At 57, I’m finding myself in a strange position in life.
My mentors are dying.
Last month, Ursula K. Le Guin left us. I’ve known Ursula personally for more than twenty-five years. I never knew her well. We sat on panels together in the Northwest, although never (to my recollection) at a convention. We’d done bookstore events side by side over the years, and whenever she showed up in a town near me or in my little town, I went to listen to her.
I never studied with her because, frankly, I was too intimidated. Ursula was one of a handful of people who could make me tongue-tied. I told her several times how much I enjoyed her work, but that wasn’t really the depth of my feelings for her as an artist.
I read The Left Hand of Darkness for a science fiction class offered by the Linguistics Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Yes, linguistics. The instructor was a big science fiction fan, and she offered a class on science fiction in translation just so she could spend days talking about her favorite subject.
I adored The Left Hand of Darkness. Loved it more than I can tell you. (Which is more than I can say about some of the class’s other books, although I did learn a lot about the importance of the translator in that class as well. A good translator is one reason I like Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris and Dean doesn’t.)
I don’t know if I went from Ursula’s novel to her essays or the other way around, but her essays in The Language of The Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction had a profound impact on the way I think about writing, science fiction, fantasy, and being a female writer. Those essays led to me to another majorly influential book for me, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens by Alice Walker, and all of that went into the subconscious stew that ended up creating me as a writer.
I worked with Ursula a few times as an editor, first at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and most recently in Women of Futures Past. Ursula, who was in her mid-80s at the time, was the most professional and most responsive of all of the living writers in that volume. She reviewed her proofs in a timely fashion, helped us make changes (the story has a map), and handled each detail with incredible swiftness and aplomb.
One other living writer in that volume, decades younger, couldn’t be bothered with answering emails or reading her proofs. She didn’t even have a digital copy of the story I wanted, and told me I could scan it. Which meant (even now) that her story is the messiest one in the volume because three different copyeditors and two proofers couldn’t clean out all of the errors in that scan.
Ursula is…was…is…the writer I wanted…want…wanted to be when I grew…grow…grewup.
Joyce Carol Oates also falls in that category. She’s still with us, making people angry on Twitter, and writing kick-ass fiction. I suspect when she goes, I’ll be shaken. I’ve met her a few times, but have never really talked with her. I’ve also been an editor for her work, again at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and with a mystery best-of that I did a few years ago, but like Ursula, Joyce Carol Oates doesn’t need any editing at all.
I don’t have a lot of mentors left. And by that, I mean, mentors whose work I adore and who also show up at gatherings and give talks or write real-time responses to the things going on in our world.
I have had many other kinds of mentors. Writers who taught me how to write prose. Writers who taught me how to be a professional writer—how to handle money as a writer, while being an airhead creative type.
Then there were the non-writer mentors, the women who showed me how to remain strong in a world unfriendly to women. They’re gone too. I learned about another one the same week as Ursula—Midge Miller, one of the strongest women I’d ever met, who fought for causes I believe in during a time when women had difficulty finding a platform in regional government. She died years ago, but I had just heard about it. She was Ursula’s generation, and she was just as tough, just as fair-minded, just as strong.
I have no idea if either of those two women were strong at home, if they broke down in tears after a day of dealing with incredible crap (the kind that’s just starting to become clear to the broader [read: white male] world with the #MeToo testimonies), but if these two did, they did so in private. And then they got up again, and lived to fight another day.
I’m glad I had such mentors. I’m fortunate that I came of age when I did.
But now I find myself standing on the hill, looking at the horizon of the last third of my life (or last almost half, if my life lasts eleven or so years longer than my grandmother’s—also a mentor), and I realize that the people who left the markers, the people who helped me invent myself, are behind me now. Not in rank or ability or talent. But in time.
They are not moving forward in time, and I still am. Their memories sustain me. Their courage braces mine. And their writings—if they were writers; or their speeches—if they were politicians; or their actions—if they were activists—still inspire me. They make me want to be better than I already am.
I know they stood on this hill too. And I know that all of them reached out to the next generation, usually as teachers. I do that. But some of them, like Midge, also turned to the younger generations for inspiration.
It’s a different kind of inspiration. It’s not aspirational. It’s a kind of tiny explosion: I’ve been doing things this way for decades. Maybe it’s time to try a new path.
It’s an acknowledgement of the fact that the world moves forward, always, whether we like it or not. I see how easy it is to get locked into the old ways or to feel nostalgia for the way things were.
Really, the nostalgia, at least when I succumb to it, isn’t for a better world in the past. It’s for the world I first learned, the world I thought, with a child’s short-sightedness, was permanent. I learned that world, and sometimes, I don’t want to learn this one.
Although that’s mostly not true. I have worn a watch since January 1 or so, and that’s only because it’s not a watch, but a tiny computer attached to my arm. I never look at the time on it. I use it for other things. The only watch-like function I seem to use is the alarm function, but I give it a verbal command to set it up—and the verbal command makes it fun for me, makes me feel like I really am living in the imagined future.
That’s the trade-off, of course. I’m living in a future most of my mentors never saw. Some of them imagined it, but imperfectly, like we always imagine the future. And I have no idea how they would have reacted to it, either, although I have guesses.
It’s strange to me that the part of this world I find myself in, the part I’m having the most trouble dealing with, isn’t the gadgety, 24/7, tweeting non-stop pace of this world. It’s the personal things, the things that every single person in every single generation goes through at some point in their lives—if they’re lucky to live long enough.
The changing of the guard is dramatic, but foreseen. My grandmother warned me of it one afternoon in her dining room. Another mentor who had both a negative and positive impact on my life spent the years I knew him describing a world long-gone to me. Once we were sitting in the U.N. Plaza Hotel across from the United Nations in New York City, a building he remembered being built, and he described a completely different neighborhood that used to exist there, a neighborhood that contained the offices of Astounding Magazine and many of the sf publishers.
I wish I had taken notes. Because those memories might exist in dusty retrospectives, but they no longer exist in his living memory, since he died more than ten years ago.
Sometimes I tell stories like that as well. Just yesterday, I had a conversation with a group of writers about my #MeToo experiences—which, as the first female editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction—were both ubiquitous and multitudinous. What I have realized in the past few months, as the movement gained steam, was that most of my stories in the sf field—the men who grabbed or tried to force themselves on me or were physically inappropriate in other ways—are about people who are dead. They are no threat to anyone.
The stories I have about living writers are few, and involve humiliation and other verbal abuse, and, frankly, I’m still grappling with whether those stories are worth telling, considering how badly they would upend my life. I don’t believe other women are in danger, and all but one case, the men involved are no longer in positions of power or influence.
That’s the dark side of being part of a younger generation, and the difficult side of being part of the older one. Some of the stories I could tell were things I had to live with, because the laws did not protect me. In fact, in one instance, I angrily shouted at the publisher of F&SF for failing to tell me about a known lech, and the publisher laughed at me uncomfortably, saying he thought everyone knew.
Turned out, everyone except the younger writers knew. The most likely victims were the ones who were never warned.
I like that both women and men have become outspoken now, so that the warnings are no longer whispers in the corridor. I hope that this change remains, because almost every woman I know has at least one story, one encounter that should never have happened.
But…back to mentors.
As I said, the changing of the guard was foreseeable—and is foreseeable for those of you in your twenties. At some point, if you live long enough, your mentors will be gone. Your teachers will be faces on old photographs or memories of a single pearl of wisdom. Your roadblocks—the antimentors, for lack of a better term—will be gone as well.
And sometimes I find myself missing those roadblocks just as much. It’s great to have something to push against. For me, pushing against a person who told me you can’t do that was a fantastic motivator. I can’t think of the last time someone told me that.
Or, at least, someone with authority or someone I respected told me that. I have had a lot of people, who don’t know who I am or don’t know my history, tell me that in the last few years. A new joy is the look on their faces when I tell them I already did whatever they said I couldn’t, sometimes before they were born. Not as satisfying a joy, not as motivating, but something different.
And foreseeable again.
I’ve thought—and written about—what it must be like to have the older generation scraped off the world. I had parents who were in their forties when I was born, so I always knew that I would live most of my life without them in it. And sure enough, my father died when I was thirty; my mother when I was thirty-seven. But my siblings are still here, and so there’s still an older generation for me (since they were all adults when I was born).
I know that one’s coming.
The loss of mentors, though. That’s strangely frightening and oddly freeing. Frightening because I no longer feel the need to impress or catch up or prove myself to anyone—except to myself, and I’m just not as interesting or as challenging as they were.
Freeing, because like it or not, mentors—at least the ones who become a bit of your training—are judgmental. In real life, they might not have been. In real life, they might not have noticed anything that you did after you left their class. In real life, they might not even have remembered your name.
But in the imagination and the memory, where the real benefits (and downsides) of mentors live, that judgment remains. What would that mentor say if she reads this? Would she know that I’m not following her advice? Would she see the influences of her work in mine? Would it matter?
A critic and friend who died in 2017 said some very unkind things about my writing more than 25 years ago, and I didn’t realize I carried those words with me until I read that he had passed. I realized, a few days later, that I would never have to apologize for writing the material he thought “unworthy” of me ever again.
And that was freeing.
I’m sure I serve the same function for a lot of people. I’m the mentor now. Or the authority figure that they need to push back against. I’m the teacher who was completely wrong about what they needed to do with their lives. Or the catalyst that got them off their butts and turned toward the writing career.
I’ve had people tell me that I’m their mentor, which shocks me to the core. Because at heart, I’m not mentor material—not like Ursula or Midge or Kathryn Clarenbach or all the people I’ve looked up to. I’m a woman getting through the day. I offer advice a lot because I’m hardwired that way. I love teaching, I love sharing, but a deep tenet of my philosophy is that we are all responsible for ourselves, our actions, and our lives.
When I teach, I tell writers that they are responsible for their own careers. So I don’t claim their successes, the way that some teachers do, nor do I claim their failures.
In fact, I find that to be a deeply offensive practice by my peers. They claim a piece of someone else’s major success. Big Number One Bestselling Really Famous Writer took my workshops and became the famous person you see before you. You too can become just like Big Number One Bestselling Really Famous Writer if you too take my course.
To which I always want to add—or you can take my course and be like the other 100 people who have done so who never became Big Number One Bestselling Really Famous Writer.
Because if you claim someone else’s success, then you need to claim the failures too.
I have trouble enough with my own failures. I’ve made mistakes as a teacher—some real major ones, things I regret telling writers or that writers took the exact wrong way. I’ve made mistakes as a writer, and I own up to the ones I see, because I don’t want other writers to make those mistakes. I want them to make different mistakes. (No one gets out of this life mistake-free.)
I never talked to my teachers or older friends/relatives about this stage of life. They tried to talk to me. And some of the conversations we’ve had come back to me now.
I realize that when many of them asked what I was doing, and then they asked me to explain in more detail or wondered aloud how it all worked, they weren’t necessarily trying to find out more about my life, and they certainly weren’t sitting in judgment. In many instances, they were trying to understand the new world they were living in, the one I—as a young woman—was navigating much more freely than they were.
They were trying to move forward and to understand the world they were in.
With Ursula’s loss last month, I realize I have very few living mentors left. I can settle into my position as one of the survivors of the literary field, someone who has been around for a long time, and tell stories about the way we used to do things. I can adopt the mantle of the Grand Old Dame, the one who has some wisdom to impart, but who is mostly irrelevant.
Or I can keep my head down and keep doing the work, just like Ursula did. So many of my mentors gave up in their fifties. They stopped writing, stopped working, stopped learning, and settled into that Old Wise One position.
I’d rather be the one who kept writing, kept striving, kept trying—and occasionally found ways to share what I’ve learned with others.
What really stuns me, though, is what I can’t do. I can’t find the same kind of mentor that I had in my youth. Not because those people don’t exist. But because learning is different as an older adult. Somewhere along the way, the choices narrow. I’m not going to sing professionally. I’m not going to run a newsroom (again).
So opportunity for some of the valuable life lessons I learned when I was trying out those careers are simply unavailable to older me. I like my career. I might strive for another one, but I am not going to look at someone as the be-all and end-all of that career any more, whatever it may be.
Unfortunately, one of the things you get as you get older along with gray hair is the understanding that all of us, even the best of us, are fatally flawed. We all have good and bad sides, strengths and weaknesses. The unstinting admiration that I felt for some of my mentors isn’t something that’s attainable for me any longer. I know that all humans have moments they’re ashamed of, or have done things they don’t really want someone to know.
That’s why forgiveness becomes more important to older people; we all figure that we’ve done something somewhere that we might not even remember but that we might need to apologize for along the way.
Realizing that the living mentors are disappearing is a strange spot to be in creatively. It’s as if you start out working in the dark dank basement of a city high rise. Slowly you work your way up to the first floor with an exterior door, then a higher floor with beautiful views.
But somewhere along the way, those views become clearer, and you realize the walls are gone. And so is the ceiling. And you’re no longer in a city that you recognize. You’re in the rooftop garden of a building you might not even like. And if you want to understand the world you’re in, you need to work your way back to the ground level, talking to everyone you meet along the way.
It’s counterintuitive. A lot of people like staying in that rooftop garden, where it’s safe and familiar.
But that stifles creativity—at least for me.
So I’m working my way to a new creative focus, figuring out how to be a person who admires a lot of other adventurers on this life journey, but who recognizes that the journey is personal. I can’t walk the road Ursula K. Le Guin walked, no matter how hard I try. Even if I had a map, I would walk that road imperfectly because she walked it decades before I ever thought of writing science fiction.
The world is a different place.
And it will be different next year, ten years from now, twenty years from now.
The key is figuring out how to live in the world of now—in each day, each year, each decade.
And to find inspiration in the places that we never used to think of looking for inspiration.
It’s a challenge, but a cool one.
And one I’ve only recently realized that I need to face.
“Business Musings: Mentors, Inspiration, and the Future,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Aleutie.