Thanksgiving

“The question is not were you loved. Or did you love. Or did you love yourself. Or did you allow love to move through you, though that’s a big one. The question is, did you get to be who you are. And if not, then why. That, my friend, is the big why.”                                                                                             

                                                                  -Michael Winter

Thanksgiving

This quote (slightly abbreviated) from Michael Winter’s novel, The Big Why, haunted me for an entire decade during which, until this past spring, I worked as a full-time public servant. Every morning I got up, put on a costume (typically a navy blue blazer,) drove to a brick building, walked into a cage, and spent the next eight hours wishing I was writing. No one at my job cared that I was a writer or that my debut novel had won awards and has been optioned for a film. Most of my coworkers didn’t even know this, or they had forgotten, or it was convenient for them to assume my life’s goal was to be an administrative assistant (I worked in a male-dominated department in which many of the higher-ups referred to my coworker and I as “the girls.”)

The tension between my real life and my work life played out like a dark comedy. In  2016, I was a finalist for the Stephen Leacock Medal and was flown to Ontario where I was lauded at a ceremony preceded by the singing of the national anthem. Two days later, I was back in the office being presented with a stack of papers to photocopy.

I just couldn’t do it anymore.

To be fair, the job wasn’t serving me and I wasn’t serving it either. The fact that I stayed to the point where my health was beginning to deteriorate is no one’s fault but mine, the consequence of an acute aversion to poverty deeply entrenched from childhood. Having been raised by a single mother of three who scraped by as a substitute teacher, I can attest that poverty is stressful and not conducive to creativity. I never want to go back there.

In between the thousands of agonizing moments that led to the very serene one in which I knew with certainty that I was about to quit my job and never go back, I spent a lot of time polling other writers, “How do you make money?” Over and over they advised, “Don’t quit your day job.” Most of them hadn’t. Even the big ones.

But here’s the thing. When you grow up without money, you learn the skills to pay the bills. A resourceful streak gets braided into your identity. Even when I had a secure job with the government, I’d catch myself doing semi-shady things like taking home the hotel mini shampoos or wrapping up a cinnamon roll from the breakfast buffet and tucking it into my purse. Fear of scarcity, a friend defined it. It’s a survival mechanism. And while I resent this mechanism every time it forces me to order the cheapest thing on the menu or wait an hour for the bus when I could easily hop in a taxi, it comes from the same part of me that appreciates every little thing that comes my way. The same side of my personality that will, with zero moral quandary, forge an ID to scam a student discount is the same side that, no matter how spotty my income, has donated a monthly sum to a developing country ever since I actually was a student. Being grateful is better than being rich. The more I embrace this, the more it is true.

I unceremoniously quit my job on a cold spring day with nothing lined up. I was determined to finish my novel-in-progress, but books usually don’t generate money until they’re written. So I knew I’d be scraping the barrel. On my last day of work, my friend Fionnuala, a visual artist, invited me over for a two-woman retirement dinner. The night ended with Irish dirges to my soul-eroding-if-bill-paying career and a raising of glasses to our shared belief that when we drop that which is no longer serving us, we make space for that which wants to come in. I was half delirious with nerves, but prepared to put my resourcefulness to the test.

I kid you not, I awoke the next morning with a message on my cell from the Writers’ Trust of Canada. With shaking fingers I dialed the program director and was greeted with the words, “I have good news. You’re going to Berton House.”

As far as signs from the universe go, this one was bigger and louder than a Times Squares billboard. The Berton House residency is only open to professional writers, and it is highly competitive (Lawrence Hill was here last winter.)  I have applied every year since my book was published. At the end of this year’s application I added, “Maybe this year the stars will align.” And indeed they did. Of almost one hundred applicants, I made the shortlists of all three jurors.

And so, after a very long journey, the last leg of which I spent on a small plane looking down at hill after hill, valley after valley, here I am. For the next three months, I will live and write at the edge of Dawson City in the childhood home of Pierre Berton, mere steps from the cabins that belonged to Robert Service and Jack London on a dirt road affectionately known as “Writers’ Row.” It is a high honour, and I am grateful beyond measure to the Writers’ Trust, to the jury members, to the Berton House Writer’s Retreat Society, to Pierre Berton himself for this precious gift.

On this day of Thanksgiving, I give thanks to have been born a have-not with the ability to pursue my full potential, to reside in a country in which I have the security of knowing that, no matter what happens, I will always have the option of food in my belly and a roof over my head; such things are givens in few corners of the world. I give thanks to be an artist pursuing my creativity full-time, to have finally accepted that I must live, literally and figuratively, on the margins. I don’t belong in an office. I belong here on this hillside, half hidden by trees, waiting for the sky to erupt in brilliant, wavering colours. My writing has taken me places both mentally and physically that not every person gets to experience and I do not take this for granted. I give thanks that I had the guts to leave a job for a dream, that I faced my dragon and opened my whole heart. That I chose the life that has chosen me.

Today, and for all of the days I have left in this life, I give thanks that I get to be who I am.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dear Dawson City,

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There are only two instructions for the outgoing writer-in-residence of Berton House. One: leave the dregs of a bottle of Writers Tears whiskey for the incoming writer. Two:  write her or him a welcome letter.

When I arrived at the start of October, I pored over every single letter sheathed in plastic inside the two black volumes titled “Writer to Writer.” Spanning a twenty-three year period, in between bits of advice on house quirks (apparently the old washing machine made laundry even dirtier) and the best hiking trails, they collectively form an illuminating novel. Some parts are bittersweet, some tantalizing or frustratingly vague. One letter was the most boring I’ve ever read in my life. One was so drenched in sorrow it gave me the willies. A few had surprising twists.

Over the course of my residency, I thought often about the exit letter I would write to poet and fiction writer Carleigh Baker, but my last few weeks were so crammed with events and epiphanies, I almost forgot to write her entirely. Half an hour before a honking horn heralded the arrival of my ride to the airport, I dashed off these paragraphs. At the time, they felt futile in conveying what was in my heart. Reading them back now, I wouldn’t change a word.

I post the letter here for everyone: for my people at home, for all the folks who sent me thoughtful, handwritten notes while I was in the Yukon, but especially for the friends I made in Dawson City. Comrades, you kindled a dark northern winter into a roaring fire. You toasted me, roasted me, and mentally jousted with me. You transformed two dozen straight dirt roads into a labrythine wonderland. You let me pick your brains with all the instruments in my arsenal. You opened my eyes to things I cannot unsee, and would never want to. I am better for knowing you.

 

10:15 a.m. Dec. 20th, 2018

Dear Carleigh,                   

Welcome! Like most of the writers who have stayed here at Berton House, I am writing to my successor in a mad dash at the last hour. It’s a difficult letter to compose because it signals the changing of the guard. It’s not my house anymore. It’s yours.

I’ve spent a quarter of a year here, arriving when the river was rushing and the streets were made of mud. My cheeks would get sunburnt on an afternoon hike. Now the city is encased in ice, objects are hidden under the snow, flights are unreliable, and all roads out of dodge are treacherous. The sun never makes it over the hills. But Carleigh, it is a most special kind of light: the faintest, softest, most soul-caressing strain. It changes moods all day and reshapes the hillsides. Sometimes the clouds are giant puffs of blue and pink cotton candy, other times a dark ceiling. The window of daylight has been narrowing and narrowing, but tomorrow is the solstice and the window will start to open wider and wider. You will get to see the gears in reverse: the first drips of snow sliding off the metal rooftops, the river creaking back to life. The sun will rise over the mountain again, gradually gaining intensity from wheat to goldenrod.

As for the people…you will see for yourself. In the dead of winter, this place is bursting with life. I don’t want to make recommendations. You will find who you are supposed to find or they will find you. It might take a while. Be patient. Take the first month to be on the outside looking in, wanting desperately to be part of it all. It will make it so much sweeter when you find yourself, suddenly and miraculously, smack in the nucleus. The women especially will teach you a lot about yourself just by being themselves.

I wish I could stay forever. Part of me will.

Two more things:

Pierre Berton has given us a gift. Pass it on. Someone in this town will need something that only you can provide.

And—

It’s okay if you don’t write as much as you thought you would. Go outside. Harvest as many stories as possible. Write them later.

I’ve brought a guitar to leave behind as my offering to the writers who stay here. Once upon a time, I found myself in a new city with no one to talk to, just a rickety old guitar leaning up against the wall. I gradually taught myself to play and now I have music wherever I go. Like my writing, it has saved me many times. (For those writers who already play the guitar–voila! It’s not top of the line, but it works. You won’t have to beg, steal or borrow one.) Sing it out, my friends. 

Well, Carleigh. Be safe, be warm, be curious. Call me any time you want. I’ll tell you all the mundane stuff about living in the house that I’m leaving out of this letter. Nova Scotia is four hours ahead of Dawson City.

But oh so behind.

 

Yours Truly,

Sarah Mian

The Novel in Awful Sleep

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Time for a long confession.

The reason I haven’t posted here in a while is that I had nothing good to report about my novel-in-progress, The World in Awful Sleep. You may recall me saying when I first conceived the story that it flew out of the gates like a bat out of hell. Well, it kind of flew right through past me and kept on going. I could still see it silhouetted against the moon, flapping its wings, but I’d lost the tether.

On reflection, I attribute this to a bizarre and crippling case of self doubt. Bizarre because I don’t even think I’ve ever thought the words “self doubt” in my head let alone speak them, let alone type them right here for everyone to see. Self-doubt is not, nor has ever been, my jam. Ask my friends and they might tell you I have the opposite problem (fuckers). But I earned my confidence. Nobody’s ever given me a get out of jail free card, or a phone number of a guy who knows a guy, or one red dime. I’ve fought tooth and nail for every success I’ve ever had, and the boost l got from each accomplishment always lifted me over the next hurdle.

But a while ago, something came along that I couldn’t succeed at no matter what I threw at it. For the first time in my life, I was faced with an outcome I couldn’t control. It took me four years just to admit it. When I did, it broke down all my walls. I felt like the tower card in the tarot deck, flames shooting goddamn everywhere. It opened the door for self doubt and once that little bitch found its way in, it latched on with its short teeth and started feasting on my mojo.

Two years in a row, I’ve applied for a Canada Council grant and two years running I received a letter saying, “Your project was not chosen for funding.” Two years in a row, I’ve applied for a writing residency that would provide seclusion and financial support to work on the novel, and two years running, the response has been NO. This coming off the heels of some pretty impressive reviews, two Atlantic Book Awards and a dark horse nomination for a national medal. I couldn’t understand how I’d lost my powers.

I went to see a therapist for one session. I probably should have kept going, but she happened to tell me what I needed to hear in the very first appointment. Here’s what she said:

“Look, you’re a kid who had to fight, so you became a fighter. That was your survival model and it carried you safely into adulthood. But you don’t have to fight anymore and you haven’t realized it yet. In the absence of a fight, you go looking for one. Fighting and winning makes you feel safe. It reassures you that you can take care of yourself. But the challenge now is to notice when you’re just fighting yourself. Sometimes you can’t win, and that’s okay. Put your dukes down.”

Whoah. Right? But in order to internalize this truth, I had to lose my safety net. I had to stop thumping my fists against my chest and calling out to every challenge,  “You wanna go? You wanna go? Let’s DO THIS.”

Two nights ago, there was a wild rainstorm. The lake beside my house is separated from the ocean by only a thin strip of road, and I had a dream that the ocean was trying to overtake the lake, straining and pulling itself across. The next morning I looked out the window and instead of seeing the lake and sea meld together into one long blue line as they usually appear, there was an actual wall of waves. I put my boots on over my pajamas and walked over. The waves were massive and thrashing and there was sand and rock and seaweed all over the road. I stood there for a while and thought, it doesn’t matter how mighty the sea is. It can’t win this one. The lake will always be a lake.

I have to stop proving how strong I am and accept that there are some battles I can’t win. Or rather, that some things aren’t battles to be won. Situations are going to come along in life that I’ll have to accept as is without letting them torment me. Now that I can see the value in the lesson, I have to admit it was quite cleverly designed. What was I learning anymore from fighting until I won? Nothing. So I was given a new challenge called NOT ACHIEVING UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. It was Chinese water torture, but effective. I’ll give it that.

So that, in a fucking nutshell, a fuckshell if you will, is what stalled my new novel. I couldn’t think straight and I couldn’t write straight and I let self doubt get into my head and into my work where it gave me every reason to keep on doubting.

With all my guts laid out there, let’s get back to the news of the novel, the thing you clicked here to read about as opposed to my mysterious personal problem and subsequent epiphany stemming from a one-off therapy session…

Ahem (shuffling papers.)

With the grant and residency juries in agreement that my new project is not up to snuff, I have to prove them wrong before the next round. I decided to take this winter off to work on the novel and my super awesome boss said YES. My replacement was hired before I found out if I got the grant, which was risky, but hey, if there’s some benefit to this cleverly designed life lesson (bowing at the waist with a hand flourish) it’s that I no longer expect to reap rewards just because I put my heart and soul into something (in this case what I thought was a pretty airtight grant application.) But, yeah. While it’s not an ideal situation financially, I’m glad I’m here at home doing what I was born to do. My new motto: I’m a writer, not a fighter.

For the first two weeks I just sat scrolling through the manuscript thinking, Dear God, who wrote this? Pee Wee Herman? But slowly, gradually, it’s coming back into focus. In fact, as soon as I made the connection between this new self doubt and my writing’s lack of clarity and/or mediocrity, it dislodged whatever was blocking the muse. Here’s how I know:

A few days ago I was walking down Summer Street and unexpectedly turned into the cemetery. I wandered around the tombstones and realized I was scanning them for a surname to borrow for my protagonist. A certain name jumped out and stuck in my head, so I put it together with my character’s first name and googled it when I got home to make sure it’s not occupied by anyone semi-famous. The first hit was a sculptor, which is weird, because my character is a sculptor. I know very little about sculpture so I’d been grappling with how to write his technique. Isn’t it handy that this sculptor I found online has posted videos detailing his methods? His sculptures are ocean scenes made by hand from little pieces of glass; tedious, exquisite work that I will now have my character try his hand at. If he is patient and passionate, I’ll use it. It feels right because my story is set on the shore and has ocean imagery running all through it. I can’t use the real-life sculptor’s moniker, but I can borrow from his life and art. Coincidence that I happened to hit on his exact name? Fuck no. Pure magic. A gift from the muse.

The World in Awful Sleep is a much more layered and complex tale than When the Saints. I’m finding I need hours of deep concentration to compose each and every paragraph. It’s like it requires a special language to communicate it and I have to learn the language first. It’s painstaking work, but with each new word I translate, the whole thing moves closer. It’s gone from flapping its wings in front of the moon to sitting in the treetops. Next it will be on the roof and then it will be perched right here on my finger. And someday you’ll be holding it in your hands and maybe you’ll forget that I wrote it and that it’s only a story I might have made up. It’s hard to explain, but as I read long passages of it back to myself, even I forget. This one’s going to be something special. Just you wait.

 

Now you see me

My summer of seaside solitude is winding down and soon you’ll have two chances to catch me out of my natural habitat:

First I’m in the Erasoma River Valley in Ontario where I am thrilled to be opening the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival on Thursday, September 15th along with writer Nicholas Ruddock and some talented musicians. I’ll also be reading at the main festival on Sunday, September 18th.

Then from September 30th-October 2nd, I’ll be reuniting with fellow Leacock nominee Terry Fallis as well as Leslie Vryenhoek, Christy Ann Conlin and more at the Cabot Trail Writers Festival in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

See Events for details.

THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN

 

2016-Leacock-shortlist

Big news:

When the Saints won the Jim Connors Award for Fiction

and..

When the Saints won the Margaret & John Savage First Book Award

and…

When the Saints is nominated for the STEPHEN LEACOCK MEDAL FOR HUMOUR

and…

I AM SO HAPPY.  The kind of happy where you laugh your head off and roll around in the grass like no one’s watching even though people are definitely watching, and amongst those people are a couple of dudes who are trying to work off their community service hours by cutting the grass outside an office building and now they have to mow around you which is hard because you’re rolling around so much, and when they ask if you could maybe come back later, you laugh harder and tears stream down your face and it scares them a little bit.

I’m off to Orillia in a few weeks for the Leacock gala. Hopefully by then I will be the picture of poise. Till then, crazytown.

 

 

Upcoming Event

Telling Our Stories: Atlantic Women Writers in Conversation

April 25 @ 7:00 p.m.

Author Lindsay Ruck moderates a panel discussion with Carole Glasser Langille, shortlisted for the Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction for I Am What I Am Because You Are What You Are and Sarah Mian, shortlisted for both the Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award (Fiction) and the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award for When the Saints.

Date:
April 25
Time:
7:00 pm

Venue

Halifax Central Library
5440 Spring Garden Road
Halifax, Nova Scotia B3J 1E9 Canada
+ Google Map
Phone:
(902) 490-5700
Website:
http://www.halifaxpubliclibraries.ca/branches/locations/halifax-central-library.html

2016 ATLANTIC BOOK AWARDS SHORTLIST

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I AM THRILLED TO ANNOUNCE WHEN THE SAINTS IS NOMINATED FOR THE JIM CONNORS DARTMOUTH BOOK AWARD  AND THE  MARGARET AND JOHN SAVAGE FIRST BOOK AWARD.

 

Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction

Knife Party at the Hotel Europa
By Mark Anthony Jarman
Publisher:  Goose Lane Editions

I Am What I Am Because You Are What You Are
By Carole Glasser Langille
Publisher:  Gaspereau Press Ltd.

Wild Pieces
By Catherine Hogan Safer
Publisher:  Creative Book Publishing

Ann Connor Brimer Award for Children’s Literature

Delusion Road
By Don Aker
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Prison Boy
By Sharon E. McKay
Publisher: Annick Press

Rain Shadow
By Valerie Sherrard
Publisher:  Fitzhenry & Whiteside

APMA Best Atlantic-Published Book Award, Sponsored by Friesens Corporation

Breakwater Books for
Racket:  New Writing Made in Newfoundland
By:  Lisa Moore, Editor

Nimbus Publishing for
A Seaglass Journey:  Ebb and Flow
By:  Teri Hall

Pedlar Press for
Winter in Tilting:  Slide Hauling in a Newfoundland Outport
By Robert Mellin

Association acadienne des artistes professionnel.le.s du Nouveau-Brunswick (AAAPNB) – Les Éloizes -Finalistes – Artiste de l’année en littérature

Roman – Car la nuit est longue
By/par Sophie Bérubé
Publisher:  Éditions Prise de parole

Monographie – Théâtre l’Escaouette, 1977-2012
By/par David Lonergan
Publisher:  Éditions David

Recueil de poésie – Les anodins
By/par Gabriel Robichaud
Publisher:  Éditions Perce-Neige

Atlantic Book Award for Scholarly Writing, Sponsored by Marquis Book Printing

Stubborn Resistance:  New Brunswick Maliseet and Mi’kmaq in defence of their lands
By Brian Cuthbertson
Publisher:  Nimbus Publishing

Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada
By Michael Newton
Publisher:  Cape Breton University Press

The Servant State: Overseeing Capital Accumulation in Canada
By Geoffrey McCormack & Thom Workman
Publisher:  Fernwood Publishing

Robbie Robertson Dartmouth Book Award (Non-Fiction), Presented by the Kiwanis Club of Dartmouth

The Times of African Nova Scotians, Vol. II
By Tony Colaiacovo
Publisher: Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute

Empire of Deception:  The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation
By Dean Jobb
Publisher: Harper Avenue

Aftershock:  The Halifax Explosion and the Persecution of Pilot Francis Mackey
By Janet Maybee
Publisher: Nimbus Publishing

Democracy 250 Atlantic Book Award for Historical Writing

The Story of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist
By Susan Chalker Browne
Publisher: Flanker Press

Empire of Deception: The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation
By Dean Jobb
Publisher: Harper Avenue

Katherine Hughes:  A Life and a Journey
By Pádraig Ó Siadhail
Publisher:  Penumbra Publishing

 Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award (Fiction), presented by Boyne Clarke LLP

Amazing Grace
By Lesley Crewe
Publisher:  Nimbus Publishing

What Kills Good Men
By David Hood
Publisher:  Nimbus Publishing

When the Saints
By Sarah Mian
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishing 

Lillian Shepherd Memorial Award for Excellence in Illustration

Illustrator:  Doretta Groenendyk (nominee)
I’m Drawing a Picture
(Written by Doretta Groenendyk)
Publisher: Acorn Press

Illustrator: Ron Lightburn (nominee)
Frankenstink!:  Garbage Gone Bad
(Written by Ron Lightburn)
Publisher: Tundra Books

Illustrator:  Tamara Thiebaux-Heikalo (nominee)
Mayann’s Train Ride
(Written by The Honourable Mayann Francis)
Publisher: Nimbus Publishing

Margaret and John Savage First Book Award, sponsored by Collins Barrow LLP, Weed Man Maritimes, and the family of John and Margaret Savage

A Stroke in Time
By Gerard Doran
Publisher:  Flanker Press

Aftershock:  The Halifax Explosion and the Persecution of Pilot Francis Mackey
By Janet Maybee
Publisher: Nimbus Publishing

When the Saints
By Sarah Mian
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishing

New Brunswick Book Award for Fiction sponsored by sponsored by Mrs. Dunster’s and Fog Lit Festival 

Entropic
By R.W. Gray
Publisher:  NeWest Press

Knife Party at the Hotel Europa
By Mark Anthony Jarman
Goose Lane Editions

A Measure of Light
By Beth Powning
Publisher:  Knopf

Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick Book Award for Non-fiction sponsored by the Brennan family

The Lost Wilderness: Rediscovering W.F. Ganong’s New Brunswick
By Nicholas Guitard
Publisher:  Goose Lane Editions

What is Government Good At: A Canadian Answer
By Donald Savoie
Publisher:  McGill-Queen’s University Press

Boss Gibson: Lumber King of New Brunswick
By David Sullivan
Publisher:  Self-published

Westminster Books Award for Poetry

Not Even Laughter
By Phillip Crymble
Publisher:  Salmon Poetry

Crossover
Travis Lane
Publisher:  Cormorant Books

Electric Affinities
By Michael Pacey
Publisher:  Signature Editions