Notes on a Dead Year, & Thoughts for the One to Come

I started 2016 with high hopes and a raging head cold.

This year, no head cold–but my optimism is firmly tempered.

Last year I was simply thankful to reach 30, despite many crises in my twenties that made planning for the future difficult. I had lost much in preceding years, and sadness reigned when I thought of all the negativity present in the universe in part because of me. Calmness reigned when I looked, instead, ahead, as someone who at last had triumphed over their traumas.

That sense of triumph did not last long. I taught my first course, but felt like I was blundering through the material I had so lovingly put together. I tried to mend the more exhausting relationships in my life, and ended up estranged from a great deal of community for months. I created some healthy distances in my life, but only with great strife, while the intensity of my work schedule made it hard to build better connections in their place.

I suspect I was wounded most, though, by my own ego. In some communities, 30 is supposed to be an age of wisdom: the earliest age of candidacy for some political offices; the age of rabbinical viability for figures from both the Old Testament and the New. But of course, even the character of Christ has his failings, like his temper tantrum over a fig tree–and there’s something comforting about that, even as an atheist: knowing that people can have their missteps overtly acknowledged, and still be celebrated for other, ostensibly more constructive acts.[1] Meanwhile, other traditions recognize 30 simply as the beginning of a new phase in personal growth. In Plato’s Republic, the character of Socrates purports that 30 is the age when the dialectic can first be taught with any measure of protection against the “insanity” of youthful eristicism–and even then, only with great care and prolonged study, after which

they must be sent down again into the den and compelled to hold any military or other office which young men are qualified to hold: in this way they will get their experience of life, and there will be an opportunity of trying whether, when they are drawn all manner of ways by temptation, they will stand firm or flinch.

Only after this, and much more, does Plato’s Socrates suggest that the survivors at 50 will have wisdom enough to rule over their own lives, let alone provide vital leadership to the rest. I have a ways to go, then, before I require further excuses for failing to achieve a better balance in my own life–and in 2017, I intend to make full use of this extension.

In the wake of 2016’s global politics, for instance, a final gear seems to have fixed itself in my heart, driving an engine of conviction that has, if not a clear endpoint, at least a direction: a sense that the time for play is over, and the real work must begin. Not since 9/11 have I felt so present in my own era, or so certain that “big history” is stirring–overtly and inscrutably–all around me. On the one hand, I know that these are dangerous feelings, because a deep immersion in political histories can distract a body from the specifics of a given cultural context. To this end, I wonder sometimes if my current fears are out of proportion with the actual extent of today’s threats to forty years of (already uneven) social advancement.

But then again, so what if these fears are out of proportion? Because, on the other hand, the greater danger lies in waiting until the world is burning in order to say, See? I was right all along! If the worst price we’ll have to pay for advocating harder, right now, for our most vulnerable populations and democratic institutions is the risk that, years later, others might shrug at the thought that either was ever really threatened in the first place, so be it. Let us live to mark that privileged future as the truest sign of our victory in the present.

There are, after all, more futile ways to spend one’s energy. I dedicated a great deal of 2016 to a project I wanted very much to succeed: a dissertation on representations of astronomy in the 19th century, which would have paved the way for a career in scientific non-fiction, which would in turn have allowed me to advocate for scientific literacy as both educator and writer. To this end, I wrote and researched little else in 2016 between three jobs, and let the rest of my life fall away. Time for fiction-writing became a particular rarity, and even when I did write stories, I was not ignorant of the fact that most pooled around 9 to 11,000 words–the same length, give or take, as my dissertation chapters. That PhD project was, for all intents and purposes, my life in 2016. It consumed everything–and to an end that as of yet remains uncertain.

What I do know is that I will be pivoting hard in 2017, and finishing a novel draft by April. One of my constant refrains as a writing mentor is that, if you let go of the story that isn’t working, the story that has failed to find its place in the world, then the best ideas in that story, and the themes that matter most to you, will be freed up to resurface in future works. Moreover, when they do–however long that process might take–they will almost always emerge more seamlessly than in any versions come before. So it is with my current project, where, for the first time ever, I am finding a confluence of ideas and character types and reading practices that have been flitting about in novel and story drafts since I was at least 17. I already know the shape of this project from beginning to end, and–despite its reliance on a narrative structure that scares me–I am beginning to think that, if I pull this off, the book will contain everything I have been trying to say about what storytelling means to me for years.

And yes, I know, that is a lofty bar to set so early on. This, though, is the crux of what I want to bring with me to the year to come: Decisiveness. Self-confidence. The surety that, at this point in my life, irrespective of any ongoing sadnesses and setbacks, I can lay claim to a certain set of skills, and that–in consequence–I have a responsibility to use them.

In a few days I begin to teach another course: a writing course, wherein I hope to help others find and hone their voices in turn. A part of me is preemptively grieving the possibility that this tremendous opportunity will also be my last–but the rest of me knows that where life goes on, growth goes on. There will always be other communities, other spaces in which to become a better ally in hopefulness about the world.

With this in mind, I am hoping this year that I will always be in a space to repeat to myself–at the next, inevitable downturn in mood or life outcome–that 2017 may be an arbitrary turning point, but it is our arbitrary turning point, and that ownership gives us both license and responsibility to make the very best of the time ahead.

I lay no claim to knowing exactly what that will look like–“making the very best of the time ahead”–but my head is clear and my heart is certain: I know I still have to try.

A Happy New Year to you all, then–for I know you will as well.


[1] Granted, the tribalism, pro-slavery sentiment, scientific ignorance, failed prophesies, indifference to animal welfare and social change in the mortal lifespan, and dubious rabbinical counsel are often overlooked because billions consider Christ a god, which makes the elision of his flaws as troubling as they are inevitable, in keeping with his purported superiority over the rest of humankind. Nevertheless, the general principle holds. Wouldn’t it be splendid if we could hold each other’s failings up–not to undermine each other’s successes, but so as to recognize the fullness and the complexity of other lives, and to stand firm against the glorifying impulse that makes it so easy to be disillusioned when any human being, however charming or socially constructive, fails to be perfect on all accords? This secular humanist can always dream.

Writing in 2016: Two New Stories, Both to Reappear in Year’s Best Anthologies

On Thursday I received an email from an SF&F giant of my youth: a name I know from twenty years of Asimov‘s mastheads and the editorial line of major SF anthologies. When I was just a wee sprog testing the waters, his anthology introductions guided my sense of how SF&F was growing as a discipline. I still can’t quite wrap my head around the simple fact that Gardner R. Dozois sent me a line!–because I’m still marvelling at how effortless it is to connect today with people who framed my literary imagination for years. We live in the future indeed.

Then there’s the practical side of things, too:

Today I send out my contract for “A Tower for the Coming World,” just published in Clarkesworld‘s December 2016 issue, to appear again in Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fourth Annual Collection.

I only published two stories this year, due in large part to pouring far too much energy into a doomed dissertation draft. However, the other story, a novelette called “Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan” (Analog, April 2016), was also picked up for reprint, in Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016.

Two stories, two forthcoming reprints in Year’s Best anthologies.

To say that I’m honoured and privileged would be an understatement.

As of late, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by three paying jobs, and writing time has been scarce as a result. But I haven’t forgotten how keenly I want to produce work that can respond to the needs of our changing world, and which will champion and elevate others doing even more extraordinary work to that same end.

These latest, doubled honours–the first publication of each story, and the impending reprints of both–leave me feeling even more serious, and calm, and focussed, about the work to come.

I have been very, very lucky.

Now it’s my responsibility to make good use of that luck in turn.

Wherever the end of 2016 finds you–and whatever your own goals for the writing year to come–I wish you every success. More importantly, though: if and when you achieve it, I hope that you’ll always be in the position to pay it forward. I’m certainly going to try my best to do so now.

Why “Giving Voice to the Voiceless” Is Bullshit, and Writers Need To Do Better

I cleared this blog a few weeks ago, when I realized I needed to reflect long and hard on who I am and who I want to be.

The 2016 US Presidential Election has answered some of those questions in ways that do not invite further hesitation or doubt.

When I was in undergrad, I came across Margaret Atwood’s “The Writer’s Responsibility.” It was the first time I saw an acknowledgment of Canadian literature’s awkward position in the world. I got chills reading that

[w]e live in a society in which the main consensus seems to be that the artist’s duty is to entertain and divert, nothing more. Occasionally our critics get a little heavy and start talking about the human condition, but on the whole the audience prefers art not to be a mirror held up to life but a Disneyland of the soul, containing Romanceland, Spyland, Pornoland, and all the other Escapelands which are so much more agreeable than the complex truth. … We are good at measuring an author’s production in terms of his craft. We are not good at analyzing it in terms of his politics, and by and larger we do not do so.

And later, that

Oppression involves a failure of the imagination: the failure to imagine the full humanity of other human beings. If the imagination were a negligible thing and the act of writing a mere frill, as many in this society would like to believe, regimes all over the world would not be at such pains to exterminate them.

These words gave license to my preference for European literature over North American literature. My favourite writers were people who treated fiction as just one piece of a broader, more urgent social conversation, carried out in equal part by works of philosophy, political discourse, contemporary journalism, and dialogue within the streets. I wanted to write like these seemingly effortless internationalists, but how?

It would be years before I realized that Atwood’s essay closed doors even as it opened them. For all that her words ennoble the writer’s profession, they do so in a fashion that simultaneously limits our understanding of fellow human beings. Thus she writes that

[w]e in this country should use our privileged position not as a shelter from the world’s realities but as a platform from which to speak. Many are denied their voices; we are not. A voice is a gift; it should be cherished and used, to utter fully human speech if possible.

Now, Atwood is certainly not to the first to express such sentiments; the concept is right out of Proverbs 31:8, “Open thy mouth for the dumb.” But damned if this presumption of voicelessness doesn’t construct a universe in which some are “gifted” with voice and some are “silent.” How easy it then becomes to speak over the voices that absolutely do exist in even the most oppressive global circumstances–and further, to assume that just because we haven’t heard X’s story before, it must be because of X’s silence, which thankfully we’re now here to rectify.

During the 2016 US Presidential Election, many voices arose within marginalized groups. Whole discourses about the state of North America’s social contract rose and fell within communities of (among others) Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, persons with disabilities, queer persons, female/feminized persons, Muslim Americans, recent and X-generational immigrants, the working poor, and trauma survivors.

On November 8, these voices were not silenced. They were simply (and devastatingly) not reflected by the power structure voted into office. These voices continue–even now–to march in the streets; to mobilize on social media and in local communities; to speak out.

So what do we really mean when we think about “giving voice” as writers?

Atwood’s “platform” analogy poses an answer by inferring–but only inferring–the existence of an audience. And yet, this is really the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Whose ear are we desperately hoping to reach? To whom do Canadian writers speak?

If it is to the world, then we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of speaking other people’s experiences at them, and from a place of greater security. If it is to ourselves, though–to awaken ourselves to the world and its needs–then the question becomes: Why aren’t we all in the audience, listening and learning? And are there options, as Canadian storytellers, above and beyond taking turns listening to each other narrate the world?

Of course there are.

And the onus lies on writers and educators alike to employ them.

Simply put: It does not suffice to write characters who are “fully human” unto themselves. This is a basic condition of writing competently–whether the characters in question come from communities down the street from the author, or halfway across the globe.

What we need are stories that bring whole other discourses along with our “fully human” characters from other contexts, other worlds, other already vocal communities.

We need to write characters who are plainly products of and ongoing participants in their own literatures–and we need to be aware of, and include, those other literatures, those other dialogues, when we attempt to assemble other people’s worlds whole-cloth.

We need to convey that our role is not to write other people’s stories, not to use the platform of the written word to aggrandize ourselves through the invention of other voices, but to create higher vantage points from which to identify other platforms, other audiences already engaged in their own, immense narrative streams.

It is not enough to awaken the reader to the existence of other human beings and their struggles. It is also a necessary condition of the work–now, as always–to foreground that other human beings had voices of their own long before we came around, and that good literature is a matter of truly listening to, not speaking for, the world on whole.

Our job is to leave readers with a greater awareness of the existence of other platforms, and with our own writing to direct these readers more fearlessly towards them.

And that may take some time. Other ways of thinking, and being, and persevering, will not come easily. We will try–whether we mean to or not, in keeping with the natural cadence of our work–to synthesize, compartmentalize, and otherwise “resolve” dissonant voices within the confines of our own traditions, our native vocal preferences.

Nevertheless, we must write in ways that open doors to whole other ongoing and longstanding conversations, and we must speak about our writing process in these ways, too: with explicit reference to others doing similar work already. Our inspirations. Our ongoing reading list. Our well-springs of vital information about the world.

We cannot signal-boost enough in the coming days, and weeks, and years. There are too many people, at home and abroad, for whom the maintenance of a full and equal humanity under the law relies on people in positions of greater social power paying attention to the many voices who’ve been speaking out all along.

But oh, can we try.

And we will.