I stayed up too late at World Fantasy last night, talking to various fascinating folks, including Nalo Hopkinson (a rare delight, as she doesn’t travel much these days) and Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell. Per usual, I seemed to end up talking mostly about myself and my career/life stresses, and they gave me a host of wise advice that I’m still processing. (Thanks, folks.)
I don’t joke when I say these con conversations are my therapy these days; I find it immensely valuable talking to people who understand the rather specific and odd quirks of the highly ambitious creative mind (and hey, Oak Parkers, if you can recommend a therapist who is good with creatives and giftedness, I’d appreciate the rec, for both me and my kids).
It’s a serious benefit that these SFF writing folks work in the same field and can actually give very specific industry advice too, about agents and publishing houses and writing project choices. I’ve been thinking about choices a LOT lately.
I’m in my mid-40s, which is the traditional time to have a mid-life crisis. I have multiple friends who had actual breakdowns in the last few years, or break-ups of their marriages, or both. I’ve been arriving at these conventions generally straight off long stretches of intense work, drained and close to shattered, emotionally labile. I generally sleep heavily the first night, and am better, more myself, the second day, but still. I kind of feel like I’m having a slow-motion mid-life crisis that is JUST avoiding turning into a breakdown because I have these release valves, these spaces to pause and breathe and process. Thank all the little gods.
Still, my friends worry about me. They tell me they want me to take better care of myself. I was lucky enough to get to interview Nalo and Sheree Renée Thomas and Andrea Hairston yesterday for the SLF’s Portolan Project, and now I can see Andrea looking at me with that direct and uncompromising gaze of hers — you have to pace yourself, Mary Anne. No burning out allowed.
I’m trying, I swear. I’ve been trying for a year or more now. It helped immensely when Benjamin Rosenbaum somehow said the magic words at WorldCon in Dublin that let me step back from Maram Makerspace and eventually hand that project over to Carollina Song. Did I mention that Carollina has agreed to take that that on, and I can just advise and throw out ideas from the board? Massive weight rolling off my back.
Paolo said last night that I seem to have an immense sense of responsibility. And I didn’t know quite what to say to him in response; he seemed to expect me to be surprised by this revelation, but of course, I knew that bit already. I feel it constantly these days. Must save the world. Every single time I see a social problem these days, I feel the impulse to try to fix it.
For example: World Fantasy is too expensive, you know. This convention is so expensive that a host of writers end up bar-conning instead (not paying registration, just hanging out in the bar talking to everyone else). And this particular con is somewhat designed to be that way, to be an exclusive industry event, but I hate it. It’s exclusionary and elitist and it’s going to kill the con if they keep it up, and that would be a real shame and also set the field back. I could try to fix that problem, but it would likely mean spending a lot of time volunteering, getting to know the people involved, maybe ending up on the World Fantasy board (if there is such a thing). Maybe finding out, perhaps, that the fix isn’t as simple as it seems from a passing glance, etc. and so on. And I have some certainty that I could improve the situation at least, but it would likely take gobs of time. And that’s fine, if this is THE big problem that I want to fix, but I don’t think it is.
When I was first thinking about running for office, I talked to a political staffer and asked him how you knew what office to run for. And he said to figure out what’s the problem you want to fix, and where you need to be to have the power to fix that. I said, “But I want to fix ALL the problems.” He just looked at me sympathetically. (I can’t actually run for president unless someone changes the law about needing to be born in this country, so no need to suggest that option!)
Lots of people tell me that I can’t do everything, as if I don’t know that already. But on some fundamental level, maybe my brain doesn’t know that, because I seem to have to work through this issue every single day recently. No, I don’t have to try to fix World Fantasy. No, I don’t have to try to fix the Flint water crisis. No, I don’t have to try to fix the situation on the border. No, I don’t have to try to fix the homelessness issues in Oak Park. (I mean, yes, I can do my own small bit on all of those every day by passing on info, donating funds, etc. But I don’t have to pick it up and devote my life to it.)
It feels like there are more opportunities to try to solve big problems coming by all the time now, maybe because I’m further along in my career, am just better at stuff. I know how to fix things now that I didn’t know how to fix twenty years ago, or that I didn’t have the social capital to be able to fix.
But they’re big problems. They’re not fast fixes. So I really CAN’T fix them all, and right now, it’s an arduous process talking myself down from each impulse. It takes time and energy, which is stolen away from the other things. I need minions and deputies, people. Working on that part. (Do you want to volunteer with the SLF? Ping me. firstname.lastname@example.org, subject line VOLUNTEER. I could really use a massive volunteer corps, dang it, and ideally, people to help me organize it. Karen Murphy is helping with that last bit, thankfully, though I need to sit down with her sometime soon and actually get her started on organizing our volunteers. This week, hopefully.)
Triage. I’m trying to triage. What’s the single problem that is big enough to satisfy my enormous sense of responsibility and desperate need to fix things, a problem that is actually within my capabilities (with lots of help), and which I am perhaps uniquely qualified to do well?
I think it might be the SLF’s big educational creative writing project, this sort of Khan Academy for creative writing thing. The Portolan Project. I’ve spent 25 years building towards it, in some sense, both on the SF and the educational front, though it didn’t crystallize into an actual project until this year. It’ll let me lift up marginalized voices, help people past racist, sexist, etc. roadblocks, help them move past their own anxieties to find ways to say what they want to say, so that the world can hear them.
If you can help me with that, we’re doing a membership drive, mostly so I can hire some part-time organizational help. I’m hoping to post a LOT about it in the next few weeks. The faster we get to the fall goal, the sooner I can stop thinking about it. Hopefully then my brain will believe that for now, we’ve done enough on the world-saving front, and I can actually go back to writing most of the time.
I have a novel to write, people. But my brain doesn’t want to let me do it unless I save the world first…
[image is of a portolan chart, with the rhumb lines that help navigators find their way. It also reminds me a little of how my mind has felt this year, spinning out in all directions at once!]