Workin’ On It
Once more before the screen, on an on-and-off rainy day. I’ve been trying to follow up on the good effect of a story sale and bulling my way through some stories that have been hanging fire for too long. What do I feel like doing instead? Well, not what’s below. I don’t fish. I would be one of those who would bring a book and fall asleep, probably get sunburnt, mosquito-bit, generally overheated, and with no fish to show for it because I wouldn’t really care.
But the sunshine would be nice. And a bit of placid surroundings. Don’t know about the audience, though…
No plan here, just thoughts. It’s Sunday as I begin writing this, second day for me of a four-day weekend. Timing.
Lack of attention bedevils me. I have things to do, a wide variety, and I get befuddled by which I should pay most attention. It matters because I end up scattering my attention widely and so get little done in each endeavor. Some of my friends understand this, but not all.
This morning I got out of bed (I hesitate to say “awoke” because I wouldn’t classify my condition that way) and stumbled through my morning routines. Making coffee is so embedded in my brain that I think if I sleep-walked that is one of the things I would do. Donna was already up, tending to the dog. To be honest, I felt like going back to bed, but I intuited that it would only waste time. Another hour or two would not improve my ability to feel whole, just delay it. Further honesty requires me to admit that mornings like this frighten me a little, because I feel so “off” that I think something must be wrong.
I’m just tired, really. An hour or two after getting out of bed I feel pretty much as I’ve always felt. Slow but present.
I’ve had a number of conversations of late about intelligence. Genius, even. I think a genius would be internally unaware of it. My father, I sometimes feel, was a genius. Is. (Yes, he’s still alive, but now so impaired by deafness and poor sight that interaction is virtually impossible.) He never believed so. He railed about how other people seemed so stupid, how they overlooked, missed, or never figured out things which seemed so obvious to him, and he blamed laziness or prejudice or ambivalence. How could they not see? When I pointed out to him that he himself was far from ordinary, he bridled. No, that couldn’t be it. He did not see himself as a particularly smart man. But he was dogged, possessed of a degree of focus and ability to concentrate I found unachievable. His own opinion would never allow recognition of his “gifts,” if gifts they were.
I’ve been accused—recently—of being “superior.” Not a compliment.
We live in a culture that prizes knowledge only when it’s somewhere else. It’s cool when it’s on tv or in a lecture hall or, most importantly, when it makes someone a lot of money. But when it lives next door to us we resent it. When we have to talk to it every day we hate it, because it feels like someone is showing off, trying to be better than everyone else, getting off on making others feel stupid. I’ve never understood that. It’s not like all the information isn’t there for everyone to access.
It’s a choice of what we find important. As far as I’m concerned, too many people are too invested in things that don’t matter. (Is that me being judgmental? Why, yes, it is. Unapologetically. You have to choose, you have to decide. Others, I realize, level their judgment at me to the same or greater degrees. What good is that novel you just read? Isn’t that a waste of time? Well, the same could said about the goal that player just made that you reacted to orgasmically. If you’re going to judge me for having no interest in your passion, I’m going to judge you for having none in mine. Let’s lay it out and compare worth some day and see how what stacks up.)
(I have noticed that this phenomenon is not limited to intellectual pursuits. I’ve been insulted in the past for being in good physical condition. I lift weights, it shows. I’ve been treated as somehow weird by people who…well, any deviation from an assumed norm will intimidate people who just can’t seem to bring themselves to do the work to achieve something they might actually want to do. It’s as if they think they should have been born with these characteristics and when it turns out they have to do some actual work, instead of embracing the opportunities, they turn to resentment of those who do.)
I didn’t intend to complain this morning. But I have some things on my mind. This is a free-flowing post. Read at your own peril.
I made myself go to the gym this morning. I halfway expected to be unable to finish a workout. Instead, as often happens, about half to two-thirds through, I felt better. Blood flowing, I came awake.
And on the drive home I started having conversations in my head.
Yes, I talk to myself. I always have. My interactions with my fellow creatures have often been frustrating to me. Things I miss, don’t get, say wrong, hear wrong, respond inappropriately. A good deal of what people see today is a carefully constructed façade designed to offer an interface that works in group settings. Not fake, no, but selective and practiced. At one time I did try putting a fake front up and it never worked. It took a long time for me to realize that, though, because part of the front was a very selective filter that kept useful interaction out.
(That annoying piece of advice, so often given, to just “be yourself” used to infuriate me. Firstly, how the hell does one do that? I mean, really. First it assumes you know who you are. Second it assumes that you have a choice about how you come across to other people. You do, as it turns out, but it rarely comes automatically. And thirdly, it fails to take into account whether or not you like who you may be as “yourself.” Don’t people realize that “being yourself” may well be the last thing you want to be because you find whatever that is to be…wanting? Of course they do, they’ve been having the same struggle, but probably don’t realize it. All those “popular” people, do we really believe that’s who they really are? If you could look inside to see, would it be what you see on the outside? No. So, stupid advice, well-meant, but as often as not self-defensive.)
I’m sitting here in my office, trying to rework a short story that has resisted conclusion for months. Like most of my short stories in the last several years, it seemed promising because I had a very cool idea. The idea remains cool. Getting it across as a compelling story is another matter. And, as usual, I am procrastinating by working on this post instead.
I’m listening to Walter Piston. He was an American composer, mid-20th Century. I stumbled on him during one of my periods of exploring obscure classical music. You can listen to him and hear a bit less experimental version of Barber and Copland and maybe Hanson. (Again, who? Yeah.) I’ve got a few CDs of his symphonies. They make excellent background for writing, but when you really listen to them you hear a familiar strain of anxiety that seems a part of most American neoclassical. You listen to Copland and the others and you can hear a boldness, a brashness that seems distinctly American. But along the way, especially in the symphonies, comes a stretch of uncertainty. I call it anxiety. The anxiety of not being so sure of yourself, perhaps, or the anxiety of knowing you have a lot of responsibility and can’t really carry it. (I sometimes think Ives, whom I cannot really stand, was about nothing but that uncertainty.)
The best science fiction carries that anxiety in its guts. We’re boldly going where we don’t belong and nervous about it, but eager. so eager to see the next neat thing.
So I get home, muscles still humming from a decent workout, brain filled with a silent conversation about an unresolved issue, and Donna is still doing landscaping in the back yard. I help by moving some heavy stones, then retreat inside, eventually migrate down to the office, and start riffing on these stray thoughts.
Most days, lately, I write a few sentences, correct some errors, tweak. Then I scoot to the other computer and cruise. Yesterday I listened to a report on “downgrading” humans, which talked about how the information explosion has been coopted by the so-called Attention Economy to the detriment of actual intellection.
Downgrading Humans. According to the report, our brains are not equipped to deal with the information deluge constantly poured through them. We get overwhelmed, the tools we have to sort wheat from chaff are inadequate, we can’t tell noise from signal after a while, and soon we’re just clicking through from one bit to the next in a parody of research. The limitation offends, I’m sure. I’m resentful of my inabilities, especially when it comes to knowledge. But it’s an academic kind of resentment now that rarely obtrudes into the kind of seething animosity a teenager might feel when being told no. It’s more frustration now when I run against my own lack of information and ignorance when I’m in the middle of a project or a conversation.
The problem I imagine with what is being described as “downgrading” is that indulging the immersion in click-throughs can come to feel like genuine learning.
Plus, there’s something addictive about. The dazzle of bright, shiny objects.
There’s a big market for self-help books. A lot of them are practical, how to do things, but a lot of them are about changing your life, becoming a new or different or better person. Many border on genuine psychology, but most seem to be manuals for self-improvement that only glance off the deeper aspects of who we are. Years ago, groping toward some kind of self-knowledge, I read a lot of them. Fritz Perls, Leo Buscaglia, Eric Fromm, others. I gleaned useful things from them all, but it seemed as I grew older, less and less of what I read in these books offered anything truly useful. Reality never conforms to neat paragraphs of “if this, then do that.” But occasionally there was genuine insight. I stopped reading them after I shifted into philosophy. But there’s a huge market. You would think we live in a world of remarkably healthy self-actualized people. I have no idea, but I have come to believe that most of these books sell to people who believe that all they have to do is read them and that is sufficient. Acting on the advice? Well.
I’ve taken a hard look at my own habits. I’ve become craggier in some ways. The state of the world has a bit to do with this, but in general I’ve been dissatisfied with my own progress along various fronts. I wondered, after hearing about this phenomenon, if I were a victim of this. Turning to the very thing that is largely the source of the problem is an irony past stating, but it is true that even though an overwhelming amount of dross permeates the internet, there is much that is worthwhile. A degree of ordinary scepticism is required and some robust filters, but you can find out useful things. So I did a bit of research on internet trends and realized quickly that I am a weekend tourist at worst. This thing distracts me, but I spend far more time reading books than ever I spend online.
But the distraction is enough to derail my concentration. It’s worse when I’m not working on a specific project. The discipline of the project keeps me focused.
Of course, then there are the days when my hindbrain cries out for relaxation. For what Donna calls “vegging.” One of the things my parents, worrying all through my upbringing that they would fail to implant it, managed to instill is an ethic that demands I waste no time. So even the things I do for “relaxation” seem to require a practical reason, a purpose. I’ve invented a number of excuses to fool my subconscious so it will leave me alone when I’m indulging the “frivolous.” I wish I could just…
I listen to music to put me in moods. Moods to write, to read sometimes, to work out. Music is a deep pool of inspiration and replenishment for my soul. We live in an age where the available sounds are greater than at any time. The possibilities are amazing. I hear better performances, more intriguing compositions, wilder explorations today than ever before, in just about any genre of music you care to name. You would think we could find a common soundtrack with all this to choose from, but the click-through ethic renders too many too impatient to sit and truly listen.
Or does it? That same volume of data may just serve to lend cover to large groups of people who do exactly that—sit and listen. They don’t answer surveys, they don’t buy in predictable manners, they don’t feed the pop machinery. It may be that we’re about to hear from them in a Big Way. I have noticed a lot of young people buying more books, books you might not predict they would buy. And of course the books being published…I can’t say that they are “downgraded.” No more than they ever were. And the best is better than ever before.
I take my optimism where I can find it.
Among the things I want to do before I’m gone: publish a dozen more books, record and release an album of original music, mount a couple of exhibits and possibly publish a monograph of my photographs, and maybe start drawing and painting again. State like that it would seem I need another lifetime. One thing I’ve come to appreciate (though perhaps not experienced yet) is that a lifetime doesn’t have a specific time limit and you can have more than one, overlapping or contiguously.
We’ll see what can be done with that.
Thank you for indulging me.
I enjoyed a brief conversation yesterday on the subject of writing. The act of it, the discipline, the challenge. The prompt was “writing every day.” Somewhere along the way, we who do this as—well, as more than a hobby, but often less than a profession (even if we have pretensions in that direction)—receive that bit of advice: write every day. Even if it’s only a sentence.
Partly, this is a matter of discipline. Partly exercise, like working out. Mainly, though, it’s a combination of establishing a habit, so it becomes automatic, and creating a space in one’s psyche where this thing happens.
I know, that’s imprecise. Everyone has such a space, though. It’s where we store all the processes and associated tools for a task we do all the time but is in some ways apart from who we consciously are. We label it the Creative Process, among other things, but have no real handle on what exactly it is.
Where it comes from, though, is less ethereal. It comes from engagement. It comes from doing. It comes from repeatedly demanding of ourselves that something cool be produced and put into the world. As a kid hunched over a blank piece of paper, pencils and crayons at hand, trying to draw, maybe even make a comic, scrawling sometimes because there’s a shape you want to make but it just won’t appear. You don’t have the skills, not yet, just the urge (and the urgency) and some time. (Time, that intangible we have so much of at five that when we’re thirty-five has become naggingly scarce and at sixty-five is more precious than anything but love.) Some, maybe most, give up when it proves too difficult. They can’t control the pencil, they haven’t got a “knack” for it (which is a way of saying it may be a skill requiring far more time and attention than they’re willing to commit), or they can’t quite visualize what exactly they want to create. Others yield to distractions—games, media, friends who want to monopolize even that bit of time, chores, or the mine field of living a less than nurturing life—and some never feel the urge in the first place. Other things attract their obsessive attention.
When we’re children, we don’t recognize “practice” as an intentional effort to improve. We practice walking, but it doesn’t feel like that. We practice talking. We practice social intercourse. We practice reading. If we’re enjoying it, having fun, or simply doing something that seems like the thing to do, it doesn’t register as practice. Not until we consciously acknowledge that we’re trying to achieve a specific goal. Once walking and running become either sport or turn into dancing and we realize there are skill levels we need to achieve, then we understand the idea of practice.
It’s odd, then, to realize that so many people assume that when it comes to writing, expectations are different. The idea of practice comes as a shock. After all, they’ve been reading since they can remember and they’ve had to write papers through school (presumably) and all this, if done at all diligently, no longer seems like work. (Reading, especially. We don’t usually think about practice when it comes to reading, it’s something we just do, like breathing. At least some of us. And for those for whom it does not come easily, it seems never to occur to many of them that they could practice it and get better. It’s something we either do or get by without.) You see this surprise in people who attempt to write—a novel, a memoir, a history—without ever having undergone any of the preparatory work to learn how, and are then told “You don’t know to write.”
There is a point when all of us who want to be writers suffer this realization. Some less than others—there really does seem to be a “natural” facility in place for certain people, but it’s an illusion; dig deep enough you will likely find long periods when writing as practice was going on, either in journals and diaries or personal essays—but no one is born with a “gift” that allows us to produce masterful work at first attempt. We have to learn. We have to practice.
And carving out a regular space in which to do that is essential. Hence the “write every day” dictum. You do it till it becomes a habit. You get to a point where you don’t feel quite right if you don’t.
But then, once established, you practice.
When I announced my desire to become a photographer (at about age 15 or 16) my father bought me a lab, I acquired a decent camera, and then took it everywhere. What dad then did suggests he understood this concept of practice even as it applied to art: he bought me a case of film (about 250 rolls of film at that time) and told me to blaze away. When I worked my way through all that film, I knew something about photography beyond the mechanics.
Almost none of those pictures was worth a damn as art.
Ansel Adams once allowed that an artist is good in direct proportion to how much he or she has thrown away.
Learning to write is a long process where, having carved out the time and space to do so, you write. A million, two million words, which you then pretty much discard.
You can be taught grammar. You can be taught formatting (though, from some examples I’ve seen, this seems to be one of the hardest lessons to learn). You can learn many things having to do with craft (limiting adjectives, using an active voice, eliminating said-bookisms, point of view).
You cannot be taught the art, that is finding what it is you want to say and honing it to where it actually emerges from the words. This is the thing you bring to the endeavor that is yours. It cannot come from outside.
But you have to practice until it emerges.
A million, two million, three million words. The muscles ache but build, the synapses interconnect, the hidden pathways become clearer.
It can’t be taught because what I’m talking about is personal. You can be guided. It can’t become something other people might want to read in complete isolation. You write, someone reads, hands it back puzzled. Questions. Try this. Better? No, that’s not what I’m trying to say.
A million, two million…
Observation. Most visual art is observation. Look closer. Stop being overwhelmed by the distractions, the colors, the shifting shapes, the preconceptions. We see what we expect to see most of the time. Learn to filter. The artist extracts from the expected what it actually there to be seen. (I often heard from people looking at my photographs “Damn, I would never have thought to take a picture of that.” Which usually meant they would never have seen that. And even then, it was not so much the thing but the way it is presented, so that it reveals. “But what are we revealing in writing that requires that much attention?” Everything that is important. “But how can I tell?” Look closer. Write more.)
Start by making that space.
I do not write every day. Not anymore. I try, I intend to, and when I don’t I feel uneasy. But I used to, sometimes necessitating being something of an ass to the people around me. (You can tell when people don’t understand the idea of practice when it comes to writing by how many will interrupt a writer with the assumption that they aren’t actually doing anything.) Over years, the words took on heft, weight, concrete meanings. The configurations did things to readers. The descriptions became windows or doorways rather than blueprints. It happens gradually, sometimes glacially, and before you get there it can be profoundly frustrating.
“I read this and that and tried to write that way and it still doesn’t come out the way I want it to.”
The other benefit of that million or two of discarded and buried wordage is that obscure goal of Finding Your Own Voice. Like most aphorisms about writing, it’s a tantalizing idea that says too much and too little. Those dispensing it know what it means, but those needing wisdom might not get it.
Your Own Voice, on the page, is not the voice with which you speak in everyday exchanges. Like everything else on the page, it is entirely artificial. That does not mean fake, which too often is what we hear when discussing art. We place a premium on “honesty” and “sincerity” as if that’s all we require, unconsciously (and sometimes ostentatiously) rejecting artifice as somehow impure, when in reality learning the craft and honing our art—becoming good artificers—is the only way to reach the levels of truth we seek to convey. Finding your own voice is a consequence of learning how to say what we feel and observe, and that requires skills which are learned, practiced, and built over time.
Frank Lloyd Wright joked once, when he was in his eighties, that he had designed so many buildings that he could just “shake them out of my sleeve.” He meant, of course, that he had acquired a level of craft and skill which channeled his visions as a matter of course. He had become, over decades of work, so adept that when he imagined something he could just sit down and do the technical end almost by second-nature.
The first step in reaching that level is making that space wherein the practice occurs.
We practice all the time. (John Lennon said, speaking of their early years playing clubs, “We played so regularly we never needed to practice, we were practicing on stage.”)
Writing is one of those endeavors that we seem to require inspiration to do it. The thing is, when we teach our subconscious that it can have its own time and space in which to do this, eventually it will sync up, and when our Writing Time rolls around, our muse shows up. This is also a result of practice. We train our imagination and our subconscious to cooperate with our discipline.
Not always. We have wordless days. But over time, with diligence, those days become the exception.
One last thing before I conclude. Don’t believe that everything you write, even when you reach the point of reliably putting words down every day, is supposed to be epic. Editing is the other part of this process and that is a different process and a different set of expectations. And sometimes you throw out even good sentences, because they will not serve. The surest way to block yourself is to have unreasonable expectations. If you think after that million or two million words you should be producing Great Work every time you sit down to write, you will cripple yourself.
I suppose I should do this. What a year. What a miserable year.
Not entirely. But it’s amazing how a couple of truly unpleasant events can color an entire period, mixed bag though it is. There were good things, there were pleasant things, there was ample to lift the spirits.
It’s just that they had to be lifted so far.
As year-in-review posts go, I should probably keep this one short.
At some point back in the spring I finished my last novel. (Or was that the year before? I’d have to check, I don’t remember. No, that was April of 2017, so among other things my sense of time is fraying.) So a year and a half (or more) ago I turned in a novel to my agent and I am still waiting. I should be good at this.
I say “my last novel” because I have a drawer-full unsold. (I know what it was. I set aside the third volume of the alternate history trilogy I’d been working on to do Voyage of the Only Child and went back to it that fall and finished a draft this year. Okay, not as frayed as I thought.) I decided to go back to short fiction. The trouble is, I haven’t been writing short stories on a regular basis for so long that somewhere along the way I sort of forgot how.
Not completely. I’ve got a half dozen in rough draft now. I just have to find the time and patience to do them up and get them out, but that’s on track, and I actually submitted two stories last month.
All of that to say, basically, that this year has caused me to reassess my so-called career.
I don’t really have one. There are many factors at work—lack of time, too many things vying for my attention, being 64 and tired—many I’m probably not even aware of. My output, which used to be respectable, has slowed to a crawl.
I’m working on it. That fact alone is a positive. I am working on it. I’ve got new stories in process, ideas, and I find I cannot just say I’m done. I have officially given up on quitting. It never works and I start to sound like a broken record.
It helps to be working with several of the brightest people it has ever been my privilege to know.
It seems surreal that I’ve been working for Left Bank Books now six, almost seven years (is that right?) and I’m looking at the fourth year just ending running the Great Novels of the 22nd Century reading group there. The SF component of the store has grown and as of this past year we have a regular author track for events, the SF: STL series. Working with Archon has been a plus and it seems on track to become a Real Thing.
It seems often that all the peripheral things to The Career work out fine while the central thing—publishing books and stories—lags. I had something of a revelation this past year in a conversation with a coworker who claimed she wanted to be as successful as I. When I demurred, stating that I am not particularly successful, she cut me off and talked about how many books I’ve published.
Well, it did cause me to reassess, and it helped. Metrics vary, standards are different.
In the end, though, it comes down to how you see yourself. For now, I’ll keep that to myself.
2018 has been a mixed bag, to say the least. I’m not sure where it will end up, but right now it’s hard to get past the fact that too many friends have left the scene. It just wouldn’t stop, leaving the stage with one more loss that seemed almost insulting. But to who?
What I am looking forward to is a year of getting our feet back under us and accomplishing what we managed not to accomplish yet.
I read 76 books cover to cover (up from 51 the previous year) many of them read aloud to Donna in a newfound pastime we both enjoy. I’ll go over them on the Proximal Eye later.
As I said, I started submitting stories to magazines again. There aren’t that many of the old magazines left, but there are bunch of new ones.
I get up every day with curiosity, even though I feel wearier than ever before. I have no doubt the state of the world around me is a big contributing factor. It’s hard to be hopeful in the face of so much crap.
Philosophy has its benefits in this case, but I find the fact that we don’t have much choice but to do better pretty serviceable right now.
I plan to play a little chess, read several of the really Big Books on my to-be-read pile, and travel.
And write. Again, not a lot of choice there.
But I can endeavor to be less boring.
On that note, welcome to 2019, and I hope all who read this will find health, reason, joy, and hope in the coming months. Be safe, be alive, be well.
Doors, Handles, Other Things
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Some controversy has erupted around the Hugo Awards. Again.
I have two memories that relate. One was an early memory of one of the Oscar presentations wherein someone—an actor—took the opportunity to make statements of a controversial nature. I was young, I didn’t entirely understand why all the adults around became so…resentful.
Yes, that’s the word. They resented the intrusion of controversial matter into what they seemed to feel was something meant for them. It was on their television, it was supposed to be there to entertain them, it was not supposed to make them think about things outside the movie that was being honored.
“That’s not the appropriate place for that,” was a phrase I first heard then and later heard a great deal in situations like this.
The second memory involves a concert wherein the performer took a few minutes to say something about oppressed people and political will and so forth. Its matters less here what he said than the reaction of some of my acquaintances. “I hate it when they do that. They shouldn’t put politics in the show. It’s not the proper place for that shit.”
Well, that struck me wrong at the time. It was rock, which in my mind had till then always been political. Remember the Counter Culture? Hippies? The Free Speech Movement? Vietnam? Country Joe and the Fish? Rock had a history of being political, so this seemed…revisionist?
Not the proper place. Not the appropriate venue. The wrong stage.
Well what is? And by what criteria?
And who exactly is breaking any kind of contract here?
Nora Jemisin won her third Best Novel Hugo in a row. Her brief, pointed acceptance speech spoke to the work she had to do and some of the barriers she had to overcome to get to this point. It is, or should be, no secret that her being on that stage has been a matter of some consternation to some people who have not exactly been circumspect about their feelings.
Some folks thought it was “inappropriate” for her to interject comments aimed at those who have quite vocally wished her ill.
“Not the proper place.”
Well, frankly, fuck that. If not at your own award ceremony, when? Some time and place where the easily offended won’t hear it? At a place and occasion where it won’t be noticed? When she does not have such a platform and can say these things without anyone having to be confronted by it?
Art is complicated. And damned hard. A lot of factors come together to keep the artist from any kind of success. Life is difficult enough without the mediocrities of the world ganging up on someone toiling in the mines of self-expression. We all know most of us do not get paid enough for the work and all too often the work gets ignored—the vagaries of the marketplace—and all the other noise and bother that goes into trying to be an artist that to then be told to shut up about the human experience, in all its forms, is neither reasonable nor decent.
For some people, there is no “appropriate time and place” to hear truth from someone who will tell them things about the world they live in that they would rather ignore.
But it doesn’t matter. Her award, her night, her time, her place. You have a problem with it, be aware—it’s your problem.
And just in case anyone is wondering—the award? She earned it.
Some people just get in.
In this instance, though, the process was years at work.
Harlan Ellison died on June 28th, 2018, and I have been off-balance, riled, and melancholy ever since I saw the first notice, at work, doing something else on-line. It had been coming for a while. He was not well. He was never going to “recover” from the last few years. A stroke had wreaked havoc with him, although it had left him with access to all his faculties. This was expected. Nevertheless, it came as a shock, if not a total surprise, and the aftershocks have been working through me ever since. This one hurts. Deeply.
How, exactly, did this happen? I did not know the man so well. If I had to guess, I would say we had spent less than a week of actual face-to-face time together. We had spoken on the phone a total of maybe twenty hours in a number of years. I’d written him a few letters and he had written back. And yet, at least on my part, I counted him as a friend. I know that can happen, that people can know each other a very short time and somehow create a connection which, with other people, would ordinarily take years to build. It may well be only on my part, but I don’t think so.
How, I ask again, did this happen?
Well, there was this review I wrote about the documentary, Dreams With Sharp Teeth. But it didn’t really start there.
Back in my youth, I used to read all the SF magazines. From time to time I’d come across a story that stood out. Zelazny, Silverberg, Tiptree. Those kind of stories. Among them were fey pieces by this guy Harlan Ellison that troubled me. They troubled me because while I read them eagerly and felt moved by some of them, I suspected I didn’t really “get” them. These were not like most of the other stories. In fact, they weren’t like any of them, really. And they bothered me. So much so that at about age 15 or 16 I swore off them. If I stumbled across a Harlan Ellison story, I avoided it. I was uncomfortable with them, they disturbed me in ways no one else’s work did.
And I more or less forgot about him.
I was unaware of scenarists back then. When the credits rolled on a tv show or movie, I never paid much attention to the Written By. Or much else other than who was acting in it. I was dimly aware that the Star Trek episode which has subsequently come to be regarded as the best of the original series was different. For one thing, when I saw it the first time I was startled by a curse word. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Kirk says. That was practically unheard of on television then. That “hell” stood out.
But what did it mean? The rest of the episode stuck with me more clearly than most of the other episodes, but then time passed and everything else piled on top, and I forgot.
I had no knowledge of Fandom then. I was ignorant of that world, so the controversies being generated by this guy who had written stories that bothered me enough that I avoided them were unknown to me. The next time his name crossed my awareness was in the pages of OMNI when I read two things. One was a short story, called On The Slab and the other was a profile of an attempt to turn Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot into a film, and Harlan Ellison was going to adapt it. Harlan Ellison. I remembered that name. Why did I know that name? Oh, yeah, he wrote those weird, unclassifiable things that bothered me. Huh.
In 1980 I met my partner, who read the rather malformed things I’d written and encouraged me to try to publish them, and suddenly I was fully invested in this science fiction thing. Friends told us about conventions and we started going. We began meeting people. Joe Haldeman, Phyllis Eisenstein, George R.R. Martin, Rob Chilson, Vic Milan, C.J. Cherryh. I started submitting stories and I began paying closer attention to the magazines again, trying to divine the secrets of writing this stuff. The first convention we went to was Archon 6 and we heard stories about the one and only world science fiction convention that had been held here and Harlan Ellison figured prominently in relation to it. We listened to these stories and wondered, “Who is this guy?”
In the 1980s a new publishing line came out, Bluejay Books, and they reissued Ellison’s work with marvelous new covers, and I bought them and started reading them.
And suddenly they were not off-putting. Maybe I had grown into them. Maybe it required more of me than I had at 12 or 14 or 16. Maybe I was paying attention to Other Things. Whatever the reason, I tore through them, unable to get enough, amazed and awed and startled and terrified and intimidated and thrilled. I wrote a review of them (which never got published) which involved dinner of crow. Harlan Ellison’s work suddenly ranked alongside Bradbury, Sturgeon, Zelazny. I’d missed this way back when, I hadn’t understood, but it filled me up then. It might have been that I was in the process of trying to do this thing and was open to influences in a way I had never been before.
During this time, we’d become friends with another writer, Ed Bryant, who was one of Harlan’s best friends, and we heard more stories. At our first worldcon we got our first look at the man himself when, at L.A.Con II he made a surprise appearance in order to honor his first editor on stage during the Hugo ceremony. We picked up some of his nonfiction there and I became acquainted with that side of him.
Gradually, almost glacially, we became Aware. We found out about the Enemies Of Ellison (what?) and his involvement with Clarion (the workshop) and started hearing about his public contentiousness, the dispute with Roddenberry, the activism, the rumors, the extremes he generated in people. No other writer seemed to do these things or spark this kind of response. Piece by piece, a portrait assembled, but how could you trust it.
It’s fascinating sometimes to realize how much information one can accrue by means, vectors, and sources one is often completely unaware of. We saw him again in 1986, in Atlanta, and spent about four hours in an auditorium listening to him, both solo and then, when he ran over, in a panel which had been physically moved to that auditorium in order to have Harlan on it. We had had an exchange of dialogue that day over a book I’d bought in the dealers room (the only time a writer told me I should get my money back for a book with his name on it), and somehow we knew that he had found his soulmate, Susan, and she was with him, and Donna opined that it seemed she had calmed him somewhat.
How did we know that?
I applied for Clarion the next year and was accepted into the 1988 class. I had a book, Phoenix Without Ashes, by Ed Bryant and Harlan Ellison. Ed had signed it for me years before. Ed happened to be in town one weekend to help a mutual friend of ours move. He lifted that book and sent it to Harlan for his half of the autograph. (Ed was a wonderful, kind man.)
And somewhere during that time, he had become Harlan. Just Harlan. To my knowledge, he’s the only writer I know of who is recognizable by his first name, at least the only writer of fantastic fiction so known. But how did that happen, that somehow a certain presumption of intimacy had occurred? Except for that one occasion in Atlanta, we never never met, did not know each other. (Not that unusual, though, many people who have never laid eyes on him call him “Harlan” as if they know him.)
More stories, more essays. He was by then a regular part of my reading.
Clarion happened. I began publishing. I rarely thought about “Harlan Ellison” unless I came across a new story or new collection, but Harlan had become part of a gestalt associated with my writing, a background presence.
We heard about the heart attack.
Then in 1999, Allen Steele suggested we come to Massachusetts for Readercon. Harlan was going to be guest of honor. He and Allen were buddies. We could finally meet.
We went. It was an incredible weekend. I had a chance to sit and talk to Harlan, to watch him, to see what all the fuss was about. And to hear him read aloud. That was a treat. Few writers are good public readers, but Harlan was incredible.
Allen introduced us. Harlan was talking to Gene Wolfe, whom we know slightly, and Allen brought me up and said, “Hey, Harlan, I’d like you to meet my friend, Mark Tiedemann.” Allen then proceeded to recite a list of my publications. I am perversely shy about that, more so then, and I cut him off with a self-effacing, “Yeah, I’ve all over.” Harlan, without missing a beat, said “Oh, yeah? What’s it like in Tuva?” My brain skipped a beat. One of the few times in my life under circumstances like that it caught up and somehow pulled an answer up. “Very flat and cold, but if you’re into monotoned nasal music, they’ve got a great scene.”
Harlan said nothing for about five seconds, then cracked up, stuck his hand out to shake mine, then said “When were you last there?”
But my powers of repartee deserted me then and I had no reply.
Saturday night that weekend, I was wandering the hotel late. About to give it up and go back to my room, I waited before the elevators. The doors opened and a crowd poured out, led by Harlan as they made a beeline for one of the function rooms, which the hotel opened up so they could continue the party which had gotten them booted from a room on the fifth floor. I was swept up in the throng, carried into the room, and ended up sitting two down from Harlan, who was regaling his audience still with jokes and stories. (Somewhere there exists a photograph of him that night and you can see me, sitting, I think, beside Warren Lapine, who is right next to Harlan.) It was one in the morning and after a grueling day Harlan was still On. He seemed to vibrate from the stress and tension, but he was delivering his 110%.
After that, we had no contact. I pursued (desperately) a career that never got off the ground and thought not at all about any relationship with Harlan Ellison.
Then the documentary came out. Dreams With Sharp Teeth is a singular work. It may not be very complete history but it certainly gives a vivid picture of the person. I wrote a review of it and posted it on a blog site I’d been guesting on for a few years. (I put it on my blog, too, but I thought the film deserved a signal boost that might do some good, so it went to Dangerous Intersections.) A month or so after it appearance, the webmaster emailed me to say that he had been contacted by someone claiming to be Harlan Ellison who wanted to talk to me, could he get either my phone number or let me know. My friend was suspicious so passed it by me without responding.
Well, it was from Harlan. His phone number was attached. I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me.
Harlan wanted to personally thank me for the review. He thought it was insightful.
From that point on, we called each other occasionally. Never a lot, a few times we spoke for over an hour. He offered once to intercede on my behalf with an editor. I thanked him but declined. I think he respected that.
And then came Madcon in 2010. We spent a goodly amount of time with him there. I honestly did not know what he thought of me, but he made himself available, and during what was a very hectic weekend for him, he was generous with his time.
We thought we would never see him again.
Then came the stroke.
And then the whole Archon affair, of which I’ve already written about.
The last time I saw Harlan was the morning he was leaving for the airport from the Collinsville Doubletree. Donna and I had picked Susan and him up the previous Thursday, others of his friends were taking him back. He had been using our transport wheelchair all weekend (long story, never mind) and this was where he had to leave it. Donna hugged him, I hugged him, he got into the van. The door closed. He looked at me through the window and put his hand on the glass, splayed out. I was a little startled, but I reached up and pressed my hand to glass opposite. He smiled and gave a small nod.
We spoke on the phone a few more times after that. Short conversations. He said he had had a wonderful time at Archon. We needed to come out to see him, to see the house (the wonderful house, Ellison Wonderland). We had no other reason to go to L.A. though, so we prevaricated. Then it was announced that the Nebula Awards would be in L.A. in 2019. We could attend and see Harlan and Susan again. It would work. A bit pricey, but hey. I was planning to call him to tell him. I was going to.
I should have.
Somehow, between the stories (and the Stories) and the few encounters, and then the all-too-brief time when we actually knew each other, he got in. His passing hurts. It’s strange to miss someone you knew so short a time, even if in some ways it was a lifetime.
Harlan Ellison was a singular person. Enormously talented, voracious in his approach to life, generous, unpredictable. Harlan, I think I may say, was a friend.
I miss him.
New (ish) Venture
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So I am considering—no, that’s not quite accurate—I have decided to open my galleries as a commercial venture. I’ve been toying with this for a long time. Many reasons have kept me from doing it, not least among them is lack of time. But. I have thousands of photographs from a long career and I’m making new ones. Time, perhaps, to do something with them other than let them molder after my passing. or before it.
With that in mind, stay tuned. I will make announcement when that happens. I intend offering images as art, not go back into commercial shooting. There will be options. In the meantime, a new example of where I’m at with it.
No, this does not mean I’m giving up writing. Never that. I’m working on new short stories. But I do have work in other media and this might be a good time to make it available. As I said, I will announce the particulars here when things are up and running.
P.S. Drop a line and let me know if you think this is a good or not so good idea. I’d appreciate hearing from you.
To some, this may sound petty, but others will know what I mean.
Back when I worked in photography, one of the things that separated the amateurs from the pros had to do with Finish. I did lab work most of my career, what was referred to as “finishing.” Now, at its most basic, this was simply processing the film and printing the pictures, but there was so much more to it than that simple description suggests. Because we weren’t just supposed to print someone’s photographs—we were supposed to make them look good.
And that required a lot of practice, more than a little experience, a bit of expertise, and, most importantly, what that idea meant. Often the difference between a snapshot of Long’s Peak and a photograph of it was largely a matter of how the image was presented. How it was processed, printed, was it then mounted and framed, had care been given to the balance of values across the range of tones, had anyone retouched (this is more to do with printing from negatives where the advent of dust could play havoc with an image and required a patient hand with a fine brush to repair) it, and finally had the printer treated the image with the respect and imagination it merited. As much as the original image itself is a work of art, the production of the print is itself a matter of artistic accomplishment.
What does this have to do with writing and publishing?
I’m glad you asked that question. In its own way, just as much.
The other day I was handed a self-published book and started reading. I stopped less than two pages in. (Before you wonder, this had nothing to do with my job, this was a book sent me by a friend.) Why did I stop? Was the story horrible?
I have no idea. Because the “finishing” was bad. Poor typography, the page layout was not good, and there were transfer artifacts evident throughout. By that I mean the thing was not proofed after it was set up and so paragraphs that should have been indented were not, italics that should have been there was not, special characters were replaced with some kind of word processor code. Correctable mistakes having to do with appearance remained in the product to mangle the reading experience. In short, it was physically unpleasant.
But the writing was not good either. Not so much that the sentences were poor, but many of them were in the wrong place, paragraphs were crammed with whatever the author thought of to put down next in line, and later did not go back to put them in the right place. Jumbles of sentences and ideas that may or may not have been necessary to the story but in the configuration on the page did nothing but cause bafflement and headache trying to do the editing that ought to have been long before the cover art was even considered.
Which was actually pretty good, that cover art. As if a pretty wrapper could compensate for the amateur mess inside.
The book had been released into the wild too soon. It needed more work. It needed “finishing.”
This is an aspect of the whole self-publishing phenomenon I do not understand. When I worked in photography there were many people I knew who were gleeful amateurs who did their own processing. They had fun. They derived pleasure from printing their own pictures. None of them would have dreamed of putting what they did in their basement up in a gallery to pass off as professional work.
But there are authors who think nothing of assuming, because they can now get their work between covers and find a way to distribute it, that this somehow makes them equal to professionals who publish through traditional houses. There is a false equivalency based on poorly understood standards. It is one of the things I find most depressing about the self-publishing industry. Through this mechanism there is little to require the wanna-bes to do the work necessary to make a good product.
Am I nitpicking? Michelangelo said “Trifles make perfection and perfection is no trifle.” Nits are like dust spots and they spoil the finish.
And it’s not like this is hard to see. Go into a bookstore and pull a book off the shelf, something published by Harper or FSG or Putnam, Macmillan, Simon & Shuster, and open it up and look at the page. Look. Does what you just paid money to produce match what you see in terms of font, layout, pagination? And it is not like this should be that difficult to correct anymore.
Time-consuming, yes. Just like rewriting and editing are time-consuming.
You can’t rush good finishing. If you do, it will show, and people will be put off by your work. And if they’re put off, they won’t read it, and then all the work you have put into it will be for nothing.
I needed to get that off my chest. Thank you for your patience.
Later I’ll post my favorite posts of the year. For now, it’s too damn cold in my office for that kind of cut-and-paste indulgence.
So let me just wax nostalgic about the year just past.
The things I love are still with me. Top of the list, Donna. We’ve been moving through some changes, dealing with stuff and nonsense, and have finally gotten to a place where life can be simply enjoyed again, rather than wrestled with.
Coffey is still full of puppy-ish enthusiasm. Slower, certainly, but for a 13-year-old dog remarkably spry. No arthritis or other impediments. She sleeps a bit more. Of course, some of this is stored energy from being by herself a goodly chunk of most days while the humans are at work. Coffey is a joy.
My friends are all reasonably well.
I have a good job. Some new faces came this year and we had a great year. Our first (annual) book festival came off magnificently and this year’s will be even better. I’ve settled, more or less, into my role as consignment buyer. Despite every intention to the contrary, I have become an acquisitions editor. It has been an education. I have been very pleasantly surprised by some of the books I’ve gotten for the store. I’ve also learned quite a bit about that world and the reasons behind the choices made.
I finished a new novel and turned it in to my agent in July. We wait. I think it may be the best thing I’ve ever done—it is certainly different than anything I’ve ever done, written at a level I don’t think I’ve ever achieved before. Of course, once again, I think I’ve written something that has no real category, is a bit off from the expected. My agent has been tremendous in her support.
I’m now working on the third book of my alternate history trilogy, which has taken far longer and traveled some much stranger roads than I expected. Once more I’m immersed in the Napoleonic Era, trying to get as many things “right” as I can. This is all but a straight historical in many ways. I’ve had some surprises with this one, in my research, but I will be glad to finish. Maybe a couple more months and I’ll have the first draft done.
After that I have some decisions to make. If things don’t change…
This is the first year in a long, long time that I’ve chosen to make resolutions. No, I won’t tell you what they are. I don’t need anyone else’s expectations to live up to, this will be hard enough. But check here in the next few months for an update on at least one of my decisions. We’ll see if I can pull it off.
I may be facing a hard time this year. My dad is not doing well. I’ll leave that as it stands for now.
I managed to get through 51 books this year, cover to cover. I’ll do a post about those over on the Proximal Eye in the next few weeks.
Healthwise, I seem to be doing okay. I’m more tired than I like, but everything works, and the other day at the gym some young guy guessed my age at 52. Heh. If I can be mistaken for 62 when I’m pushing 80 I will be pleased.
I don’t know if I’ve become more stoic and accepting of how things are or if I’m just too tired to give the same damn that I once did. Almost nothing has gone according to plan, which is to be expected, but enough went close enough to be a source of mixed satisfaction and frustration. One thing this past year that caused me to reassess my attitude came from a former coworker, a young writer whose first novel was released to considerable acclaim and a degree of commercial success I frankly envy. Talking about it, though, she suggested that she hoped to be as successful as I am. This baffled me. I do not consider myself successful at all. “How do you figure that?” I asked. “You have 12 books out,” she said. “Yeah, but they didn’t do very well.” “You have 12 books out.”
That was it. I had sustained a publishing career long enough and well enough to have put out a body of work she thought admirable. It forced me to reassess my own standards. What do I mean by success? I’d fallen into the usual, equating it with money. Well, that certainly is one measure of success, but not the only one.
I’d always aimed for the condition of sustaining myself materially by the work—that since what I wanted to do was to write, then the writing had to pay the bills. I never reached that point. Came close, but it has slipped further and further away from that moment. I’d gotten into the habit of thinking myself a failure.
But there are other metrics, and my coworker confronted me with one, and I realized that rejecting her assessment would have been cruel. To her, certainly, but to myself as well.
I’m still working through all the implications of that. I still want to be able to write for a living, but it has, for now, become less an issue.
With that in mind, 2018 awaits.
Of course we are now living in a shit show nationally. All the fights waged in youth seem in need to fighting again. I’ve been vocal here about that and will continue to be. But the fact is, I am a lucky, lucky man. I have so much, from great people, and I’ve had and will continue to have opportunities to do more. So many people never get the chance.
So may the coming year offer for us all the chance to realize the good life can hold and let us all have some of it. And be aware of what is good. And that we’ve experienced it.
Travel well, travel far.