A number of years ago a reader wrote in to tell how much they had enjoyed a specific story I’d written, which was very flattering. Unfortunately, he also said he was happy that I had returned to writing something “more realistic.”
Now, since the story he was praising was a science fiction murder mystery set 1500 years in the future, and my detective was a genetically engineered lioness, I was more than a bit curious about what, exactly, he thought was so much more realistic about it than anything else I had written. And so, perhaps foolishly, I wrote back to ask.
His reply was a long, polite, and extremely thoughtful email. The first story of mine that he recalled reading had been co-written with two of my friends. It was an epic action adventure tale about the crew of a cargo ship who discover that the containers of farming equipment they have brought into port are actually full of weapons intended for a local revolutionary army. The crew is soon running from both the law and the terrorists. Not surprisingly there is more than one gunfight and a lot of people die. The story includes a lot of grim moments.
He loved it.
Then he cited several more things I had written, all of which he categorized as “light and fluffy,” which he didn’t like. Since one of the stories involved an astronomical disaster in which an entire inhabited planet is destroyed, and another one was a murder mystery, I was a little confused as to why he considered them light and fluffy. Fortunately, the rest of his email explained it.
All of those stories, he wrote, had an unmistakeable air of optimism about them. They generally had happy endings, for instance. He disliked such stories because in reality, he said, nothing good ever lasts, people fail far more often than they succeed, and bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it.
I had more than a few quibbles with what he said, but there was one thing I knew he was right about: my stories probably do all have an underlying thread of hope. I realized a long time ago that a fundamental part of my temperament is an unshakeable certainty that there is no problem that can’t be solved. Worse than that, there’s no problem that I couldn’t solve if only I had the time and the resources. However much I may know, intellectually, that lots of problems are unresolvable, at a deep, emotional level I seem to be incapable of accepting that.
It’s not that I set out to prove that with any of my stories. The dichotomy between optimism and pessimism is usually the furthest thing from my mind when I’m working on any given tale. However, since a hopefully arrogant perspective is a fundamental part of my personality, it will always color things I write. Because, no matter what the goal of a particular story, painting, song, or other piece of art is, no matter what topic the artist is tackling, no matter what things he or she may have the characters say or do in the story, some aspects of the artist’s core beliefs will manifest in the art.
It’s a not that it’s a conscious decision on an artist’s part. These core beliefs are seldom significant plot points, for instance. We are certainly capable of writing stories (or songs or movies or plays or comics) that seem to argue persuasively against our core beliefs. The specific story which started this conversation with this reader has prompted other readers to write me to argue about completely different things which they felt were “the message” of the story simply because one of the main characters espouses a particular belief or philosophy in the dialog, for instance.
The type of core belief I’m talking about informs how an artist sees the world. In some works these things manifest most prominently in minor aspects of the work rather than the major theme. I suspect that is why my story about the disaster which kills one billion people came across as light and fluffy to this guy, even though I thought it ended on an ominous, rather than hopeful, note. There are probably aspects of the ways some of the characters go about trying to figure out what happened that provided some hint of a glimmer of hope. I’m guessing.
Because these core beliefs inform and color the way a creative person sees everything, it is impossible to completely separate a work of art from the artist who created it.
A work of art is more than the person who made it. And in an ideal world, a work of art should be judged on its own merits, without regard to who made it, or to other things which that person made. All humans, artists and audience alike, fall short of our ideals.
The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. —Pablo Picasso
I thanked the reader for explaining. I said I was sorry he didn’t enjoy some of my stories, and that I hoped he would occasionally enjoy more of my stories in the future. But I suspected he wouldn’t, because I could see that we had diametrically opposed perspectives on the world. And even though I have written plenty of tales since then which have included things I think are far grimmer than anything that was in the two stories he liked, I also know that the glimmer of hope I always believe will be there is bound to continue cropping up in my work.
I myself had found writers and artists whose work, while technically good, even excellent, just rubbed me the wrong way. Sometimes I was able to put my finger on why they did so, but many times not.
Art should move us. Art should also challenge us. I don’t think that we should always agree with everything a piece of art appears to be saying, any more than we should demand that an artist agrees with all of our opinions. But challenging art should engage us in a re-examination of our beliefs, or prompt us to see things from a new perspective. It should act as a lantern illuminating different paths which we may or may not choose to follow.
Sometimes the way that a particular piece of art challenges us does not wash the dust of daily life from our souls; it hammers us down and grinds our souls into the dust. And no one should feel obligated to submit to such hammering.
One year ago I started this blog to:
…see if having another place—a new place, without the history and other issues inherent to those other blogs—to do that personal kind of long-form blogging that I miss, whether I actually use it. And more importantly, does it do that vital de-cluttering.
I don’t know how much the mental de-cluttering has helped with my productivity in other writing pursuits, but I have definitely been blogging more, including finishing more of the essay-style postings.
I have made progress on my novels, and I have managed to finish a few old stories that have been languishing for years. So I’m going to declare that this has at least improved things. Now that I’ve finally realized the power of scheduled posts, the fact that I often have bursts of several topics occur to me at the same time is no longer an annoyance.
I still have a lot of essays in the half-finished stage, but more of them are getting finished, posted here, and cross-posted to my writing site.
I’m willing to declare this first year a success. Not a resounding one, but definitely a success.
Let’s see if I can do even better in year two!
On the subject of coming out to one’s parents, I’ve always remembered the story one acquaintance told: “When I finally came out to my mom, she said, ‘I’ve known you were gay since you were two.’ And I thought, ‘Gee, thanks, Mom, why didn’t you tell me? It would have made my teens a lot less confusing!'”
Growing up gay, particularly before the 90s, the best you could hope for if your parents learned you were gay was a reaction like his mother’s. Truth be told, since we had no positive role models, and what little we knew about the family members of gay people were that they were all ashamed or hostile to their gay child, we didn’t even hope for that.
In my early teens I recall whispers about someone’s cousins being kicked out by his parents, for instance. In my later teens I knew one classmate who was accused of being gay whose parents sent him to “reform school.” Another who was actually caught having sex with another guy was kicked out by his parents and wound up living with relatives in another city (how the quarterback of the football team who he was having sex with was able, somehow, to convince everyone in authority that the much smaller, skinnier kid had somehow forced him into the situation is a tale for another post).
When I did come out to my own parents in the early nineties (I was a gainfully employed adult living in my own place in another city, by then), their reaction could best be characterized as, “I never had any clue, I don’t accept it, and someone must have done something to you to make you think this way.”
Even today, we are surprised to hear of anything as loving and accepting from a parent as this letter that a teen-ager in Michigan received this week from his Dad:
You can read the story of a teen named Nate, from Michigan, and the note from his Dad in this story.
Note: since apparently I wasn’t being clear: I am not Nate. That isn’t my letter. My father’s reaction was, as noted above, pretty much the opposite of this in every way.
It was 1986 and I was twenty-six years old, attending a regional science fiction convention with a bunch of my friends. One of the guests of honor was an author (we’ll call him Mr. C) that two of my friends were very fond of. I had read a couple of his short stories and thought they were good, but he hadn’t really wowed me.
But hearing Mr. C talk about the writing process, his influences, and so forth, made me much more intrigued. It didn’t hurt that when another panelist made a disparaging joke about my favorite science fiction author (who was not in attendance), Mr. C rather emphatically jumped to the defense of my favorite author.
After that panel, one of my friends commented that Mr. C’s takedown of the other panelist had been mean. It was true. Mr. C had ended the rebuttal with something along the lines, “…and it infuriates me when writers who don’t have a fraction of his understanding of how to write or a sliver of his talent make thoughtless critiques.” But, she had called my favorite author a fossil, I pointed out. Once one makes an ad hominem attack, you invite something similar in return. Since it was my favorite author being defended, I was more than a bit prejudiced.
So I wound up standing in line with one of my friends, clutching a pair of just-purchased books of Mr. C’s work, waiting for his autograph. That is the one and only time I have met Mr. C in person. He was pleasant enough, despite having had to smile, listen, and sign however hundreds of times.
After the convention, I tried to read one of the books. It was a collection of his short stories, which included the couple I had read before. They weren’t bad by any means, but after reading a few in a row, an unsatisfying feeling was developing. I sat the book down, not quite sure why I wasn’t enjoying the reading.
A few weeks later, I picked it up again and started on the next story. Again, the story itself was well written and interesting. I read another, then started on the next after that and, well, a few paragraphs in I realized that same feeling of wrongness was building up.
I did eventually finish the collection, but it took a few months, reading only a few stories at a time. And by the end I couldn’t really say that I’d enjoyed them all, but I also couldn’t put my finger on their shortcomings.
The other book was a novel. A novel for which he had won a lot of awards. It was based on one of the short stories in the previous collection. And the short story in question had been one of those I had enjoyed more than the others. Plus, I had friends who swore this book was a masterpiece. And it had garnered all those awards, so it had to be good, right?
I couldn’t finish it. I don’t think I’d even gotten a quarter of the way through before I found myself intensely disliking it.
I tried explaining what I didn’t like about it to one of my friends who loved it. As we were talking, I kept finding myself talking about abstract concepts, rather than actual events in the story. My friend said it sounded more like my baggage than the story. So I started explaining how a similar philosophical assumption underpinned one of the short stories. And that’s when I finally managed to connect the dots and say what was bothering me about all of the stories.
There was a fundamental notion forming the foundation of all the tales: if you don’t know your place and stay in it, horrible things will happen to you. A corrollary was that if you prevented someone else from achieving what was “rightfully” theirs, even more horrible things would happen to you.
When I articulated that, my friend began to argue. That wasn’t what was going on at all, he said. So then I made a guess at how the book I hadn’t finished would end. Specifically what would happen to certain characters.
My friend blinked. “How did you know?”
“Because, if you don’t know your place and stay there, forces, whether they be social, cultural, or fate, will strike you down. And if you stand in the way of someone else’s destiny—”
My friend grinned and interrupted. “Oh, wow! You’re right! That’s so messed up, because it’s like the opposite of what the main character says, but it’s really what happens!”
“Mr. C believes in hierarchical, patriarchic societies in which you behave according to societal expectations, and people who have the temerity to want to choose their own way of living are evil,” I said.
My friend shrugged and said, “You’re probably right. But I still love the stories.”
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you” — Friedrich Nietzsche
Just a few years later, a controversy erupted in a forum dedicated to Mr C on the (now long defunct) Prodigy network. The controversy was about a protagonist in another of Mr. C’s novels who experimented with gay sex midway through the book. Some people were angry Mr. C had included an “abomination” as a sympathetic character. Others thought people who thought gay people were abominations were bigots.
As the arguments raged, Mr. C waded in with a rather long discussion about the sin of homosexuality, why he felt he had to include it in the book (his reasoning, as I recall, was that in any community where people amass power there will be people who must dominate, possess, and destroy others, and of course homosexuality is all about dominating and destroying each other), and then had the gall to claim that anyone who called him homophobic were themselves bigots. Because he didn’t hate any gay people. They were just sinners, and if they refused to repent and stop being gay, well, they would face consequences.
His comments were quoted far and wide. And he got angrier and angrier as people “mischaracterized” his comments. He repeated, again and again, that he didn’t hate gay people. He wound up writing (in 1990) a long essay and getting it published in a magazine that catered to the members of the church Mr. C had been raised in, in order to explain his side in context.
While the essay repeatedly said that he did not condone violence against sinful people, it talked about how just as children must be punished in order to learn right from wrong, then adults will face greater penalties when they continue to act outside the bounds of propriety. He talked abstractly about the “day of grief” that each homosexual would eventually experience if they did not repent. He talked about the horrible consequences homosexuals face if they refuse to adhere to propriety. But he was not advocating violence even then, he said. If the faithful, such as himself, had been compassionate but firm in condemning the sin, they would “keep ourselves unspotted by the blood of this generation.”
It’s an old lie that bigots of a religious persuasion tell themselves all the time. They don’t advocate or condone violence, it’s just that god’s law causes these things. And when it happens, they pretend that the people who did resort to violence never took all the words of condemnation as permission to commit violence.
Think about it: if it’s god’s will that homosexuals should experience a “day of grief”; if god’s law demands that “blood of this generation” must be shed, then the person who inflicts the violence is doing god’s will. They are a special tool of god!
Heck, it isn’t just permission to commit violence: it’s encouragement!
I had already guessed most of this about Mr. C before he began writing publicly about his reasons for opposing the decriminalization of gay sex and other topics back in 1990. And so I had already made my decision not to buy any more of his books. I didn’t post rants about him, nor try to organize boycotts of his work. If I was asked, I would say that I disagreed with what I perceived to be the underlying philosophy espoused by his work.
Once he did make his very public statements, I felt it was appropriate to go a step further and point out that Mr. C was a hypocrite and a bigot who advocated against the rights of myself and others. I would suggest that perhaps there were other writers whose works were more deserving of people’s money, but wouldn’t go further.
In the years since, he has continued to write and speak out against gay rights of all sorts, eventually becoming an officer for a large organization that says it is out to protect “traditional marriage.” They try to portray themselves as narrowly focused on marriage, but anyone paying attention to their rhetoric and some of the other causes they support, can see that they want to roll back the few rights gay people have won. He donates his own money to the cause, he has organized efforts that have raised millions of dollars for the cause. He has claimed victory for every anti-gay amendment, law, proposition, or initiative that has been passed in the last ten years.
He has, now, gone far beyond the point of simply stating his opinion and trying to persuade others to it. He has gone beyond that disingenuous tactic of saying he was opposed to violence while providing double-speak that actually encouraged it. He has helped spread distortions and outright lies about all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. His organization has refused to obey public disclosure laws regarding their election activities in several states. He continues to fight to prevent gays, lesbians, trans people, and bisexuals full equality before the law. He continues to put forward arguments to take away what rights have been extended.
So, for that reason, yes, I agree with the people who have been disappointed that DC Comics hired him to write a prominent new Superman series. Yes, I support the comic book shop owners who have said they will not sell comics written by him. I support the artist who decided not to illustrate his stories after learning of Mr C’s views and activities. I urge everyone I know not to buy things he writes, not to go see the movie that is being made of his most famous novel.
I re-iterate: this isn’t just about a difference of opinion regarding marriage equality. For over 20 years he has advocated for restoring laws that made it a crime for consenting adults to have gay sex in the privacy of their own homes, and against laws that protect people from being fired, evicted, or denied medical care just because they are gay. And he has done more than just advocate those things, he has taken action to make them happen. It is not hypocritical of us to advocate a voluntary boycott of his work, it is hypocritical of him and his apologists to decry a voluntary boycott while they are campaigning for laws that will take away jobs, housing, health care, and more from entire classes of people.
Orson Scott Card is a hypocrite and a bigot who uses distortions and outright lies to hurt innocent people. Those are the facts.
I was just laying down to take a nap last night when the phone rang. The name on the screen was a friend who very seldom calls, but when he does, it’s important. So instead of letting it go to voice mail and laying back down, I answered.
He was at a hospital, outside a room where his dad lay unconscious and not expected to recover.
I didn’t know my friend’s dad well. I had met him a few times. I had admired his father’s artwork many times before I met him, because he’s kinda famous. So when my friend introduced me, I made the mistake of calling him “Mr. J——.” He shook his head and told me, “No! I’m Bud.”
It was fun getting a tour of Bud’s studio from the man himself, complete with a few amusing stories about his son, my friend. Some years later I had the privilege of hearing him play fiddle at his son’s wedding.
My favorite moment with Bud occurred during a barbecue one Fourth of July. My friend was setting up some fireworks. Some bottle rockets and the like. Bud came over and told his son to aim them up at one particular tall tree. “There’s a wasp’s nest up there I’d like to get rid of.”
What followed was a debate about the pros and cons of firing fireworks into a tree that loomed over the house, and happened to be infested with wasps. Bud almost talked his son into it. Almost.
All of that flashed through my mind as his son told me, “We’re taking turns saying good-bye.” I asked him what I could do. He said that he just needed someone to talk to. Someone who wasn’t there and crying.
I managed to gulp back the tears and tried to be someone who wasn’t crying.
There’s nothing we can do in times like that, other than be there for each other.
This year has been a bit of a challenge. My last grandparent died a month and a half ago. If the doctors are right, this will be the fourth parent of someone I know who has left us since I lost Grandma B.
They’re not connected. I know that. Because of my age, and because many of my friends are of a similar age, our parents are “getting up there,” as one friend put it.
But it’s a reminder that we shouldn’t take anything and especially anyone for granted. Make sure you tell people you care about how you feel. Now. Because we never know which conversation with them will be our last.
For some reason this year the time change is messing with me more than usual.
I’ve been going to bed early, falling asleep, and so far as I know sleeping soundly through the night. Yet when the alarm goes off in the morning, either I just lay there unconcious until Michael gets up and turns it off, or I stumble over, turn it off, and collapse back into bed for another hour.
I keep my alarm clock at the far side of the room precisely so that I have to get out of bed to turn it off. If I keep it on the bedside, I will just hit snooze again and again and again some days. I also have the clock radio portion set to turn on news about an hour before the alarm. Ordinarily, this nudges me toward wakefulness before the alarm goes off.
We used to have Michael’s alarm clock set to go off about a half hour after mine, just in case. Maybe we should go back to doing that, at least until we both stop feeling so dead in the mornings.
Neither of us are morning people, can you tell?
I’ve always felt a little guilty that I don’t hate Daylight Saving Time as much as some of my friends do. It’s the kind of thing you would expect me to rant about: the supposed energy-saving practice that actually decreases productivity, causes measurable increases in injuy-causing accidents, measurable increases in illness (usually attributed to stress), and so on.
If I keep feeling this crappy every morning for much longer, I’m going to to stop being so resigned and equanimical about Daylight Saving Time.
Not that anyone else’s rantings about it have had any effect. I’m feeling like that version of Rimmer from the first Emohawk encounter on Red Dwarf, wanting to organize a committee and bring out the big guns: a full on leafletting campaign.
Who’s with me?
I watched a teaser for a movie I’m looking forward to seeing later this year, and accidentally got sucked into the comments.
As a rule, I try to ignore comments on the internet. Wiser people than I have written extensively about why some of the worst humanity has to offer seems to congregate in the comments sections of articles and the like. Sometimes, on some sites, you can’t help be see at least the first few comments while you’re looking at the actual content.
This comments section began with someone writing a long rant about how the movie, and previous entries in the related franchise, were not original. They had borrowed this element for an older series, and that element for an older movie, and so on and so forth.
Except, of course, none of the things he cited had been original in their use of those elements, either.
Humans have been telling each other stories, constructing various finds of flights of fancy, for tens of thousands of years. Every twist of plot has been thought of, in some form, thousands of times before, for instance. Technology and cultural changes allow some of the details and contexts to change, but in some ways only on the surface. If you abstract any idea out far enough, it becomes a trope or cliché that’s been around for ages.
Which doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to distinguish between a genuine effort to tell a story that is yours, and a lazy copy of someone else. But it does mean that pointing out some element or bit of a story “has been done before” isn’t saying anything terrible profound.
And certainly not original.
According to the Shropshire Word-Book, written by Georgina Jackson and published in 1879, “It is called catchin’ time when in a wet season they catch every minute of favourable weather for field work.”
We have a weird relationship with time. When I was a kid, adults in my life put a lot of importance on how early one got up in the morning. If you were the sort of person who regularly got up at dawn (or earlier), you were obviously a morally upstanding, productive member of your community. If you slept in a bit later, but still got up “early” and started your workday sometime well before 9am, you were still a good person, though perhaps not quite as good and hard-working as the people who got up earlier. If you slept in until “all hours of the day,” there was something seriously wrong with you, and you were clearly leading a life of decadence bound for a (deservedly) horrible end.
Exceptions were made for people who had jobs that required them to work “graveyard” shifts, and the like, but even then, there were implications that this was only-just tolerated as a necessary evil.
I became especially cognizant of this in my early twenties, when I was juggling part-time college with multiple part-time jobs, one of which was a night job. A number of my relatives could not understand why I thought it was all right to sleep in past nine just because I had worked late, then stayed up to finish homework, and didn’t have to be at class or work until afternoon. They would quote folk proverbs and Bible verses at me about how early risers were healthy and successful, and only the wicked “slept the day away.”
Which, unless one is working in agriculture or some other vocation where sunlight is literally necessary to the work at hand, is nonsense.
While the human wake-and-sleep cycle is moderated by sunlight, it is part of a complex system of neuro-chemicals and hormones. The release of some of those chemicals are stimulated by the detection of sunlight, but it isn’t exactly the same in every person. There really are some people who are biologically wired to be morning people, some that aren’t, and even some who are definitely night people.
I am not one of those morning people. Getting me up and about before sunrise is a seriously unpleasant chore, no matter how early I go to bed. Even when I do get up regularly at a particular hour after a good night’s sleep, my brain never feels as if it is firing on all cylinders until a couple of hours after sunrise. In the summertime that’s no problem, but in winter—when sunrise at my latitude doesn’t happen until nearly 8 am—that makes working a 9-to-5 office job less than ideal.
Which is why I’m grateful that at least some flextime is fairly standard in my industry for my kind of work.
The flip side is that in the summer, when sunrise is much earlier, it’s a lot easier for me to get into the office and productive earlier in the day, and more likely that I will leave the office earlier, so that I can enjoy the sunny evenings.
Which is why I have a lot less hatred for the arbitrary annual movement of the clock forward and back than many of my friends. I understand perfectly well that the amount of sunlight we get in the summer is the same, no matter what any of us arbitrarily set our clocks to. But, because the official business world does follow that convention, and even in a flextime environment, one is expected to stay at the office until that hour hand creeps into the vicinity of the 5, the artificial temporary movement of that hour to earlier in the solar day gives me more time to appreciate and enjoy the sun when I am awake and out of the office.
So, it works for me. I’m sorry that it does nothing more than annoy some others.
It happens any time I write (or link to someone else’s post or article) about certain groups of people opposing gay rights, or those people doing really awful things in the name of opposing gay rights, et cetera: a direct message, private email, or (rarely) a public comment from someone explaining that “not all of us are like that.”
Sometimes it’s nothing more than that simple statement: we’re not all like that. More often it is a bit defensive. “You really shouldn’t generalize, because you make those of us who aren’t like that look bad.” The phenomenon happens so often, that advice columnist & gay rights advocate Dan Savage has started referring to those people as NALTs, for “Not All Like That.”
The thing is, that “you make those of us who aren’t like that look bad” is utterly false.
I’m not the one making them look bad. If I post a link to a story about a study that shows that nearly 75% of those who describe themselves as Evangelical Christians oppose gay rights, it isn’t me who is making those Christians who don’t oppose gay rights look bad, it’s the other Christians who are making Christians look bad.
If someone posts a piece showing how an organization is cherry-picking facts from a study which actually proves that the denial of equal rights harms the health of gays and lesbians to support their lies that being gay is unhealthy, it isn’t us who is making Christians look like liars. It’s the liar who claims to be speaking for Christ who is making Christians look like liars. It’s also the Christians who disagree with him but who are too timid to confront him about his lies who are making Christians look like liars and bigots. And it is especially those Christians who are too timid to confront their co-religionists but never hesitate to scold someone like me because they’re “not all like that” who are making Christians look like liars and bigots.
And that means, instead of scolding me for posting it, or “correcting” anyone who posts these news tidbits, you need to go scold or correct your co-religionists. Tell them you disagree. Tell them that they are lying. Speak out in public forums when they lie, and tell them they don’t speak for you.
I mean, really, my major in college was Mathematics and I posted the article which said nearly 75% of Evangelical Christians oppose gay rights. I don’t need you to tell me that nearly 75% is less than 100%. I already know that not all are like that.
I understand why people may be reluctant to confront the liars and bigots in their group. Those bigots and liars are mean, and they don’t fight fair. I get it. Really, I do. But if you’re too timid to go take them on, then keep your mouth shut. Whispering to people like me that “we aren’t all like that” doesn’t help me, it doesn’t prevent any of the meanness, nor does it further the causes of truth or justice. The only thing it does it make you feel better about being too cowardly to actually do anything about the lies and the bigotry.
And I have exactly zero desire to enable that!
If you happen to be one of those who are not like that, and are looking for something more concrete to do than whisper to people like me that you exist, may I suggest you get involved in one of these fine organizations:
My music listening tastes are a bit weird and all over the place. Often the old, “It’s got a good beat and is easy to dance to” are my primary requirements. Interesting lyrics are always a plus.
Sometimes my tastes are hopelessly pop:
“Cover the face! Pump the bass!”