In Which It's Really Not That Hard

27 July 2003

Thanks, Wendy!

It's still my birthday: I declare today as one of my five days as well. Yesterday was a good birthday day. I talked on the phone to my folks and C.J. and my godfather Dave and my Aunt Ellen and Timprov's folks. I opened cards and presents and got many interesting and potentially interesting things. (And I have a few more coming yet. Sometimes I like delays in the mail.) Mark and I watched "Shanghai Knights," which was inferior, we thought, to "Shanghai Noon" (and Timprov, who had watched it that early morning while we slept, agreed), but was still a good time. We went down to the Rosicrucian Park -- there will be pictures -- and the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden -- more pictures there.

In Milpitas on the way back, we exchanged a present I already had (a yoga tape) for one I did not (a different yoga tape, woo!), tried on a second-choice bridesmaid's dress (second-choice dress, not second-choice bridesmaid; meh), and petted some wonderful puppies. We were walking past PetSmart, and I said, "It's my birthday; we're going in." PetSmart (or maybe PetCo, I forget) is one of those places that doesn't sell puppies but allows you to take yours shopping with you, should you be lucky enough to have one, and offers grooming and obedience classes. So there were lots of puppies in the aisles, and a few full-grown dogs, all of them friendly and happy to see me and lick my hands and so on. Which was nice, although next year it would be nicer if I didn't have to leave home for that kind of doggish attention.

We picked up Timprov and went to Pleasant Hill for Italian food. I had a pyramid for dessert, which kind of went along with the day's game of "if this was a Tim Powers novel." There were blood-red raspberries at the heart of the white pyramid. These things practically write themselves, especially when you start at Rosicrucian Park. It gets to be hard to stop playing the game. There are plastic bags on the fenceposts, and one of the houses has a new triple-arch window? There's a local realtor named Rosetta? There is no getting away from the deep and mystical significance.

One of the nicest things about yesterday was that we didn't have any kind of schedule. There was nothing I absolutely had to accomplish by any certain time -- no reservations, no time to meet up with someone, no relevant opening or closing hours, nobody's feelings to hurt, nothing already paid for, nothing due. I have very few days like that, and I thoroughly enjoyed yesterday. I'm going to see if today can be like that, too. It makes for a pleasant change. I'm still a Scheduling Person, and I'd rather know that I had to be at Place X by Time Y to meet Person Z than not see Person Z at all. I'd rather know that I needed to finish a couple thousand words of a story by Tuesday to get it polished in time for an anthology than not get it submitted to the anthology. But still -- there is such a thing as too much of a schedule, and it's nice to take a break from the constant scheduling for a few days.

I didn't finish The Great Fear of 1789, so that's on my list for this morning. There are birthday books I'd like to dive into, and I still have some on my borrowed piles from the library and David. We did listen to a lot of my new CDs, though. There's one from Sarah and Jeff that's selections from the Poetic Edda, set to music derived from various Nordic folk genres, and that's interesting. Icelandic is always easier than I think, though not easy -- I can often parse it but can translate it only rarely. Listening to this CD, though, I have the feeling that I'm going to be able to ask Icelanders if they know how to make the necessary immolation before I can ask them where the bathroom is. (Should this become an issue in my life, I will resort to Norwegian, which is kinda close-ish, for things like bathroom/train station/hotel/food. Worry not. Also, I hear many Icelanders speak English. Go figure.) I still have half of this one and half of the new Liz Phair album to listen to. (The new Liz Phair is quite a bit poppier than her previous stuff, but not in a sellout way -- she keeps her freaky-assed intervals going, and her lyrics are very much her own. [A few songs later: very much. Goodness.] It's mostly the drums that make it poppy. Which is a little cognitively dissonant at times, and I don't think it's going to supplant "White Chocolate Space Egg," which should maybe all be one word, as my favorite Phair album soon. But it's better than Ben Folds' "Rockin' the Suburbs" in my book.)

(My paragraphs are tending to the rather lengthy today. I've broken up a few of them and decided to leave the above as is, because it's really the way I'm coming at the world.)

Can people stop with the "all criticism is good criticism" idea? Please? Please please please? For example, the person who told me that YA novels couldn't have "big words" in them anywhere: not giving good criticism. She didn't know what she was talking about -- she was talking, quite condescendingly, out her ass. The value of that crit was to tell me that this particular person had no problems talking out her ass. That's a pretty limited value. If she'd wanted a particular character to speak in a less stilted way in one scene, that might or might not have been useful -- but that's not the crit she gave. It isn't arrogance to decide that this woman didn't know what she was talking about, and it wouldn't have been arrogance if she'd been an award-winning writer instead of unpublished, because bright people have bad ideas sometimes. I respect lots of writers in this field, but that doesn't mean that every word from their lips is a drop of purest gold. In any given case, maybe the advice was worthwhile and maybe it wasn't, and if you weren't there, you don't know. Come on, people. Reflexive sycophantic professional masochism doesn't reflect well on anybody. It's enough to be interested in crits from Famous Author (or Editor) Q. It doesn't add any respect to FA(or E!)Q if you are willing to have vipers puncture those crits into the tender skin of your firstborn. It just makes you look...a little icky. (Those of you who haven't read any message boards on this Odyssey/Gene Wolfe thing may think I'm exaggerating with the vipers thing. I'm not.)

I've had a sick fascination with the whole thing. I'm trying to get over caring about it at all -- but so many of the things people are saying make no sense to me at all, so I keep poking at them. For example, why am I not getting all these supposedly brutal rejection letters? Am I just that brilliant? Or are these supposedly brutal editors not paying me the compliment of insulting my family for seven generations because they don't care to purchase my work at this juncture? Even my rejection letter from Marion Zimmer Bradley on a piece of teenage fantasy, lo, these many moons ago, was not particularly mean -- critical, but not nasty. Or is it the experience of rejection itself that's supposed to be so horrid? I've gotten critiques in rejection letters, and sometimes been glad to have them, but nothing ego-shattering.

Rejection is hard. There's no way around that. But do writers really have to be such cowboys about it? Does every profession in the world have to rant like this? Physicists do it, Marines do it, teachers do it...everybody's job has to be so much harder than everybody else's. Writing a good novel, or a good short story, or God forbid a good novelette or novella, is hard. It is both difficult and worthwhile. Sure it is. Nobody's contesting that. (Well, nobody around here.) From conception through development through rejection to ultimate publication, it's a difficult process. But it is not, in fact, the hardest thing a human being ever went through. Ask any widowed writer which was harder, losing his/her beloved partner or writing his/her latest novel. Ask any writer whose child has had major health problems whether that was harder than getting his/her latest short story just right. If you're a writer, ask yourself: would I rather have a fight with my best friend or write a short story? Or even, would I rather have a fight with my best friend or get a short story rejected? And if your best friend is the one opting for the fight, I advise you to back away from the best friend, for heaven's sake.

There is no ultimate hierarchy of professions, no book in which it is written that nurses are between biochemists and carpenters in Goodness of Work. You don't have to try to move your own vocation or avocation up or down the ladder. It should be enough to do good things and do them well; you don't have to compare them to other people's good things and look down your nose. It is better for me to be a writer than a computer scientist, but for Mark the reverse is true. That means that we're different people, not that one of us is superior to the other.

What, exactly, will happen to us if writing requires large doses of some human powers but absolutely no superpowers? What will happen to us if writing well makes us good writers, not gods? What are we collectively afraid of, that there are so many growls about how tough writers have to be compared to ordinary mortals? Why are we so attached to the hierarchy? To whom do we have to make these posturing justifications, and why?

It just makes no sense to me. In the throes of grief, we may claim that our loss is worse than anyone else's loss -- but if we're adults, we get over it. When a friend loses someone special in his/her life, I don't greet that friend with, "Yes, but it can't be a tenth as hard as it was for me to lose my Gran." So why should we make a professional habit of nattering on and on about how much harder we have it than anybody else?

Frankly, I have it pretty easy. I get a bunch of rejections, and that's no fun; I run into difficulties with plot points and research and character development and scene-setting; I scowl and tear into myself about thematic unity and diversity in a long work. I get impatient with editors and agents. I make my back hurt by working for long stretches. But on the whole, none of that is really so ultimately terrible. There are lots of people -- lots of writers, even -- who have it worse than me. And the more people roar, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!", the more I think, "But the oven isn't even on. Actually we've been using the microwave. And next door is just another kitchen."

I don't mean to belittle writers' struggles. I just don't think it makes writing a short story, editing a book, taking a rejection, any easier if we overdramatize it. Some people genuinely have health problems of one sort or another that make it difficult for them to get work done, and I specifically do not want to sound unsympathetic to that. Repetitive stress, back problems, depression, persistent infections, diseases of any bodily system at all can make it difficult for people to get creative (or even uncreative!) work done. That's not what I mean at all, and I hope that's been clear. But that's usually not what the writers who think they're the love child of Jesus and Superman because they lived through a form rejection from Realms are getting at.

Whew. So. Elsewhere in my not-so-tough life...I don't know, actually. We may head up to Berkeley, or we may hang around the house enjoying birthday presents, or we may find something else to do entirely. I still have several people with whom I'd like to work out plans, but not today. Today, more lack of schedule. More happy birthday to me. Yay.

Back to Novel Gazing.

And the main page.

Or the last entry.

Or the next one.

Or even send me email.