As I read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, I was impressed with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. In a Reddit AMA, the author describes her book as a love letter to the modern age; examining it through its absense. It was one day, when I was reading it and eating ice cream that a thought entered into my head, unbidden – they wouldn’t be able to eat ice cream.

I wanted to write a love letter to the world we find ourselves in. It’s a world where — you got here by subway, and it’s a fast train underground, and we have electric lights, and water comes out of the tap, and we have access to antibiotics. And these are things we totally take for granted! So a way to write about that is to write about their absence. In the way that a requiem is a way of considering something is already gone, it’s a love letter in the form of a requiem. It was a matter of those things coming together over a period of time.

—Emily St. John Mandel, Bustle interview

Station Eleven is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where most of the population has been wiped out by a virus. The few survivors are scattered, creating communities and making homes in abandoned airports, gas stations, and so on. The narration shifts back and forth in time, describing life before and after the virus strikes.

I normally don’t read post-apocalyptic fiction or dystopia, but Station Eleven is an exception to the rule. It is a story that tips close on the scale of literary realism in terms of what might actually happen, how people would react and then survive, in a post-apocalyptic scenario; it isn’t The Hunger Games or Mad Max, which are otherwise pure fantasy. One of the novels that the author cites as an inspiration is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road but she wanted to write something that is hopeful and that she succeeded in. She also has a sense of humour that is uniquely Canadian:

For obvious reasons, very few people have heard of Delano Island. When he tells people in Toronto that he’s from British Columbia, they’ll invarilably say something about how they like Vancouver, as though that glass city four hours and two ferries to the southeast of his childhood home has anything to do with the island of where he grew up. On two separate occasions he’s told people in Los Angeles that he’s from Canada and they’ve asked about igloos. An allegedly well-educated New Yorker once listened carefully to his explanation of where he’s from—southwestern British Columbia, an island between Vancouver Island and the mainland—and then asked, apparently in all seriousness, if this means he grew up near Maine.

It’s a book that I had been meaning to read for a long time and, as soon as I started, I wondered why I had waited so long. Emily St. John Mandel’s prose is wonderful, even cinematic at points – some scenes are particularly memorable, especially the pivotal action in the beginning – it’s as much the story as her writing style, her voice, that pulled me in and kept me there until the last page and beyond; I didn’t want to stop listening to her voice.

I am now going back and reading the rest of her work so far. (I just finished The Singer’s Gun.)

I wholeheartedly recommend Station Eleven to people who like Shakespeare, acting, celebrity culture, comics, and or post-apocalyptic fiction – or for anyone who wants to try reading something outside of their comfort zone.

A Long, Long Way

Progress on Between the Crosses is slow, to the point of negligible. To date, this is probably the hardest thing I’ve tried to write in my life. I have the story but research is the dickens. Why is it harder to find things about WWI history (and especially from a West Coast Canadian perspective) than WWII? There seems to be far more written about the latter than the former; is it because WWII is in more recent memory? It’s been almost a year since I got my idea for this story and it feels like almost nothing. Maybe I’m trying too hard.

I have worked on nothing else but this story, and now, maybe, just maybe, it’s time to take a break for a little while and let it stew while I work on something else. I’m not short on ideas, or stories; before taking a stab at historical fiction, I had started writing a different story that was sort of like an alternate history/steampunk-ish (not really steampunk, but for lack of a better term). I’d also tried writing a fairy tale of sorts last summer, and that I still need to polish up and finish – which, before beginning to write BtC, was my toughest to write but now, I realize, is a different sort of challenge.

Back to work!

P.S. Post title comes from a WWI-era song, “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary”, which I learned about when I read Sebastian Barry’s A Long, Long Way, which references the song in the title and that the men sing in the trenches.

Turning Pro 5/10 – Fear of Self

It’s Day 5 of reading Steven Pressfield’s Turning Pro and today’s topic is about fear, specifically the fear of failure and the fear of success, and, ultimately, fear of becoming oneself.

In the section we read today, Pressfield goes into great length and detail about what exactly is an amateur and how an amateur’s defining characteristic is fear, most of all fear of becoming him or herself while paradoxically constantly seeking external validation or permission before acting. In this manner, he explains, the amateur knows that there are better things out there but instead they hide. While many people have a fear of failure or experience it, there can also be, at the same time, a fear of success. According to Pressfield, this is what blocks the amateur and it is something that must be conquered in our path to turning pro.

While a fear of failure is fairly obvious – we fear failing something (or someone), a fear of success is the opposite: those who have a fear of success fear what could happen if they do succeed and the outcome of their success, what responsibilities that might entail, etc. The usual action arising from these two conflicting feelings is no action at all, unless one decides to take the bull by the horns and do it anyway. Failure and success are two sides of the same coin; neither can happen without taking a risk.

Though I haven’t necessarily dealt with fear of success personally, I do know what fear of failure feels like and just how crippling it can be, as well as debilitating in that, sometimes, it could be so strong that, to avoid the potential sting of failure, I wouldn’t try at all or even do my best (the latter of which seems ironic; one would logically think the opposite – to do my best – would avoid failure). I’m not proud of it, but I have improved my attitude regarding failure and success and it is still evolving. In fact, it’s in the past three years that I have taken action toward accomplishing personal goals no matter the outcome – the accomplishment begins when I simply take action, whether it was volunteering or commitment to a project.

By facing our fear and taking action in spite of it, we move closer to becoming ourselves. The amateur is closely tied to their ego, therefore that supposed fear of external factors (failure, success) is really a reflection of their fear of how they will change, or the world’s perception of them, and the resultant accountability and responsibility they must take. As Pressfield writes, turning pro is nothing more than growing up, and sometimes part of growing up is learning how to conquer the monsters under the bed on our own.

Catch up on the previous days’ posts in this series:

Turning Pro 4/10 – Inside Out

It’s Day 4 of reading Turning Pro – in case you missed them, here are the posts for Day 1, 2, and 3. Throughout the book, Pressfield intersperses his advice with his story of how he became pro in his own life by applying the very same principles he talks about. In today’s section that we read for today, he shares the story about his year of turning pro, which inspires the topic of today’s post: chasing your daemons. Yes, not battling – chasing. I will explain this further in the post (and the difference in spelling).

Reading Pressfield’s story about his year of turning pro reminded me of the countless movies in which the protagonist is seen working and their brilliant output, usually sped up to show the passage of time – weeks, months – sometimes, though not unusually, after they’ve hit rock bottom or decide to change their path (if they didn’t hit rock bottom). To me, this stuff has always been inspiring but it’s also an illusion, of sorts, at the same time. When we’re doing the work, time goes by at its usual pace and we’re working from the inside. The other thing is that, as movies are a visual medium, storytelling must take its cue from external signs when, really, the work starts from the inside – before the burst of creativity and time-lapsed flurry of output that everyone sees.

Personal victory comes before public triumph.

Turning pro is personal, as well as private; as we work on ourselves, those changes we’ve made will start to make a difference in our lives and others’ lives, too, as they start to see how we’ve changed. This is, once again, something that is harder to convey onscreen and the audience only really sees the results of the character’s inner, private work on themselves. We cannot enter the character’s mind or not so much as witness, but feel, their thought processes without it being visualized.

What is the pain of being human?

It’s the condition of being suspended between two worlds and being unable to fully enter into either.

Pressfield carries on to describe these two worlds, the upper realm (belonging to the gods) and the lower realm, the material world. However, when we work on ourselves and engage in our true calling, when we turn pro, we are in tune and connected with this upper realm, as Pressfield calls it. Others might call it God, the universe, a higher consciousness, etc.

Whatever it is, this is what we connect to when we are engaged in what we love to do. Before the Renaissance, when a person created something, they weren’t called a genius; they had genius, assisted by their daemon (a benevolent being, distinct from demon). While in some ways similar to our current understanding or popularly believed image of the muse, it is dissimilar in that, nowadays, while we might hear an artist talk about finding their muse or complaining about waiting for her, the artist takes all the credit and praise for their creativity and the muse receives nothing. (Elizabeth Gilbert talks about this in greater detail in her TED Talk.)

This upper realm calls to us, but it is up to us to do the work to connect with it and to see our results, the fruits of our labour.

Turning Pro 3/10 – Amusing Ourselves to Death

It’s Day 3 of reading Turning Pro – the title of today’s post is taken from Neil Postman, although it remains apt for the topic I’m writing about today: distractions. In a world rife with information overload and, needless to say, endless distractions mostly via the Internet and social media, most of us are no stranger to falling prey to them but what does distraction mean to the person turning pro?

Have you checked your e-mail in the last half hour? When you sit down to do your work, do you leave your web connection on?

In today’s section that we read, Pressfield focuses on addiction (in all forms), and one of the addictions he focuses on is being addicted to distraction.

Inadvertently, so much so that it just seems natural, this year I have been spending considerably less time on the Internet and screens. I didn’t make it a New Year’s resolution or goal, it just happened as I spent more time on personal projects and life in general; “the bigger picture”. Don’t get me wrong, the Internet is great but in the not-too-recent past, the Internet was my place to hang out (whether on social media or simply browsing). Now, when I do spend more time than I should, or constantly checking email and social media, that’s an indicator for me that I’m being distracted from important goals or priorities.

Distraction, Pressfield writes, is part of the shadow life and when we’re addicted to it, it diverts us from our true calling. Distraction can also be a form of oppression because it’s easy to slip through and we don’t notice it. For an otherwise light-hearted movie, this was executed brilliantly (and so swiftly that it’s almost imperceptible) in a moment in The Lego MovieWhen we feel uncomfortable or dissatisfied, another distraction crops up to and we forget in the face of novelty.

Turning Pro 2/10 – In the Shadows

We were amateurs living in the past or dreaming of the future, while failing utterly to do the work necessary to progress in the present.

It’s Day 2 of reading Steven Pressfield’s Turning Pro in Desk’s digital book club. Following up on yesterday’s post about ambition, I’m going to write about two points in today’s section: the shadow life and habits.

Pressfield describes becoming a pro as “nothing grander than growing up”, whereas the shadow life is “the life of the amateur”. Before we’re quick to dismiss the amateur, though, it is noted that it is essential to our progress in becoming pro. The amateur life is the hero’s journey. The important part, however, is not to get stuck in being an amateur – eventually one has to release the shackles of the amateur in order to become pro; we cannot be both. The shadow life is any calling we pursue but without giving us purpose or meaning to our lives – now, I’m sure you’re wondering (as I was when I first read this book) that surely if one is following their calling, how can it be without purpose or meaning? That is what Pressfield outlines in describing the shadow life: oftentimes, what we think is our calling is but an imitation or false, a shadow, if you will, of our true calling; what makes us tick. This calling can be either professional – we can make it our career – or it can be personal, or both.

In order to move past this shadow life, we must change our habits. The quote at the top of this post is something that I could relate to and it is related to something that I briefly touched upon in yesterday’s post, that “immediate urgency” – it is all fine and well to dream, but dreaming must be combined with action.

The amateur dreams, the pro takes action.

I wrote a lot when I was a kid, then a teen, but it is in the last few years as an adult that I’ve come to realize just why writing is a discipline. I don’t believe in traditional writer’s block (a post for another time, perhaps), but I am fully capable of not writing for days. Does this bring me any closer to my realization as a writer? No. One of my first steps in the right direction to transform from an amateur to a pro is one I’ll be making soon, and that is creating a schedule for myself that balances my writing, personal life, work, and play. It is also big leap for me personally as I have been generally adverse to schedules in the past, though I have slowly realized that it is necessary for me in order to get any of my writing done if I want to be a writer at all. I don’t plan on necessarily scheduling every minute of my day or setting a specific time of day for my writing at this point like some writers have and do but if I can get myself to sit down and write, it’s a start.

Turning Pro 1/10 – Ambition

This is the first post in part of a new digital book club that John Saddington is trying out over on the Desk PM community website. I still have to finish the 10 Days to a Better Blog challenge (and, oh boy, has it been a challenge) and now I’m doing this as well. The book that  the book club is reading is Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield, which I already own (Mike, of 27 Good Things, generously offered to mail a copy to me when I guest posted on his website last year) and have read. Joining John’s book club is a great way for me to reread this book and contemplate some of the ideas contained therein.

In the section we’re reading today, one of the things Steven Pressfield writes about is ambition. My earliest memory of coming across the term ambition was reading Anne of Green Gables, when Anne was called ambitions for wanting to be top of her class and win the scholarship. I recall my then younger self not quite knowing what that word meant, but having a sense that it implied some kind of calling.

When you are no longer a student and making your way in the world, one question that you’ll repeatedly encounter from other people is, “What do you do?” It’s a question that is, in a way, a progression (for lack of a better term) from “What do you want to be when you grow up?” that you hear so often as a child. The first question is easy to answer if you have a job, but even in your own work environment you might be faced with this question from co-workers.

For myself, I want to be a writer. In some ways, I already am but I want to do and be more. I want to actually finish a novel (that’s in progress) and write more books after that. The hard part of this ambition is the actual doing – it is true that the easiest and hardest thing for a writer to do is to sit down and just write. At the same time, I feel an immediate urgency – as I have dreamed of being a writer, “when I grow up” becomes a crutch and it is something I can no longer lean on if I want to realize my dreams as a writer.

Why I Write

Remember when I said that I’d be following up with Day 2 of John Saddington’s 10 Days to a Better Blog? Well, here’s that post. I fell behind and now I’m finishing the 10 Days.

Today’s assignment is about why I write, as you might have guessed by the title. Writing has always been a part of my life, for as long as I can remember. I could say the reason why I write is just that, but recently I have started to reassess why I write and that also includes what it means, for myself, to be a writer. Note that, in this context, writing refers to creative writing.

A long while ago (at least a couple years ago now), I wrote a post with a similar theme but never published it – in it, I expressed part of why I write, quoting Rainier Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: 

“Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

In that unpublished post, I describe how I found my answer – that I must write – and now, for this post, I will answer why must I write?

I have been writing for as long as I can remember, since I was a child; I still have all of my childhood writings. I may not be able to read them easily, but I cherish them all the same. Why must I write? The short answer is, I must write because that is what I’ve always wanted to do and it is what I, as a child, dreamed my grown-up self would do one day. The shorter answer is that I like telling stories. If I didn’t write, I know I would regret it for the rest of my life.

The long answer is that, in addition to it being my childhood dream to be a writer, I have come to realize that writers inherently possess great responsibility – whether we realize it or not, and whether we choose to accept it or not. Some writers might even argue that we don’t hold any responsibility at all; we are simply vessels. Even if we are vessels, I believe that it is still our responsibility to choose what we decide to carry forth into the world as what we write can having a lasting impact, for good or bad.

Perhaps my sense of duty as a writer is best expressed by these two quotes, the first by E.B. White:

I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.

The second quote is by Kurt Vonnegut, regarding the role of writers in society, and that is still relevant today,

It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that writers are not marginal to our society, that they, in fact, do all our thinking for us, that we are writing myths and our myths are believed, and that old myths are believed until someone writes a new one.


I think writers should be more responsible than they are, as we’ve imagined for a long time that it really doesn’t matter what we say. I also often have First-Amendment schizophrenia — there’s a lot that I wish wasn’t popular and in circulation, I think there is a lot of damaging material in circulation… I think it’s a beginning for authors to acknowledge that they are myth-makers and that if they are widely read, will have an influence that will last for many years — I don’t think that there’s a strong awareness of that now, and we have such a young culture that there is an opportunity to contribute wonderful new myths to it, which will be accepted.

(I have a responsibility of the writer tag on Tumblr, too.)

I’m honest when I say that why I write is also for myself, an answer common for many writers. When I am done writing, though, I want to, naturally, share it with other people and thus it is my duty, my responsibility, as a writer to choose what I write about. I am not worried about what other people will think but that, if books allow an author to speak, quoting Carl Sagan, “clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you,” I want to choose what conversations I’ll be having with that person who is reading what I’ve written. I don’t mean I want to control whether a person agrees or disagrees with me, or whether they’ll like what I’ve written, but to acknowledge that what I write can and will influence them and that I would rather lift someone up than bring them down.

In conclusion, I will always write, because it is not just what I do but it is part of who I am.

New Year’s Resolutions

Happy New Year! This year, one of my resolutions is to get back into blogging – I’ve gotten out of the groove for the past few months (and in the case of my food blog, even longer) as life has been busy. It is with this said that I intend to start blogging again this month, setting aside time to do so, with the help of John Saddington’s 10 Days to a Better Blog, a free online workshop. 

I’m behind by a day, so I’m doing Days #1 and #2 together. Day 2’s assignment coming up next! 

Thy Silver Pinions

On this Remembrance Day, I reflect on all the soldiers and civilians who died during World War I. Remebrance Day honours all who have fallen, though my thoughts keep wandering back to those soldiers of the Great War as I’m working on my book.

I don’t usually feel emotional when writing, i.e. when I’m writing an exciting or fast-paced scene, I don’t feel excited – I feel the emotions after, when I’m reading it over. I don’t know why. But writing this story seems to be different; before I even began writing, when I was still thinking about it, the story only a vague idea, an image came to me (a key scene in the story) and before I knew it, tears welled in my eyes and a profound sense of sorrow washed over me.

I’ve looked at photographs and read books as part of my research, and sometimes I’m so overcome by sadness that I have to put whatever it is I’m looking at aside and do something else to raise my spirits again. This pattern was on my mind again shortly after I read Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, the last book in The Hunger Games trilogy. The ending wasn’t just sad, it was incredibly depressing. I was so low as I read it, and after I’d finished reading it. It took me hours to feel better. (I was kind of interested in seeing the last movie as I was reading the books but, now, if the book is anything to go by, I don’t want to be depressed all over again.)

Afterward, I looked at my response objectively and I came to the sudden conclusion that my novel would end with hope.

Emily Dickinson described hope as “the thing with feathers”. John Keats, in his poem “To Hope”, wrote,

Should Disappointment, parent of Despair,
Strive for her son to seize my careless heart;
When, like a cloud, he sits upon the air,
Preparing on his spell-bound prey to dart:
Chase him away, sweet Hope, with visage bright,
And fright him as the morning frightens night!

Whene’er the fate of those I hold most dear
Tells to my fearful breast a tale of sorrow,
O bright-eyed Hope, my morbid fancy cheer;
Let me awhile thy sweetest comforts borrow:
Thy heaven-born radiance around me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!

My favourite definition of hope comes from J.R.R. Tolkien, in Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (The Debate of Finrod and Andreth, found in Morgoth’s Ring):

Have ye then no hope?” said Finrod.

“What is hope?” she said. “An expectation of good, which though uncertain has some foundation in what is known? Then we have none.”

“That is one thing that Men call ‘hope’,” said Finrod. “Amdir we call it, ‘looking up’. But there is another which is founded deeper. Estel we call it, that is “trust”. It is not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being. If we are indeed the Eruhin, the Children of the One, then He will not suffer Himself to be deprived of His own, not by any Enemy, not even by ourselves. This is the last foundation of Estel, which we keep even when we contemplate the End: of all His designs the issue must be for His Children’s joy. Amdir you have not, you say. Does no Estel at all abide?

War is a heavy topic to read about, and certainly to write about as well. Knowing that Suzanne Collins’s father was a Vietnam War veteran helped my understanding of how she wrote The Hunger Games and ended it as she did, though what I also took away from my own response was that I want to write a book that, yes, deals with war (World War I) but also offers a message of hope (which I didn’t feel with Mockingjay) that is very much needed at its conclusion.

What I can and will allow myself to say, though, is that it’s about a young girl and her relationship with her father just before the start of the war, during, and after. As I’ve been writing, certain things have surfaced that I need to address such as the passage of time and how I’m going to do that (World War I was fought for four years, 1914 to 1918) within the span of one book and that I currently see as a standalone.
What I can and will allow myself to say, though, is that it’s about a young girl and her relationship with her father just before the start of the war, during, and after. As I’ve been writing, certain things have surfaced that I need to address such as the passage of time and how I’m going to do that (World War I was fought for four years, 1914 to 1918) within the span of one book and that I currently see as a standalone.