Becoming a Writer

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I did a Q & A at ICFA (the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts) a week or so ago. It was via Zoom, of course, which was okay, because I am not crazy about Florida.

One thing I talked about — is the way the past year reminds me of the late 1960s, when I lived in Detroit and the world seemed violent, unjust and beyond my control. I have noticed that I am worrying about my health, which I did in Detroit in the 60s, and which (I think) is a response to a world out of control and dangerous and wrong. (Always worry about something you can — to an extent — control.) (When you can’t fix the world, fix yourself.) Anyway, I told the story about how I wrote my first publishable fiction.

I had just moved into a house with three other women. It was in Highland Park, a small town entirely surrounded by Detroit. This was the city itself, not a suburb, and it was not entirely safe. (Remember that this was the city as it used to be, full of houses and auto plants, with a murder rate of 800 a year. I loved that city. It was full of energy, but not all the energy was positive.)

The first night I slept in the house I woke to screaming. The house was a side-by-side duplex, and I thought the screaming came from next door. I went downstairs to the one roommate home, my friend Kathe. I thought I heard running steps as I went down, but didn’t really pay attention.

It turned out the person screaming was Kathe. She had been waked by a click as someone tried to open her bedroom door. Having remarkable survival instincts, she woke completely, leaped across the room to hold the door shut and screamed, thus waking me.

We searched the house and found at least one window open. And we called the Highland Park police. They arrived with drawn nickel-plated guns. You have no idea how big and shiny a gun like that is. And they decided that Kathe had dreamed the intrusion.

So they left. Later our two roommates arrived. They were political activists, who were concerned about the rights of the prisoners in Jackson Prison. We could not get them interested in the safety of the house. It turned out they had been leaving a ground floor window unlocked, because one of them has lost her keys. We wanted to put good locks on all the ground floor windows and make sure no one was ever home alone. They were not interested. The safety of their roommates did not seem important. Instead they were focused on the guys in Jackson, who certainly needed help, but we needed help, too. Kathe and I moved out a few days later. Within a week a woman down the street, a friend of ours, was raped in her bedroom.

The police then called Kathe and wanted to talk to her. (They hadn’t filed a report on our break in.) She said, “Screw them all,” and drove to California.

I did the best job I could of securing my new apartment, which was several floor ups. This made the windows pretty safe. But I put a grid over the inside of the front door, because it looked to me as if it could be kicked in. It was years before I could sleep without a light on. And I told this story to people at my job. The women were angry. The men told rape jokes. A male friend of mine told me that all men imagine raping women.

I felt angry and powerless in the face of sexism and serious stupidity. I’m not sure ‘fail’ is the right word here, but…The cops had failed me and Kathe by not doing their job. Our highly political roommates had failed me and Kathe by not caring about the safety of women. My co-workers, at least the men, had failed me by thinking rape was funny. At least one male friend failed me.

All I could think to do was write, and for the first time in my life I began to write fiction that was good enough to sell. One the stories was “The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons,” which is in the Norton Anthology of Science Fiction. Another was “A Clear Day in the Motor City,” which was reprinted in Thomas Disch’s New, Improved Sun.

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