deadline:

  1. There is no deadline. The deadline is death; write until crossed.
  2. The artistic life is one of self-care, compassion, understanding.
  3. The commercial life is one of demand, doubt, and justification.
  4. There is a realistic approach to combining 2 and 3 but it is not obvious, especially in the hour-by-hour experience of artistic pursuit.
  5. Love the process. There will be more process after success or failure.
  6. You are not alone in doing this crazy thing.
  7. You are crazy but blessedly brilliant! (and an acquired taste!)
  8. Your fans may not be your family and friends.
  9. Structure to writing is helpful despite your best arguments.

Anyway, the last few months have not been without breakthroughs and new invigoration, still I lament the structure of mentor and workshop submission.

The good to great news is that the end is in sight. I have a few hundred pages, and while most of those need to be rewritten, I can see Einstein and Freud bringing the magic home. Better yet, I am hopeful at finding a few historical confluences that send it over the top. I’m shooting for fall, but do so knowing that life is short and the art takes for fucking ever.

The workshop was run by Connie May Fowler who is planning a number of upcoming workshops. She is accomplished, warm, forgiving, and encourages a loyal following wherever she goes. I can’t recommend her mentorship enough.

And so it ends…

My twentieth and final packet has been submitted.

My graduate lecture (on constraints to promote creativity) has been uploaded.

The only thing left is my attendance and I will be done with my MFA in writing.

I think any real reflection will be some months away. As it is, the gauntlet of reading (maybe sixty books, portions of another forty) and writing (about 425 pages of fiction in total) has gnawed so steadily at my consciousness these last two years that I don’t know how to put it in perspective.

What do I want to read, now? What do I want to write, now? When no one is looking over my shoulder, when there is no pressing deadline, have I been left inspired or drained? Eager to press on or ready to vegetate? What comes next?

But first, I’m off to Rome for the final residency. A chance to meet people in person, walk a new city, drink wine, eat pasta, and celebrate with new friends.

Six Months Later; Six Months to Go

Summer is here. Another term over. A trip out of Canada looms. And what about Covid?

I’m sure I’m not the only one that continues to find the whole world disorienting. From pandemic to pending world war to global warming, foreseeable famine, inflation, labor shifts, miserable politics, and the demise of Netflix, it’s like you can’t find stability anywhere anymore.

I probably feel sorriest for the kids, though. As a parent I am increasingly aware that the lessons the kids are learning may not be the ones they are going to need. I worry that we’ll raise a generation of kids who will be so accustomed to homebound leisure time that they won’t be ready to suffer in the ways that nature is bringing. And let’s face it, Nature is bringing its A-game.

I hope I’m wrong.

I’ve wrapped another term, this one under the tutelage of Adam McOmber. I managed to finish up my critical thesis on narcissism in first-person narration, revisiting a few classics like American Psycho, Lolita, and The Talented Mr. Ripley. I had to read a fair amount of work on rhetoric which was interesting, and adjacent to a lot of craft books I’ve read.

And now, I’m solidly into the book. Probably sitting around a hundred pages, it has some good stuff. Ghosts, psychosis, death, mystery, historically famous characters. It’s by far the hardest thing I have ever attempted to write, but thankfully I am slowly finding my way through it. If nothing else (and there is so much else) the master’s program is giving me a framework to kick my own ass into gear.

Six months ago I was trying to find the tagline for my writing, the elevator-pitch one-liner that summarizes my work. I feel that pressure a little less these days, maybe I’m just heartened by the fact that I’ve made a lot of work (around 350 pages in the last year-and-a-half) and that maybe there’s no way to simplify all them words.

Next week I’m off to residency. Living in a dorm for the first time since medical school. Of course, Montpelier is a little different than Washington Heights in the late-90s (car alarms, ice cream trucks, and salsa music) but ideally I’ll return refreshed, inspired, and with a few thousand more words towards the finish line.

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!


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.


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.