I Like Writing but Hate Being a Writer
I said that aloud as I sat stone cold sober at the World Fantasy convention in Saratoga Springs last fall. All over the lobby, bright faced young writers fresh out of workshops gazed covertly at editors and agents who passed them by with that blank eye that acknowledges no one. Desperate older writers without publishers circled endlessly like raptors over a barren landscape, while a well-oiled horror writer strode within an entourage comprised of his smiling wife and adoring groupies.
Nick Mamatas of Clarkesworld, who was present when I spoke, said he’d buy an essay on liking to write while hating being a writer, were I to write it. Maybe moments like that are why speculative fiction writers go to conventions.
It was after the thoroughbred racing season and before the first snow, but Saratoga Springs, that aristocratic old resort in upstate New York, was still beautiful. Locations favored by the rich tend to be. The air was crisp, the foliage still turning. For a long weekend this fall, the streets of the tiny, picturesque town were flooded with what I’ve come to think of as The Blob, that floating spec fiction community that assembles, breaks down into component parts, and then reassembles at the next preordained spot.
I’d been nearly as one with The Blob some months before at an awards ceremony and would be again in Manhattan a few weeks after World Fantasy. Is there something special about seeing The Blob in cold foothill air? Does it do something special to the noise and gossip, rumor and self promotion — and the booze? Sober, I don’t believe it is possible to entirely participate in a convention.
I came late to being a writer, or at least the kind who wrote stories and books of the sort one could publish under one’s own name. The first SF novel I wrote was acquired when I was forty. Though I’d read SF and fantasy for most of my life, I’d never belonged to any fan organization or attended a convention until I sold my first book. It was much too late for me to fully enjoy being a writer because I’d stopped drinking.
Probably it’s only because I stopped that I was able to write or, for that matter, that I’m still alive, but sobriety has its drawbacks. When I first attended a certain quite wonderful Midwestern convention, everyone talked about, “its spirit” My discovery was that for many the spirit was vodka.
Writers tend to be shy, antisocial people who require various amounts of lubrication to function in crowds. Being sober at any of their gatherings after a certain hour in the evening gives me the sensation of walking through a world where everyone else operates at either a slightly faster or a slightly slower pace than I do.
My discomfort is my problem, not theirs. Mostly these are just people uneasy in strange company, people who drink more at cons than they do otherwise. That I find many of them such boring drunks is doubtless also my own failing.
Once long ago after some panel at some convention a bunch of us were talking about mainstream fiction and a very young writer said, “I wonder what they say about science fiction at the mainstream conventions.” I cracked up and a couple of other people were amused. Some didn’t get the absurdity.
There isn’t anything quite like the spec fiction convention in any other field of endeavor — not with the frequency or regularity of SF cons at least. It’s said that every weekend there is at least one convention somewhere in the United States, sometimes several. And plenty more occur abroad.
There are legends. In her anecdotage years ago, an old mid-list writer driven to bitterness at never having won an award (there are almost as many awards as conventions) told me about a well-known and well-respected writer (and winner of some major awards) who had, for a period of several years, lived entirely at conventions. He had no permanent home; his domestic life was in turmoil and he wasn’t writing. So he went from convention to convention, arriving a day or two early and crashing with fellow writers or fans, staying a day or two after the convention and then scrambled for transportation to the next town.
“It only worked because so many people considered him sexy,” she said. I thought it was too bad he wasn’t still active, that people couldn’t point him out to me. “Just missed him. He’s crashing in someone’s room right now.”
A legend redeems so much. Saratoga Springs is in Washington Irving country. At times that weekend I wondered if it was possible to stand outdoors at sunset and hear Henry Hudson and his crew playing at ninepins.
One morning as I set out early from the hotel to get something to eat before I was supposed to moderate a panel, I encountered groups returning bleary-eyed and with their name tags askew from the breakfast that follows the binge.
“Like a Shriners convention,” I said to a companion. Now all I remembered about Shriners was that they wore red fezzes with tassels on them, got drunk and, as I recalled from my youth, behaved like assholes in various cities around the nation. I considered them kind of minor-league Masons without the Knights Templar and Mozart connections.
“We have conventions like the Shriners but we don’t have the hats,” I said. “Maybe propeller beanies.” When I was very small - four or five years old—I saw an older kid (maybe seven) wearing one. It was a windy day in Boston and his props were spinning. I thought it was a glorious sight and told my father I wanted one. “Maybe when you grow up,” he said.
A tourist unconnected to the convention who overheard me running on about the Shriners leaned over and told me that an uncle whom she loved was a Shriner and that they actually did worthwhile charitable and community work. I was amazed to find out they still existed.
Aside from the panel I spent the afternoon with Mark Rich talking about a story we’re writing together. We discussed the thought processes and motivations of a renegade orc suffering from amnesia who finds himself on a crossroads world that is nothing but an enormous flea market. Maybe, despite my unease and alienation, speculative fiction conventions are the only place for someone who believes he can make a good guess at the inner working of an orc’s mind but has never knowingly met a Shriner.
One morning in Saratoga I awoke to discover that while falling asleep the night before, I must have grabbed a pen and scribbled on a pad, “Name her Ethel like the horse.” Then I spent the day trying to figure out why that seemed like a revelation worth preserving.
Finally I remembered that I’d once heard that Hubert Humphrey, Vice President of the United States and perennial presidential candidate, had called Ethel Kennedy, the wife of Bobby, “the brood mare” because of the immense number of children she produced. But even after that discovery I could find no clue as to who or what it had been my intention to name Ethel like the horse.
Sometime after World Fantasy, at dinner in Manhattan, a British editor talking about the convention said something about the lack of style sense amongst the convention goers and their lack of personal hygiene. He put it a bit more bluntly and it took me by surprise since that hadn’t been something I really noticed. I wondered if that said something about me.
In fact, though, his complaint seemed old-fashioned and beside the point. There’s photographic evidence that things were a bit different in the old days, but a distinctive feature of The Blob now is a general lack of personal neglect. The writer in the Hawaiian shirts and the editor who dresses as Nathan Detroit from Guys and Dolls are showing their flags, not displaying anti-social tendencies.
The prevailing clothing style is campus wear. The genre and academia exist in the kind of proximity that they did not have twenty-five years ago. The number of spec fiction writers who support themselves on their writing is tiny and getting smaller. Many young writers now pursue academic careers. Older writers are often part-time or full-time teachers.
A common path for an aspiring genre writer starts in the lower minor league workshops and often proceeds to Clarion or one of the other Triple-A clubs. Along the way she will have had professional writers, often members of SFWA, as teachers. The networking opportunities are one of the attractions.
With skill, persistence, and luck the student will begin to get published. Usually it’s stories at first, then novels. She can hope if all goes really well to perhaps teach workshops herself. The career path illustrated strikes me as having about it certain aspects of a pyramid scheme.
A generation of writers has learned they need to play well with others from preschool on. They honor the work of eccentric loners like James Tiptree and Philip K. Dick, but would those two fit in on a play date?
The atmosphere of The Blob has changed in the twenty-five years I’ve been around. The scandal at the major award event the year before last when a much-honored famous writer on the podium grabbed the person of another famous much-honored writer was all about that. It was the dirty, guy-centered, commercial, legendary past on exhibition in front of an audience used to environments where sexual harassment brings about official reprimands and stints in compulsory re-education classes.
That viewpoint is one I share. But in my youth I internalized a narrative of the writer’s life reminiscent of the one that grips the scary photographers, bare survivors of the Summer of Love and birth of punk, in Elizabeth Hand’s novel Generation Loss.
These are the artists who came of age struggling to unlock a vision and found something that froze them, who touched glory and saw the truth out the corner of their eye once, maybe even twice, and maybe never again.
World Fantasy did carry a hint or two of that past. One night I found myself out in the freezing cold visiting with those modern social outcasts, tobacco smokers. We sat in the dark bullshitting. Further out in the night was what looked at first like a raven in a dark suit. It was a well-known writer from abroad, and every once in a while he interjected into the conversation some slurred sentences in an accent no one could understand. Everyone would pause for a few moments, the smokers would exhale pensively, and then talk would resume. It was great. For a little while, it was forty years ago and I was back hanging with the hip outsiders at some lousy college.
In the aftermath of any genre event are the bad online pictures (Is my bald spot that big?), the mentions of one’s name in blog accounts of the affair, and the jumbled notes about the Orc story to keep the memory alive.
A few times I’ve set scenes from stories at conventions and award ceremonies. But that’s probably just a sign that I don’t really fit into the genre. It’s rarely done in spec fiction maybe because the genre’s writers are rather proud of the fact that they do not draw on personal experience.
Or perhaps it’s because spec fiction is devoted to the fantastic, the creepy, and the undiscovered. And The Blob is the default mode, something too ordinary to be commented on.
The last day of World Fantasy, a friend was leaving early and I saw him off on the shuttle bus to the airport. It was a bright and bracing day. The driver had a red, open Hudson Valley Dutch face right out of a Franz Hal painting. This was the face of the townsman amused by the flight of Ichabod Crane, not above lifting a stein in memory of Rip Van Winkle. It’s that face which I thought about on my way back to the city.