Friday, October 30, 2015


One of the few good things I experienced last March was family coming back together.  Among other things, that meant seeing the full families from the New Jersey/Pennsylvania wing of the family again, which was the first time in about a decade. 

Cousins who were always just a little older than us also started their own families earlier.  It was their weddings and their births that helped mitigate a series of funerals we attended growing up.  These were always our favorite relatives.  Little did I realize that the little girls I was about to meet again held within their number a writer.

It was a subsequent follow-up visit on my part where I was really introduced to the Writer-in-the-Family (we'll call her Wit).  On the previous occasion, Wit's mother had briefly talked about this connection, but it was a different story talking about it in more depth.  Soon I was referring to this as talking shop. 

I didn't realize until Wit how much I'd wanted someone in the family to talk shop with.  My mother, and my older sister, loved to read my stories, but it's different when there's someone else actually writing. 

It's not as if I want to guide Wit's writing future.  Talking with Wit's mother, and then briefly with Wit herself, it felt good to talk about my perspective.  I know I've done it hear, but again, it's different, even in the context of my Colorado writing group, or in school.  Maybe it's just because socially I've always been a reluctant participant, but I've rarely felt comfortable merely expressing myself (again, Internet experience may vary).

The more I've thought about Wit, about the things we could discuss in future conversation, the more I've wondered what kind of writer I really am, forgetting about whatever or however Wit currently considers herself. 

When I was her age, I frittered away a lot of my creative energy.  I didn't start writing seriously until high school, and even then only for school projects.  Someone like Stephen King, who obviously went on to great success, didn't have nearly that kind of hesitation.

I'm thinking of King again, not because of all those coincidental similarities I like to bring up every now and then, which any number of other people share with the Maine native who continues to publish bestseller after bestseller (lately almost as prolifically as James Patterson!), but because I recently read a collection from Spider Robinson, and it reminded me all over again that King came from a specific generation, an identifiable one (Robinson is certainly a part of it), and it makes me wonder if I'm part of one (other than the Indy publishing era), or have I so thoroughly disconnected from any wider community that the very reason I struggle is because of, well, myself.

Robinson made his name as both a writer and as a critic.  His instincts are perfectly obvious in both capacities.  When he wrote to the publisher who would give him his fist assignment as a critic, he outlined the differences between a critic and a reviewer.  (For the record, Robinson would prefer the title of reviewer.)  His response was the classic debate over art versus accessibility. 

Now, I've long been a member of the art school.  Accessibility, to me, is a matter of what the Internet might call tropes, easily identifiable elements and themes that unite for your basic storytelling.  I've been a reader all my life.  Even if my writing doesn't necessarily reflect it, I know storytelling.  That's not what I'm interested in.  I'm the art guy because I like how the story is told.  For instance, when you boil Calvin & Hobbes down to its essence, you have a kid who's constantly misbehaving.  Isn't that basically Dennis the Menace?  Yet no comic strip reader of the past thirty years would ever confuse the two.  Why?  Because of the style.

Literally, Calvin and Hobbes was a comic strip of style, of art, of how.  When I talked to Wit's mother, we discussed Wit's approach to storytelling, and I brought up how knowing the ending is integral to the whole story.  This was something we readily agreed on.  I also mentioned the need for Wit to find her own voice.  Voice is everything.  Again, Calvin's voice is wildly different from Dennis's.

It's the shape of a story that interests me.  If the writer knows what they're doing, it'll show, no matter if there are mistakes made along the way.  Someone like Robinson obsesses over the mistakes.  Everyone does that, to material they hate, or don't trust, or haven't been preconditioned, at any rate, to love.  Robinson grew up reading classic science fiction, in an environment that nurtured his devotion to the form, if not the craft.  To him, the form was all about conforming, adhering to preconceptions, or merely being a writer (Heinlein) that he greatly admired.

And we're all prone to be bias to someone we already love.  The problem is, if you even consider being critical, will you become too critical, or will you simply see the wiggly lines in between the structures the writer has honed over the years?

I constantly think back to Star Trek, because it's the first thing I learned extensively, outside of school, and how little fans tend to be critical of, say, the original series, but couldn't be more critical of the later ones, especially the increasingly less popular later series, Voyager and Enterprise.  Culturally, we assume anything that isn't popular is either totally deserving of its poor reputation, or something we can rally around (hence making a new cult following) and hope its reputation will change in time.  (Conversely, and perhaps increasingly so, we're skeptical of popular things, too.)

The fact that I kept on liking Star Trek while it became easier for others to start, well, hating it, produced an interesting phenomenon.  Eventually I started thinking of Star Trek very much in the terms Robinson did his beloved science fiction.  I began to compare similar stories and weigh their relative worth.

The difference, I hope, is that I didn't let precedence (Robinson placed a premium on Heinlein, at least in part, because he considered Heinlein the father of modern sci-fi) get in the way.  It was the storytelling itself, the how of it, the craft, the voice.

Sometimes it's a matter of being able to handle having multiple voices.  Sometimes people merely choose the one they want to focus on and ignore the rest.  (It's hard to argue this to those people.  They always dispute that.)  And if not ignore, then do the whole hate-watch thing.  Except I've learned there are a lot of great voices out there.  I've found that a lot of them are more or less undiscovered.

But they're out there all the same.  And as a writer, it behooves me to have a voice, too.  Regardless of when the next time I talk shop with Wit happens to be, I'm glad I've imparted that already.  To me, it's easily the most important advice possible.  Yeah, success is great, which is what accessibility makes relatively easy to achieve.  But I don't want success.  Or, just success.  I want my writing to mean something. 

The very fact that Wit is already writing for her own interests, that encourages me.  I originally wanted to, given another conversation, encourage her to start submitting early.  I thought that was the difference I could make, if she wants to be a full-time writer some day.  But that's not really what's most important to me.  That's something I've realized, recently. 

I'm glad Wit has a mother who's interested in her writing, too.  Looking back, that's something I'm incredibly grateful for, something of immeasurable value, regardless of whether my mother was a perfect or ideal audience.  She wanted to read, to understand me.  My writing is my voice.  With a little encouragement, Wit is ahead of me already.  If that's all I'll ever really know about her writing, it's already enough.  It's enough. 

Having a Writer-in-the-Family is a very good thing.  Not because I have a chance to mold her to my interests, but because knowing she's there, and maybe even her knowing I'm here, is its own validation.  Writers are a curious breed.  Getting published, today, is just a part of being a writer.  For me, being a writer doesn't mean anything unless I've got something to say.  Like Robinson, there are plenty of people who disagree, who revel in being a part of something they themselves have admired.  But it's not the form, but the art that interests me.  I think Wit understands that.  And maybe, that's someone else who understands me.

To me, that's writing.
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