Talking to Myself and Feeling Old

Sometime back in the mid-nineties, just a year or two after I’d started publishing regularly, I was asked to write a profile. I don’t remember by whom. I don’t even remember what for. But I stumbled upon it a while back. Most of it is out of date, other parts are simply overblown and embarrassing, and show just how full of myself I was at the time(Which makes me wonder how much has really changed). But as a document of where I was and what was passing for reflection in my feeble excuse for a brain at the time, I found it interesting. I can’t see how anyone else would but, hey, tough noogies. This is my blog and I feel like sharing. Or in the words of past philosophers– “I’ve suffered for my art. Now it’s your turn.”

No one said this was going to be easy.
I started writing seriously in 1976, and after a mere four years sold my first story to Elinor Mavor’s Amazing SF Stories. [1]. Then, except for a few small press items, sold absolutely nothing else for thirteen years. It occurs to me that the powers in charge of keeping the cosmic balance went a tad overboard.

If it’s true that “life is what happens while you’re making other plans,” then life was happening in the interval. I kept busy. I married a poet and managed to stay married to her despite all the mistakes and mis‑communication that can happen between two people. I got two BS (fill in your own interpretation) degrees, first in Polymer Science and then in Computer Science. I took up woodcarving and spent ten years in the SCA. And kept writing. Five books. Lotsa stories. It wasn’t determination or perseverance that kept the words coming‑‑sometimes being a writer seems more like having an obsessive/compulsive disorder than a higher calling.

Why sf/f? I don’t know, but for whatever reason I’ve always sought out the fantastic. I’m a member of one of the first television generations and some of my earliest coherent memories are of the old SF puppet series Fireball XL5, then the original Twilight Zone and later The Outer Limits. TZ probably had the greatest impact; it gave me nightmares! My imagination was already set on overload and I used to hide under the bed whenever the theme music played, just to escape the bad dreams I knew would come. Later the nightmares became more manageable as I learned to focus, if never totally control, my imagination. Learning to read just gave me another tool for the same process, and books provided a much more varied experience. It wasn’t long before I shifted to books almost exclusively for my fix of the fantastic.

There were little epiphanies along the way. They explain nothing but perhaps serve as markers on the road. I wrote fiction in high school but not in any systematic way, and committed enough poetry in college to prove‑‑to myself at least‑‑that I wasn’t a poet. I only got serious about writing prose after reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time. It was like the last few grains of plutonium that give the pile critical mass, and I clearly remember it as the time I was finally able to articulate the effect that fiction had on me: If this is storytelling, then that’s what I want to do. Writers as diverse as Ray Bradbury, Parke Godwin, John Irving, Ursula LeGuin, Peter Beagle, Andre Norton and Thomas Burnett Swann had similar effects at different points along the way. Everything I’ve written since has just been part of the effort to cut my own path to the same well.

In the summer of 1993 Gardner Dozois took “Laying the Stones,” a digression from what would later become A Warrior of Dreams, for Asimov’s SF. Gardner wasn’t the first editor to buy from me, but he was the one who broke my second sale jinx and come what may I’ll always owe him for that. After that sale something was definitely changed. For starters, my output went up quite a bit. In addition to that‑‑or because of it‑‑more sales quickly followed to Science Fiction Age, Dragon Magazine, Shawna McCarthy’s new magazine Realms of Fantasy, and the Pulphouse anthology SplatterFairies[2] I intend to keep adding to that list.

It’s been said that the difference between SF and Fantasy is one of direction; that SF is “the impulse to understand” looking outward, while Fantasy is the same impulse turned inward. There are exceptions all over the place but I think it’s generally true. Purists favor one form or the other and will argue for hours about which is superior. To me that’s like arguing which side of the same coin shines the brightest. Science has made us a lot smarter but not much wiser. Science can give us the means to reach the stars but it can’t give us the will. The desire to understand the universe and the desire to understand ourselves is at heart the same desire; we can not and should not deny either one.

I was a reader long before wanting to write, and Science Fiction was where I started. Fantasy as a category didn’t exist, and at the time I probably wouldn’t have cared for it if it had. This was at a time when everything worthwhile seemed “out there” beyond wherever I was at the moment and SF was my way of making contact with it. It wasn’t until college and LOTR that the more introverted side of literature began to appeal to me. For many years afterward I read no SF at all. Now that’s starting to change as I learn to balance the impulses. My first published story was Fantasy, the second SF. Writing both is a good way of exercising both sides of the brain.

There’s probably a master’s thesis or two in the works on the effect that computer bulletin boards and online services are having on communities in general and writers and artists in particular. While much has been written on the effect of the word processor, I think the computer’s main contribution to the field may actually be more in its role as communication device. Both aspects of the machine help get the work done. For instance, I found out about my second sale online. Sales number four and six came about because of information received through the electronic grapevine. I’ve been able to carry on conversations with many writers and editors, people who would have taken me several lifetimes to meet otherwise.

Easy communication is not something I take for granted. It may help to understand that I was born and raised in Mississippi, and after brief attempts to live in Pennsylvania and Alabama, returned here. While there’s no shortage of writers in this state, they’re mostly working in a tradition of which the gothic and the folktale may play a part but SF/F definitely does not. According to the 1994 SFWA Directory there is one other SFWA member in the entire state.[3] To say I’m fairly isolated physically from my peers is an understatement, and there are plenty of other writers with the same problem. We may all work alone, but the contact with people who have been through it all before and know exactly what you’re talking about goes a long way toward easing the isolation. The computer makes that contact a lot easier.

It was while online that another writer once asked me how I’d stood being unpublished for so long, since the two‑year gap between his first and second sales had felt like eternity. The only answer I have is that there are no mile markers in eternity. If the gap had been shorter I wouldn’t have enjoyed it any more. Despite all that was good and right in my life, there was something missing. It felt a lot like being lost. When “Simple Souls” appeared in the March 1994 issue of Science Fiction Age, I felt as if I’d finally come home.

[1] Note : My actual first sale was to a short-lived fanzine called Prelude to Fantasy, but this was my first pro sale
[2] [Note: The anthology was never published, because Axolotl Press folded. The story, “Doing Time in the Wild Hunt” eventually appeared in The Ogre’s Wife.
[3] Now there are three.