There’s no way to note this without appearing just the tiniest bit morbid, so I’ll come right out and say it: One day, I will be dead. Indeed, if you are reading this in the future (and one day, you may just be!) I may already be dead. In which case: Uh, hello, future. I hope you’re enjoying your personal rocket packs, which I never got, you lucky bastards. But that’s okay, because so far, when I lived and where I lived was not bad for me in the slightest. In fact, for someone like me, it was (and to get back to the current time, is) a pretty good time to be alive.
It has its problems. Right now the US is in a severe money crunch and something that we’re being told isn’t an actual depression but is about as close to one as anyone under the age of eighty has ever experienced. Class divisions are as stark as they have been in the history of our country. We’re in an extraordinarily partisan political environment that’s paralyzing our governments, federal and state, and we’re about to gear up for an election year that promises to rival the presidential elections of the early 1800s in terms of sheer nastiness. And then there’s the rest of the world. Oy.
It’s a mess. But it’s never not a mess. This is not to discount the problems we have now — please, let’s not — but it is a reminder that every time and every generation has its crises and its troubles. In my own lifetime of 42 years to date, troubles in the United States these have included the Vietnam War, Watergate, oil embargos, stagflation, recessions, the cold war, the rise of the national debt, climate change, 9/11, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and banking crisis. That’s nothing compared to the 40 years before I was born, mind you. But it’s enough to make the point that whenever you live, one’s world and one’s nation will be beset by challenges. We’re humans. This is what we do.
I note this to acknowledge the fact this time and place are not perfect. I do what I can to help it become what I see as more perfect, while knowing it’ll never get there in my lifetime or (judging from the history of the world) in the lifetimes of probably the next hundred generations to come. Perfection is probably not the point for humans anyway; the working toward it is. It’s like the speed of light: something you’ll never reach no matter how much energy you put into it, but still worth getting as close to as possible because of the things you’ll learn by doing so.
So: not a perfect time. But is it the right time for me? I think so. Part of this is entirely practical: this is the time of three “A”s: Air conditioning, antibiotics and anesthesia, all of which make life longer and more pleasant. It’s also the time when I walk around with a computer that fits into the palm of my hand that lets me access information from the entire span of human history, more books, music and moving entertainment that I could read, listen and see if I had seven more lifetimes, and which allows me to communicate, instantly and cheaply, with friends on the other side of the planet almost as easily as if they were in the room with me. I live in a time where I can make a living, sitting in a room in my house, typing.
Part of this is transitional: I live in a time where human rights, while being contested as they always are, are more widely spread than at any other point in history. Technology is making these rights all but unavoidable, even as it equally offers up new challenges to issues like privacy and government intrusion. I am living in a time where I get to see people who were denied their right to care for each other like any others gain those rights, and in that struggle help the rest of us become better people ourselves. I live in a time where we’re finally becoming serious about weaning ourselves from oil and all the attendant political and social baggage that dependency has required from us. I mean, holy crap, General Motors offers an electric car — for real this time. It’s not to say that transitions solve problems — every change brings up new issues and challenges. But I like that these changes are happening now, and am happy to accept the idea that change does not equal “and now we never have to think about any of this ever again.”
Part of it is personal: I like the people I know now. Living in any other time and any other place would mean different people in my life. I don’t doubt that I would be able to find good people with whom to live my life — but it wouldn’t be these people, and my life would be different, and to a non-trivial extent, I would therefore be different as well. I’m grateful that living now has led me to my wife, and has resulted in my child, both of whom I cannot imagine my life being improved without, no matter who else could theoretically replace their roles. I can’t imagine wanting to be without the other people that I love, who live here and now. These are the right people for me. They exist now and only now, here and only here.
Living now means I won’t live later, which is more than a little annoying for a science fiction writer, who spends so much of his time imagining people, places and times in the future. It’s also a little depressing for someone who likes being alive, and conscious, and engaged in a world with so many interesting things about it. I like everyone once held out the hope that before I shuffled off that they’d find a way to make people live forever. They have not, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. I probably wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to live longer (and healthier, and better, and with more hair and less saggy chin, please), I don’t really expect to live forever, nor do I ultimately see the wisdom of cursing this planet with the same static seven billion people. There’s also the pertinent point my friend Mykal Burns brought up several years ago when I asked him if he wanted to live forever: “Why would I want to live forever? I get bored now.”
I won’t live forever. I will die one day, and there will be many things many people will experience — both good and bad — which I never will. That’s the deal. It is biologically speaking the reason you have kids, so that part of you goes on even if you don’t. Socially speaking, it’s why you make an effort to raise your children to be intelligent and active people, engaged in the world, so that their world, for the time they are in it, is one they are happy to be in. It’s why we as humans continue to try to make the world better, so that humans, whether specifically our children or not, will continue on. By the activity in our own lives, we implicitly accept that we will not last.
I will not last. But right now I am here, and I am thankful that I get to be here, now. To you people of the future, who might read this after I’m gone, I envy you the things that you get to see and do that I will not, the people you will know and the places that you will go, both here and — who knows? I am a science fiction writer — elsewhere. But know this: By not being here where I am, when I am, you missed out on a lot, too. These were and are exciting times to live through, with some of the best people you could hope to meet.
I wish you could have known them, the times and the people, as I do. I am sorry that you will not. But I hope that in your time, in your place and with the people you know and hopefully love, that you are as thankful for them I am with mine. If you are, then that is something we can share, no matter what else separates us. I hope you feel it.
Happy Thanksgiving, now and then.
My oldest friend who I still know and stay in contact with is Kyle Brodie, whom I met in the second grade. We hit it off on the first day, not in class but on the bus ride home. We started having a conversation and we both found each other so mutually clever that we just knew we were totally going to be best friends. And we were, until he moved away, as people do. But we kept in touch here and there and have genuinely reconnected again in the last couple of years; he’s still as clever as ever and I’m delighted that 34 years ago I made the right decision to be his friend (and he to be mine).
The newest friend I have I made this last weekend; it’s Adrienne Kress, an author I met at SFContario 2 in Toronto, and much like Kyle in second grade, it was her humor and cleverness in conversation that made me feel like I could have a connection with her, and encouraged me to spend time with her over the course of the convention. It is of course far too early to know if this enjoyment of her company and liking her as a person is going to mean I’ll be friends with her as long as I’ve been with Kyle, and honestly, it would be totally unfair of me (as well as possibly creepy for her) if I had that expectation. And you know what? I don’t. We’ll see how it goes. But in the meantime, I’ll consider her a friend, and happily so.
In between Kyle and Adrienne are some hundreds of people over the course of my life with whom I have been fortunate enough to be friends, to a greater or lesser extent.
“Friend” is an imprecise term, mind you. Classifying someone as a “friend” is a little like classifying them as a “mammal” — it’s probably correct but it doesn’t actually tell you much. There are all sorts of different types of friends, from the sort of friend barely above the level of casual acquaintance to the sort of friend who, when they call and say “I have a problem, bring a shovel,” you bring a shovel and deal with the problem without so much as a second thought. The taxonomy of friendship is exhaustive and even then doesn’t take into consideration that nearly all friendships are in motion. Your best friend in sixth grade may be someone to whom you barely speak anymore, for no other reason than life happens. The person with whom you shared mostly only a friendly passing relationship for years may unexpectedly become one of your most important friends. Friends you may see in real life only once a year — if that — may share a bond with you of surprising warmth. Time and circumstance and the fact we are ourselves always changing means our friendships are always changing too. New ones are added. Old ones trail away. Sometimes they return. Sometimes they don’t.
It’s not easy to define what a “friend” is in any event. There’s a joking definition which gets somewhere in the neighborhood: “a friend is someone who knows the real you and likes you anyway.” I think it might be more accurate to say that that a friend is someone that helps you to be the person you are, and likes you anyway. But even that doesn’t get to it completely. I mean, hell, I have some friends that sometimes I don’t even like very much. That doesn’t stop them from being my friend, and sometimes even some of the best of my friends. It’s tempting to throw up one’s hands and classify friendship in the same way Potter Stewart defined pornography: Hard to define but you know it when you see it.
Nevertheless, I’ll strive for a simple definition. I think at the end of the day, a friend is someone you emotionally want in your life, who wants you emotionally in theirs. Why do you want them in your life, and they in yours, and how much in it for both? That’s something for the two of you to work out, and when you can’t figure it out, or sometimes you end up wanting different things, that’s when the friendship changes or ends. It’s also possible that your friendship is not mutually graded: You may feel an intense attachment to a friend who feels less intensely about you, and vice-versa. This can sometimes lead to problems. And finally friendship is two people dealing with each other, and you know how people are. Sometimes no matter how much you want to be friends with someone, or how much other people think you should be friends (or on occasion how much you would like to be friends for the sake of a mutual friend), it just doesn’t work. Friendship isn’t actually easy. People aren’t easy.
But the reward is that you get to have friends. You have the people to whom you may vent, with whom you can laugh, who will support you when you need it and for whom you may be a shelter. People who are, as is often said, the “family of choice” — those with whom you may stand and face what the world sends your way. People who are a part of you, have helped you become you, and who might be a part of who you are moving forward.
I have been genuinely blessed with friendships of all sorts and have been thankful them all, from the most casual friendships to the ones that have lasted and grown all through my life. For each of these and in their way, I have tried to be a good friend in return, and worry that I haven’t been. I can be oddly bad at connection; e-mails slip past me, calls turn into week-long bouts of phone tag, I get wrapped up in my own head and I wander about in otherwise oblivious ways. Even friends who I consider to be best friends I can be out of communication with for months at a time. So I am likewise thankful that when I do once again get in contact, they are gracious to me and still friends. It means a lot to me, more than I can easily express here.
So, my friends: Thank you, each of you and all of you, from the ones I have known all my life to the ones I am just meeting. It’s a good life with you in it. I hope your life is better for me being in yours.
My day was thrown a little out of whack with errands and Anne McCaffrey’s death, so I’m bumping the Advent piece I had planned for today until tomorrow, when I have time to write it at greater length. Today, a baker’s dozen of music that mattered to me, in various times of my life — not the only music that mattered to me, to be sure, but music that I’m thinking of right now. I’m thankful for the musicians who made it, who didn’t know how their words and music affected me, but affect me it did. It’s after the cut to keep the front page from being cluttered. Enjoy.
Because they are my heart.
And that’s all I need to say about that.
I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t want to move to Bradford. It was nothing against Bradford in particular; it was that it was in Ohio, and I didn’t want to move to Ohio. I was happy living in Northern Virginia, where we lived at the time, where I had friends, and work, and a nice house and a comfortable life. But my wife wanted to live near her family, who had moved to the Miami Valley of Ohio, where Krissy’s father was originally from (and where Krissy herself was born). I grew up in Southern California, in the urban milieu of Los Angeles, and the idea of living in the midwest did not appeal to me. I thought I would be clever and say to my wife that I would move if she could find a place with five acres of land, on the idea that I could never afford that much land. Turns out land in rural Ohio is surprisingly inexpensive. Off we went to Ohio, and to Bradford, where my new home would be.
Bradford is the smallest place I have ever lived. It has just around 1,850 residents, which is roughly equivalent in size to the high school I used to live near as a kid. It’s a rural and blue collar community, strongly religious (there are nine churches around town) and like the rest of both Darke and Miami counties, each of which houses half the town, strongly politically conservative. It’s 98% white and less than 1% Hispanic of any sort, that one percent of which includes both my wife and daughter, who have ancestors from Mexico. All the kids, from kindergarten through high school, go to school in the same building. The town is locally famous for its Pumpkin Festival, has no stoplights, has an IGA market and is eleven miles away from the nearest Wal-Mart. When you think about typical small-town America, Bradford or someplace very much like it is what you think about.
I admit when we first moved here all of this disconcerted me. I was an urban and suburban sort of person, lived in areas where not everyone was white and Republican and was used to having fully-kitted shopping centers, complete with fast-food franchises, less than a mile away, near people with college degrees and a preference for alternative music over country. When we moved to Bradford the fastest local Internet provider connected to the Web at 9600 baud. I was fairly certain I was gonna die out there.
It didn’t happen. One, I got satellite Internet (and then DSL). Two, on a day to day basis none of that stuff matters in terms of how people treat each other as neighbors. I’ve lived in Bradford long enough for people to know I’m an agnostic lefty; I don’t really think most people care. I think what they care about is if I’m I good guy and a good neighbor, which are things I try to be.
And as time has gone on I’ve come to appreciate some of the things that used to worry me about rural living. When I moved to Bradford, I was concerned I would be isolated; these days I actually like that I am a little bit isolated. I travel so much and I do so much when I travel that when I’m home, it’s nice to be away from it all. Being in a small town is great for focus when it comes to writing. I’m aware that this may come across as damning with faint praise. I’d like to emphasize the praise is not faint. My job is to write; my personal nature is to be distracted. And beyond that, the feeling I get when I get home from travel is like a happy sigh and a clearing of stress, looking out at my big yard and the fields beyond it. It’s nice to have space and not to have a feeling the rest of the world is impinging upon you.
I like our neighbors; I like the school and the teachers who teach my daughter and the fact the school is small enough that she gets enough attention from the people who educate her. I like that in the life of my town I am able to make a difference, and that’s not necessarily a feeling that I’ve gotten in the other places where I have lived. I am engaged enough in Bradford that it feels like I imagine a hometown is supposed to feel like, rather than a place I just happen to live. I don’t know that I would have known the difference before I moved here; now I do.
As with any place one might live, Bradford isn’t perfect, but then perfection isn’t what one ought to be expecting. It’s nice to live there among good people who by and large seem to be happy we’re there. I didn’t want to move there, but that was eleven years ago now. I’m there now and I like it. I think it’s been an important place for me to be in my life, and for what I do and how I do it. I’m thankful to be there. Or, more accurately, since I am in Toronto at the moment, thankful to be going back there. Not that Toronto isn’t a great city, mind you. But Bradford is home.
I like to say I’m a lazy person, because I think I am: I’m a big fan of the principle of least effort for maximum effect. Some call that efficiency, but I think efficiency is frequently born of laziness, as in, oh God I don’t want to do this how can I do it so it’s over with and I can get back to shooting zombies? So, yeah: lazy.
At the same time, however, I like to be busy. Really busy. As in, I like looking over the next few years of my life and saying I know what I’ll being doing all this time. Right now I look at my life through 2014 and I have a pretty good idea of what I’ll be writing, where I’ll be going, and how I’ll be spending my days. In fact I have quite a bit planned.
The question becomes how I square my impulse toward laziness with my desire to be busy all the time. I don’t think it’s actually that hard to do and in fact I think one feeds into the other. I know why I like to be busy: One, I get bored easily. Two, without going into great detail about it, having grown up on an economic yo-yo that alternated me between material comfort and depressing poverty, I’m a big believer in understanding that nothing lasts forever, at least not without a whole stack of planning. I’m doing well right now; I don’t have any faith that state of affairs will last. Being busy is a nice hedge.
Being lazy helps keep me busy because being lazy has taught me to, as much as possible, find the easiest way to deal with any single task, so I have time left to a) do other things, b) do nothing at all. Doing b) is actually important, since if I do too much of a) without it I become cranky and short-tempered and annoying and not a nice person to be around, and I work less efficiently, which is no good. So if I want to be busy, and I do, it’s not going to get done without also being lazy.
I like that almost-contradiction, the idea that the human quality least associated with industry is the one I think allows me to be as industrious as I am. I also like the idea that what many people would slot as a character flaw fuels what is generally seen as a laudable character trait. I think it points out the ying and yang of who I am and why I need both of these things to function. It also means that when my wife once told me “You are a man too lazy to fail,” I was deeply pleased, because it meant that she actually understood me. And would probably let continue shooting zombies whenever I wanted. As long as, you know, everything else got done.
I am thankful to be busy. And to be lazy. And on that note, I’m off to be busy again for three hours straight. I’ll be lazy afterwards, I swear.
Over the course of this Thanksgiving Advent adventure, I’ve talked about a number of things associated with writing, and how they’ve affected my life. I haven’t talked about writing itself, however. So I’d like to focus on that for today, independent of all the trappings, benefits and side effects. Because the fact of the matter is that even if I never became a professional writer, or became a financially successful writer, or even had more people than my immediate circle of friends ever read anything I wrote, I would still write. I would still be a writer.
I would still be a writer for the simple reason that I find the act of writing extremely pleasurable. There is something lovely about sitting down to a blank screen (or blank page, if you want to get old school) and filling it with words. There is likewise a fantastic feeling that comes from taking what are unformed and chaotic thoughts in one’s head and giving them form and structure with words. People often note that ideas and thoughts which seem deep and meaningful inside their head seem banal or pointless when they’re written out, but allow me to suggest the problem is not that that these ideas were reduced when they were translated into words; instead, they were revealed. Your brain lies to you about the awesomeness of your thoughts. Words are the friend that says “Dude. Stop hitting the bong.” On the other hand, if you have a fantastic idea in your head, and it’s still fantastic when you put it into words, you know what? It may in fact be fantastic.
This organizing and structuring that comes through writing comes in handy for me, because it means that I have an outlet to express thoughts I have that run deeper than “I have to take out the trash.” My wife understands this perfectly well; on more than one occasion, after I’ve completely fumbled expressing something to her, she’s said to me “you need to go write that out.” And I do and then I actually have a way to express that idea, so that the next time I try to verbalize it, I have a framework and a method that doesn’t involve increasingly wild hand gestures and the use of the phrase “you know?” every five or six words. Writing makes me a better verbal communicator, funny as that sounds. For which I suspect my wife, who has to live with me, is grateful.
Another reason writing is pleasurable is that I am good at it, and it feels good to do things you are good at. When I was young, I was a good writer — “good” being highly conditional on context, mind you, and I could have benefited from my own list of tips for teenage writers — and especially when you’re young, doing something you know you can do well (and possibly better than almost anyone else you know) means a lot to you and your concept of yourself as a person. You may be goofy or short or socially awkward or pocked with strategically embarrassing zits or whatever — but you can make words do things, things other people can’t, and that’s a hell of a thing when you’re fourteen and you’re trying to find a place in the world and to have it all make some sort of sense.
As I got older another aspect of the joy of writing came to the fore: the enjoyment of the craftsmanship of it, of the appreciation of a turn of phrase, or the right word, or the presentation of a concept just so, that could make an idea pop or turn a sentence from a merely functional string of words conveying meaning into something that stuck into a reader’s brain like a piton driven into a cliff wall. It’s the meta-awareness of a thing you’re doing and how you’re doing it and how it’s working, and the realization of your own competence with it, brought on by a combination of talent, practice and the occasional out of the blue taser jolt of inspiration.
And through all of this is the pleasure of the flow of words that comes when you are caught up in the act of writing, when everything you know about writing and everything you think about it and everything it might have earned you (or that you want it to earn for you) slip off to the side and it’s just you laying out the words, one after the other, into an inevitable sequence. It’s the same thing a musician gets in the middle of an epic jam session, or a painter when the image emerges out of the paint or the actor who has subsumed himself in the moment, no longer thinking about his character because the character is there.
This state of being has been described from a psychological point of view, but conceptualizing it and feeling it are of course two entirely different things. It feels like a gift from the universe to you. And maybe it is. I’m not of the opinion that you have to be good at what you’re doing in order to experience this sort of flow, although it may help. What’s important is that you’re so far into the thing you’re doing that in that moment, everything else doesn’t matter. I’ve gotten this feeling from other things, but where I get it the most is when I’m writing.
It’s a relationship with words, essentially. I have one and it manifests itself through my fingers, usually onto a computer screen but occasionally with pen and paper. It’s a relationship in which I feel defined, in no small part because in the act of writing I have been able to define myself, to myself and to others.
Independent of anything else writing has done for me — and it’s done a lot — this aspect of it has been extraordinarily important to me, and I’m thankful for it, and the pleasure it’s given me. And ultimately it’s why I write, why I keep writing, and why, if everything else that writing ever did for me went away (and it might), I would still do it.
I’m writing you today from Toronto, where I am because a bunch of very nice Canadians decided it would be a groovy thing to pay for my plane ticket, put me up in a hotel, and fete me for a weekend as one of their guests of honor at the SFContario science fiction convention. Tonight, I’ll do a reading, and people who like my books will show up and listen to me preview an upcoming book and then blather on about my life. Over the next few days, while I’m at the convention, I’ll get to do even more of that. Usually when you go on and on about yourself for days, you’re labeled — not without reason — as an insufferable jackass blowhard. But not only am I encouraged to do this, indeed, this is part of why I’m here.
Having fans is awesome.
It’s also dangerous, of course, for the sort of attention-seeking monkey I and many other creative types are. Jamming this sort of appreciation into our brains is likely to encourage a positive feedback loop of personal entitlement and self-regard wildly out of proportion to our actual worth as human beings. And then we become assholes. That is in fact the precise, technical term. You can look it up. But that’s very definitely more about that person than it is about the people who appreciate his or her work. Fans don’t make people assholes, people become assholes when they misinterpret enthusiasm for them and their work to mean that the normal strictures of being a decent human being don’t apply to them anymore. All fans do is say “That thing? That you do? I like it.”
This is nice, and can lead to nice things. When people like the things you do, they very often support them, often by buying the things you create (or otherwise putting money into things involving you), and encouraging others to do the same. This can lead to bills being paid, a mortgage being topped off, groceries being put in the pantry, and children getting things like shoes and a college education. It can also lead to you being able to keep doing that thing that makes the fans happy, whether it be books or music or TV shows or whatever it is they like. And since you were probably originally doing that thing because it made you happy to do it, this is typically not a bad thing at all. If in life people want to pay you to do the thing you always wanted to do, and want you to keep doing it, you should probably be appreciative of that.
But wait, I hear you say, you’re the same person who’s thumped on fans for being out of line with writers. Doesn’t this make you a hypocrite, or at least not able to keep track of you’ve said before? I don’t think so. Like authors, fans are people too, and just as the objects of fans’ affections can get sucked up into their own sphincters regarding their importance to the world, so may some fans occasionally transmute their enthusiasm into “I made you; you owe me.” Some people, creators and consumers alike, struggle with being jerks. It doesn’t mean that as a class, fans are not important to a creative person’s career, or that they shouldn’t be thankful for them.
Personally speaking I think I’ve been very lucky. My fans don’t typically seem to be the problematic sort. In meeting them, here and out in the real world, they usually seem like what they are: People who like my work and appreciate what I do and hope I keep doing it. I make an active attempt to return the favor by not letting my own personal ego monster out of the box too often. I’m genuinely happy and honored that people like my work and that in one way or another it has meant something to them, and I don’t want them to think that I take that lightly. It helps that I’m a fan too — I have my own list of writers, musicians, actors and other creative folk whose work has made my life better. I’ve even gotten to meet some of them and say “thanks.” It made me happy to see that they were happy I liked what they did. I want to be able to express that too, to the people who like what I do.
(It also helps a lot that in science fiction and fantasy, the fan-creator line is highly permeable and always has been. So many fans have become friends, and some of my fans have become pros who I in turn have become fans of, and some of the pros who I have admired for years have become friends and even fans as well (at least, that’s what they tell me). This community has been one of the great joys for me in becoming a science fiction writer; I hope writers in other genres get the same sort of dynamic, and if they don’t, well, that’s a shame.)
I’m fortunate to get fan letters from time to time, so consider this me returning the appreciation. Dear fans: Most sincerely, I thank you and am thankful for you. Thank you for reading, and thank you for letting me and my work be a part of your life. I hope I get to keep doing it. It’s my plan, in any event.
(P.S.: Did I mention I’m in Toronto for the SFContario science fiction convention? It starts tomorrow! You should totally come out.)
And, well. This one’s sort of obvious, isn’t it. When a globe-spanning network of computers is directly responsible for much of one’s career, income, notoriety and daily life, what else should one say but “thanks”?
The Internet has been important enough in my life that it’s worth pointing out the good things in my adult life it isn’t directly or at least partially responsible for: My first job, which I got in 1991, before the Web opened up the Internet to any common schmoe; my wife, who I met because of my first job, and my non-fiction agent, who I got because of a column I wrote for the newspaper. Although the way he heard about it was that the column got e-mailed to him. Right, I owe the Internet for him as well. So: My wife and my first job. There you are.
Yeah, I owe the Internet tons.
It’s a little weird to think of it in that terms, and it does make me wonder how much differently my life would have unrolled had the public expansion of the Internet not happened when it did, how it did. Would I still be working at The Fresno Bee, the newspaper which gave me my first job? I’m not sure about that, but I think I probably would have stayed at newspapers and in print journalism rather longer than I did. Would I have published non fiction books? Possibly, but then my first non fiction book (and my first book, period) would not have been about online finance. Would I have become a novelist? Probably only if my wife decided she was going to handle mailing my work out to publishers, because I almost certainly wouldn’t have bothered — we know this because I didn’t bother in this timeline; I put my first two novels online, as much out of sheer laziness as anything other excuse I could offer. If I had published fiction, would I have been as lucky in my debut I was in this world, with my online presence helping to push sales? Who knows. Would I live in rural Ohio in a world where proximity to work mattered more than it does here? That’s a really interesting question.
In the end, in a no-Internet (or later Internet) world, I’m pretty sure I would still be a full-time professional writer, and I’m reasonably sure by this time I would have published at least a couple of books. I think I would still recognizably be me. But the details of that life — including some of the most significant, such as the job I had, the books I would write, the people I knew and even the child I had — would be changed enough as to constitute a different life. I would be me, my wife would still (hopefully) be my wife. Everything else is up for speculation.
I like my life, and it’s disconcerting to think that its course and shape has been significantly and arguably primarily defined by a system of computers originally designed to keep the country’s defense forces connected, and which now exists to (among other things) shuttle pictures of cats around at the speed of light. But then again, before the Internet, by life was being defined by an industry that wrapped words on low-grade paper around advertisements for underwear and used cars, the most popular portions of which involved comics about lasagna-loving cats. Anything humans do seems absurd if you frame it in sufficiently absurd terms, involving cats.
My life is what it is. It is what it is because the Internet exists, and I am on it, and use it, and profit from it in all manner of ways, commercial, personal and existential. Years from now, and perhaps not even before I’m dead, we’ll consider the Internet this hopelessly antiquated and ridiculous thing, and all the things on it as relics of a different and possibly silly age, which is to say we’ll have found new and even better ways of enjoying cats on a massive scale. When that day happens, I’ll say to those around me, yes, perhaps it was a little ridiculous, but it gave me so much. I’m glad it did, and I’m thankful. Now, please, stop sending me those brainwaves about bacon.
No, I’m not trying to suck up to my in-laws. I’ve been in the family for sixteen years, dating back to the day this picture was taken. We’re waaaaay past the sucking-up stage, I have to say. I have the wife! And the child! They can’t be taken away now! Bwa ha ha hah ha ha ha! Actually, I don’t want to test that proposition, since it would involve shovels, a dark hole in the ground, and an entire clan of tight-lipped Ohioans. “Hey, didn’t Krissy have a husband at one point?” “She might have.” “What happened to him?” “Couldn’t say.” And that would be that.
But none of that is in the offing, so to speak. I’m noting that I’m thankful for my in-laws Mike and Dora because, quite simply, I genuinely like them and am appreciative of them in all sorts of ways great and small. A small way: When Athena was younger and Krissy and I wanted a date night, they were happy to babysit. It’s not a big deal, but date nights are, actually — it’s nice to be able to spend time with your spouse and just your spouse. Another small way: Dora is a fantastic hostess and if you escape her house having consumed less than 18,000 calories you may have gone to the wrong house. Yet another: Mike mows my lawn. Actually, that’s not small, since my lawn is five acres.
One not so small way: I keep them in mind when I’m writing my novels. Neither of them is generally a big science fiction reader — he likes history and she likes Nora Roberts and Julie Garwood — but both of them read my books, because, well, I’m their son-in-law. And I want them to be able to enjoy them. So when I write I ask myself if whatever science fictional concept I’m playing is being written in a way that my in-laws will follow. This is emphatically not the same as dumbing down the writing — these aren’t stupid people — but is a way to remind myself that not everyone knows the last 30 years of science fiction literature, and that it’s worth it to bring those folks into the story when it’s possible. I don’t write for Mike and Dora (or other non-sf readers) specifically, but I try to write for them too. I think that’s made a material and positive difference in my career.
One very big way: The ways in which I see the both of them in my wife. From Dora there’s her considerable wells of understanding and empathy, a desire to make people welcome and comfortable in her home, the warmth of her friendship and an extraordinary reservoir of stubbornness which makes her a force to be reckoned with. From Mike there’s her stillness and reserve, a thoughtfulness that most people lack, her no-nonsense straight-line thinking that makes her the person others turn to for help and advice, and the personal strength of character that makes her the rock her family — and I, certainly — have built their foundation upon. And also, I suspect, her physical strength, because, damn, that woman is strong.
It’s a pretty nifty thing to see the things ones admires in one’s spouse and be able to trace them back to the parents; it means it’s not just a lucky thing they’re there. I can see some of these same qualities developing in my daughter. I don’t wonder where they came from.
Plus, they’re just good people, and really, that can’t be appreciated enough.
So, Mike and Dora: Thanks for being you, thanks for being great parents to your daughter, thanks for being terrific grandparents to my daughter, and thanks for always making me feel welcome, going back to the very first time we ever met, at that July 4th party in 1993. I love you guys and am thankful you are part of my life. May I never cause you to reach for a shovel.
There was this one time I was on a book tour, and I shook hands with someone in San Diego, and the next thing I knew I was in Minneapolis. Which would be fine, except somewhere in there I was also in Phoenix. I gotta tell you, I have almost no memory of being there, due to one of the gnarliest cases of 24-hour stomach virus that I had ever encountered. I mean, I must have been in Phoenix, and I must have done an okay job when I was there because I didn’t hear of anyone complaining about me. But, yeah. Really, just a blur.
That’s when I joined the cult of the Hand Sanitizers.
Look: I do a lot of travel. And I do a lot of travel to events where I am in close contact with a whole bunch of people, like conventions and bookstore events and conferences and book fairs. And when I am there, I am touching books that other people have handled, pens other people have handled, and hands attached to people. Sometimes people want hugs and sometimes when they ask for pictures they put their hands on me — not in a weird grope-y way, mind you, but still, there’s some physical contact. Some of these people — not you, of course — have colds or something worse. Some of these people — definitely not you — have questionable hygiene.
And thus I would often find, having gone to a convention or other event, that I would come home with a low grade something, and occasionally a high grade something. In the case of the latter, I would be out of commission for at least a couple of days. In the case of the former, I would feel like crap for at least the same amount of time. Mind you, it’s not just me and my oh-so-delicate immune system. This sort of thing happens enough that there’s a name for it : “Con Crud.” No, it’s not that science fiction fans are dirty, germy people. Well, it is, actually. But they are no more dirty or germy than anyone else. When you get any large group of people together for several days, they’re going to swap viruses like business cards. And because I belong to the class of people at conventions/conferences/book fairs/etc who constitute the entertainment, I come into direct contact with more people than most other folks.
I don’t want to get sick every time I go to an event. At the same time, I don’t want to keep myself distant from the folks who have come out to see me; aside from my own gregarious nature it’s just not good business. So these days, after book signing or other event where I’m socializing and touching people and things (and vice versa), out comes the hand sanitizer, and there’s a thorough rubbing of my exposed surfaces. Yes, that sounds a little dirty, doesn’t it. But in fact it’s the opposite of dirty, which goes to my point.
I and some other of my friends in the same position in terms of the public are aware sometimes people get offended if they see the hand sanitizer come out. This is one reason why I try to wait until I’m done socializing. But beyond that, here’s the thing. If you see me or someone else pull out the Purell or Germ-X when we’re having contact with you, it’s not that we’re saying you’re dirty. We’re saying that all that personal contact we’re having adds up. You’re going to like us better a) if we’re not sick and b) not passing along a petri dish worth of germs that we’ve gotten from everyone else at the event. We’re doing it for you. And for us. Mostly for us. But for you too.
Does it work? Yes it does. I’ve been using hand sanitizer pretty religiously for a few years now and I’ve noticed my incidence of being laid out by illness after an event has gone way down since I have. It doesn’t always work; for example, I got sick when I was Germany despite hand sanitizer. But then I was at the Frankfurt Book Fair, in close proximity to hundreds of thousands of people. A dab of alcohol-based gel can only be expected to do so much. Otherwise, yes. The stuff usually works.
Which I’m thankful for. I don’t like to get sick when I see people. I don’t like to make other people sick when I see them. A little hand sanitizer goes a long way to avoiding both scenarios. Everybody walks away happy, or at least not virus-laden.
Old Man’s War is my most famous novel to this point and one of the things that people like about it is that its structure and tone angles back to the “golden age” of science fiction — the review of the novel that Tor plasters on the paperback cover proclaims it reads like a Robert Heinlein original, which is about as “golden age” as you can get. The observation is true; the book reads like “golden age” writing because I like that style and I wanted more of it, and if no one else was going to do it the way I liked it I was going to have to do it myself. But there’s another, very significant and much more modern, influence on its storytelling as well: First person shooter video games.
Before I get there I have to explain a little bit about why I like first person shooter video games more than any other type of video game. The first reason: I use video games for recreation and when I do that, I don’t want to have to do a lot of thinking. I’m glad people like strategy games and role playing games and all the other sort of games that make you engage your brain to keep track of inventories or whether your Sims are happy with you as the mayor, or whether you need to go to war with the Hittites or whatever. Enjoy that. What I want to do is be moving and kinetic and shoot lots of things and have things explode and have discrete missions that have a beginning, middle and end and don’t make me think all that hard because, dude, that’s what I do all the rest of the day. I’d rather headshoot a zombie than build a civilization.
The second reason: First person is far more immersive for me than the games in which the player is represented by an entity onscreen, whether it’s a person or a spacecraft of a ball of goo or whatever. When I play a video game, I don’t really want to play as Mario or Lara Croft or Desmond Miles or Niko Bellic or whomever. I want to play as me. Now, in first person games you’re still often supposed to be someone else, like Gordon Freeman or Master Chief or Chelle. But in point of fact you’re playing the game from the point of view of you — eye level with no object in the way of interfacing with and navigating through the game world. The characters can call me Gordon Freeman all they want; I know I’m me.
This makes a huge perceptual difference. Things are more exciting when they are happening to you and not some representation on the screen; the scares are scarier, the accomplishments more satisfying, the frustrations much more frustrating. I fully grant that some games and some game genres are better in something other than first person, but generally speaking, as noted, those games are less interesting to me because of it. I think of it this way. It’s the difference between remote control piloting an X-Wing, and being in the cockpit yourself. When it comes time to descend into the Death Star trench, where do you really want to be?
Back in the day, first person shooters were not necessarily known for their stories — early versions like Doom and Quake and Descent were all about the shooting, killing, occasionally finding keys and getting the hell out of the dungeon — but it’s a mistake to see them as being storyless, and it’s also a mistake to suggest there was not effective storytelling. The original Half-Life in 1997 was famously scripted by an accomplished novelist, Marc Laidlaw, who rolled out the story as the game progressed, for example. Other first person shooters of the era also tried their hand at telling a full, compelling tale as the player went along; two that stick out in my mind were Clive Barker’s Undying and Requiem: Avenging Angel, not to mention System Shock 2, which scared the living crap out of me at the time. These days it’s more unusual for a shooter not to have a story than to have one, and these stories are often as engaging as any you’ll find in a novel — not in the least because game studios are now frequently following Valve’s lead and hiring science fiction novelists to plot out their stories.
So when it came time for me to write Old Man’s War, what did first-person shooters teach me as a storyteller? First, to keep the story first person — I wanted readers to be looking through John Perry’s eyes the whole time and feel like what was happening to him was happening to them. I didn’t want them to be standing over his shoulder and having an opportunity to distance themselves from what he was going through. It’s not to say that third person storytelling can’t be effective — note The Ghost Brigades was third person, in part because I wanted the separation between the reader and Jared, the main character — but for their first time in my universe, I wanted my readers to be immersed in it exactly as much as John Perry was, to feel what he was feeling.
Second, to keep things moving, and to make each chapter its own “level” — that is, to have each chapter have its own achievable goal even as it led through to the overall story development and plot climax. Essential information and equipment is doled out when necessary, exposition kept to a minimum and always in the service of keeping the reader moving through the story, and any chance of letting people get sidetracked kept to a minimum, lest they wander off and get bored. This way — and as with good level design in a shooter — every chapter had its own little payoff, and at the end of each John Perry (and by extension, the reader looking through his eyes) “leveled up” in some way. Not every story has to be told this way — that would get boring, fast — but it sure worked for what I wanted Old Man’s War to do.
The more observant of you will note that the fundamentals of storytelling in FPS games are not actually that much different than what is often suggested for novels, and you would be correct about that. But I do think first-person shooter storytelling, when it’s working, boils these precepts down into a highly concentrated form that has more of a visceral impact. In regard to how it applies to Old Man’s War, it helped to bring a modern sense of narrative propulsion to the “golden age” format I was working in. Indeed, you could say that in this particular storytelling argument, the thesis was a Heinlein-like story, the antithesis was first-person shooter narrative dynamics, and the synthesis was Old Man’s War. Hegel would be proud, and I suspect excellent at headshots.
(I’ll note also that OMW gave me an opportunity to fix one thing that really bugs me about first person shooters, which is characters walking around with a ton of weapons and ammo and still able to, you know, move. From this kvetch came the MP-35, which thanks to advanced nanobot technology could give you all the benefits of a rifle, a shotgun, a grenade and rocket launcher, a flame thrower and a particle beam weapon, all in a single piece of armament! And yet FPS characters are still walking about with 43,000 weapons on them. Sigh.)
I’ve noted before that one of my goals before I leave this planet is to write a video game myself. Specifically, I want to write a first person shooter, because I think it would be cool, and because I think there are certain things I could bring into the storytelling, from the novel world, that aren’t there now (or more accurately, I suppose, which I have not seen yet). Dear game makers: You know where I am. Call me.
In the meantime, I’m thankful to first person shooters, not only for helping me write the novel that put me on the map, but also for giving me a way, at the end of the day, to shut off my brain, run around and shoot the crap out of everything I see.
Speaking of which, I’m off now. Those zombies aren’t going to shoot themselves, you know.
I have the expectation that when I want to say something, people will listen.
I have that expectation because for the large majority of my life that is what’s happened. When I was a child, I could expect to be listened to by teachers and by others because I was clever and good with words. When I was in high school and college I was That Guy Who Wrote Things, who was encouraged by educators to get my words out there and given spaces where others would read my words and react to them.
When I left college, my first job was as a critic and a commentator — literally someone who is paid to tell people what he thinks. I’ve been paid to be a critic or commentator almost without interruption for twenty years. I started a blog just before they became a thing and have benefited from 13 years of growing an audience and being linked to by others. On any given day, tens of thousands of people drop by to see what I’m blathering about now, and occasionally (like the last couple of days) rather more people visit than that.
Just short of seven years ago now I became a successful novelist and a (very) minor celebrity; one of the side effects of this peculiar status is that now there are people who are interested in what I have to say because I’m me.
At this point in my life, me speaking and being heard are expected enough that when I don’t speak, people wonder why. If I take a day off from the blog without telling people I’m doing so, I get concerned e-mails asking me if everything’s okay. Speaking and having what I’ve said being heard is my default state. It pretty much always has been.
Certainly some of this is by design, and effort on my part — I’ve used my skills to raise my voice because I like being heard. But then again, come on, who doesn’t? Who doesn’t want to be able to have the option, when they choose to speak, of having those around them pay attention and take them seriously? There are also other things at play here, the things I get for free.
Like what? Well, like luck, which I have very recently essayed in terms of how it’s affected my life and career. Riding the wave of the blog revolution back in the day, and having my fiction career take off in the manner it has certainly expanded my ability to say what I want to say and get it out into the world. Being in the right place at the right time does wonders.
And, why, yes, as it happens, so does being a well-off straight white male. Yes! I know! Still! Amazing. Many in the Straight White Male community like to roll their eyes and get affronted whenever it’s suggested that being these things continues to confer an unearned benefit, but, well. I think the rest of us know better. Speaking as a well-off straight white male, what it means is that when I speak, and people run through their checklist of Default Reasons to Ignore Me, they can’t cross off any of the usual boxes. That’s helpful.
(But, but, but — there are women and minorities and gays and maybe even poor people who get heard too, you know! Indeed there are. Generally speaking, I don’t have to work as hard for it as they do, and I don’t get nearly the amount of crap they get for doing it. Life’s not fair, and sometimes the “not fair” aspect bends in one’s favor. This is how it works for me.)
Being heard is usually beneficial, but it does have a flipside: When one shows one’s ass, that ass is seen from a long way off. This seems fair to me, although speaking from experience it’s no fun when it happens. What one hopes to learn from such events is that being heard comes, if not with responsibilities, then at least with consequences. If you’re lucky, what you take away from the experience of showing your ass is an understanding that what you say matters in one way or another. Therefore it’s worth making the effort to say it right and to try to know a bit on what you’re talking about, or be upfront about what you don’t know.
If you’re not lucky, what you take away from events like that is that some people just can’t take a joke and should really lighten up. Here’s a pro tip: When you say “It’s just a joke, lighten up,” it’s understood by the rest of the world as you saying “I’m almost certainly being an asshole right now.”
I like being heard when I have something to say, even when what I have to say is “look, this is my cat.” I recognize that this ability I have is partially earned though my own effort, but was also partially given to me by things and events I don’t control. I acknowledge the fact of what’s unearned and work on the things I do control, and I give thought to what I say because at the end of the day, what I say is how most people know me. I’m thankful to be heard. I try to be worth listening to.
Which include my father, father-in-law, brother, several cousins, and many friends. Thank you, folks. Really, thanks.
(The story of that picture here, at the Wikipedia article I borrowed it from.)
I’m not going to lie to you: I loooooooove sleep.
In fact, I may love it too much at this point. There’s a quote I use a lot these days, which when I heard it was attributed to Johnny Depp, but may have come from somewhere else, on the subject of sleep. It says that you know you’re getting old when you talk about sleep like you used to talk about sex. As in, “Oh my GOD, I had SUCH FANTASTIC SLEEP last night. It was AMAZING. And it WENT ON FOR HOURS. And then, when I was done, I DID IT AGAIN.” Yes, that’s me. And I don’t care who knows it.
But it’s not just a getting older thing with me. I’ll note that I was always an aficionado of sleep. As anyone who knows me and they will tell you I’ve always been a world class sleeper. Cats are my models — if a cat sleeps twenty hours a day, it considers that a day well spent. It’s a philosophy that I find hard to argue with. For most of my 20s and 30s I had a motto: “AM is what happens to other people.” It was a fine motto.
And unfortunately not one I subscribe to anymore. One reason is entirely practical: Someone has to take the daughter to school, and sometimes that person has to be me. The school, for some unfathomable reason, looks askance at me dropping her off at 1pm. I’m pretty sure Athena wouldn’t mind starting school at 1pm. They haven’t given us a vote on that. Fine.
The other reason is more existential: As I get older, my sleeping habits are changing. When I was younger, sleeping until noon and having my prime creative time from midnight to 4am worked perfectly for me — and when Athena was a baby, was actually an excellent thing because it meant I could take the night shift feedings and let my wife, who had a normal working schedule, get something close to a full night’s rest. But as my mid and late 30s rolled around, so did my sleeping schedule, and so did my prime creative time. These days when I’m writing a novel, the hours of 8am until noon are the ones that work for me, because I’ve had a full night of sleep and my brain is not yet crammed with e-mails and tweets and blog posts and phone calls and what have you. Now AM happens to me, damn it, and there doesn’t seem much I can do about it. I suppose I could try writing a novel on the night shift again. I wouldn’t guarantee the results.
This also means that these days I’m often in bed at 10pm and am progressively less likely to be awake when 11pm rolls around, much less midnight. In my mind these are “old people hours,” but then again, in a world filled with DVRs and on-demand streaming, what, exactly, do I have to stay up for? Jon Stewart is just as funny at 7:30 am as he is at 11pm — maybe even more so because I’m not sitting there with my brain on the “duuuuuuuh” setting, blinking slowly and trying to process the humor. I could stay up, in a misguided attempt to be one of the cool kids who makes it to midnight, but remember, I actually like sleeping. I’m not planning to run from it.
And what do I like about sleeping? I like how it feels, for one; I think some people are completely insensate when they are asleep, but that’s not how I am. I’m generally warm and comfortable and happy, and who doesn’t like being warm and comfortable and happy? (I know, I know: Emo kids. Their problem, man.) For another thing, I like dreaming; I’m one of those lucid dreamers you occasionally hear about, so I’m generally pretty engaged in what’s going on in my dreams. It’s also why I’ve never had a nightmare; when things start getting too weird, I say “that’s enough of that,” and then they’re done. I also do that with really boring dreams. It’s a good skill to have.
A third reason is that I find when I have a problem, whether related to writing or something else, I find that if I sleep on it, my subconscious does a lot of the heavy lifting of solving the problem. So when I wake up and bring it around again, as often as not the problem is solved or is at least sufficiently deknotted that I can get the rest of it with my conscious brain. This is really an incredibly useful thing and I honestly think one of the secrets to my success, because less time consciously problem-solving issues with writing means more time actually writing. I recommend it to everyone. Try saying “Brain, while I sleep I want you to think about [x]” before you drift off. Maybe it sounds stupid as you’re saying it, but you know what? Works for me. Maybe it’ll work for you.
My point here is that not only do I like sleep for its recreational and restorative purposes, but I’m also thankful that it seems to be working for me, too. I hope it continues to. Because, you know. I’m going to be sleeping anyway. And when I’m done sleeping, I’M TOTALLY GOING TO DO IT AGAIN.
Today’s Thanksgiving Advent Calendar entry will be short, on account of me being a bit punchy from being up since four am for the purposes of traveling, but showing you all the artwork for the upcoming Spanish language edition of Fuzzy Nation reminded me that, in fact, foreign language editions of my books are things I am thankful about. One, and most practically, it’s literally free money — that is, I’m getting paid for work I’ve already done and already been paid what I’d been expecting for that labor. So when someone else comes along and says “Hey, You know that thing? That you wrote? And already got paid for? Can I give you some more money for it?” it’s hard to do anything but smile and nod happily. Why, yes, I’m always happy to have more money, especially when it requires no additional effort on my part.
Less practically, it means that in places in the world I’ve never been and in languages I don’t speak, people are reading my words — or at the very least, a reasonably translated facsimile thereof. And that’s a little bit mindblowing. It’s like having an alternate version of yourself — one that speaks Japanese, or Hebrew, or Turkish or whatever — out there in the world. By this metric, there are currently 15 alternate versions of me. The facial hair stylings required to tell them all apart has to be amazing.
And I’m thankful for these alternate versions of myself — or more accurately, of my words — who are finding their way to people who might not otherwise read my stories. I’m thankful for the publishers and translators who have made my words available in all these different languages. I’m even more thankful to these people reading different languages who decide to try the local version of my books. And as we all know, thankfulness is the true universal language!
I am writing this from the library of Lehigh University, where I am to meet with students who are reading a book of mine, and where later this afternoon I’ll do a reading and give a talk. In a little over a week, I’ll go to Toronto, where I give a public reading and am the Guest of Honor at a convention. Sometime in the next couple of weeks I’m also supposed to fly to LA to be on a TV show, although that’s been delayed a couple of times and I expect will be again, but that’s all right because I was in LA a few weeks back to meet with my agents and do some other things — and then was there in May as well as part of my book tour which otherwise took me to more than a dozen US cities. This doesn’t include my recently concluded German book tour, my week sojourn in San Diego, or my trip to Reno for the WorldCon, or to Austin for the Texas Library Association meeting or New Orleans for the American Library Association. For 2012 I have trips planned for Detroit, Boston, Washington DC, Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City and San Diego. I don’t doubt between now and the end of that year I’ll add a few more stops to the agenda.
My name is John Scalzi, and I travel a lot.
I didn’t always. For the first eighteen years of my life I rarely if ever traveled anywhere: A couple family trips to Mexico and few trips to see relatives in Las Vegas and Northern California, and one summer I took part in a school “peccary trip” which had me hunting fossils in the American West. But that was pretty much it. One of the reasons I went to the University of Chicago for college was because I liked the idea of getting away from the place I had known all my life. College saw me travel only slightly more, and then my time in the actual workforce saw relatively little travel as well — my job as a movie critic meant I would travel to LA or occasionally San Francisco, but both of those were only a few hours away. I hardly traveled at all when I worked at AOL.
But then I became a science fiction writer and I started going places.
For what? Conventions. Book tours. Conferences. Workshops. College events. Book fairs. Lectures. And so on. They add up pretty quickly. And now I end up traveling at least once a month and usually more, because I am a writer.
Which I find ironic. Writing is by and large a solitary endeavor — you in a room with a computer or notebook. Occasionally people go to a coffee shop or a library or some other place to work, but it’s still about shutting out the rest of the world and focusing on the computer screen or sheet of paper in front of you. The idea that this would lead to me having to leave the house, and the state, and often the country, on a regular basis when all the other jobs and endeavors I had which involved dealing with other people kept me in one place most of the time… well, as I said. Ironic.
Mostly, I like the travel. Where I live now is far removed from most of the rest of the world, so the constant travel lets me see people I like and places I’ve never been before. Since I am considered to be an interesting person who other people are interested in, much of the time my travel is covered by others, who seem genuinely happy to have me around and treat me well while I am with them, so most of my travel is rather more congenial than it is for other people. There are times when it drags, but that’s more about me than it is about the travel; in a fit of exuberance, I’ll occasionally overcommit travel-wise and then find myself bleary-eyed and dazed and having to be in what I call “performing monkey mode” a little more than I would prefer. As noted, this is my fault, not anyone else’s. I should know my own limits. So if you’re inviting me to travel somewhere and I say no, keep it mind it’s not you, it’s me, and my desire to make sure that I’m not a brain-dead zombie when I show up at your event.
On that note, one of the things that I find all this writing-related travel is doing is stoking a desire in me for travel that’s not associated with me doing some work at the arrival end of it. I have been fortunate to see a whole lot of the US and some of the world in the last few years, but often it’s on the way to doing something else. Prior to this work-related travel, the idea of going places just to go to them seemed like a slightly counter-intuitive concept. But now I get it. I’d like to do more of it. And I’d like to do more of it with my family, which often doesn’t get to come with me on my trips — that whole “school and real work” thing they’ve got going. They’re who I miss when I travel, and I would like to miss them less, and have them with me more wherever I am.
But wherever I am I’m still generally having a ball. As I said, it’s strange such a solitary job has meant so much travel, but, hey, I’ll take it. It’s fun, and I’m glad it happens to me. I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.
Oh, don’t look at me like that. You knew it was coming.
And yes, I actually am thankful for Coke Zero, which is in my opinion the only diet cola that doesn’t completely taste of ass, and that includes Diet Coke. Which in fact is not made from the Coke formula at all: It’s the last remaining vestige of the “New Coke” formula, reviled by the masses at its introduction in the 80s and quickly hounded off the shelves. Actually, if my understanding is correct, it’s New Coke that is a variant of the Diet Coke formula, since the diet version was released in 1982, and New Coke was unleashed in 1985. Either way, it sucks and it’s not Coke.
Which sucked for me when I hit my late 20s and my previously fast-burning metabolism slowed down considerably and then all the calories from the regular coke I was drinking decided to stick around in a doughy mass in my mid-section. If I wanted to keep drinking soda (which I did) and not roll down the hall (which I did not), I would have to switch to diet variants. And thus I was confronted with Diet Coke, which I was not happy with. There are other diet colas as well, of course, but all of them suffer from the same problem, namely, they don’t actually taste like Coca-Cola, which is my preferred cola experience. Yes, this is very much a first world problem. Please shut up now.
But then the Coca-Cola Company, in its wisdom, decided to make Coke Zero, and they did so for a very particular reason, which is that American men are fat but don’t like to be seen drinking a soda that has the word “diet” in it, because they think that makes them look like they’re concerned about their weight, and that’s girly. So they made a diet cola without the word “diet” in it and pushed their marketing at men, and since they couldn’t just rebrand Diet Coke and get away with it, they made this new stealth-diet soda with the original Coke formula.
Personally, I couldn’t give a crap about the whole “men don’t want to be seen with diet sodas” thing — I’m comfortable enough in my masculinity that being seen with a diet pop isn’t going to make my testosterone levels drop, and anyway, what do I have to hide? Why yes, I’ll get fat if I drink a lot of sugared sodas. I’m a middle aged man. The rest of my life will be a struggle not to just throw up my hands, say “oh, fuck it,” and start working on my Santa Claus impression. I know this about myself. I’m not particularly concerned if you know it too. Because you already do know this. Now none of us have to pretend at a polite fiction.
What I was interested in, however, was the fact Coke Zero was using the original formula. Could this finally be the answer to my diet cola prayers? When it arrived in my local store, I bought a 20-ounce bottle, went outside, cracked it open and swigged some back. Then I marched right back into the store and instantly bought four 12-packs of the stuff. Because, to borrow a catch phrase, Coke Zero was it. The magical dusky brown zero-calorie elixir I was looking for. Thank you, all you insecure pudgy men of America, for being enough of a marketable demographic that I got a tolerable diet cola in my lifetime.
Which is not to say, perhaps contrary to popular conception, that I think Coke Zero is the Best Liquid Ever. I do drink other things, you know — including things that are not sweet and carbonated — and I do keep an eye on my consumption of it. I also don’t confuse drinking Coke Zero with something that’s healthy; I mean, it may be marginally healthier for me than sucking down sugared sodas, but this is a strictly relative thing. I remember not too long ago Coke started touting the hydration benefits of Coke Zero on its 12-pack containers, which I thought was pretty ridiculous. If you want to hydrate, drink water, please. It’s better for you.
So: Not the best liquid ever. But best diet cola ever? Easily. Which is why I drink it. I do find it amusing how much it is associated with me at this point — when I go to appearances, for example, it’s even money that someone in the audience will come up with a bottle of Coke Zero they brought for me, which I actually do appreciate. And of course there was that time when the CapriCon convention gave me my weight in Coke Zero; it was a good thing I drove to that convention rather than flew to it. I would not have liked trying to get that all on the plane.
So for being delicious, non-fattening and an amusing and yet thankfully innocuous part of my public persona, I thank you, Coke Zero, for existing. And now I will drink you. Yes.
I have never once been cool. Being “cool” means, among other things, having a certain sort of unapproachable distance, of holding yourself at a remove, and of projecting an aura of mystery and even dignity — even when (hell, particularly when) you’re not trying to do it. I know people who are cool; indeed, I somehow managed to get married to one, since my wife projects a force field of cool that turns people into babbling idiots around her. She’s not making an effort to be cool, mind you; it just comes naturally. I suspect one may not be able to teach it. It’s fun to watch what it does to other people. But it’s not me.
When I say I’m not cool, you must believe me when I stress I say this not out of personal disparagement. I don’t consider being not cool the same as being uncool. It’s more of a reflection of my own personality in regards to the checklist of what it takes to be cool. As examples, anyone who has seen me live and in the flesh knows I don’t do “aloof” well, and while it’s certainly true my personality projects many things, “mystery” and “dignity” are not two of the words which spring immediately to mind.
So what am I? Well, and with full awareness of McKean’s Inversion here, what I am, fundamentally, is a bit of a goofball. What that means is that both personally and publicly I like to do silly things that are not particularly the things one would do if one is interested in projecting a demeanor of calm and quiet dignity, and I do them without a huge amount of self-consciousness; I just do them as part of my everyday life. For example, when I thought this morning about writing on being thankful for being a goofball, I wondered what picture I could use to symbolize that. Then I looked down and saw my toes, which yesterday I had inked smiley faces onto because it seemed to me I should have happy feet. And I thought, ah, yes, that will do just fine.
Being a goofball isn’t the same as being attention-seeking, although of all the people in the world, I should be the last one to deny attention-seeking tendencies. Certainly many of the goofball things I have done have gotten a fair share of traction out there. But even when you’re not around, I’m doing these things. Not every silly thing I do, think or say makes it out into the world. Not even a majority, in fact. You did not previously know, for example, of the theme songs I have composed for my pets, which I often sing when they enter the room. Because, obviously, pets need theme songs.
Yes, yes, you say. You’re a goofball, Scalzi. This is not precisely a surprise. But why are you thankful for it? Well, aside from that it simply makes me happy to be a goofball, and in one’s life one should be what one actually is, there’s also the fact that, professionally speaking, being a goofball has really worked out for me. I submit to you that no one but a goofball would have written a novel which begins with someone farting someone else to death. Or a story that imagines Hitler killed by suffocation in gelatin. Or a story where yogurt takes over the world. Now, it’s true that being a goofball alone would not have sufficed to make those stories work; there’s some skill involved there. But being a goofball means that I didn’t say to myself “no, that’s just stupid,” when I first thought of those ideas. You know what? Maybe they are stupid. But it doesn’t mean there’s not good stories in there somewhere.
But mostly I’m glad because it makes my life fun. Walking around with toenails that have happy faces on them serves me no particular benefit other than that it amuses me to know there are happy faces on my toes. But that’s not insignificant. I can be a moody bastard; I do think it’s part of the territory of being a creative person. If you’re going to give yourself permission to be a moody bastard, however, I think you should also give yourself permission to swing in the other direction, and connect with joy — or if not joy, then simple amusement for amusement’s sake. The nice thing about inherently being a goofball is that I’m so used to doing goofy things that I don’t have to spend a lot of time giving myself permission to do them. The goofy stuff just gets done.
Being a goofball makes me happy; it’s also been good for my career, and that makes me happy too. I will never be cool, but then as a middle-aged science fiction author who plays the ukulele, well. Let’s just say I came to terms with that a while back. I will survive, and I’ll have fun. And I’ll be thankful that being a goofball has gotten me this far. I like where it’s taken me.
There are lots of different ways you can tell you’ve officially become a grown up. One of them for me was recognizing that not only didn’t I have the bandwidth, either time- or intelligence-wise, to do every single thing out there in the world, I didn’t have the desire, either. This was actually a thing for me, I should note; when I was younger, I did make the assumption that I should learn how to do everything — not in the survivalist “soon the apocalypse will come and I will have to be able to make jerky out of my neighbors with a knife I have made from rocks and then make a shelter from their bones” sort of way, but more in the “why shouldn’t I know how to do all this?” way.
There are two ways of looking at this. One is in a defeatist sort of way, in that you’ve come to the realization that it really isn’t possible for you anymore, to paraphrase Neal Stephenson, to take ten years of your life to study super ninja arts and become a crime-fighting badass, and this means you’re not invincible and that probably one day you will die after all. The other way, which is the way I choose to look at it, is that you realize there are certain things you are good at, it makes sense for you to be good at them, and let other people be good at the things you are not — and not only that, but to appreciate the hell out of them for being so. Being a grown-up not only means recognizing that you can’t do everything, but also recognizing that the people who do everything else you do not are awesome, especially when what they do helps you do what you want to do.
This comes up a lot these days in the world of publishing, and in the fact that it’s now more easily possible for someone who is genuinely motivated to do so to take control of every aspect of his or her path to publication, from writing the books to editing, designing the pages, art design, publishing, marketing and distribution. As a consequence of this there’s also now a number of people who appear to believe that if one can do all these jobs, one should do all these jobs, and are making something of a didactic political position of it.
Well, you know, look. If it makes one happy to do all that work, then I say go and follow your joy. But leaving aside the practical issues involved, from a process standpoint I would hate it. Not only just because I am lazy, and doing everything is a lot of work, but also because I recognize that my core skills are in writing and (some) marketing, and everything else involved in making a book can be better done by other people who are so much better at the job, because in all the time I have spent focused on writing, they have spent all that time focused on their jobs. When they apply that knowledge and effort to my work, the end result is that my work is better than if I had just done it alone.
A practical example of that showed up here not too long ago when I showed off the cover for Redshirts, my upcoming novel. In addition to the final cover, I also presented three runner-up concepts for the cover. It’s instructive to me that even the rejected covers for Redshirts, whipped up by designer Peter Lutjen and art director Irene Gallo, are so much better than what I could design on my own, not only aesthetically but also as advertisements for the book. Why are these covers so good? Because this is what Peter and Irene do. And they’re doing it for my book. To the extent that people who don’t know of me give the book the time of day, it will be because of their competence in their field, just as, once they dig into the book, my competence will have to come into play.
(And even when you do something well, competent people can make it better; I’m pretty good at drawing attention to my books, but for Fuzzy Nation I decided to call in a little help, and it made a difference.)
Publishing is an obvious example for me but it’s not the only one. We recently had a new water softener installed; it’s entirely possible that I could have installed it myself, armed with some tools and either a Time-Life book from the library or a handy-dandy Web page. But I went with the option of letting someone competent handle it, because then I know it’ll be installed right the first time by someone who’s installed dozens of them and knows everything about the process. As a result, I won’t get frustrated and eventually end up wanting to kill everyone in six neighboring counties because I’ve somehow managed to screw up installing my water softener and now I have no water in the house and I’ll have to call in a professional anyway, and until he or she arrives I’ll be marinating in my own inadequacies. Because, yeah, that’s fun.
The downside to working with competent people, if you want to call it a downside, is that competent people very often cost something — usually money, but sometimes something more subtle than simply cash on the barrelhead. What I’ve learned over time is that the benefit one receives from working with competent people (or having them work for you) often compensates you just fine. If it doesn’t that’s something to factor in for the next time. It may also be the case that sometimes you don’t have the option of getting to work with competent people or having them work for you. And that is what it is; you work with what you have to work with. But if you have the option, I think it’s the way to go.
So, yes: I can’t do everything. I don’t want to do everything. And the things I can’t do, I want people who are good at those things to do them for me. And when they do, here’s what I say: Thank you. And, will you take a personal check.