Readercon 2009 - Egocentrism and Creativity

This panel, moderated (with immoderate gusto) by James Patrick Kelly, featured Scott Edelman, Eileen Gunn, Gene Wolfe, and Catherynne Valente. John Shirley was scheduled to participate, but got stuck in San Francisco, where I can picture him flailing savagely around in the airport trying to get on any flight to anywhere! The premise of the panel was based on Michael Swanwick‘s contention that “modesty and a reasonable awareness of one’s limitations have no place in a writing career.” Yes, that’s the same Swanwick who declared at Readercon one: “With the possible exception of Gene Wolfe, I’m the best writer here today.” Thus egocentrism…

Kelly started off by asking the panelists what was the most egocentric thing they’d ever done as writers.

Scott Edelman said that at the ripe age of 13, he sent his first story to Ferman (editor of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction). It was a mediocre story based on his first readings of Robert E. Howard’s Conan books, but in the cover letter, he said to Ferman that together, with the publication of his story, they would reinvent the sword and sorcery genre. Quite a gutsy claim!

Kelly himself said that early on in his career he wanted to emulate Cordwainer Smith and Alfred Bester by writing a sort of time travel story in which the characters were travelling both forwards and backwards in time simultaneously. He created an analogy for this effect by writing one paragraph in regular left to right prose, then the alternating paragraph backwards from right to left. The story went on to win an award, and then was chosen for an anthology. Unfortunately, when he wrote the introduction to the story he mentioned his intended the homage aspect, and when people realized it, suddenly they weren’t as impressed with it. If he had just kept his mouth shut they might not have noticed, but only by shamelessly comparing his story to those heroes did it begin to pale by comparison.

Eileen Gunn said that in her case as a writer she didn’t manifest ego in her fictional work, but in her actions. She quit her job at Microsoft saying “Screw this, I’m getting out of here to write fiction!” She gave up her job and her stock options… and now she’s getting rich as a writer. (Ironic screwed up face followed…)

Valente said that there was a challenge to finish a novel in thirty days. What a wimp-out, she thought, to spend a whole thirty days on it! So she wrote her entire 1st novel in ten days. These days, however, she said that she doesn’t have that much piss and vinegar.

Gene Wolfe said the most egotistical act of his life, was during a writer’s workshop when he decided to absolutely destroy a student. “This was very egocentric of me. I’m proud of it to this day. At this wkshop someone submitted the worst Arabian Nights knockoff ever written. It was really utterly terrible. So I said to myself that decency goes down the drain and I’m going to tear this person to ribbons, I’m going to destroy him and make him cry. I’m going to shout at him: burn this garbage right now, forget about writing, don’t even pick up a pencil for the rest of your life!” But when the workshop participant came into the room, it turned out to be the biggest, meanest looking white kid he ever saw in his life. Wolfe said: “You know, this is a very interesting story you’ve written.” As it turned out, the author was working as an extra in Hollywood, first as a member of a lynch mob, then as a mobster. He was trying to write based on reading those endless fantasy series novels. Wolfe patiently explained to him that he needed to learn by reading excellent short stories, such as his own.

The next topic was on the subject of how such egotism deals with rejections.

Wolfe said that at first he didn’t know how to market his work at all. He was sending science fiction stories to Better Homes and Gardens. And naturally he got lots of rejections. In the beginning Wolfe said that he got started writing because his friend was an illustrator for a college literary magazine and asked him to write something to accompany his art. The idea was that they would be a great literary-artistic team. Wolfe tried his hand at a story, but when he submitted the manuscript he was able to actually stand right next to the editor and watch him blue pencil the whole thing. The editor marked up the entire story, tearing it to pieces. In a fury, Wolfe found himself thinking: “this is crap! The next story I write is going to be so good, this guy won’t be able to mark up anything at all.” Of course, the next story was just as bad, and the next one after that. But ultimately, says Wolfe, the trick is to write something so damned good that even if it gets rejected he can just say to hell with that stupid editor, this is damn good!

Eileen Gunn said she started at the top, her 1st rejection slip was from New Yorker. “The key,” Gunn said “is to move up to better rejections, that might turn into acceptance.” Gunn had one letter from Gardner Dozois who wrote: “Eileen, they may hang me for this, or fire me, but what the hell, I’m feeling dangerous! So I’m going to publish it…” You never know what the turning point from rejection to acceptance will be!

Kelly said that he was a pretty bad typist, and it took him a week to type up a manuscript. Then it would take six more weeks to send out and get rejected. He’d do this over and over. The problem was, after a year, the manuscript had been sent around so many times it gets kind of beat up and wrinkly looking. “So I’d pull out the ironing board and flatten them out,” said Kelly. “Now if you dig up some of those old manuscripts from my files they look like the fucking magna carta, all brown around the edges.” Kelly’s advice is basically to just keep sending them out. Only after sending them EVERYWHERE do you consider rewrite. This is an expression of the egocentricity. You have to say NO to the people who say NO to you. If you can’t do this, then the bastards will grind you down.

Edelman said that he probably has the record for rejections at the table, over a 1,000. “When you get a bad review laugh about it,” he advised. “Believe in the story. Not in the editor, whose tastes might be different. For example, I would always send a story to George Scithers first, because I knew he would hate it. I could picture him there, fuming at my story, growing apoplectic with fury. And the rejection letters I got from him would practically burst into flame. Everyone else seemed pretty friendly compared to Scithers.”

Talking about Scithers, Wolfe said that once, at the Nebula awards session, George Scithers was talking about how great he was as a writer and what a gem of a story he wrote that was up for the award. But, standing behind him on the stage, Terry Carr was shaking his head, frowning sourly, and making thumbs down sign. Said Wolfe, “I was determined to stamp him into the ground for that, to get my revenge. But then he went and died first, so I never got to grind his face in the dirt.”

Someone in the audience asked, have any of you written a story just to take down another story?

Kelly said that he wrote “Think Like a Dinosaur“ in response to “The Cold Equations,” because that story was getting all sorts of attention as a “hard SF” piece which he didn’t think it merited at all.

At the end of the session, Barry Malzberg, who had been standing in the background throughout, said: “I just wanted to make a statement: I wrote you years ago to say that your story Think Like a Dinosaur was not written in response to The Cold Equations, but to Rogue Moon by Budrys.” So it turned out that Barry had the last word at the ego panel.