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+
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.
Five cats, three chairs, one porch, zero fighting. WIKTORY!
You smell like five cats…gross!
But one of us is SUUUUUUUPER SEXY!
Get off my damn lawn…porch…whatever.
Did someone say get off on the lawn?
I can’t believe he went there…said the Pillars of the Catgonath
I believe it. He has a low and vulgar sense of humor.
Was that a tiny black harp seal?
No. It was a walrus in feline form. Let me explain it in interpretive dance…
What the hell is wrong with you!
Guest appearance thanks to Scott Lynch, Neil Gaiman, and the concrete cat my mother got me.
1986 Kelly McCullough Plummeting
2012 Kelly McCullough Soaring*
*You just have to have the right partner—that right picture is a clip from
my annual anniversary shoot with the brilliant and beautiful Laura McCullough
Photo credit 2012 Matt Kuchta. Photo credit 2006 ???????
I’ve just gotten home from a wonderful show at the Minnesota Fringe Festival created by Bob Alberti. The show is Principia Discordia. I feel like something of a grandfather to this show for three reasons. The first is this:
The second reason is that I get to take some tiny fraction of the credit for this marvelous thing that didn’t actually involve me doing anything new.
Third, there are three other obvious grandparents, in this case: William Shakespeare for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Edmond Rostand for Cyrano de Bergerac, and Oscar Wilde for The Importance of Being Earnest. This puts me in excellent company for very little actual work. Perhaps I should explain.
The play that Bob has put together is a beautiful little six character piece starring Eris, Goddess of Discord (Dawn Krosnowski),* Thalia, the Muse of Comedy (Lana Rosario), Ms. Black (Laura Cannata), Ms. Red (Susan Becker), Mr. White (Duck Washington), and Mr Gold (Bob Alberti). The run time is a bit under an hour, and they cover a lot of ground as they do scenes from Midsummer, Cyrano, and Earnest. The central idea is that Thalia is directing the scenes and Eris is balking her by randomizing the casting with the help of the audience so that no two night’s shows will have the same characters in the same parts.
This has a number of lovely effects and, as I mentioned above, means I get to play grandparent without having to have written any actual scenes or anything to do with the play at all. Really, the heavy lifting is done by anybody and everybody but me, starting with Bob and his players who did a splendid job. I just get to smile and be happy that other people are doing great work that puts me in the acknowledgements.
My focus coming into this was, of course, on Thalia, and even more on Eris. Anyone who has read the WebMage books knows that I have a huge soft spot for Eris.
So, Thalia first. Lana Rosario’s performance was absolutely delightful, a wonderful broad comedic take on the directorial thespian that reminded me in the best possible way of my own drama teacher and mentor Vaughn Koenig. Grand and melodramatic and hooray.
Eris, well, Eris was perfect. I will now picture Dawn Krosnowski when I think of her. She had the humor and the charisma and the absolute unholy glee nailed. There was a point in the show where she came around and sat in the seat behind mine with one hand resting on the rail—just in my peripheral vision. Knowing my Eris, the thought of having her behind me was really quite alarming, and she would know that, and know that I know that she would know and take delight in every bit of it, and it was all very very meta. I loved it and her performance, and, well pretty much everything.
The rest of the cast had to cover more ground as they played the major parts in the three scenes, so I don’t have as solid a reference for any of them, and that’s actually perfectly in keeping with the core of the play which is a full blown challenge to the idea of type casting of any kind, be it gender, size, shape, race, or some other factor. I think they did a beautiful job of it and said something that was not only entertaining, but also important, and that perhaps more than anything makes me proud to have had a tiny part in the genesis of this show.
I have to give Bob special props down here for the writing of the thing, especially with Thalia and Eris. He gave them lines that I could have written word for word, which is cool. He also gave them lines that I wish that I had written, which is absolutely awesome. Oh, and the ending was note perfect.
It’s really hard to express how wonderful and surreal seeing this show was for me. I feel like I just got to cross off a bucket list item I hadn’t even known I wanted. Simply knowing that I helped to inspire someone else in their own art makes me feel like I’ve done something very right in the world. That it was something so genuinely wonderful, well, that’s a gift beyond price.
If you get the chance, go see the show! It’s only playing through Saturday, and the quality of the show and the reviews that are going up at the fringe site suggests that you’ll want to move quickly.
*Kezia Germ will be taking the role of Eris for show five.
We all have people we can point to who have changed our lives for the better. Parents, teachers, loved ones; the potential list is endless. Vaughn Koenig changed mine. I can even point to the exact moment that this wonderful teacher altered the course of my life. It was at the Saint Paul Open School and I was eleven. A couple of friends and I were skipping our classes together.
To this day I can’t tell you which class I was skipping. What I can tell you is which class my friend Tim Wick was skipping. It was called roving theater, and it was taught by Vaughn. The class was in essence an improvisational theater class that roved around the school building and grounds, taking advantage of the different spaces to help spur student creativity. On this particular day, the class had moved to the space that I and my friends had chosen to hide out in and play Dungeons and Dragons while skipping classes, though we didn’t know that until we came around a corner and ran smack into Vaughn and the class.
Tim rallied beautifully, spinning some story about being late and wondering if his friends could join the class for the day. I doubt that it fooled Vaughn, but she just quietly waved us into the next exercise, making sure to include the new kids. It was the first time that I’d ever had anything to do with acting or performance or really making my own art. I was utterly and irretrievably hooked. I never went back to whatever class I’d been skipping and I never skipped a day of roving theater.
In that class Vaughn taught me how to overcome what had up until then been a fairly shy nature. She instilled confidence in a boy who didn’t have a whole lot. And, most importantly, she taught me to value my own creativity as something I could share with others. For the next eleven years I was totally focused on the goal of making a life in theater.
I took whatever acting classes Vaughn offered from trimester to trimester, as well as anything else that she taught that fed my need for art and my sense of creativity, something in the neighborhood of twenty classes over all. I was only able to have her as my direct advisor for my last year at Open, but there is no question that she was my most important mentor during my eleven years at the school. My Open School graduation packet is heavy with theater-related material and I went on from Open School to get a BA in theater from the University of Minnesota. In addition to my Open School shows and classes, I performed or worked in quite a number of shows and festivals during those years.
At age 22 I took a sharp turn away from theater and into writing science fiction and fantasy and have stayed there ever since, making a career of it with sixteen novels written so far,* many of them published or forthcoming. But I’ve never forgotten or regretted a single moment of my theater years. Indeed, I have to credit them and Vaughn for fostering my skills at using language and story to evoke an effect in my intended audience, as well as shaping and training the creative and critical facilities I needed to become a successful novelist.
There is no question in my mind that I would not be where I am today, or what I am today without the loving guidance of an extraordinary teacher and woman named Vaughn Koenig.
Goodbye Vaughn, and thank you so very much. The world is a darker place for not having you in it.
*21 as of spring 2014
My dear friends Michael and Lynne Thomas are kickstarting a new magazine called Uncanny. I think it’s going to be a pretty spiffy addition to the science fiction and fantasy world, which is why I’ve kicked in at the sustaining level. They currently have three Hugo awards on the mantel as well as number of additional and/or pending nominations. They’ve discovered some wonderful new writers in their years in the industry, as well as publishing a lot of old warhorses like me.
You could do much worse with your entertainment/art dollars than to throw some their way. At $25 you get a one year subscription that includes a hell of an initial table of contents including folks like Amal El-Mohtar, Sofia Samatar, Charlie Jane Anders, Liz Argall, Rachel Swirsky, Maria Dahvana Headley, Mary Robinette Kowal, Neil Gaiman, Scott Lynch, Catherynne M. Valente, Paul Cornell, Ken Liu, Kat Howard, Hao Jingfang, and E. Lily Yu in addition to whatever new writers they discover as they go along. I’m not currently in the queue and don’t have any plans to submit anything—in part because I’m not doing short fiction or poetry these days—so my interest is purely in seeing friends succeed with a cool new project that will broaden and deepen the field.
Consider kicking in. That kickstarter link again.