Some people seem to attract attention the moment they enter into the room. Then there are others who… don’t. In I Am The Ghost In Your House, author Mar Romasco-Moore explores what it means to be the latter, in ways that might surprise you.
Every day on the bus to school I’d eavesdrop. I carried a tiny notebook and I’d hunch over in my seat, dashing off hasty notes about what I heard and saw.
Some of these observations stick with me all these years later – the powder-pale girl in the pink velour tracksuit who insisted she had never once sneezed in her entire life, the enormous drug dealer boy who sat at the very back of the bus declaiming heavily embellished stories about his exploits.
I can still remember these people. But I feel confident none of them remember me. It’s likely they never even noticed me. There would be little reason to.
People, in my experience, are perfectly capable of maintaining directly contradictory desires. Back then, I desperately wanted someone to look at me and know everything about me, to understand and accept the darkest and most peculiar parts of my personality. I longed for someone to say “I see you,” or heck, even just for a teacher to look at me and be like “oh jeez, maybe that kid is not doing okay.”
But at the same time, that was my greatest fear.
I hid in as many ways as I could – dark eyeliner, sunglasses, silence, outright lies. There were things about me that might have drawn attention – being weird, being queer – so I kept them as shrouded as possible. I hovered around the edges of things, never quite fitting in, never fully belonging, but not outright ostracized either. Ignored.
I’m sure I’m far from the only teenager who felt invisible. When writing my novel, I Am the Ghost In Your House, I took this idea a step further. For the main character, Pieta (Pie for short), this feeling is literal.
She is invisible.
And not like a superhero who can turn it on or off as they please. She is completely invisible all the time. There are perks – all of which grew directly out of my teenage daydreams about invisibility. Pie and her mother, who is also invisible, can walk freely into places off limits for other people. They can go to a museum after hours and touch all the art. They can walk out of a fancy boutique with any expensive item they’d like. They live like ghosts in the houses of the rich, helping themselves to gourmet food and precious objects, scraps of luxury. Theirs is an existence unchained to the tradition rules of society.
But there are also downsides. Creating the character of Pie was ultimately a way for me to explore and amplify the loneliness I felt as a teenager – and to imagine what might happen if someone terrified of being seen was able to let go of that fear.
I don’t feel invisible anymore, but sometimes I still worry whether anyone truly knows me, truly sees me, and whether they would accept me if they did. There’s a good chance other people feel this way too – I hope that some of them find this book and recognize a little of themselves in the pages.
Whether in the real world or in a world of fantasy, power is a currency that always compels. In this Big Idea for Comeuppance Served Cold, author Marion Deeds essays the persuasiveness of power, and how it informs the alternate Pacific Northwest she’s created.
Magic is a form of power. Who has it? Who gets to use it? These were my thematic questions when it came to writing Comeuppance Served Cold. But there were all kinds of power inequities in Prohibition-era Seattle, and some of my characters are more caught up in the life of illegal booze, corrupt cops, and protection rackets than that of charmed amulets or magical spells.
Dolly White, the main character of the book, lives in a world where magic is an everyday thing. She’s hired by a wealthy upper-class magus, Ambrose Earnshaw, as a companion for his rebellious daughter. Earnshaw is the head of Seattle’s Commission of Magi. Its stated purpose is to protect folks from the misuse of magic. Really, though, the Commission uses a fee system to fill its own coffers at the expense of people who survive by small magics, like protection charms and healing potions. The Earnshaws take the exploitation a step further; the son and heir leads a protection gang, extorting even more money from working magicians and magic-adjacent people.
One cynical campaign the Earnshaws are waging is the intentional demonizing of shape-shifters, which makes problems for two other important characters in the book. On the surface, Philippe and Violet Solomon could not be more different from Dolly. Black Americans, they’ve been pushed into shadowy occupations by discrimination and corruption. Violet, a trained herbalist, runs a speakeasy. Her brother Philippe tends bar for her and delivers hooch for a bootlegger. He loves men. He turns into a cougar.
In the story, anti-shape-shifter prejudice isn’t a stand-in or a metaphor for the actual racism of the day. Violet and Philippe face racism already. In the real world at this time, even wealthy Black entrepreneurs (some folks pronounced that “gangsters”) like E. Russell “Noodles” Smith, were raided and arrested frequently—in fact, more frequently than white club owners. Smith was a successful and legendary club-owner—luminaries like Duke Ellington played in his clubs—but he was routinely shut down, even though he paid off the cops like everyone did. In one case, the raid was so violent, with the police attacking Black bystanders, that even the newspapers turned on the cops. The corrupt Seattle police of the time were comfortable pocketing protection money and breaking the law themselves, including bootlegging.
(By the way, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, and other Black musical legends played at white clubs and hotels, too, they just couldn’t stay in those places. They ended up at the Black-owned businesses near Jackson Street.)
Philippe and Violet are not unusual in making illegal hooch a family business. Even the city’s best-known bootlegger made the operation a family affair. Chief Roy Olmstead wasn’t the police chief, in spite of the nickname. He was a police lieutenant, who arrested plenty of other bootleggers, while he was bringing in Canadian hooch big-time. During foggy or rainy nights, the legend goes, Olmstead’s wife, who had a radio show broadcast from Smith Tower (then the tallest building in the city) would encode coordinates into her reading, to guide in the contraband-carrying boats.
The best thing about this story—or worst, depending on your point of view—is that Elise Olmstead’s show consisted of her, in the persona of “Aunt Vivian,” reading children’s book aloud. Nothing quite says “shameless law-breaking” like hiding directions for your illegal enterprise in charming stories for children.
Part of the attraction of writing about Prohibition is this hypocrisy, plus the unintended consequences, and the sheer funhouse-mirror aspect of it. As a writer, it wasn’t much of a leap for me to imagine a power-grabbing group deciding to destroy random magical lives (like those of shape-shifters) for further financial or political gain. And I wanted to look at that from the perspective of those whose lives were being destroyed.
Philippe, a shape-shifter, is a gay black man. The demonizing of shape-shifters puts his high-risk life on the edge of the precipice. Violet, whose true love was murdered by the Earnshaw protection racket, vows to protect her brother, and she will do whatever it takes to keep him safe.
When the story starts, Violet’s business, like many Black-owned businesses of the time, is thriving. By the time Dolly shows up, Violet and Philippe both have a lot to lose. Philippe likes adventure, but Violet isn’t ready to trust a white outsider with no ties to family, the neighborhood or the community. On the other hand, Dolly is facing off against a family Violet would definitely like to bring down. Dolly’s challenge is to find a way to make Violet trust her, while Violet has to weigh all the risks. And those risks are flesh-and-blood real.
Comeuppance Served Cold isn’t all speakeasies, jazz, and forbidden cocktails. I tried to create a world close to the historic one, with real dangers and real opportunities (even if those opportunities weren’t legal). Seattle’s Prohibition history is weird and colorful. The city was the perfect place to set this story. Who has power? Who gets to use it? Sometimes, it’s the everyday people who answer those questions.
Author Ron Walters knows a true thing: that which truly terrifies you can also inspire you, if the stars align correctly. For Deep Dive, they did, and now Walters is here to tell you which fear helped him create his novel.
My daughters terrify me.
Don’t get me wrong, I love them both to death, and would do anything for them, but that’s exactly why they’re so frightening. My greatest fear is that something horrific will happen to one or both of them, some debilitating injury or illness or unpredictable catastrophe, and I’ll be powerless to do anything about it. No doubt that’s a fairly normal worry for a parent, but here’s the thing: I’m not only a parent, I’m also an author. Which means instead of simply gnawing quietly on that worry like a regular stressed out dad, I amplify it a thousand-fold and write a book about it.
As a parent there are few things more distressing to me than thinking my kids are one place only to realize they’re not where they’re supposed to be. A cold, nauseating void opens up inside me, makes my limbs tremble and my stomach cramp and causes the entire world to teeter off balance until I finally lay eyes on them. Except, what if I didn’t? What if my kids just up and vanished? Even worse, what if all the evidence that they’d ever existed was wiped off the face of the earth, and I was the only one who remembered them?
That nightmarish scenario became the big idea behind Deep Dive, my debut sci-fi thriller. The writer’s side of my brain, however, knew it wasn’t quite enough to merit the time I was asking readers to invest in the story. Hooks are great, but readers need to see themselves in the main character, or at least be able to empathize with them on a personal level. In order for that to happen, my main character required some kind of internal conflict, a deep-seated issue that was not only relatable to other people but could also be directly connected to the disappearance of his kids.
As it happened, I was in a bit of a mental hole when I started plotting Deep Dive. Writing is largely a solitary affair, which for the most part is perfectly fine. But I’d been at it for a long time with nothing tangible to show for it—in other words, a book deal—and was beginning to question whether all the effort I’d put into trying to break into publishing was worth the hours and days I’d given up with my family. Truth be told I was close to calling it quits, but I decided to give Deep Dive the same chance I’d given all my other books. So, in true writerly fashion I dumped all my angst into Peter, the main character. I didn’t want to be too autobiographical, though, so instead of an aspiring author I made Peter a struggling video game developer who loves his family but has become so obsessed with professional success that he spends more time working than he does with his wife and daughters.
As soon as I nailed down Peter’s profession, the rest of the story fell into place. After all, what better way is there to make the children of a game dev disappear while simultaneously making him question whether they’d ever existed in the first place than by incorporating virtual reality? That said, I didn’t want the VR element to overshadow Peter’s personal strife. It needed to be integral to the story, but in a way that would serve the intimate character arc I’d planned for him. To that end, the moment he dons the experimental headset that he hopes will save his floundering career, it malfunctions spectacularly and knocks him out. When he regains his senses, he discovers that his life has changed in two significant, disturbing, and all-too-real ways: his daughters are gone, erased from everyone’s minds but his own, and he’s the successful, much-lauded game dev he’s always wanted to be.
Whether Peter decides to accept his success at face value or hold tight to the conviction that his daughters and his experiences as a parent aren’t the byproduct of a work-induced nervous breakdown is up to readers to discover. However, I will say that writing Deep Dive was a hugely cathartic experience for me both as a writer and as a father. I learned a lot about myself, about what I was willing to give up and what I wasn’t willing to concede when it comes to pursuing success. Yes, the book is my worst nightmare brought to fictional life, but it’s also a love letter to my wife and daughters, a story I never could have written if I hadn’t become a parent. Seeing it on my shelf is a constant reminder that success, however I define it and however gratifying it might be, means nothing if I lose sight of the three people in my life who matter more than any book I’ll ever write.
This entire series is about time; it makes sense to end it with a piece directly on the subject.
There are a number of ways for me to consider time, particularly since 1998, the year in which I started Whatever, and the point in which, for the purposes of this series, I start considering the world and my place in it. I could say that now, twenty years on from 1998, I have less time than I did then. Time is ticking, I’m not getting younger, and all that. Conversely, however, I’ve had more time since then. So many things have happened — the birth of my daughter, the debut of my novels, all the joys and successes of the last two decades — that I could not have imagined when I first sat down in September of 1998 to write that first Whatever post.
Should I be sad that I have less time now? Or happy that I have had more time since then, for all the wonderful things and people in these last twenty years?
It’s a trick question, I think. I have neither more time nor less time than I had in 1998. I have always had the same amount of time, and that amount of time has always been finite. What’s true then is what’s true now: That I have no idea of how much time I have, except in a highly generalized “here’s what the human life expectancy is on average” sort of way. But whatever that amount of time is, it’s what it always has been, in a very real sense. Just because I currently don’t know its reckoning doesn’t mean it’s not eventually knowable. I will know its total length soon enough (I mean that in a geological sense. Again, I’m in no rush).
In the Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman, there’s a scene where the incarnation of Death is doing her rounds. She meets up with someone who have lived a very long time, and who wonders if that long lifetime was enough. Death replies that he got what everyone gets: One lifetime, no more or less. In one hand, that comment is literally comic book sophistry, but on the other hand it is also absolutely correct. We all get one life, no more, no less. When it’s gone, it’s gone, and the time of it, in a very real sense, won’t matter. Every moment of time we have will collapse into the singularity of the past, gone and inaccessible. Live for a day, live for a hundred years, what eventually comes of it is a single point of fact: You existed.
It’s an equal and banal truism that it’s not the years in your life but the life in your years. There have been people who have changed the world and their culture who lived a relative handful of years, and people who have lived for a century who, as far as anyone outside their immediate family are concerned, have done nothing notable other than to simply not die for a statistically rare amount of time. The old joke is “by the time Mozart was my age, he’s been dead for [x] years,” which is a reminder that life ultimately is not about the amount of time but what one can do with it.
But at the same time I kind of hate that formulation. Yes, by the time Mozart was my age, he’d been dead for fourteen years. But at the age Mozart died, I was only just then having my first novel published — everything I am likely to be remembered for, to the extent that I will be remembered at all, happened to me after the age of 35. Does this mean I was wasting my time before that age? No, it means that whatever was required for me to create, and be in a place and time where my novels could be published, took place in that time. No time was wasted, because I was becoming the person who could write novels that people wanted to read.
Which is to say that the “life in your years” doesn’t mean you have to hit the ground running, achieve everything before you wrinkle and die leaving a beautiful corpse. The “life in your years” can be at any point in your years, and can be in all of your years. Nor does it mean, with apologies to Mozart and even to myself and my scribblings, that you have to do something intended for the world to see. The person who mindfully lives a just and moral and kind life has lived a life with value beyond themselves, even if no one other than their closest friends and family ever know of them.
So what if no one else ever knows them? Because that is a thing, too: We all get swallowed by the singularity of time. Some resist its gravity longer than others but eventually we all fall beneath its event horizon. Time claims most people when the people who remember them pass on; creators are claimed when their works lie unread or unseen or unheard (or unattributed). The time I will be remembered will likely be more than your average accountant and less than Mozart. But even Mozart’s memory will have its time and then it will be gone too.
Don’t worry about Mozart. He’s beyond caring. As I will be, and as will that accountant. We’ll have had our time, and made our marks, or not, and will have moved on. We will have our lifetime, no more or less. And then it and we will be gone, and time will have moved on, and other people will have their one lifetime, with all the time they will ever have within them as well. It’s how it works. It’s how it’s always worked.
I try not to worry too much about the time I have left. Aside from basic maintenance like diet and exercise and not going out of my way to taunt grizzlies, it’s not up to me. I make plans and work toward a future I want (and for a future beyond what I will see myself), and do so with the realization that not everything I plan may be realized in my lifetime. I am glad for the time I have had, for the experiences and joys and the people in it, who have made my time so heartbreakingly wonderful.
My time will pass. Your time will pass. Everyone’s time will pass. Even the sun’s time will pass and after it, the entire universe. We all get one lifetime, no more or less.
And you might ask, well, what’s even the point? If it all passes in time, even the universe, why do anything?
Well, what else are you going to do with your time?
But more completely, just because we all eventually stop having time doesn’t mean the time you have doesn’t matter — to yourself, to the people who love you and who you love, or even to the world. You live in a vanishingly small slice of time, true. But in that vanishingly small slice of time also exists the whole of the universe, and billions of people, and everyone you will ever meet and know and care about and love. You can use your time caring about them and for them, celebrating their joys and healing their sorrows, telling them stories and singing them songs and painting them great canvases of color. What you do matters when you do it. It may even matter when your time has passed.
Not forever — nothing lasts forever — but remember: “The life in your years.” In this time, and in your time, you can do things that mean something. You can mean something. For enough time to make a difference.
I’ve had 20 years writing here on Whatever. It’s given me joy, helped me make sense of myself and the world, introduced me to dear friends and has literally changed my life. I don’t regret any of the time I’ve given to it, and am glad I have taken the time to do it. I don’t know how much more time I’ll write here — one never knows! Time is like that! — but until the time I stop, however it is I stop, I plan to enjoy the time I spend writing it.
I hope you will, too. Thank you for taking the time to read it, and me.
Well, I guess it’s closer now than it was in 1998, isn’t it?
Not that I knew that in 1998, by which I mean I couldn’t have been 100% certain then I would reach 2018. Statistically speaking, it was likely in 1998 that I would live another 20 years, in that I had no major chronic illnesses or habits that would put me within death’s grasp — I didn’t indulge in hard recreational drugs or do daily BASE jumps or anything like that. But you never know, do you. Car crashes kill a lot of people annually, and I do regularly drive or am carried in cars. Perfectly healthy people randomly develop cancers. I’ve slipped down my stairs at least four or five times in the last twenty years, each time ending in nothing worse than a bruised tailbone, but each time it could also have been worse. I could slip in the shower and klunk my head. That does in a whole lot of people. There are lots of statistically not improbable ways to die young, before you even get to the unlikely but flashy ways, like lightning strikes or bear attacks.
So, I could have died sometime in the last twenty years. Unlikely? Yes. Possible? Absolutely. And this would have upset me, because in the last twenty years I had unfinished business.
For example, raising my kid. Aside from the personal desire to not miss any part of her childhood, there is also the fact that, provided you’re not a terrible parent of the sort children write gut-wrenching memoirs about later, after years of therapy, it messes up kids to have parents die while they’re still growing up. I wouldn’t have wanted to have my own kid go through that, if it was at all avoidable. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on the experience of being a parent to her, and being a parent along with Krissy.
I wouldn’t have wanted to miss any part of the last twenty years with Krissy, either. She’s pretty great, you know, and I’m a better person because I’ve gotten to be with her. I wouldn’t be the person I am without her, so in a way I would be incomplete as a person if I had had to leave her at any point in the last twenty years (it’s not to say that here in 2018, I’ve been perfected. I still have work to do. I’m just further along). The same thing applies to my friends, both the ones I’ve known for the full two decades, and the ones I’ve met since 1998, some of which are now among my best friends. I think of the people I’ve gotten to know, and would be sad to have missed any of them, and the experience of having them in my life.
And then there’s the other stuff. My life’s work, as it were.
Look. With work, I try to practice what I call a philosophy of sufficiency, which among other things means looking around at what you have and saying, if this is what I get, it’s been enough. This has meant that when I hit any particular milestone in my writing life, I could be happy with that in itself and not necessarily worry about what might come next. So: I’ve written a novel? Awesome, no matter what, I’ll have done that. Sold and published the novel? Cool, I’ll always have been a published author now. Been asked to write a sequel? Groovy, the books have done well enough that people affirmatively want more. And so on.
I’ve not been perfect practicing this concept of sufficiency; when I won the Hugo for Best Novel, one of primary emotions I felt was relief, because now this was a thing I didn’t have to worry about anymore, which meant I had been worrying about it. But even when I slipped, I still had it as a practice: Be happy with what you have achieved. Enjoy the moment you’re in now, because you don’t get to go back to it later. Plan for tomorrow but don’t neglect today, because today will always be a thing you did.
For the last twenty years, at every step, I practiced happiness at where I was at. At the same time there were still things I wanted to do, and things in my career I wanted to see if I could achieve. I like to think I could have been happy with where I had gotten, if I had suddenly needed to go and this, whatever this ended up being, was as far as I got. But there still would have been other things I would have wanted to do in my career, or at least, to see if I could do them. In 1998, there were a lot of these other things.
Now it’s 2018, and guess what? I kind of did everything I wanted back in 1998, and even before then. Or, to put it in another, more relatable way: I got to be the person I wanted to be when I grew up.
It doesn’t mean there aren’t still things I want to do, careerwise. I think it would be nifty if anything of mine ever finally made it to film or TV, for example, and there are a few other things I’d love to do, with my writing and in other areas, before I shuffle off. But in a sense all of that is gravy. My philosophy of sufficiency tells me that what I have already gotten is not only enough for me and my career desires, but that I’ve gone beyond that now. Not matter what else I do, I feel like I’ve hit all my marks.
So now I’m ready to die!
Well, no. Not precisely. I’m very happy to stick around for a while yet. There is more for me to see and do, including the things I don’t even know I will be happy to experience when they happen. What I am saying is that for the last few years I’ve felt like, if something happened and I had to go, I wouldn’t be saying, “but wait –“. For the last few years I’ve been feeling that if this was all that I got, that it’s been more than enough. That I’ve done enough, seen enough, loved enough and been enough that it would be okay to go, if I had to.
Which is kind of a weird feeling, I have to say. Again, I’m not in a rush to die. I like existing. I don’t believe in an afterlife so I don’t believe I’ll exist as a consciousness after I die. I won’t be anymore, except in the abstract manner of my writing (hello!) and in the memories of other people. I’m not scared of death, but it does make me sad. Existence is pretty great, or has been for me.
But it’s not like we get a choice in the matter. We all die. Sooner or later, our brief moment here is gone and what we had is all we’ll ever have. At 49, I’m perfectly happy to have another decade or four (or six!) before I have to go. But it’s a comfort, in an existential sense, to feel like one has done enough with one’s life that leaving meant no unfinished business left behind.
That’s where I am now, at least. I wonder if 69-year-old me (or 89-year-old me!) will look back on these words and think, oh, kid. You have no idea what else life had in store for you. I kind of hope he does, and that the years in between now and then were also enough, in their way. I’ll let you all know, if I get there.
Well, I’m twenty years older now than I was in 1998, that’s for sure.
I haven’t minded getting older in these last twenty years, I have to say. For one thing, bluntly, the last twenty years have been great for me, in terms of career and life and general happiness. If the worse things that’s happened to you in twenty years is that you’ve gotten balder and thicker, then you’re generally okay anyway, but on the karmic scale, since 1998, a lot more has been positive than negative. For another thing, I’m not dead yet, which is also a thing. Inasmuch as getting older is the only possible alternative to getting dead, for the moment at least, I will take getting older.
But aside from those two things I’ve appreciated some of the gifts that age has given me. I appreciate that I am more experienced now than I was twenty years ago — I talked a little bit about that in terms of my writing career already, but I’ve benefited from experience in a general sense as well. I know more about people, both generally and regarding the specific people in my life. That makes me more able to treat them fairly and compassionately. I’m more experienced with the ways of the world; this doesn’t lead to resignation but rather makes me more likely to look at things long-term, both in their effects, and in my own planning.
It also gives me a better sense of myself. I’ve had longer to know myself, and my place in the grand scheme of things, and I’ve lived long enough to see the frame of reference in my life begin to shift. Experience is not the same thing as wisdom, I’d note. You can experience a lot and still not learn from it, and as time goes by I realize some people are determined not to learn. I try to learn. I do think I’m wiser than I was twenty years ago, but I’ll leave it to others to tell me if they think that’s accurate.
Another gift of age is that I’m more calm. For the purposes of this site and this series, I think this is most evident in the fact that how I deal with the online world is different than it was twenty or even ten years ago. I’m much less inclined now to go looking for fights of any sort online, whereas before I would happily do so. Several years ago Krissy said to me “I used to be worried about how much you argued with people online until I realized that it was your equivalent to watching TV,” i.e., it was how I entertained myself. She was accurate about this at the time, although I wasn’t sure then, and am not sure now, that this said good things about my character.
As difficult as it may be to believe, I argue with people far less online now. Partly because I don’t have time anymore — I’m busier now than I used to be — but also partly because I don’t want to nearly as much. Online scraps are not entertaining anymore, not because they’re any different (they’re really not), but because I’m different. I’d rather play a video game or watch The Good Place. Or, alternately, take that energy I used to give to pointless fights and do something useful with it. I’m not saying I don’t argue at all; I think it’s obvious I still do from time to time. But I do ask if it’s worth my time. I do have less time than I had 20 years ago, after all.
My being more calm encompasses more than just fighting online, mind you. But again, this is the example most of you see, so it’s the example I’m using. If you need another one, here’s a quick one: I used to be a genuinely awful traveler because delays and other mishaps would make me fly into a cold rage. Then I grew up and realized that turning into a massive dick because of things that were out of my control wasn’t helping anyone. I’m a better traveler now — not perfect, but better.
Another gift is that I think I am (overall) more kind. A lot of that came with the understanding that other people were not required to be one way or another just so it’s easier for me to understand or categorize them; some more of it came with the understanding that (most) people really do see themselves as the hero of their own story and doing the morally correct thing. I can empathize with people better than I used to; I think I understand them better as well. Most importantly, I don’t need them to be something I can easily put into a box in order to treat them as human. And yes, this includes people I disagree with politically. I think it’s important to view and treat (most of) them with kindness, even when I oppose them politically and point out how the politicians and policies they support are hurting people (including them). Note, as I’ve mentioned before, that “kind” is not always the semantic equivalent of “nice”; I think this is important to remember.
Especially remember that when I mention the next gift of age: Fewer fucks to give. As in, fewer concerns what anyone else other than my wife and kid thinks of me; fewer concerns about what I say impacting my career; fewer concerns about whether what I say makes me any new friends. This doesn’t mean I don’t listen when people disagree with what I say. I try to do that; that’s often how you learn things. It does mean that if I’ve well-considered my words and actions, and someone still disagrees, my response is likely to be, I’m okay that you disagree.
But you’re such a virtue signaller, Scalzi! As the kids say, lol, no. Upcoming book title aside, the point of having few fucks to give is that I don’t feel an obligation to signal any particular thing at all. I don’t worry about sharing an opinion — or not sharing an opinion! Sometimes I look at something that’s the rage du jour and where I might have previously thought the world needs to know the Scalzi take on this, these days I’ll just… not. Lack of fucks also means an adjustment to the ego, and accepting the world is okay with me opinion on every single thing that happens.
These are all useful gifts, and I got them by getting older. I earned them over the years. They’re not the only gifts I’ve gotten, just the ones I’m noting at the moment. There are others. But these are enough that you get the jist of what I’m saying. Age has done well for me overall. I hope that continues. I still want to grow as I get older. I hope I get to grow as long as I’m around.
I touched on fame (such as mine is) briefly before in this series, but I was asked to expand on it a little. The topic I had scheduled today was pretty nebulous, so, sure! Let’s swap this one in instead.
I usually start any discussion of my fame by noting that I am not, in fact, actually famous. I am, at best, situationally famous. Which is to say, put me in a science fiction convention or a literary festival or on a book tour, and for the time I’m there, I’m notable, and a celebrity, and someone people are excited to meet, provided they match the face with the name. Take me out of those contexts and I’m just another middle-aged dude. I have on very rare occasions been recognized outside of context; enough that it’s amusing, not enough that it’s tiring and intrusive.
But in 1998, I wasn’t really even that. Prior to that date, I had been a minor local celebrity in Fresno, California, because I was a film critic and columnist there. and my picture was in the paper next to all my articles, and I would be on local radio and talk shows. That ended in 1996, when I left Fresno for a job at America Online. After that I was just another dude working at a tech company, and then, after I was laid off, just another dude freelancing.
There was some notability (or notoriety) attached to my name after I started Whatever, since I was one of the early adopters of the blog format and I was putting material out there regularly, and I, uh, wasn’t shy about my opinions. Was it fame? I don’t know. The joke about the early blogosphere was a take-off on Warhol’s prediction that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes — “In the blogosphere, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.” That wasn’t inaccurate! There were a lot of blogs with a small but committed group of readers, and to those readers, you were someone, because you were who they read. After Whatever debuted and for a few years afterward, I was “famous” to a few thousand people.
My real punt into fame, if you want to call it that, happened in 2006, and I can very specifically tell you when it was: It’s when Old Man’s War was nominated for the Best Novel Hugo Award, and I was also nominated for the Campbell. That was an unusual enough combination (I was the first to manage it in two decades) that in the science fiction community I stopped being just another writer, and became someone of note, starting an upward trend that (for the moment, anyway) more or less maintains.
All of this is pointing around the concept of fame rather than pointing at it — it’s leaving unaddressed the question of what “fame” actually is. I think the answer to that is actually pretty simple. At the very root of it, you’re famous if the number of people who know of you is higher than the number of the people you know of. Everything else about fame is elaboration.
So let me go back to my initial statement, that I am not, in fact, actually famous. Well, in fact, by the definition I just outlined, I am famous. Since 2005, I’ve sold a hell of a lot of books; the people who read them have some inkling of who I am. A certain subset of those readers have gone out of their way to buy more than one of my books, and for a certain subset of those readers, I am one of their favorite authors. Even if we were to consider just the third set, it’s a number of people larger than I could credibly get to know in any real sense.
So I’m famous after all!
The thing is, by this definition, so is your high school principal, if you went to a large school. The definition isn’t wrong, but it’s not all we mean by “famous,” or really what we think of as “famous.” Your high school principal isn’t famous like Gal Gadot (to pull a name out of a hat) is famous; neither am I. So what else is going on with fame, besides more people knowing you than you know?
Those other things include but aren’t limited to: General positive associations about you (if it goes the other way, you’re infamous), actual recognition in public, a personal investment in you and/or the things you do, and a certain amount of fictionalization of your being. The first three of these are easy enough to grasp. The fourth one means that people create version of you inside their head, which may or may not be the person you are on a day-to-day basis, which they then use to model how they feel about you, and use to imagine how you are thinking about things and why you do the things you do.
So, Gal Gadot: Most people think positively of her, because she’s playing Wonder Woman, and who doesn’t like Wonder Woman; a large number of people would notice her if she were walking amongst them; people are invested in seeing more of Gadot, as Wonder Woman if nothing else; and I’m pretty sure people who know of Gadot have a version of her in their head (the one in my head seems generally nice). Add on the sheer number of people who know of her, and guess what? She’s pretty famous overall.
What about me? Well, I’m famous to an exponentially smaller number of people than Gal Gadot, but still enough that I can’t keep track of them all, so that’s our starting point. I think most people who think of me think positively of me, although I know of people who don’t. I’m generally not recognized in public, although on rare occasions I am. Many people are hoping I will continue to write books. And, I speak from experience that there are all sorts of fictionalized versions of me out there, some of them, uh, highly speculative versions of me. So I’m famous-ish? If Gal Gadot has “A”-list general fame, my level of general fame is around “H” level at best.
An even more simple version of this is what I call the Supermarket test: Can you go to the supermarket and shop for any period of time without being bothered? If you cannot, you are famous (or infamous, as the case may be). I can shop unbothered at any supermarket in the United States. Gal Gadot probably can’t. She’s actually famous; I’m actually not.
Which, as I’ve said before, is fine with me. The level of fame I have is enough for my ego gratification, and to open some doors I’m happy to have open. It’s not enough that simply existing in the world is enervating, or that when I meet people I have to always ask myself what they want from me. I don’t have to have bodyguards or assistants to run defense. I don’t always have to be on.
(But you might one day! Maaaaaybe? If any of the film/tv projects get off the ground and become so amazingly popular that they start rewriting common culture, then I might not get to go to the supermarket anymore. But even if the film/tv projects hit the stratosphere — and that is a huge if — I think I’m mostly safe. One, I’m still a writer, not a tv or film star. People are interested in my words more than my face. I’m working in the background, not the foreground. Two, unlike some writers (like Neil or George or Pat), I don’t have a very specific look; I pretty much look like every other balding, middle-aged white dude out there. Three, I mean, I’m almost 50 and I’ve been doing this novel thing for a decade and a half now. I’m way past being the hot new thing. It’s possible I’ll become more famous than I am now, but I suspect that would mean moving from “H” level fame to “E” level fame. You can still go to the supermarket at the “E” level.)
Looking back at 1998 me, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have minded being a little more famous than the 2018 version of him currently is. But the question to ask there is whether he would have wanted that because it’s a level of fame he wanted for itself, or whether it’s the level he expected he would need in order to do the things he wanted to do. My guess (having been that person, and looking back) is that it was about 20% the former and about 80% the latter. The good news for 1998 me is that he got to do all the things he wanted to do with his writing anyway, so that worked out nicely. Likewise, time and experience has suggested that if he had gotten the level of fame he thought he wanted, he wouldn’t necessarily have been happy about it.
It’s good to get some of the things you think you want, but not necessarily all the things you think you want. At least where fame is concerned.
Oooooh, I’ve always been an ego-filled little doofus. I do think at this point the ego may be better justified. And also, I’ve worked to change where my ego is centered.
1998, I will note, was a very important year for my ego. That was the year it took its first major hit, when I got laid off from my job at America Online. Prior to that I went from one ego-gratifyingly high from another. I got hired right out of college to be a movie critic! I was the youngest syndicated film critic in the United States! And then I was the youngest syndicated opinion columnist in the United States! And then when I went to AOL, I was their entire in-house writing and editing staff! (It didn’t occur to me to think that this might have been AOL being cheap — remember, I was looking at it from the point of view of ego.) At AOL I was editing my own humor magazine! And so on!
Then I was laid off and suddenly from the point of view of ego, I was nothing at all.
Why? Because in all that time I was centering my ego in what I was doing (and, to a large extent, how young I was when I started doing it) rather than, say, who I was as a person. So when all that was suddenly taken away from me, well. Let’s just say I didn’t handle it very well at all. There was a short period of time there where Krissy was genuinely worried that, as were were driving somewhere, I would just open the passenger-side door and roll myself out. To be clear, I never actually did plan that. But looking back at how being laid off hit me, I can also see why she had cause to worry about it.
I’ve mentioned here before how in the fullness of time I’ve come to consider being laid off at AOL one of the best things that ever happened to me. One reason among many for that is that it caused me to re-evaluate my own ego, and in what I invested it. I’m not going to say that I came out of being laid off a better person. I will say I came out of it with an at least slightly more balanced ego.
“Ego” is a funny concept in our culture, and I think having an ego is generally regarded negatively or at least somewhat suspiciously. If you say someone “has an ego,” there’s a general hint that the ego in question is undeserved or overinflated. That’s fine but I think ego gets a bad rap. Obviously if your ego is overinflated or unearned that’s not a good thing. But if you understand yourself and you can assess yourself well, then ego can be a good way to backstop yourself when others are pummeling you with negativity, or when you feel uncertain or unsure. I think it’s good to have an ego, if you know yourself and your talents.
Where is my ego centered in 2018? Mostly it’s centered in trying to be a decent person and in creating good work. Both of these concepts are ones that don’t need or require outside verification, although in both cases such verification can come, and be useful in letting you know if your own internal compass for either or both is off. But fundamentally, it’s about what one expects from one’s self as opposed to what you can show off to others.
Which is hard for me. I’m a show-off. I have my moments of vanity and pride and smugness. I like when people like my stuff and I like that people know of me. If left unchecked and unexamined, I run downhill toward pomposity and jerkiness. I can very easily exhibit all the negative things that people think of when they think of the word “ego,” even if it’s something else entirely. I think a part of healthy personal self-assessment is recognizing what parts of yourself aren’t the best parts, and can lead you to do things you’ll regret later. I’m not perfect in dealing with these things — we all work toward being the best version of ourselves rather than wake up every day being that person. But I do put in the effort.
(I should also note that to my mind, being a decent person doesn’t always mean being a nice person. I’m perfectly content to be less-than-pleasant to people who I think deserve it. I mean, sometimes I’m a jerk and it’s unwarranted, and when that happens, I try to back up and apologize. But sometimes, a person warrants me being something other than nice. When that happens, I don’t mind delivering.)
I’m fine with my ego as it is these days. I think it generally serves me well. I’m always looking to better calibrate it, however. I expect that will be the case for years to come.
Writing has gotten simultaneously easier and harder over the last twenty years.
Easier, because, bluntly, I’m better at it now than I was 20 years ago. Better at which parts? All of the parts. There are literally no technical aspects of writing (including the technical aspects of creativity) that I don’t just simply do better. Much of that would obviously be down to experience. Twenty years on from 1998, in which I was still in my twenties and hadn’t written much in the way of fiction, I have a wider range of writing experiences, and I’ve written more in each sort of field. I have gotten feedback from editors and readers and from my own observation, have incorporated all those, to greater or lesser extents, into my writing practice.
This means that here in 2018 I am generally in control of my instrument. Let me give you an example. When I set down to write my first couple of novels, I had very little idea of what I was doing, and basically had to discover the story in the writing. Not only could I not have told you at the outset what twists and turns were coming into the story, but I didn’t know what I wanted out of the characters or the action until I was in the middle of the writing. I was a good writer back then, but I wasn’t entirely in control of my instrument: my creativity, my technique or my intent. My first few novels are good novels, but the process of writing them was creatively very messy indeed.
Contrast that with, say, The Collapsing Empire (or its follow-up, which is out in three weeks(!)). For that one, I knew what I wanted it to do, I knew who I wanted the characters to be, and I knew how to make the writing do exactly what I wanted it to, when I wanted to do it. That book is exactly the book I intended it to be when I set out to write it — which is different than, say, Old Man’s War, in which I didn’t know how it was going to turn out until I wrote it.
Does this “control of the instrument” matter to the reader? No, it shouldn’t — because in both the case of Old Man’s War and The Collapsing Empire, or indeed any other book I write, the process is not visible to the reader, only the output. There’s a whole side to the publishing industry designed to take what the writer does and make it all look as smooth and intentional as possible; it’s called “editing.”
But it makes a difference to me, the writer. When I started writing novels, it was like throwing myself off a high cliff and inventing a glider before I hit the ground. Now I launch with the glider, and get to tell it where to go. And not just with books — again, every type of writing I do, I do better now than then. Experience counts.
But it’s also become harder, because I don’t have the same life as I did in 1998. In 1998, my life was relatively simple. I had to hustle for freelance gigs, which is a thing, but the goals of each freelance gig were relatively small and executable. It’s not that difficult, for example, to write subheads for a brochure about investment vehicles, or a short review of a music CD. It could be done fast and the stakes were low (and if I didn’t do it right, it was also easy to implement an immediate fix). I mostly stayed at home and I mostly had a low profile in the world.
Here in 2018 I write novels, which are long (by definition) take time to write. I have a significant contract and I am well-known in my field, so what I write has at the very least commercial significance, and people are counting on me in a non-trivial way to do what I do in a way that’s competent and commercial and robustly marketable. I also have to be reliable, so that when (for example) I have to turn in a novel under a tight deadline, I can be relied to do that, and to address the follow-up editing quickly.
I travel extensively to promote the work I do, which eats into my writing time. I have multiple projects in the air at any one time, many of which require work that is not directly related to writing, or at least writing that’s public-facing. The audience for my notes about treatments for TV/films projects is limited indeed.
Also, life! It’s busy and complicated as it is, I dare say, for most people, especially these days, when the world is on fire in a way that it hasn’t been before, which is distracting and enervating. But even moving away from the monumental distraction that is our current political shitpile: Kids and spouses and family and extended family and friends and all of that, too. To be clear, most of that is pretty good! But even when it’s pretty good it still takes time. It’s supposed to take time.
Plus, I’m old(er). I don’t want to say my brain is slower than it was when I was in my twenties, but one, just because I don’t want to say it doesn’t mean it may not be true, and two, even if it’s not slower, it’s still true that it handles the writing process differently. I write novels differently now than I did when I started writing them; hell, I write them differently now than I did five years ago.
To put it more directly, in the last twenty years, and especially in the last few years, my writing process has to make way for the world far more than it used to, for all the things that the phrase “the world” can encompass. And you know what? That makes it harder.
And, yes, I know: World’s tiniest violin, oh, poor Scalzi. I get that. But, look: I’m not actually telling you to pity or sympathize with me. I’m merely fulfilling the brief of this series. I’m telling you, on this subject, how things are different for me now than they were two decades ago. I want to be clear I don’t regret most of the circumstances of my world right now (I regret Trump is the president, a lot, but I didn’t vote for him, so at least on that front my conscience is clear), but I think that even good things have some consequences, and they have an impact on your life. And in my case on my writing life.
So writing today is both easier and harder than it was twenty years ago, and the end result of both of those is… mostly imperceptible from the point of view of the reader, I would guess. The books come out more or less regularly, the other work also appears in a predictable fashion, and at the end of the day, experience seems to replace what the world takes away — or at least, offers a way to compensate for it, which is not quite the same thing, but works very similarly.
I think from your point of view, nothing much has changed, in terms of my writing. I’m happy to keep it that way.
Over the last 20 years, and on a day-to-day basis, I don’t think what I read has changed much. I read a lot of non-fiction, a fair amount of science fiction and fantasy as well as the mystery genre, and I read a whole lot online, specifically news and tech sites, plus the occasional magazines that cover the same ground. In 1998 as in 2018, this is fairly constant.
What has changed, and makes for an interesting reading dynamic, is the fact that now I know so many of the people I read. Particularly in science fiction and fantasy, which is the genre I write novels in.
Didn’t you know any authors in 1998, Scalzi? Well, no, not really. I knew journalists, who are of course writers as well as editors, because I worked with them, first at the Fresno Bee and then at the various papers and magazines I freelanced for. Occasionally some of them would write books as well. But I didn’t know many authors, or more accurately, people whose writing output was primarily books. I knew only one novelist, my friend Pam Wallace, who was also a screenwriter (she co-wrote Witness, for which she won an Oscar). Certainly I did not know the authors of the fiction I was reading at the time.
This isn’t a bad state of affairs, to be sure. Most people in fact don’t know the authors or novelists they love to read. Authors exist when their books come out, and otherwise disappear into the background. Even “celebrity” authors are generally not known outside of their specific fan base, and often not all that well even then. I love Carl Hiaasen books; I wouldn’t know if he was standing directly next to me unless he introduced himself (and I hope he would). At any one time there maybe ten authors in the world immediately identifiable on sight by the general public. All the rest of us slip under the radar. So in this respect in 1998 I was no different than any other person.
But when you write novels, and particularly in science fiction and fantasy, which has such a well-developed community infrastructure, you start to meet other writers and you start to keep in touch with them. I went to my first science fiction convention not really knowing any writers; I left knowing a couple dozen. Over the next decade, I got to know them and they got to know me, and I met all sorts: Writers who were coming up, writers who I had long admired, writers who were hot in the moment, writers who in a year or two would be the biggest thing happening. They were (mostly) normal people! They were (mostly) lovely to know and hang out with! And then I became president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and for three years it was sort of my business to know what roughly 1,800 SF/F were doing with themselves.
And as a result, when I would pick up a book, I wasn’t just reading a bit of entertainment, I was reading something out of the brain of someone I know, and probably liked, and possibly was actual friends with. Which is an interesting thing. With the people I knew whose work I already liked, there was the warm glow of this is my pal, and they write real well. With the people I knew whose work I hadn’t read yet, there was, ohhhh, please let this be good (it usually was). But in every case there was the connection between the work and the person I knew, which is a nice feeling.
It also means that, as a novelist myself now, I have some empathy and sympathy for everything about having a book out in the world — the process of getting it there, the process of having it out there, and the process of having to move on to the next thing. For someone who is only a reader, a book can be a just a book, as it should be. I think for most writers, when they see a book, they at least intuit everything that is around the book and everything it took for it to come into being.
I don’t think this makes me a less critical reader — I’m pretty sure I like the same ratio of books as I did 20 years ago, and there are plenty of books from writers I like and admire as people for whom I am not the ideal audience, and that’s fine. It does put what I’m reading in a different context. And while I may or may not like a novel or book, these days I’m less apt to dismiss the writer of it to whatever degree I might have before. I know from experience what it takes to put out a book. Anyone who goes through all those hoops deserves to be acknowledged as a member of the tribe, as it were.
This is a perspective on one’s reading that not everyone has, can have or even should have. It’s fine for readers to just be readers. But I do think being an author and knowing other authors and novelists has made me a better reader, or at least a more empathetic one. And I will say that that there is one thing about reading now that I absolutely love: When I go to a bookstore and see all the work on the shelves, it’s kind of like visiting friends. What a wonderful feeling that is.
Much of my creative life, and certainly almost all of my professional life for the past 20 years, has been greatly influenced and impacted by technology.
It starts earlier than that, of course. In 1984, the first Macintosh computer came out, and it came with a simple word processing program. Coincidentally, 1984 was the first year I started writing short stories or fiction of any sort, camped out in Erza Chowaiki’s room in our high school dorms, since he had the Macintosh and I did not.
As I started my creative life on the computer, my creative process was also shaped by the computer. For example, I don’t write drafts of my books, a thing which one would need to do when one was working on a typewriter, and editing on the fly, as one can on a computer, was not possible. When I type the words “the end” on a manuscript, it’s ready to send off to the editor — not because I write perfect prose (trust me), but because all the edits and changes I wanted to make were done as I was writing the book, in a rolling draft. One’s tools shape one’s process.
By 1998, effectively all my writing of any sort was done on computer, much in the same way it gets done now — the “word processor on a computer” metaphor is a durable and useful one. And as an artifact of my own age and and habits, I tend to write better on a desktop computer than on a laptop; something about being at a desk, with the work tool firmly rooted in place, gets me in a mind for work. It’s not impossible for me to work on a laptop; I’m writing on one now, and most of my recent novels have had substantial chunks written up on a laptop, when I was traveling or just wanted to sit somewhere else in my house for a change of pace. But most of it is at the desk, on the desktop.
Also in 1998, digital rather than print was my primary mode of transmitting my words. While the tools have changed, this is still (largely) true today. In 1998, when I started Whatever, I taught myself enough html to make the blog and update it daily. Today WordPress does all the backend for me, better and more robustly than I ever could (thank you, WordPress. In fact I found rolling my own html exasperating), but still more or less how I started doing it back in the day. I famously posted my first two novels here online, in a very early example of digital self-publishing, which ended up getting me a traditional publishing deal — but “traditional publishing” these days also includes electronic books and audiobooks, the first format of which could hardly be said to exist in 1998, and the second of which was wholly overhauled and expanded by digital transmission. Ebook and audio without a doubt have made a huge difference in my success as a writer.
Aside from work directly, tech makes an impact on how I live my life. Directly, these days it’s been amazing to me how so much of our digital and technological life is now primarily carried in a single object: Our “smartphone.” Like most people, I think, at various times in my life I have had a phone, a camera, an ebook reader, a device for listening to music, a separate device for video (with music included), a device for recording audio, and another entire device for accessing the Internet (known as “a computer”). Oh, and paper maps. Now: you have a phone.
I do love this, I have to say. Even 1998 me, with all his tech toys, would have been utterly amazed at my current phone, the Pixel 2, and everything it can do that no one in 2018 thinks is in any way particularly noteworthy. Obviously a smartphone has a camera and apps to access music and video and books and the internet and also tracks your health status and where you are on the planet and how you can get to where you are going next and has the ability to text people across several different media and even sometimes, if you’re old and still into that sort of thing, you can use the phone to talk to people.
(And honestly the amount that the smartphone has actually killed talking on the phone is the most amazing thing to me, and even more amazing is how it’s killed it for me. My smartphone rings and for the first few seconds I just stare at it, thinking, what the hell is it doing now? Then I remember: It’s being a phone.)
I do still have some dedicated “single use” tech: I still have a dSLR camera rather than just relying on my phone for pictures, as an example. And of course I still have a desktop computer and a laptop computer. Phones these days are useful for reading and consuming things, and many things these days can be created on them, but for me they’re kind of cramped for typing and writing anything longer than a tweet. But even I don’t pretend that the Internet is not now primarily living on people’s phones. It is, and it’s a thing creative people with digital lives have to work with. It’s not bad. It just is.
I wouldn’t go back, regardless. I like my smart phone, just like I like the computer. I think about generations of writers writing drafts on typewriters (or by hand(!(!!))) and then having to redraft and literally cut and paste changes onto paper and I get tired and moody. I can’t imagine having a been a writer without a computer. I’m pretty sure I would have been, anyway, but not in the way I am now, and very probably not with the success that I have had. The next generation of writers will include someone who composes novels entirely on their phone and thinks it mad that anyone else has ever done it differently. Good for them. I’m glad it works for what they do. I hope the work is good. I’ll still need things to read.
Here’s an interesting question to consider: Do I have the same taste — the same cultural likes and dislikes in terms of things like style and entertainment — here in 2018 that I had in 1998? After all, it’s been twenty years. That’s a long time in terms of culture, style and entertainment.
But then again, it’s also true that if you show me a person when they’re a teenager, I’m going to probably be able to tell you what they will like in their 40s. It’s a truism that they styles and tastes we develop early matter for what we like later on in life. It’s one reason why currently, for example, 80s bands who haven’t been “hot” for decades are selling out theaters and raking in money with “VIP” packages — because everyone who loved them when they were 15 and broke now has money and wants to meet their favorite band, even if for a momentary “grip and grin.” Am I any different?
I don’t particularly think so. The bands that were important to me growing up are bands I still like to listen to, to follow up that example — I use Sirius XM’s “First Wave” and “The Bridge” stations (80s alternative and 70s mellow rock) as my aural wallpaper, and more generally the musical forms I liked then are the ones I like now. And more than that; in a larger sense, the forms of entertainment and culture I liked when I was fifteen, I liked when I was thirty, and I like now. Not only, to be sure, but, yes, still.
But the larger question might be: What sort of things do I like, culturally? I addressed this over the summer, actually, when Athena and I did a couple of podcasts about movies we saw. And what I said then (and she agreed with) is that I’m easy to entertain but hard to impress. Which means that I get to enjoy lots of common culture. I like pop songs, and superhero films, and mindless first person shooter games, and animated shows with farts and puns, and so on. Nor do I feel guilty about liking those things. Not everything one consumes culturally has to be life changing or immortal. Sometimes it’s nice to get out of one’s head, and sing along to a chorus or watch a hot young actor in spandex blow something up in glorious CGI. It’s allowed.
With that said, I’m also not going to argue these things are amazing, either. I love a good pop song; I’m not going to (necessarily) argue that this pop song deserves the same cultural status of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. Superhero films are fun but they’re not necessarily Citizen Kane or Do the Right Thing. They can be! I can think of pop songs I do think deserve to be considered as near-Platonic ideals of the form; I think when Black Panther is inevitably nominated for Best Picture (and not that ridiculous “Best Popular Picture” thing, now withdrawn), you can make a strong and serious argument for its inclusion, for all the things it does right cinematically, for its distillation and critique of superhero film tropes, and for its impact on the common culture this year. Bring it.
But the point is that not everything has to be great, or brilliant, or lasting, in order to be good and entertaining and important to you, in the moment, or as something that brings you joy. If you really like something, you shouldn’t have to then embark on a 14-point apologia, complete with PowerPoint presentation, about why, no, really, it is important. Maybe it’s not! And that’s okay. Enjoy it for what it is.
All of which is to say, coming back around to me, that I acknowledge and am okay with the fact that with a lot of things I have pretty common tastes. I have my pockets of cultural eccentricities and idiosyncrasies — if you like I can do a deep dive into my love of Glenn Branca compositions, or Sally Potter films, or [insert cred-inducing name drop here] — and I’m okay liking them, too. But at the end of the day, while I can acknowledge that, say, Orlando, is a better film on many different levels than Ant-Man and the Wasp, I’m not going apologize for liking the latter or use the former as a shield for credibility.
Indeed, accepting that you can like what you like, whatever you like, opens you up to being able to like more things. When I was younger I didn’t like country music because it wasn’t cool to like country, and I had to get over that sort of cultural anxiety to discover how much I love the music of Emmylou Harris, and Julie and Buddy Miller, and Steve Earle (among others). I can’t say I know enough about rap and hip-hop to be considered anything more than a casual listener, but I know I love stuff from Jean Grae and Quelle Chris, and Open Mike Eagle, and Dessa. It means I don’t worry about being a 49-year-old dude who really digs Charlie XCX songs. I’m not liking any of that to seem cool or relevant or interesting. I like ’em because they work for me on some level.
So, no, I don’t think my taste has changed much in the last twenty years. The individual things I like have — or at least, I try to continue to bring new things into the collection of things I like — but the ethos underlying those choices has been consistent. It’s worked for me.
(And as for style: Well, I used to wear a lot of t-shirts and now I wear aloha shirts, which are functionally the same thing, just for middle-aged dudes. So, yeah.)
I’m actually writing this in New York; I’m currently loitering at a hotel near Penn Station, in room that looks like the nicest dorm suite at NYU and can hear the street noise rising up to my windows. It’s surprisingly nice white noise, although history reminds me that sometimes it’s just noise, and loud. It’s New York. Whaddya gonna do.
I picked New York as a subject for this series not just because I happen to be in it today but also because in many ways it’s an emblematic town for me, one that especially in the last twenty years is tied intimately to my professional life. When I was a freelancer a lot of my gigs came from a marketing company rather pointedly located on Madison Avenue; now as a novelist Tor books is currently located at the iconic Flatiron building, although not for much longer, alas. I come here regularly on tour and to do events like Book Expo America and New York Comic Con. I have a ton of friends here, as well as compatriots in publishing. More than any other major city in the US — even LA, in whose suburbs I grew up, or Chicago, where I went to college — this town has a direct influence on my day to day life.
Also, weirdly, it’s still a town that doesn’t feel completely real to me. Unlike LA or Chicago, I’ve never lived in New York; I’ve spent at most three or four days in it at a time. That’s enough time in aggregate to start to get a feel for a place but not enough time for it to become a place that feels grounded. I’ve never had a daily life here — I’ve never had to pay bills or do grocery shopping or deal with plumbing here. For those reasons (and others like it) New York still feels like a special, different, place to me. Magical? I don’t know about magical. Too much vague urine smell for magical. But as they say, there’s no place like it.
It’s also the city people think of when they think of writers; for good reason, since most of big-league publishing is here and I suspect roughly half of Brooklyn lists “writer” as their profession on their tax forms, and another quarter are probably editors, agents and other citizens of the publishing world. When I visit I feel like I’m visiting the home office, as it were. A place where if you say you’re a writer you get a look that says “well, obviously you are, we all are” instead of “how do you manage to eat?” or just a polite blank stare that suggests the person never considered it a profession at all.
I’m not sure that means I would ever want to actually move here, however. I kind of like having NYC be a special “sometimes” place for me, a place to visit and be familiar with, but never bored of or irritated at. A place where it’s still exciting to come out of Penn Station, look down 34th street and see the Empire State Building and go, oh, hey, it’s actually a thing that exists in the world. I’ll let my friends who live in NYC be blase about it. I’m happy to go the other direction. And I’m happy to still be happy to be in town.
(That said: New York style pizza? Eh. It’s okay, I guess. There, the requisite fighting words have been said. We can move on to other things now.)
I’m not sure I had hobbies in 1998. I definitely didn’t have the hobbies I have now, back then.
Hobbies are, for the purposes of this entry, things you do that you enjoy for themselves, and not because you plan to make it a professional part of your life to any extent. I think it also should be something that is slightly out of the normal rhythm of your life. For example, I wouldn’t call “reading” a hobby of mine, because it’s always just been part of my daily life. I read like I breathe. Breathing is not a hobby, it’s an essential. Same with reading.
In 1998, most of what I was doing was centered on writing, and getting paid for writing. So even things I enjoyed, I tried to make money writing about. And it worked; I liked listening to and thinking about music, so I found a gig writing music reviews. Music was no longer a hobby, I was getting paid for it. Likewise video games; I found a company that would let me write video game reviews, so while I was playing video games — and loving it! — it was all going into the hopper so I could write about it on my video game review site.
I had reasons for wanting to professionalize all my enthusiasms, not limited to the fact in 1998 I had a kid on the way, but what it meant was, really, nothing that might have been a hobby, was. It was all work, work, work. And while the saying is “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” I’m also here to tell you that sometimes I’d be grinding through a terrible video game for a review, and it was work, for sure.
These days, I would consider two things my hobbies: Photography and music, and this time when I mean “music” I don’t mean listening to it, I mean playing it. In both cases, I do it because it’s fun for me, and it’s not connected to my professional life in any significant way (I’ll add a small caveat to that in a bit). Also, in both cases, I enjoy them in themselves, and don’t worry about whether I’m “good” at them; I may or may not be, depending on taste, etc, but being so is not the point. The point is they get me out of my head and let me enjoy doing something for its own sake. That’s a hobby.
And I will note that in both cases one of the things that allowed me to get into the hobby was that it went digital.
Photography is the most obvious one for this. Prior to the advent of the digital camera, I think I may have taken less than three hundred pictures in my life, mostly “Kodak moment” snaps from disposable cameras. And of those three hundred, a non-trivial number were never developed, because back in the day, you’d have to go somewhere to get the film developed and pay for each snap you took. Film would get developed when I got around to it, and not when I didn’t. Basically prior to around 1998 (in fact), I mostly showed up in other people’s pictures.
But then I had a kid, and then also right around the turn of the century you could start getting digital cameras with decent resolution, which in this case meant something along the lines of two megapixels per photo. Which might not seem that much now but which is the resolution equivalent of an HDTV, and certainly right up there with whatever you might get out of a disposable camera you’d get from a CVS. Plus now I wouldn’t have to have them “developed” — I could just download them on my computer and be off to the races.
If memory serves, the first digital camera I bought was an Olympus Camedia C-21, which took 1600×1200 JPEG photos and ran on double-a batteries. That would have been 1999/2000 or so. Four years later I upgraded to a Kodak EasyShare camera, with an eye-popping 5 megapixels. But the next year, 2005, I bought my first digital single reflex camera, a Nikon d70s, and that’s pretty much when the photography went from being just a thing to snap pictures when they happened, to a thing where I went out of my way to take pictures.
The reason for this is pretty simple: the dSLRs allowed me to take more interesting pictures. They had bigger lenses, better sensors and encouraged actual exploration into photography rather than, basically, opportunistic photo capture. The dSLRs also took pictures in RAW format, which captures a lot more picture information than JPEGs, and means one can, with the right software, tease out things like shadows and details that are crunched out of the JPEG format. It makes a huge difference in what shows up in photos.
And also, of course, digital means that you can take dozens or even hundreds of pictures to find the few that work the way you intend them to; this sort of brute strength photo taking would have been ridiculously expensive in the film era. Mind you, over time the goal is not to have take dozens of photos to get the one good one; hopefully eventually you learn enough about taking pictures that you can bring that ratio down significantly.
I suspect that being someone who learned photography in a digital era means that I approach photo taking differently than someone who learned in the film era — for example, I suspect I am substantially more reliant on Photoshop and other photoediting suites to draw out the details and effects in photos than film-era photographers, who I suspect do much of their photo planning in-camera, picking specific shutter speeds and f-stops and such.
What’s also interesting is now we’re in an era where phone cameras are so good that you can use them for more than casual photos as well — some of the best photos I’ve taken have been with my current Pixel 2 phone. Add to this that phone-based photoediting apps are also increasingly capable and complex, and you’ve got an exciting age of photography. I can still tell the difference between my dSLR photos and my phone photos (it’s down to depth of field and artifacts in the details), but I wonder if other people notice. If and when the only camera I have with me is on my phone, these days I don’t feel like I won’t still get a good picture out of the moment.
I think in a general sense I’m a pretty good photographer, but I’m also aware of the gap between what I do and what I see in pro photos. Last year I stepped in to be a photographer at a wedding, and while I think I did pretty well, especially for a last-minute save, I can also see the difference in how I did it and what I think of as pro-level wedding photography. It’s not something I worry about; indeed I like the idea I still have space to grow, at my own pace, in this particular hobby.
My other hobby at the moment is music, and, well. I’m a better photographer than I am a musician. I have been playing guitar (both 4 and 6-string variants) and ukulele for a while now, and I’m pretty sure I’ve run up to that wall where, if I’m to get any better, I will need to actually practice a lot more than I currently do. I’m not sure that’s going to happen; I don’t see where I will have the time. Also, the current plateau I’m on lets me play chords, which is basically what I need for what I want to do, which is, play and sing songs, mostly poorly but with enthusiasm, in my office, while I’m taking a break from writing.
But didn’t you say digital helped you get into making music? I did! Back in the early aughts I bought music production software that included a collection of royalty-free loops, and I really got into that for a while, enough so that I actually ended up putting together an entire LP of the pieces I cobbled together with them. It is good? It won’t make your ears bleed, at least. But of course I can’t claim any credit for the music bits, just the sequencing and editing. And having done that made me interested in picking up actual musical instruments and attempting to learn how to play them a bit, and here we are.
Being a hobby musician is great for humility, and also makes me appreciate how hard making music out of one’s own brain is. I have a fair number of friends who are working musicians, and I’m constantly amazed at how they do it — play their instruments so well and write songs that people love and want to hear over and over. To be fair, many of them have said similar things about what I do, and how I can manage to write entire novels, which seems a mystical skill to them (there are some people who can do both novels and music. We’ve arranged to have them pushed in front of buses).
I’ve been paid for photos I’ve taken and I’ve even got royalty payments for my music — in both cases, enough to get a couple of pizzas — but I don’t plan to be (or will be, even if I plan it) a threat to actual professional photographers or musicians. What’s more, I don’t want to be. I like my hobbies being hobbies, which is a statement I don’t know that I could have made in 1998. Monetizing your enthusiasms is fine, but I’m at a point where the idea of monetizing everything makes me tired. It’s okay just to have enthusiasms, and to be less than amazing at them, and to enjoy them anyway.
The difference between 1998 and 2018 as regards health is that in 1998 I never really gave thought about my health, and now I think about it a lot.
Why? Because I’m older and because (as noted earlier in this series) I weigh more than I used to, and because over 20 years I’ve had a series of thankfully minor reminders that my body is not invulnerable to damage, the most recent being a trip to the emergency room for a possible heart attack which turned out to be just indigestion. Which, to be clear, it’s great it was just indigestion, but 20 years ago I wouldn’t have even considered that it might be something else, much less called my physician’s office about it to have them say, “Yeaaaah, you should probably get to an emergency room right now,” because it sounded to them like a classic minor heart event. Things are different when you’re bumping up on 50 years of age. It’s better to be safe than possibly dead.
And generally there are other minor damages that have accrued through the years. I can no longer fully bend my right pinky due to a volleyball injury, which just goes to show that physical exercise is dangerous. When I was in Australia, I tore a leg muscle and had to hobble around Melbourne on crutches. I have a little bit of arthritis in my right hip ball joint. I can no longer do a forward handspring — the last time I did one, on my 35th birthday, my kneecaps tried to escape sideways and I said to myself, well, that’s enough of that.
For all that I have been lucky — I have had isolated incidents of injury, but what I don’t have, so far, knock on wood, are any chronic issues. I suppose the arthritis in the ball joint could be one, but I kind of have to go out of my way to aggravate it, mostly by contorting myself into a weird position, so I don’t really count it (yet). I have hay and cut grass allergies, which I didn’t have 20 years ago, but they’re not really doing anything to me but making me sneeze twenty times in a row, and Claritin knocks them into line. I’m healthy, mostly, on a day-to-day basis.
But as time goes on, that seems less likely to be the case, even if I do take care of myself generally. A large number of my friends have chronic health conditions now, not necessarily debilitating ones, but ones that require maintenance, and they’ve gotten them for a variety of reasons: some genetic, some environmental, some for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and some for no reason that anyone can see other than, well, sometimes shit happens.
In my own family, as an example, we have a tendency toward cancers. My grandmother and grandfather on my father’s side were both taken out by them, although in both their cases there was a conscious decision not to fight them; my grandmother because she didn’t want to worry anyone, and therefore let it go until it metastasized, and my grandfather because, as I understand it, basically he was done with this planet and cancer seemed as good a way as any to leave it. My brother has had breast cancer — a reminder that men, too, can get it — and he’s fine now, but it’s a thing I need to be aware of, with regard to my own health. I’m going to have to be taking screenings very seriously. Another issue on my radar is mental health; there are members of my family who have various issues in this direction. I don’t, at least not to date, but it’s something I keep tabs on.
My point is, at 29 I didn’t worry about most of these things, because I didn’t worry about them being applicable yet. This was a belief mostly out of ignorance, but also because, as a late-twenty-something, my cohort of friends and colleagues (mostly) weren’t worrying about these things, either. As we’ve all gotten older we’ve started worrying about it more.
I’ve also gotten to the point in life where people my age dying, while still unexpected, is not actuarially unusual. By your mid-to-late 40s, you’re going to have close-to-age friends, coworkers and family pass away. Krissy and I have lost friends to cancer, to ALS, and to other diseases. Just prior to our 30th reunion, my high school class marked its first death, again to cancer. I don’t imagine we’ll make it to our 40th without a few more.
I’m fine with dying one day (well, not fine, but not losing too much sleep over it in an existential sense), but I’m not in a rush, either. More to the point, as much as I can control such things, I want this backslope of my years on this planet not to be burdensome, either to myself or to the people I love. This means paying attention to my health and doing all the little things required to be healthy. Which I kind of hate, because I’m lazy and all this maintenance means work. But better to do work now then not, and suffer for it later. Long-term planning. Sigh.
(But how can you say you’re paying attention to your health when you make those burritos you do, Scalzi? I hear you say. Explain that, you bum! Look, those burritos are sometimes food, okay? I don’t eat them, like, every day.)
The point is I want to be here, and still writing, 20 years from now. And if I want that, I better be paying attention to my health. 29-year-old me could get away with letting it slide. 49-year-old me? Not so much.
When I started Whatever in 1998, I didn’t have a kid. But I knew one was coming, since Krissy was pregnant. Her due date was December 17, but as it turns out, and in the first indication that this child was truly my child as well, the baby was kind of lazy and in no rush to head out of the womb. Krissy was induced on the 23rd of December, a week after the original due date. Athena Marie Scalzi was born, 3:31 pm, 22 inches long and nine pounds. A big baby, big enough that she broke a collarbone on the way out (she got better).
When Krissy found out she was pregnant, my reaction (other than elation because, cool, we were going to have a kid) was to start having dreams about death. Which was a new one on me; I was 29 and at that point was not giving that much thought to the fact that I would one day die. But suddenly I was having dreams where, point blank, was the announcement: “You’re gonna die one day.” Which I thought was a little on the nose. My conscious brain understood why I was having those dreams — when you have a kid, you’re no longer the last generation, there’s one after you now. You’ve willingly put yourself on the mortality conveyor belt. A perfectly reasonable explanation. But still disconcerting in dream form.
When Athena was born, these dreams stopped entirely. They stopped not because I wasn’t still confronting my own mortality. They stopped because once she was born I was okay with my mortality. Not that I was in a rush to experience it; I wanted to help raise this kid first. But it didn’t bother me anymore. I don’t know if this is everyone’s experience with having a kid — hey, I’m gonna die one day and that’s totally cool! — but it worked that way for me, and I’m glad I got that particular existential crisis done and dusted.
Of the two of us, Krissy was the one that worked outside of the home, so once her maternity leave was up, I was the stay-at-home parent and also, I took the night shift duties (roughly 11pm to 5am) so Krissy could actually be rested for her work. This was fine with me; I was still a night bird then so I didn’t mind being up late, and also, you know, even if I did, I was the one with no actual set schedule, so maybe I should just shut up and take one for the team, hey? Because that’s the thing with being a two-parent household: You’re supposed to be a team about it.
It turns out that I really liked being a stay-at-home parent. One, I got to spend a lot of time with my kid as an infant and a toddler, and it turns out she was a lot of fun during these times in her life. I had been mildly concerned, prior to her birth, that I wouldn’t relate to Athena before she was verbal, but, yeah, that turned out not to be a problem at all. Two, it was actually really congenial for the sort of work I was doing. I was doing a lot of marketing and corporate work at the time, which I could do around when Athena neeed attention. When she was napping or otherwise preoccupied, I could pop over to the computer and do the work. Most of my meetings were phone meetings so that wasn’t a problem, either.
Three, it was fascinating to see how people responded to me as a stay-at-home parent. It’s still a thing, men being the stay-at-home parent, and when Athena was an infant and toddler (and even after, since I was the stay-at-home parent her whole childhood) it was even more so. I would be tooling around with Athena in the mornings and early afternoons, i.e., when men were supposed to be at work, and people would mostly respond to me in one of two ways: Wow, there goes super-committed dad, he’s great, or look at that bum, he’s probably sponging off his baby mama. I imagine that if I explained that I was a writer, the responses would definitely fall into the second category. “Writer” is, I think, generally considered code for “unemployed.”
(In fact, I remember specifically one time when some conservative writer or another, objecting to something I wrote here, emailed me to castigate me for wasting time on my blog and letting my woman support me financially rather than getting a job and letting her have the “luxury” of staying at home. It was a delightful bit of joy to point out to him I was earning six figures as a freelancer as well as writing on my blog, that my wife worked out of the home because she liked it, that I enjoyed spending time with my kid, and also, fuck you, you sexist piece of trash. I never heard back from him after that.)
Interestingly, the one place where I definitely received credit for being a stay-at-home dad was with my writing clients. Every now and again during a conference call my daughter would make a noise, and I would explain that I was the stay-at-home parent and that half my office was given over to her play area. Invariably everyone would be impressed that I was taking time out of my schedule to be such an active co-parent. I was aware then and am aware now how vastly different that reaction would have been, had I been a woman freelancer. But since it was working out for me, I didn’t complain at the time.
As soon as Athena was born, I started writing about her here, and mostly haven’t stopped. The reaction of people to this has ranged from “your kid is cute! Write more about her zany antics!” to “Oh my god, you have acknowledged online that you have a child, now the crazies will come for her.” With the former, it’s certainly the case that I cherry-picked the adorable incidents and left out the ones where she was having a tantrum, or otherwise being a less-than-optimal person at whatever age she was at. There are many reasons for this, but primary among them was the idea that not every aspect of my kid’s life needed to be known to the general public. Before Athena was old enough to make such decisions for herself, I ran posts about her by Krissy, to make sure she was comfortable with them. After Athena was old enough to understand what I was doing, I always let her decide what about her went up on the site. It was always important for me to have her understand she had agency with regard to my portrayal of her.
With the latter, I have to say I was never all that worried about it as Athena was growing up. We live in a small town, I have a two-hundred yard driveway, and growing up Athena was with a parent when she wasn’t at school or otherwise accounted for. Beyond that, I’ve never been that hard to find. Even at the height of people being dicks to me a couple years back, no one ever bothered to come up to the house. I remember some angry dude threatening to dox me; I pointed out to him I’m in the phone book. I’m not sure he knew what a “phone book” was.
Athena was important for me in my writing life, not for Whatever fodder but as a general inspiration to do the work. Athena needed food and clothes and a place to live and eventually a college education, and I could not be too precious about the work I took in order to assure these needs would be addressed. I’ve always been lucky in the freelance work I got, but part of that “luck” was the willingness to be flexible about the work that came in. Short of work I found morally objectionable, I didn’t pass on anything. I had a person depending on me to give them a life that didn’t suck. Between me and Krissy, we managed that pretty well.
(She was the inspiration for one bit of fiction: Zoe, from the Old Man’s War series and particularly Zoe’s Tale. In those books Zoe is mostly a teen, and the books were written when Athena was between six and eight, so she wasn’t a direct influence. But I tried to imagine what Athena might be like at sixteen, and wrote someone like that. I was not far off.)
You may have noticed that for this piece I’m not directly talking a lot about who Athena is as a person. Mostly that’s because I’ve done that before, and what I wrote then still stands. But you can be assured that she is one of my favorite people in the world, and not just because she’s my kid. She’s a pretty great human. But this piece is really more about my experience of having a kid, and having her in my life for these last 20 years. It’s worked out pretty well, I have to say.
But Scalzi, you say, this topic was “kids” not “kid.” Well. We did try for more, and it didn’t work out, as sometimes these things don’t. In the fullness of time — which is kind of what this series of pieces is about — that’s been part of our experience as parents as well. I don’t think either of us regret trying for more, just as we don’t regret the life that we ended up getting to have with Athena as our child. I don’t think we’ve lacked for anything in these last twenty years. It’s been a very good life, as a parent.
“Kids make your life complete” — Sure, they can. You can have a full life without them, and many people do, so I don’t think you can say, “Only kids will make your life complete,” which is often the subtext. I can say that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss any of the past 20 years with my kid, and my wife as a co-parent, and all three of us as a family. My life, at least, is complete because of them.
I’ve not been a fan of my hair these last twenty years.
Honestly, my hair and I have never been on the best of terms. I come from a family that doesn’t have great hair; it tends to be thin and wispy in the best of circumstances, and I, who started balding at around age 24, rarely had the best of circumstances. I have exactly one picture of my hair being decently full looking, from when I’m seventeen. At the time I was rocking the perfect 80s hair; I looked more like John Stamos than John Stamos did at the time. It’s been downhill, hair-wise, ever since.
This is not to say that I desire to return to the halcyon days of feathered mullet hair. One, uhhhh, that style is dated. Two, at this point I’ve gotten used to not having to do anything with what hair I do have; the thought of having to do a whole hair regimen tires me out. If I had hair, it would still be bad hair, there would just be more of it.
What I dislike about my hair, and have for the last double decade, is not the hair per se but its balding pattern. I’ve gone bad from the center of my scalp, and the circle is ever widening. In 1998, it was a patch of bald the size of a small donut. Here in 2018, it’s pancake-sized and honestly I look like I have a tonsure, or, as I noted the other day, like I have a chinstrap at the top of my head. It’s easy for me not to notice most of the time, since I have a baffle of hair persisting at the front of my head. I don’t directly see my bald spot most of the time. But then it shows up in pictures or on video and I’m all, oh, that’s not a great look.
I should note I’m not insecure about my hair. My hair is what it is, and it doesn’t create any social or existential crisis for me. I don’t suffer any loss of social standing for my terrible hair, and I’m happily married to a woman who met me as I started losing my hair, knew what she was getting into and apparently is just fine with it. There’s no penalty for a middle-aged dude having a tonsure, basically, as long as you’re a decent human and a reasonable conversationalist. I do fine regardless of the status of my hair. I just don’t like my hair very much.
Well then, take it all off, you say. Thing is, in the mid 2000s, I did that, just to see what it would be like. As it turns out, I thought it looked fine. Krissy, on the other hand, didn’t like it at all. Considering that she was the one who would have to look at me on a daily basis, and in a general sense it’s a good thing to keep one’s spouse happy, I grew it back out. I honestly have to say I don’t understand why she prefers the Friar Tuck look to a chrome dome. But she does, and also, she keeps her hair longer than she would otherwise because she knows I prefer it that way. So. “Not entirely bald” it is.
What I learned in the last 20 years about my hair is that the secret to having it look good is basically to keep it as short as possible. Not completely shaved off but close to the scalp. Otherwise it gets tufty, quick. My rule of thumb is that when I can fashion the hair in the front of my head into a point, it’s time to get a haircut (also, I need a haircut right now).
Mind you, I don’t always get a haircut when I need a haircut, which means that occasionally I get to take pictures of myself with really terrible hair. This is, oddly enough, pretty much the only time I like my hair. I kind of dig taking terrifying pictures of myself. Call it the Opposite Instagram Effect, if you like. Or as I prefer to call these sorts of pictures: “My Next Tinder Photo.”
Oh, yeah. I would totally date me.
My next hair crisis, as it were, is that the bit of hair on the front of my head is thinning rather a bit recently and probably in the next year I’m going to simply just shave it all the way down, and then the question will be what to do with everything else. People say that I should do a Jean Luc Picard on it, but the thing is, a) I don’t have Patrick Stewart’s head shape and b) the hair I have in the back is both fuller and rises further up my head than Stewart’s. Also, bluntly, I don’t have a full-time stylist like Stewart did on ST:TNG — that’s right! Never compare your hair to television hair, even when the dude is bald. I guess I’ll figure it out when it happens, soon.
There’s another sort of hair to consider in this piece, which is facial hair. In 1998, I didn’t wear it very often; here in 2018, I wear it almost constantly. What caused the switch? Well, when I was younger, it was that I didn’t like beards much; I thought they made you look like someone’s dad, and not the cool dad but the dad that spends too much time in the basement, oiling the guns. But as I got older I realized that was a little silly, and also I became a dad anyway, and also, in point of fact, a beard looked fine on me. These days, I also wear a beard because I like so many men my age have experienced Lower Face Collapse, and the beard both gives my chin definition it otherwise doesn’t have any more, and also hides my positively tragic jowls, which at this point and short of cosmetic surgery, I don’t ever see getting any better.
So in sum, here in 2018 I am a balding white guy with a beard. This means that I am on a day to day basis indistinguishable from at least twenty million other American men between the ages of thirty five and fifty five. Wherever I go in public there are at least a few other guys who look like I do. Even at science fiction conventions, where you think I might stand out, there’s a sizable percentage of people who have no idea who I am unless they look at my name tag. I’m not Neil Gaiman or George Martin, both of whom have a easily definable look, both to the point of being cosplayed at comic cons. If you cosplayed me, you’d be cosplaying a middle-aged white guy in an aloha shirt, i.e., 30% of dudes at a con. I have been told more than once by people at a convention that they recognized me only because I was standing next to Krissy, which, to be fair, makes perfect sense to me. No one looks like Krissy except Krissy. A lot of dudes look at least kind of like me.
This is not a complaint, and even if it was, there’s not a lot I can do about it at this point (and even more precisely, not a lot I will do about it). This is my look, and this is my hair — head and face — for a while. And I like me, even with my less than great hair. Honestly, if a tonsure is the worst problem I have with my body — and at the moment, it sort of is — I’m doing great, thanks.
Well, for about a quarter of it. I worked at America Online as its in-house writer and editor, and got laid off that March. I got laid off not because I was a terrible employee, but because my group was being dissolved and while everyone else was going into someone else’s department, as an in-house writer and editor I was a company-wide resource, and no one wanted to put a company-wide resource on their departmental budget. So I got laid off.
Then a week later everyone noticed they weren’t getting any writing done, and I was hired back as a consultant. Half the work! Twice the pay!
The corporate world is weird.
By the time September rolled around and I was starting Whatever, my day job was being a fulltime freelancer. AOL used me for newsletters and other work and indeed would employ me off and on for the next decade; I finally signed off working for them at the end of 2007, by which time almost no one who I’d known while I was there was still at the company. Weirdly, I had outlasted nearly all of my former co-workers.
But AOL was not my only source of income. If being laid off had taught me anything (and it had in fact taught me many things) it was that multiple sources of income were the way not to starve or be in a financial panic all the time. Fortunately, in 1998, I lived in the Washington DC area, and it was a good place to be a freelancer. There were a lot of technology companies out there and all of them needed copy written or marketing done, and it helped to actually have a writer who a) understood the tech field and the lingo, b) had been a journalist in a past iteration of his work life and so understood the concept of “deadlines.” And also, because this was prior to the popping of the first Internet bubble, they had money to spend.
(Yes, but what about your fiction, Scalzi? Were you writing that on the side? Not at all! I wrote Agent to the Stars while I was still at AOL and in the short term that appears to have scratched the fiction itch for a few years; I wouldn’t start writing Old Man’s War until 2001, when I had moved out of the DC area and to my current house in rural Ohio. But for the first few years, I was all in for building up my freelance career. It made sense from an economic point of view, and also, honestly, I was having fun. In those first few years, among the more straitlaced copywriting gigs, I was also writing music and video game reviews, which was very much in my wheelhouse, both personally and professionally. I was feeling very professionally fulfilled, and also I was busy with both work and a new child, for whom I was the at-home parent. So fiction took a back seat, and would stay there for several years.)
My freelance “day job” years are ones that I still think of quite fondly. I got to do a lot of different writing and I got to exercise a lot of different writing skills, all of which, as it turns out, make me a better fiction and novel writer. Also having freelance clients who had specific expectations about the work, and set deadlines, and weren’t here for your ego as a writer, made a huge difference when I started interfacing with the business end of fiction publishing.
Best of all, it gave me money and an income that was independent of books — a good income — that meant I never had to take a book contract I was unhappy with. I could just walk away. And did, at one point; the astute amongst you will note a three-year gap between Zoe’s Tale and Fuzzy Nation. It’s there for a reason. And while I was not writing novels for a patch there, I was writing and doing other things. It was fine! I was fine. I liked having my day job. It gave me freedom until the books were in a place where economically speaking, they had to be my day job.
Which is where I am at the moment. My day job is writing novels — I write other things too, but they’re all on the side. While I do like to revel in the fact that the gig’s work attire is a bathrobe, if that, it is in fact a real job. Like my other day jobs, I am being paid to meet specific expectations about my work, on a deadline, with minimal ego. Remember when I said all the previous day job work had application to writing novels? Well, this is part of that too.
Contractually speaking, novel writing will be my “day job” for the next several years at least. And after that, who knows? I may have to get another day job again — go back to writing other things for the majority of my income. I would be okay with that if it happened. I like writing novels, but I liked all the other sort of writing I got to do (and get to do). And as all of my day jobs have shown me, no job is forever. The fact that writing here is the longest sustained writing “job” I’ve ever had says something about that essential fact.
One, today’s entry title is a little reflexive. Two, it doesn’t feel like it’s been 20 years.
But I don’t think anything ever does. Time is a funny thing which spans backwards and forwards from you, but at the moment it’s only ever now. You keep living right now, and being now, and in my case, writing, now. And then you look up and you have twenty years of writing, all on the same site, all pretty much in the same mode. It’s piled up behind you, and around you, two decades of it.
In the last ten years, I’ve averaged 806 entries here a year, and an average of 435 words per post. Take out about a hundred of those annual entries for Big Idea posts, and let’s say that’s 700 posts a year, 435 words a post. That’s three million words, more or less, in ten years. Let’s be conservative and estimate than in the ten years previous to this last decade, I wrote “just” two million words here on the site. So, basically, five million words of Whatever, in 20 years, give or take a couple hundred thousand on either side. For contrast, in that same twenty years I estimate I’ve written something like 1.385 million words of fiction (fourteen novels, several novellas, a modest stack of short stories).
So you’re saying you could have written three and a half times more fiction if you weren’t writing here, Scalzi! Well, no. That’s not actually how it works. Every once in a while someone takes it on themselves to say to me, here or elsewhere on social media, to stop playing around online and get back to work on the novels. I find this annoying, not just because part of is simply just fuck you, I’m not your word monkey, but also because it reminds me that people who don’t write don’t understand how writing happens and who writers fundamentally are.
First, let me assure you that the five million words here would not have magically transmuted to five million words of fiction. Rather, the five million words here would have magically transmuted into hours playing Descent, or Half-Life, or Left 4 Dead, or Civilization or Fortnite, and hours of binge-watching shows on cable and Netflix, and hours of reading countless books, and other writing, online and off. Whatever is what I do for fun. This is actually my down time! (Well, mostly. Some days it feels kind of workish.) Believe me when I say the fiction you get now is roughly the fiction you would get if Whatever didn’t exist. If Whatever didn’t exist, that time would be spent with me doing something else for fun.
Second, let me now contradict the thing I just said: In fact, there’s a very good chance that if Whatever didn’t exist, you would see less fiction from me. One obvious reason for this is Whatever is how I sold my first novels in the first place — they were discovered here, when I posted them on the site because I was too lazy to submit them elsewhere. It’s entirely possible without this site I would have never sold any novels, or at the least, sold them in a manner and time so entirely different that the path of my fiction career would be vastly different. That’s actually likely, in fact: I would have written entirely different novels. It’s not a certainty that I would have written science fiction novels. It’s not a certainty that I would have written as many novels as I have at this point.
But another reason is that over the last twenty years, writing on Whatever has generally made me happy. It’s a fun hobby, it’s a place for me to blow off steam, and it’s a place where I can write about the world, so my fiction can be (mostly) about other worlds. Here’s a hot tip about how I (and, I suspect, most writers) work: When I’m happy, I write more. When I’m not, I write less. Knowing myself and who I am as a person, I can say that it’s a very good chance that I would not have been as happy, not writing Whatever. And that in itself would have had a negative effect on the amount of fiction you would have gotten out of me.
(Honestly, if anything, Whatever affected the amount of saleable non-fiction writing I did. It’s less of an issue now that novels are my primary source of income, but when I was still freelancing, I probably lost a fair amount of revenue writing pieces here rather than pitching them to editors at magazines, newspapers and Web sites. Never forget that Whatever was originally started because I wanted to stay sharp in the column-writing format. It worked, possibly too well. Once I started getting readers here, I was less inclined to bother trying to sell this sort of writing elsewhere.)
The shorter version of this is: Like my fiction? Then be glad I write here.
I’ve noted elsewhere that Whatever rode the “blogosphere’s” cresting wave of popularity, and now that the blogosphere is increasingly a ghost town it sees rather less random foot traffic than it used to, even if does reasonably well with followers via WordPress, email and RSS. It’s a reminder that nothing ever stays the same, online or off. Times change, fashions change, social media changes. I can be sanguine about it because I never tried to monetize Whatever via ads; I don’t have to worry about losing income because Google changes its algorithm or whatever. I miss the former vibrancy of the blog world, but I’m not going be one of those people shaking his cane talking about how things were Better Back Then. It was here, it’s mostly gone now, and something else will come along.
But even when the words “blog,” “blogger” and “blogosphere” become even more dad rock than they already are, I suspect I’ll still be writing here, because, as noted above, I like it and it makes me happy. It makes me happy because writing makes me happy. It makes me happy because writing helps me understand myself and what I’m thinking. It makes me happy because at the end of the day, these are my words and I get to own them, and people get to see them. I don’t expect that anyone but me will have read every single word of the twenty years I have here, or of the however many years I have left writing here. But other people have read a lot of it. They still do.
And they still may, in the future and possibly long after I’m done writing here and shuffled off to whatever happens next. Dear future graduate students: Thanks for picking me for your thesis! Hope it’s going well. Have fun sifting through five million words at least.
In the meantime, for whatever it is I’m writing on Whatever: there’s no future or past, just now. If you’re reading this, this is at least part of who I am (or was) in this moment. This is who I have been, in the moment, for two decades now. It’s a long time, and seems like no time at all.