People are quick to claim their support badge for de-stigmatizing mental health, but less so for mental illness. It’s not insta-ready or easily packaged for a tweet or tik tok. Depression & anxiety are the only mental health poster children most people are willing to identify with and/or throw money, energy or support at. People who experience mental illness also have stories worth reading, watching, or listening to. We seek love, companionship, deal with loss, learn about and yearn for what is important to us. We do normal-people things too; buy groceries and manage finances and work and childcare and relationships. Until people are willing to hear the difficult parts of our stories along with the easier parts, then they are not valuing the whole person, or the whole story. We’re not story-worthy just on our good days. I wrote this story for me, so I could dive into the story of someone I can relate to in some ways, and discover how she navigates the world and her grief and the breakdown of her marriage. This is not a book for the faint of heart, or for the people who only want “easy” mental health issues in their TBR pile. This story is for the reader who wants to meet a smart, complicated woman where she is at — which is in the middle of a very messy Bipolar crisis—, and watch her story unravel from there, in the midst of a tragedy that devastates the town and in a landscape that both captivates and threatens.
I love these characters, and their heartbreaking, gut wrenching story that’s set in a beautiful Canadian small town winter I know well. I love this story with all my heart.
If you are a person who goes for content warnings, then hey, here you go—assume “Last Winter” has absolutely all of them and please move along to read something better suited to you right now.This is definitely not your book.
But it is mine. And I will defend it to the ends of the earth.
If you want to join my beloved characters at their darkest hour, and you love a book that breaks your heart before handing it back to you stronger and wiser and more empathetic, then LAST WINTER is your book.
If you rush through your life, in a hurry to get to the next Interesting Thing, the next New Lover, the next Writing Project, you will miss everything on the periphery. Details live in the periphery. If they’re scattered by the rush of air you leave behind as you rush by, you will miss out. You need the details that reside in the places much slower than you may want to go. If you can study dust motes, or watch the clouds roll overhead in a storm, or if you can truly listen when you participate in a conversation rather than rushing ahead and planning the next thing you want to say, you’re probably okay. But if not, slow down.
Walk, don’t run.
Now for the practical.
Move your body. Walk whenever you can, if you are able. I walk this city from one side to the other, looking for those dust motes and storm clouds and well-paced conversations, with strangers, preferrably. Figure out which shoes you have that are most comfortable and wear those ones out. If you have a reason to go downtown from East Van, walk there. Take the viaduct while it’s still standing. Look for the everything will be alright sign about midway, through the trees. Notice the garbage, the weird new part to the south. Listen to the chuh-chuh of the cars going by on a dry day, and the sussurus on a rainy day.
Walk, don’t run.
Don’t run though your first draft. Walk. A steady pace. Don’t doddle. That’s not walking. Walk like you’re going to meet you best friend at the movies and you left a little too late. Don’t run.
Writers are observers. If they aren’t, they can’t infuse their work with the life details needs to create a connection between the reader and the story that they’ve worked so hard to bring out of their imagination. This means review life every hour, or more. This does not have to be LIFE. It mostly means life. It all counts, because your ficticious would has the same elements as the one we walk in now. Even if you write steampunk fantasy or crime noire set in an alternate universe, the elements of your life are what will bring life to your fiction. This includes your running list of regrets or undone chores or going over and over what you’d wished you’d said in the heat of an argument. This is the children’s constumes that you have no time to make, the car that needs new tires, the character you want to build. The poem that is an unwritten, even while it holds your heart in its grip as you stand on this street corner and are told Review Life Every Hour.
Everything you lave left is unwritten. If you are like most authors, everything that you can write — but haven’t yet — vastly outweighs that you have written. We think too much about what we’ve written. We edit it. We look to give to a good home. We’d like it to work for us. We want our readers to sit with it and give it their concentration.
But once you have written something, don’t give it too much attention.
Make space to explore all the unwritten wonders you still have to write. I don’t mean have as in “Do I have to? Sigh.” I mean it as in, “I have so many amazing projects I want to work on. I can’t wait to get started.”
Go get started on the unwritten.
You will be amazed at what you find.
If nothing else, working on your unwritten will make you a better writer, and that is always a very good thing. Writing makes writers, so go do more of it.
ps. I blurred the writing below, because we’re talking about your unwrittens, not someone else’s neon bold and arrogant pithiness upon a wall. Now, back to your writing.
This is how writers communicate meaning, using images and symbols woven into their work.
Now, if you are sitting there thinking, “Geez, I need me some more semiotics,” you probably don’t. Most writers get their meaning across without thinking too hard about it. The real work of this is usually done in revisions, when you can pull back a bit and see connections where you hadn’t noticed them when you first set them down, and build up any imagery or symbolism that’s missing.
In fact, I’m going to suggest that this piece of advice is actually about avoiding semiotics. Stay away from the overt chore of any kind of inventory of symbols and images unless you need something to be up front throughout, in which case, do a little search of your document for words related to said image or symbol to check your pacing and see if you need more, or less.
My dear editor, Kelly, just told me to go through my manuscript and search for unicorn and take half of the mentions out. So, don’t be afraid to semiotics all over the place, so long as you’re willing to remove any blunt objects before publishing.
Talk to strangers, and actually listen, or should I say actively listen. Make sure you’re not just formulating the next thing you’re going to say, because if you do that you’re going to miss the glimmer in the detail, and then you won’t have those genuine sparklies when you go to use them in your writing.
We repair our writing over and over, because if you work it over and over, damage happens.
Don’t toss your project and start something new.
Don’t ignore it.
Don’t hope that some literary tow truck will arrive from off-scene and haul it away for someone else to tinker with it.
Go to your toolbox (you already have one) and find your favourite wrench and get to it.
Do not pick up the blowtorch, no matter how tempting.
Beholding a heap of charred bits might feel good for a moment, but you’ll quickly regret it.
Usually. Because sometimes murdering your darlings does in fact mean the whole damn thing. But more on that later, because, truly, it does not hurt you to keep your manuscript that needs serious repair. Tuck it somewhere out of the way if it feels too overwhelming right now, or if you can’t find your toolbox because everything is so cluttered in your head and you can’t figure out where to start because it’s not just your favourite mug smashed into smithereens on the tile floor, or even a broken wrist, or a totalled car, but in fact a complete train wreck in flames down a steep embankment.