Business Musings: The People in Our Offices
I’m tired. Emotionally tired.
My world is changing, and personally, I wasn’t prepared for it. That my world is changing while the greater world—the real world—is also changing is just serendipity, I guess. I’ve blogged about the larger changes, just a bit, talking about how to write in dark times, but some of that post is also about writing while bad things are happening to you.
Nothing hugely bad is happening in my own day-to-day life. In fact, many, many, many good things are happening.
But I’m having to redefine that world in a variety of ways. I’ve finally given into my chronic health condition and decided to stop traveling because (ahem) done wrong, travel could kill me. For years, it made me greatly ill, so much so that when I returned home, I usually lost a week due to bad health. Believe it or not, that kind of mental change—that redefining—is huge. I’m not the superwoman I once thought I was. That I was never that superwoman is something I’m also grappling with.
I’m simply admitting what others around me have seen for years.
That’s a personal change, and hard to make general. I will blog at some point about writing while dealing with chronic health problems, because I promised some of you that I’d do so. That’s not this blog.
This blog deals with another change—one I knew was coming. Heck, every single person I’ve ever known over the age of 60 referred to this change in an oblique manner at one point or another. Some referrals weren’t so oblique. My grandmother, in her nineties, talked dying and said it didn’t scare her.
After all, she said to my 20-something cousin and 20-something me, all of my friends have already gone on ahead.
My cousin and I, in that ignorance of youth, pointed out how many friends she still had, some of whom were her age. And her family as well, including us.
I meant, she said with unapologetic patience, the friends I had since the beginning.
I’m sure those weren’t her words. Her words were plainer than mine and a little more powerful. Her tone was what made that sentence stick in my mind. It wasn’t sad. It wasn’t angry. It just was.
I sure miss that woman.
I turn 57 this year. Dean gets angry at me when I say I’m nearly 60. But I am. And it’s rather astonishing.
What’s also astonishing to me is that I’ve gone through a lot of things people ten and twenty years older have experienced, because my parents were in their 40s when they had me. That meant I only had one living grandparent, and a lot of elderly aunts and uncles. One set of cousins were full blown adults with children, as were my siblings. Another set of cousins was my age, thankfully, or my family interactions would have been with adults only.
I was fortunate enough—and single-minded enough—to become successful in my chosen field in my late 20s. Back then, to succeed as a writer (and an editor), I had to travel to conventions everywhere. Because I became the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction at the age of 30, I developed relationships with writers much older than I was. I also developed relationships with other movers and shakers in the sf field at that same time, people that, as a young writer, I might never have known well at all.
In addition, I got to know a lot of writers my age, and up-and-coming writers. Writers generally don’t start at any particular age. We don’t work our way up the ranks—getting coffee in our twenties, becoming an assistant in our thirties, managing in our forties, and running the company in our fifties. We can go from beginner to worldwide bestseller in the space of two years. Or we can start writing at the age of 65. It’s a strange profession, and has become stranger still since electronic publishing changed the landscape.
I love the changed landscape. I’ve said that a million times.
And mostly I just plow my way through it, working at my writing, at my writing business, and at all the other writing related things I do. I write this blog primarily for me, so that I can understand what’s changing and what’s going on. I understand things better if I write about them, as I’m sure you do as well.
Which leads to this post. I’m grappling with a changed worldview here, and an astonishing emotional reaction that I had over the weekend.
You see, Ed Bryant died on Friday.
I met Ed in the late 1980s. At that point, he was at the height of his fame in sf circles. He had written influential short stories in the 1970s and 1980s, and so he was one of the writers I invited into the first issue of Pulphouse, thinking none of them would say yes. Surprisingly most of them did say yes. Ed’s story, “While She Was Out,” proved to be one of the best of the best.
He was a major supporter of Pulphouse, and of other projects we did. After the Pulphouse era ended, we didn’t see as much of Ed, although I did end up on the set of a movie he was in (Ill Met By Moonlight) a few years later.
His writing career slowly faded, as writing careers do, especially back then. Ed also wrote screenplays, but he aged out of that (because Hollywood was [and is] still really unkind to people over fifty). He spent the last decade of the 20th century writing stellar reviews, and the first few years of this century editing, before his health problems became too much for him.
Of course, when we met, I knew none of what was to come. Only that Ed had written a lot of fiction that I loved, and that he was so much more successful than I thought I could ever be.
Hold that thought. We’ll circle back to it.
Ed’s death is the latest in a string of deaths that have occurred in the last year or so. Yes, you folks know of the celebrity deaths—the Carrie Fishers and the Princes. They hit me hard too, because they were major influences in my life. I hadn’t known them, and I certainly hadn’t realized at the time of their greatest influence in my life that they were damn near my age.
Those deaths are hard enough to negotiate on an artistic level. It hurts to think that there will be no more biting sarcasm and wisdom from Carrie Fisher, no more innovation from Prince. There’s a sense, in both cases, that they died too young—they were still contributing to the world as we all know it.
Add to that an undercurrent of other deaths. In the past year, I’ve lost mentors, friends who aren’t writers, neighbors, and—weirdly—a person I hated (and who hated me).
All of these deaths have shaken my little world. I’d been aware of it, of course. Hard not to be.
Ed Gorman, whom I’d never met because he didn’t travel outside of the Midwest, was also one of my favorite writers. As an editor, he had a huge impact on my career. He invited me into very first anthology I’d ever been invited into, and continued to support everything I wrote until the day he died.
We had talked on the phone many times, and emailed a lot, but when he died last fall, it seemed odd to me that we hadn’t seen each other face to face in all these years. And then I’d lost the chance.
But mostly, we all had lost Ed’s voice.
And I felt a little adrift, like I had when Damon Knight died in 2002. I said, at that time, that one of the pillars of the Earth had left—but I hadn’t realized that what I meant was one of the pillars of my Earth had left. I couldn’t quite imagine the world without Damon. Or without Ed Gorman.
Ed Bryant, much as we cared for each other twenty-five years ago, had mostly drifted out of my life and my consciousness. The sadness I feel is sadness that he is no longer around in general, not in specific. I recognize this feeling too: I had it when my best friend from high school died in her thirties of breast cancer. I didn’t find out for almost a year, when I sent her a book I had dedicated to her and her husband let me know. We had drifted apart when I went to college, and she stayed home and married. What we had had in common was the time period, and our lives in that moment, not something in our future.
(It sounds here like I drift away from all my friendships, but I don’t. I have a lot of longtime friends, including some whom I’ve been close to for (gasp) 37 years, and others I’ve known for (double gasp) almost 50. But not all friendships are destined to last, and not all close friendships remain close. Some wax and wane with time, others grow distant due to circumstances that are too personal to go into here.)
Ed Bryant’s death caused a truly strange writing reaction for me, though. I went to work that day, and I suddenly felt giddy. To be writing. To be telling a story.
Granted, I had hit that point in the current project where everything flowed. But the giddy feeling wasn’t about the flow.
It was about being alive, still being active, and knowing that I have dozens, maybe hundreds, of projects still in my future. If I live a normal lifespan—always an if—or even if I live to Ed’s age, I have years of writing ahead of me.
I don’t want to piss it away.
That part of the reaction—that sense-of-time reaction—is pretty normal when someone dies. I had it three weeks ago as well, when a neighbor and friend died after a long illness. (Those of you reading Dean’s blog, that’s the estate he’s been helping with.) We all become aware of our mortality when someone dies. It didn’t help, that particular weekend, when I also had to help a dog that got hit by a car as I was running past on my daily run. (No, I don’t know if the dog made it, but it had a chance because I, a college student from Oregon State, and the owner got the dog off the road and to the vet within twenty minutes of the accident.) Two days later, I saw a woman nearly get hit by a car on the very same spot.
So mortality has been a focus this year.
But I’m writing about something else entirely. I’d been inching toward this understanding after my old nemesis died. This jerk lost a high profile job in the field to me, and the jerk blamed me for that, rather than blame his own nasty arrogant performance in his job interview (which the interviewer later told me about in shock because all the jerk did was badmouth the company itself).
The jerk worked tirelessly for the next twenty years to destroy my career. If there was something bad to say about me, he would find it and broadcast it. He started more than one whisper campaign against me, one so severe that had I wanted to continue that part of my career, I would have had to hire a lawyer to shut this asshole up. He was a troll before the internet made trolling easy, and unfortunately, he had the ear of a lot of people in power in New York publishing. (Or maybe fortunately. Because by the mid-1990s, a lot of those folk realized what a dick he was.)
His death shook me up in a way that I hadn’t expected. It created an absence, like I’d had a rock in my shoe for decades, and now I didn’t. For a while I had a phantom pain, and then, slowly, it went away.
I had become accustomed to having to push against his assholery on a regular basis. When it went away, I continued pushing for a little while, until I realized that I no longer had to expend that energy.
I think recognizing the energy I spent guarding against the negative was what opened the door to understanding for me. I think with Ed Bryant’s death, I stepped through that door and am starting to look around.
Let me give you some examples. I still finish a mystery story and hope to share it with Ed Gorman. I read a surprising but quiet mystery, and I wonder if Ed’s read it. I think of a new mystery-oriented project, and I wonder if Ed’s available to write for it. All before I remember: Ed’s gone.
On my way to the highway for my daily run/walk, I pass my neighbor’s house. I see the house before I run, and see clearly that the house is empty. Her possessions are mostly gone, her SUV has moved to another state, and the house is obviously lifeless.
But on the way back from the run, as I walk up the hill where her house sits halfway between the road and mine, I find myself wondering—as I did these last few years—if she’s home, if she’s feeling all right, if she needs anything. And then I round the corner, and see the empty house, and remember.
It takes effort to remember, because the other thoughts are daily habits.
With Ed Bryant and Damon Knight and other people who were part of my writing life, and then stopped being a daily concern, the thoughts are much more subtle. Damon gave me a lot of early advice about my writing, and I still hear him say, sternly, that Tables don’t sit. People sit every time I write “the table sat on the floor.” (Notice, I still write the sentence. The Damon in my head just complains about it.)
Ed Bryant was rarely negative about my writing. Only once that I remember, and that was spoken with concern. He worried that my fantasy novels would make the sf community dismiss me, because I was writing “popular” fiction, instead of “real” fiction.
I had dealt with that one a long time ago. But this weekend showed me I hadn’t dealt with something else, something a lot more subtle.
Ed Bryant had been a role model. When I met him, he was in his fiction-writing prime, award-winning, sought-after, his stories damn near perfect—at least from my point of view. I couldn’t imagine being lucky enough to have one-tenth the success he had.
I stepped back on Friday, and realized that Ed had pretty much stopped producing by the year 2000. And he lived another 17 years.
I don’t want that for myself. I’d rather be like Jack Williamson, who wrote until a few months before he died at age 98. Fred Pohl did the same thing, writing until his death at 93. They were also mentors of mine. Ursula K. Le Guin is still producing wonderful fiction, at the age of 87. Kate Wilhelm, at age 88, is also still writing—and indie publishing much of her work.
That’s the role I see for me. I hope to achieve it.
But as a young writer just coming into the field, I didn’t see the long-time writers in quite the same way. Everyone was doing better than I was. I was just getting my feet wet, looking at other careers, and figuring out how to navigate this crazy field.
A few things were obvious: some writers, like Damon and Algis Budrys, didn’t write much. It was pretty clear that their best days as writers were already behind them.
As I’ve gone through this new door, I have poked my head out of the sand for the first time in a long time. I realize that not only have I achieved the new writer goals (which I knew), but I also achieved a lot of mid-career writer goals.
Some of the writers I looked up to as an early stage writer didn’t write as much material as I have already. Others have won fewer awards. Still others never wrote a novel at all.
And yet, they helped me get to where I’m at, by creating a benchmark on the road. But like a runner in the zone who isn’t really paying attention to where she’s going, I had passed those markers a long time ago. I just realized it now.
Other writers who were role models for me in those years have careers I still emulate. From Kate and Ursula, who continue to publish words every year, to Stephen King whose career constantly takes him on new paths, to Nora Roberts who reminds me what it is to be prolific (and focused), they all remind me that I have a lot to achieve.
What I didn’t realize, until I walked through this new door, was that I carried all those hopes and fears and desires, all those benchmarks and achievements, into my writing office with me.
When Dean and I teach, we tell writers to leave other people at the door. We mean the criticism that others bring, inadvertently or not. (Tables do not sit. People sit.)
I had never really realized, until Ed Bryant died, that we also bring in all those other aspects of writing—from the benchmarks and goals, to the desire to please someone, be he another writer or a parent or an old friend. I also carried my nemesis in the office too, because with each passing year, each success, I proved to him (and to myself) that his harmful behavior had had no impact on me.
Except by carrying him into the office with me, I contradicted that. His harmful behavior had had no impact on my career. It wasn’t until the jerk died that I realized his behavior had had an impact on me.
I thought about him on Friday too, because measured on that benchmark scale, he was pretty successful at his chosen field, despite his abrasive, destructive personality.
We never know the full trajectory of someone’s career until they die. Then we can look at the career as one long thing.
If you had told me, in 1988, that most sf readers would have no idea who Ed Bryant was when he died, I would have been shocked. Conversely, if you had told me about all the accolades Ed Gorman received from friends and fans alike when he passed, I wouldn’t have been surprised at all.
As I looked up Ursula’s age to write this post, I found this quote of hers:
It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.
I think that’s what I needed to be reminded of. If I’m lucky—if I live a normal lifespan for a woman in the State of Oregon in the United States, I have another twenty-five years or so of writing left. (If I live as long as my beloved grandmother, I have another 47 years left.)
I’m still in the middle of this journey. I still have a lot to do.
But if I slow down or stop because of baggage or because I feel I’m getting older or because I “should be writing” something else entirely, my career will drift away, like so many careers of my friends.
That’s the last thing I want.
Which is why I was in that oddly giddy mood on Friday. Because, if all works out and I don’t get hit by a car like that poor dog, I have years of writing left. I also seem to have shed, this past year, a whole bunch of baggage that I was carting into my office each and every day.
I don’t have to impress people who are no longer with us. Nor do I have to prove to some trollish boogeyman that I can outlast his viciousness. (I have.) I don’t have to use someone else’s measures of success any more, because that measuring stick is gone, part of the past.
If I keep that measuring stick in my office, then I’m keeping it alive. And I don’t think I need it on my journey.
I guess the deaths—all of them (and there have been too many this year)—are serving to remind me, like that empty house halfway up my hill, that things change. I’m still climbing. Every day. Sometimes it’s an effort. Sometimes it’s easy.
But I’m doing it.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I make a living at what I enjoy.
So I really should, on occasion, remember to enjoy it.
Because Ursula’s right. The trajectory doesn’t matter. The end will come for all of us.
But what matters—day in and day out—is the journey. And moving forward, one step at a time.
I did not expect to write this blog post, but it wouldn’t let me go. As I’ve said, I write a lot of this stuff for me. Some of it I write to crystalize what I already know; sometimes I write to discover what I know.
Sometimes I surprise myself. When I finished, I decided to use a personal picture at the top because look at me, ignoring the glorious sunset behind me while I was intent on a screen. No wonder they say a picture is worth 1,000 words.
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“Business Musings: The People in Our Offices,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2017 by Dean Wesley Smith.