Open-Hearted Generosity at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference

Last weekend, I went to the Surrey International Writers’ Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. I was honored to be there as a presenter, and I taught workshops on Breaking the Rules and Detail & Image. I also had two blue-pencil sessions where folks scheduled appointments to talk briefly with me about short excerpts of their work. It was a nice opportunity to give people comprehensive line notes (which we almost never get to do in a workshop setting) while having time to interact one-on-one.

I really like teaching, and working with new writers is one of my joys. I like being able to bring something new, and hopefully helpful, to someone who’s looking to learn. I had a great time being able to do that for and with a bunch of enthusiastic new writers who were everywhere in their abilities from totally nascent to break-in ready.

It was a busy time, and I’m still recovering from one of those winter illnesses that kicks you in the sinuses (followed by a sinus infection that kicked me in the sinuses), so as fun as it was, I also had to spend a lot of time in my room sleeping. I didn’t manage to get to any of the other writers’ workshops, which was unfortunate; I’m sure there were many amazing things being bandied about while I was buried in my blankets.

For instance, some of the other presenters from the field of science fiction and fantasy included: Nalo Hopkinson, Cat Rambo, and Mary Robinette Kowal. Some of the romance royalty was there, like Diana Gabaldon. There were people representing most genres of fiction, from mysteries and thrillers, to literary novels, to memoir. If nothing else, I have a great reading list.

Also, the key note speakers were really, really excellent. When does that happen? Daniel Heath Justice in particular made me cry on the first day, talking about the need for people to stand up for themselves and their narrative space, even when the world can be hostile. We need transformative narratives, as he put it; we have to fight the disfiguring ones with our own language of compassion.

The most striking thing about the conference–the thing that made it stand out from anywhere else I’ve been–was how strong the spirit of open-heartedness and generosity was from everyone. Agents, editors, and experienced writers all seemed to come to the event with respect and care. From what I saw, the new writers were treated as equals and adults–not in the sense that everyone had equal experience, but that everyone was of equal worth, and had something to contribute to the world.

It’s easy for cynicism to infect an environment like this. It’s so hard to break into writing, and so hard to maintain a writing career. The endless, circling stress of that process can make people sharp and defensive. There are enough new writers who act creepily entitled or overbearing that some professionals are quick to put up their shields.

All of this can be reasonable behavior, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes, the need for defenses are stronger for women or other sociological minorities; I can’t count the number of times that some resplendent, experienced author I know has been steamrolled by someone who thought “that woman” couldn’t possibly have anything to contribute. (That multiple Hugo Award-winner is probably a fake geek girl.)  Industry professionals like agents and editors also need space to talk about the wearing parts of their business sometimes, and blowing off steam isn’t always, and doesn’t always have to be, elegant or graceful. People can make unreasonable demands on their time and energy–like the overeager folks who used to contact an editor friend of mine over OKCupid to ask for special favors.

But the barriers of defensiveness and cynicism sometimes go up when they do more damage than good. For some people, they lapse into cruelty and mocking, where professionals can try to salve their own insecurities by denigrating new writers who are striving with open-spiritedness and passion. They may perceive new people as burdensome–not even in the sense of competition, but just that their very nascence and optimism can feel weary to someone who’s been struggling for a long time. And some professionals are just assholes of one stripe or another, just as every group of people has its asshole members.

In an environment where a lot of people are defensive, angry, and cynical–for good reasons or bad–it can spread to everyone. It can become a kind of palpable “spoil-the-barrel” energy that puts everyone on guard.

The Surrey conference was the opposite. The administrators established an atmosphere of open-hearted generosity which reflected through everyone. The agents and editors were eager to find new clients, and also to help nurture new ones. The professional writers treated the new ones like colleagues, not supplicants or intruders who would have to prove themselves worthy before being given respect. The new writers were excited and respectful of the professionals’ time and experience.

I think one thing that really helped foster the positive environment was the expectation that presenters join the attendees for meals and announcements. It got everyone used to being around each other, and reinforced that we were all in it together as people at that conference, sharing the goals of telling stories and making art.

Anyone can have a worthy story to tell. Everyone seemed to have a strong sense of that, and to respect it.

I think the administrators also chose carefully–and wisely–presenters whose native inclination is to come to new people with warmth. My experience of the colleagues I already knew who were there–Cat Rambo, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Nalo Hopkinson–bears that out. They’re all excellent teachers who are thoughtful and kind, and excited by teaching and learning. I can only aspire to match their generosity.

I rarely think that networking qua networking is useful. I generally promote the idea of just going and doing things you like, and meeting and helping people as you go. This convention felt like an exception–a space (at least partially) made for networking, which was also a space for kindness.

Of course, I only saw part of the conference, and of course what I saw was influenced by the fact that I was attending as a presenter. There may well have been grumpiness and cynicism, and broken hearts and tears, that were out of my frame of reference. There probably were; nothing goes perfectly for everyone. But from where I was, the conference was exceptional in its warmth and generosity of spirit, and I’m lucky I got to participate.

How do you handle writer’s block?

writersblock

There are a few different kinds of writer’s block.

One kind is medical. If one of my chronic illnesses is flaring up, I may not be able to write. It’s hard to write through a migraine, for instance. It’s also hard to work through things that are less acute than migraines, but last for a long time, like depressive episodes. It can feel like it’s never going to be possible to write again, and that the block is something you’re just faking, and could get through if you just tried hard enough.

I think one of the best solutions is to be gentle with yourself about it. Hammering yourself and making yourself feel guilty because of your health is in the way is only likely to make you miserable and increase your stress–which can make the health problem worse. It can be hard to be generous with yourself, especially when the illness is lasting a long time and you have deadlines. Do what you can–but when you can’t do more, keep it in perspective. You may be doing more work than you think you are, and mental work counts, too.

Mental work is the other kind of block that I find most often afflicts me. This is when there’s something wrong with the story that I have to solve before I can continue. For instance, in my current novella project, the main character is speaking in first person, past tense, so I needed to know what timeframe she was speaking from, and how she felt about events. What is she trying to communicate? Because the story lies in how she feels about what she’s “saying,” whether she’s literally telling someone else that or not.

While I didn’t know that, I couldn’t compose, because I couldn’t know how she’d feel about or relate events. I tried, of course, and I tried a few different angles on it. I talked about it with people and took other measures to deal with the problem intellectually. But in the end, I personally need to have an emotional connection with the story that I can’t just intellectually engage. A lot of mental work was happening in the back of my brain, and at some point, my subconscious was like, “Yeah, I’ve worked that out now. I’m feeling it.”

This is also a time to be generous with yourself and your pace. Tying yourself in knots about your progress can cause it to be even harder to have that psychological breakthrough. Mental work doesn’t always feel like work because it doesn’t produce words on the page, but it is work, and it’s necessary work. Give yourself credit for it.

Those are the primary types of writer’s block I experience. Do you experience a different variety?

In Defense of “Slice of Life” Stories

slice

When I was in college, I insisted that any poem worth its words would have a strong idea behind it–something it wanted to communicate to the reader. I still think that, but I’ve broadened my definition of what an idea is.

Many poems attempt to communicate an impression or an emotion. A poem about nature might not be intended to communicate “here is an intellectual idea about nature,” but instead “this is what it looked like through my eyes” and “this is how it felt.” Fine art landscapes can be like that, too. They depict a place at a time, both transient, through the eye of the painter (where the eye of the painter may figure more or less into the image, depending on whether it’s a realistic painting, etc).

What this makes me wonder is–why are we so dismissive of this in fiction? Plots are excellent; ideas are excellent. But what’s so wrong with a slice of life, that we refer to it with distaste? Why can’t fiction be about rendering transient, momentary emotions? Why do we demand they always be in the context of a plot?

I expect this is a historical artifact of genre expectations for fiction. I think the prohibition against plot-less fiction is stronger in science fiction & fantasy circles, but it’s definitely something I’ve heard reinforced in more academic or literary spaces.

One factor that occurs to me — is this influenced by how we imagine the role of the author in fiction, versus in poems or paintings? A poem is not necessarily written from the perspective of the poet, even when there’s an “I” at the center of the verse. Culturally, however, the belief that a poet is the narrator of their own poems is so strong that in every poetry workshop I’ve been in (I’ve never been in one on the graduate level), the teacher has to remind people at least a couple of times that the assumption they’re making about the narrator’s identity isn’t necessarily true.
Paintings, also, are generally seen as being rendered by oneself. This doesn’t have to be true either–the artist’s eye doesn’t have to be the one that observes, and the painting doesn’t have to render what the artist would see. Our narratives about painting speak even more strongly against the idea that they are filtered through a perspective other than the painter’s, and it’s not hard to see why — we think about painters bringing models into their studios, or taking their canvases out into the open air to paint the mountains. Even less realistic work tends to be narratively fitted into the idea of painter-as-observer–for instance, the way we talk about the artistic work of people with mental illnesses (for instance, Van Gogh), suggests that the ways in which the artist’s vision differs from the objective eye is integral to their “madness”–that they literally see the world as they paint it.

I think we culturally acknowledge that life rarely has an actual plot or shape to it. Poems and paintings are more easily classified as themselves slices of life, so when they omit plots, that is consistent with our expectations from them. There’s more room in memoir than fiction for this sort of thing also (although it can be contentious), wherein the writer is expected to be relating something of themselves.

Fiction is seen as more of a pretense, I think. And while there’s a general acknowledgement that life itself fails to be narratively tidy or have plots, most people seem to expect that if you’re going to go to all the work of building a pretense, you should make it more aesthetically tidy than life.

Without taking anything away from plot- and idea-driven fiction (my personal bread and butter), I think that closing off the possibility of slice-of-life stories makes our body of literature weaker. I want authors to have access to a full range of tools so I can read what they build.

On Writing and Mortality

This essay originally appeared on the blog Big Other and was later reprinted on the SFWA website. I’ve rewritten it to make its points more sharply and eliminate repetition. The original version is still available on the other sites.

It was originally published in 2011. I had recently had a death scare.

 

On Writing and Mortality

A year or two ago, an article made the rounds which had asked a number of famous authors for ten pieces of writing advice. Some of the advice was irritating, some banal, some profound, and some amusing.

One piece of advice that got picked up and repeated was the idea that if you were working on a project, and found out that you had six weeks to live, if you were willing to set the project down then it was the wrong project for you to be writing.

I dislike that advice. It seems to come from the same place that makes writers say things like “a real writer has to write” or “any writers who can be discouraged should be.” (A convenient excuse for acting like a jerk.)

Saying that “I have to write” is a way of denying agency. Writing is a risky career and one that doesn’t always yield a lot of concrete rewards or social approval. But if you have to do it, then you can avoid the question of choice.

But ultimately, I don’t have to write. I have to eat. I have to sleep. I might miss writing. I could even see it having a psychological effect. But I don’t have to do it.

And if I had six weeks, I wouldn’t.

Recently, I came a little close to dying. Not as close as some others have been. I don’t want to make too much of the experience. But it changed how I looked at my life, and inevitably, how I looked at my writing. For a while, when I thought I might die, I was viewing myself and my future with tunnel vision–there didn’t seem to be a future to write in.

I regretted that. I wished to have experienced more, and helped more people–and yes, I wished I’d written better things.

But what I really wanted, what I really would have missed, was time with my husband, my parents, my family, and my friends.

This isn’t a novel idea, that someone facing death would wish they’d spent more time with their loved ones. It’s a pretty normal idea, and one most people would probably agree with in another context. But if any project that you’d put aside if you only had six weeks to live is the wrong project and writing is something you have to do, that if you could be discouraged from it, you should be–then that implies anyone who prioritizes family and friends over art isn’t doing writing right.

For me, art isn’t something I do in isolation. I do it to communicate. I want to talk about the messy, wondrous human experience of being human. I’ve been honored to know I’ve written stories that have reached people, moved them, and/or made them think. But my abstract commitment to communicating with an audience that lives beyond me weighs less than my commitment to spending a few more hours with my husband. I do not believe these strangers’ lives would be impoverished more than his and my lives would be enriched.

This isn’t an argument against art. When one has more than six weeks to live, calculations change. My husband and I have decided it’s worth it for him to work eight hours a day so we have enough money to live the way we want to live. I spend time that I could be with him writing and working.

Life is amazing. Art is amazing. Human being are amazing. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t write.

But art isn’t only important if it’s the kind of art someone would write in their last six weeks.

And artists aren’t only real artists if they’d spend their last few days creating art.