Becoming a Writer

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.

More Practice on Posting

We are well into March, and I have a virtual con looming in front of me, also a virtual visit with my tax person. Not my favorite month in the best of times. Here is a poem.

(I am still having a problem inputting verse. The only way for me to get the line spacing right changes the typeface.)

( And yet, in an earlier post, I did get both the line spacing and the type the way I wanted. How? A mystery.)

The Owl
Upside down, the owl
stares under the branch.
Our gazes meet.
Welcome, bird of
Athena, possibly wise,
you of golden eyes
and silent flight. 
I praise your sight
and the strong beat
of your wings,
your talons like knives –
who can survive them?
You strike, lift off,
are gone. 

The Golden Days

(This post is pulled from facebook and begins from a Jonathan Letham story in The New Yorker, which is based on the Robert Heinlein story “And He Built a Crooked House.” If you try the above link you will run into a paywall. Sorry about that. I will see if there is a way around it.)

I kind of miss the old days, when SFF was an enclave of not-well-respected readers and writers and when SFF would not appear in The New Yorker, unless it was by an established literary writer doing their own version of fantastic fiction.

Two things have happened since the golden days of my youth. SFF has overwhelmed popular culture, due in good part to CGI. (Once you have CGI, you have to use it, and what better, more spectacular way than SFF?) The other thing has been the blurring of the boundary between literary fiction and fantastic fiction. I’m not sure why this happened. Maybe a lot of artists of all kinds grew up on SFF and did not leave it entirely behind. The line between SFF and literature was never as strongly drawn outside America, so another element was writers like Calvino and Borges, clearly fantastic and clearly literary.

An important element in the US (I think) is McCarthyism. A lot of American writers retreated into psychological novels about the middle class as a way of avoiding trouble. (My old friend John Rezmerksi said I was wrong here, and the psychological novel goes back to Henry James. Could be, but a fear of attracting red baiters may have made the psychological novel suddenly attractive after WWII.) SFF became a safe place to write about more varied topics, because it was pulp fiction, kid fiction. No one paid much attention to it. To me as a kid it was far more realistic than realistic fiction, since it talked about nuclear holocaust and police states and the horrible pressure to conform…

End of February

It’s glorious out. 41 F. No wind. A bright, clear, intensely blue sky. The snow on the Farmers’ Market roofs is melting, and the falling drops of water shine in the sunlight. I put on a light jacket, but didn’t bother to zip or to take a scarf. Very nice. I got a loaf of craisin walnut flax bread and a loaf of wild rice bread and then came home. Because I slept badly, I plan to spend the day lazing.

Strange Dream

I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep. I don’t usually remember dreams, but this time I remembered a fragment of one. I was at a party, in a room full of people. No one was wearing masks. I think I was a teenager at a party of my parents’ friends. A couple were leaving early to go to the opera. People thought they were going to a local performance. I pointed out, in a somewhat obnoxious teenage way, that operas don’t begin at 7:30. Therefore, they must be going to an HD broadcast of the Met, which would begin at 8:30 EST and 7:30 CST. (I think operas usually start at 8, but this was a dream.) That was most of the dream: a party with no masks, an opera performance in a movie theater. The only other thing I remember is there were mosquitos in the room: only a few, but large and with red bodies, full of blood. Since mosquitos carry diseases, I figure they were a warning of plague. Not a nightmare, but strange and possibly unsettling.

Science Fiction (and Fantasy)

 1.
  
 The thing about sci-fi is
 simplicity:
 a plot running like a monorail
 straight into distance,
 characters who lack
 complexity.  
  
 The hero slays a dragon.
 Three moons rise,
 one after another.
 Lacking a steed, the heroine
 summons a dragon
 out of the turbulent sea. 
  
 2.
  
 A reader says:
 “I don’t understand.
 Nothing like that
 has ever happened to me.
  
 “The trains here
 Mostly run on time.
 Most days we dine
 a little after eight.
  
 “Little happens 
 here that we
 cannot with ease
 anticipate.
  
 “Quirks of character
 are what engage
 and make me want
 to turn the page.”

 3.
 
 None the less
 the three moons rise,
 shedding rosy light
 on a vast plain. 
  
 An alien wizard
 with compound eyes
 pauses briefly
 to explain
  
 how things happen
 in this place
 outside ordinary
 time and space. 

More News About Almost Nothing

Having successfully added two publications or potential publications to this blog, I went and looked at my old blog. It looks pretty shabby compared to this one; and because I have not been paying attention, the comments — 3.6 thousand of them — are mostly spam. I can’t figure out how to delete comments in groups. I will work on that another day. Right now I am pretty happy with being able to add publications with covers here.

And I am happy to have a good looking blog. The amazing pattern on the home page is from a page of marbling hand done by Galen Berry. Years ago I worked for the Minnesota Center of Book Arts. I bought a couple of pages of his wonderful marbling in the MCBA shop and asked him if I could use them in a blog. He said yes, if I credited him. So here is the credit: Galen Berry. If you ever want a marbled cover for a book, he is the guy to go to. https://marbleart.us/


 

 

Missing Years

Somewhere along the line, I lost a couple of years. I know what happened to 2020: the plague. I am less sure about 2019. The answer may be Donald Trump, a master of chaos. The unending series of crises on the news may have distracted me from writing and maintaining my website. I am used to the ordinary upsets of modern life, but Trump is special.

The crises he created were both malevolent and nuts. The awful treatment of refugees and immigrants, which is against national and international law;  the deliberate  wrecking of government departments, including the national parks and the US postal service. (A lot of people love the national parks, and almost everyone loves the post office. It got a 91% approval rating in a poll last year.) The pointless tariff fight with China, which ended up hurting American businesses and farmers. It’s as if he hated the US and its people and was determined to break the country and make its people miserable. I could go on, but everyone knows this stuff.

Through most of my adult life, writing has been my way of coping with the real world: analyzing it, criticizing it, and escaping it. But this time writing did not work. This was not just due to the Trump Administration, though it was four years of one damn thing after another. I think my faith in myself as a writer has been eroding for some time. I’m not sure why. Maybe age and getting tired. I could no longer see the point of writing.

At the same time, I’ve been having trouble reading. A friend of mine, who is a publisher and has to read many book-length manuscripts, gave up social media because she thought the constant jumble of unconnected short messages damaged her ability to concentrate. I think this may be true. I love facebook. Unlike writing fiction, writing for facebook gives immediate feedback. I block people who bother me, so mostly I get likes or friendly comments. What more could a writer ask for? Photos of cats are always welcome. Landscapes are also good. One of my facebook friends takes lovely photos of Minnesota winter woods: bare trees with their shadows lying on unmarked snow. I even like photos of people’s dinners. If the dinner looks especially good I ask for the recipe. Maybe if I spent less time with facebook I could read and write more.

In any case, I seem to have started writing again. It began this spring with writing poems. I have written poetry most of my life, but never a lot of it; and this time I wrote a fair number of poems in a short period. Then — in the fall — I moved on to short stories. I have finished two and am most of the way done with a third. Why the creative juices started flowing in Trump’s last year as president I don’t know.