“My own background in physics has taught me wonder. As a poet, we deal mostly in metaphors and a metaphor says that this is that—that's what equations do too. Equations say that mass is energy. Just being able to throw yourself at the universe and find out everything you can is a great background for a scientist or for an artist.”
I like to be really informal with kids. I like to be emotionally real with kids. Which means, although I have a lot of material and a lot of script, I often abandon it and we follow our noses. I get them on their feet. We have a lot of fun on their feet, talking about physicality and writing.
You're listening to Parallel Careers where writers who also teach, share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
My name is Erin Bow. I'm a poet and a novelist. I write mostly for young people and I write about science for the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. I live in Kitchener, Waterloo, and I write in my garden shed.
I really do like talking to young people and I write for young people because I like young people. So it doesn't hurt me as an author for teenagers to go and visit actual teenagers, occasionally. Even though I actually do have built-in ones that live in my home.
My, my normal practice is very much about sitting quietly and talking to fictional people. It's very ingoing. It's very receptive. I have to sort of calm down and open up and pour things out. Teaching is obviously much more outgoing. And though I am trying to see what's going on in the room and what the kids are needing—you know what they're connecting with artistically and emotionally—it's mostly me trying to give that to them. So I'm trying to be for them what my creativity is for me. I admire teachers who do it every day. I know there are people who go in there and do that every day. And the kids just come out--it's so transformative what a good teacher can do. I couldn't possibly do that every day. If I do it more than once a week or so, I'm just blasted out. It's, it's very draining for me.
My favorite advice to young writers is not original to me. My favorite advice is Ira Glass's advice. And a lot of people probably know it, but it's about the taste gap. Realize that a first draft is going to have a spark, but it's going to have dead places in it too. And that doesn't mean you're a failure. Particularly this generation of young kids and gifted young kids, they think that if they don't succeed at something right away, it means they're not good at it. And I wish someone had told me, and therefore I tell them, that that's not true. That you have to work at the stuff even that you're good at, even that you're passionate about and having to work at it is not a mark of failure. So my big takeaway recently has been, if it's worth doing it's worth doing badly. Perfectionism is a paralytic and most of my teaching is about how to get past that.
Stand on the Sky—I keep as an artist, writing the books that young me really needed to read, that somehow didn't exist. I don't know if you know this book. This is, um, Where the Red Fern Grows is one of these books in the genre of Sounder in which the dog gets shot and dies and Old Yeller in which the dog gets shot and then dies. And, uh, there's a lot of them, they all have animals and stickers on the covers and the dog dies. I was raised on these books. I needed these books to have a happy ending. I needed a book because there is something magical about the relationship between human and animal, particularly between children, just on the cusp of not being children anymore and animals.
The other thing that I really needed was one of these books. You know, the kids with cancer books that they give you when you're about that age, like 10, 12? They give you a book and it's about some child with a health concern.
And if it's got a sticker, the child's got about a 50/50 chance, right? What they don't give you a lot of is the books about the other child, about the sibling. What happens in a family when one child is in crisis and it's a wonderful loving family, but one child is in crisis and the other child is left very, nearly abandoned, not in a terrible, horrible neglectful way. Just everyone's attention is somewhere else. And they're on the outside of it. And it doesn't have to be a story about rivalry or resentment or anything like that. But it's a very, very common experience with children. It was in fact, my experience of being about that old.
So, in I think in maybe 2014, I saw the photographs and they're fairly famous by a BBC journalist named Asher Svidensky, who had gone and taken photographs of Kazakh nomad kids training to be Eagle hunters, which is a very important traditional art in Kazakh society. Those photographs were like being struck by lightning. So, I went to Mongolia and I lived in Mongolia for a summer with Kazakh nomads. And their 350 goats and their yaks and their horses and their children and their aunts and uncles. And of course their two Eagles. And I wrote a book with a girl whose brother is sick and she rescues an orphaned baby Eagle, and they grow into a new role in the family together. So I wrote the book that baby me needed.
Excerpt from Stand on the Sky
Aisulu mounted. The sack screamed. Moonspot swiveled, her ears like radar dishes, but she responded to Aisulu’s knees, to the touch on her neck. They started for home.
Riding with her knees alone, Aisulu took her brother's hat out of her pocket. She sniffed it to smell her brother. Then she turned it upside down, reached into the sack and retrieved the baby eagle. The sack was horribly sticky and the little eagle was sticky too. She set it in the cup of the hat. It screamed at her for a second—ker-reep, ker-reep, ker-reep—then snuggled itself against the velvet.
Then it pooped in the hat.
“Really?” said Aisulu.
The eaglet craned its long neck toward her, opening its beak wide. Aisulu tried to feed it some dried cheese. It turned its tiny head away, sighed, and closed its eyes.
It was an hour's ride back to the summer camp, and the little eagle was hungry. It woke and begged; slept and woke and begged. Every time it begged, it begged with less brightness. It's eyes got duller. Its neck stretched less far. How long could it go without food? How long had it been without food before she had found it?
What did it need to eat?
What was she going to do?
So in young people's fiction in particular, but in fiction generally, this is a hot topic: who gets to write what? I've talked about how I got this idea and this idea seemed to come from outside me. I don't think we can always control where we get these ideas. On the other hand, I think we are absolutely, 100% responsible for how they're executed.
One of the things that I often tell writers who are negotiating this is you need to know your subject matter well enough that you're not looking up facts. The facts are suggesting story. So a lot of people will write a book and then give it to what's called, professionally, a sensitivity reader. So if you have a Black character, you know, you give it to a Black reader and they check to make sure that you didn't fall into these sand traps of stereotypes that you might not be aware even exist, but that you’re regurgitating because it's part of your culture. And that's good. But I also think it's too late in the process to engage. They can fix it, but they can't make it right in the first place.
I think it is possible to research your way into certain limited situations. Stand on the Sky is right on the edge. And to be honest, if I were starting it again today, knowing a little bit more about own voices concerns, I might not do it. I think I will stick a little bit closer to—not my own experience necessarily—but to be careful not to push other people out of the way. And that's where I'm starting to draw lines. Is to think about if, by writing this story, I am displacing someone who is better suited to write a similar story.
My best teaching ever was doing a set of physicality exercises one a day with a group of seventh and eighth graders for, I think we were 10 days. And by the end of it, they would just dive into their notebooks. Like you ever had this teaching experience where you like give them five minutes to write, they all start scribbling, and then the five minutes are up and nobody wants to stop scribbling? Doesn't happen very often, but this set of exercises gives them a chance to do it. And it's called “Walk Across the Room.” And what we do is I get them in a line and I get them to walk across the front of the room, imagining that they're in various scenarios.
So the first one's a tight rope. Walk across the room, like you're on a tight rope, over Niagara Falls with no net and now walk across the room. And then I have them take note of the physicality of how people are walking. Like, are you taking large steps? Where are your eyes? If you're walking across the tight rope, are you looking down or are you looking up? I quizz them about, uh, you know, is there sweat on the back of your neck? Is there a feeling behind your knees? Can you feel anything under your tongue? So I have two or three scenarios like that.
And then we take a second step, which is walk across the stage as if you were sad. Without the imaginary scenario, just with the emotion. And now they have the vocabulary to describe what they're looking at. Like if you're sad, you're probably looking down. Your shoulders tend to curl inward around your heart space. And then as a third step, we do a brainstorm of walk-across-the-room writing prompts. So it's called, “I walked into the,” so it was like, “I walked into the prom.” You know, I walked up to the grave. Junior high students always go for graves. They are so murderous. You know, I walked up to the grave is, is, you know, I walked into the murder scene. Those are their favorites.
And then they do a writing exercise that starts with one of those prompts. And I try to get them--the assignment is to convey the emotion without using any emotional words. Don't tell us that your character is sad or anxious. Please describe the sensations, the physicality, you know, the sounds, the smells, describe that. It's a great exercise.
I'm writing a book of poems about science and scientists and, in particular, about the history of light. And this is one of those it's called Skiagraphs, 1896.
Coins and keys in leather pockets, hobnails in boots,
buckshot in shoulders, the openings between
an infant’s bones. The surface like the century
falls away, the skin pinned and lifted,
the flesh turned to fogs and backgrounds. There is a color
that means distance. In Da Vinci’s paintings,
for instance, the far off hills or towers are awash
in scattered photons. As with a charcoal curve
softened by the pad of the thumb, our lungs become
that blue and intricate. At first this class of image
has no one name: radiogram, roentgenogram,fluoroscope,
X-ray. Skiagraph – which mean to map
with shadows. A hundred thousand children
look down at their own toes, bones wiggling
inside new science-fitted shoes.
This first wonder with a long fuse.
The other thing I tell teenagers is, just because you're good at it doesn't mean you have to do it for a living. So when I was a kid, the hardest thing that I was really, really good at was science and physics and mathematics, which is a difficult field as a university student. Uh, I was very interested in particle physics.
So I really liked that. And then I discovered that there were other things that I also liked and that physics completely squeezed them out. And I started making choices about how I wanted to spend my life. And I opted for something with a little bit more balance.
Um, but I have never been sorry that I studied physics. I love just the way the world is put together and the deep connections of the world. Like for example, I recently wrote an article, um, for Perimeter about where gold comes from. And you may have heard that the atoms in our bodies come from outer space, which is true. The hydrogen and helium and our bodies mostly comes from the big bang. That's where it was created. Some of the helium comes from stars. Most of the hydrogen and helium was created during the big bang 13 million years ago. So the water in your body, that's got two molecules of hydrogen, those are from the big bang. The oxygen, that's from stars. When stars begin to die, they stop fusing hydrogen into helium and start fusing heavier atoms into heavier and heavier atoms. And that works up to about iron.
But there are many things in the universe that are heavier than iron, including for example, gold and stars can't make gold. They can only make to about iron and that's where the process falls apart. So where does the gold come from? And it turns out that we don't know. There are several different models. They all involve crazy things like the collision of two neutron stars or exotic reactions in the halo of a supernova. Just that instant of explosion that gets hotter than any star. So there are new models being built up, but there's no consensus. And just to think about, you know, there's, there are atoms like that in your house. There atoms like that in your body. There are plenty of things in your body that are heavier than, than iron. Not much, but a little bit. And we couldn't get by without it.
And to think that they're formed in some exotic process, that we don't understand, that we need super computers to model. And yet it comes to us and gets folded into our DNA. I love knowing stuff like that. I just, I feel deeply connected to the universe knowing stuff like that. So my own background in physics, I think has mostly taught me, wonder. You know, as a poet, we deal mostly in metaphors and a metaphor says that this is that that's what equations do too. Equations say that mass is energy.
Just being able to throw yourself at the universe and find out everything you can is a great background for a scientist or for an artist.
You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon, in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com
Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Erin’s work, including her most recent novel Stand on the Sky. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.
In this episode, Erin Bow discusses the lightning bolt of inspiration and balancing writing, teaching and science translation. She discusses:
1:57 | Her advice for young writers
2:56 | Writing the books that “young me really needed to read,” including her Governor General’s Award-winning book Stand on the Sky
7:06 | Drawing lines about which stories to write
8:56 | Getting kids on their feet during school visits
12:51 | How studying physics has enriched her artistic practice…and the mystery of where gold comes from
From neuroscience, we learn that people notice more details when emotions are running high. Try this: take an emotionally charged scene and add one extraneous detail at the moment of maximum feeling. Try a work-a-day disconnected from the plot. What happens?
Every fantasy world needs a mythology, an ecology and an economy. So yeah, that's actually something people quote back to me. Um, and it sounds so profound when people quote it and I'm like, I don't think I live up to that. In part, this is reactionary. In part, this is just me getting my rage on at the entire genre of high fantasy, but it's vaguely Celtic and under-researched. And in part I'm riffing on, do you know, uh, Diana Wynne Jones. She's a British author of fantasy, mostly marketed towards young people, but she wrote this book called The Tough Guide To Fantasyland, which is a Traveler's guide for “So you've been chosen for a portal quest.” It's literally an alphabetical list of tropes. So it's like stew during your journey—you will only be eating stew. You will not be encountering any meat animals. So it's difficult to know what the stew was made of.
It's like, why are we wearing cloaks? When you know, cloaks are the worst possible decision for our traveling party, they flap, they drip. They don't keep you warm in the front. They don't cover your arms—that's a cape. You know, where do all these horses come from? There are no horse breeders. There are no stables, there's no tack. The horses basically behave like they’re bicycles with a little bit of attitude, you know, basically just drive them, you know, infinite distances. They never throw a shoe. They never do that thing where they like puff up their girth so that you can't get the saddle on tight enough and the saddle twists over sideways. The heroes are always riding stallions, but the stallions never attack each other. This Tolkien watered down and smeared out into a hundred thousand pages of fantasy, which I devoured like popcorn as a child. But, it's very thin.
And so I'm reacting strongly against that by saying it needs to hang together and it needs to hang together in three ways. People have to get their food. There has to be a way in which people get food. And it's sometimes interesting if that breaks down. Plain Kate is set during kind of a famine—the crops fail. So there has to be food. There has to be a way in which people who aren't directly engaged in farming or fishing earn their food. So there has to be trade back and forth. There has to be, you know, if there are differentials between craftspeople and farmers, then there's a whole society. So the economy is your shortcut to that. Like, are they trading for coin? Are they bartering? And then they have mostly a shared background. They will all know the same ghost stories. So if they're sitting around a fire at night telling each other stories, there needs to be a sense of depth and familiarity about that. And there's no people in the world who sit around a fire at night and don't do that. And so you have to create a few of them and being able to create—I think if you can create a ghost story, that's endemic to your fantasy world, not to like, be like tuning into the radio and hearing the plot, but just to toss off, then you've done a good job. If, if a story emerges from the world, then that world is whole. And that's how you can tell.
So my writing practice, I sometimes explain it in contrast to my husband's writing practice. So we are both novelists and we have kids together who are now, uh, 15 and 12. But even when they were little, my husband was the guy who would sit at the dining room table—which was the one table in the house—and there would be laundry here and the children doing macaroni art there, and he would flip, open his laptop and be like time to write the death scene. Just dive headfirst into his world. There was no barrier between him and his world and his creativity.
I have a much more difficult time getting into. And for that matter out of, uh, my fictional worlds and my sort of internal creative space. And I've developed a lot of props and rituals to help with that, I'm afraid I'm terribly precious about it. I mean, I can write in hotel rooms on the road and I can write on the Greyhound bus and have, but when I have the freedom to create a space for writing, I create a space for writing. I'm right now in my garden shed, which came to me when we bought this house five years ago. And it is, first of all, very quiet, separate from the house. I have up on the walls, all the little bits and pieces of things that aren't quite art and didn't fit in the house. Like I have the little blue birds that belong to my great-grandmother and I have an objarka—I have a carved figure from Plain Kate. I have Wi-Fi now because of the pandemic, I didn't use to have wifi. And when the pandemic is over, I will go back to not having wifi because I do like to be offline.
I like to have a candle. I like to have particular music. I like to have a particular kind of tea. I have a soundtrack for each book that takes me into the writing world. I have a particular machine that I use for writing. I use an alpha smart word processor instead of a keyboard. So yeah, ritual was a good word for it. It's very ritualized. It is, you know—I'm very Catholic, culturally, I don't know what I actually believe, but culturally I'm very Catholic. And you know, it's the space, the smells and bells, the rosary beads, the prayers for every occasion, the beeswax. This is sort of my writing church that takes me to the right space where I can do the stuff.