Kelly McCullough writes fantasy, science fiction, and books for kids of varying ages. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the WebMage and Fallen Blade series — Penguin/ACE, and the forthcoming School for Sidekicks — Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star — part of an NSF-funded science curriculum — and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he co-authored and co-edited — funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Kelly on Twitter, Facebook, G+
This is a rant that grows out of the whole anti/pro steampunk kerfuffle that the f&sf genresphere has been aflutter with of late in which many on the two sides are flinging great gobs of words at each other like punctuation-laden poo. It’s not pretty and in many cases it seems to be a mix of sour grapes and tribalism, and it looks just like every other variation of this argument we’ve had for the last fifty years. The only real difference being what sub-genre/genre/literary sensibility we’re arguing about.
One of the things that we as a genre community seem to be most vulnerable to is the idea that our personal favorite type of writing is the only type of writing that other people should love and pay attention to, and that anyone who disagrees that our pet subgenre is the one true form of worthwhile writing is a poo-poo head. This tends to be expressed in one of two ways:
1) I want more of my stuff, and why isn’t everyone writing and publishing that? “Waaaaah!” *POUT* It is often accompanied by the stomping of rhetorical feet and tearing of hair. It mostly looks like highly articulate toddlers throwing a tantrum because the world isn’t treating them and their pet interests as the center of the universe.
2) How can anyone believe that XXXXX is worthy of their attention and dollars? XXXXX is immoral and anti-intellectual or just plain bad. The people who read/write it are dupes/exploiters or simply uncultured. If people really understood the underlying dynamic of XXXXX they’d realize that and come over and read YYYYY which is the one true way. It mostly looks like even more articulate toddlers throwing a tantrum because the world isn’t treating them and their pet interests as the center of the universe.
People, get a freaking grip! Not everyone likes what you like, and that’s okay. In fact it’s wonderful and healthy and necessary for the survival of a culture. Diversity of thought and idea and taste is one of the single most important parts of our ongoing survival as a species. It’s what drives us to try that funny looking new fruit, or accept that those who don’t look and think like us are people too, or take a long walk over the hill and find out there’s cool stuff over there.
The tendency of people to act as though stuff they don’t like is awful and bad for the culture if not downright immoral is one of the human tribal reactions that I find least attractive. It’s genre fundamentalism and it’s ugly and petty and basically unhealthy, both for the culture and for the head of bile it builds up within the person in question.
Does this mean I’m immune to the impulse? Of course not. There are sub-genres I think are stupid or hateful or bad for people. When my stuff doesn’t sell as well as somebody else’s stuff I get a little jealous and pouty. Hey, I’m human. However, I really do try to throttle it down because it’s bad for me and indulging the impulse is bad for the culture. And I sure as hell don’t throw a public tantrum about it.
If you were a geek in school (and if you’re reading this, the odds are pretty good) you remember what it was like to have the cool kids looking down on you for loving Star Trek or Dr. Who or reading those funny Lord of the Rings books. This impulse to say my genre/subgenre good = your genre/subgenre bad is the exact same shit. Do you really want to be doing that?
Last night the world lost a big glorious goofball of a cat. My dear friend Scott Lynch’s cat Muse died suddenly and unexpectedly at home. As those of you who follow me on social media or read Friday Cat Blogging know, we had the pleasure to play surrogate monkey for Muse, aka Giant War Cat to my readers, for nearly two months this summer. We will miss him enormously and we’re heartbroken for Scott and his other person, Elizabeth Bear. I haven’t the heart to write any more, so I will say goodbye to him in pictures.
This was the first time I met him.
He had a ten minute staring contest with the concrete cat.
I’m going to miss him.
With Scott in our living room.
I uses standing desk for works too!
You know you’re a cat right? We don’t work.
But wooly bears do! Right?
Random wooly bear is confuzling. Also, possible sign of fall. Not good.
Quick, must get in extra sleeps on porch.
The McCullough cat are super weird.
But my nose is delicious, that’s something, right?
Not sure I should have drunk all that…
Why have you not burst?
Y’all run with that. I’ll be over here tasting my paw because it’s awesome!
If I had thumb I could open this thing up and write better captions…
Non sequitur cat says they went that way!
Friday Cat Blogging Bids farewell to Giant War Cat, Musimus Maximus Butthead Rex who has returned to his own thumb monkey the ever charming Scott Lynch.
I recently had an experience that both moved and shook me. I’m going to tell that story first and then I’m going to try to talk about being a writer and experiencing a moment both from within and at one remove. The story:
I was on vacation in the Dominican Republic when I got an urgent message from my friend Pamela Gay—a gifted astronomer and podcaster.
A very close friend of hers, author and podcaster P.G. (Patrick) Holyfield, was dying of cancer—quite possibly within the next few hours—and would it be possible for me to record a goodbye message for him because my books had been important to him.
I don’t know if I can quite convey how that hit me. I’ve never met Patrick and I didn’t really know anything about him before that moment. I had one moment of complete terror when I read the message. What could I possibly say to a dying man that might make his path a little easier? While my forebrain was trying to get a grip on that, my backbrain was typing a reply to Pamela. Of course I would do it.
How could I not?
Here was a dear friend asking a favor for a dying man who had cared about my words. How could I not find a few more to help him on his way? For that matter, even if Pamela wasn’t someone I care about, even if you removed her from the equation, the question still stands. It was simply the right thing to do.
So, I grabbed my iPhone and I walked out into the dark tropical night and I recorded a message. I did it in several short fits as I struggled to find the right words and my voice kept trying to break as I did it. I don’t know if it eased Patrick’s passing—I hope that it helped at least a little—but I’m told that his family was aware that I was a writer that mattered to him and that it meant a lot to them.
As I finished my recording, the sky opened up and started pouring rain. If I were religious, I might take that as a sign of some sort and maybe find comfort in it. But I’m not, and that’s not how I find meaning. I find it in the right words. I’m finding it as I write this, I was finding it that night as I spoke to a dying man, and I will find it in the future as my brain cannibalizes the experience and puts bits of it into my fiction.
Because that’s what writers do. We analyze and pick and pull and we try to find ways to lay out the bits we extract so that others can see them. The shiny bits. The sweet bits. The horrible bits. All of them. And we don’t just do it later, we do it in the moment, and sometimes we hate ourselves while we’re doing it.
My grandmother, Phyllis Neese, was a second mother to me. I loved her completely and unreservedly. When she died a few years ago it gutted me. And I used that. I stood by her bedside after they disconnected the life support and I waited for the monitors to go still, even though it tore at me to do it. I did it because I loved her and because I owed it to her and because it was the right thing to do.
And every second that I stood there, a part of my brain was standing back and looking on at what I was doing and how it felt, and it made notes. I couldn’t not, and it made me feel like a vampire—here I was in one the hardest, rawest, most devastating moments of my life, and I was making mental notes about it for later use.
It wasn’t the first time, and I knew it wouldn’t be the last, and I really didn’t much like that part of myself in the moment. Nor for years after. It seemed somehow horrible and inhuman, and it wasn’t until I was trying to think of words to say to a dying man that I found a different sort of meaning for that experience. Just as it had with my grandmother, a part of me was standing back and observing the part of me that was talking to Patrick.
It seemed ghoulish at first, but then I realized something. The part of me that had stepped back and watched while my grandmother died was handing me things from that moment to use in the present one. The part that stood and took notes while I was hurting was the same part that gave me what I needed to at least try to ease another person’s death. It’s not a vampire, it’s a witness.
We step outside of ourselves in these moments so that later, when someone needs the right words, we have a place in our hearts where the hard things are written: a record that we can share and maybe, just maybe, ease the pain for someone else. As writers, when we hurt or grieve or bleed, we stand apart in some ways and we take notes. We do it because we can. We do it because we must. We do it because somebody has to try to find the right words.
For the first time in my life I’m entirely at peace with the observer in my head. I don’t know how much my words helped Patrick that night, but I know that trying to find them helped me—that Patrick helped me. I’d like to believe that, through this essay, they’ll help a few more people along the way.
P. G. Holyfield was a writer. He knew what it meant to try to find the right words, and I hope that he would be pleased to know that he’s helped someone else to find a few of them.
Thank you, Patrick. Hail and Farewell.
The original post about P.G. Holyfield’s cancer diagnosis and sudden decline can be found at specficmedia.com.
Pamela Gay has written a touching tribute and farewell to her friend P.G. Holyfield at her site.
Finally, I want to say a quick thank you to my friend, essayist and generally wonderful writer Patrick Rhone for taking a look at this essay and reassuring me that it was something I ought to share with people.
I put something on the shopping list…
I promise to only use it for good!*
Potential load of good is not amused.
You could trust me with it…
You? Ha-ha-hoo-hee-hee-hee, right.
I too am skeptical.
Great, now I have to sleep with one eye open until the end of time.
Not gonna sweat it. “I will only use it for good” generates an auto veto from Laura.
Art courtesy of Matt Kuchta. Guest kitties courtesy of Neil Gaiman and Scott Lynch.
I want to make a point about art and success and failure and practice and motivation. Over the course of my 47 years on the planet I have mucked around with visual art, music, dance, acting, martial arts, 3D design, and writing. I have been decent at some of those, good or even very good at others, and I now make my living writing. There is a reason that I left many of those things behind while mastering the writing,* and that’s what I want to talk about here. It’s going to be a bit rambly because there’s no way to get at this without providing a good bit of background.
I recently had reason to want to sketch something. Unfortunately, I don’t have the necessary skills. Not anymore, anyway. My degree is in theater, and, as part of that I took a fair number of design classes. If you can’t draw a set or costume concept you can’t really build it. Now, I never got very good at free-handing an original composition, but I did get to be pretty solid on architectural style projections and good if never great at copying line drawings and altering them to suit what I needed. So for example, drawing a rose from scratch was more or less beyond me, but taking a small sketch of a rose that someone else had done and copying and altering that copy at a larger scale to create a drawing of multiple roses was something I could do well and with relative ease.
Which brings me back to the thing I wanted to sketch this morning. It was a pretty simple composition and something I could easily have done when I was in practice. But I quit doing that practice when I left theater for writing. At that time, my writing skills weren’t all that much better than my drawing skills. Some, certainly, but not bunches.
I’m going to leave that there for a moment and jump over to music which is the absolute bottom end of my range. I have never been particularly good with musical things. I have a decent ear, and a wide vocal range—one of my theater voice teachers characterized it as one of the widest she’d had in a student. I can even carry a tune…briefly. On the other hand, my rhythm is terrible and while I can hit the notes, I tend to jump keys from verse to verse. I noodled around enough with guitar and piano to discover that learning the fingering was relatively easy. What I lacked was drive and timing.
I was a decent dramatic actor, and a good comedic one, possibly even very good when it came to improv. But even very good isn’t enough to make a living at it. I had the physical chops for the dance side of the business, but there again my lack of rhythm was an insurmountable barrier. Those skills worked better in martial arts, but injuries sidelined me out of that arena. I’m still quite good at 3D design—good enough to design and build complex structures in steel that involve cutting, grinding, and welding.
The reason I’m still decent with 3D design is that, for me, it’s fun and useful. From my first encounters with it, I had enough talent to complete things that were functional, if not pretty, and to see where I was failing and how to get better. The same is true of writing, only more so.
From my earliest compositions for classes I have always been able to express myself better than most. Teachers gave me praise, and even when it felt like a huge and painful chore I had a sense of accomplishment when I finished something. Sure, many of those things are awful by my current standards, but by comparison to my then-peers I was always doing pretty well.
When I first bailed out of theater, I sat down and wrote a novel in about four months. It’s not a very good novel, though it’s not utterly awful. More than that though, I had a ball writing it. Even when I completely punted sentences or whole scenes, I could see that it was actually a book and I could see it day to day. It was a practice novel—though I didn’t know it at the time—and the practice was fun because I was accomplishing something in the exact same way that I was accomplishing things with 3D design.
I was making something visibly useful and entertaining even if it wasn’t up to professional standards. I never had that feeling of accomplishment with dance or music, or really even drawing and drafting. I wasn’t good enough to find the practice an end in itself, and so, I wasn’t motivated to do it and get better. I had many of the necessary tools to become good at those things, but I never did, and it was all about joy. I take joy in writing and building things and so I have gotten very good at them. I took joy in acting and martial arts, but other things caused me to leave them behind.
There have been several roads I could have followed in life, even several forms of art that I might have mastered. What has drawn me into my present career as a science fiction and fantasy author was joy in the practice as well as the end result. Without that, I don’t think that I would have succeeded. I can’t speak for anyone else, but the secret of my success so far is simple:
Finding joy in practice.
*I’m not prone to false modesty, or really, modesty at all. I’m not as good a writer as I intend to be someday, but I’m very, very good at it.