Sunday, April 29, 2018

When We Were Respectable

A few years ago now, I attended a convention where, on several occasions and within several different contexts, I was assured that science fiction had become “respectable.” On only one occasion, though, did someone explain to me why they thought so.
“Because it makes so much money.”
Like an innocent lad from the farmlands who just fallen off the turnip truck, I found myself asking, “Really? Is that all it takes to become respectable?”
Reply: a shrug. As if to say, “And what’s wrong with money? You want a Nobel Prize or something?”
For the moment, let’s forget that I do want a Nobel Prize. That can wait. What I did was try to add up what I just heard, except that it didn’t add up.
I’m a writer, which in most places means that, by definition and demonstration, I have no money. In fact, I’m convinced (without research, so sue me) that in many languages the word “writer” can be literally defined “One who has no money.”
But … but … I write science fiction!
Where, then, is my respectability?
Has it gotten lost in the mails? Was it transferred to the wrong PayPal account? Did one of my neighbors pick it up by mistake?
And … this loss is not mine alone. I look around at my peers, and if any of them have any money, not to mention “so much” money, it’s because they’ve been doing something other than writing, much less writing science fiction.
We’re eating watered-down porridge from hand-carved wooden bowls.
One would think respectability would have a little more flavor.
But wait, there’s more.
I also teach science fiction writing. Isn’t it proof enough that if an accredited institution with an impeccable reputation would pay for an instructor in science fiction writing, science fiction has earned a degree of respectability in an austere and – dare I say it? – respectable corner of our great culture?
Wrong again.
Within the confines of the Ivory Tower, science fiction is at best the poor relation. The “help.” We’re used to attract the rubes (and their money). It can be pointed to, if needed, for “cultural relevance” (“See? We’re not trying to make you write reams of involuted gibberish with abstractions instead of characters and inventories instead of plots! See, we have classes in science fiction! We’re … we’re almost cool!”).
But if enrollments go down and money grows scarce, science fiction is shown the door. Science fiction, then, is just a “frill.”
And science fiction classes may not be attracting as many students as they have in previous years. Students today know what science fiction is: it’s rockets and rayguns and robots (the “Three Rs” of science fiction). It’s shit blowing up other shit. Who needs to take a class in that?
“You were here as an embellishment. You’re not essential to the core of our highly-esteemed program. You do not display the necessary academic rigor to remain here. We’ll call you when we need you again.”
When you hear the word “rigor,” you know “mortis” will follow almost immediately.
The great academic ship in the harbor has painted over the name “Higher Education” on its sides and stern, replacing it with “Pequod.” And, thanks to a liberal application of academic rigor, we know how that story ends.
If this is what respectability feels like, I’d never have thought to pursue it.
Wait a minute – I haven’t pursued it!
When it comes to education, there are many things more important than respectability. Like, well – like … education, maybe, for a start.
When it comes to writing fiction, especially science fiction, on the list of things I most need to pay attention to, respectability is near the bottom.
Why the hell should I care about respectability?
The obvious conclusion that links science fiction with “so much money” is – media. Big budget superhero movies. Franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek. TV series via cable or Netflix. Big money there. But I can’t help feeling that “so much money” is all about the media, not the message.
And science fiction is more about message than media. Or can be. Or should be. Sometimes it is. But again, I don’t feel comfortable in my seat. I keep fidgeting, even squirming.
So, let’s say science fiction is respected because it makes so much money. What kind of respect is that? It is the respect of a merchant toward another merchant – a more successful merchant. It’s a respect based on commerce, not creativity. Respect based upon the contents of our wallets, not the content of our character, much less the character of our content. It is concession to power via money. It is an approbation of the status quo.
This is not to say I wouldn’t be happier with a few more bucks in the bank, or more than a few. I am not denying the attributes of financial success. I just don’t want the two confused – success and respectability.
Science fiction does not require respectability as either a necessary or sufficient cause for its existence any more than it requires financial success – though I wouldn’t mind if the latter came along for the ride.

“Respect” is one thing. “Respectability” is another. Of the two, I’ll take the former, if and when it is offered. The latter, far as I’m concerned, can go hang.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Before the Year Gets Any Older

You will find this hard to believe if you don’t know me, but easy to believe if you do: I hoped to start off 2018 posting from the get-go, and posting more regularly, as in more often.
What went wrong?
Well might you ask.
I have been hard at work finishing a novel that I started eight or nine years ago. I had to take break to write other things as well as teach a few courses and read some other manuscripts in one editorial capacity or another, all within the framework of doing more work for less pay.
The year 2018 seems neither a good year nor a bad year, just another year.
This notion is neither grim nor celebratory. This is another year we need to get through, like every year preceding it and every year to come.
Granted we don’t do something like die.
I’ve explained elsewhere that around the time I reached sixty, I gave myself points for still being around. People who knew me when I was considerably younger would not have bet on that possibility. But I made it, out of sheer luck, or stubbornness.  Having survived this long is one of the few accomplishments I can claim without some awkward qualification.
“Wow, Rich, you made it to sixty-two. How did you do that?”
“By not dying.”
Life should always be so easy.
Already this year, the list of folks who won’t make it to the year 2019 is pretty long, and getting longer. Folks I’ve known personally. Folks I’ve known by reputation. The one thing you never get used to about living is that it never gets easier to look around at all the people who are dying before you.
One advantage to being sixty-two (going on sixty-three) is that you no longer have to imagine what you’re going to do before you get to the age of sixty-two; you’ve already done it. That can relieve you of a lot of worries.
Late at night, I find myself thinking something or saying something, then I stop and ask, “Is that really me? Is this who I really am?” Maybe it’s a symptom of dementia, but I doubt it. I just find it hard to believe that I’m the person that I have become – not because I didn’t think I would, but because everyone else thought I was going to become someone else, some other person; that I would gain some inner wisdom or lose some critical flaw they saw in me. Instead, they got this.
I’ve tried to write about “Imposter Syndrome” before. Maybe I did. I don’t remember and at the moment don’t much care. It’s common to writers, artists, musicians, creative people in general, and anyone who aspires to one of those positions to which the said individual ascribes a great deal of respect and reverence. Somehow, you assume that the status you aspire to is one must be born to; it’s all destiny and DNA – you cannot “become” a writer, a composer, painter, a physicist, a world leader. Therefore, if you try to become such a person, you’re really an imposter. An imposter, along with other things, is a person who lives in dread of being discovered an imposter.
Whenever it was I was going to write about Imposter Syndrome, I was going to say that a person, if or she lives long enough, wakes up one morning (or whenever it is one wakes up) and discovers he or she is not an imposter. You may not be who you aspired to be, but you are who you are and no one else. For better or worse.
Many of us have had to take on jobs that we needed to take – to make a living. We also may have taken the jobs we were convinced, by others, we needed to do – again, maybe to make a living, or because others, or ourselves, we didn’t think we had what it took to be the person we wanted to be. It may not make much difference why. We took jobs we were expected to have or had to have.
And in this country, in this world, a person is the job. You’re not a poet who washes dishes, you’re a dishwasher. You’re not a guitarist who paints houses, you’re a housepainter. That’s how you do business in the country whose business is business. At best, you’re a dishwasher who writes poetry, or a housepainter who plays guitar. But … you are the job.
I was a Production Assistant (I clipped tearsheets for an ad agency). I was a Mailing Machine Operator. I was a film inspector.  I was a Cold Type Compositor (whatever that is). I was a Makeup Desk editor. I was a Copy Editor. I was a Communist for the FBI …
No. Scratch that last one.
Actually, no. I wasn’t any of those things. Scratch all of them.
I was an imposter.
An imposter whenever I did anything but write, or teach, or fiddle in one way or another with the texts of others. I was even an imposter when I tried to be a scholar of a certain sort I imagined I should be, and could be, if given the chance.
All the times I thought I was not being an imposter, I was.
All the times I thought I was being an imposter, I was being who I really was.
No wonder it took me sixty-two years to stop spinning around. I was going in through the “Out” door, looking through the wrong end of the telescope, taking the right train in the wrong direction, from the wrong station.
It’s always been thus for me.
Do I repeat myself? Then I repeat myself. I repeat multitudes.
Something that does change, if you’re lucky, are your dreams. Not your aspiration-dreams, your what-you-do-when-you-sleep dreams.
For years my dreams always took me off course – in the dream I needed to get to Place A, and by the end of the dream I was riding past Place Z with little hope of returning. Now, my dreams leave me off somewhere, somewhere uncertain, but wherever it is, it’s where I seem I’m supposed to be.

More about this later. You’d think I was getting paid by the word to write all this. But after concentrating so deeply on that novel, I just needed to let my brain run off without a leash, before the year gets any older …

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Semester Ends

(more notes toward more stuff, and the term that never ends)
It’s all over but the grades.
Wait a second – okay, that too.
I had a good semester. Maybe not my best, but my students did well. They always surprise me. And I always come away from my classes feeling like I’ve learned more from the experience.
I’d love to expand upon that, but what I’m left with at the end of this term is not so much about my students as about the folks who are now my bosses.
You see, when I started teaching at Columbia, I worked for a Fiction Writing department, a rare species in an academic world. For all its rarity, it proved a popular program. In fact, one of the largest in the country.
A few years later, the Fiction Writing department was forced to merge with the MFA programs in Poetry and Creative Nonfiction, which belonged to the English Department. We were now the Creative Writing department, or to be more formal, the Department of Creative Writing.
This year, another merger has me now working for the English/Creative Writing department. So we’re one big, happy family.
Happy families are all the same.
I wonder where I heard that one before.
Years ago, back when I was in grad school, I wanted to work for an English department. I really did. Creative writing was all fine and well, but students needed a solid grounding in language (at least one) and literature. You can’t go anywhere until you know where you’ve been.
To some extent, I still believe all of that, but I no longer think that the “solid grounding” is sole territory of the English department. It may be a gross generalization, but a generalization with a foundation of fact: English departments in most American institutions of higher learning, are bureaucracies. And the main objective of any bureaucracy is self-preservation. Everything else is at best secondary – like students, like education.
I’m aware that most of my colleagues teaching creative writing work for English departments, and some of them may grimace sourly as I enter their domain. To get my attention, they’ll rattle the bars of their cells with an empty soup can they use as a water cup. And they’ll mutter, “Welcome to the club.”
It’s true. All true. I was fortunate enough to work in a department that was an aberration and, apparently, an abomination, before the eyes of the MLA, the NCTE and the AWP. In my old department, we worked for the students. We shared experience. Adjuncts and tenured profs were allowed to commingle in plain sight. Academically, we were Babylon. We were Gomorrah.
Well, now that nonsense has been fixed. We are safe under the heavenly dome of the English department – the way it was, the way it has been, and the way it should always be.
Adjuncts! Renounce your ways and repent! Accept your anonymity and lowly place in the hierarchy. Wear your shame like a mendicant’s robe. And to those who teach creative writing, admit even further to your degradation! You are merely the shills and entertainers hired to lure the unwary into this holy grove. We the anointed will take over from there.
And to those lower still – those who teach writing in “popular” forms, sometimes thought of as “writing that people actually want to read” – the dishes are stacked in the sink. Make sure they’re all clean and dried before you leave tonight.
Resistance is futile.
So, here I am. A Babylonian in the City of God (or so-named; God cleared out of here eons ago). Unrepentant. Proud of my degradation, even proud of my shame.
I’m a science fiction writer – you can’t cast me into a dungeon lower than that! I accept my lot with pride, even as you lower another stack of dishes into the sink. Even from the dungeon, I can see your hierarchy for the shallow, sick skeleton it is.
I’m a science fiction writer – the kind who believes that what we do is subvert the status quo. We examine the quotidian, and insist that there are other ways. Tomorrow can be different.
We may be absorbed into the host (i.e. the English department), but we’re viral. Those who hope to change us will find themselves changed in the process.

Let us hope the change will be for the better.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Semester Commences

(more notes toward more stuff I’ve been thinking about sf and teaching and maybe even living)

I have a truly fine class this term. They haven’t read much in the field, which would infuriate some of my colleagues, but several of my students have answered that complaint very well already.
“I haven’t read a lot of science fiction but … that’s why I’m here.”
Students are students. That’s what they do.
And I know, in some instinctual way, they won’t let me down. Which puts the burden on me, but that’s okay. I’m looking forward to the challenge. If I’m lucky, every class teaches me something new, and I’m looking forward to what I’ll learn this time.
I ran across a posting on Facebook, from another teacher, who was trying to work out a comprehensive definition of “speculative fiction.”
Speculative fiction is what you call science fiction when you’re taking it to meet your parents for dinner. Yes, I’m being facetious, but you know what I mean.
I never define speculative/science fiction. I let my students do that in the first session. Then I check with them at the end of the term and see if their definitions have changed.
Science fiction, contrary to its strongest defenders, is a living form. It changes and reshapes itself as the world changes and reshapes itself. If one can successfully define it in a way that makes all other definitions superfluous, call the undertaker. We’re outta here.
In the meantime, I’m rolling a number of things around in my head, juggling them around to see what comes up.
What we want from life is magic.
What we want from science is magic.
If we want to figure out where we’re going, and write about it, look for what we want, and what it will do to us.
If you want to write about future science and technology, look for magic. Look for mystery and miracles.
“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” – Sir Arthur C. Clarke
“I am only really interested in a fiction of miracles. – Flannery OConnor
All great stories are love stories.
All great stories are about loneliness.
The two sentences above do not exclude each other.
A good story is a good story, whether it is based upon objective reality or a subjective interpretation of reality. A good story, however, does not necessarily result in a good reality. Fiction remains fiction, no matter how many people believe in it.
But if you have to believe in a fiction, at least pick a good one.
We return you now to our regularly scheduled programming …

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Semester Approaches, Part Two

(more notes toward more stuff I’ve been thinking about sf and teaching and maybe even living)

I’m never satisfied that I’m teaching what my students need, but at least at times I feel like I’m making an effort at it.
Science fiction is a moving target a.) because it is moving, and b.) because it’s a target, has been a target, remains a target (in spite of many assurances that our work has become “respectable,” whatever that means), and may always be a target – perhaps because no matter what we do, someone who knows better thinks we should be doing otherwise.
There are times when a syllabus looks like a death certificate. The good news is that the patient isn’t dead, just the syllabus. We leave it in the rearview and the class goes where it needs to go.
The syllabus doesn’t teach the class – the teacher (for lack of a better word) teaches, or leads, the class. Or at times the teacher runs just fast enough to keep from being rolled over – by the students, the subject, or by the teacher’s own expectations for what the class should or can accomplish.
The thing I want most from my class – the thing I set out as my highest goal – is that they leave by the end of the semester thinking like science fiction writers. What they write is their own business. What they do is their own business. But if they can think like science fiction writers (and it occurs to me that many people who write science fiction can’t) they will at least have the equipment not only to write in the form, but to think of the world around them in ways they wouldn’t have before.

#                          #                          #

I have no trouble calling what I write science fiction. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what it’s called. I’ve noticed a lot students I encounter do worry. “I’m working on this story. I’m not sure if it’s sci-fi or something else.”
“Are you finished with it?”
“Don’t worry, then, until it’s done. We’ll figure out what it is when you’ve got something.”
As much I love science fiction, and as much as I believe that science fiction will save our planet, our universe, our culture, and maybe even our lunch, what I love more is story. A good story means more to me than all the categories you can come up with.
Back to the student:
“I’m working on something. I don’t know if it’s a story or not.”
Oh dear. Here we go again.
“Keep working. When it’s ready, and if you’re paying attention, you’ll find out what it is. You won’t tell if it’s a story. I won’t tell. The thing you’re working on will tell you if it’s a story or if it’s something else. Keep working.”
I know that answer may strike many here as unsatisfactory. It is unsatisfactory. Here you are, a roomful of writers who want to write all the great things you know you can, and will, write, and I’m telling you that a pile of scribbled letters is going to tell you what it is.
Remember, that pile of scribbled letters is yours.
I’m not trying to be “literary” or “aesthetic” about this. I am, I believe, being practical. My employers at Columbia College Chicago hired me, I suspect, because they wanted someone to teach what they believe is a “commercial” form of writing – i.e. something that someone will pay you to write as compared to something that no one will pay you to write but will exist for – well, for some reason. My employers seem to make some distinction between what they think they want their students to do and what they think I want my students to do. It’s a misapprehension. We both want them to write the best possible work they’re capable of producing.
Besides, I don’t think they know what writers of science fiction really get paid. If they ever find out, my butt is on the street. We’re paid crap compared to what writers in other fields receive.
What it means is that a good story goes beyond the boundaries of the teachable. I have colleagues who go on about three- and six-act structure; they’ll go on about narrative “arcs”; they’ll talk about having an “A” story and a “B” story; they’ll talk about character and motivation and conflict and complication (hell, even I do that).
They can show you how to build the statue that is Galatea – perfectly life-like, but without life.
How do you make Galatea live and breathe and speak and laugh, and even cry?
The question is big. The answers are many – or the same answer worded many ways.
I came upon this wonderful quote from the great screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, who worked with Michael Powell on such classics as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. He is talking about films, but what he says applies to any kind of writing:

I think that a film should have a good story, a clear story, and it should have, if possible, something which is probably the most difficult thing – it should have a little bit of magic. Magic being untouchable and very difficult to cast, you can’t deal with it at all. You can only try to prepare some nests, hoping that a little bit of magic will slide into them.

Yes, even a science fiction story needs a little bit of magic.
Where does it come from?
I don’t know. Like most of the universe, it remains a mystery.
But very often, most often, the magic comes from you. You give to every story a little piece of yourself that no other writer can give to that story. It may come easy or may come with unbearable agony, but it comes from you.
Let me throw in some words from smart people, so that you don't just have to take the word of a stupid teacher-guy:

“ . . . The mature science fiction writer doesn’t merely tell a story about Brick Malloy vs. The Giant Yeastmen from Gethsemane. He makes a statement through his story. What is the statement? Himself, the dimension and depth of the man. His statement is seeing what everybody else sees but thinking what no one else has thought, and having the courage to say it. The hell of it is that only time will tell whether it was worth saying.” – Alfred Bester, “My Affair With Science Fiction” (1975)

“It was 1956, and the beginning of a conscious realization that to limit science fiction to outer space was just that – a limitation, and that science fiction has and should have as limitless a character as poetry; further, that it has a real function in inner space. This in turn led me to a redefinition of science itself, and to an increasing preoccupation with humanity not only as the subject of science, but as its source. It has become my joy to find out what makes it tick, especially when it ticks unevenly.” — Theodore Sturgeon, in his introduction to “And Now the News . . .” in the collection, The Golden Helix

“The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader reading it makes it live: a live thing, a story.” — Ursula K. Le Guin

“Any bad fiction, no matter the genre, is a wild exercise of the imagination which explodes in the night of our minds, makes garish pyrotechnics, then dies, leaving the night blacker than before. But good fiction is a steady light even if sometimes a small one. By it we walk without stumbling and we may return at any time to see under its flare other topographical features we did not understand the first trip.” – Philip Jose Farmer

I know – if I’m teaching a “genre” class, is that what I’m supposed to be talking about? Aren’t I supposed to be talking about tropes and arcs and structure? Isn’t it all about the “Three Rs”: Rockets, Robots and Rayguns?
No. No. No.
Not necessarily so.
It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.
The thing that probably most infuriates my colleagues who have no interest in science fiction – or any forms of “popular” literature – is their belief that it doesn’t have to be good writing, by their standards, to be “successful” – by their standards. What those standards are is an argument for another time, but let’s say we can agree on what constitutes the basics of good writing. They have a point. All you have to do is review the quality of prose in most bestsellers to see that a lot of bad writing makes a lot of money for someone. They will also see that bad writing is not the exclusive domain of science fiction – in fact, our standards are much higher than they are in many other forms. And yet the belief persists that science fiction depends mostly on “ideas” illustrated through cheap dramatic conventions, which makes none of it “real” or “serious” literature.
And very often, to be honest, they’re right.
This isn’t to say the work has no value, but that it engages in a currency they do not recognize.
I believe it’s possible and even necessary, to write to the higher goal, i.e. it takes as many sheets of paper (or equivalent electrons) and as much ink to write a good book as a bad or mediocre one. A box of good books weighs as much as a box of bad ones. Why not fill that box with the best work possible?
The coolest thing about science fiction is that, so long as we keep “story” somewhere in the upper corner of our imaginations, we can invent the form as we go along. And we can imbue it with a finesse and nuance it never had before. Why I maintain such prominence for “story” is a subject for another time.
We are situated on the corner of Popular Street and Personal Avenue, and the cross traffic comes from both ways. In a culture that is changing in so many ways, it’s not a bad place to be.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Semester Approaches

(notes toward more stuff I’ve been thinking about sf and teaching and maybe even living)

One should write fiction carefully and consciously to someone, as one writes a letter; and the selection of that someone is the single most important skill that a writer can develop.
— Theodore Sturgeon
Everybody writes to somebody.
Or they should.
I know a few carloads of writers who say they write only for themselves, and I would never doubt them. But I didn’t say anything about who they write for – I said “write to.”
Writing, so I have been told, is a form of communication. Communication implies that there’s a sender and a receiver. “Rhetoric must be a bridge, a road,” Borges wrote; “too often it is a wall, an obstacle.”
Who is receiving what we write?
If we’re writing science fiction, is there a science fiction reader to whom we’re writing? Who is that person? What is that person like? Are they like us? Should they be?
I believe these questions may be at the heart with what is going on in the field these days. Many people have many assumptions about what’s good, what’s bad; things ain’t like they used to be; a candy bar used to be twenty-five cents; you shouldn’t be eating candy bars anyway; if it’s sci-fi, why are there no robots?; why are there only robots?; I ordered a halibut and you brought me beef jerky; if I go to Mars who’s going to mow my lawn?; why is everybody else always wrong and only I am right? Huh? How about that?
I had an argument – no, let’s call it a disagreement – with the late and much-missed David G. Hartwell. He used to say, most directly in his book, Age of Wonders, that readers have to learn how to read science fiction, which was one of the expressed intentions of that volume. Reading science fiction is different from reading other kinds of fiction. Many readers don’t know how to do it – like going from automatic to stick shift. “Written science fiction, like cooking, mathematics, or rock ’n’ roll, is a whole bunch of things that some people can understand or do and some not … Just because someone can read does not mean that he necessarily can read SF, just as the ability to write arabic numerals and add and subtract doesn’t mean you necessarily can or want to perform long division.”
Me? I insisted that every book teaches its reader how to read it. Some do so better than others, but each novel or collection has to work its own specific magic. If I read a book about how to read regency romances, I doubt if it would do me any good. Same with westerns, or private eye novels, or police procedurals. One kind of story may appeal to a reader more than another, but every book has to teach its readers how it should be read.
Were it otherwise, that strange and alluring abyss known as fandom would have the greatest sway over what is written and what is sold as science fiction. And yet there are a number of books that have sold far and wide beyond fandom’s fuzzy corridors and are recognized by all but the most adamant protesters as science fiction.
How can that be?
I am one of those writers who often hears from readers, “I usually don’t like science fiction, but I like your stories.”
On the other hand, I’ve heard this from fans: “You wrote some kind of thing, didn’t you?”
So it goes.
I don’t know why this is. Obviously, there are many voices speaking to many readers. Some are more readily received by the more vocal members of the sf community. Others, not so much. And the differences between the “some” and the “others” are not always reflected in book sales. Readers of science fiction outnumber science fiction “fans.”
Science fiction media is pervasive. We are constantly told we now live in a science fiction universe. Terms from popular science fiction media have entered everyday vernacular. For those of us who create science fiction to be read or listened to, this may not always be a blessing, but it seems that at least in some respects a wider audience has already met us half way. It is no longer 1984 (when Hartwell’s book came out).
Who is our audience? Who are we writing to?
In a world (as the movie trailers tell us) of growing diversity, even in the midst of devastating setbacks, cultures are communicating with other cultures with greater facility. Or at least they can – we can, if we choose. We don’t have to presume our readers all come from similar backgrounds.
I used to get grief from my short story writing students all the time whenever I asked them to give me more detail and description. Now, we’re not necessarily talking about science fiction stories, or fantasy stories, or historical fiction. “Why do I have to put all that stuff in? Everybody knows what I’m talking about.” In a classroom, on a high school or junior college campus, with a roomful of students who live within a few miles of each other, that may be so – may be so. Even within what seems to be a fairly homogenous culture, there are degrees of variance that will make voices and points of view unique.
Some writers seem to communicate to an inner circle of the initiated. Perhaps Joyce was the best example of that with Finnegan’s Wake. You have to know the territory, so to speak, or you’re lost in a stormy sea of references. Other writers try to reach outside the circle and draw you in. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The reading does not require a preliminary initiation but is the initiation itself. I would think that we now live in a time where we, as both readers and writers, require the latter more than the former, which is not to exclude the former, but if we intend to increase diversity, the inner circle must necessarily expand.
Every writer gives us a new world to explore. Even when they write about a place we know, they give us a new picture of the place, or they make the place anew. Be aware that every reader comes to your book a stranger, and it is only common courtesy to make a stranger welcome.
We don’t need to explain everything – explain nothing, in fact. But give us enough of a picture to distinguish your worlds and your characters from all the others. That’s partly done by craft, and partly done by voice. But it’s also partly accomplished by address – not what you are writing but to whom you are writing; not writing to an audience, but to an individual.
When you write a story, science-fictional or otherwise, give a thought to whom you would most like to tell this story: in a letter, or an email, or face to face, sharing a couple of coffees in the same café where you sit and type away at your device. Choose a person and tell your story to that person.
When you first discovered reading and books, what kind of stuff were you looking for? What kind of reader were you?
Were you looking for yourself in the books you chose? Or were you looking for the self you wanted to be?
Or, perhaps, you were looking for anyone but yourself, and anywhere but the “here” you occupied at the time.
Who was that person  who searched so diligently, maybe even so desperately, for whatever it was they were looking for?
Maybe that’s the person you need to write to.
As the person you are now, write to that person you were, the one who so loved stories and poems and books about rockets and dinosaurs and zeppelins or whatever it is you loved. Write to them as if they are still searching, still waiting.
          Because they are still waiting.

Monday, May 22, 2017

From the One That Got Away

You may have recently read about the death of John Schultz, the man who developed the Story Workshop approach to the teaching of writing, and started the Fiction Writing department at Columbia College Chicago. He wrote a collection of stories, The Tongues of Men, and two extraordinary books of reportage, No One Was Killed and Motion Will Be Denied. His text, Writing from Start to Finish, was integral to the approach he developed. And for the continued perplexed, or the inner circle, a teachers’ manual accompanied the text.
His approaches were, and remain, controversial among those who can use the term “pedagogy” without blushing. I am certainly not the one to defend those methods here, though I have gained greatly as a writer by them. If anything, I appreciate them more as the years proceed. I utilize a number of his approaches, though I can hardly be called a Story Workshop teacher.
For years, a rumor circulated throughout academia that Schultz and the teachers he trained formed something like a cult. I may even have assisted in promulgating the rumor. John had his circle within the semicircle (that’s a reference to the seating arrangement in his classes; the chairs were always arranged in a semicircle around the teacher, or “director”). From my perspective, that circle was an elite, the “chosen few” who would be anointed to spread the gospel of Story Workshop.
Then as now, I have an acute allergy to elites, no matter how strongly I might even believe in what that special group advocates. But that, as they say in therapy sessions, is more my problem than theirs. Within their circle, the world looks different. Some in that circle saw it as their family. Some saw it as home. The view from within always differs from the view without.
At John’s wake, I heard it described in just such terms by the faithful. Now, in 2017, with so many circles held so tightly – so many elites, so many cadres, so many “in groups” standing against what they perceive as walls of indifference and hostility, I can empathize with so many intelligent, sensitive, discerning artists who are in search of their “tribe,” or any group in which one does not feel like a stranger.
In the mid-1970s, when I first discovered Story Workshop, I was a troubled and insecure kid (as compared to the troubled, insecure old fart I’ve matured into). About the only thing I could say with any certainty was that I wanted to be a writer – I would become a writer, by hook or by crook, whatever that meant, whatever that entailed.
It didn’t matter that what I wrote was horrible – without skill, without vision, without anything that would interest a reader in the slightest way. The only thing I could do at the time was put one word after the other, albeit terribly.
I knew I had to get better, but I didn’t know how.
In those days, a number of colleges began creative writing programs. A handful had reputations. All those colleges with reputations were far away and very expensive. Their efficacy, even those anointed institutions like Brown, Iowa and Arkansas, was held in question. One would read interviews with authors who dismissed all these programs and encouraged apprentice writers to just sit down and write. The only way to learn writing was to write. Learn from your mistakes.
But what if all you learned from your mistakes was to make the same mistakes even better? What if it took you twenty years to learn your craft by trial and error? Was there any way to cut that time in half?
I didn’t know. I knew nothing. Really. You couldn’t find another person more stupid than I: rash and brash and volatile and emotional – but at bottom, stupid. It didn’t matter that I had a high I.Q. and a head full of facts. I was an encyclopedia without an index. Useless.
Add to that: I had no counselors, no mentors, no resources. No one gave a shit. My dad wanted me to be an accountant because he believed accountants always found work. My mother just didn’t want me to be arrested or dead. Neither of them wanted to have to pay any more money than was absolutely necessary. They never tired of reminding me what a burden it was to them to pay for my food and keep.
After high school, I left home in a panic. I didn’t want to be a burden. I just wanted to write.
Young men with high I.Q.s were and remain a dime a dozen. I operated mailing machines and mimeographs for a living. It didn’t take long to discover that the “dignity of labor” was a lie. Horatio Alger was a lie told to suckers. There were no ladders to climb in the world of work. Your job was your definition. Don’t try to step out of your place.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go to college. It was just that I knew that if I did go, it would be to a local school, and it would have to be while I worked fulltime. Even with the scholarships that were available in those days (few and paltry, but more than today), the dream of going to a school away from home, living in a dorm, devoting myself completely to an education, was impossible.
Most of the local universities offered only day classes. A few schools offered evening classes with limited degree opportunities. A fewer number of schools offered “regular” degrees. Columbia College was one of them, though their reputation was mostly for degrees in photography and, in a lesser way, for film.
And yet there was this program in Writing/English. And Story Workshop. Was it worth it?
There were certain things I knew – or thought I knew – about learning to be a writer: 1.) My work was crap; 2.) In order for it to be less crappy, I needed to write more; 3.) I needed to read as widely as possible; I never knew of a successful writer who wasn’t also an incessant reader.
I could just keep writing stories, novels, poems, etc., and continue on with my dead-end job, hoping someday to break through and write something worth publishing. I could major in English at one of the schools with evening programs and satisfy my desire to read widely and learn more about the history of literature. If I couldn’t become an out-of-work literary genius, at least I could become an out-of-work English major.
And then there was Story Workshop.
I hadn’t yet taken a class with John (or Betty Shiflett, or Larry Heinemann), but in the classes I had taken, I picked up two very important points my writing lacked.
First, the necessity for physical detail in order to make my fictional worlds into “real” places in the minds of my readers.
Second, the realization that I was writing to readers, to an audience. Up until then, what I was doing was writing for myself, to myself. A reader’s experience of my writing was of necessity different from mine. I left things out because I knew them – but a reader wouldn’t.
It seems painfully simple, but important, and important no matter what kind of writing you’re interested in doing: literary, popular, personal, fictional, journalistic, humorous – you’re writing to a readership.
I wallowed in my indecision – but briefly. I said to myself, “This guy Schultz and his Story Workshop thing have something to teach me – and it’s something I need. Desperately.”
Columbia didn’t have quadrangles and historic lecture halls. They didn’t even have a campus. At least they didn’t have a campus as repellant and ugly as U. of I. “Circle Campus,” as it was called in those days. I couldn’t afford to go to a cool place like University of Wisconsin – Madison, though I would have loved to. Would have sold my soul to go there, had I a soul to sell.
But Columbia had something that all these other schools lacked. They had John. And Story Workshop.
“This man has something to teach me that I need to know.”
So I chose Columbia over my other available options.
I have lived to regret many things, but I have never regretted that decision, even when I encountered students from other, more prestigious schools, who openly laughed in my face (may I repeat that because it was real, not just an expression: LAUGHED IN MY FACE) for attending Columbia.
Hey, I’m a science fiction writer. You cannot be more ridiculed in your profession than by admitting you write science fiction. But my years of flinching at ridicule are over.
And, as long as I brought up the subject of science fiction, let me assure you that John and his colleagues did their best to beat the science fiction out of me. They cannot be blamed for what I’ve become.
But this meager little fact also explains why I couldn’t remain at Columbia and become part of the inner circle.
Story Workshop was instrumental in shaping me as a writer. I learned much, and much of what I experienced in those classes took years to sink in. I am still learning from my experiences in those workshop sessions, now so many years ago.
It was an incredibly important decision for me to come to Columbia and study writing there.
The decision to move on was almost as important.
I was never one of the shining stars of workshop students. No gold stars after my name. No one ever read my stuff in class as good examples of “model telling” or “good seeing” – or good examples of anything but crap. But some of my crap showed a little flair. Some of the teachers took notice, including John.
Everyone who ever worked with, or for, or under, John has at least one “John Schultz Story.” The “John Schultz Story” folks are most fond of hearing from me has to do with the time he chased me into the men’s room when I registered for a senior semester and didn’t take a workshop. I got a “talking to” about what I needed to do and I told John that I needed to take more classes in more disciplines because … I just needed to know more stuff. John insisted I needed to do both, but I wouldn’t back down.
I remember how flabbergasted Pam looked (she was waiting for me outside) when I came out. “Rich, why did your department chairman chase you into the bathroom?”
“This is college,” I told her. “The really important decisions are always made in bathrooms.”
That is true. Bathrooms and stairwells. True to this very day.
I was never one of the shining stars, and on that day I lost my chance to become one.
When it came to the inner circle of Story Workshop people, I was the one that got away.
It may have been my doing out of pure, blundering ignorance. It may have been because I was attuned to some universal frequency that set me on a personal path of failure, despair, donuts and coffee. But I set out on a path that found me incapable of taking a well-rutted course, with rest stops and mentors and any sense of certainty that I was heading anywhere but to madness and an early grave.
But that’s what I did. And if I didn’t find a home at Columbia, I did no better at Northwestern (between classes I hung out in a bar and restaurant called The Third Rail, where the NU students rarely ventured). I did no better in science fiction fandom (the SMOF fans always sneered at me, like I must have belonged to the wedding reception in the hotel next door). I did no better among science fiction writers (the older writers always gave me the hairy eyeball, like they were afraid I was going to walk out of the SFWA suite with the ashtrays in my pockets). I met great people in all these groups – people who helped me, liked me, and even at times (forgive them, Lord, they knew not what they did) respected me. I loved all these worlds. I love them now. But they aren’t home.
For certain writers, there is no home. I happen to be one of them.
My curriculum vitae is, in some ways, fascinating but worthless. I’ve written a few things. I did some okay scholarship. I’ve worked hard to be a good teacher, and maybe someday I will be. But it has been and will always be from the periphery.
What little I’ve managed to accomplish, though, would have been far less were it not for John Schultz, Story Workshop, and that circle of writers he brought into being. I couldn’t be part of that circle, but the light at the heart of it, that fire, has guided me on my wayward path all these decades, as it has guided so many others.

May it continue to do so forever.