When we arrived this morning at the Crystal City, we emerged from far beneath the earth through a one-way door and out into a brisk morning. Normally, being a lazy sort of adventurer, I’d have chosen to sleep in. There is no reward for fighting sleep and dream here, so why I should I? Luck had it, my ride had a coffee date
We approached the entrance, billowing with smoke and wondered what new guardian had settled into the role. Having dispatched the last by surrendering our mount and a few gold coins, I only hoped this one would be so amenable. But the pungent cloud and the figures moving within spoke to a greater challenge.
Leather armor, steely looks and more sewn on patches than a NASCAR driver. Yep. A biker gang.
Unfortunately, my companion had agreed to partake in ritual with a sorceress. A true legend of the craft. I shuddered to think what a late arrival would mean for him.
So we avoided the writhing cloud and went through a side door…
We were in a hurry. My friend, a fellow writer I’ve known since grade school, had signed up for coffee with Mary Robinette Kowal. Yep, the Hugo award-winning author. World Fantasy Con is truly a magical place.
I know this because yesterday I got to sit in the presence of the legendary Joe Haldeman. Google can sort you out if you haven’t heard the name. Sci-fi master, novels and short stories, he’s a household name in the Geekdom where I spend my time. His “For White Hill” has to be one of the greatest short stories I’ve ever read. I plug it to everyone I know.
Haldeman and his wife Gay sat at the far end of a conference table from a mixed group of old fans and eager writers. But the first thing that struck me wasn’t celebrity awe. The first thing I noticed was how warm and comfortable this royal couple seemed together. Their own shared story was as plain as words on a page.
I had prepared a few questions beforehand but found myself mostly relaxing and enjoying his interactions with others. Writers asked questions he’d probably been asked a thousands times and he answered them with the same conviction as he must have the first time. “Do you ever get writer’s block?” “What advice do you have for new writers?”
I found myself wondering when that switch flipped. That point in time where instead of answering questions about his work, he started mostly answering questions about his process. I kept that question to myself.
But with his answer to the last one, “what advice”, I practically fell out of my chair.”Just shoot yourself” he said, followed by a “That’s what Hemingway said.”
While everyone laughed at the first statement, I guffawed loudly at the second and had to apologize. I can have a dark sense of humor.
He talked about the good ‘ol days where you could scrape a living off of short stories, writing for .05 to .07 cents a word. (You’d be fortunate to get that today.) He talked about writing your “truth”. How everyone’s experience is different and when writing of things such as war, even soldiers will disagree with the accounts but you can only write what’s real to you. To the detractors, show empathy, don’t argue, and move on.
He mentioned his teaching experience and how out of the thousands of talented writers he’d seen in his classrooms, only a handful ever made a living at it. He told about a black woman who’d taken his course years ago among the white housewives. She’d awed them (teacher included) with her clean and simple prose, every word perfect in her fables about children and animals. The woman, stuck in a menial job and a hostile society, had been overwhelmed by the attention of that one small, light-skinned class and had left.
The talk was both humbling and encouraging. It reinforced the difficulty of the road ahead. It also drove home how important relationships are to this often solitary task of writing. Both professional and personal.
After the meeting, I thanked Gay Haldeman for taking up a teaching job to pay the bills while Joe “tried out writing for a couple of years.” I personally understand that level of commitment and trust and how damn important it is, especially today. Later, I thanked everyone, face to face and through social media (Mrs. Haldeman included), for stopping by my signing table somewhere outside the gravitational pull of the honored guests.
We’re all in this mad pursuit together. Chances are we won’t survive, won’t finish. Nobody should ever feel compelled to turn back. Our best bet is to stay in the race and help those closest in the pack, being careful not to leave anyone behind. Confront the guardians, make your way around them, it doesn’t matter. We all have our own truth and only we can tell it the way it needs to be told. Speak that truth.