Cosmorphosis

Cosmorphosis

Butterfly emerges from stellar demise in planetary nebula NGC 63

It started with a book.

I had an idea for a story I wanted to write but I needed a little information on astrophysics to really get into the theme I wanted to explore—the cosmos and its absurd, fabulous majesty.  So Ben and I decided to audit Astronomy 201 at U of T (taught by the fantastic Dr. Michael Reid).  If you’ve never audited a class before I highly recommend it.  It’s a great way to learn about a subject without all the pressure that comes with attending university and it’s also an amazing way to decide if a subject is something you want to pursue.

In my case it turned out I wanted to do more than audit the astronomy class, I wanted to join it.

After each class I would bounce off the walls, thrilled with everything we were learning about the universe.  I wanted the class to go on forever and I was so sad that it was only an hour long.  So one day Ben looked at me and said: ‘If you like it so much why don’t you just be an astrophysicist?’

And so Cosmorphosis was born.

In a few short weeks I’ve signed up for high school (back to grade 8 math and grade 9 science for me!), created a blog, planned out a vlog/documentary with Ben and booted up a brand new twitter account with the goal of sharing my love of science and the universe with the world.

I still plan to keep writing of course and I’ve decided on a study plan that includes translating scientific principals into poetry and fiction and I plan to write my new book, the one that started it all, during the summer break.

So I hope to see you all over at Cosmorphosis and I will of course continue to post here as well about all things writing!

(The image for this post was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and shows the Butterfly Nebula-a dying star ejecting massive amounts of insanely hot gas into space. How amazing is that?)

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Random

Writers are not their characters

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When I was younger I used to write all the time. Then I got sucked into a terrible relationship and I stopped writing. Aside from being clinically depressed and being made to feel worthless on the whole in the relationship, the real reason I stopped writing was because the people I was involved with believed that every character I created was a representation of me. They used my characters against me. Every time a character in one of my stories did something wrong, I was blamed. If I wrote a character they perceived as sexist, I was sexist. If they thought a character was irresponsible or thoughtless, I was too. They focussed on the negative every time and slowly chipped away at my self-esteem until I just gave up on writing altogether because I was so terrified my characters would make a mistake and I would be found guilty.

It was a shitty way to live.

Now that I’m free of that relationship I’ve taken up writing again full force, but the thought that I’m intimately connected to my characters still lingers and sometimes it scares me so much I’m tempted not to explore taboos or subjects that could be seen as ‘risky’.

I sometimes get scared, but then I push on through with the mantra of ‘I am not my characters’.

As a writer it is vital to distinguish yourself from your characters, or else you’ll take on the burden of their mistakes and be tempted to keep your writing in a safe zone. But writing, and art in general, is not about being safe. It’s about taking risks, putting yourself out there and exploring the deep dark places where other people won’t go. As an artist I feel I have both the privilege and responsibility to rip myself open and show my inner conflicts to the world. Through our artists, humanity has the chance to examine ourselves and others and that is so important. Sometimes I hate my characters and disagree with them, but I write them anyway because art should be a place to explore anything and everything that’s in your mind.

Lately though, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of people out there who think in the way I was conditioned to think: that writers are their characters. I’ve seen writers torn to pieces by politically correct activists because they dared to explore something that was taboo or because they presented a sensitive situation in what others consider ‘a wrong light’. Some people seem to hold the opinion that writers are personally responsible for the views of their characters. If a character in a novel or TV show is sexist, racist, homophobic, weak, stereotypical or any number of other perceived issues, then the writer is directly to blame and clearly holds all of the same values or flaws as their protagonists.

This is wrong.

If this was really true, why wouldn’t more writers be personally lauded for creating wonderful, heroic characters? When was the last time you heard a review of a book that included the idea that the writer personally must be a true hero because they wrote an amazing character? It never happens.

If this was true wouldn’t every murder mystery writer be a psychopath?

We can’t just cherry pick what traits an artist gets endowed with because we’re angry or upset about a certain piece of art.

My (unverified psychological) theory is that people look for the bad before they look for the good and when they find the bad they want a scapegoat, someone to blame for the fact that they’re upset or don’t agree with something a character has done. But unfortunately this is just a quick, easy way to alienate writers and make them scared to explore concepts or look at angles that might not otherwise see the light of day.

As a society we need our writers and artists to feel free to express themselves without fear of personal attack. We need them to plumb the depths of their souls and expose their dark places without a band of angry villagers with torches and pitchforks banging down their door. We need to adjust our view of fiction to see it for what it is: a fictional story with fictional characters.

Sure we can infer things about writers from what they chose to write, but to make assumptions and rage against the individual for making a piece of art and being brave enough to put it out there is nothing but a subtle form of personalized censorship. We should be better than that. We should understand that fiction is not necessarily indicative of a person’s beliefs and disagree with the characters and their actions instead of the writer who created them. Criticize the art not the artist.

Writers are not their characters and it’s a dangerous thing for the freedom of art to suggest they are. If we condemn our artists for their creations they might stop creating altogether, like I did once upon a time, and then where would we be?

Story Notes

Story Notes: ‘Of Gods and Curtains’

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My story ‘Of Gods and Curtains’ was published this week in Apeiron Review, a lovely magazine filled with fabulous prose, pictures and poetry. I was thrilled to be included in Issue 7.

To read the story just head on over to Apeiron Review and check it out!

Because I love to know about the origins of a story from the writer’s perspective, I thought I would share some notes about this story with you.

Spoiler Alert: There are spoilers in the story notes below. So if you want to read the story with fresh eyes check it out first at Apeiron Review before reading the notes.

About ‘Of Gods and Curtains’

We all have stories to tell and this is one of mine. It’s on repeat in my head as I struggle to find various ways to express it. Maybe to exorcise it. Maybe to simply see it from a new angle. It always comes out different, fictitious when I write it, but it’s always got that core of truth.


This is a story that’s hard for me to look in the eye. It came from the desire to have the story out in the open and blossomed with the line ‘Your Idols are crumbling, you have put them so high on their pedestals you can’t see the cracks.’

Sometimes all you need is a single thought to open up a wound.

People sometimes ask me why I feel the need to tell this story. Why I keep coming back to it over and over even though it’s hard and I think it’s mostly because I feel a responsibility to share my struggles with others so that they can know they’re not alone. I want people to know that there is help out there when you’re faltering, there are vets with golden rings who can help patch you up and help you make yourself whole. People who can help you see the sky.

I encourage anyone with a black river to seek help.

Another reason I keep returning to the story is because it scares me and the more something scares me the more I want to write it. Because if it means something to me, I think it might just mean something to someone else too.

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Inspiration Series – Lorraine Shenken Robbin

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Since starting my new life in 2010, each week I wrote as much as my ability allowed in one hour. That was all the library allotted.  At first I wrote a few words. I wrote an entire thought. A story took me four sessions. I learned and forgot and relearned and forgot again how to cut and paste, after 5 years of recovering my functions; my walking talking eating thinking through liver brain fog. Once recovered, with a new liver, I resourced healing through art.  I etched my scribbles. I discovered art once more. Not the same art but altered shaky scratchings on 8 by 11 paper with watercolors that I used in a group of women who traversed the rickety bridge to reality.

Doctors saved my life, yet the illness made my mind sick. I healed my mind through psycho-therapy. I discovered I need to create to heal, to feel human. Imagination and being human are important in order to emerge as happy artist.
Being a writer seems a vaporizing image. I reason that I must propel forward to expedite change. Keep moving. Keep learning. I want to breathe. “I want to write to taste life twice,” as Anais Nin said. I love living.

8 years back I read my stories on radio, published in notable publications where I was paid for my efforts. I taught at a Native Healing Centre. Exhilarated to share the joy of expressive writing I had learned from my mentor, Arnie, I felt certain these learners would benefit as I had.

A learner shook her head saying “No, all my creativity has been taken. I can’t write.” She spoke her story while I wrote it down.

It wasn’t until I fought for survival that I understood the words the learner said meant she needed to first feel safe. That her creative energy had been drained.  I, too, needed to allow myself the time to grieve. The time to reflect would be my opus.

I meander, I convolute, I digress, and most dreaded word of all I am “tangential.” An accusatory psycho-social worker wrote a report on me when I sought employment. I peeked at the report when she left the office. It read, “She speaks in stunted and unfinished thoughts. Lorraine is tangential.” I was hurt and angry. Anger prodded me to seek clarity.

Sluggish, fallow, waiting for my perfect alone time, I allow distractors, detractors to affect me, or pierce me with critique. I interrupt my flying mind. I stop my doltish disobedient fingers keyboarding in soft halting script tap tap tapping miniscule letters like no-seeums drowning in a blue drunken concoction a page on a screen on a blog a twenty year old set up for me on “Tumblr ‘cos that’s easiest, Mum.” When I doubted my ability to create, my girl had faith in me. Faith has its own power. I recognize that I need time to myself. I schedule my writing time.

I wrote a story for a community newspaper’s writing contest in 2012. Marietta, my friend and editor donated 5 hours of her time. She submitted the story via email as I didn’t have a computer. I won second prize. 50 bucks for a ‘Menorah Memory’. I was as ecstatic as if I’d won the Nobel Prize. It lit me up. I had finally written something concise. I was writing again. Small amounts of encouragement and caring friends entice me to create. Human contact, eye to eye interaction and stimulating conversation are vital components to help me think. I need to express myself and writing is the best method for me. I can take as long as I need to access words that escape me when talking. I am a klutz with speech. When I’ve written about a subject I know how I feel about it.  Writing about my ordeal is trauma inducing. Once I overcome I will write my truth. Overcome. I work under the illusion of myself as architecture. I joined a writers group. I listened. I read. I heard writers read.

I’m learning by helping children learn to read.

Theory is fine, yet the rules need to be broken. I say,” English is tricky.” We practice, we laugh, play, we converse, we use intuition, knowledge and experience to encourage 7 year olds to read and write.

Children teach me to be curious.

Focus eludes me. I give myself a gift. Walkabout Wednesdays. No pen, no notebook, no sketchbook. Out I walk. I am open to experience; people, trees, greenhouses, concerts, the touch of stuff. (I asked if I could touch someone’s hairy yellow sweater. It looked itchy but it was soft.) I look at art. I confide in total strangers who inform me and give me fresh details to ponder. Those are mini relationships.

I begin new projects hoping unfinished work may provoke me to end my stories. Am I scared to end? You bet I ‘m scared. I was on my way to a writing class when I became sick. Now 7 years later I finish what I started in that class.

My new story about life’s renewal ferments unfinished. I can’t help feeling oddly superstitious. I might have to feel the agony endured when the life force drained out of me till hallucinations haunted me. To return to a place I know was painful seems destructive.

To die without finishing would mean no one would read my story.  Startled into a stupor of wasted time. What an oaf. If I write the first part I already thought the continuum in my head. I abhor the tedium of conveying every word, typing till my fingers stiffen. I convict myself to my chair. The urge to write pounds me. I feel joy at being enthralled by story.

To renew myself is to discover the middle, to keep searching, to continue to the end. When I write it I’ll know how I feel.

Lorraine Shenken Robbin has read 5 of her stories on Life Rattle CKLN radio, published in Life Rattle Press 1999, read aloud at Totally Unknown Writers Festival, and at The Imperial Pub, wrote an essay for Today’s Parent, recorded  one of her stories on First Person Singular on C.B.C Radio, written a story for the Globe and Mail, and since finding her voice again, after being the recipient of a blessed liver transplant, is working on 2 upcoming novels. You can read Lorraine’s thoughts and ramblings on her blog at http://www.tumblr.com/blog/bbirdword 

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Writing & Reading Animal Cruelty

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I was at a reading for a feminist writing series a couple weeks ago where a writer was reading from her book about a female matador.  In the Q&A period that followed the writers were asked about their worst reactions to their books.  The woman who had written the matador book said an editor refused to read/work on her book because of the animal cruelty.  It was at that point that the whole room gasped in shock.  They were appalled!  They rolled their eyes!  How could that editor be so silly? was the general question that hung in the air.  It’s an editor’s job to read books, so it shouldn’t matter what’s in it…should it?

I was taken aback.  I frankly expected more from a bunch of feminists.  If feminists expect people to respect their cause and concerns, shouldn’t they respect the causes and concerns of others?

I wanted to put my hand up and say I understood the editor’s perspective and shame on them for being so rude about someone’s preferences, but I didn’t.  It’s not that I have a problem piping up, it’s just that it’s a complex topic and I didn’t want to derail the conversation and take the spotlight off the writers.  So instead of speaking up then, I’m doing it now.

I’m a vegetarian.  I was a vegetarian for about ten years before I started eating meat again around the age of twenty-five or six, now I’m happily back to my vegetarian ways.  Every time I ate meat for the six or seven years I was back at it, I felt guilty.  I really hated it because I really love (and respect) animals and because I love animals so much I tend to get easily turned off when someone is abusing them.

But in a fictional story does it really matter?  To me it does.

Once when I wanted to write a horrible character, like a really horrible character, I made her kill a dog.  When I finished writing the scene I was horrified, but to me it drove home the impact of her horribleness.  Sure the character was manipulative and a rapist and was responsible for a couple of human deaths too, but to me none of that compared to the evil that was killing an animal.  After all is said and done I still have a residual feeling of guilt for using violence against animals to enhance the negativity of a character.  Why?  Treating animals well is just something I feel strongly about, even in my fiction.  So whenever I see a character in any circumstance be mindless or cruel to animals, I automatically hate them and hold it against them…usually forever.

Overall I believe animal cruelty does have a place in fiction, but if it’s sustained and pointless I tend to shy away from it because it’s just not fun for me to read something that makes me feel horrible for whatever animal is being harmed.

I think in some cases animal cruelty can have a point though.  For example I just wrote a story about an aquarium (which I think are disgusting, cruel prisons for fish) where the main character learned to feel empathy for the fish and ultimately sad about their enslavement.  But a lot of the time I feel that animal cruelty is either used because it’s an easy emotional trigger (like the way I used it to make my character evil) or it goes unaddressed as a problem.  People eat animals all the time, so why should hurting them be a problem?

Ultimately I wouldn’t want to read a book about a matador because the violence against animals isn’t being addressed (as far as I know), it’s just a backdrop for the story of the main character and I don’t find that interesting enough to endure animals being tortured.  Clearly the editor who was being mocked at the event felt the same way as me and I’m here to say I agree with her.  I feel what she’s feeling.  Everyone has their sensitive issues, or things they don’t want to see/read because it bothers them and I don’t think anyone should be put down for that.

For me, I deal with animal cruelty in fiction very selectively and frankly I think that’s perfectly okay.

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Guest Post: Megan O’Russell – YA in an Adult World

ImageI’d like to introduce Megan O’Russell, a Young Adult author and my very first guest contributor Happy Musings!  Megan has written a wonderful piece on publishing YA with a very adult publishing company.

YA in an Adult World

I write Young Adult fiction.  My first book The Tethering is set to release this May, and I am so excited!  I have great editors at Entranced Publishing and wonderful people to back me up in the cold cruel world of books.  But I feel like the black sheep of Entranced.  Not because I’ve done anything wrong, but because I am a part of the Young Adult imprint at the big sexy romance publishing house.  Entranced has a YA imprint called Rush, but most of the books Entranced puts out are of the much more adult and dirty nature.

We have twitter chats where they talk about their steamy love scenes, and I’m worried about my poor characters sneaking out the window.  I can’t participate in their cover reveals because the covers are almost naked!  And the book blurbs are things my readers are not ready for!

I want my characters to have grownup lives.  I want them to live and discover and grow as real teenagers.  But I feel awkward being excited about their first kiss when my fellow Entranced authors are playing with bondage.  In a group where Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t seem all that dirty, can a story about first love hold its ground?

I would like to think so.  Not just because I want my book to succeed.  Not even just because it’s a different genre with a different target audience.  The sweetness, tenderness, and devotion of first love are things that we all have experienced right along with our first heartbreak.  The thrill of the first kiss is just as exciting as dirty things on a bear skin rug.

I mean sure, if you want to throw a little excitement into a YA book, just toss in a bit of non-sexual torture.  Maybe catch a few people on fire.  Dress someone in leather.  But do it all in a PG-13, teen romance friendly way.

I want to branch out, maybe write something a little more risqué for an adult audience.  But until The Tethering series is complete, I will exist in a world of (mostly) clothed, non-cursing, behind closed doors, teenaged angst.  Who knows, maybe my hero will even make it to second base.

About Megan

Megan O’Russell is a Young Adult author whose premier novel The Tethering will be released by Entranced Publishing this May.  Megan’s author blog can be found at MeganORussell.com, and her humor blog is at lifebeyondexaggeration.com.  For more news on The Tethering, follow her on twitter @MeganORussell.

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Stop doing what you think you’re supposed to!

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I’ve written two novels and a novella so far and I am currently working on editing a fourth book.  This new book (What it means to be a man) is a little unusual though because it’s a blend of non-fiction essay style Q&A intertwined with a fictional story.  The idea came to me because I wanted to write the fictional story but I found that it mirrored my real life (specifically my marriage) so I wanted to stir some real life juice from my relationship into the mix.  I’m really excited about it because I love both the real life parts and the fictional parts, but I’m also a little nervous about it because it’s a departure from the norm.

When it comes to publishing there seems to be this idea of writing in your genre, sticking to a single style and building an audience that way, but to tell the truth every time I think about doing that it gives me an existential crisis.  Who am I (style wise)?  What kind of writer do I want to be?  What if an audience would be unwilling to follow me on my journey though the different landscapes of what I want to try?

I started my fifth book (Nil) after I wrote my first draft of the one I’m currently editing (What it means to be a man) and I started out writing it in a pretty traditional way, I had an idea for a fictional story and I wrote it the way I had written the first two books.  But halfway through I started to lose steam and then the whole thing started to depress the crap out of me because I hated its guts.  So after flailing uselessly and trying to restructure it and being seriously depressed over the whole damn thing I eventually gave myself permission to walk away and a weight lifted.

I went back and focused on What it means to be a man and writing a few short stories and started thinking about diving into my travel memoirs from ten years ago to see if that is something worth pursuing (I even struggled through Eat, Pray, Love to try and see what a popular travel memoir looks like).  But then, today, as I was writing some of the non-fiction for What it means to be a man I had a brainstorm.  I found a way to fix the dreaded Nil.  It will require a lot of research and some serious exploration of the concepts of the book, but it could be really cool.  It could be really cool, but what it wouldn’t be is a traditional novel.

Cue the worry about building an audience and marketing etc…

So I bounce into the land of concern over doing the expected and then I think: stop being fettered by what you’re supposed to do!  My biggest passion in stories is the intersection of the fantastic into everyday life.  And what is more of an intersection then merging non-fiction with fiction?  I love the idea of exploring story concepts in real life so why shouldn’t I think that other people might love it too?  I love exploring new and unusual formats, styles and genres, so why shouldn’t I?  I’m not saying I’m doing something completely crazy or totally unique here, but it’s just that it doesn’t follow the format of a traditional novel (of which I have already written two).

But I don’t want to be tied down to traditional concepts of novels just because I think I’m supposed to.  There are plenty of people who have successful careers writing whatever moves them, so why should I be any different?  I find the idea of being tied to one format of book very limiting and on the flip side I am intensely excited to think of all the ways I could branch out and approach a story differently!

So if you are ever stuck on a story, or stuck in a rut, why not consider ways you could alter the style, genre or narrative of the story to embrace your passions and find a new direction?  Because finding your own way of writing and trying new things is so important and you shouldn’t be limited to what you think you’re supposed to do!