The spousal unit recently shared on Twitter a post I wrote back in 2007 about surveillance, privacy, governmental overreach, and Cory Doctorow’s wonderful book, LITTLE BROTHER. It got me to thinking about who I used to be, and who I am now.
I have found it hard to speak publicly, since leaving the day job–both in my fiction, and here on the blog. That didn’t used to be the case, and my post about Cory’s book reminded me of this.
Part of it was learned behavior. As a consultant, you can’t afford to be noisy and opinionated. Tact is critical, if you want to keep your job. Now I don’t need tact! Yay! So I’m having to unlearn that habit.
But there’s something deeper going on, as well. To be a good writer, you have to be both entertaining and truthful about important things. Yeah; OK. But I don’t know anymore how to boil my experiences and observations down into good narrative. My thoughts feel disorganized and interdependent and nonlinear, and the twined coils of multiple humiliations and disappointments run through them. It’s hard to expose these to the air.
My Communities of Origin
When you speak, you always have someone you’re talking to, at least in your own thoughts. And I’ve lost my audience. I don’t know who they are, those who might be receptive to my ideas. Somehow, during the past 15 years, I had to let go of things that had been important to me. I came unmoored from the larger social networks that had sustained me before. Now I don’t know whom I’m writing for. This post is an attempt to explore that. To figure out who my audience is.
- A science fiction reader and writer;
- A social progressive whose primary (though not only) areas of focus are feminism and the environment; and
- A believer in science and technology, to create cool stuff and improve people’s lives.
These three form my identity. At the core is science fiction, which I believe is the best genre for helping people imagine how things might be different in the future. And science fiction was what I had to give up, to get through raising the girls and working the day job. More than anything else, that is what dismantled my sense of self.
Necessity and Loss
Steve and I took the leap into full-time writing in 1995. At that time we had two baby girls. Steve got writer’s block/ mid-life-crisis-itis and our income plummeted. The three books I wrote bombed. Neither readers nor my fellow writers showed much interest in my work. And my SFWA peers roundly rejected the work I was doing on interactive storytelling with Chris Crawford*. These kinds of setbacks are part and parcel of being a professional writer, and some truly stellar pros have much grislier war stories than I do. But the killer problem for me was that to overcome these roadblocks I needed to produce more works of fiction. But economic necessity shoved me in another direction: toward my engineering work.
Starting in 1999, I jumped into environmental consulting, and worked for thirteen of the next fifteen years in an exploitative, humiliating work situation**. Now, I love engineering and tech work, and I’m good at it. I was also fortunate enough to find a home at CH2M HILL for the past few years, which reaffirmed for me that my technical work has value.
But consulting commodifies human effort, and that is demoralizing. Having my contributions broken down into 0.1 hour segments (How much value have you added to the bottom line in the past six minutes? How about now? Justify your value!) becomes a chase to the bottom line. Job instability; internal competitiveness; scapegoating; horrendous hours; tons of travel; deep exhaustion: they’re all part of the territory consultants have to navigate.
I learned something very valuable. Consulting taught me just how blindly arrogant I had been. Just how much privilege I had enjoyed before, due to my race, sexual preference, social class, youth, and health. I’d been “leaning in” before, and consequently leaving many others behind. I was appalled at just how blind I had been to others’ suffering***. It shattered my illusions. It shattered my sense of self.
Part of my recent silence has been a necessary fallow period, while I gathered the scraps of who I had been and stitched them back together into a stronger, clearer pattern. I am made whole, and better for it, I believe. Painful work. But well worth it.
It’s been over a decade since I have had the habit of writing on a daily basis. My connection to the SFF community has languished. I haven’t been able to build on my early strengths as a writer, to overcome the challenges I faced in the late 90s and early 00s. My warp core got all warped out. (And last fall, after leaving the day job, I finished my master’s degree, while helping my mom deal with a major house fire and supporting an aunt suffering from terminal cancer.) I guess it’s not so surprising I couldn’t dive right back and start producing words the minute I left the job, as frustrating as that may be.
I have spent the past nine months recovering–sleeping, exercising, reading. My energy and mental focus are returning. The encouragement of people like Jo Walton, Kathryn Allen, and others, including my daughters, Emma and Carita, my husband Steve, and my editor Patrick, have helped restore my confidence. The problems I was having with short-term memory loss and inability to concentrate–issues that had been plaguing me due to extended severe stress and lack of sleep–scary shit!–have receded. I appear to have recovered. Now I can get excited about the potential: the books I will finally get to write; the local projects I hope to get to do someday around sustainability and water resources. Maybe even get my own Storytronic storyworld done, someday? I’d love that.
Hmmm, that’s interesting. I just realized: I’m not really looking for an audience. That is, of course I want to be read. You never stop wanting to have standing in the community of your peers. I do want a connection with a readership, and to be held in esteem by the writers whose work I love so much.
And now I know what it’s like to fall. So I’m afraid of falling again.
But I refuse to be held prisoner by a need for recognition, a fear of loss and defeat. I’m not going to let past difficulties finding my audience damage my ego or make me ashamed. If what I write doesn’t find its audience, or doesn’t resonate with the zeitgeist, so be it. It happens to every writer. I’ll move on and find other ways to tell the stories I want to tell, and I’m willing to bet that if I keep at it, I’ll find people who share my passions, who’ll find comfort and encouragement and excitement in my work.
If not, at least I’ll have spent my life speaking out about what matters to me. That is something to be proud of.
In principle, I stand by my right to have my contributions fairly acknowledged. As a woman in tech and SF, I have faced the same headwind others have written about. I don’t want people to make unwarranted assumptions about me–and I have every intention of demonstrating to those who think older women have nothing of interest to contribute to social discourse that they are mistaken. (This is one of the reasons I have such a fangirl crush on Jo Walton. In addition to being a badass SF writer, she is not just a woman, but pre-/peri-/post-(?)menopausal****–and part of what motivates her is clearly the desire to elevate the voices and works of others. She is by definition someone who walks what she talks.)
But I am not going to let these structural imbalances, or others’ lack of awareness or insecurities that blind them to the truths around them, affect my own sense of self. Bluntly, honey, I’ve seen it all, and I’m not going to let ageism or sexism get in my way.
What I Really Want
But what I really want I want is for people to understand and care about the important things: each other, and the natural world that sustains us.
I want people to see and to care that we have this beautiful planet full of amazing creatures and complex ecosystems, which our uncontrolled consumption is ravaging. I want them to care that our system is designed to concentrate wealth in the hands of a very few, and that it’s not right*****. That our political leaders are caught in a money trap and the situation won’t get better until we the people agree to pull together to make real progressive change happen. And that to pull together, we can’t ignore the structural inequities that have been used to divide and distract us: racism, sexism, ableism, sizeism, gender-phobias of all stripes.
In short, you can’t be for just one -ism. We have to be there for each other. Advocate for each other. Throw another potato in the stew, when someone comes calling, so there’s enough to go around. Prioritize kindness, good listening, and an assumption of good faith, when someone raises a concern you aren’t educated in, instead of clenching up and getting defensive.
That’s what I want people to pay attention to. That’s what I want to write about.
So, the message becomes clear. It’s so damn obvious. Forget about who my audience is. Write what I want to write about. Give it all I’ve got to make it the best work I can. Take that leap of faith: that my audience will find me.
Assorted End Notes and Digressions
*Still, it’s critically important work that Chris and I did. He’s still working on it and has something I hope he’ll release soon. While I doubt my contribution to Storytronics will be remembered in the history books, Chris knows and values my contributions. And I am certain that Storytron or its successors will someday disruptively transform interactive entertainment. I regret not a moment I spent on it–I only wish I had had the wisdom and will to have written a storyworld when I had the chance, so that the world could experience my vision of what interactive storytelling could be. Perhaps someday; who knows? I’m not promising anything, here. But I do know that life is long and full of unexpected turns. I have set it aside, but I haven’t totally let it go.
**That’s the short version; the longer version is more complex. I loved my work and my team at CH2M HILL, whom I discovered in 2010. I was fortunate to have some great clients that I loved working with. I was deeply exhausted when I left, and faced some serious challenges due to our practice area’s growing pains and my remote location. But I felt that I belonged, and would have wholeheartedly continued my work with them, if Steve hadn’t gotten his great gig that freed me up to write full-time. Even at ERM, while I found the corporate culture (to put it bluntly) abusive, suffocating and wrong-headed, I did some work I was quite proud of and worked with some amazing people both in the company and with our clients, whom I think back on with great fondness.
***I.e., how our socio-economic structure is deeply unfair to women and people of color. I still struggle with this. This is why Lean-In feminism is a crock. It all boils down to middle- and upper-class white women accepting the existing structure, as oppressive as it is–in short, climbing over the backs of people of color to win those few prized spots for non-white-straight-cis-able-males.
To be clear, I blame no woman, white or otherwise, struggling to make it in the corporate or academic world, who hires someone else to help care for her kids or elderly parents or to clean her house. I do insist that if you hire someone, though, you pay her (and it’s almost always a “her,” and an immigrant and/or a person of color; just saying) a decent wage (what’s a decent wage, you ask? You tell me if you could live on $10 an hour, much less $8). She is trying to take care of her family, too, and her time is as valuable as yours is.
And furthermore, I do think it’s reasonable to expect that if you care about progressive issues, you find ways to speak up for your co-workers who are subject to other -isms than yours; e.g., if you are white and someone makes a racist remark, don’t let it pass; if you are slim and someone makes a fat joke, say, “Hey, that’s not cool;” if you’re a guy and someone says “Bros before hoes,” say “Uh; no. I don’t think so.” And so on. Don’t put all the burden of fighting that crap on the shoulders of the people hurt by it.
While I’m at it? Think about the fact that people are working hard every day to grow and raise the food you eat and the clothes you wear. You can honor their efforts by buying fair-trade, sustainably grown, organic food and goods. Maybe cut down on meat consumption to reduce climate and ecological impacts, while you’re at it. At least think about it.
****Not that her reproductive status is any of my business, but at least, she is close to my age. I believe that we have an extended post-reproductive life for a good reason, and our elders have an important contribution to make to society.
*****I’m not opposed to capitalism per se–it’s just a tool. What matters is how it is used. I’ve seen how effective it is at enabling the allocation of resources and effort toward important goals. It can spur innovation and creativity and excellence. But it’s become painfully clear that the brakes are off and we are rolling out of control toward a cliff, thanks to unfettered capitalism, population growth, and over-consumption. We need a serious push to insist on political change: laws that protect our wild places, that pay people a living wage who do the hard and honorable work to feed and clothe us and care for our young and our elders, just to name a few priorities. Laws that protect our privacy from unwarranted surveillance, protect our internet as a tool of democracy, and stop drones from dropping bombs on people’s houses.
If we don’t act, who will? Don’t be a bystander. That’s all.
Update 28-Apr-2014 9:52a MST: Made some fairly minor edits and added some linkage.