Writing, language & Stephen Fry

Dan Holst Soelberg's caricature drawing of Stephen Fry

My caricature drawing of Stephen Fry

My mind is on language at the moment. I am in the midst of expanding a story outline into a proper draft of text that will eventually become a new book. This stage of writing is both exciting and filled with doubt. Is a phrase too obvious? On the other hand, have I left too much out? Simply choosing the right word can set off a whole series of ideas that affect how the book will feel for the reader. After all, a book is revealed as one reads, so every new word is coloured by the previous. I’m constantly throwing out a word in favour of another and reciting the sentence aloud to hear its new shape and linguistic form. I am consciously trying to, as Stephen Fry put it, “yoke impossible words together for the sound sex of it.” Stephen Fry spoke these words in his 2008 podcast on language. There was also a fantastic little viral video made with a segment of his podcast that includes this phrase. Take a break from this article and watch it right now.

Fry possesses a staggering depth of knowledge that dwarfs my own, but I share his sentiments on the subject of language. Fry has a passion for language that is contagious and sometimes intimidating. Why intimidating? Because he has strong opinions and downright condemnation for pedants who use their knowledge of language to wage battles about ‘right’ language and the rules that govern it. And this is why he steals my maverick heart. Stephen Fry has the presence of mind to understand that the purpose of language is not to motivate arguments about the correctness of its application or promote an elite rank that denounces certain thought for violating rules. Fry asks, “Is the idea of purifying the dialect of the tribe a poetic ideal or nonsensical snobbery.” He understands that language is a tool meant to connect us and communicate ideas. The only reason we have rules is to sharpen the tool.

However, rules tend also to stagnate language. Conventional language is primarily good for conveying conventional thought. Someone expressing an original voice has every right to take considerable poetic license and rip convention to shreds. Rules of language aren’t really rules, so there is no right or wrong. If an idea or emotion is communicated more effectively by breaking a rule, it justifies itself.

There isn’t an eternal rulebook for language that has passed through generations since the dawn of its utterance. Those who argue for maintaining the sacred integrity and eternal purity of language have it wrong. Look at published texts that are over 100 years old and you’ll see just how wrong. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, is a good example. Mostly because it’s within my arm’s reach at the moment. Outmoded spelling and punctuation abounds. Far from stagnant, language is dynamic and evolving. Its present state is simply the most now stage in its evolution.

People who argue for strict adherence to rules don’t get it. They aren’t swept up in the sound sex of language. They just like to argue. Arguing and being right is terribly important for so many people. Oh, how they miss out on so much fun! I prefer poets and artists who find unbounded joy in stretching language to its elastic potential.

I do believe in understanding rules before you break them. Having an informed mind gives one a position of authority. Breaking a rule for no particular reason or goal in mind is meaningless. Knowing a language rule and breaking it intentionally for a desired effect can potentially create profound meaning.

Here’s hoping I am on the verge of crafting profound meaning. Back to work…


Macabre humour is delicious

"Viv is not adept at verbal rebuttal. Her revenge is exacted in ways not so subtle." From the book Oddities of West Blankshire

“Viv is not adept at verbal rebuttal. Her revenge is exacted in ways not so subtle.” From the book Oddities of West Blankshire.

There are many reasons why death and despair are not funny. But reason has very little to do with why anything is funny. In fact, the house that funny built has shut the door on reason. When we laugh, we forget for a moment all the reasons why we shouldn’t. That’s what makes humour such a powerful force.

"Lou bathed for weeks hoping gills would evolve, but he became oversaturated and dissolved." from the book Oddities of West Blankshire.

“Lou bathed for weeks hoping gills would evolve, but he became oversaturated and dissolved.” from the book Oddities of West Blankshire.

Macabre humour is simply delectable. It is my passion. I am essentially laughing at death and despair, and there is something cathartic and exciting about that. I can’t get enough of it, which is why I keep putting more of it into the world. I find great joy in making books that both celebrate and poke fun at the darkest and most disturbing aspects of humanity.

I want to stress the importance of putting macabre humour in book form. Equal to my passion for macabre humour is my passion for books. Books are beautiful and sacred objects. Books are also personal and intimate. When you read, the book becomes your world and the words express an aspect of who you are. Maybe I’m sounding hokey or overly dramatic, but that’s what books do for me. I didn’t realize how personal and sentimental my books were for readers until I met a young man at Fan Expo in Toronto last year. He picked up a copy of Oddities of West Blankshire from my table and leafed through it carefully, page by page.

"Paloma is plummeting fast through the sky. She cannot recall when this started or why." From the book Oddities of West Blankshire

“Paloma is plummeting fast through the sky. She cannot recall when this started or why.” From the book Oddities of West Blankshire.

Then he reread a few choice pages and sheepishly looked up at me, waiting to catch my gaze. I connected with him immediately. He said that his childhood friend owned a copy of my book. He had fond memories of visiting his friend and reading the book over and over and over. He told me he was nervous and excited to meet me. Then he asked me to sign a copy for him and thanked me profusely before leaving. I was floored. Not just because the book was only five years old (yep, I’m already the old guy!) but because something I created went out into the world and gave personal meaning to a complete stranger.

If I could tell one story that explains why I continue to make books, it’s that one. Every book I sell connects me with one more person in the world who shares my passion for macabre humour. There is nothing more rewarding than that.

My books can be purchased at the “Shop” link above. Below is a speed drawing video of a page from my latest book “Dwellers of Lurching Swill”.


Meeting fans

Buttons featuring images from my books. Some people just can't get enough buttons!

My display includes various merchandise. Pictured here: buttons featuring images from my books.

I love exhibiting. It’s energizing and fun. It’s especially exciting to connect with fans since my creative process is such a solitary one. From original idea to finished product, I create each book alone in my studio. And it takes time. I toil over the writing, illustration, type rendering, design and layout of each book to satisfy the vision in my head. Months and months of solitude, and the only thing compelling me to finish the project is the thought, “the finished book is worth all this effort.” So, to meet a fan that connects with my vision, buys a book and is now anxiously awaiting my next book, it’s just the most satisfying feeling.

The Mixed Media Market that happened at the Gladstone this past Saturday was everything I could have imagined. Visitors were engaged with the vendors and the event was superbly organized.

I stood behind my display for six hours. I can’t think of a better way to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Just a note: I didn’t have the forethought to take photos with my fans, and I realize that an article about fans without a photo of one feels incomplete. On the other hand, you can use your imagination and I like that.

I met Sarah. Sarah was visiting Toronto to see her brother nearby and stopped in to kill time. She was intrigued by my display and we talked about my work. Sarah wound up buying all three softcovers. I signed them and dedicated one to her. Every show, I connect with at least one person who fully shares my passion for the work I do and makes sure to let me know. Sarah was the one who made this day worthwhile. I humbly thank you, Sarah.

I met Michael. He bought a book as well. Michael was in Toronto on business at his PR firm’s head office. He lives in Chicago. I’m a Frank Lloyd Wright fan and I know that Wright’s work is all over Chicago. I asked Michael about it. As he gave me his card, he told me to call him when I visit, we’ll meet for dinner and he’ll tell me all about Chicago. I can’t wait! I’m taking my family for a visit this summer and I know who I’m calling.

I met another proud new owner of my book who had a familiar accent. I didn’t catch his name (he was in a rush), but he said he was heading back to Copenhagen. We chatted a bit in Danish and he went off to give my book a new home in another part of the world.

I met Johanne. She bought a book and we chatted while I dedicated it to her. Johanne was curious about why I’d chosen to self-publish. I explained that I just wanted to make books and didn’t want to worry about getting approval from a publisher. For my next book however, I explained that want to get an agent and publish in the UK or USA. Johanne revealed that she has been working in Canadian publishing for years. Based on her experience, Johanne warned that agents can be heel-dragging and money-draining. She said that small Canadian publishers on the other hand, are passionate about the work they do and work tirelessly for their authors. In fact, she said that Canadian publishers are devoted to the point of personal sacrifice. It gave me pause to consider what I want to do with my next book. Maybe an agent is the wrong move? I really don’t know.

As the day drew to a close, I felt a sense of vindication for the long hours in the studio that make my work feel self-indulgent and reclusive. I am a social beast just like everyone else, and at the end of the day, my books only have meaning when people other than me read them. After a fun day like this, I am full of gusto and eager to get back to the studio!

The next Gladstone Hotel event that I’m taking part in happens May 25th. It’s the Small Press & Literary Festival taking place between 10:30am and 4:30pm. For details, click this link. I’ll keep you updated on my facebook page too.

Please come by on the 25th and bring a friend. I love meeting new people.


Job title: Professional Maverick

Mississauga Library System newsletter mastheadWhen I worked as a graphic designer at The Mississauga News, I took over the design of the Mississauga Library System’s newsletter. Without asking permission, I gave myself the title “Senior Creative Maverick”, which was printed in the publication’s masthead. It’s a fitting title, and nobody ever told me to change it.

If I could choose a title to describe my role in life I would alter it slightly to “Professional Maverick.”

When you’re a child you must always ask permission. You constantly rely on adults for guidance before you do anything. Adventurous kids learn early that they don’t really need to ask. They figured out that they could just go ahead and do what they want. Besides, adults don’t even know what’s going on most of the time so there are no consequences. Once in a while they get caught. That’s when they apologize.

I was one of these kids. I wasn’t trying to get away with doing bad things, I just wanted to take charge and be independent. I was a born maverick. My mom tells me that when I was barely older than a toddler, I’d routinely wake up really early and walk out of the house to explore the world alone while the rest of the family slept. This is typical of my behaviour. I got in trouble with authority figures occasionally and made my parents worry. I sincerely didn’t mean to, and I felt badly for causing grief. I learned to ask forgiveness and tried to cause less worry.

I have since learned that this is a widely understood principle amongst entrepreneurs. Innovation is the goal of many entrepreneurs, and you can’t innovate without shaking up the status quo. So, rather than asking authorities for permission to launch an initiative and risk refusal, they just do it. If some feathers are ruffled, they beg forgiveness.

There is risk in living this way. Speaking as a seasoned maverick, I think there is greater risk in not living this way. Inaction is guaranteed failure. Sometimes you just have to get things done and let the chips fall where they may.

If you are offended by this philosophy, forgive me.