The Nebula Awards were awarded a few days ago, and congratulations to all the winners! This year’s awards were noteworthy for the first-ever presentation of the Infinity Award to Octavia Butler, basically a posthumous Grandmaster Award. During the course of the ceremony, one of the speakers—I don’t remember who, unfortunately—made a point worth remembering. And that is that writing can be a very discouraging activity; but… if your stories touch even one person in a meaningful way, change one life for the better, then it’s worth it. You’ve done a good thing. I loved hearing that.
And then, after turning off the TV at the end of the awards, I went to my computer and checked my email. And almost like a gift from Heaven, there was an email from a reader—someone in another country, in fact—I won’t use his real name, but let’s call him Neal—writing to ask how things were going with the new book, because I was his favorite writer and he always recommended my books and he really wants to know what happens next. The dovetailing of those two moments could not have been more perfect, or more affirming. So, many thanks, Neal. Readers like you are the best!
E.L. Doctorow once said: “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” My version is: “Writing this novel has been like driving a car at night in the fog. With no headlights. Holding a flickering match out the window.” I’ve burned through a lot of matches on Masters of Shipworld.
This has been kind of a big problem for me. I mean, I’ve worked through blocks before. But this is orders of magnitude beyond any creative block I’ve previously experienced. Some of the reasons I think I know. I’m not going to discuss them all in detail here, because they’re between me and my shrink and God. But let’s just say that I see the compounding effect of a variety of things getting in the way of my creativity. Some are fairly obvious: recent multiple losses of a personal and professional nature, health concerns that I can forget only until the next time I take a breath (or get my O2 hose stepped on, usually by me), and the looming practical concerns of preparing for a move downstairs while also prepping for some major needed home renovations. I’m not sure how well I’d handle any of these separately. But cumulatively, I feel as if I’m surfboarding in slomo over the Falls of Rauros on the River Anduin.
It’s possible that that’s a mixed metaphor.
A recent conversation with my shrink (yes, I’m getting professional help with this) highlighted an interesting dichotomy in my lifelong patterns of work and play. At least I think they’re interesting; maybe you will, too. Bear with me while we rocket back in time.
In my teen years, I was a real grind at school, and I didn’t know how to loosen up and have fun. I did well academically. I wasn’t a sports fan per se; but on the wrestling team, I achieved a good record through dedication and determination, even though I lacked certain native attributes such as speed and upper-body strength. But did I have fun with the sport? Well… I achieved satisfaction in my accomplishments, yes, but truthfully, I was too tightly wound to have much fun. Okay, then, what about off the mat and outside academics? I enjoyed band (clarinet and drums) until I didn’t anymore. I definitely enjoyed reading science fiction and had a few friends (and teachers) I could share that with. But socially I was deep down an impossible introvert, and hopelessly shy around girls. A lot of what I did, frankly, was to apply my nose to the grindstone and not look up. Those were my high school formative years.
Come my college years at what is commonly regarded as an elite university, I flipped all that over. I realized I wasn’t enjoying wrestling anymore, and I quit. I realized that academically I was not nearly as smart as a lot of my peers, and furthermore, despite my love of science, I really did not want to pursue an academic or professional career in it. It was too specialized, and I was a generalist and a romantic at heart. Instead, I wanted to nurture my imagination that had been fed by science fiction and develop it into an SF-writing career. There was no good academic help available for that, so I was really on my own. The other thing I realized was that I wanted to stop being a grind and learn how to goof off and have a fun—a skill that most of my peers had mastered years before. I learned to scuba dive. I learned to drink and cuss and be rude. I became marginally less shy around girls.
In the years following graduation I returned to nose-to-grindstone, but in a different way. I applied myself to writing and getting published. (The other aspects of my life more or less flapped in the wind, as I had learned no marketable skills for earning a living, and my social life was going nowhere. I turned to things like substitute teaching, diving for quahogs, and sorting packages for UPS to stay alive.) That last part is parenthetical because my real point here is that developing a career in writing, for me at least, and I suspect for many writers, involved a supremely tricky balance of cultivating my own creativity and imagination with dogged work and perseverance in writing and rewriting and rewriting some more, and—finally—getting published. At first intermittently, and then on a regular basis. (Oh, in the meantime, I stopped being shy around girls and I married a real keeper.)
Jump to now, when the same requirements exist—to juggle free-thinking imagination with determined work—except that I have changed. I’ve experienced life, with, in particular, losses such as we all endure, such as important people dying on me, the aggravating possibility of dying prematurely myself, the seemingly limitless disintegration of decency and honesty in the culture I live in, and so on. I know it would be helpful to find a way to integrate all of that into my writing, and eventually the stories—maybe even the current project—will be better for it. But right now, the link between the imagination and the grindstone seems to have come apart in my hands. There’s a puzzle—or maybe a labyrinth—between me and where I want to go. I seepieces of it, but I haven’t yet figured out a workable solution. I will, because I have to. Coincidentally, as a part of downsizing, I’ve been reading the Zelazny Amber series—to decide whether or not to keep the books, which I’d not read before. His descriptions of walking the all-powerful Pattern are highly resonant with my impressions of the creative process.
In a different metaphor, I’m wandering in the wilderness and trying to find my way back to the path. It can be very discouraging. But discouragement is the enemy of imagination, so… take another deep breath and try to get back on track?
Why am I describing all this on my blog? Well, partly to clarify it for myself, partly to let you, my faithful readers, know why things are taking so long, and partly in hopes that it will offer solace to others who may be similarly struggling. (You’re not alone.) Anyway…
Sometimes readers who have to wait a long time for the end of a story become irate, if not outright disillusioned and cynical. I can understand that. But no writer does this intentionally or because they don’t care. If you’re one of my readers waiting for the rest of the story, all I can say is, please continue to be patient. I’m working on it. In order to do that, I’m working on me.
Odyssey Writing Workshop is a long-running, intensive, hands-on training camp for folks just learning to be science fiction and fantasy writers—one of the most demanding and most rewarding in the business. On a couple of occasions in the past, I have been privileged to be a guest speaker at Odyssey, and on one of those occasions, I spoke on the subject of creating believable and interesting characters. I don’t really remember what I said, but I must have hit something right, because the folks at Odyssey have just put up an excerpt as the latest in their podcast series featuring guest authors.
You can listen to it right here, or here. It’s also on iTunes, I’m told.
Better still, especially if you’re interested in the craft of writing, browse the whole Odyssey Podcast home page for the many fascinating topics, by a whole host of authors. Some of them also talk about characterization. In fact, I just found one such by my friend Craig Shaw Gardner.
Is there an echo in here? I wonder how many stories have used this device:
Any reader of The Hobbit remembers this. In their quest for the Arkenstone, the dwarves and one hobbit make use of the prediction that on Durin’s Day, the last light of the setting sun will shine directly upon a keyhole enabling entry to a secret passage into the mountain.
In The Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones makes use of ancient instructions to find the location of the Well of Souls, where the Ark is kept hidden. The light of the rising sun, passing through the headpiece of the properly positioned Staff of Ra, shines directly onto the location of the Well of Souls in the fabled Map Room.
In the 1959 movie Journey to the Center of the Earth (which I started watching while feeling under the weather today), the location of the passage leading into the Earth is revealed when the sun shines through an opening in a nearby peak, directly onto the mouth of the passage. (In the Verne original, I believe, the mechanism is similar, but less cinematic.)
Reuse of plot devices is a time-honored tradition among storytellers, of course. How many other stories have used this device? If you can think of examples, list them here in the comments!
Things have been a little quiet on the podcast front, but I recently participated in a good one: “Science to Science Fiction: Jeffrey A. Carver, Edward M. Lerner, Alan Smale, Edward Willett” which is part of the “Writers & Illustrators of the Future Podcast” series. I joined my colleagues listed above, in a discussion of writing, hosted by John Goodwin. Unlike many podcast hosts, John actually reads the work of the people he is hosting. Thumbs up on that one!
The discussion among the five of us was lively and, I thought, interesting. And, I hope, helpful for new or aspiring writers.
For the last little while (like, since before the pandemic), the writing hasn’t been going so well. There are probably a bunch of reasons for that, some of which I might elaborate on someday (but not today). All I want to say today is that it’s nice to note once in a while that I’m not alone.
John Steinbeck was a pretty well-known writer-fella. Won a Nobel, I believe. He wrote in his diary, “I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were.” Yeah. What John said.
On the other hand, one of my favorite nonfiction writers is John McFee. Great writer. He once said, “If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.”
When the leader of a small group I am in suggested that we each write a haiku about our relationship with creativity, I had to look up what the pattern is for a haiku. (I am not a poet.) I stared for a while at the screen, muttering. Because, frankly, my relationship with creativity has been highly contentious of late, a lot of circling and snarling. Here’s what I settled on:
I chip at granite
Hoping to spark ideas
Ow ow ow—what’s this?
This slipped by me when I was busy celebrating my 35th wedding anniversary (yay!) a couple of weeks ago…
It’s an essay I wrote for Readers Entertainment Magazine, called “The Quiet Inspiration for Writing.” Here’s a small snippet:
“No writer works in true isolation. Every conversation a writer has, every book she reads, every job he has ever held, every movie they watch, everyone they’ve fallen in love with, is fodder for the creative process. And most writers, I think, would acknowledge some special influences in their lives, people who touched them early on, encouraging them or maybe trying to discourage them. In my own early life, there were many… [read more]”
I had an entertaining chat with Pen for Hire host Matthew Harms not long ago, and he’s posted it on YouTube so that you, too, can be entertained. (Well, I hope you’re entertained. If you’re not, I guarantee your ticket price back.) You can see it here:
In more upbeat news, I recently was featured on a talk show called Writers Corner Live with Bridgetti Lim Banda and Mary Elizabeth Jackson. They run a very polished operation and were great, welcoming hosts. I had a lot of fun talking to them. You can view it right here, or visit the Writers Corner Live page on Facebook.
Here’s the YouTube link to the interview if it’s not displaying properly for you.