Naming a Thing

A couple weeks on, a brief follow-up to this piece, in which I noted how much 2017 was messing with my word count.

It turns out it was really useful for me to write that piece. Not necessarily because I’ve increased my writing speed since then — I’m still slogging away at a slower pace than I’ve done in previous years — but because, basically, in naming my problem I’ve lifted a fair amount of the psychic weight of it from my shoulders. I’m not kicking myself for writing slower right now, and as a result, the writing is easier. Which ironically means the writing is more regular, and because of that, there’s at least slightly more of it. Who knew.

I’d also like to acknowledge the folks who wrote me or linked in to the piece, saying, more or less “Yes I have been feeling the same thing I’m glad somebody finally said it.” One, you’re welcome and I’m glad the piece accomplished at least part of its intended effect of letting folks know they weren’t alone in their creative miasma at the moment. Two, your chiming in also helped me, because as much as I strongly suspected I wasn’t the only one in the spot I was in, getting actual confirmation of it was heartening. I was right! Alas! But the knowledge meant a bit of fellowship, and that made the burden a little easier to bear. Which made the little readjustments I’m making now easier to do. Thanks, folks.

(Mind you, I had some of my usual suspects out there pointing at me at going ha ha Scalzi has writer’s block, because they’re sad little dudes like that. While I could push my glasses up on my nose and say well, actually I was never blocked I was just writing slower, which you would know if you could read, in point of fact they read perfectly well, they just have a pathological need to see me as a failure. And to be honest, that cheers me up a little too. I like enraging these sad little dudes so much just by existing that they have to create voodoo doll versions of me to stab stab stab stab. They want to be enraged, and it literally requires no effort from me to oblige them. Keep at it, sad little dudes! It’s good for you to stay busy.)

And now, back to it.

31 Comments on “Naming a Thing”

  1. I mostly buy your books because I enjoy reading them. I do get a little teeny bit of enjoyment that I am doing my bit to make the guys who ‘need; to see you as a failure… well… wrong!

  2. I’m glad it’s not just me!
    I’m a professional scenic designer for live theatre; I’ve been earning my bread and butter that way since 1990. I have never in my life had to struggle so desperately to work. It is unbelievably hard to get my head into a creative, imaginative place these days! Everything is taking much longer, and I’m not sure that I’m sustaining my caliber of work.
    2017 is brutal.

  3. All sorts of places in my life. Not the least being previously un-looked-at mental health issues, the knowing what it is has helped a lot.

    So, I get it. For what that’s worth.

  4. That post helped me and I’m not a writer.

    On a semi-related note I read Lock In because I read about it on, loved it, and thought it was every bit as good as the build up. I just finished reading Redshirts because I had heard good things about it (and got a deal on the ebook), loved it, and thought there was so much more to it than I expected. There was a teaser chapter for the Collapsing Empire in the back, and well I guess I’m going to be reading a lot more of your books in the near future. Thank you!!

  5. This is something which surfaces quite a bit in mental illness support communities – knowing why you’re feeling rotten often helps you to be able to deal with the rotten feelings themselves. Having a diagnosis, having a label, having a reason for why you aren’t “normal” (whatever that is – fun fact: the DSM5 describes how all mental illnesses are variances from “normal”, but never bothers to nail down what “normal” or “mentally healthy” is in the first place!) makes it a lot easier to cope with it. It gives you limits, and means it’s harder to catastrophise about the problem as well.

  6. John, talking about something with people who understand and empathize can lift a tremendous burden that you didn’t know you were carrying. That’s why “talk therapy” works so well — when it works, because many psychological problems can’t be banished just by talking about them. But we all bear a lot of stress these days, and it wears us down if we don’t have someone to share the burden.

  7. “And to be honest, that cheers me up a little too.”

    And as the cliche goes, you’re living rent-free in their heads. Though that’s probably not a good thing; it’s likely to be dark and echoing and scary and, let’s face it, smelly in there.

  8. I’m not successful enough to have enemies yet; but, by God, someday I’ll have my own sad little dudes!

    Names are powerful. They let you step back and look at your thing as a thing, instead of an amorphous swampy there-ness you’re stuck in.

  9. That essay helped me some. I enjoy this blog because, not only do I get essays on relevant and varied topics, you also host other writers’ Big Ideas, and therefore literary discussions with some substance to them, better than some of the lit-crit classes I had in English and French lit. This warms my book-loving, liberal arts major heart. Thanks, John.

    Well, and also, I tend to like several of the suggested books, so it helps SF&F authors to prosper and continue to write, and helps me as a fan and book-lover to find good stuff to read.

    My mom was a professional artist. So I grew up seeing how a talented creative artist struggles with their art, their craft, and life, though I didn’t always realize what I was seeing or learning at the time, of course; and here I was, someone who wanted to do something similar, a creative life too.

    Now seeing half my life from hindsight, and living through current events and seeing I still have (maybe) half my life (or so) ahead of me, I see some of the ways that where I dreamed / planned I’d be versus what actually happened and where I ended up, diverged wildly, yet in some ways didn’t end up so far from that path after all. And man, is that weird. On top of that, I see too, that even if some things had turned out how I’d thought (or wanted), outside events, family matters, and so on, would have made my life-path veer somewhat back towards what did happen. And that is far weirder than seeing the divergence, let me tell you.

    (One of the biggest points there being, even if my parents had been healthier and hadn’t passed away, so that I soon was caregiver for my grandmother when her health went — my parents would now be in their upper 80’s, so I would have had to return to care for them, and ultimately, given how things in the wider world have been since they passed away, and my own personal quirks, flaws, and strengths, I would likely have ended up roughly where I am now. It’s a strange realization.)

    (The other big personal point being, I will always wonder how my life would have been the same or different, better or worse, if I had been able to accept myself and come out (gay) in high school or in college. I might have avoided spiraling down and might instead have finished my bachelor’s degree with that first run through college, instead of later getting an associate’s degree with honors. And how else my life might have been very different because of that self-acceptance, given where and when I grew up, family upbringing and so on, I don’t know.)

    But never mind that. It’s my personal odd path through life.

    John, your article helped. I’m still working uphill toward restarting my life from scratch. My eyesight’s bad, my finances and income are limited at present, and my support network of friends, local or distant, is too small and not reliable. And…well, and I have a tendency to withdraw into my own shell if I’m not feeling good about things (or myself). — The current national / world situation is incredibly shaky and off the rails. I have often wondered lately what my parents and other people I’ve known would have said about it all, or if they’d have been just as perplexed or overcome as many of us are now.

    I’m working on writing, sort of, but despite that I’m supposed to have some background and talent for it, I find myself wandering around or going back over old territory I’ve been over several times already. Or my internal stuff or past experience comes out too much into what I was trying to write. So I’ve got bits and pieces and ideas, or I’ve got multiple chapters, but not much that’s in fully realized plots, story arcs with a beginning, middle, and end. And that’s frustrating. I want to write something that I feel is original, not a rehash of what I’ve seen/heard/read before that was good. I want to write something I’d like to read, but I’m super critical of my own stuff, because I have been both a pro copyeditor / proofer, and an amateur editor for amateur writers. So I’ve seen enough to have some idea what not to do. And I’ve discovered while trying to write that…oh, dang, good story-writing is harder than it looks, at least for me. But it’s something I want to keep working at, because I still want to do that.

    My font-production work has been OK, but dang, that takes at least as long as novel writing, to take an idea from sketches and drafts to a family of several typefaces, weights, and styles. Plus, even with some background, I find I keep learning every day with it, trying to get my first ideas into a form ready to submit for publication. But wow, it’s cool in a geeky visual and typographic design way.

    This has left me frustrated, wanting other creative outlets too. I love to sing and I love music. I had a couple of years of piano as a pre-teen / teen, but because I was that young (and thought I was better than I was) I didn’t practice enough and so I didn’t stay with it. I miss that now. So I still want to relearn piano and to pick up guitar. — But after a move to an apartment, necessary, all my stuff, including a new, as-yet-unused guitar, is stuck in storage to go through box by box, which is too flippin’ slow. But it will happen. Slowly.

    The current world / national situation, between natural disasters and man-made nonsense, makes it very hard to get through the creative process. It’s like how you’re desperate to study for that class you have to pass, while your roommate’s out partying with his latest girlfriend, the guys on all sides have their stereos going, and…oh, whatever else is going on with your parents back home, or your summer job, or…any of a million other things. Getting through creating something new and original and distinctive can be tough, when there’s this ton of unhelpful, negative, or just plain crazy-stupid static going on in the world around you. Bleh.

    But — Yet we all do it. Whether we flatter ourselves with calling what we do a “creative” profession or a “STEM” profession, or keeping our family together, whatever things we do in our daily lives, we still manage to get through the day, the week, and do our jobs and find some way to make it work. We may be working uphill in a literal wind-storm, but we do it. Because we have to get by, and we are driven to do something productive, something meaningful, to contribute to that bigger world…even if others seem determined to tear it down, stomp on it, and set fire to it all in a dumpster. Because we, each of us, and working together, we do make a difference in countering that kind of destructive, negative outlook. We can push it back, keep it from winning. Because what we do has purpose and meaning.

    Being creative, whether arts or sciences or an everyday retail job, does help others.

    And I dare you to listen to that great song, see that great video, read that great book, and not be moved, and not feel something incredible. (Or a great performance, sculpture, architecture, a well-built product, a cool outfit…whatever it is.) Something will uplift you because someone did good creative work, and that makes you feel better inside.

    Thanks, John. Thanks to all the brave and funny and talented people out there. Thanks to the minimum wage cashier who smiles and asks how you are and actually means it, who genuinely wants you to have a good day. There are times when that, the tiniest, simplest things, can mean the world. So thank

  10. Yes naming a thing has power. Somewhere I heard the quote along the lines of “Can I talk to you until I figure out my problem.” I am glad you are feeling better. I really only know about you from Chuck Wendig (you can blame him later). I’ve only read Lock-in but looking to read more in the future.

  11. Keep going, keep writing. I have a lot of writers in my facebook feed, and most of them have been going through something similar.

  12. I understand what is blocking you, and I understand what naming that thing means.

    Several years ago, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I wound up being her sole caretaker for the last few years of her life. And losing my job for the last year of her life… and still having to feed her and take care of her medical bills and her losing her mind and trying to take care of it…

    Afterwards, I didn’t want to classify what I suffered through as a form of PTSD, coupled with depression, and as long as I ignored naming the thing, it had power over me most people couldn’t believe. But the one thing I finally learned was to put a label to it, and express it.

    I have two older sibs, with my sister being the oldest, by my brother is the one I drop every thing for, even though when it comes to religion or politics we are on opposite sides. But I know for a fact that when turds come to shit hitting the fan he’ll be there for me, and I’ll rip out jugulars with my teeth for him.

    Being able to name the thing, and call it what it is, that’s the first step. Being able to recognize the triggers, even though you’ll never be able to avoid them is another step. Being able to know you’ve been triggered as soon as possible and taking steps to mitigate the concomitant chaos, mayhem, and damage to your psyche is the best thing ever!

    As I said, I know what I’ve dealt with for a few years now isn’t the exact same as this morass of bullshit stemming from Trump, but, Acknowledge, Recognize, Get in front of!

  13. One odd point: I’ve just read all the comments (153) appended to your initial post and only one can in any way be taken as “negative” (and even that one is pretty mild as the same person writes a follow up to soften his initial remarks). So not sure where you imagine the “sad dudes” are, or why you feel the need to dismiss them when they’re not even really there. Perhaps my observation marks me as a sad dude too, but couldn’t resist pointing to the fact that there simply were no trolls, at least not in the actual comments 😉

  14. Riccardo:

    It’s slightly worrying to learn that apparently you believe my site encompasses the whole of the internet.

    The sad dudes know better than to bring their nonsense here. They have their own places. Occasionally their antics are brought to my attention (or alternatively, they try really hard to get my attention).

  15. Riccardo: IIRC, Scalzi moderates the comments, so I’d think trolls would be properly hammered on this blog. On Twitter, I’m guessing there are enough sad dudes that for every one he mutes, there’re two more.

    John: My ability to work/function (as a scientist) has been markedly diminished, at several points this year, including this past week. I’m glad for your OP about having a harder time writing and even happier for this follow-up. It’s strangely easy to feel completely off, but not verbalize the problem or acknowledge the root cause(s), and just continue feeling that way until you finally name the thing. I just need to somehow remember, in the future, to figure out/acknowledge the cause faster.

  16. John, It’s your word target. Yours and no-one else’s and you can decide how many you want to/need to/feel like doing per day and that is pressure that you are putting on yourself. As a fan as long as you produce on average some good words a day and publish books that we can read then we’re happy to wait (although please don’t take as long as George RR Martin does between books as I keep losing track of who is alive and dead in GoT).

    The world does seem to be heading in a downward spiral at the moment, but escaping into a good book is one of the ways that I (and I suspect others) cope with it.

  17. To quote the Power Puff Girls, “that which you resist, persists”. Otherwise known as Cunninghams Law, named after one of the writers for the show.

    Once you allow yourself to feel it, it has little power over you.


  18. J.S. And Ricardo, I read this blog faithfully and feel somewhat relieved that the world still goes round. I like the open candor.
    But, the “sad dudes” like John said don’t include the whole internet, heck they don’t include the thousands, the millions who have no chance or possibility of even reading this. I am in the “plain” middle class and moved to the rural area – and these people are poor, disadvantaged, they terribly want to get above the mud and onto the schoolbuses and planes but that doesn’t mean they can’t read or try to go to school, they would love to have this in their in their world.
    Whose story are we missing?

  19. You know, surprisingly, I’ve felt less bad this year than in 2016.

    I know Trump is bad and he seems to be turning worse and so on, but 2016 was worse, at least for me. It felt like every week was fresh horror. If it wasn’t the Bastille day killings in Nice it was a shooting in Orlando or the Istanbul attacks or the Belgium attacks, or the ZIka virus, or it was Brexit, or it was Trump winning or it was that heartbreaking photo of that little boy, a refugee, lying drowned, face down, on a Turkish beach.

    I mean, Trump is evil, but so far he has been at least partly ineffectual. He’s a wannabe despot, but he’s not getting all his way. He’s hurt some people and he will hurt more if he can, but the resistance is also alive. There is hope, at least that’s what I keep telling myself.

  20. I was told once that some of the Indian tribes in the Rocky Mountain area measured their power by the importance and power/prestige of their enemies–the more worthy your enemies were the more powerful you were.

    Judging by your sad little dude opponents you’ve still got a ways to go. Sorry.

  21. @DigitalAtheist — Thank you! Even though your comments were not directed to me, thank you.

    I took care of my grandmother for several years as hear physical and mental health declined from old age and Alzheimer’s. I have seen up close and personal just how awful it is. By the time it was over, most of our friends no longer came around, my savings and inheritance were all but gone, and I was emotionally and mentally and physically exhausted and depressed. — I had not really thought of it as PTSD. (But I think I have some PTSD-like stuff and definitely depression from other life events.) Since she passed away almost six years ago (the middle of next month), I have been trying to put my life back together, complicated by outside events beyond my control, by my own health problems, and by, well, my own personality weaknesses or strengths combined. Some days, it’s hard to get anything done or feel good about things. Other days, I do all right and make good progress. Occasionally, I do really well. Most of the time, it’s just so-so, and I have way too few local friends for support, and too few chances to socialize… plus a natural tendency to withdraw into myself when I’m down, dealing with stuff like this.

    It helps to know that it’s akin to PTSD, and it helps to know I’m not the only one still struggling with this after a few years. — It also helped when, a few months back, I realized that if my parents were still here, they’d now be in their upper 80’s. Even if everything in my life had gone the way I’d imagined before going to college, it’s likely I still would have ended up in a situation much like this.

    So it helps to gain some perspective on it and see, well, what I went through with her was very much like the trauma that leads to PTSD. Knowing that, along with other things, may help me deal with it better.


    To Scalzi and the blog readers at large: I’d like to agree with Annettplain Jane.

    One of the reasons I first loved reading books, stories, as a kid and teen, and why I kept on loving to read as an adult, is very simple, and it’s common for readers and most writers. It’s the same reason we love good stories on TV/movies, or why we love good music

    When I read a really good story, I get to leave the real world and its problems for a while and join the story-world for a while. In a really good story, I get to be one of the adventurers, either an observer or participant along for the adventure, or maybe as one of the characters. Immersed in that story, I get to be someone else for a while. Maybe I get to be a space officer or a medieval knight or a Bronze Age warrior. Or maybe I get to be a lowly orphan or a wizard’s apprentice, or a charming rogue-ish thief. Or maybe I’m an elf or an alien being. Hmm, I might even get to be along for the adventure in some way that is even more impossible for my real-life self. I’m a guy, but in a story, I can see how a prehistoric young woman feels, or a kick-butt woman officer on a starship. Or maybe a dragon or a hobbit or a cat or something completely made-up, but still seemingly so real. And as someone who, in real-life, physically cannot have that perfect eyesight or sports ability, no strong warrior-hunter, as someone who, because of my handicap and because I’m gay, I’ve always felt like a misfit, someone who couldn’t quite belong or be like most people — The chance to be one with the story, to live for a while in that story-universe, that other life, to be a hero, to be part of a crew, to be as able-bodied and accepted as anyone else — but most of all, to get to leave behind the troubles of real life for just a while — That is incredibly valuable and welcome. It is the chance to see and hear and feel how someone else might live life, to know who they are. It is also the chance to think about things in ways I have not before, to experience things in a way I do not ordinarily. It’s the chance to confront and consider, to imagine new things, to find what I might never have thought of, or reexamine what I’d not fully thought through before. A really good tale is more than just entertainment. Oh, I like popcorn and a fun ride, sure. But I like it far better when I’m amazed at the thoughts and feelings while I’m in it, and far more so, when well after the story is through, I find I’m thinking about it, seeing new things, thinking over the questions it raised. But see, unlike how real life can be a confusing mess (especially currently), a good story lets me think through things in a constructive way, even if it’s a dystopian story. It’s only if it’s a badly done story that I won’t enjoy it or want to think over the questions, because those questions won’t be exciting and interesting.

    And — especially to writers like Scalzi — Please consider two things: One, most writers of good stories, those storytellers who are good at it, that shows, as any reader or author or editor can tell you, very quickly, and pretty consistently. Many writers whose works I like will write good or great stuff most of the time. A few are such favorites, I know to buy their books just because it’s them. I know whatever they write will be at least pretty good, and at best, it’ll be great stuff. Two, hey, every writer has an off day or an off book. That’s fine. it’s like watching episodes of your favorite shows. Sure, once in a while, one episode is not so good, but even it has redeeming qualities and isn’t really a dog. (Well, unless it is a dog, or about dogs, and then, hey, still, no problem, right? Even if it’s about cats instead or…well, I think you get the idea.) — And bad storytelling or bad episodes or a bad series? Well, that can happen, but see, most good writers never, or hardly ever, go there, because, dang it, they know better. Their basic talents and storytelling instincts, plus what they have learned, lead them not to make such mistakes in the first place.

    Side Note: I like short story anthologies. I like shared-universe stories sometimes. But writing by committee is an iffy proposition. On TV, it works with some series, but on others, it just never makes it. There is one SF genre series out there right now which is seriously suffering from bad writing, by committee, and therefore all the structural, conceptual, plot hole, characterization, kinds of problems that are bad storytelling instead of good. And I think it is, in that one case, too rushed, and too many clichés in the running of it, where too many people in on the details of actually making it, means they’ve scrambled it badly. But see, that’s not how it is with most writers. It’s sure not how it is with really good writers on their own, or teamed up in a workable way. Again, most good storytellers avoid that and create pretty good stuff to really outstanding lasting stuff.

    Getting to read that good stuff, to lose myself in a good story for a while, is one of the absolute best things there is.

    And especially lately, as the real world shambles on like some deranged undead brainless thing, gobbling up or ruining too often what it encounters — the chance to escape for a while, to recover and regroup, to find new ways to deal with that real-world crisis…to let it be a chimera that fades away when you face it and overcome it…that’s valuable.

    Because as bad as that real-world creature-of-events is, the truth of the matter is that it is a puny thing, more than the giant it pretends to be. It’s a little bitty bully of a thing. It only gets its power by scaring people into forgetting. The reality is, there are plenty of real-world, very everyday unlikely heroes, who never know they are, like that retail clerk or grocery checker or sacker or stockboy, or whoever. There are people and events out there that are good and beautiful every day, yet they don’t get the credit they deserve. They’re worth more than the petty little bullies ever will be. Even the monsters that become forces in the world, or national powers, are eventually toppled by their own insupportability, their own corruption.

    Please Note: I had no idea I was going to end up with that metaphor of a shambling zombie personifying bad ideas or events. That just sort of happened as I wrote this. Funny thing is, I don’t usually read or watch those kinds of stories. Yet the archetype is back in there, in fairy tales or modern SF&f. So…yeah.

    Hey, Scalzi and others? Have a good weekend, y’all. Life’s messy and I need a bigger mop and bucket! :D

    There, how’s that? Feeling any better? I hope so. I feel a little better, anyway, and hope you all do too.

  22. Was it Louisa May Alcott who wrote “a problem shared is a problem halved”? I am so glad that writing the post and the fellowship that ensued was helpful. Best of luck to you.

  23. @Bluecatship

    Been there done that, and the 27th of December will be the 6th anniversary since my mother’s death. The scars are still here. The triggers still happen some days, but not so much, and as I told Our Gracious Host, even though the blahs we’re feeling might not be the same, putting a name to it, recognizing it, and taking measures to defeat it are critical. Trust me on this though: Once you start accepting the fact you are injured by something like Alzheimer’s or Cancer or whatever, even if not suffering it as a person in whole, the better it will be in the long run. For me, it was finally talking to my brother, even though we were both shit ass drunk at the time… which actually helped because I got over my inhibitions about being the pussy in the family. Not saying that is what YOU should do, but… I bet there is someone who is ready to listen or even share. And yes, the fact that friends and family stop coming around as the person you care for gets worse, is the WORST!

    @John Scalzi
    Not trying to hijack your post at all. Just that some of the stuff you wrote, the way it was worded resonated with me. Especially the part about being able to put a name to or point a finger at it as being the cause of the current discontent. Der Trumpenfhurer causes me major discontent, especially with friends and family. Luckily I have a few sane friends, and maybe one or two family members who share my complete and utter disregard for the pretender to the Eagle Throne. But, YOU are awesome as hell and will find some way to take the current discontent and turn it in to the book we all wanna read. Also, on a more serious note: Talk to people about the anxiety you feel, and how it affects your work.

    Monday, I had a super shitty trigger day AND had to go to work. Mind you, I was hiding crying my ass off, but a couple of close friends knew something was wrong. Turns out that telling them, naming the problem, was the best thing I could do. Hell, all week, they’ve asked me how I’m doing each day. Picked me up a lot! Keep talking to your fellow authors. I bet for damn sure it does you all good in the long run!

  24. I know exactly what you mean. I’m a musician, I live in Germany, and recently I’ve found it extremely hard to be proactive about my performing career. About 10 days ago I realized that amongst other things, it’s been politics that have been a constant stress for the past one and half years: first Brexit, so many of my friends and colleagues are British, and those of them living outside of the UK are now facing neverending residency permission problems, my brother lives in London, I’m member of a London based ensemble, not caring so much was simply not an option. Few weeks later the coup in Turkey, I lived with a bunch of Turkish people at the time, and stress level kept being very high. By November I had moved to a different flat, together with a U.S. American friend, and, oh, he was not happy with the US election and everything that followed… The French election was a bit of a relief, since the Grande Nation didn’t want a Nazi who wants to close all borders for president. Before the election I was in a constant state of worry about it, though, I live close to the French border, the town where I teach is right on the border, a have French students, and I think our region would simply stop functioning with a closed border. A couple of weeks ago 13% of my fellow German citizens decided to vote for a party who use rhetorics that make you shudder and think it’s the 1930s…
    Give me a break! I want things to be boring again.
    Realizing that, yes, I’ve had a lot of stress, and, yes, quite a lot of it was somehow related to politics was actually a great help to get some things going again.

  25. This reminds me; what happened to Floored By Scalzi’s Awesomeness, does anyone know? I hope he didn’t commit suicide. He sounded very young.