Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Shaping a story: an anatomy

This evening I told at the Ottawa StoryTellers' Stories and Tea series. I told a Norse story I was calling "The Giants' Contest" and another storyteller, Mary Wiggin, told a Japanese folk tale called "Three Strong Women."

Afterward, a few people came up to me and asked me things about where my story came from, and how I had adapted it. It wasn't a particularly common or familiar Norse legend, so I even had people asking if I'd written it (although, what does that mean in the context of telling a legend? I suppose the words were mine, but what happened in the story wasn't, at least mostly not: see, it's complicated).

So I thought I'd write about where I got that story, and something about what I did with it before finally standing up to tell it tonight.

It began when Mary and I met a while back, to talk about what we were going to do at tonight's show. At the time I didn't really know what I wanted to tell: I knew that the theme was folk tales, and I haven't really dealt with that material much. So Mary told me about her story, "Three Strong Women," which is about a sumo wrestler, Forever Mountain, who winds up training with a family of three women who are strong enough to carry cows around and throw entire trees.

As she was telling me about the grandmother who wrestles with Forever Mountain as a training exercise, I suddenly remembered a story I loved as a child. It was in a collection of twelve books, the My Book House Books, which had belonged to my mother when she was a child. They were first published in 1920, although I think my mother's set was from 1937. The collection started with a volume of nursery rhymes and poems for little children, and then each successive volume aimed at a higher age group and reading level, until somewhere in the middle was a volume of myths and fairytales from around the world. In that volume, there was a story that I still remembered, at least in part: a story in which the Norse thunder god, Thor, finds himself in a castle full of giants. There was a drinking horn that he couldn't finish, and a cat he couldn't lift off the floor, and an old woman who defeated him in a wrestling match.

I mentioned it to Mary, and she said she thought it would work well for the show. So then I had to go home and try to find the story (I don't have the Book House Books, they're at my parents' place).

The Internet is awesome. After a quick search, I found where the story had originally appeared: in the Gylfaginning, the first section of the Prose Edda, written (or compiled) in Iceland, sometime in the early 13th century, by Snorri Sturluson. So then I went looking for the full text (which is here.)

The Gylfaginning is long, and the story is only a short(ish) section, but it wasn't hard to find with a skim. I was looking for Thor, after all, and there he was:

"Then spake Gangleri: 'A good ship is Skídbladnir, but very great magic must have been used upon it before it got to be so fashioned. Has Thor never experienced such a thing, that he has found in his path somewhat so mighty or so powerful that it has overmatched him through strength of magic?' Then said Hárr: 'Few men, I ween, are able to tell of this; yet many a thing has seemed to him hard to overcome. Though there may have been something so powerful or strong that Thor might not have succeeded in winning the victory, yet it is not necessary to speak of it; because there are many examples to prove, and because all are bound to believe, that Thor is mightiest.'"

And after this came the story, about the giants and the contest. And it started with another short bit that I had remembered, without remembering that it was in the same tale: a story where Thor and Loki, staying at a farmer's house, slaughter Thor's goats and eat them, and then Thor revives them in the morning, only to discover that the farmer's son, Thjálfi, had cut open one of the leg bones and sucked out the marrow, so that one of the goats is lame. In fear for their lives, the farmer and his wife give Thor the son and his sister Röskva as servants.


I printed out the section that told the story - the goats, and then Thor encountering a giant named Skrýmir, and the contest in the castle named Útgardr. But you can tell from the segment above that the story was full of "thees" and "thous," and there was no way I was going to tell it like that.

So I took the printout of the story - about five or six pages - and went through a process of reading one chunk of the action, then looking up and saying it out loud to myself, with slightly elevated language but without the extreme archaisms. I would do that a few times, until I thought I had a way of saying what happened that caught the details but didn't sound like this:

"Thereupon Skrýmir slept and snored hard, and Thor took the provision-bag and set about to unloose it; but such things must be told as will seem incredible: he got no knot loosened and no thong-end stirred, so as to be looser than before. When he saw that this work might not avail, then he became angered, gripped the hammer Mjöllnir in both hands, and strode with great strides to that place where Skrýmir lay, and smote him in the head."

Instead, I would say something like:

"And Skrýmir rolled over and went to sleep. Thor went to the provision-bag, but something very strange happened: no matter what he did, he couldn't get the knots open. They seemed simple enough, but no matter how he tugged and pushed and pulled, not a thong would budge. He even tried cutting it, but nothing worked. And realizing that he must have been tricked somehow by the giant, he grabbed his hammer, went up to where Skrýmir lay sleeping, swung the hammer up and brought it down as hard as he could on the giant's head."

I spent at least one night - very late at night, actually; I think it was about two or three in the morning - walking around my living room doing this. After an hour or two, I had the whole thing reworked in my head into my own words, and I went back to bed.

After that, I turned the story over a little in my head, and retold it out loud to myself a few times. I had initially tried to include, in my introduction of Thor, the bit from earlier in the Gylfaginning about his three marvelous items: the hammer, the iron gloves, and the belt that confers his strength. (I also thought I might include the names of his goats: Tooth-Gnasher and Tooth-Gritter.) But then I cut that: everyone knows Mjöllnir, and the other items aren't important.

And I thought about where I could get away with adding lines. Where I could add a line to get a laugh, for one thing, or to create a through line of Thor getting increasingly angry and frustrated as he loses contest after contest. But also, there were things I couldn't explain using only the words in the story: why on earth would Thor agree to travel with a giant, for example? So I put in lines, knowing what I knew about Thor, to explain that.

I also put in some dialogue for Loki, in part because otherwise he's only there to get into an eating contest with the personification of Wildfire, and in part because people are familiar with the Tom Hiddleston/Marvel Loki, who is a lot of fun, and I wanted to give this Loki some character too. Mostly, what I put in was variations on "I told you so, Thor."

I wanted to keep the question-and-answer stuff, where Gangleri asks about Thor and gets hedged answers, and then finally the story of the time Thor encountered something that he couldn't defeat. So I made sure there was a line in my intro that alluded to this exchange:

"Then spake Jafnhárr: 'We have heard say concerning some matters which seem to us incredible, but here sits one near at hand who will know how to tell true tidings of this. Therefore thou must believe that he will not lie for the first time now, who never lied before.' Gangleri said: 'Here will I stand and listen, if any answer is forthcoming to this word; but otherwise I pronounce you overcome, if ye cannot tell that which I ask you.'
Then spake Thridi: 'Now it is evident that he is resolved to know this matter, though it seem not to us a pleasant thing to tell.'"

It wasn't much but I put it in: I said something like, "Now you might assume that given his fame and his reputation, that there had never been anything in all the worlds, or all his long life, that Thor had not been able to defeat, through strength or magic. You might assume that. But you would be wrong. There was once. And although he might not want me to tell you the story, I can tell it."

I'm not sure why keeping that little piece in mattered to me so much, except that I love the ancient question-and-answer tradition that runs through so much northern European myth (the Celts do it too) and I wanted to honour it a little (not that my listeners would even have noticed).

The other big change came a day or two before the show, when I realized that really, I didn't need Röskva at all. She does nothing in the story. She's Thjálfi's sister, she's given to Thor as a servant after Thjálfi lames one of Thor's goats, but she doesn't have a part in the contests, and the story was running long anyway. I could cut the entire goat episode and lose nothing. And if I cut the goat episode there was no reason to have Röskva. Out she went, and I threw in a line to say, "And there was a reason that Thjálfi was traveling with Thor and serving him: but that's another story."

(Thank you Michael Ende, for giving me the easy use of "That's another story and will be told another time." I used it again at the end: "Thor thought about this often in the years that followed, and planned to bring about another meeting - not with the King of Utgard, but with the Midgard Serpent. And eventually he did: but that's another story.")

So now I had a story, about thirty minutes long. And although it was a little different each time I told it out loud to myself, walking around my house, I thought I had the main beats down. I knew what happened, and everyone's names. I knew which lines I needed to include, and which could be forgotten or changed without hurting the story. I knew the through-line I wanted to take, and how I wanted to play the Giant King (or Útgarda-Loki, as he was called in the original, although I got rid of that right away: with a character called Loki in a contest against another called Logi, the last thing I needed was yet another variant of the name). I knew where I'd throw in modern speech patterns and where I'd be using more archaic language.

I made the mistake, though, of going online to look into some more background, the day of the show, and finding a slightly different version of my story, in the Wikipedia entry on Loki.

It threw me. It was compressed: it left out whole sections, it took place over a shorter period of time. I read it, and for a second thought of trying to incorporate some of the differences, because they shortened things up and, it appeared for a moment, tightened and clarified some events.

Bad idea.

I tried once, telling the story over again to myself, and incorporating the changes I wanted to add: it messed me up. I had to banish that version, and remind myself that my version was actually in the Prose Edda, while the Wikipedia version came from who knew where. And tell my version over again to myself, just to consolidate it in my head.

On the way to the show, I remembered that I had forgotten, in the last few retellings, to include one crucial bit: when Thor and his friends meet the giant Skrýmir, after he wakes and sits up, he says, "What? Have you dragged off my glove?" and then reaches out and picks it up, at which point Thor realizes that what he thought was a house was actually the giant's glove. I'd left it out in all my last rehearsals. So I told myself that part over and over on the way to the show: and I'm glad I did, because the first "Ah!" I heard from the audience was when I got to that part.

And of course, when I told it at the Tea Party, it came out completely different than all the ways I'd rehearsed it to myself. Totally different. When I start telling a story like this one, where the events are set but the words are more or less mine, I always find that standing there talking to an audience changes it. Shortens it, in some places: clarifies and sharpens it in others. The times I'd told it to myself were much more uniform: the way I told it to a room full of people varied a lot more. But still, I think the way I had wanted to tell it stayed constant. If anything, the ears listening make me less likely to wander or trap myself in what I think of as 'sludge words' - when you start talking without really knowing where you're going next, and almost always wind up in a dead end. I don't do that so much when the pressure is on, when there are people listening.

I was asked on the way out about copyright. Well - with this, because what I'm telling is basically from the Prose Edda, I don't worry about copyright. The work is 700 years old. If I'd been telling it word for word from someone's translation? Sure, I'd have been responsible for copyright. But because of how I work with material like this, it was essentially my own interpretation. Copyright is a murky and weird thing with storytellers, but thankfully, when you're working from 700-year-old material, you get a lot more free rein.

Oh, and for my first actual foray into traditional myth? It was fun. I may have to dig up some more old Norse material and see what I can do with it. . .

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Iliad prep: Achilles' killing rampage

So. The Iliad preparations continue apace. Next weekend is the first official all-weekend rehearsal.

I wanted to write about the initial Iliad meeting, way back in December when it happened, but I didn't really get a chance. At that meeting, we talked about how the rehearsals were going to work, what was going to be asked of each of the 18 or 19 tellers, and it was reiterated to the newbies to this whole 12-hour-epic thing (like me and Nicole Lavigne) that we were not scared enough. Nowhere near scared enough.

This is a huge project, not least because each of us brings our own performance style (and level of experience, hello) while the whole tale, all 12 hours of it, needs to be a single unit told by many voices. So, we have to all, collectively, get the characters figured out. Get the repetitions and the recurrences right. Match our tones.

In some ways, it's a lot like singing in a choral group, except that each of us performs our part alone. But our voices still have to blend.

Still, talking about the piece, and about how to think our way into ancient Greece and its mores and values, and finding the ways in which the story moved us and spoke to us, was only the first half of the meeting. The really amazing thing in that meeting, and something that I find hard to describe if you weren't there, was what we did in the afternoon.

We all stood, and we all closed our eyes. And we all breathed. And then Jan said she was going to say a word, and after that we could all say it, in whatever different tones or emotions came to us. The word was "War." So we stood for a moment (probably, most of us, feeling a little uncomfortable), and then she said it again. "WAR."

And someone else said it. And then someone else, and someone else, in different tones. Angry, exulting, pained, joyous, despairing. In the dark. And then Jan told us to take one image from the story that had spoken to us, and think about it, and then speak it, but in the words, "I am . . . " For example, "I am the burning fury of Achilles at the disgrace I have to endure at the hands of Menelaus."

It was uncomfortable for me at first - I get totally self-conscious about this kind of thing - but as I stood there with my eyes closed, in the dark, and heard voices that didn't always have names attached to them speaking random images from the story, it got trancelike. At first, people just spoke disconnected images. Sometimes Jan would prompt for more: "And how does that make you feel?" she would say to the character speaking through the storyteller. Then voices started answering each other. Waves of disembodied, connected sentences would build and then fade, skimming through clusters of ideas around things like glory, death, fear, honour, weariness, bitterness, comradeship, the unjust gods.

Punctuating this, occasionally, Jan would start up the repetition of the word "war" again. One or two people got into it enough to shout or yell the word. (I wasn't one of them.) Occasionally - particularly at the end - it turned into a scary kind of chant. "War! War! WAR! WAR!"

By the time we could all open our eyes again I had no idea how much time had passed. I kind of wished there was a recording of what we'd just done, because it had been . . . kind of like a Cubist reinterpretation of the whole story, but also of all the people who were joining together to tell it and all of their different entries into it and approaches to it. But then I also realized there should not be a recording of it. That - what happened - was really just for the twenty or so people in the room. It was beautiful in itself, but it was part of the process, not the end of the process.

But it was beautiful in itself.

So, that was our first meeting. Making me think I have no clue what will happen to me in the next one. I know I will be profoundly uncomfortable. I will feel silly, and angry, and scared. But as I am constantly assured by people who did the Odyssey, this will be a massive learning experience. And sure. Learning makes you feel silly, and angry, and scared.

I am, now, working on the chapter assigned to me: I need to have five minutes of it down for next weekend. I get the part where Achilles, driven to fury by the death of his best friend, finally joins the battle looking for blood.

I'm pretty glad I get the one moment when Achilles gets into his chariot, and one of the horses, with its head hanging down to the ground, speaks to him, only once (he's struck dumb by the gods right after he prophesies Achilles' death, "at the hands of a god and of a man.") That was the first "image" I brought to that "group dreaming" we did, because even hearing that bit in my audiobook version of the Iliad gave me chills. I think it struck me because of a scene in the play Equus, where the boy Alan describes seeing a horse with the reins and bit in, asking if it hurt, and the horse saying, "Yes." Something about that scene gave me the screaming willies when I first saw the play (in a production at the University of New Brunswick, way back when, starring my friend - well, my friend's big brother - Dana).

Alongside that, I get a couple of cracking fight scenes (well, Aeneas and Achilles, though that gets broken off by the gods, and a rather brutal slaughter of Hector's little brother), and a motivational speech by Achilles. I also get all the gods descending on the field of battle, each to wreak her or her own particular brand of chaos. And a final sentence that also resounds with me, because it matches with an image from one of my favorite "YA" writers of all time, Rosemary Sutcliff; it's the image of Achilles' chariot rolling over "dead men and shields alike," while blood spatters his "unconquerable hands."

Fun place to leave off my part of the telling. Whenever I get freaked out about the process and the eventual show, I think about that. About getting to that ringing last line - which rings, but just leads on to the rest of the story, which, spoiler alert, doesn't end well for anyone - and walking off the stage leaving that with the listeners, until the next voice steps up to continue the tale. And then I decide, yeah, I can do this.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A year of performance

I'm posting on each of my blogs for New Year's Eve, as a way of thinking through what the past year has been in a number of different aspects of my life. So yes, I'm even posting on this sadly neglected blog. . .

I think if I look back at it, this last year was a year of storytelling. And performing in general. I kicked the year off by being in the Ottawa Women's Slam Championship (and doing better than I'd expected I would; i.e., I didn't fall on my face!) and a lot of my literary stuff this year has been on the stage: I was in an OST Fourth Stage show called "Swindles, Scams and Snake Oil" where I told the story of the Lunar Rogue (a bit of New Brunswick history) and a real-life caper story involving an oil rig and some ill-fated money laundering; I did a set of ghost stories at the Tea Party and got to watch my friend Ruthanne, queen of the spooky story, sitting wide-eyed and creeped out, which I was pretty pleased about; we got the Kymeras back together, and put on our first show in years (Evelyn: a Time Travel Love Story) at Can*Con. And I had the huge honour of being invited to be a part of next summer's 12-hour telling of the Iliad with Ottawa Storytellers and 2 Women Productions.

I think I've gotten over the stage where I insisted I wasn't a storyteller - the storytellers around me just kept saying, well, yeah you are, and inviting me to perform. And every time I was invited to perform, I said yes, because it was always a bit of a different challenge. Can I do ghost stories? Can I do a long story? Let's mix it up with poems and storytelling and see if four voices can pull together a coherent narrative; oh, yeah, and let's make it science fiction poetry and storytelling.

But, I keep thinking, and people keep asking me: how's my writing coming? And I have to say, "well, not that well, really." I started the year out a little swamped with work, learning to juggle self-employment and my personal life. I've fallen out of touch with the local poetry crowd for a whole raft of mostly personal reasons, but also I find with my work schedule it's hard to get out to readings. And if you don't get to readings, you don't get that shot in the arm you need to keep working, keep writing. At least, I don't. I need to be around people who get up early in the morning to go write before work, who have carved out that time. This Christmas I got to talk a little with my niece, who just (well, last spring) finished a Masters in creative writing at McGill, and I envied her the work and time and focus and craft she'd been able to bring to bear on her work.

My own writing has been, largely, blogging (which can be good, but which doesn't get the kind of care and attention and craft that I'm looking for) and journalism. Writing for the Centretown BUZZ has been great in that it forces me to turn out text, but news articles are a whole different thing. I write facts these days, in prosaic words. About as far from poetry as you get, really. But somehow carving out the time to do writing has been harder and harder to do. I don't have evenings to do Creative Writing Playdate with my friend Sean, and in fact the Playdate has gone from a weekly drop-in to a more structured workshop format, because Sean's busy too, and I totally get that. I don't get up early to write (I tried, I really did, I tried, but the flesh is sleepy). And my evenings have increasingly been chomped and digested by email, desultory work on the newspaper and, I will admit it, Facebook.

In the coming year, though, I see that possibly changing. For one thing, the Kymeras' reunion ("We're getting the band back together!" I keep saying) has already made me do some writing, and writing with restraints and requirements. Here's the story, our first meeting said to me, and here's the part you play, and here's the character you inhabit, and do some writing from that place and see what comes out. And so I did, and so I wrote a number of poems in the voice of a dying young Victorian woman.

For another thing, the writing bug has been stirring in the last couple of months. I've churned out some pages I liked. I sat in a pub the other night waiting for a friend and a character did something I hadn't expected him to do: he practically winked at me, then turned tail and ran away from a situation I'd expected him just to talk through. But nope: he saw an out and he rabbited. It didn't do him a lot of good in the long run, because I'm mean to my characters (as you should be) and getting away would have been about as boring as all the talking would have: but the thing was, when he winked at me, I felt it again: what happens when you don't know quite what will happen next.

So it's been a slow year for writing. But there are things in motion. The Iliad will be a challenge of editing, shaping, memory and (scariest) emotional mining and performing; there's a blog post to come about the start of the process and the uncertainty I feel about the journey. But again, I couldn't say no to the opportunity and I'm excited about the road ahead for me and Achilles. The Kymeras plan another show in February, a rerun of Evelyn, and I will get to try my hand at folk tales at the Tea Party that month too. But also, I do intend to try to spend more time writing words that aren't simple fact. Writing words that are beautiful. With luck, getting out to more readings, reading more, listening more, and talking more with writers.

That's the plan.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Diving into the Iliad

I have to say I'm quite enjoying the Fagles translation of the Iliad, as read by Derek Jacobi. I'm listening to it as a way of reading the Iliad fast, because I have a meeting next weekend with a bunch of other storytellers, which will be step one in a massive project, the aim of which is to tell the whole Iliad in 12 hours next summer. I'll be telling some of it. I have no idea which bit yet... but I'm pretty excited about the process. This will be the biggest storytelling project I've been involved with to date.

Meanwhile, I have to dive right into this story. Here goes!

I like the straightforwardness of this translation; I love Jacobi's plummy voice. Now I just need to get a sense of the whole thing, in time to rationally discuss it for a whole day this weekend. I need an Iliad flow chart. Internet, aid me!


Nope, that didn't help.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

How to survive 50 years (if you're a story)


Yesterday, along with literally millions of other people, I watched The Day of the Doctor - the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who. The episode was officially the biggest simulcast of a TV drama ever, broadcast simultaneously in 94 countries, on TV and streaming online, and in 1500 movie theatres in 3D, and I lucked into a ticket because a friend of mine had bought two during the approximately 28-minute period that there were any available, before they sold out.

Doctor Who is the longest-running science fiction show of all time, and one of the longest-running television shows, period, of all time (there may be a soap or two that beat it.) The first episode was aired on November 23, 1963, and no one had a clue what they had on their hands. No one involved in the show then would have had any idea that in fifty years, people would be selling out movie theatres, and gathering at their houses to watch on television or online, all over the world. How could they? They were just making a science fiction show for families to watch; something with a bit of an educational bent, catching the SF wave, on a budget, for the BBC.

Today, though, I bet BBC executives are doing happy dances. Doctor Who is probably one of the BBC's biggest exports and cash generators. The revenue generated from this 50th anniversary release must be impressive. What other television show could have fans paying movie theatre prices to watch a special episode? What other television show could cause people to speculate that the Hunger Games sequel might suffer a dip in opening weekend box office because the audiences were busy watching Doctor Who? What did advertisers pay the BBC to be featured on their mini episodes, released online leading up to the special, or to be featured on the big screen before the broadcast?

And - has Doctor Who set a precedent, broken ground in how television gets presented? Is this where "event television" might go? Given the success of this, are we likely to see, say, the series finale of Game of Thrones broadcast to theatres?

I'm a pretty big fan of Doctor Who. I watched it as a kid in the eighties, but not seriously - I remember catching it when I happened to have the TV on and it was playing on the public broadcasting network. I loved it but for some reason never knew quite when it would be on. I remember a few vague scenes, mostly of the Doctor and whichever companion he was with running around through slate quarries - I mean, alien landscapes - being chased by Daleks. I definitely remember the Daleks. I think any kid that saw them does. Today I heard an interview with Peter Davison, the fifth actor to play the Doctor, who confirmed that yes, even in real life when you know they're props, Daleks are unnerving. It's the way they glide.

And I remember that I thought the theme music was creepy, and cool, and strangely sad, all in one. Oh, and that endless looping chrome tunnel that the title credits appeared over was mesmerizing to me. Also, in those years there were writers and actors that cemented the show's future: the years with Tom Baker as the Doctor and Douglas Adams on the writing team are probably responsible for the show's survival to 2013.


I got back into the show, like a lot of people, with the "new Who." It started up in 2005, but annoyed with reboots and remakes, it took me a while to watch it: I resisted as my friends started getting hooked around me. But I started in around the third season. My first episode, I think, was "Smith and Jones," in which the Doctor's second (well, second in terms of the new series) "companion" is introduced, Dr. Martha Jones. She's in a hospital that gets unexpectedly relocated to the moon. Then invaded by space cops with the heads of talking rhinoceri. Then this frenetic skinny guy with spiky brown hair in a suit and running shoes shows up and, among other things, absorbs a room full of radiation into his body, then expels it into his shoe, kicks the shoe off, and keeps running around barefoot for the rest of the episode, while managing to save everyone. He looked like he might be a member of some British hipster band, and I remember thinking, "This guy? Really? Doctor Who?"


And yes. That guy. Really. Doctor Who. David Tennant (the tenth actor to play the role: there have, as of yesterday, officially been thirteen) hooked me. Then I started collecting the box sets - the first season, with Christopher Eccleston in the role, then the Tennant years, eventually collecting as fast as they came out and watching them on broadcast at the same time. I'd been making sure I caught every week's episode for a while by the time it was Matt Smith's turn in the TARDIS. And I was, by that point, a dedicated, one might say fanatical, Whovian, with a collection of all the extant "20th century" episodes from 1963 to the ill-fated Fox/BBC co-pro movie of 1996, a handful of the audio dramas, and a range of buttons, T-shirts, patches, and toys.

So, we get to why I'm writing about this. One of the things that fascinates me about this show is that it shouldn't survive. It shouldn't be popular. Other blockbuster science fiction shows, like Star Trek, make a lot of hay out of scientific explanations of their gadgets and gizmos. What Trekker doesn't have a blueprint of the Enterprise somewhere, detailing exactly where the kitchens and toilets and turbolifts are? There's a hunger for explanation, for categorization, for everything to be explained, in the geek world. Think of things like Dungeons and Dragons, where everything has a set of statistics.


Doctor Who, in contrast, breezily ignores explanations. What's the inside of the TARDIS look like, other than the main console room where everything happens? Well, it looks like whatever the TARDIS (which, it should be explained, is semi-sentient, sometimes) wants it to. Why does it look like a police phone box on the outside? Because it's broken. (A writer once tried to write some technobabble to explain the shape, back in 1963: it was lame and pseudomystical, and the then show runner, Verity Lambert, chucked it and instead declared that the TARDIS was supposed to change appearance to blend in with the local surroundings as camouflage, but the circuit was stuck. It's stayed stuck for 50 years now. Though now, occasionally, it can be invisible.) Does the Doctor have any special powers or abilities? Only when the plot requires it. Does he need to be clairvoyant, telepathic, a hypnotist, an expert swordsman? He can be, when it's required, but it's not a character point. What does that sonic screwdriver he carries around do? Whatever makes the story more fun. What are its limitations? Ditto.


This kind of rule-chucking flies in the face of almost everything else in science fiction and fantasy. One of the main rules of worldbuilding is that your world and setting and the science and/or magic you use needs to be consistent. Then Doctor Who comes along and tells you that hand-waving isn't a narrative failing, it's the main joy of the show. Although they said in 1964 that the Cybermen came from Earth's hidden sister planet Mondass, they're actually, now, from a parallel universe. And that's okay. And you know how we said Daleks worked on static electricity and so needed to be in contact with a metal floor? They got better. Why doesn't the human race remember about the dozens of times they've been invaded or subjugated or otherwise nearly wiped out? We're thick. Or there was a time paradox thing and we all forgot. Know how the Doctor absorbed all that radiation and said it was child's play? Well, for this story we need him to die of radiation poisoning, so he can't do that anymore. No reason.

This should infuriate the sort of person who wants blueprints of the Enterprise. Instead, they love it. They make up all their own rules and laws to cover all the gaps and inconsistencies. Or, like me, they celebrate the sheer loopiness of it, and look at it this way: Doctor Who is about stories. The main character is a story. Occasionally, he knows it. The show even comments on its own story-ness, at times. (The glee with which the Doctor and his companions often discover that they're in a particularly new story is always fun. In one episode, after narrowly escaping the monster of the week, the Doctor and Rose turn to each other. "I tell you what, though," Rose says, excitedly. "Werewolves!" He answers, "I know!" with a huge how-cool-is-that grin.) One of my personal favorites is when there's a plot point that turns on "stet" radiation: "Never heard of it," the Doctor says. "You wouldn't want to," another character says. Meanwhile, as an editor, I stifle a giggle: "stet" is proofreading notation indicating that an editor's change needs to be reversed: the thing that was eliminated gets restored. The next bit of the plot involves a character who can't die. Maybe it's just an editor thing, but it makes me grin.


Also, the show shouldn't survive because the central protagonist actually changes his entire face and personality on a regular basis. Every so often, the Doctor is killed. And when that happens, he transforms into another man. With the same memories, but a different personality. The first time they did this, when the first Doctor, William Hartnell, was sick and couldn't continue in the role, must have been a leap. It's still a bit strange. But now, it's part of the culture. Those of us that have known the show a long time - I was watching when Tom Baker gave way to Peter Davison in the mid-eighties - get to feel a little smug whenever a changeover happens, and we watch the newer fans mourn the loss of "their" Doctor, and vilify the new one for whatever they see as his faults.

Meanwhile, those of us who have been through a few regenerations have taken it as part of the fandom. Who will the new Doctor be? How will he change the tone? Rumours and speculations about the new actor will fly. We'll watch ourselves go through the phases: mourning the loss of an actor we loved in the role, settling in with the new guy, deciding what we think of him, finding the through lines that let us, mentally, tie him to his predecessors, and, eventually, learning to love some aspect of the way he plays the character. Yesterday, in the theatre, we got a second-long flash-cameo of the upcoming actor, Peter Capaldi (Matt Smith is leaving the role after the Christmas special this year), and there were cheers in the theatre: we're sad to see Smith go, but we're excited to see how the character will change.


Because although the actor changes, the story keeps going. And it can only keep going by being loopy and inconsistent and allowing us to be okay with that. In fact, encouraging us to embrace it. Every time an actor leaves - a Doctor or a companion - you think about the stories that you didn't get to see happen with them, but the story itself is not over. You can go back, if you want to see Tom Baker's bug-eyed strangeness, or Peter Davison's big-brother kindness, or William Hartnell's crusty tetchiness, or Paul McGann's Romantic elegance, or the bottled anger of Christopher Eccleston. They're all still there. You won't get any more stories with them, and that's sad. But you'll get new stories with this new guy, and he'll be great in his own way, and he will, ever so often, also remind you of the past Doctors.

And in that way it's a lot like life.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Writers Festival kicks off

I just remembered I didn't actually report in about Detroit. Will do: soon.

Tonight I ran to CKCU to do an episode of Literary Landscapes, talking about the upcoming funding drive and the Writers Festival, which just kicked off tonight with a lovely event with Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor from Blue Rodeo (which I scurried off to after the show was over) - a look back at the creation of the iconic album Five Days in July, with messages and interviews from the musicians who were part of it, conversations about the creation of the songs, and covers performed by various musicians, as well as by Jim and Greg. Very cool.

(It occurred to me, sitting in the overflow room with my friend Terry, that I'm fairly certain I went to a Blue Rodeo concert on what was probably my very first - and therefore pretty awkward - date. Which made the evening a little surreal for a moment or three.)

Anyway. It seems to me that these songwriters' events - curated by Alan Neal from CBC's All in a Day - are a unique beast, and really Writersfest is the only place I can imagine them working. Which they do, marvellously - people do want to hear the stories behind the songs, and hear the songs, and the cross-pollenation that Alan manages to get by inviting - and getting - people like Jully Black and Mike Dubue to, say, come cover some Blue Rodeo tunes on stage means that you're getting a really unique event. Not a concert, not an Inside the Artist's Studio kind of thing; something in between the two, with a kitchen party vibe thrown in too, as the musicians start to relax and jam and play with each other.

The Festival continues tomorrow: I'm taking George Elliott Clarke to a couple of schools, and the evening's packed with coolness, including a launch by David O'Meara, Stephen Brockwell reading from his new book, and the Newlove Awards...