The Novel in Awful Sleep

beacon_2

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.

 

Advertisements

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

blog_pic_0135

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

The One

Somewhere in the home stretch of When the Saints, two very different ideas for a new novel began to seep into my consciousness. I was determined to choose between them before heading to a writing retreat last August, but once I arrived there I was still on the fence. A colleague suggested I flip a coin, start writing and see if it flowed. It was a good suggestion. I didn’t flip, but randomly went with the story about a teenage kid who sets out to find his dead mother’s mysterious lover. For four days, the story was flowing along like a gurgling stream. In fact, I even wrote a gurgling stream into the story. Then all of a sudden the kid stopped dead in his tracks. I mean it. He came to the first house along his journey, knocked on the door and no one answered. I wasn’t expecting it, the kid wasn’t expecting it, and after waiting around for half a day, he dropped his bicycle and sat down on the side of the road. We shrugged at each other across the abyss. Our timing was off. Someone was supposed to answer that door. We were too early.

For fear of losing valuable retreat time I switched to the other idea, this one about the dark aftermath of a couple’s decision to buy a church in a rural community and renovate it into their home/art studio. I opened a blank page, placed my fingers on the keyboard and giddy-up. Sentence after sentence appeared on screen as if they had already been written. I wasn’t writing so much as transcribing from a guttural voice in my head.

This was the one.

Since then, I’ve received some not-so-subtle signs that I’m on the right track. For example, several weeks ago myself and two writer friends, novelist Stephanie Domet and screenwriter Jasmine Oore, rented a house through Airbnb. We wanted somewhere quiet near the ocean with a fireplace we could curl up to while we worked. I kept revisiting one particular listing and sent it to the others. They liked the house and it was available, so we booked it. Just prior to our departure, I received a message from the home owner. She said if we needed anything, she lived in the church about a ten minute drive from the house. She mentioned she had her art studio in there and that we were welcome to visit any time. Mid-week, we invited ourselves over for drinks during which she graciously indulged all my questions: How was the church heated? Any septic issues when she put in a proper bathroom? Property taxes – high or low? How did the locals react to her moving in? At some point she cut me off and mentioned the place was haunted as hell. I was all ears.

Now in the icy down slope of January, I’m over 100 pages into my new novel. This is the story that could not wait. Just as with When the Saints, it chose me rather than the other way around. I’m starting to believe that all stories already exist, drifting through the air seeking the right vessel. This one must have been haunting me the whole time I was finishing When the Saints, waiting for the right moment to take possession.

The working title of my new novel is taken from an old hymn song, the World in Awful Sleep. Let me tell you friends, there’s not much sleeping going on around here. The tale is strangely poetic, definitely more intricate than any I’ve ever woven, but otherwise a deranged sideshow of images as unnerving as slow calliope music. I have to get up every hour and turn another light on. Seriously. As I write this thing down, I am alternately fascinated and deeply disturbed by what lives in the recesses of my mind.

I hope you will be, too.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS

It’s almost 2016!

What a year this has been for When the Saints. This story has been with me for a very long time, and now it’s with all of you. I just wanted to give a heartfelt thanks to every reader who connected with it and took the time to let me know that it brought them joy.

If I could make a holiday wish for the Saint family, I’d want them all to get cell phones. Pay phones are increasingly hard to find. And I want Janis to wake up Christmas morning to find one of those giant stuffed animals that can’t even fit under the tree (remember she chucked out Lippy the Bear.)

I’m thinking this guy will do:

Janis 2

In new novel news, I am going to be hard at work on a ghost story all winter long. I already set up a station next to the woodstove in the heart of the house. I live in a little cottage with windows on all sides, so when the snow starts swirling, I feel like I’m in a snow globe. It is THE best…until the ocean starts howling like it’s about to crash through the walls (but then again the new novel is creepy, so perhaps it will feed the muse.)

Have a spectacular holiday, everyone. Be good to yourselves and each other.

Sarah Mian