It was difficult enough yesterday to hear that someone had gone to the offices of a local newspaper in Maryland, The Capitol Gazette, and shot an unknown number of people, five of whom died.
I’ve been a reporter for a magazine and a freelancer for a local paper. This hit home. But life wasn’t done with the tragic yesterday.
Harlan Ellison has died.
I can barely type those words, and I have trouble accepting a world without him in it. His writing will be with me forever, but the thought that irascible curmudgeon won’t do another rant, won’t demand that writers be paid, won’t upset the publishing establishment is depressing.
“I Have No Mouth. And I Must Scream.”
In the late 1960s, I purchased a copy of the March 1967 issue of IF: Worlds of Science Fiction. Inside was a story that rocked my brain, “I Have No Mouth. And I Must Scream,” by a writer I’d never heard of, Harlan Ellison.
The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world occupied by the last four humans on earth. They are manipulated and tortured by an artificial intelligence, but humanity being what it is, they find an escape, except for one, whom the AI punishes. The title of the story is also the story’s last line, and when I read it, I was astonished that someone could write like this.
I immediately started reading anything by Ellison I could find and became mesmerized by his style, his dystopian approach. He won Hugo and Nebula awards for his speculative fiction, but he also was a journalist, a crime writer, a horror writer…a writer.
In Los Angeles, where he moved to pen TV shows (among them my favorite Star Trek episode, “City on the Edge of Forever”), he would often set up shop in the front window of a book store with an aging manual typewriter. Using his two-fingered typing method, he’d write a story based on a first line pulled from a hat by a book store customer. As he finished a page, the bookstore owner would tape them in order in the window, and people would stop by and read, waiting for every new page.
A Chance Encounter
In 1974 WorldCon, the international convention that bestows the Hugo Awards, was in Washington, D.C. Ellison was going to be featured there, and I had to go. For someone who’d just graduated from college and had not yet started her teaching job, I had to save up babysitting, dog-walking, and horse-grooming money to pay the fee.
I contacted a student of mine from student-teaching days, and he agreed to come with me. On day one of WorldCon, I drove to McLean and picked him up and drove into D.C.–my first time driving myself. But it all went smoothly. Parked in the hotel, picked up my ticket and event schedule, and wandered around to get my bearings.
A group of people, exclusively young men, were grouped in a hallway of the hotel. A tall, white-haired man I immediately recognized. Isaac Asimov. I’d read a lot of his work, too, and he and Ellison had an on-going “feud” about hard sci-fi and spec-fic. (They actually were good friends, but the fans believed in this feud, so…)
I got closer, and sure enough, the other person in the hallway debate was Harlan Ellison. A small man in stature, I was dry-mouthed with being star-struck, but I worked my way forward until Ellison was only a few feet away.
“I don’t have time for this drivel,” he said. “I have an appointment I have to get to.”
Now, I never once thought I’d get to speak with him, but I was immediately sad that this encounter would be too brief.
Then, he was beside me, hand on my arm. “I have an appointment with this young woman. Excuse me.”
Me? Of course, I went with him–I was too stunned not to–seeing my friend’s concerned face as Ellison led me away. Ellison was a notorious womanizer. He was married several times, most lasting only a year or two, except for his last marriage, which lasted 32 years.
Ellison escorted me into a holding room where people about to go on stage for a panel waited. He ordered everyone out, and they obeyed. He and I sat down in side by side chairs, and he asked, “What brings you to WorldCon?”
This was 1974. Women or girls were rare at cons, and I was 22 years old and damned good-looking then.
I didn’t want to say “You” and be an idiot, so I said, “I want to write science fiction.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Because of you.” Then, the fan girl took over. “I’ve read everything you’ve written.”
A thoughtful scowl, and he said, “I doubt that. My bibliography is over 50 pages long.”
There was the irascible Ellison I’d read about. I felt like a fool.
“But if you want to be a writer,” he said, “do it. Start and don’t stop. Write what comes into your head. Don’t censor it. Don’t worry about what people think. Write it down. Now, don’t try to write like me, because no one can do that. Write like you.”
There was the egotistical Ellison I’d also read about. But he was kind to me. I suspect my youthful good looks had something to do with it.
We chatted for about twenty minutes. He asked what I’d written, if I’d had anything published. Rejections only I told him. “Keep at it. You’re not a writer unless you’ve been rejected.”
“Well,” he said, standing, “thanks for getting me away from the troglodytes. Enjoy the con and keep writing.”
And he was gone.
I have remembered that encounter for 44 years and cherished it. I accepted he probably forgot it as soon as he left the room.
Some years later in one of his stories, he had a scene where a woman had an embarrassing issue with her period. He didn’t write derisively about it but with tenderness and care. It was so similar to what happened to me on the second day of the con, I’ve always wondered.
Rest in Peace
I’d heard Ellison had had a stroke a few years ago which had essentially ended his writing but not his irascibility. I have a good-sized collection of his works, and they are now precious to me. For the rest of my life I can go look at how he put words together in such an incredibly beautiful and horrific way.
I didn’t take one piece of his advice. I still do try to write like him. When I write something horrific, something that makes people look away in distress or disgust, it comes directly from him through me. I always wanted to tell him that.
And yesterday he died in his sleep. Not fitting. Not the way he would have written it. If he had, there would have been drama, a fight to the death, and dystopia. He went silent into that good night.
I have a mouth. And I’m screaming.
Fifty thousand words in thirty days. A challenge to be sure. I hit 50,000 words on Day Twenty but continued for the rest of the month to complete a rough draft of the novel. That meant going back and filling in scenes I’d only made notes about and adding some back story to flesh out the characters.
Then, after thinking this was so far out of the cannon I’d established for these characters, I went back and bookended it with an opening scene and closing scene (let’s not call them prologues and epilogues) so that it could drop into the cannon I’d created.
The final word count: 73,956 words. (I always was an over-achiever.) The fun part will be in the editing to see if I add to that or cut mercilessly.
I got so much support from several online writer groups: Shenandoah Valley Wrimos (great in-person and online write-ins!), SWAG Writers, and NaNoWriMo Divas.
Of course, the rough draft only has a working title, A Future Stretching into Infinity, (yes, different from the one in the photo; I’ll make the change) and it’s yet to be determined if I can write romance. (Beta readers are going to let me know in January.) Overall, once again, I had great fun, with the writing, with the interaction with other writers, with the concept of plunking butt in chair before the computer and writing every single day.
Not to mention NaNoWriMo gives me a fresh, rough draft of a project to work on in the new year.
Am I glad it’s over? Yes.
Am I sad it’s over? Yes.
Will I do it again next year? Of course!
And a little P.S. here. For people who wonder why we do this or what comes of the drabble we write for those thirty days: We edit, we revise, and, on occasion, we start all over again and rewrite. What could possibly come of that, you ask? Consider this: I have two manuscripts, which began as NaNoWriMo rough drafts (one three years ago, one four years ago), now with a publisher, who is reviewing them. Look for some news (positive, I hope) on Wednesday afternoon.
Whenever I had to plan an event at work, e.g., a three-day training session for a few thousand supervisors and managers, I always treated it as if these were people coming to my house. The food and accommodations had to be top-notch, the content of the training well worth coming for, and the opportunities for networking plentiful.
Needless to say, for me that meant weeks of obsessing over the minutia, loss of sleep, and constant fretting that it wouldn’t be good enough. Back then, I had a staff and usually a contractor working on the event. All I had to say was, “I want this,” and it happened. Boy, was I spoiled.
Last year, when I accepted the nomination to be the first vice president of the Virginia Writers Club, I knew one of my duties would be to plan and execute the annual one-day symposium, Navigating Your Writing Life. I’d attended three of those events, I’d put on symposia for thousands (see above), so this should be easy-peasy.
It should have been.
I took on the role of 1st VEEP in early November last year and started cogitating on the kind of symposium I wanted to put on. My vision was big, huge; then, by the end of December I was sick with the flu. As in hospitalized twice and down for the count for a solid two months, woozy and confused for another couple of weeks, and lacking energy to do much of anything through the middle of March.
Two and a half months of key planning time gone by the wayside. I was already way behind the power curve, but when I had a dozen volunteers sign up to be on the symposium planning committee, I felt much better about the loss of time. This was going to be the best symposium ever!
Because we were so spread around the Commonwealth, I opted to use telephone conferencing to hash over most of the details. Before every telcon, I’d email an agenda, a list of tasks from the previous telcon, and an update on accomplishments–pretty standard stuff for me. The government paid for a lot of good management training for me, and why not put it to use?
Long story short, by the third telcon, the committee had dwindled from a dozen to three, including myself.
In the ensuing months, I’ve reflected on this. A lot. Obsessively. I’ve been seeking some fault in my behavior that made people drop out. (I’m the child of an alcoholic; others like me will understand that in addition to trying to make everything right, we’re also right up front to take the blame for anything.)
I’m an organized, focused person who has high expectations of myself, first, and people who work with me. Work being the operative word. It’s very, very, very, very different with volunteers. Though I stuck to my guiding management principle, which is basically do unto others, etc., it doesn’t always work with volunteers. Likely I forgot that people have lives and obligations and not the same level of enthusiasm and drive (i.e., obsession) I have when given a task to accomplish.
What this meant was three of us, and a fourth who came in toward the end, had to do everything: contact and manage presenters (and OMG, writers are such divas, self included), arrange catering, put together a schedule, design and have printed a conference booklet, do name tags, do tent cards, do… You get the picture. It’s a lot of work for a one-day conference, and we got it done.
But things can and did slip through the cracks. At 1030 on the morning before the conference, I realized no one had done an evaluation form. No big deal, you say. Really big deal because feedback is crucial. I ginned one up in about a half-hour, stopped by Staples on my way to the hotel, and, voila!, evaluation forms. (I’ve yet to read the completed ones. I’m waiting for a good time to have my image of success dashed.)
And it all went off perfectly! I had seen or anticipated so many opportunities for failure, but the buzz around the venue was good and positive, people stopped me on their way out the door to tell me how much they’d learned, I’m getting emails and Facebook posts that make my heart swell with pride, and, oh joy, I get to do this again next year!
(Psst! I can’t wait.)
At least nobody found out about the snake who decided navigating its writing life was something it needed to attend, albeit briefly.
(Note to self: Next year, assign someone to snake duty.)
Let’s face it, writers are masochists on some level. We create and submit our work, knowing the likelihood of its being accepted is minimal, but we keep doing it. The actual writing is the pleasure; the inevitable line of rejections before an acceptance comes along is the humiliation we endure for those fleeting moments of vindication.
And then we do it all over again.
Rejection is never easy, whether it’s by a potential lover or friend or an agent or editor. I’ve heard so many writer friends–not to mention myself–say, “I just sent a story to [insert name of literary magazine here]. I know I have a snowball’s chance in hell, but at least I’m submitting.”
Why, oh, why do we do that?
Because when you get the acceptance email or you check Submittable and see the “accepted” note, it’s the greatest feeling in the world–for a millisecond it’s better than seeing your children the first time, better than orgasm, better even than a paycheck. It’s affirmation, you see, that you really are a writer; you aren’t just a hack throwing words on the screen, and all your suffering is worth it.
A writer friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that writing her novel required more concentration, more focus, more work than anything she’d ever done. I responded that was what made it so painfully fun. Yes, at times writing is like constantly putting your tongue on a sore tooth, but when the pain goes away–ah, bliss. It’s why when I encounter a non-writer who says, “Oh, well, it’s not real work. You just make things up,” I usually respond with a smile and suggest he or she should give it a try. “Oh, I have better things to do with my time.” Well, good, I’m glad, because you don’t have what it takes to be a writer.
Writing has brought me some of my biggest disappointments, but it has also brought me some of my biggest joys. For years, I’d seen my non-fiction in print, so when my first fiction story was accepted by eFiction Magazine a couple of years ago, I didn’t think I’d have much of a personal response. When the issue with my story showed up on my Kindle, I had the most visceral reaction I’d ever experienced–and I used to be a flight instructor, so I’ve had gut-wrenching moments. There’s nothing quite like seeing your words on a page with your by-line, knowing it’s a story which is the progeny of your imagination, that you “just made it up.” Not only did you make it up, but someone else liked it. Others will read it, and because there is an internet, your story will out there forever. How’s that for immortality?
Now, excuse me. I have to go humiliate myself for some perverse pleasure.
If you have a writer on your holiday gift list and haven’t a clue what to give him or her, let me help you out.
We love books, even ones besides our own. The path to being a good writer begins with being a good reader. Writers read books within their own genre, but if you’re like me, your tastes are eclectic–I’ll read almost anything, even if all I take away from a book is, “I don’t want to write like that.”
We love journals because when we’re without a computer, we need something besides a cocktail napkin to capture an inspiration. Smart phones with their built-in recorders go a long way, but there’s nothing better than a sweet little notebook you can carry in a pocket or your purse.
We love pens, too, and not just to write in those journals (or cocktail napkins). We’re always looking for just the right pen to use for book signings so we can make a statement. I’m partial to fountain pens myself (with cartridges, not ink bottles; I’m far too much of a klutz for them).
We love reviews of our work. Good ones, of course, and even bad ones–IF they’re constructive. The new trend in giving books you’ve never read a bad review hits a writer where it hurts. We’re all pretty sensitive creatures anyway, and we know better than anyone words do hurt. So, if you can’t give the gift of constructive criticism, cross me off your list.
We love it when our friends and family give us space to write, when they put aside their demands on our time and don’t make us feel guilty about taking the time we need to write. I recently told someone the sexiest thing my ex ever said to me was, “I know your writing is important to you, so I’ll just go row around the lake for a couple of hours.” That was a gift whose significance missed me at the time. Now, when I have different interests conflicting for my time, I wish others were as understanding that sometimes I need to retreat to my room, wherever that is, and write.
We love it as well when family and friends, even perfect strangers, give us fodder for our fiction. Some people don’t understand why writers live for the family get-togethers others dread. Easy. We know we’ll come away with a half-dozen new ideas for stories and/or snippets of killer dialogue. So, thanks. Really.
There you have it. Some great suggestions for the writer in your life. Oh, wait. I missed one. A great gift for a writer is to just say to them, “I’m proud of what you do.”
Last week was a slow writing week. I didn’t even get a chance to sit down and compose until Friday morning. Some spring clean-up, some things I’d been putting off around the house, babysitting, and other obligations intervened. That’s life, but by the time Friday rolled around I not only missed writing, I kicked myself for not making the time to write.
And the weekend of April 5-6 was certainly inspiring. I attended the Tom Wolfe Seminar at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA. Wolfe, a 1951 W&L graduate, is so admired by his classmates that they endowed an annual seminar in his name, which pairs Wolfe and another author for a weekend of panel discussions of the author’s work. W&L faculty also present a scholarly address on a particular work of the featured author.
This year the featured author was Jennifer Egan, a Pulitzer winner for A Visit from the Goon Squad. I’d read “Goon Squad” right before the Pulitzer announcement because I’d heard it was a novel in stories, something I was interested in exploring. Some of the stories intrigued me, though the PowerPoint story gave me a flashback to working days and countless, bad PowerPoint presentations. I wasn’t entirely sure what I thought of the book as a whole, though the writing was excellent.
Turns out Egan never intended that book to be a novel, in stories or otherwise. She knew she had this cast of interrelated characters, and she had decided to write a story for each character; but she wasn’t calling it a “novel” in her own head. Nor did she call it a collection of short stories, though that’s what she intended it to be. It wasn’t until the paperback edition came out that the words “A Novel” appeared on the cover, but that, Egan stated, was likely at the publisher’s instigation–as if “Pulitzer Prize Winner” wouldn’t boost sales.
In truth, I read the book over a period of several weeks, and I think it’s a work you need to finish in a single sitting or not over a protracted amount of time. Otherwise, you tend to forget the connections and the fact that a minor or barely mentioned character in one story is featured in another. So, this seminar, then, along with the two scholarly explorations by W&L professors Christopher Gavaler (“Goon Squad as Pulp Fiction”) and Jasmin Darznik (“The Art of Discontinuity: Time and Memory in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad“), brought the characters back to mind. And the connections clicked. “Goon Squad” is a book I recommend.
Egan’s speech–“Journalist as Novelist; Novelist as Journalist”–was thought-provoking as well. She admits she’s an “accidental journalist” and took advantage of a job offer from The New York Times Magazine to conduct research for her novel Look at Me. The emphasis on research as a journalist improved her lot as a novelist, Egan stated, and she lauded the recent trend in writing non-fiction along the lines of fiction and vice-versa. In all, a very inspiring talk, and Egan was self-deprecating; no swelled-head Pulitzer diva in the house.
This past weekend I attended a two-day workshop on Speculative Fiction by Edward M. Lerner and hosted by WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA. It wasn’t so much a craft workshop as an in-depth explanation of what speculative fiction is, the elements of speculative fiction, its place in the current publishing market, and its related fandom. Lerner, who has co-authored with Larry Niven in addition to publishing several “hard” sci-fi novels on his own, is very knowledgeable of the topic and gave an excellent presentation with plenty of opportunity to ask questions. In truth, it was more of a refresher for me because I’ve read spec fic since I was a teen, but it did inspire me to give writing sci-fi a second (or third or twentieth) chance.
Why? Well, Lerner himself is a physicist, but he has written sci-fi books on nanotechnology, medical thrillers, and other non-physics topics through research and contacting subject matter experts. That approach doesn’t put it out of my wheelhouse, even though I’ve always thought I didn’t have the science chops to pull off writing sci-fi. However, the first story I had published in eFiction Magazine was sci-fi–“Without Form or Substance.” It was about time travel, but, unbeknownst to me until Lerner’s workshop, I used time travel as a trope. It was there and central to the plot, but the details of how it worked were unnecessary.
So, a great workshop for inspiration or, rather, renewing inspiration. If you live near Charlottesville, VA, give WriterHouse a look. In addition to providing space for actual writing, its workshops are always top-notch.
After all that, here’s hoping this week is more productive. I’d cross my fingers, but I need them to type.
Virginia Festival of the Book is aptly named, but after this, my third year of attendance, I think it more apt to title it “Virginia Festival of the Book–and Writers and Readers.” Though considerably less populated than the 12,000-person AWP Conference just two weeks before, the enthusiasm about books and their authors was just as intense. In truth, you don’t get many “readers” at AWP, but #VaBook (its Twitter hashtag) is the rare opportunity for writers and readers to mingle. In some cases, you’re a writer for one panel’s presentation then a reader for another. It’s a great showcase for writers across the country who have or whose books have Virginia roots.
My festival started on Wednesday evening with “The Ties That Bind: Family in Fiction.” Authors Wendy Shang, Lydia Netzer, Camisha Jones, Mollie Cox Bryant, and Cliff Garstang combined a discussion of this year’s The Big Read book, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, with their own works. I read that book before it was a best-seller on the recommendation of a co-worker, who is Asian and said it was as if Tan had written the friend’s biography. I found it a fascinating glimpse into a culture I knew little about, but the sometimes bizarre behavior of mothers was something I completely understood. The authors on the panel compared and contrasted how Tan used family to their use of family in their own works.
Thursday’s only session for me was “Fiction: The Art and Craft of Short Stories,” which I wanted to attend because I keep trying to convince myself there’s a future for short stories (why I’ve published three volumes of them). The panel members–Robert Day, Cliff Garstang, E. J. Levy, and Kurt Rheinheimer–are convinced the short story is undergoing a revival. Their various definitions of a short story were compelling:
“A short story is a piece of geography that spawns a character.” (Rheinheimer)
“A short story is a bomb going off.” (Levy)
“A short story focuses on a moment in time with a zoom lens.” (Garstang)
“A short story is a piece of prose fiction that has something wrong with it.” (Day)
The latter was intended to show that even short stories are never finished in the sense of revision and rewriting. The panel went on to discuss the writers who influenced them, the how and why of linked short stories, first person versus third person, and if an MFA helps your progression as a writer.
Friday was a full day for me, beginning with “Fiction: Forbidden Attraction.” Authors Maryanne O’Hara, Erika Robuck, Margaret Wrinkle, and Bill Roorbach discussed how they used captivation in each of their novels or were captivated themselves by the subjects they wrote about. In Robuck’s case, a photo of a young, Cuban girl on a dock where Hemingway hauled in his fishing catch prompted her to write Hemingway’s Girl. For Wrinkle, it was literal captivation–a novel about the taboo topic of slave breeding in the ante-bellum south. A wonderful discussion and great insights.
Next was “Fiction: Parallel Stories,” featuring authors whose novels involved two different but related timelines. I particularly wanted to attend this panel because a novel I have in rough draft involves stories in the present and in the World War II era. Dana Sachs, Tara Conklin, and Sarah McCoy discussed what compelled them to construct their works this way and the joy–and pitfalls–of research.
“Fiction: Journeys” was a panel on novels featuring road trips or metaphorical journeys by Sharon Short, Sheri Reynolds, Kathleen McCleary, and Kimberly Brock. They discussed the apparently insignificant germs of thought that inspired them, and the chemistry among these authors during discussion was fascinating and hilarious.
Unfortunately, I had to miss two other panels on Friday (“Science Fiction and Fantasy,” featuring the phenom Hugh Howey of Wool fame, and “Crime Wave: Friday Night Thrillers”) because I needed to go home and pack for an unexpected trip to Northern Virginia for a funeral. That also meant Saturday’s panels and the Book Fair I missed as well, but friendship supersedes all.
I was back Sunday in time for the only panel on which I was actually a participant–“The Magic of Words,” which was the launch event for the Blue Ridge Writers 2013 Anthology. My story, “Mourning,” appears in the anthology. Rita Mae Brown was the keynote speaker, and she gave an amazing off-the-cuff, quarter-hour dissertation on language. Fascinating. Then came the time for readings. I was fourth on the schedule, so enough time to work up a good set of nerves. Fortunately, Brown had been amusing as well instructive, so when I got a laugh out of her at the first comedic point in my reading, I relaxed. After the event, Brown came up to me and said, “Please tell me you’ll continue to write.” Yeah, floated a few inches above the ground all the way home.
I came away with a lot of good information and way too many books. Add them to the stack I brought home from AWP, and I’ll still be reading them by the end of the year. But that’s a good thing.
I can’t wait for #VaBook14! And who knows, maybe there’s a panel out there with my name on it!