Something strange happened on the way to my first Hugo…

Part of my intention in starting this blog was to talk about the process of “becoming” a writer – learning to write, learning to present pieces for publication, and hopefully, one day, actually getting published. So far, I’ve neglected this aspect of things, and I intend to remedy the situation, starting now.

I’ve been writing regularly for about five months now. Wait, back up; I’ve been writing regularly for most if not all of my semi-adult life. I’ve been seriously writing planned, constructed pieces of fiction regularly and to completion for about five months now. As a younger person, like many others, I wrote mountains of material, most of which was some sort of Burroughs-esque journal/poetry/lyrical hybrid – in other words, so totally different from writing fiction that it scarcely even counts toward it. As a beginning fiction writer, this history has worked against me much more than for me, more often than not serving as a heap of rubbish I must unlearn before I can get to anything of quality. But it’s also what led me to my current state of balance; what was, in my youth, a prolific but unfocused flood of verbiage is now, like the person it runs through, older, more paced, more focused. I have an outlet for analysis, criticism, and pseudo-academic writing, right here; I have a place for the stripped –down descendants of that older gibberish in my musical endeavors, especially Secret South; and I have the real beginnings of a fictional outlet, something I never thought I would accomplish, and something that is more satisfying than almost anything.

Harlan Ellison said, when talking about his public writing appearance, that people think writing is done by wizards on high mountains, and that he wanted to show people the truth: that it’s work – not magic. I fell victim to that fantasy for many years. While I never doubted that I could write a good song or a good poem, or draw a good picture, I assumed I couldn’t write a good novel. I’m still not sure how this happened. I think I was also lazy – too lazy to undertake such a task, such a monumental learning process. And it’s still daunting; the road from my first few short stories to my first finished novel is long, and most of it is still ahead of me. But I’m on the road.

With age, I grew more confident; I saw myself doing most of what I sought to do with some amount of success – mostly personal, internal satisfaction as opposed to financial gain, but still success. I realized that my ideas, my ways of thinking, my tastes, were usually fairly good, and sometimes, just maybe, truly interesting. And I started to see people from every walk of life as people. I gained a sort of no-nonsense view of human beings that told me my heroes were just ordinary Joes and Janes who were good at their jobs, and that I was good at my job too – the only difference being that I wasn’t being paid for doing it. And in the end, I thought, why not? Why shouldn’t I write?

The world of SF has an especially wonderful way of disintegrating castes. There is a long tradition in SF of readers becoming writers. There is no clear and solid line between fandom and professional contribution. SF is, above all else, a kind of meta-dialogue – about life, about human experience (psychology), about society and government and history (sociology), about the nature of the universe and of life, about technology and the impact it can have (science), and about SF itself. Reading SF is an act of engaging in this dialogue.

A few days ago on TotalDickhead, David Gill asked an open question about Philip K. Dick’s loopy and incredibly detailed descriptions of clothing in Ubik. This is one of my favorite examples of this phenomenon. As a lifelong SF reader, though I don’t claim to know his exact intentions, I got a sense when reading them of how Dick meant these descriptions. If I were unfamiliar with SF as a field, I would probably not recognize the humor, the sense that he was lovingly teasing his own, the pastiche he was employing. I would probably think he really meant it – which might very well turn me off to the whole business. This can be problematic for SF, depending on your goals; it does have a way of keeping new readers out. But as an “insider,” I see this as part of a conversation. Every work of SF helps to define, or redefine, or undefine, what SF is. And it doesn’t end there; take Dick’s story “Null-O,” which is a critique of  “The Players of Null-A” by A. E. van Vogt. Or take Fritz Leiber’s stunning, chilling, prophetic “Poor Superman,” a harsh indictment of Scientology by someone who shared Hubbard’s original line of work. The list is endless; SF writers were “battling” long before Nas and Jay-Z. SF has been at the forefront of “remix culture” since Gernsback, since Verne – hell, since Lucian, whose “True History” is an intellectual take-down of Homer and his ilk. It’s a formidable lineage.

But it’s not mean-spiritedness that usually compels SF writers to engage in this kind of “response;” I’m fairly sure it’s more often love, and respect, and a sense of freedom and permission – to play with ideas, to test for structural (and philosophical and ethical and scientific and literary) integrity, to riff and reinterpret and “cover.” This sense of inclusion, of permission, permeates SF. It’s not just for the already successful. It’s for us, the living, as Lincoln would say (and Heinlein would co-opt – the dialogic act is not constrained to SF alone), those of us on the other side of the fence who know it’s just a matter of time, and luck, and effort before we can join the ranks of our heroes. This spirit of equity is so much of what makes SF the place to be. It’s why Scientology didn’t catch on in the SF community, with a few notable exceptions; we’re not so easily taken, even by those we respect (see this very interesting thesis on Scientology and SF for more). And even if a lot of us end up being wrong – delusional, even – it’s still a nice feeling. And sometimes, one or two of us are right.

Wanting to be the next ________ is a crappy reason to do something. But wanting to explore the same playground of ideas as Philip K. Dick or William Gibson or whoever – thinking, “hey, I bet I could do some pretty cool stuff on that jungle gym” – that’s a pretty good reason to give it a shot. Doing it with a sense of reverence, but also with a sense of equality: that’s what it’s all about.

The supportive foundation of SF was a big part of what made me decide to jump in and tackle writing. But in the end, there’s one simple question I asked myself, and the answer is what made the difference between jumping in and running like hell. The question was this:

True or false: After much earnest self-searching and scrutiny, doing my best to remain objective, I have come to the conclusion that I have something to offer as a writer.

The answer was True.

Now I’m waiting on one last set of eyes before I send off my first two finished stories. They are labors of love, products of my past; they are the end result of the strange and useless tomes I used to write; they are alive with the wonder I felt reading the imaginative works of others, and they are alive because of that wonder. They’re a first salvo in a new stage of my creative life. And they’re pretty good, too. When I win my first Hugo, you’ll be the first to know.

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