Posted on April 13, 2021 Posted by Athena Scalzi 72 Comments
For as long as I can remember, people have asked me, “what is it like to have a famous father?”
Of course, it’s only ever people at conventions, or in my rural town, as my dad is what I like to call “Little League Famous.” This just means he is only well-known within certain communities, and not A-list celebrity famous.
Still, it’s some kind of fame, and that comes with pros and cons. Mostly pros.
What does that look like for me, though?
It looks like strangers telling me they’ve seen me grow up on the internet, in pictures my dad posts of me.
It looks like the kids in my junior high class talking about my dad’s books in our school library.
It looks like getting special treatment at cons because my dad is the guest of honor or has just won the Hugo.
It looks like getting to meet the coolest fucking nerds around.
It looks like me getting to be on stage performing alongside those cool celebrity nerds, on a boat in the Caribbean, even though I’m not a performer, even though I’m not one of them.
It looks like me worrying “how I can ever measure up?”
It looks like me wanting so badly to follow in my father’s footsteps, but thinking I’ll never be as good.
It looks like imposter syndrome.
And for as long as I can remember, I have wanted to do what my father does. I want to write. I want my books to fly off the shelves, my words to enter the hearts and minds of all those who read my work, and for people to be moved by the stories I have to tell.
But what if the torch is too heavy to carry? Can I really be a great writer like my father, or will I just get pity-published and never sell more than a few copies?
I mentioned this kind of thing before, in my post “The Anxiety of a Non-Writer Surrounded By Writers“, but that mainly talked about how I can’t seem to finish any of my writing. Which is still true. But now what plagues me more than writer’s block, is the fear that if I do manage to finish something, it won’t be good. It’ll never be as good as what my dad has put out.
It’s a weird mindset to have, because I’m not trying to compete with my father. I don’t really want to be better than him. I don’t want to sell more, or win more awards than him. So why do I have this fear that if I do end up finally publishing a novel, it’ll never measure up to all the amazing writing he has out?
I just want to be good enough, and I don’t feel like I ever will be.
And that is not at all my father’s fault. Or anyone’s, other than my own. My own insecurities. My own voice in my head telling me not to try, that I can never be like him. My dad has never made me feel that way, though. In fact, he’s the most supportive person to me in terms of my writing. I mean, he lets me write on this blog, he tells me I should submit work to magazines, and gives me writing advice all the time.
I know he believes in me, which makes it all the scarier to think of failing.
I am so proud of my dad, for all he has accomplished. All the work he’s put out, all the people he’s made laugh (or cry), all the book deals, tours, awards, all the support he gives his family, there’s so much to be proud over. And I want to give him a reason to be proud of me, too. To have my own book deals, my own tours, my own awards.
Aside from just wanting to make my dad proud, I do genuinely want to be famous, even if it is Little League Famous. The feeling of being adored, the feeling of being seen, is addicting. Getting recognized is addicting. Some people might think it’s weird, but I like when people know who I am at cons, when people stop me to ask “are you Athena Scalzi?”. Hell, I was elated when the guy helping me at Mattress Firm noticed my last name and asked if I was related to the author.
It feels… nice. It makes me feel like I matter. Or maybe it makes me feel like I’m well-liked, which is what I desperately try to be. I want people to like me, to support me, to care about me. I mean, who the heck doesn’t want that in their life?
Is it wrong to want to be famous? Doesn’t every youngster dream of being a world famous popstar or an actor on the big screen? Bruno Mars sang about wanting to be a billionaire, seeing a different city every night, standing next to Oprah and the queen. And you know who totally rocked that idea before him? Nickelback. Yeah, that’s right, I’m bringing Nickelback into this post and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.
So, maybe it’s selfish or cliché to want to be famous, but I want it so badly. I want to have book deals, and tour the world, and be the guest of honor at conventions, and have signing lines. It’s all I’ve ever dreamed of. I don’t just want to be famous. I want to be great. But for now, I am just adjacent to so much greatness. Not just my father, but all of the amazing, accomplished, talented people I’ve had the honor of meeting.
I want to earn my place on that stage, not just be put up there because my father let me take his spot. I want to earn that VIP treatment, not just be the tagalong kid I’ve always been. I want to be successful, not just living off someone else’s success.
I am so grateful to all of you that read my posts, follow me on Twitter, and just honestly make me feel valued. Your readership means the world to me, and I hope that I have been at least somewhat enjoyable to read. I want to connect with you. I want to convey my thoughts to you, in a way that makes you feel something, and I’m so appreciative that you’re willing to listen.
I hope someday soon you’ll be able see me become this great person I want to be. For now, though, I will remain adjacent.
I’ve read some of your dad’s work from his early 20s and you do not suffer in comparison. You write differently and about different things, and I hope you don’t stop because we need more of that variety. I’m not disagreeing with anything you’ve written about how you feel, and I hope some of that becomes easier for you. Thanks for continuing to share with all of us.
I used to want to be famous too. I actually still do and it sadly hasn’t stopped, but I’ve given it up. I don’t particularly have the talent or drive or looks anyway and I’m pretty old for that sort of thing, but I admit I wanted the fame for similar reasons as you: to get access to the cool people, and paid for doing what I like. Fame as a tool rather than an end in itself. And it sounds like book publishing fame (at least for your dad) has been pretty dang cool and mostly easy-ish. I’d like that myself, though in all honesty I don’t really have the drive to publish and I am more of a stage performer by inclination. And actually getting to perform on stage at all took me a long time because I wasn’t wanted on a lot of stages my first oh, 40 years or so. You have to find the right people for that.
But… also I am seriously afraid of the harassment that famous women get on the Internet and what happens if you tweet the wrong thing even though I don’t use social media. As a friend of mine pointed out, I’ve already acquired a stalker who tried to dox me thanks to my awful day job so you can get that treatment even as a nobody, but…I am genuinely frightened of being Seen by the masses these days and the consequences that come from that. I wish I had tried to get famous in the earlier days of the Internet so it’d be a fait accompli now, but I have made the strategic decision to stay hidden in life and stay safe. And stay off social media. It’s not the decision of my heart, it’s the decision of my head, but I’m pretty grateful my head’s decisions have won out in a pandemic, lemme tell ya.
Clearly I have complicated feelings on this topic and not everyone should go off of them. Athena, you’re already “out there” a bit by default so the fait accompli is already there, lucky you! But I think you’d just have to do your own thing and whether or not it lives up to your dad…who knows. I hear Stephen King has a son, right? (Hah)
First, hugs! Second, when you feel compelled to compare yourself to your father, please look at what he was writing at your age. Your father spent many years as an apprentice then journeyman-level writer – we all need time to learn and hone our skills at our crafts.
You are growing as a writer; I see it in the progression of your blog posts over the past many months. Especially in ones like this or your one on living with a disability or the others where you take the risk of exposing your vulnerable side; they have been excellent pieces that stir my emotions and want to sit down and visit with you.
I don’t think it’s surprising that being the kid of a successful writer has its exceptional challenges. We all make comparisons, all the time; and your comparison isn’t just extremely successful, but right there in the house with you, all the time. It’s much harder to deal with a comparison to some stranger.
Similarly, I’ve worked with more than a few graduate students and junior faculty who were having trouble writing, and it sure didn’t help if they had a partner who was successful and wrote easily. (This problem is highly gendered, with the underproductive person always being female, and the productive partner almost always being male.)
I tell people that, just like Virginia Woolf said we all need a room of our own, we also need a room of our own in our heads – a safe space free of interference and criticism and expectations – including by us ourselves – to create.
btw, I’m 62 and still want to be famous and change the world, but I’ve learned to hold onto my goals lightly, and to set them aside entirely while actually doing the work.
I can’t finish stories either, but I’ve come up with a framing device about another writer who is the same way, and her lost notebooks, and… anyway, I may never finish that either but it gives me something to play with. ;-)
And as has been noted, your Dad put in his time in the minors. Get a few million words under your belt and see how that feels.
I just want to be good enough, and I don’t feel like I ever will be.
Welcome to writing.
A friend’s father was the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library when she was growing up. She said she felt like her 6th grade book reports needed to be Nobel prize worthy or she had failed. (Not that her dad ever implied that.) Heck of a burden!
How do I make a heart in these comments? Never mind. Consider yourself hugged.
I think all writers have someone they measure themselves against, as you say not to be better than, but to be good enough. Tougher when it’s somebody like your own father and even tougher for you because he’s That Guy.
Here, have another hug.
Hi there! I have seen you on boat and recognized you, but thought it was rude to approach. But now you have said you like that, I shall. 2022!
I am the father of three daughters, and I tell them all the same thing about “the cool table.”
The cool table is wherever you happen to be.
Anyone that doesn’t recognize that clearly isn’t cool and shouldn’t concern you.
Ahh, imposter’s syndrome. I can’t speak to the writer’s version of that, but I can echo what was said about the academic version. When I got accepted into grad school, I immediately wanted to make sure they never found out it was a mistake. When I started my practical training, my clients had more experience on their side of the couch than I had on mine.
The advice I was kinda able to take in and try to share now is definitely to pretend you know what you’re doing (the old “fake it til you make it” advice). Put your tush in your chair and write stuff even if it sucks, and eventually it will suck less. One day you look up and you are just doing it.
I can’t speak to the fame thing because I was never interested in that part. But I have friends who were and many of them are finding their own way to live out that dream — podcasts, owning businesses, writing, etc. The part I understand is the looking for connection. I see my job as witnessing what others don’t take time to and honoring what is inside you. And I do see you making yourself vulnerable and sharing thoughts others might not be brave enough to share. It may not feel like enough yet, but you are touching lives around you and connecting.
I certainly sympathize with your wish to be a writer like your father, and worrying if you’ll measure up. I always wanted to be a writer when I was younger, and kept trying into college and later. I never finished anything, and my prose sounded more like a history book. So what did I do? I married someone who became a writer, who became a successful writer, and who’s competing against your dad for best series now LOL. I did not stop writing because I knew I’d never be as good as her, or because I didn’t want to compete with her. I stopped because I wasn’t very good. And I’m ok with that. Not everyone can do everything. I have skills that my wife will never have. I’m just different. I truly love seeing her success, as I’m sure you’re extremely proud of your dad. And I’m proud to be her husband. That doesn’t mean you should stop writing yourself. It’s hard work, and there’s no rule that you have to hit your true talent at a certain age. Some are early successes, some are late successes. And even if you don’t become a major best seller, or even publish anything, YOU ARE STILL A WRITER IF YOU WRITE. Writing for your own enjoyment and fulfillment is a just as valid as writing professionally. Don’t worry about being a John Scalzi writer. Be an Athena Scalzi writer :)
This was a great post, perhaps one of the best you’ve written on this blog since I started reading it, and it was something that I had been wondering about. Best of luck in grappling with this, and keep writing!
@Jerome Agreed. I discovered a long time ago that coolness isn’t fashion, or even attitude. It’s hanging out with friends you genuinely like, discussing your interests and ideas with passion and humor. And not caring too much about whether you’re cool or not.
Athena, as nonny said, you’re growing as a writer right before our eyes, much as you grew up in your father’s lens. You’ll continue to grow, and any success will be your own (on the shoulders not only of your father and mother, but all your other inspirations).
The original Athena, even though she was literally, the child of her father’s mind, ended up excelling in a different area, and with quite different interests. An augury? Good luck in fully becoming your unique self.
So you shoot for your dreams and see where you land. You have the advantage of in-house constructive criticism. Cognitive apprenticeship is the most powerful way to learn.
Athena, you have an excellent grasp of your situation. I never sought fame in the normal sense. I sought competence. And that applied to all the things I like to do. You are building your competence in writing every day, it shows.
Fame is not directly in your control, so it is a tough goal. So don’t beat yourself up if fame doesn’t seem to be coming. Do good writing, find a writing style that is yours, and keep being out there in the public eye and you will get your goal.
Good luck, stiff upper lip, hugs and all that.
Your father may have gotten your words in front of a few eyeballs they may otherwise not have gotten in front of, but we wouldn’t continue to read them if they didn’t stand on their own. It’s easy enough to see your byline in my RSS feed and skip over the post, if I so desired, but I generally enjoy your posts every bit as much as I enjoy your fathers. Would I have found you on a blog of your own? Hard to say. Would I love to read a novel should you ever finish one? Absolutely. Maybe I’ll enjoy it. Maybe I won’t. But, based on your writing here, odds are favorable that it will be well written, even if it’s not something I particularly enjoy. So, go for it!
aside: I attended an early Penguicon where Wil Wheaton was scheduled to appear. He did not, but your father did in his place. I had never heard of your father at that point, even though he was obviously already “Little League famous” by then. He gained at least one fan by being adjacent to greatness and filling in for Wil. I wouldn’t keep reading his stuff if I didn’t enjoy it…
I read a lot of webnovel on RoyalRoad. At the start or end of chapter most writer write a little info. Mostly on when will the next chapter happen, patreon, discord, … One think some do is talk about review that user have done, stat about how many people read / follow the story. In that last case, it often end with something along the line of : “WOW when I started, I had no clue that soo many people would like what I write. Thanks everyone.” Seeing them happy not because of money/success/…, but, in the end, because what they do (often just as a pass time and not full job) bring joy to a lot of people. What you just write make me think a lot about those, and the simillarity.
You should give a shout out to Joe Hill. I bet he’d have some insight and advice. And I bet he’d answer!
Just keep writing — everyone feels like an imposter until suddenly they don’t … and then sometimes they do again. The cure? Yet more writing.
Is Joe Hill one of the nerds you’ve gotten to meet? I’d read four of his books before finding out his dad was Stephen King. Maybe you can DM him on Twitter or something. That stress of “what if it’s not good enough” can 100% cause you to never finish anything. I have that fear, and I’m not even related to an author, lol.
In my eyes, you were adjacent to your dad only until you started writing. From that moment on, I thought of you as you, not as adjacent-to-dad.
This is your finest written work to date. Enjoy your writing journey and don’t stress about it. Everything will work themselves out and you’ll be thrilled.
“I’m bringing Nickelback into this post and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”
That was pretty damn funny.
More than a few years ago, I got to interview a cocreator of this comic book series that I loved when I was younger, as part of an article. When I looked for the series on Wikipedia, I discovered that a line of my article was a footnote for the Wikipedia article.
Now That’s “Famous!” I look the page up every so often to note that the footnote hadn’t been edited out, and smile because it’s probably the goofiest example of “famous” that there is.
Hang tough. Keep writing. It worked for your dad. It’ll work for you.
I have read all of your posts here on Whatever since you started writing here.
While work, life and lack of time has limited when I get to comment on them, I want you to know I have enjoyed all of them and found them thoughtful and insightful.
I am closer to your father in age than to you, so it is true that my perspective is different, that only natural.
When I was your age it was the 1980’s the internet and the world was very different then than now for both good and bad.
Still I find my inner 20’s year-old responds to your opinions and thoughts and I think that is a good thing.
I saw it said somewhere that becoming a writer is a life-long process. You are on that road now and while there is a lot ahead, there is also the things behind.
I hope you keep going and learning and writing and achieve all that you set out to do.
Thank you for allowing us to watch along as you do.
Just try running this question through your mind. What if you become more successful than your father? Simply you have the potential, even the short time you’ve been contributing this blog it’s noticeable how your style has evolved and grown. Your very lucky that your dad can teach you a lot of the business side of professional writing such deals, contracts, working with publishers etc.
That mentoring is going to be gold when you enter the tough but rewarding career as an author.
This are really important thoughts to process. We all have things like this that motivate us, and it’s sometimes hard to figure out what we are intrinsically drawn to and good at vs what we admire in others.
My father was a specialized design engineer. He helped design some of the earliest heart lung machines to provide life support during open heart surgery. Even straight out of college, he helped design and patent an early version of the ergonomic wrist support I am using right now. His research and development has no doubt improved, and even saved, the lives of thousands of people. He’s not even remotely famous, yet he has his own kind of greatness that I envy.
And despite the fact that my youthful activities were almost nothing like his, for a time I followed his footsteps, getting a Master’s Degree in Systems Design Engineering.
But the truth is, although we have a lot in common, designing things is and always has been something I struggle to do. What gets me into a real Flow experience is not that at all – it’s integrating information from multiple sources in an analytical way.
Luckily, my Master’s degree focused on Cognitive Ergonomics, and Knowledge Elicitation is actually a very important aspect of requirements analysis and task/workflow modeling. But it has taken years to figure this all out.
I’m sure you have greatness in you, but don’t punish yourself over it if it turns out to be a different flavor of greatness than your dad’s.
Athena, it’s nice that you know why being famous is good: I once had no idea why people wanted to be a rock star, and so I had to go down to the student radio station and ask everyone there. (Yes, I was a real nerd)
Famous writer Alain de Boton said that people put in the effort to be famous because (among other things) then people will be nice to them.
I like what Troyce said. I think of big published writers as “fellow writers” because I too am putting in regular man hours writing.
I like your columns. Myself, I find that I read nonfiction, especially columns and essays, much more than I read fiction, and I am blogging essays regularly. This means, based on my actions, that I don’t want to be a fiction writer as much as I claim I do. Well. Still thinking that one over.
Doesn’t everyone want to be famous? Uh, no, not really. I don’t, in fact I never did. But that’s me. If you do, good luck with that. As a loyal reader of the blog, my opinion is this – in the last year, to me your writing has grown impressively. Yeah, there are still things you write about that have no interest for me (being way old), but fewer as time goes on, and even those are readable. Just write every day and keep trying.
Nice piece Athena, and I hope the person you might be able to talk to at some point is Joe Hill (if you haven’t already), because on the list of “people who know what you’re going through” he was the first that came to mind, and he seems to have either overcome those feelings, or learned to live with them.
I’m happy being infamous NO unfamous! Shut up AutoCorrect! “Unfamous is so a word!” Now duck off. Where was I? Oh yeah, fame. In my line of work “fame” means being in the Washington Post, and not in a good way. My friends know me, and family. Even the neighbors notice when I get a haircut. That’ll do.
Impostor syndrome? Well, every time I start a new project at work I’m like “This is when they’re going to realize I’m totally unqualified! I’ll be unemployed and homeless in 6 months! Aieeee!” Been in this field for almost 30 years now.
Your Nickelback comment made me laugh. Them’s fighting words, girl!
For what it’s worth, I already treat you as someone famous in that I mutter things like “Oh, here’s the almond milk that Athena recommended” when I’m in the grocery store just like I talk about the opinions of Giada or Nigella or a hundred other people who have no idea I exist.
You go, girl. I think you’ll be a fine writer. Why? Because even though you write about things that (mostly) don’t interest me, I keep reading your posts because I like the way you write. So I think you’ve got the talent.
I think this is the best article you have written to date.
I have a Maxim 70 challenge coin that I tend to keep nearby, with the text:
“Failure is not an option.
The option is whether or not to let failure be the last thing you do.”
It’s a bit of perspective I appreciate when I worry about failing.
Geez! You sound just like a writer! 😉
You are at the perfect point in your life where you can fail and won’t have much impact on your life. So fail! Fail hard! Fail BIG! Then, step back and say, “Well, golly. That didn’t work. Let’s try this again.” I think you will discover that it is okay to fail because it really doesn’t effect the flow of your life other than it can get a little frustrating at times.
I always tell new writers not to worry about it. First draft manuscripts always suck. It’s in the later drafts where you refine that piece of •••• into the masterpiece you imagined it could be.
Your dad was a nobody. Heinlein was a nobody. Le Guin was as nobody. McCaffrey was a nobody. Every famous writer you have met and admire was a nobody. We all start from the same place. It is through perseverance, hard work, and some luck that any of us have made it. If this is the path you want to follow, your dad knows the steps you have to take. He’s got your back. Your mom supported your dad while he worked on this career. She’s got your back, too. If you fail, you won’t fall far. They’ve got you, they’ll catch you.
Happily, it isn’t the name “Scalzi” that is going to carry you. It is the story you present to readers. Readers don’t care if you are a Scalzi. They want a good story. And if you present to them a good story, they are going to enjoy it. That’s what matters. You don’t have to be John Scalzi’s daughter. Just be Athena.
Above all, just write. Write it because you want to find out just how the story ends!
What other people said about your father’s writing in his 20s.
Then, maybe find and read some bios of children of famous people–Einstein’s son, Eleanor Roosevelt’s children, etc. See what they have to say.
Athena, my heart goes out to you.
You do have a couple of things going for you as you navigate this. Your parents seem to be able to not compete with you and not stifle you and to see you as a separate human being.
It is a fact that talent is to some extent genetic. For example, in my family it’s musical talent. I didnt’ get it, but my sister did — the third generation of wonderful musicians. Somehow my kids got it too.
So that’s actually wonderful and something you don’t have to earn! You won the lottery!
For the rest — I am a writer and writers are definitely made and not born. Every writer no matter their pedigree has to learn how to do it. You can learn, and if you are motivated, you will.
Some kids take drastic steps to separate from their parents, like moving to Europe or following a different career for years.
Your parents probably won’t necessitate that kind of drastic separation.
You are you. Your life will have its own trajectory. You might be interested in the career of Annie Lamott, whose father was a famous author but who forged her own career. She definitely benefited in the beginning from her father’s connections, but her talent turned out to be in memoir and not fiction, and her career acquired its own trajectory.
I wish you all the best! Give yourself time to discover who you really are. I remember a quote to the effect of, the greater the talent, the longer it takes to fruition. Never give up on yourself.
I don’t know if what I have to say is useful, or not, but…
I don’t have a famous relative, but I do have a college friend and dorm mate who fits into “Little League Famous”. I don’t think I was ever jealous, but there was this desire to try to measure up. So I spent a few years trying to create, be a playwright, but never able to finish anything I started.
After a while, I put that aside with a bit of frustration. But I did start some other side projects, and I used my connections with my friends to get interviews, information and so on to construct these projects. I used to joke that if my friend was an A-list celeb (in our little league), I used his rep to become a D-list celeb on my own.
As the years passed, I kept doing my thing. And it became a bit of an institution—and that really had nothing to do with my friend. I built that reputation on my own, with my own work; my friend helped with a couple first steps, but after that, it was all mine. So I got recognition in my own right. (I’m still only B or C list, but I know I EARNED it).
Along the way, I started writing again. And I began to finish my stories. Not all of them are good, but other people see them and enjoy them. And that’s all I ever wanted.
This is just a long way of saying that it will come to you when you’ve grown enough to be ready, and you’ll be ready when you’re ready. That’s it.
I never got the fame thing. I grew up in a big city (NYC) that was popular with famous people because they could walk down the street and no one would know them from Adam. Even people who recognized them made a point of not appearing to do so lest they be labeled “bridge and tunnel”. Only people who made a point of it even knew the names of the actual movers and shakers, the ones who could write a check and buy five city blocks or get a law through Congress or a movie into production. Fame was a tool one used, not an end in itself.
I agree with others here that this is your best essay so far. You seem more relaxed, less didactic. Your reviews, so far, tend to have a slightly formal feel, as if you were writing a high school essay. Maybe it’s the visible scaffolding, your explicit statement that you are writing a review, why you are writing, what you are writing it about and so on. It’s hard work developing a smoother, more personal style as you have in this post. As John Kenneth Galbraith one said, “The treasured note of spontaneity critics find in my writing comes in between the seventh and eighth draft.”
I think your writing here is one of the best things you can do, idiot critics like yours truly not withstanding. Think about your father honing his writing skills while moderating AOL forums. You know, they sent those sign up CDs to just about everyone. Then there were those years writing movie reviews in a second tier market. There are an awful lot of people who want to be writers or actors or rock stars, but who never actually write anything or act in anything or play any rock music. You are at least writing, so you are miles ahead of them.
I’ve been writing professionally for a full half-century. I am always sure I suck. First drafts are always shit, as Hemingway said. Believing that I suck a good thing, since it’s true. But it’s also true that subsequent drafts can be better, and final drafts can be genius. That makes me work harder, and writing is hard. Really hard. If you’re having a hard time, you’re doing it right.
Athena, this feels like as honest an inventory of what’s going on in your head as any I’ve ever seen. I think that it’s my favourite piece of yours. And if you’re willing to plumb these depths and express them this eloquently, I think you’re well on the way.
From one writer to another: Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard.
In a classroom, I (sometimes) sit to the side, to see better, because when I contribute I am conscious of helping my classmates, not merely my teacher.
In a blog, I am conscious of talking to the whole community, not just the person with the blog, as I add to the conversation, maybe saying stuff that the blogger already knows, but maybe the other readers don’t know.
On Whatever, with all due respect to “our esteemed host,” I don’t think I have ever used his name or addressed him individually.
But hey, I do address you by name, (while meaning to include others) so that says something about your ability to connect. That is a precious gift you have.
My mother was a professional writer, albeit by definition she couldn’t have been famous for it — she wrote for the confession magazines, which by design never ran bylines (It was fiction but presented as, to mention the best known one, True Confessions, so it was always first person and always anonymous). She was not even particularly a star among confession writers, just a dependable supplier in what was a very commercial market without much money in it, even in the 60s and 70s.
Nevertheless, I learned proper submission form about the time my classmates were learning to address an envelope. I learned how to write a businesslike cover letter as my first typing practice. I learned that rejections were c’est la vie and acceptances were five minutes of celebration and then back to the typewriter. I learned about taking pride in craft even though it was quite possible that no one who read it would know or care. I learned that editors are untrustworthy nitwit scoundrels and to always listen carefully to them, and that you do what they say if they’re right, and face them down if they’re wrong, unless you really need the money.
You’ve had a couple decades of absorbing a probably much better set of lessons; you’ll probably benefit from your connection, but you also probably won’t need it. Congratulations on your good luck and I think it is very likely you will make something good of it.
I think you’re doing pretty well at becoming a good writer, the main thing is to just keep at it and try and get better as you go along. The best book I’ve read about it was “Becoming Superman” by J. Michael Straczynski. And he didn’t really offer advice about the craft, he just talked about how long he had to struggle and how much garbage writing he had to do before he could find his own voice and figure out what works and what doesn’t.
It’s good to have goals and a desire to achieve, but there has never been a single clear path for this and it’s gotten even more weirder with the internet and the way it has fragmented publishing. My feeling is just work on finding your own voice, then work on getting an audience for that.
I don’t write professionally, but one of my most rewarding and fun experiences was just writing a silly story for a friend and having them “get it”. Writing can be a path to fame, fortune, etc., but don’t overlook the fun part of it as well. That will get you through alot.
Some old retired pugilist was being interviewed by a young writer, and asked to see some of her published work. She told him she didn’t have any yet. He said “Fighters fight, and writers write.” If you think you want to write, just give it a shot. Everyone has to start somewhere.
Excellent post Athena; you are doing good work here and you can add me to the list of people cheering for you.
Another person who can probably relate to your feelings is Jesse Kellerman. Like Joe Hill & Owen King, he is a writer who is the son of two authors. (For all I know, you might know the Kellermans already, although they do mysteries rather than SF.)
I hope you can find your own voice, it would be interesting to read what you produce when you do. Go for it!
I just want to let you know I’ve been enjoying your blog posts, including the subscription box reviews – I’m always curious when I see the ads and I love getting your unbiased view of them.
Not blowing smoke up you ass but, just keep doing what you are doing. We have been watching you grow up here and observing your writing as it evolves. Enjoy Fame in whatever form it manifests but for God’s sake don’t chase it. That way lies madness.
I can’t quite grasp why anyone would WANT to be famous, but if someone does want to be famous, I would think “Little League” famous would be about right. Who wants to be ON CAMERA 24/7. But if you can go to a con or a book event and enjoy a bit of fame, then go home and relax afterward, that would seem to be the ideal amount of fame for someone who actually wanted fame.
Also, your writing ain’t that bad, which in my circles is a reasonable amount of praise, not wanting to turn your head and all.
Speaking as a person who’s written multiple novel manuscripts (very much in her spare time!) but not found an agent yet: writing is competitive, and often comes down to absurd idiosyncratic luck. You email a query to an agent about the history of borax the day after she’s been finding herself wanting to pick up more offbeat everyday science stuff – last month she would have ignored it. You go to a conference and end up in an elevator with someone who introduces you to a friend, who hears about your novel about a pickle-ball league and says that their publisher doesn’t usually take unsolicited manuscripts but that one of the editors has a huge soft spot for funny, warm sports stories. That wouldn’t have happened if you had gotten out of bed two minutes later. You’re born into a family that has a mentor figure from birth, if it turns out you’re also attracted to the thing he’s been doing (which makes sense on the basis of both nature and nurture). I wouldn’t want any of these people to deny themselves the chance to give it a shot on the basis of advantages that boil down to long-shot coincidences. Many writers have benefited from long-shot coincidences. If I ever get a novel published (which would be a neat bonus for something I just mess with as a hobby), I’ll probably have benefited from coincidence to some extent. Pretty much everyone has to do a moderate or large amount of work and manage to catch the right person’s attention. Only so much you can do to plan for that.
I spent about 6 months at the age of 5 assuming I was going to do exactly what my dad did, and he was utterly charmed. I think he secretly hoped I’d follow through. I didn’t – I lost interest. I got fixated on another plan and love my job. (I haven’t ruled out continuing to write novel manuscripts, but it turns out I’m intensely committed to introversion, and I’m not sure how I feel about accumulating fans from a distance. In other words, if you want something, that in and of itself might be a huge advantage.)
Also, the Nickelback bit was brilliant and made me laugh aloud.
You’re in your early 20s, working out identity, social roles, your place in the world, so impostor syndrome, and faking it till you make it, are entirely appropriate (PhD Human Development talking). I too vaguely wanted to be famous and still want to be known as an author, to see my name on a book on a library shelf, and it still hasn’t happened, largely because I didn’t know what to write. I began journaling intensively and corresponding with a cousin, which helped, since I was actually writing during those times. I think I’ve figured out, at 70, what I’m good at, but am still feeling inadequate about it. You’re at the beginning, figuring out what you’re really good at, finding out from the generally supportive Whatever commentors that some of the things you say resonate with them strongly. The feedback is precious! It’s not just pats on the head, people are saying they like your stuff. Believe it. It’s called external validation, when total strangers tell you what you were hoping to hear. There was a self-help book called Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, and that’s what you’re doing. Sure, you have a helping hand with a proven venue, but you’re succeeding on your own merits. We do tend to be really hard on ourselves. It’s hard to be objective about yourself. I’m glad you’re able to share some of the doubts with us. I feel honored.
I read something similar once written by Joe Hill. He had the same worries about becoming a novelist since his dad might be the most famous novelist on the planet. It worked out pretty well for him. He has his own voice, which I enjoy every bit as much as Stephen King’s.
You too have your own voice. You’ll find your way.
1. Until you’re a parent, this is very hard to understand…but your dad is already (and will always be) sooooooo proud of you just for being you. You don’t have to be famous to get his accolades.
In the video game industry, they say “A good game is a game that’s finished.” I believe we should apply this adage liberally to other creative fields. You say you don’t finish writing pieces, but I’ve read many of your finished pieces here over the last year. Those totally count.
I run a large website on which I publish my own content – mostly technical science stuff supported by my own graphics and photographs, but also some sci-fi stuff which some people have called art, though I never think of myself as an artist due to my lack of technical skill (which is improving) and my lack of proper training. What is more, I remain anonymous. However, some people do tell me they like what I do and that’s enough for me: it’s nice to have one’s efforts appreciated. If it is art to at least one other person (aside from the artist) then it is art. What matters most, I think, is originality – finding a niche – successful art can have cult status without being universally popular. Your writing does connect and move the reader, that’s why I replied to this post, so that’s a really good start!
I study the labor force and work and for some of that I have talked to people about their professional histories. And what has really stuck out for me, even as someone who has followed an extremely traditional job path (school–>grad school–> one job), many or most people don’t and have fulfilling careers and lives that are all sorts of interesting. Some folks don’t even start their careers until their kids are in school or even out of the house. Heck, Nancy Pelosi’s career is like that.
Basically, it’s the journey, not the destination rings really true.
And one great thing about being upper middle-class (as you are, as my children will be) and having that safety net is that there’s lots of room to explore and try new things. To learn from what you’re doing about yourself and your interests. No path is really a dead-end, it’s just taking you to the next road, to beleaguer the metaphor.
You’re good enough. I think a lot of women especially feel they are not good enough in general and it’s a larger cultural problem than a famous father. I also think that moving away from your home town will help to flex your individuality wings, not that 2020 or 2020 part II are helping with that, so no judgement. Also if you’re having trouble finishing works maybe take an online class about how to do that part specifically. Do they have such classes? I hope so. But mainly, forget everything else and remember to be kind to yourself and give yourself lots of time to practice broadly and develop your skills.
PS. did you watch the PBS show Hemingway? He did a writerly thing of waking up and writing for a half-day as a set practice. Sometimes he wrote brilliantly and a lot of the days he failed terribly but he had that daily practice. Again, no judgement as I definitely don’t spend half a day practicing the things I’m passionate about. Hmm, I’m about to consider taking my own advice.
An observation: you have mused on this site about not knowing what you want to do with your life. It sounds like you do know what you want to do with your life, but are too afraid to do it. That’s a different problem entirely.
Thanks for sharing, Athena!
I can see that that would be hard. But what an amazing life you’ve had already! And I value the occasional conversation I’ve had with you on twitter.
It’s so cool to see you doing cool stuff. I looking forward to your future writing, hopefully someday including novels!
You should talk to my friend Alafair Burke. Her father, James Lee Burke, is a legend in the mystery writing community. She writes amazing mystery books herself, which are completely different both in style and subject matter from her dad’s.
I’m not sure how or why, but “I’m bringing Nickelback into this post and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.” is one of the most Scalzi things I’ve ever read.
The big advantage you have is you realize you don’t have to be your dad and he is not your measuring stick. Now cognitively knowing it and internalizing it are very different things. Choosing to go in the same field as your father will inevitably add some challenges but you also have some built-in advantages. I remember being your age and not knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up. I think you are far ahead of the curve of your peers in that respect. Now it’s about putting in the work to get better at your craft. I look forward to seeing the amazing work you can put out there. Remember to be kind to yourself, set goals but don’t make them mandatory.
I think the quality of your writing has gotten a lot better since you started guest blogging here a few years ago. You keep doing what you love and you’ll get where you want to be. Guaranteed.
You know what? I’m just going to give you a piece of advice that I try to live by:
“Don’t try to be a great woman. Just be a woman. Let history make its own judgement.”
The words are not really mine, of course; I just took Zefram Cochrane’s words from Star Trek: First Contact and gender-flipped them. But that doesn’t mean they’re not good words.
I’m sure that one day, you’ll find your own tale to tell, your own part of the only tale there is to tell, the one that we all tell.
You are your own person, with your own voice, and your own talent. Your success, when it comes, will be your own.
That said, you do have a lucky advantage many aspiring/emerging writers do not: you don’t have to waste precious energy trying to convince your parents that what you want to do IS in fact a “real job.” :)
You keep writing, we’ll keep reading!
I agree with some of the other commenters: the best thing you’ve written (or at least of any I’ve read here), and I admire your ruthless honesty.
Speaking for myself: fame…schmame.
Both of my grandparents were quite famous within their own circles: classical music (largely opera) for him, bestselling novelist (and later screenwriter) for her. Both of them found their fame useful as a means to a couple of ends (specifically, getting out of Germany while the gettin’ wuz good, and later to a comfortable lifestyle here), but other than that, they found fame as much a burden as a benefit.
My dad was slightly famous in a very niche milieu, my mother in another; I’m equally so in an equally minor niche (which I won’t specify here). Suffice it to say that I equally found my “15 minutes of fame” (actually a couple of decades) as much a burden as a benefit. While it was gratifying (for a while, and both personally and financially) to be recognized, and even, if I flatter myself, to be admired, that brought with it the pressure to live up to an ideal. And that ideal wasn’t necessarily my own, but one that others projected on me.
“Fame is fleeting,” it’s said, and I’m finding it a relief that mine, such as it was, has largely fleeted. One of your other commenters said that what they really wanted was competence, and I agree. I can look at my own competence–those qualities and abilities for which I was, at one time, publicly admired–and see that it’s still there, as satisfying to me as it ever was, but by now that satisfaction is all the more real in that it’s not dependent on confirmation by others…and for that, I’m grateful.
And it’s very nice to be able to go about my daily round (as it’s gradually becoming re-established as Covid starts to loosen its grip) without being recognized, without feeling that I have to live up to some particular public perception of who I am. I still know who I am, as do those for or about whom I care and who care for or about me. Beyond that, anonymity is not without its rewards…
“An observation: you have mused on this site about not knowing what you want to do with your life. It sounds like you do know what you want to do with your life, but are too afraid to do it. That’s a different problem entirely.”
Oh, I have thoughts on that topic!
I always knew what I wanted to do (perform) BUT frankly, I got so many no’s on that topic that I quite reasonably assumed it wasn’t for me, for a long time. It sounds like you do know what you want to do (write) but have various issues with regards to that.
Ergo, you might have the “well, I can’t do what I want to do, so I have to come up with something else I want to do instead, what is that, I don’t know….” problem. Which is difficult. Especially when you have to come up with an Adult Day Job/Career, or a college major, or whatever else that just kinda leaves you cold emotionally. I haven’t solved that problem yet myself.
Your best article so far, that I have read.
I’m more greatness antepenadjacent. Like my mother’s best friend dated a guy whose brother was the governor of Texas that was in the car with JFK when it passed in front of the Texas School Book Depository.
I always wanted to write. I remember Stephen King once said that people were always coming up to him and asking if he had any advice on how to be a writer. His advice was that if you’re a writer, you write. Anyone who didn’t write was unlikely to be a writer. That advice was incomplete, because I did write a lot. I kept a journal that was full of sporadic details of my life. Mostly it was conversations that I recorded as accurately as I could remember. My journals had intricate plots with significant gaps, and gobs and gobs of foreshadowing, to which the protagonist was completely oblivious.
I couldn’t think of plots as interesting (to me) as my life or conceive of dialog that flowed as naturally as what I transcribed from memory. That was big limitation on my ability to be a writer.
In college, I offered to write a brief history of a gay student organization that I belonged to. At the time (mid-80s), the group was nearing the end of a lawsuit against the university for official recognition. I contacted former members and even a founding member who had started the lawsuit in the mid-70s. I never really got the history written, but I carefully transcribed the interviews into my journals, and I saved all my research.
We won the case after going to the Supreme Court twice. The high court declined to hear the case, but since the appeals court had ruled in our favor it was a decisive victory.
Once the court case was over, and we were recognized by the university, some tensions arose between those who wanted the name to include “lesbian” and those who wanted to keep it “gay”. I was on the keep it “gay” side. The B, T, Q, and other letters weren’t even considered. A group of lesbians left to form their own group, and the main group started to lose steam. It basically died, but was picked up by a new set of students. They did change the name. I and a couple of former members were there to argue against it. All of that (including me being on the wrong side of history) is in my journals.
Thirty years later, I donated most of the research on the group’s history to the university library. Five years after that a journalist contacted me to talk about my experiences. I gave him relevant parts of my journal (with my dating history redacted).
In December the journalist published a five part series in the university newspaper about the gay student group’s history. It was nicely written, accurate, and fair to the way I remember things. I couldn’t have written it as well as he did, but I’m glad that the work I did all those years ago has a place in this tiny bit of recorded history.
And my name is googleable. I’m Pee Wee League famous!
To have these thoughts, and to put them into words that others can resonate with, is an uncommon gift. I felt this entry. Thank you.
In the early 2000s, I sold a single story and approached my local cons about being on panels. Two of them said yes. It was great fun. I found it more enjoyable to sit on the speaker’s side of the table in the small program rooms. Your writing here may well be enough for a small con to place you there. If you think you’d enjoy it, some concoms and program organizers are quite approachable.
I’ve gone on to sell a small handful of stories and self-publish one novel. Sometimes the feeling of being vastly inferior to people who complete and traditionally publish one or more books every year does arise in me. Then I take a look at whether I’d eliminate my non-writing projects to focus on writing, and recognize again that I wouldn’t. So I write in the margins and spend most of my time content with it.
I’m more than 30 years older than you and still finding my way. I did find that the years helped me gain equilibrium with myself, for better or worse.
Wishing you well, Anna
I have a similar term for what you call “Little League Famous”- microcelebrities. I think yours is more easily understood.
I get the “rub-off” effect, too: I share an unusual last name with a (one-time, possibly) A-Lister, and I commonly get asked if we’re related (kinda, distant cousin who I’ve never met personally, which isn’t what they usually have in mind).