Revisiting

Nostalgia can be a narcotic. Lately I’ve been going through the accumulated evidence of 50 + years and wondering why I kept it even as each bit triggers memories I’m glad to have. Do I really need this gew-gaw? This piece of paper? This book or album? Part of me can’t bear to part with any  of it, but the practical side of me is starting to sort and allocate in anticipation of the time I just have no more room, no more interest, and no further use. I’m already cutting back on acquiring more. I have enough music on my shelves to last another couple of decades, by which time I could start all over. I don’t need any more. I’m trying to figure out how to arrange my days so I can hear more of it. As for books, well, good lord…

But getting rid of it?

I go through periods of expunging my belongings, making the hard decision that I will probably never read that book (again or even once), that I haven’t listened to that album in 30 years, so why do I still have it. I’m starting to be worried about my photographic archives, which are sizeable and I haven’t made much of a dent in digitizing them (too many other things to do getting in the way, time is finite, and so forth). Recently some opportunities have presented themselves that have taken a little pressure off.

The thing is, I’ve never been able to ignore the practicalities for any length of time and pretend everything will simply go on as it is now. I’ve always known I had to prepare for the time when I won’t be here.

Does that sound depressing? It’s not, I assure you. Better, I think, to know where everything’s going to be and manage to have less of it to deal with than leave a godawful mess behind for somebody else to clean up.

There are two writing projects I have on backburners for which I have a lot of research material to hand. One of them is actually written, but I haven’t found a publisher yet. The other I have to find some time to start. I have very practical reasons therefore for keeping all those books. Believe me, I would like to get them off my shelves, many of them are not the kinds of books I would bother to reread for pleasure.

But I have other sets of books about subjects that I have vague notions about using for future projects, and I’m wondering if I’m ever going to get to them. (As I sit here, I can look up at a row of biographies of American presidents. I had a notion once of reading through them chronologically, but I haven’t read a one of them yet, and I stopped collecting them. It’s not that I don’t know anything about these people, but what I have learned I gleaned from histories of the periods, not specific biographies. Am I ever going to get to them?) Part of my conundrum is that I do not read particularly fast. I have the Oxford Histories of the United States on another shelf, each volume covering a specific period and each one a brick. Reading one can take up to a month of my time. (Fortunately I’m usually able to keep four books going simultaneously, but even so…)

And then of course there’s the music and the movies and tv series…

I have a hunger to absorb as much as I can. I never thought about this for years, because there was always more time, but.

Nostalgia combined with dissatisfaction can be genuinely painful.

There was a time I thought—carelessly—that I could do anything. You can go through life thinking that as long as the things you do do are successful. If you never turn your attention to the rest, you’re never confronted with your actual limitations.

But once you are, you have some choices to make. Howl at the injustice, turn inward, resent the short span of life and the confines of your imagination, or—

Or take inventory, acknowledge reality, and embrace what you can. You might be surprised at just how fortunate you have been to do, be, and experience what you have. And that taking life as it comes without worrying about what won’t come leaves you with an open field for the next wonderful thing.

Clearing one’s inventory can make the coming experiences fresher. That whole Zen notion of letting go (more or less) and letting the past remain the past. There is one central question I’ve found useful to ask and answer, providing we don’t take it as some kind of final judgment.

Have we done what we’ve done as well as we could?

Certainly we’ve all left some things twisting in the wind. All kinds of reasons to walk away or, often, we are prevented from seeing something through to some ideal conclusion. But in the moment, did we do the best we could, honestly, and with care? All those things you wonder if you should keep—none of it has an answer other than to remind us of the question.

I’m not advising complete divestment. I love my books, my music, my home, my things. But certain of them I love more and maybe would appreciate better with less competition around them. Many of us use our possessions as markers, extensions of identity, augments to personality. That’s why getting rid of some things is so hard. But it’s not an accurate way to see things. They do not make us more, we make them important. It behooves us to choose carefully what we invest with that kind of authority.

Anyway, it is not my intention to be maudlin. I’m just ruminating n the midst of the archaeological dig of my life to date, and thought I’d share some observations. I’m going to go work on some fiction now.

Oh, and—yes, I think I’ve done what I’ve done as well as I could. To paraphrase Arthur Miller, I’m going with the idea that the goal is end up with the right regrets, the worthwhile second thoughts. Those would be those that add to the achievements not bury you in pointless nostalgia.

Anyway, be well.

Year One

A year plus since retirement. October, 2021, I left the regular work-world. It was a harder decision than anyone knew, even me. I’d certainly given myself enough advanced notice, letting my employer know eight or so months in advance. Plenty of time to train replacements, let people get used to the idea. Even me.

Now it’s December of ’22 and I wonder at the time.

I’m sure most people have plans. Plans. “I’m going to do—.” Sure. And then reality swallows everything and what happens happens and maybe some of those plans survive. I’m looking around an office I had every intention of thoroughly cleaning, rearranging, and updating. Well, the piles are in slightly different places, and some of them are different piles than before, but in the main it doesn’t look like I’ve done a thing.

The same goes for the rest of the basement. Attempts have been made, but frankly I need a month in which nothing else makes demands on my attention.

I have, however, managed to clear some dust off my career (writing) and make some headway in getting it back on track. After my novel-writing period more or less crashed and burned, I finally decided to turn back to short fiction, and to my pleasant surprise things picked up. I’ve written and sold a score of new stories. And now I have a new novel coming out in the spring. (Not science fiction, which is a bit of a surprise, though very welcome. More about that later.) In recent weeks a few things have occurred to give me hope that matters will turn around even more. Allow me to leave that vague for the time being.

I include as an element of any advice I dispense to want-to-be writers that of paramount importance for a career is Persistence. Just showing up is inestimably vital. You cannot succeed if you quit. Persistence does not guarantee success, but surrender pretty much guarantees no success. I’m now of the opinion that this is a matter of playing in traffic. Put yourself out there, in the flow, and eventually something will hit you. Not the most coherent plan, but with few exceptions the one most of us are able to act on.

The thing I did not count on is the fading of desire. I remember the fire, the urgency, the firestorm of optimism, and the excitement at the creation of new work. The impatience with the molasses progress of execution. Why should it take so long to get these words down in the right order? Why did everything take so long…

And now, forty years after making the decision to pursue this thing, that burning eagerness has lessened. I’ve become a bit jaded and quite tired. Partly this is a kind of maturity that counsels me to use myself more efficiently, that the fire never added much to achievement. It still takes so much time to write something, to edit it, to shepherd it through the stages of getting it out into the world, and that now it seems to take the same amount of time as it did when in the grip of the fever. Calmer impulses marshal resources to better effect. 

But more than that, I simply don’t suffer from disappointment and disillusion as much. Rejections still hurt, but not as much, and there’s a muffling kind of acceptance that seems therapeutic now. If it will happen, fine, I can only work the machine the best I know how and wait.

I wonder if this is not just the result of callouses grown thicker and that I’m missing out on something that I once felt to be so significant, possibly even the point.

Still, I’m working. I believe I’m writing better than ever, the work that goes out is better. My impatience is the only thing that seems lacking.

And then there is the rest of life…

I’ve begun reading philosophy again. Once upon a time, I was a casual admirer of Ludwig Wittgenstein. I appreciated some of his approaches to what was known as Logical Positivism, part of the Analytical School of modern philosophy. Primarily, it was his (quite arrogant) thesis that all of philosophy’s “problems” stemmed from misapprehension and misconstruals of language. That if we just figured out how to be absolutely clear, we would understand. Granted, he realized later how simplistic this claim was and embarked on a deeper analysis of language structures and their application to questions of the real. 

I have believed for some time that science fiction is at base the most philosophical of literary endeavors, that the primary assumptions in most of it have no relevance outside an attempt at understanding the nature of reality in a unique way that emerges in the array of speculative presentations against which human struggle might be understood in evolutionary terms. In a way, the very idea of The Future has no actual meaning outside a philosophical framework. The best we can say is that something will follow the Now in which we exist. We call that the Future, but it has no material reality that we can examine. By the time there is something to examine, it is no longer The Future, and from our position Now we can only make assumptions about the Future because Now is the Future of a Past we can cite.

That is the exact sort of proposition that one would find in a good piece of science fiction. It is also the sort of thing that informs philosophical propositions.

It relates here, now, in this, because the day I retired I had a speculative framework of what my Future would be like. Ambitions, desires, expectations. (If you think about, life is a science fiction story.)

I haven’t attended to philosophy as such for some time now. It would be fun to get together a group (again) for regular discussions. The last several years have in so many ways challenged common agreements on causality, truth, and commonality itself, and it seems the only sane responses are either to yield to the impossibility of ordering the conceptions of the world (insanity) or work at better understanding in order to create conceptions that reduce the chaos. Ultimately we can only control our own reactions. 

Some of this, for me, comes from having reached a strange place in relation to those past ambitions. I am in many ways more comfortable in my own skin than I have ever been, but at the same time I recognize the world around me as a place I do not know how I found. I’m reading older books, my indulgence in history has increased, and yet I still revel in the new voices I encounter, even while the names on the spines fail to spark the kind of thrill I once had regularly seeing a new work by an author with whom I was familiar. I can see clearly how nostalgia can become a trap, one we may not wish to escape. The familiar has such gravity, increasing year by year, distorting our path.

It’s Christmas weekend. The landscape is punctured by rabbit holes. The people you surround yourself with (and who are likewise surrounded by you) are the only guidons to keep you on the solid plane of vital connections. The deep structures of reality (of perceptions) are anchors to a world navigable to the betterment of the soul. The hypotheses of conspiracy wonks are less than the shadows on Socrates’ cave wall. (I will not call them conspiracy theories—that elevates them above their utility and lends credibility where none exists—but at best hypotheses, at worst con games designed to distract from actual living.) I am still with my partner of over 42 years. Snow fell yesterday. The sun is bright today. I’m listening to some very good music (late period Herb Alpert, if you care to know—he seems to have left behind the heavy reliance on “catchy” tunes and clever hooks that made him so popular in the 60s but he is still one of the cleanest horn players around) and I have the capacity to speculate on matters of moment. The trick is to identify what matters.

Wittgenstein, as I noted, asserted that we need find the clearest way to express ourselves in order to “solve” the problems of philosophy. I have no real quarrel with that idea—after all, I’m a writer, story aside my work consists of trying to find clearer ways to say things that might lead to truth—but I would only add that life does not have A Solution. Living is a process, an evolving set of realignments, relocations, and above all recognitions (re-cognitions). There is no single answer, only the ongoing encounter and construction of an imagination that renders chaos meaningful.

Starting on that path can be as simple a thing as cleaning up one’s office. 

Election

Next week it will be November. Election season.

Voting is already underway and by some reports it is more than tradition would suggest. A great deal is at stake.

I don’t have much to say here. Only that the issue this time around has little to do with what we have come to engage as normal. I do not believe it hyperbolic to suggest that our very way of living is at stake and that voting for narrow interests might be a mistake. The economy will not be fixed by splenetically throwing the majority party out of office. We’re in a fix due to factors beyond the ordinary—a pandemic, a major war in the east, and the aftershocks of certain trade decisions that were not well thought through. It will take time and the appropriate institutions are working on that, mainly the Federal Reserve. The president has little to do with it. Congress can only adjust taxes and approve spending bills. On that note, I think it is clear by now, or should be, that the previous few decades of trying to tax-cut our way out of slumps does not work the way we wish it would. Giving more money to corporations or the wealthy has not worked. Britain is dealing with that in a major way now and they are drowning in the backlash.

We are instead facing an election which will determine how all future elections may be conducted. Those who have decided to push the fallacy that the last election was stolen are allied with state factions that seek to limit who can vote. Spin it any way you want, that’s what it amounts to. We need a national voting law that will override such local attempts and we know that the GOP is not about to back that.

We’re facing an election which may impact what going forward will pass as “legitimate” history, and we know where one faction stands on that because of the books they keep trying to ban and the straitjackets they keep trying to wrap school boards in.

We’re facing an election that may set the stage for the rollback of hardwon rights for minorities and marginalized people, rights that have been mischaracterized as harmful to our civilization. Damned if I can see how. The expansion of rights has marked every period of growth and revivification in our history.

We’re facing an election which will signal whether or not equality has any chance of being the hallmark of our country.

For my part, until the Republican Party begins to repudiate the people and policies exemplified by people like Ron DeSantis, Marjorie Taylor Green, Trump and all the rest of the MAGA horde, they will not get my vote. They have been on the wrong side of history for decades. But that assessment aside, the last few years they have moved legislatively and judicially in such ways that people I know—friends, colleagues—have been put at risk, personally, all in the name of supporting a panic-driven creed of intolerance and powermongering.

I don’t care this time how bad the economy might be (it is such a mixed bag, I’m not sure it is bad, just expensive, which for some people may be the same thing), there’s no point in my mind having prosperity if people cannot live without fear.

Vote against the systemic intolerance of those who would have you believe that being Woke is a bad thing.

Please, Pale Person, Please Stop

Only because it is so omnipresent am I aware of the new raging over Ariel in The Little Mermaid and its casting of a Not White actor in the role. I would rather have not had this in my range of consciousness. I cannot convey the depth of weariness at this nonsense. You do this kind of stuff with the expectation that I, based on melanin content, will agree and share your rage.

Skin color is not intelligence. Nor is it a sign, frankly, of any kind of kinship above the purely coincidental.

Stop. Just…stop. I realize you think this of moment, important in some fundamental way, and might possibly be the last ground on which you might take a stand that is no longer acceptable as any definition of civilized, but all you are doing is embarrassing yourself and annoying me.

I know you are probably innumerate, but recently I was reminded of a statistic that sheds a stark light on the thinness of skin your railing against inclusiveness reveals. In a documentary on women in Hollywood, This Changes Everything, which examines the underrepresentation of women in filmmaking, it was striking to me that the percentage of directors who are women has yet to rise much higher than 15%. That figure has usually been lower, a couple of times briefly higher. Coupled with a kind of pervasive cluelessness on the part of men, it reminded me of a statistic related to what we once called (and may still) White Flight, which is the phenomenon of white Americans picking up and moving almost en masse once a certain level of minority presence in a given neighborhood is perceived. It turns out that the average is 12%. One in eight houses in a neighborhood are African-American (and presumably other racial minorities, but the study was done with regards to blacks) and suddenly all the white people seem to say “My god, they’re everywhere!” Twelve percent is far from any kind of majority, or even approaching parity, yet that seemed to be the point at which many white folks felt the need to flee to the counties.

“My god, they’re everywhere!”

I suppose if your default position is that 95% of everyone around should be white, then the upwelling of nonwhite in your area would be quite noticeable. If your default assumption is that only white people are—what?—“safe” to be around, then alarm bells must go off, just by the sighting of a few more nonwhite faces.

Of course, property values play into this, and for no better reasons.

But look, this is simply ridiculous at its base. Time and again, the superiority of ethnic type has been shot down and made odious, so that now all you have to complain about is—fictional characters.

And the now incessant appellation of Wokeness, which you somehow seem to think is some kind of corruption. You seem not even to have the wit to realize how ironic that is.

I no longer care what your excuses are. This has gotten absurd. If some day someone made a new version of Winnie-the-Pooh and instead of a classic  Teddy Bear they cast a Sun Bear or, heaven forbid, a Panda, I suppose you’ll rage against the Woke Left and its anti-Teddy Bear agenda.

What this says to me loudly is that along with everything else, you have no understanding of art (small “a” as a practice of symbolic communication through aesthetic reimaginings and visualizations). So you underline your aversion to being Woke by being decidedly asleep and studiously ignorant.

But please, stop claiming these things in the name of White People. All you’re expressing is a deep fear that you are losing power, which you don’t have in the first place. And you’d know you don’t have it if you were just a teensy bit…woke.

But to be clear, I am not on your side. You do not speak for me. I’m not even getting angry at it any more, just sad and weary. You don’t get it, and you expect me to not get it either, and be angry about it.

Please. Stop.

Current State

I finished the final edits on a new novel, which is for the moment scheduled for an April 2023 release. It’s a departure for me, in that it is not science fiction. Several years ago, after finishing a novel, I considered the possibility of switching genres, so I wrote two non-SF books, both in some fashion murder mysteries. One of them, because I had done so much research on St. Louis, I decided to do as an historical. I set it in the 1780s, starting just after the Revolutionary War Battle of St. Louis. After that, I decided to try a contemporary mystery. That one is not set in St. Louis, but in a fictional county in Southern Missouri. As of this writing, it did not come out as well. It’s the historical that is set for publication (through Blank Slate Press, an imprint of the Amphorae group).

Having sent it off, I collapsed into a weeklong period of exhaustion. Not that I haven’t experienced something like this before, but usually only for a couple of days. My past aftershock has included a spate of housecleaning and the tucking away of the odds and ends of the writing process. This time it was all I could do to get out of bed. Largely an emotional reaction, it still bothered me a bit, but I’m better now and starting to think about the next project.

I still have several novels on hand that need homes. (Including that less-than-wonderful contemporary mystery, which I fully intend to rewrite now that I know what the problem with it is thanks to a friend’s review.)

But I’ve found myself introspective. I have to face the reality that I am likely never going to be a New York Times Best Selling author. I suspect there is a window for such an achievement and I missed mine. (I doubt I’ll ever win an award, either.) Two thoughts about that: given my career and what I have achieved, I think I’m okay with that. And…it’s better to be reasonable about one’s expectations. I’m not sure I have the energy anymore to engage with all that bestsellerdom might require. And the next novel I write will be a slower, lower-key process. It’s surprising to contemplate how much energy is expended in maintaining high hopes and expectations.

(That said, it could happen, and I will certainly not turn away from it.)

Long ago (and not so far away) I began a set of novels and short stories under the overall title of The Secantis Sequence. The first novel, Compass Reach, was shortlisted for the PKD Award. That’s as close as I’ve ever come to a major award. There were two more novels published and number of short stories. It was built as a mosaic universe, so while certain elements are consistent in the background, they all could deal with different characters, different locations, different time periods. I’m still publishing short fiction set in this universe, the most recent being Exile’s Grace in Analog. I have a handful under development. I have concrete plans for two more novels, one of which is finished (has been for a long time) and the other of which I haven’t even begun. Originally I had vague intentions of just mining this universe for several novels, just to see where it all went, but the vagaries and vicissitudes of publishing kind of derailed that.

Now I’m looking at this new novel and considering the possibility that I may be writing historical fiction for some time to come. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but certainly not bad. I do have rough plans for an ongoing series based on the characters and setting. What gives me pause is the simple fact that I’m soon to be 68 years old. The question of how much time I have to see any of this through is no longer theoretical. Now, there’s nothing wrong, and I am from long-lived stock, so barring unexpected catastrophes I think I have a reliable 10 to 20 years left, but it is now a factor, and will become more so.

Choices now take on sharper meaning. I love science fiction. The fact is, though, I am not as well read in it as I once was. The bulk of my reading these days is nonfiction. What I see coming out lately I am impressed with, but some narrative conventions (and expectations) have changed. This is inevitable. It was going to change. It might have changed in any of several directions, and just now this one seems fertile ground for some seriously good speculative work. But I’m not as conversant with the work or the players as I once was. What this means for my work is simply that I feel free to write what I find most interesting to write, without paying much heed to what may be popular just now. I write with the hope that there will still be room for voices like mine. But I’ve been given an opportunity to go in another direction completely, which may work out better. I don’t know. I can say that whatever I write next will be from the heart. That’s always the best source. This is such a difficult thing to do that you really should love what you create, otherwise it can be a dreary slog.

On that age front, I went to the gym this morning and did a full workout, up to my best level. At this point, I will continue to do this until something breaks. (No going gently into any night for me.) More importantly, I am still interested. I get tired but the next day I’m looking for something to engage with.

I’m about to do a dive into World War II history (I have no idea why just now, though I did have an idea for a horror novel a few years back set during the Berlin Airlift…)

On the homefront, my father is not well and we’re counting time. He’s 92. I will have more to say about that when the time comes. I have been retired now for nearly a year and it has been an education in what I may be like going forward. I discovered back in the 1990s that I had the discipline to work at home and produce. I’m still capable. The thing is, there’s more than just writing I want to accomplish and that will require some adjustment.

Altogether, life is good. I cannot complain, although I do, and I will. Recently my mother pointed out to me that I’ve been very fortunate in that I have pretty much done what I wanted most of my life. It’s curious how when you’re in the midst of that kind of luck, it rarely feels like it, but she’s right. I’ve had only one job that I came to loathe, and my last job was wonderful beyond words. I’ve published books and told stories. I found my life partner 42 + years ago and we have a good home. I’ve done the things I wanted to do (perhaps not quite at the level I wanted to do them, but that’s getting picky) and it appears I’ll be able to continue doing them.

Why am I saying all this? Because the majority of my posts in recent years have been political, bristly, occasionally tortured, and attempts at some kind of wise observational prose about the world and people, and not always very pleasant. Personal views, certainly, but not a lot of just personal, and often not of a positive nature. I’m not a sage, far from it, and I look back occasionally at posts of the past and cringe sometimes at the naïvety or the lack of proper restraint. I think I’m better at fiction. But they stand as a record of what I thought or felt at that time. It’s easy to get into the role of curmudgeon. But once in a while, you need to just let people know how things are and what’s happening.

For those of you who have stuck by all this and will continue to read these meanderings, I very much appreciate you. Thank you for coming along for the ride. I would like there to be many more years and many more miles.

Later, then. Have a good one.

The Chains Of Normal

Over my lifetime, one concept has popped again and again to tangle things in a web of pseudo-logic. It seems to go unexamined most of the time, until it emerges as the fulcrum of issues over systemic change. Normal. We seem ever in search of Normal. To be Normal, to return to Normal, to stop deviations from Normal.

But we have a damnable time defining what that is. I mean, really, just exactly what is Normal?

Normal has changed steadily over my lifetime. And with every major realignment, a new Normal becomes established and accepted and soon enough we find ourselves contending again over that which is Not Normal. It’s understandable that some people get confused and frustrated. I keep remembering poor Tevye from Fiddler On The Roof, striving to find a way to see the changes and accept them, always declaring his fidelity to Tradition.

It doesn’t help that we all have a different idea about what Normal is. Not necessarily wildly divergent ideas, but if the topic is pursued long enough, these small variations can emerge that throw the whole notion of Common Ground into question.

What is Normal?

More to the point, why should we always try to assert a common definition as if anything else will doom us to chaos and agony?

I see two concepts of Normal in conflict. They overlap, but are not the same. The first might be something like “that which supports a common and consensual equilibrium throughout a community.” Normal, in this case, might be construed as that much-acknowledged but hard to achieve “level playing field” we hear so much about.

That it is so difficult to achieve may be due to the other concept of Normal: “that which allows me to feel secure in my expectations and opinions.”

In my teens, men with long hair were seen as violators of Normal. You could point to pictures of Wild Bill Hickock all you wanted, and Society refused to accept that boys walking around with hair to their shoulders was in any way Normal. It wasn’t done. And while it may seem trivial today (because that background concept of Normal has changed) it created an ugly atmosphere in the country. (My freshman year in high school saw the football team assault the handful of “hippies” that attended my school and forcibly cut their hair off. Of course, three years later, some of those with the longest hair in the school were on the varsity team.)

Why should these things conflict? Well, that should not be difficult to understand. If you have an idea of what is Normal and then the community around you exhibits changes that cause you ill-ease, requires you to question your assumptions, or even, at some point, shift your politics or moral assessment, what we see most often is an aggressive denial of those changes, and at some point a reliance on a presumed set of standards called Normal.

“That’s not Normal!”

We can go down the list of things in the last 60 years that were opposed because they were not Normal. Civil Rights. Homosexuality. Women’s Equality. Opposition to these things often enlisted language and philosophies that seemed more involved and sophisticated than merely saying they were not Normal, but when you dig down you can see that, for many people, these were violations of personal desires to feel secure in their expectations and opinions. We know this because over time, all of this has become accepted—become Normal—for most of us. It turned out none of these things were actually dangerous to the community.

Opposing them was.

The perversity of these conflicting concepts of Normal can be seen in cases of those who engage in behaviors which they personally pursue but then hide because they realize this may not be Normal. The awareness of community standards drives the given behavior into hiding. Sometimes these behaviors are inimical, both personally and publicly. But attempting to be seen as Normal overrides even the logic of coming to terms with the deviation.

How to tell the difference? How, in other words, to “normalize” something and how to know when such normalization is not acceptable?

Start with a simple question: does this hurt anyone? (One should include one’s self in that question, but for practical purposes, look beyond.)

Help for certain problems is avoided by the overwhelming urge to appear Normal.

But we don’t actually have a good idea of what that really is. To each their own only goes so far, because the community had to be considered.

So perhaps a definition of Normal might be: “that which allows for a mutuality of conditions sustaining both community equilibrium and personal fulfillment in private choices.”

Ah, but what might this mean in practice?

Obviously, this would entail a recognition that personal concepts of Normal have limits. As would community concepts. (There was a time unwed pregnant girls were put in “homes” so they wouldn’t be seen out in public. A girl in my high school sued the public school system when it tried to kick her out for being pregnant—and won. Of course, many people expressed outrage that a pregnant girl would be attending classes with all of us “innocent” students. But this was what passed for Normal back then. And it changed.) So obviously some notion of harm would have to be better codified on both sides.

It could be worked out. We do it anyway, but it’s such a messy process that often leaves casualties behind. Those chains of Normal are loud when they get rattled. I think it’s an innocuous idea that becomes pernicious too easily. We’ve traditionally been too willing to censure, incarcerate, punish things that in the end only make certain people uncomfortable. Their efforts to suppress behaviors that ruffle their delicate sensibilities (or their power base) harm far more than not.

Just now we’re seeing that conflict play out over competing notions of Normal. Not to make light of it, but really, the outraged sensitivities of one group trying to reassert a standard of Normal that was revealed as inadequate decades ago is causing enormous harm.

Normal is a monster. I’ve had that cudgel waved over my head a good deal of my life, for one thing or another, most of it relatively innocuous in itself. “Why don’t you be normal?” And ultimately, the question had little meaning, because all it meant was “why don’t you be like the rest of us and not make us feel uncomfortable around you?” Well, in the end, their discomfort was not my problem, though they tried to lay it on me. And this was over things like hobbies or aesthetic preferences (my love of science fiction at one time). What might it have been like if the issues had been more life-threatening?

I would welcome a community-wide reassessment of what constitutes Normal. We have a heuristic appreciation of it and in some instances it works well enough, but given that the only constant is change, we need to have a clearer idea about it.

Fascism, after all, is the ultimate insistence by one group on everyone else about what is Normal. We’ve seen what that costs.

 

 

The New Look

This is the new author photo. At least, for now. I want to thank my pal, Tom Ball, for patiently doing a good job. Being the photographer means I’m usually not in the pictures, so it always feels a bit weird to be the subject. But Blank Slate Press requested “recent” photographs, but there really aren’t any, so…

Anyway, the Author as he is.

 

Bad Mimic Blues

Like any job, sometimes you have to go into work whether you want to or not. It feels strange, though, because writing is something you do voluntarily. If you wake up one morning feeling antipathetic toward it, you really can’t blame the boss or the commute or the time it consumes when you could be doing something you give a damn about. It’s perverse in that you can’t find the joy sometimes and you end up resenting…something.

 

A variety of syndromes attach to this problem, one of the most pernicious being something called Impostor Syndrome. This is not relegated only to writing, a lot of people in many different fields suffer this, the feeling that you aren’t really what you’re trying to be. That you maybe got lucky a few times and people think you’re really what you appear, but inside you can’t help but feeling like a fraud. You didn’t do this. You pulled a stunt, worked a trick, you’re one of the monkeys that typed out Hamlet. It’s partly to do with intentionality, sure, but it’s often connected to this periodic sense of inadequacy in the face of a given task. You have a story to write and you got nothin’. Words lie there on the page (the screen, whatever) and taunt you by their insipid mediocrity. Last month you barreled through a story and finished it up and sat back with a feeling of accomplishment, but now you know that was a fluke.

Then, too, there’s the money. As in, not much. The public perception of A Writer is completely at odds with the reality, but you can’t help but compare yourself to those Other Authors who do seem to conform to that perception, and you wonder why you can’t manage that. The low pay, the rate of rejections, the overwhelming lack of impact your work creates, all conspires to undermine your confidence, and even though you do not believe in fate or destiny or any of that kind of superstitious nonsense, the feeling that the universe is trying to tell you something creeps in, gets past your rationality, infects you with a kind of malaise that feeds on the opinion that you just don’t have what it takes.

Well, in that sense, no one does. It’s damn hard work, no doubt. And it is the work that creates the effects, not any cosmic scale or judgment or notion of fairness. The work. 

And work is tiring. A lot of it is boring. Your contentedness depends on averages, good days versus bad days. If you have enough good days, you can ignore the bad ones, but you will have bad days.

But once in a while, all the enthusiasm in the world is insufficient to keep the self-doubt and boredom and weariness at bay and you will succumb to feeling like it all has no point. 

The first several years I worked at being a writer, I lost count of how many times I quit. Nothing but rejections, angry, frustrated periods of depression, just what do these people want? One day I remember receiving four rejections at once. That was a dark night. “I quit! I don’t need this! Fuck ’em!” Like they were waiting for me to produce what they wanted, me, Mark Tiedemann, and my quitting would somehow make them feel bad.

My first short story sale paid  $15.00, but I felt like it was hundreds of dollars. I floated on that high for months. The next sale got me $19.00, the third $30.00. Hey, the pay was going up. 

Then I sold a story for $525.00.

And then the magazine was killed before my story appeared and I felt it all crash down around me, as if the gods were up there laughing at me. I had put a lot on that story—a professional sale for a magazine with a large distribution, I’ll get noticed! Well, no, just kidding, no one will see that story, ha ha.

The emotional reactions to the business end of writing seldom sync proportionally to reality. This is one of the things we have to learn and hang onto. It’s not you. That doesn’t necessarily make it feel better, but it get you through to the next one.

My response to this one was to apply to Clarion, the workshop. And I declared that if they rejected me, I would quit. Because if they thought I could not even be educated, then maybe I was chasing my tail to no purpose.

They didn’t reject me.

Here’s the thing. I was working a full-time job while trying to do this. Writing got maybe two hours a day. Besides the job, there was Life to tend to. Clarion was the first opportunity I had to do nothing but work on fiction all day for several weeks. I learned then that it is the work, working at the work, that matters. 

Things improved after Clarion. To date, I’ve sold 70 short stories and a number of novels.

The money is still not commensurate with the hours.

But 70 stories and a dozen books is a career. 

And I still have these times when I feel like a fraud. Maybe it’s linked to serotonin or something. But it is aggravating to be continually reminded how little actual control I have over all this, even my own emotions. Sure, it’s partly a disconnect between expectations and experience, but you would think I’d know that, in my bones, by now. 

This is life. Eventually, I’ll go from one room to another and the feeling will change and I’ll be back at the work. Engaged. Maybe I should learn to pace myself, but there’s too little time for that, though even that idea is nonsense. 

For you who share these feelings—and I suspect it’s most if not all of us—I wish you to take a smidgin of hope from this. Be cool. We all go through it. It will pass, especially if we keep in mind that the important thing is…the work.

Even if you feel you are not a writer, that what you do is a fluke, the work needs doing. Pretend to do it. Imitate what you feel you are not. Be a mimic, if necessary. It may not be impostor syndrome so much as a mild case of Bad Mimic Blues. But write. Eventually, the work becomes the main thing again and the rest just fades.

Hope this helps.