Fiends, Romulans, Mouseketeers: take a potty break, warm up your personal poison, and settle in. This will be a long ride.
Canadian blogger and independent academic Kathryn Allan has written a review of my book Up Against It that is also about her own personal journey as a feminist scholar over the past year. She talks about meeting me at WorldCon last fall and reading my latest book. She reflects on my decision to take a new byline, and how that decision and my work have intertwined with her own transition from the academic life to one as an independent scholar—someone who clearly has suffered, made some important and life-alter(nat)ing decisions , who is facing uncertainty now and, I sense, may have had to let go of some cherished dreams, but who is looking forward to her future with anticipation and (at least, so I hope) joy.
For the rest of this post to make much sense, it might help to read her post first. It’s OK; I’ll be here when you get back.
In short, Dr. Allan’s doctoral dissertation (which included a critical examination of the use of gender and race in my book Proxies, as well as works by Nalo Hopkinson, Tricia Sullivan, and Larissa Lai), her presentation at Worldcon last summer, and her post the other day about Up Against It have touched and humbled me. Her response to my work has brought up a host of thoughts and feelings from my own journey as a writer, engineer, and feminist. I wanted to respond with my own reflections, and decided that since this was a long response, the most appropriate place was my own blog.
Kathryn guesses correctly that my protagonist Jane’s struggles within Phocaea’s political and social systems, the disruptive transformation Jane undergoes into a free agent; her fear and desire over what that will mean and whether her community will still have a place for her: all these have been very much at the center of my struggles over the past twelve years. I am not Jane, but I ruthlessly used her to work through my own fall from power and grace, as a woman trying to reconcile my many entangled responsibilities and roles, to seek healing from traversal across years of rough ground and figure out how to make myself whole again.
What is even more interesting to me is that the transformation happening to me right now is in part due to encountering Kathryn. How recursive!
I’m about to expose my ego here, in all its banality. Writers write to be read, and I’m no different. (I want attention! Look at me!) Yes, it’s obvious, but there is a lot to unpack within this simple observation. It starts when the three-year-old picks up crayons and scratch paper and starts handing mad scribble after scribble to the long-suffering adults in the room, grinning up at them and waiting for their ooohs and ahhhhs to commence. I have that three-year-old inside me, as do most of us, I think. It’s a basic human need. We want to connect. To communicate and for that communication to be understood and appreciated. We want to be seen.
We also want the converse: to understand others. To comprehend why people make the choices they do. And that is the key that unlocks narrative. With storytelling we create simulacra in an imagined world, and turn those characters loose within the artistic medium of our choice, to see what they will do and to take lessons from their journey. For me (and I believe this is a common experience among writers), there is a deep compulsion to immerse myself in these made-up reflections of the real world: to take hold of the threads of human existence and muck around with them. Tweak the parameters. Dampen the radio noise. Up the ante. Find out what makes people tick.
The pull of narrative took hold of me at an early age. When I was little—five, six, seven—I played Pretend all the time—to the extent that my parents sent me to a psychiatrist when I was eight, to make sure I wasn’t psychotic. Seriously. I was always so caught up in my stories and pretend-scenarios that they feared I couldn’t distinguish fantasy from reality.
I had the whole neighborhood organized. We turned our yards and homes and our nearby arroyos and parks into entire elaborate milieus: sea, space, and spy scenes, alien planets, and dusty 19th century western villages. We had carnivals, pageants and plays, marriages and kidnappings, wars and intrigues; we built forts and fought dirt clod fights; battled monsters and villains; discovered new continents; concocted potions for our enemies and perfumes for our friends; shapeshifted to wondrous creatures and back; shrank to the size of dolls and dodged giant shorn feet; grew large enough to cross between worlds in a single leap and use moons as skipping stones.
But after a while, those Pretend games grew maddening. Just when I got a good narrative thread going, others would come along and hijack it with their own ideas. When I said, “Bang!” I wanted my characters to stay dead, dammit. (Little did I know what a fuss imaginary characters can kick up… but that’s a whole nother digression.)
By this time I was about seven or eight, and had gained sufficient knowledge of the written word to start some early attempts at real stories. That launched a long stretch of storytelling, which ran pretty much unbroken for another 34 years.
Because I have always preferred the novel form to short fiction, and because many of my story ideas involve quite a bit of world-building and often multiple viewpoints (though not all; witness Astropilots, Glass Houses, and my handful of shorter works), my books tend to take a while to complete. Mix in the demands of my engineering/ technology/ management work and the fact that I never saw the point of being a parent without devoting attention to, you know, parenting, and I was only getting a book done every three years or so. It’s hard at that pace to build momentum as a writer.
My publisher has always seemed willing to continue buying my books so far (a fact for which I’m extremely thankful), but it can take a while for a slot to open up in the publishing queue for a midlist writer who only gets a book out every handful of years. Which translates typically to a good three years or more between the book’s completion and the point at which it hits the shelves.
Well, so be it. I wasn’t about to give up parenting; I had to earn a living; and I had no control over what happened to my books once they entered the publication process. At least I wrote. Writers write, right? No matter what. I stayed true to that eight-year-old girl with those outsized dreams.
That changed with a jarring shock in late 2001, when I first entered institutional, big-company consulting.
I had been successful in my professional efforts to that point. Nothing had prepared me for the toll that consulting can take. At its worst, it’s a meat market, pure and simple, with human intellectual effort on the butcher block. The experience I had, especially for those first six years, was crushingly awful. Sometimes I think Steve’s book being movified may have saved my life. (We got a nice chunk of money: enough so we could tuck a bit of money away for the girls’ college education with enough left over for me to take a hiatus to recover my health and find a better position.)
Before I took that job, I had 183 manuscript pages of what was to become Up Against It. Appropriately, I got the job offer from hell on that day from hell, 11 Sep 2001. It took me six more years to write another 150 pages of my 700-page first draft, and by that time I was in pretty sorry shape, physically, emotionally, and mentally.
What I learned as a consultant is what it is just what feels like to lose the privilege I had taken so much for granted before: the privilege of automatically being seen as human. When your time and productive output is measured by the minute (or by any small increment, as people in low-wage factory, service, and agricultural settings have known for a very long time), it is easy for the work environment to degrade to the point where you are treated as nothing more than an object that produces output. It’s deeply humiliating, to have your humanity stripped from you in that way. Worse, the excruciating demands of the job damaged my health, both physically and mentally, and the physical residual effects still linger (I developed severe vertigo and mild scoliosis, and suffer from both to this day, though I have learned to manage them).
But what really shut me down was my realization that as bad as I had it, I was still so much better off than about 90% of the human population that in all decency, I had no business even uttering a peep about the extent of my misery. At least I was well paid for my exploitation, and in off hours (albeit there were few of those) I got to go back to being one of the privileged class.
I had so much anger at being exploited with no escape (despite near-daily job searches, I had only one nibble in those six years, which didn’t pan out, and my family couldn’t do without my income—in short, I had become too senior and too specialized in a skill set that was only in demand as a micro-managed, outsourced skill), despair at the failure of my books to sell sufficiently to enable me to escape, and a deep sense of shame that I could be so broken when I had so many things to be thankful for: an incredibly supportive and loving husband; two daughters who then and now are the center of my happiness; good friends who loved me; an extended family I cared for. A roof over my head, for that matter, with plenty of nourishing food to eat and clean water that came out of a tap. Physical safety. To be a published, professional writer, for heaven’s sake! How dare I complain, when there were so many deserving people out there whose works might never see print?
I couldn’t unpack it all. I didn’t even know where to begin. It all just sat there in my middle: an undigested, iron-hard lump that I was in no mood or condition to examine.
I took a hiatus, as I mentioned, and after about a year or so I was rested enough to start feeling human again. Eventually I found a job with a different company that was a much better fit. (Not all consulting companies are exploitative.) But that lump inside… don’t ever let anyone tell you writer’s block isn’t real. It may be rare, and I’m sure there are people who use the term to mean, say, procrastination. But when you have the real thing, there is no mistaking it, and it is agony. Finishing Up Against It was like grabbing a handful of nails and popping them in my mouth every day, and trying to chew them. Only the fact that I had a contractual obligation and we needed the money (and frankly, sheer cussedness) enabled me to finish it.
To write, you have to delve deeply into the emotional lives of your characters, and to write well, you have to avoid wallowing. No easy task, in the state I was in. (Moi? Wallow?)
Well, I did finish the book and I got it out the door, and I was really, really glad I had, because it proved to me that I still could. But I sure hadn’t enjoyed the experience. I was grimly determined to move on with my life, though, and scrape some kind of self-worth out of it all, whatever happened to the book or to my engineering (which was still rather rickety at that point, as well, while I tried to figure out how to be successful at my new company). I wasn’t sure whether I’d ever be able to write again, though I wanted to want to: I had another eight books plotted out in WAVE, my series of which Up Against It is the first, and I love my world and characters. I want to know what happens to them. I was also well into a shorter, near-future YA about the Martian space race that I really wanted (want) to finish.
I had spent years avoiding cons and my fellow SF readers and writers—and I confess, it wasn’t only due to work, exhaustion, and vertigo. It was also because being around them reminded me of what I had lost. But now that I had a book out, I screwed up my courage to go to WorldCon 2011 in Reno with Steve and our good friends, Terry Boren and Jim Ruppert.
My early experiences at the con were pleasant. A number of people showed up and bought my book for me to sign at the mass autographing, which was a comfort. It felt weird having two identities: I was Laura Mixon to those who knew me from before (it had been 14 years since I’d attended Worldcon, but several friends were there whom I’d seen in the interim, and there were plenty of old friends I hadn’t seen since before I’d had kids), and Morgan (or MJ) Locke to everyone else. Perhaps I was a bit like my crèche children in Proxies: multiple identities sharing a single body. Who the heck was I, anyway?
But looking around, I decided it didn’t matter. I was with my tribe. Unlike when I am anywhere else on the planet, when I enter a con room and encounter my fellow fen, I just know. I am at home. It’s not that they (we) are perfect. But from the moment I arrived in Reno, even if my writer’s identity was a jumbled mess, even if I had deep misgivings about my status as an engineer, I’d returned to where I belonged.
On Saturday morning I had a free hour after breakfast and before my panel to attend programming. There were a lot of interesting tracks. Terry and Jim and I were trying to decide which one we wanted to attend. I skimmed the first line or two of each, and was brought up short when I saw the words cyberpunk, telepresence, gender and race. Talk about hitting my sweet spot! That was the one for me.
I started reading the description to Terry and Jim (having no idea at that point it was Kathryn’s dissertation that included a critical reading of Proxies), and paused to add, “Did you know that ‘proxies’ as a term for remotely operated vehicles didn’t appear in use until my book came out?” (seeking comfort in the knowledge that if I wasn’t a household name, and few people had ever read my books, at least someone somewhere must have read Proxies and spread the meme) (feeling contempt for myself for needing that ego stroke) (doubting there was a connection in actual fact).
It’s hard for me to describe to you what went on in my mind as I continued to read the description and realized that in fact, Kathryn’s presentation was in part about my book.
I was aware of how disruptive it would be for me to attend, if Kathryn was aware I was there. Should I go, then, but just not introduce myself? That was the option that appealed to me most: I wouldn’t have to be publicly embarrassed by anything that was said, and I’d avoid making her uncomfortable as well. But it didn’t seem right; in fact, it seemed dishonest and even a bit creepy. Perhaps if I introduced myself afterward? But that just seemed cruel. “Ha ha! Gotcha! I’ve been sitting here listening to every word you say!”
Furthermore, what if she hated the book? I’d have to sit and listen to a scathing indictment of my choices as a writer. That would be horrible for both her and me—she had an obligation to her readership to speak the truth as she saw it. If that was where she had landed as a critic and I chose to go, it would be my own damn fault, to have to sit there and squirm. As a sometime teacher at Viable Paradise and other workshops, and a participant in a number of pro writer critique groups, I myself had certainly laid it out there in no uncertain terms for other writers, when I thought they had gone off the rails.
From the description, though, it did seem as if there were things she appreciated about the book, so even if she felt my work had problems, I figured I was safe from an outright scalding.
Bottom line: I didn’t know how I was going to handle it or what would happen. All I knew was that there was no way I was not going to that talk.
It turned out that the prior speaker’s talk was still ongoing when Terry, Jim, and I arrived, and Kathryn was standing at the back of the room. When she mentioned she was the speaker, my decision was made for me. I introduced myself. She describes her own reaction in her blog post. She handled it all quite gracefully, though I have no doubt that she must have wished that I had not shown up at that place and time. My work didn’t escape criticism, when it came to my handling of race, but I felt her critique was fair, and as she says, it morphed into an excellent, thoughtful discussion about othering, gender, and race, and how it gets treated in SF.
That lecture lit up in me like a lightning bolt: one that struck right when and where I needed it. Here was an unexpected validation of my status as a writer (how many times in a midlist writer’s career does someone take the time and trouble to analyze one’s work in depth, and present on it publicly?) at a time when I was feeling very vulnerable, by a highly intelligent and informed reader who shared my commitment to the principles of feminism and other progressive ideals, inclusiveness and appreciation of other Others: those of us whose bodies and minds don’t conform, whether due to culture, race, sexuality, arrangement of reproductive organs, or other reasons, to the perceived norm.
Kathryn had valid criticisms of my handling of race, but she got my work. She understood what I was trying to do, on a very deep level, and why. I was seen.
A writer writes to be read. But no reader owes any writer their attention: we all only have one life on this planet, and our time is precious. It is my job as a writer to attract readers by virtue of writing the best stories I can. And when that connection does happen, it’s wonderful. There is little more gratifying to a writer than to realize we have brought pleasure to fellow travelers with our stories. I have had other people express pleasure in reading my work, and that has been a great joy and humbling experience. But there are a lot of very good writers in the world (I know this, because I like reading their works!), and it was easy for me at my lowest points to persuade myself that if I never wrote another word, people who enjoy my work would find other pleasures. It wouldn’t matter much to anyone besides myself.
And that’s OK, too, you know; the writer in me would be sad about the books I didn’t write, but there are a lot of people in the world whose problems are a lot bigger than that. People whose lives are diminished or even cut short before their time, by illness or accident or malice. And I’m more than just a writer. I’m a mom who takes a great deal of pride in my girls, who have grown up to be amazing young women; a wife who takes pleasure in the fact that I have cultivated a loving partnership as equal as it can be in this culture, with a man who is a staunch feminist ally; an engineer and technologist who enjoys using my analytical, creative, and strategic skills to help my clients create programs that improve their environmental, health, safety, and sustainability footprints; a feminist and progressive and SF reader who is thankful to be alive and well and living on this planet.
It has taken me another six months to get back to a regular writing routine since Reno. It’s not much yet. I still have full-time engineering consulting work, as well as graduate work and a child at home. And there have been others who have helped me get to this place (in particular, Steve, and my dear friend Holly Gilster, who has brought her great gifts as a teacher and coach to help me find the joy in writing again. I wouldn’t be here without Holly.) I am excited about the impending release in May of the audio and ebook versions of my AVATARS DANCE trilogy: Glass Houses, Proxies, and Burning the Ice, which are coming out under my new byline, with a nod to the old one, and that has helped give me impetus, too.
But it was Kathryn above all, precisely because she was a stranger, whose serendipitous presentation and expression of pleasure in reading my work convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that my work has value to others and it’s worth it for me to continue. That was a great gift. I owe her thanks for that, and goddess-speed on her own personal journey.
So there you have it, Mouseketeers. I’ve come to bury my old byline, not to praise it. Writer Laura J. Mixon is dead. Long live Morgan J Locke!
(PS, I have a good deal more to say someday about the rift between feminism and “hard SF” but that can wait for another day.)