Conferences For Introverts

I spent the weekend in Baltimore for the Borderlands Press Boot Camp. I ended up comparing it to my residency last month at Antioch, and all in all, I felt that I learned a lot and met a lot of great folks, but I won’t go back.

My unwillingness to return is less about the quality of instruction or the personalities of the other participants, and more about the fact that I realized that I am not cut out for conferences or workshops of this type.

People who know me have heard me claim that I’m an extreme introvert. “No, you’re not!” they say, but I am. Not all introverts are shy, socially awkward or quiet, but all the introverts I know do feel that in social situations where there are lots of new people, loud music, unfamiliar places, etc., they are overstimulated. Some seek the edges of the party, some come but don’t stay long, some won’t show up.

This workshop went like this: all the participants stayed in the same hotel held the entire conference. Friday night, we had a large-group class 6pm – 11:30pm. On Saturday, we had small-group classes 8am – 1pm, then again 2:30 – 5. We all had lunch together on that Saturday; by the time we broke for dinner, all I wanted was to take a walk away from the crowd. We had a 9pm – 11:45pm session Saturday, followed by a 9am – noon session Sunday. During the “everybody in a room, everybody talking and sharing” sessions, I found myself having questions and comments but not wanting to speak up and share. At times I disagreed with the panelists, but said nothing.

I enjoyed meeting and getting to know my fellow participants, but the most valuable and interesting part of the exercise for me was the small-group critique sessions. There wasn’t any small talk in those sessions – we went right to the meat of critiquing and talking about style and content, etc. I didn’t feel that I was playing a role (“engaged dinner companion” or “energetic group-discussion participant”) or that I was overstimulated. The largest group had four other people in it, which meant that nobody was yelling or talking over anyone else.

The whole thing differed from my grad school residency in that at Antioch, I have the choice to attend as many or as few sessions as I want. If, by afternoon, I’m tired out and feel that I need some time alone, I can go back to my hotel room (where I have no roommates) and veg out. We had few required large-group activities, mostly orientation-type things that I won’t have to repeat.

While I won’t be going back, I do want to keep in touch with the folks I met. I found all of them to be interesting, engaging and full of the same kind of ideas and passion I have for writing. For anyone who reads this who’s interested in making their horror, sci-fi or other genre fiction more commercially viable and who’s less of an introvert, I would recommend the Boot Camp. I won’t be there, but you should go.

Who Do You Believe?

I’m currently at Borderlands Press Boot Camp, and today is the day that we met with the folks running the group and got small-group feedback. Last night, a staffer read our separately-submitted two-page excerpts (we were requested to send in two pages from a current work in progress) out loud. We were instructed to raise a hand when we felt that we had heard enough to make a decision about the book, either yes or no. The group was brutal. They completely trashed nearly everyone’s submission, and by the time they got to mine (the last one), they were just shrugging their shoulders and asking each other “what the hell is this” and laughing in a not-kind way.

Mr. A, the man furthest to the left, said that it was a mess – he couldn’t figure out what was supposed to be happening. Mr. B, the man in the center, just laughed derisively. He shouted out “Muffin-faced? What does that even mean?” (I find this slightly funny because I stole that term from Paul Theroux, who used it to describe Queen Elizabeth in an article in Vanity Fair.) Mr. C, the man furthest to the right, seemed to want to hear more. He was willing to forgive its obvious deficiencies because he wanted to hear the end.

I was expecting the small-group feedback to look a lot the same – that everyone would trash me and I’d feel like an idiot. Imagine my shock, then, when Mr. A pronounced it “nearly perfect,” and observed that “either you’ve been writing for a very long time, or you’re gifted.” In the next session, Mr. B’s written notes said “I confess: I loved this.” Mr. C, the man I was sure would hale me as a genius, made some very discouraging remarks. He did say that it worked, that I had managed to walk a very fine line between horror and hilarity. I feel like he was tough on everybody, and that perhaps I got off a little easier than some, but it was still much tougher than I was expecting.

Here’s my dilemma, and I know that this has happened to everyone: On Friday night, I sat and listened to Messrs. A, B and C. I listened to how they presented themselves, how they put their thoughts together, the points they made, etc. I decided that Mr. A was a waste of time. I didn’t agree with his ideas or opinions and thought that he was a little full of himself. I wasn’t entirely sold on Mr. B either. He laughed at his own jokes and parroted the words of the other two men constantly. Mr. C seemed the most well-prepared, the most articulate, the most mentally together of the three. I had already decided that I would listen more carefully to his advice than to Mr. A’s or Mr. B’s.

But now that I’ve gotten their advice, I can’t help but feel that perhaps Mr. A and Mr. B are smarter than I had given them credit for. Obviously, they’re smart enough to see what a “perfect,” “gifted,” lovable writer I am. And perhaps Mr. C isn’t quite as bright as I wanted to think he was.

It’s tempting to believe the people who flattered me, but I’m going to go home and look at the dozens of copies of this same 25 pages I’ve now had critiqued and handed back, and I’m going to try the suggestions that Mr. C gave me. I’m not going to rest on my A and B laurels.

Solving the World’s Problems

I’m in Baltimore right now, having spent 9 hours in transit from San Jose (the closest airport to my mountain lair). Here’s what I love best about travel: everyone approaches it a little differently. Some folks are infrequent travelers who dress up and act like the airport itself is an adventure. Some folks are more frequent travelers and so see the journey as secondary to the destination. For me, travel is stressful because it forces me into society where I may, at any moment, have to interact with strangers.

What would be the ultimate mode of transport? Of course, a private jet would be ultimate, but nowadays the sorts of people who are privileged enough to have such accommodations are vilified. To be sure, a private jet is hardly the most ecologically sound mode of travel. The amount of resources used to carry a single person to and from a destination are absolutely out of all proportion.

I might suggest, then, a mode of personal travel for the extravagantly rich that would be non-polluting, sufficiently opulent, and have the added benefit of solving the increasing problems of both unemployment and obesity. The Greeks had a ship called the trireme, which employed three rowers per oar to speed the ship through the waters. Let us imagine, then, a craft that combines the form of a trireme – a long bodied craft with men supplying motive power – with the mechanical advances of the steam engine – gears that convert the turbine-turning power of steam into the locomotive power supplied to the wheels.

I believe that the mechanics of locomotion would be easily adapted to the mechanics of rowing. A set of three cars – sleeping, baggage and dining – could certainly be pulled by 60 rowers (10 “oars” on each side of what would otherwise be the engine car). Using the existing rail system, if each rower were paid a fair wage, would likely be no more extravagant than the current cost of maintaining a private jet and crew. There would be no fuel costs, no need to maintain the expensive motor workings of an engine, no expensive insurance, since rail travel is less fraught with peril than air travel. To be sure, travel would not be quite as expedient between places, but is that so terrible? Modern life moves at a pace that I personally find unhealthy. People need time to relax, to ruminate, to reflect. Perhaps if travel were a bit less immediate and convenient, people would make more of an occasion of it. Perhaps they might dress up, perhaps they might be more conscious of their impression on their fellow travelers, and perhaps travel might be what it once was. And then, perhaps, they might leave me alone.

You Have to Give to Get

Tomorrow morning, I leave at just after 6:00am for Baltimore to be part of the Borderlands Press Boot Camp. Each of the participants had to read and critique 15 other participants’ stories, up to 25 pages. Does this sound familiar?

I think that as a writer, my most valuable asset is having a group of people whose opinions I respect, to look over my work and give me feedback. But, like any valuable asset, it doesn’t come free.

In addition to the not-inconsiderable financial cost of grad school, I have upwards of 50 books to read each semester – that’s ~2 per week, 10-15 of which require annotations. I also have to write something like 100 pages of new work each semester. I have to read, critique and be prepared to discuss in detail the work of 5-6 of my fellow students per semester. For Borderlands Press Boot Camp, I had to pay to attend, but I also have to read and critique the work of the 15 other participants and be prepared to discuss it in detail. For the critique group I’ve been part of on and off for the past 4 years, I have to read, critique and discuss in depth an entire novel (not just the first 20 pages) every couple of months.

I’ve learned so much from all the people who have taken the time to critique my work, and when I critique theirs, I think hard about what I could do to make their work the best thing it can be. But I also want to point out to everyone who has ever said to me “You’re a writer. Could you just look at this thing that I wrote and tell me what you think?” that no, I can’t. I don’t feel that it would be fair to the dozens of other people who have made some real sacrifices and put in a lot of time to help me make my writing the best it can be.



Fault Lines

When you encounter a problem, how important is it to you to establish fault?

For instance, if you are walking down the street and you see a piece of trash on the sidewalk, do you ask of anyone nearby whether it’s theirs? How about if you’re at home and someone leaves a piece of trash on the floor? Do you act differently in one place versus another? Why?

If you are at work and a problem arises, do you first establish who’s to blame, or do you first fix the problem?

There are good reasons for establishing who’s at fault when things go wrong.

  1. If the same person makes the same mistake repeatedly, they should either be educated (if they don’t realize they’re doing the wrong thing) or fired (if they do, but they don’t care).
  2. If many people are making the same mistake, your policies should either be more widely known or changed.
  3. If the mistake is something that only a single person can undo, such as an incorrectly sent email.

There is one very good reason to avoid establishing fault. It’s no use if the only reason you’re establishing fault is to cover your own ass. Sadly, though, this seems to me to be the number one reason that anyone bothers to get to the bottom of any problem.

All of this is really just me thinking hard about a current situation where something has gone wrong, and I’m searching for the person responsible. I’m trying to drill down and question my own motives because I don’t want this to turn into something negative, when I know that it doesn’t have to be. If handled properly, this could be a great learning experience for everyone involved.

Let’s see if I’m that good.

Dwelling in the Past and the Future

My mother is moving out to San Francisco in mid-February. She’s lived in her townhouse in downtown Phoenix for the last 18 years or so, and has, in the course of that residence, compiled an amazing array of shit. My mother, like everyone else in my family, has a hard time throwing anything away. On a scale of Dalai Lama to Hoarder, we’re all firmly in Pack Rat territory. In all the crap she’s sifting through, though, she came across a year’s worth OMNI magazine.

Remember OMNI? I liked the articles, but what I devoured was the fiction. OMNI gave me my first tastes of Orson Scott Card, Ben Bova, Harlan Ellison, Spider Robinson, George R. R. Martin and Stephen King. It showed me all kinds of things that people were thinking about, trying, doing. People who weren’t about to wait around for the future to come to them. People who were making the future happen.

Now that I’m working on re-inventing literature – putting together not just the words for a new kind of novel, but formulating the means by which people will interact with it – I feel like I’m taking my place among those people I’ve always admired. I feel like I’m helping shape the future. Maybe one day, I’ll be cool enough that someone will write about me in an amazing magazine, and that article will get some other kid thinking, and that kid will go on to create something else amazing…

I can’t wait to hold them in my hands again.

Taking the Stigma Out of It

I was out at a public gathering with the Pirate, and I saw a person wearing a zip-front sweatshirt with writing on it. The sweatshirt was unzipped and open so that part of the writing was obscured, and I realized that I was openly staring at this person’s chest in an effort to make sense of the writing. Upon noticing my staring, the person zipped the sweatshirt, my curiosity was satisfied and the episode ended.

Except that it didn’t. I wanted to tell the Pirate about it as an illustration of what a social dork I can be, but although I knew the person’s name, I could honestly not tell what gender the person was. The name was no help, as it was one of those slightly unusual names like “Dallas” or “Kennedy” that could go either way. The person’s physiology was no help at all, nor was anything about the person’s manner of speech, expressed interests or abilities, etc. The person’s gender had nothing whatsoever to do with the story, except that I didn’t want to have to say “I was staring at Dallas’ sweatshirt and Dallas realized it and zipped Dallas’ sweatshirt and I was all embarrassed because I realized that Dallas must have seen me staring at Dallas and thought I was some kind of idiot…” because if I told it that way, I would sound like an idiot.

I realize that in today’s society, gender has become a difficult issue. Openly transgendered people have challenged our notions about where in the body gender lies. Gender is no longer a simple shorthand for anything, and most especially not sexual identity, profession, sexual preference, mode of dress, or anything else that when I was a kid could be labeled “boy” or “girl.” But I’ve also realized that gender is only really important to me in two situations, both of which involve intercourse: when I want to sleep with someone (and as a person in a long-term monogamous relationship, that question was resolved a long time ago) and when I want to talk about them.

I talk about people all the time, and it’s difficult when everyone has a different idea about who they are and how they want to be thought about.¬† Some folks consciously or unconsciously stake their claim – they dress, act, talk in a way that reinforces the gender role they are playing. Some folks try to stake their claim, but meet with less success. Living in Santa Cruz, I also see no end of people who dress in ways that say that they’re just messing with society at large. But all of these people have an idea of themselves and their gender identity that may not be obvious to the casual observer.

So, how do I talk about Dallas and Dallas’ sweatshirt? Let me make this much clear: I like Dallas. Dallas seems like a smart, interesting person with cool hobbies and a lot of things in common with me. Dallas probably knows a lot of good jokes and fun places to hang out and interesting, artistic people. None of those things have anything to do with Dallas’ gender, and chances are that it would take me months, if not years, to get to know Dallas well enough to broach the subject of gender identity. But in the meantime, how do I talk about Dallas?

Which brings me to the subject of “it.” People have tried to solve the issue of gender pronouns in various ways. I understand trying to be inclusve: “Everyone should have brought his or her ticket.” But when you’re only talking about one person, that makes you sound weird. When talking about a single, definite person of indeterminate gender, you can use the kind of tortured constructions that avoid pronouns: “We gave each person a ticket and each person should have it,” but they are just that. Torture for both the speaker and the listener. The worst are the made up pronouns – ze, mir, hum. Those are just silly. And even if they weren’t silly, they’re hard to remember and most people won’t understand what you’re saying anyway. You can use the plural, “Everyone should have brought their ticket,” but it’s grammatically incorrect, and sounds strange when you’re talking about a single person and their actions or possessions.

But what about “it”? People object to using “it” to refer to human beings because we use “it” to refer to things that are not human beings and humans are egotistical and like to be assured of their special, privileged place in the world as the only ones with a language that enshrines their self-awareness. Referring to other human beings whose gender is unclear as “it” seems insensitive and dismissive. Using “it” to refer to someone whose gender is completely beside the point (as in the story of Dallas’ sweatshirt) seems lazy. But how can you be respectful, inclusive, not lazy, etc., when talking about someone that you don’t know? For times like that, I’d like to de-criminalize, as it were, the use of “it” to refer to people whose gender is unknown, unclear or irrelevant. If you want, you can use it to talk about me.

I know Dallas is.

“You should have seen it! Staring at my chest with its big, stupid mouth gawping open! Some people!”