Business Musings: Mentors, Inspiration, and The Future
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.
I know this is awhile ago, but I have only been reading your blog for a year or two, and I really want to meet you sometime. I don’t know if it will ever happen because I have no money, but the way you write really resonates with me. I’d been thinking about the Smokey Dalton books ever since you mentioned them, but hesitated. I didn’t know why I hesitated until I learned about Protectors. I bought it immediately (but haven’t started reading it), and realized it was because I wanted a female MC. Go figure. I felt really embarrassed about that bias, especially since the writer (you) is a woman. Anyway, I can’t quite put my finger on it, just a sense of connectedness somehow. Sorry if this sounds bizarre.
Add me to the many who consider you a mentor. I have been fortunate to have found a few good people who listen to my questions, encourage and, even provide practical advice, among them:
Melissa McArthur Gilbert
and you and your husband, whose blogs and books have taken me to completely finishing my first novel (still a few tweaks and revisions needed before I can upload it).
It’s a daunting thing to become a mentor – I recoiled at the idea, when I taught science, of becoming a mentor to others. And, yet, I did – and found it both a challenge and a joy.
I’m late to the party, of course. I just don’t know what to say to someone who is so clearly a mentor to many when she says that she is not a mentor.
I have three novels in a drawer from the early 1990s that I wrote because of inspiration from you. Not about the content or the characters or anything but because you said, even then, if you love novels, write novels. And I did. And while I got some interest, other things took precedence in life and time passed.
Then I found Dean’s blog and I started thinking how I had loved writing, that I needed to find out about publishing again because maybe I could still be a writer. And hey, if Dean has a blog does that mean Kris does too? And you did.
And I learned a ton. I’ve run my own non-writing business and everything you said made so much sense. It fit with what I had experienced. I learned a lot about the new world of indie publishing and because of those other novels, when I finally had a novel ready to publish, while still an early work, it was far better than it would have been if I hadn’t been writing all those years ago.
I devour what you write both because I love your stories. But I found you because you sat up at a convention and said things that made sense. I wasn’t hearing theory about things I could use if I succeeded at being an writer. I heard things I could use as a would-be writer, things that I could put into practice that day.
Write what you love stays with me to this day.
Something I told Dean about Superstars and is equally true for you–no matter how many times I think I’ve heard you say something, I always catch something new. And it makes me learn more about my process and my writing.
If I am remembered as an author, it will be in large part because of what I’ve learned from you, either directly through taking classes from you, and also indirectly from reading your work, reading your blog, watching you interact and grow and change in this writing world.
And I am still amazed that you think you aren’t a mentor…
Hugs. Thanks, Bonnie.
Easy solution is don’t have any role models. Then you’ll never be heartbroken.
I’ve admired so many writers, like everyone has. But none of them were my role models. Better to follow your own vision.
Everything they said.
You are a mentor. I read your first Fey book when I was 13 or 14. I tried to read Tolkien after because it was supposed to be the thing you read if you like fantasy. I couldn’t even finish The Hobbit because no girls. You and Tamora Pierce founded me in fantasy. I didn’t even know that it was supposed to be a male genre.
I read widely but I’d read too many women too young for the male pov to seem right.
It kept bugging me.
I quit writing in high school, but I had to start writing again.
I followed Dean because of a link about not rewriting and so much writing advice hurt.
He linked to you.
Honestly I don’t remember author names. Or book titles. But you posted something and I remembered
You wrote The Fey.
That blew my mind.
What do you imagine being a mentor is besides writing books that made little girls see themselves as heros? that blow adult womens minds?
Oh, Maree. Thank you. You made me tear up. I had no idea that my characters have had such an impact. Thank you for this perspective.
apparently I just got the girl education? Actually my brother was being a dick one day and he said he didn’t want to read books by women and so I decided to only read books by women. this was because I offered him your books
but man bs invented me
This was very bittersweet. I read it at 5 am, and had intended to go back to bed and sleep a few more hours, but I just could not get it off my mind. Thank you, Kris!
[…] Business Musings: Mentors, Inspiration, and The Future […]
“I love sharing, but a deep tenet of my philosophy is that we are all responsible for ourselves, our actions, and our lives.” It is exactly this that I believe makes you a great mentor. You give permission for people to make choices in their career and not have to get your blessing in advance. When someone doesn’t take your advice and fails, you don’t shove it in their face with an “I told you so.” And when someone doesn’t take your advice and succeeds, you still congratulate them and sometimes see it as an opportunity to learn yourself.
Though I’ve known you as a writer I admired, and would run into at conventions since the 1980’s, I always thought you were untouchable. I admired your thought process, the way you were always the smartest one on the panel–and without hubris . The awards you attained for your writing when I was still dabbling in short stories made you, in my mind, a person to be admired but not someone who could ever understand the struggling creative. That was all in my head, of course, because you were always kind–even when you rejected stories I sent to F&SF, you were always encouraging and provided feedback without malice. It wasn’t until I decided to write novels instead of short stories (when I turned 50) that I realized you were human–a person with some of the same struggles that I had. 🙂 And sharing the publishing transition from trad to indie with you over the past decade has been a great comfort to me.
Though I am seven years older than you, I have always appreciated your core tenet of each of us being responsible for our own careers. In the times when I questioned my own writing choices, it was that phrase that kept me going. I have a number of friends who, today, write to market. Or at least they believe they do. They are in search of the market that will finally make them rich. One year writing shifter stories, the next year erotica, and the next writing witches or vampires. I have a couple of friends who are now switching to sweet romance because the others haven’t brought them the riches they sought. As I saw them make short-term money and crow about it–telling me this is where I needed to be–I often questioned myself and my desire to simply write books that were meaningful to me and find my audience who wanted those books.
Again, your mentorship, both through modeling of your own behavior and in workshops, showed me that you wrote what you loved and even when something wasn’t as financially successful (like the Smokey Robinson books in trad pubs) as other books at the time (the Diving Universe series) you came back to it again at a later date because you loved those stories. You’ve always talked about a long-term career and that is what I’ve been able to do. I’m sure that I will die either at the computer working on a story or in a bed with my last story still being constructed in my head.
Thank you for just being you, for being original and not being afraid of that. It let me know that trusting my own choices was not kiss of death to my career. That phrase: “You are responsible for your own career” has helped me to set boundaries with those I try to mentor. I can’t make anyone write more, pay attention more, work harder, or follow my particular journey. I can only let them be who they are and help them to follow their own journey. That is you, Kris–the mentor passing through me to others as well.
Thank you, Maggie. You just made me tear up. This means a great deal.
Your blog posts are very inspiring to me, Kris. That one reminds me of a Star Trek: DS9 episod which won a Hugo award, about the son of Sisko. We see Jake aging as a writer, making choices, that’s why your blog post reminds me about that.
I will be sure to tell all the men (mostly white) who were groped by women at the last convention I attended that they need to be “woke” to sexual harassment. Believe what you want, but please don’t be naive: Women perpetrate (and condone!) sexual harassment against men as often as men do against women, in my experience. If we really want to stop that sort of behavior and negative work environment, then we need to acknowledge that it’s a problem all the way around, not just for certain people.
I completely agree, Dawn. I have seen (and stopped) women from physically harassing men at conventions–less often than the other way around–but it happens. Just like it happens between men and men, and women and women. The range of human behavior is the same.
However, of late, I have heard a lot of straight white men express shock that this kind of harassment still exists or is so pervasive. Personally express it, to me and others. One man said that he thought he was hearing occasional gunfire from a nearby shooting range only to realize he was actually in the middle of a major shooting war, and he hadn’t even realized it. Straight white men generally have been in the position of privilege in this country in particular. (Men of color have their own issues with discrimination and harassment.) Straight white men know the problems exist. They just haven’t been aware of the extent of the problems. And the good ones, the ones I’ve been talking to, are very, very shocked at how much the women (and gay men) in their lives simply do not say. The everyday micro-aggressions. Like the one I experienced today on my run, when a car slowed down beside me, and some twenty-something male made a comment about my butt. Loudly and repeatedly, so I couldn’t miss it. If only that were an isolated incident. I get one a week, minimum, when I run near our highway. Do I tell anyone every time? Why would I? It’s (unfortunately) part of my life. Every day.
Regarding straight white men knowing the problems exist – I am not so sure. With some the knowledge is head knowledge, not heart knowledge. And with others, denial is a huge factor.
Its emotionally painful to open our eyes, and often times I think people don’t even realize how oblivious they are. I am a straight white male and almost all of my friends back home are too. Most of us didn’t really feel racism is a real thing in our modern world – we blamed it on the victims, or simply discounted it. That kind of thinking was just in the air. Then I moved to the south, and a member of my extended family moved in with us to go to school – he is a person of color, and from overseas as well – and when it came time for the school principal to sign off on a routine form allowing my family member to attend school, the principal refused – refusing to give a reason. We went to the school superintendent – refused – again would not give a reason. I stayed in denial for months – just could not believe it was happening. But I had to eventually face it – it was just pure racism.That was a huge eye opener for me, and in retrospect, a blessing. It just blasted me right out of that complacent bubble. By the way – we got a lawyer, and my family member went to school.
I really see the difference it made when I go back home – many of them still have that same worldview. I, thankfully, can’t imagine go back to that way of thinking. But – this is the thing – very likely that I am still blind to other realities. But at least now I try to look, and try to see whats really out there,
Thank you, Gunnar. Yes. Exactly.
‘Ursula is…was…is…the writer I wanted…want…wanted to be when I grew…grow…grewup.’
I was in my early 20’s when I first read The Left Hand of Darkness and it’s stayed with me for over 40 years, a shining example of what the human mind can conjure, and what a strong, brave woman could write.
I can’t put it any better than has already been said in the comments, those who do live their lives with courage and honour are mentors because of those very things. 🙂
… about those men whose behaviour you’re grappling with exposing … you said you don’t think any women are in danger from them, and they’re not in positions of power and/or influence, but the truth is, these men are predators and wherever they go, whatever they do, ANY woman who crosses their path is a potential target.
Well, I’ve been talking with folks who know the man in particular that I’m referring to, and it’s a lot more complicated than I made it sound in that passing phrase. His verbal harassment was in the form of an extended speech, in public, about fantasies (about me). I’m still not sure how to handle that, since it was 24 years ago, and such things were legal then. I’m still thinking about what to do, if anything, since he has not inappropriately touched me or anyone else that I know of. He’s very very famous. The story will reverberate worldwide. Had there been inappropriate physical behavior, I would not hesitate. But this was perfectly legal, perfectly acceptable behavior at the time with no physical side at all. So I’m still pondering.
As for the others who still live, they’re dying, so ill that they’re not going to make it a year. Again, complicated.
I have reported almost a dozen men over the decades, whenever they hurt me or tried to hurt me, which means in the 1980s and the 1990s. That didn’t stop the predation, because the laws were different then, but it did notify some of the SMOFs for conventions, chairs of departments, and, in one case, got someone yanked from his position with young writers. (And this was in 1985, which tells you how bad it was.) It’s very clear to me when someone crosses a physical line. I’m less certain when the line is purely verbal (and 24 years in the past).
Kris, you’re my mentor, and have been since 2003.
You were the first writer I met who succeeded in multiple genres and refused to let anyone else tell her what she should do.
Me: But everyone loves your Smokey Dalton books. Shouldn’t you concentrate on Smokey?
You: I need my romances after I write a Smokey book.
Me <I don’t have to write whatever the markets want? Mind blown>
I already admired your work as an editor at F&SF, but once I started learning directly from you in Oregon, I realized what a cunning brain you had, with an ability to figure out story and dissect where it went wrong, yet always marvel at what went right.
Even though I didn’t understand some of your advice, I would puzzle over it like a Zen koan until I understood it. (“You have a problem with information flow. I think it’s because you wear glasses. You’re either up here”–waving in the air–“or in the fruit”–pointing at my plate.) Translation to anyone who is curious: after being told that I didn’t include enough concrete sensory detail, I would sometimes get hyper realistic and add too much detail. I had to figure out how to control the details enough that the readers would be engaged by how things smell and taste without boring them with every last hair ball.
You could reassure me with one line.
Me: People don’t like my character. They say she’s unlikeable.
You: Me too. The world doesn’t seem ready for strong female characters. I figure I’ll have to wait a few generations for them to catch up with me.
Addendum on this point: I don’t get this criticism as much any more. The world is changing.
And even though you’re so driven and so accomplished with your own work, you never forget the human who is making the work.
Me: I have a baby now.
You: Enjoy this time. You will never get it back. I have a nephew who’s twenty now, and I still miss that little boy.
I also admire the joy you take in your work and in encouraging the next generation.
Thanks for all you do. Thank you to Ursula K. Le Guin and everyone who inspired you.
Oh, Melissa. You made me tear up. Thank you.
Thank you, Kris.
Some of my post got deleted, though, maybe because of the brackets, so I must fix it.
[Readers object to strong women]
Me: ~~Wait. The problem is with human stupidity, not our writing? Mind blown.~~
Me: ~~Hang on. No guilt trip, shame, or superiority? Enjoy the baby I yearned for? Mind blown~~
Since I’m here, I’ll add a bonus round.
Me: I get jealous of other writers’ success.
Kris: Jealousy is destructive. https://kriswrites.com/2010/01/14/freelancers-survival-guide-professional-jealousy/
Me: ~~Wow, envious people do terrible things. Better shed those attitudes stat.~~
I’ll add Jennifer Crusie’s wonderful essay. She’s my mentor too: https://jennycrusie.com/reader-discussion-guides/green-is-not-your-color-professional-jealousy-and-the-professional-writer/
You emphasize how lucky we are and how fun it is to write, yet you never cease to hone your own skills as well as ours. You tell us what doesn’t work for you, you praise us (“Don’t change a word”), and sometimes you simply lead the way with your own work. You remind us to learn the business and take care of our health and our families, and that will make the writing last longer too.
I don’t come from a family of writers or artists. I spent a good chunk of my life studying, not writing, before I moved to a rural area of Canada. Without you and Dean and your tribe, I would still be a writer, but my progress would have been more slow and painful.
Oh, Melissa. Hugs. And thank you.
(Now off to read the Jennifer Crusie essay…)
You folks are leaving me speechless. Thank you, all.
I had too many years of really bad advice, teachers who never took the time to understand why I could never be an outliner, teachers who told me to “put that story in a drawer for a few weeks, let it cook.” Okay, is this like a turkey? Does the little red button pop up when it’s done? Teachers who said to write for no longer than 30 minutes a day, wait for the muse.
I walked away from writing about 20 years ago. Then a few years ago, I found stories I wrote before all the bad advice and bad teachers. Fate took over and I found Dean’s website and read all his Poker Boy stories. Then along came “Writing Into the Dark,” Dean’s tour-de-force on the topic. Off I went, slowly, but steadily, helped by your lectures and workshops. Then I read books in your Diving series and Retrieval Artist series, and your masterfully written short stories. Inspiration made flesh.
Ursula K. LeGuin helped to light a fire in you. It’s what people do, sometimes without knowing it. We really never know, from day to day, whose day we made better because of a kind gesture or a smile. But showing other people a sunny path is even better.
But Ursula knows now, and I’m sure she is happy she inspired you. Trust me on this.
So my thanks to you both for lighting a fire in me.
All my best to you, Dean and the cats,
I don’t always agree with you, Kris (and I think it would be creepy if I did), but I always appreciate you. I appreciate the way you think, and research, and examine, and explain. You, as a person, are complex and thoughtful, and I believe all those things are why your work is powerful and entertaining at the same time. No matter how other people tried to prepare me for this Land of Old Age, it still disconcerts me, still amazes me. You always manage to put some part of it in perspective. Thank you.
I laughed out loud when I read that you’re not mentor material, at heart. Not like Ursula … I met her about twenty years ago. We had lunch and she struck me as one of the most humble people I’d ever met. I asked about her writing process and she said that she just showed up every day, at her desk, at the same time and waited. Even if nothing came. I’d be willing to bet she felt like just a woman getting through the day too and didn’t see herself as mentor material either.
Thank you for this. I’m your age and have been experiencing the same things re mentors and moving forward for some time now but couldn’t quite articulate the crux of my dilemma. Buried within this Business Musings were helpful and clarifying observations.
As a side note, I’ve read quite a bit of your work: discovered your short stories in Asimov’s years ago and moved on to the Diving Universe novel series, which I’m really “digging” (do I hear a groan?), and am currently in the middle of The Protectors.
But must tell you that I just adore the magic pussycats–please collect all your shorts into one volume!!! And see if you can manage a full length novel about them. (If you’ve already written one, I certainly have not found it, and I’ve looked.)
I’m announcing one Friday. Familiarity is Winston & Ruby’s collection. It’s also in a Storybundle right now. And there are Five Feline Fancies as well. But hmmm…magic kitties…
When I think of mentors the first one to come to mind is Cornelia Funke. She was the one who I said watered the dormant writer seed inside of me. She taught me how to write for children. Not sure how old she is but I don’t think she is much older than me.
Another writer of the famed Vampire Diaries, L J Smith taught me how to write for the YA crowd. But sadly she has fell by the way side. She almost died in 2015. She told her readers about it but have not given any updates to how she is doing today. She has had a funny career. She left it for a good long time and then came back and now since her illness, I think her writing career is over. The ones clamoring for the last book in a series will never see it. And those series were written back in the early 90’s but I guess a new generation found them. Even though I still look up to her I feel sad how things turned out.
I look up to a lot of indie writers but what is turning me off now is it tends to be a trend in doing “courses” to make money of other indie writers. Some do have good advice but others don’t. You have to be wary and I ‘m getting tired of listening to them. The indie world can be a noisy one.
Thank you for sharing this moving retrospective… I am forwarding it to artist friends. You touched my heart–brought up sad memories–and motivated me to look beyond age as a measure of performance. Beautiful.