Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#26: A Matter of Perspective

by Seanan McGuire

Everyone in the world has their own point of view, on just about everything. I sleep in a room that's painted to look like the inside of a big pumpkin, and my pillowcases glow in the dark; I find it soothing, while other people complain that they'd be able to see the walls even after they closed their eyes. Neither of us is wrong. We just have a different perspective on things. Here's today's expanded topic:

People are going to act like writing is easy, because that's all they know; they're not writers. People are going to say you're being a snob when you say "I'm sorry, I have to work," because they can't understand why you'd choose reworking chapter three over going to the roller derby. Try not to take it personally. I'm sure they do shit that seems crazy to you, too.

Things that make sense to us are baffling to others; things that make sense to others are baffling to us. That's human nature. That's the way we're basically programmed, as a species, to operate. I don't get you, you don't get me, and neither of us quite gets that guy sitting over there. The trouble arises when one of us has a trait or tendency—like, say, the desire to work a second job in your free time, for which it is unlikely you will ever receive above minimum wage—that the majority just doesn't understand.

What's the answer? Well, unfortunately, if there were an easy answer, I'd be making millions as an advice columnist, and I wouldn't have time to write this essay. But there may be some coping strategies. Let's begin.

Human Behavior For Dummies.

Before you get insulted by this section title, please understand that for this purpose, I'm calling the entire species a bunch of dummies. Or maybe you can just get insulted about that, since it's a bit pejorative. The trouble is, it's also true. We are all, each and every one of us, dummies. Most of the time we can fake being reasonably smart—maybe even really smart, if we're good at what we're doing—but we each have a situation or circumstance which we are totally unprepared to deal with. That's why we spend so much time staring at each other and going "did you really mean to stick your hand inside the alligator?" The answer may be yes. The answer may be no. Either way, odds are good that at the moment of hand-sticking, somebody was being stupid.

So here's some information on human behavior which may come in handy. First off, people like things that are like them. We are drawn to the herd on a basic, instinctive level. Maybe it's because we figure we're safest from the lions when we're surrounded by people whose stripes look like ours. The phrase "safety in numbers" came about for a reason, and it's not because we're a species of loners. We like to have company, and we like that company to be at least superficially like us.

But wait, you might say. I have lots of friends who aren't like me! You'd be right...but you'd also be wrong, because I'd be willing to bet that you can almost always find a point of commonality between yourself and your friends. What's more, if that commonality were entirely removed, the stability of the relationship would become dependent on the commonalities you'd managed to form since you first met. Rae and I became friends because we both liked the same show. That show is off the air now, but we've remained friends because we used that initial point of "same" to find more points of "same." Yes, we enjoy one another's company, but if we took out all our standing similarities, we'd drift apart pretty quickly. It would be sad. It would also be human.

Even as humans like things that are the same, they are often made uncomfortable by things that are different. It's like peer pressure, only it can work in both directions—sometimes the person who's pressuring you to change is doing it because they feel like your very difference is putting pressure on them, like they aren't allowed to stay the way they are unless you stop presenting a challenge to their reality. It doesn't help that not everyone's definitions match up. I, for example, think a house that is painted entirely in shades of orange is very soothing and harmonious. Kate thinks one brightly colored wall per room is more than sufficient, and wouldn't want every room to have the same bright color. We're totally fine with this difference in opinions...but we don't live together. If we did, there would be a brief, bloody war over the interior design, and the winner would be whoever brought the bigger guns. Our realities can stay unchanged as long as they don't collide. If they ever do, heaven help us.

People like to do things with other people. (Yes, I realize this is a massive generalization, but work with me here.) Oh, there are things we may want to do alone—I genuinely like to take multi-mile walks when there's nobody else around, and I consider the invention of the iPod and personal playlist to be proof that the robot revolution is an acceptable risk—but on the whole we are, again, a social species. Why does this matter? Because writing, even co-authoring, is essentially a solitary activity. It's something you do alone, probably with your door closed. There are very few things people regularly do with the door closed that they would willingly discuss in mixed company, so the very nature of writing can seem a little, well, questionable at times.

We are all programmed in our own special ways, and those special ways are a lot more similar than we'd usually like to think they are. It's useful to keep that in mind, when you're getting ready to kill your best friend for trying to make you go out shopping on the night you have set aside for doing edits.

Anyone Can Whistle.

If you have graduated from any form of formalized schooling, you can probably write. If you can read this, you can almost definitely write. Ninety percent of the people in your social and family circles are almost certainly literate to some degree. Almost all of them can probably write, too, even if they can't really manage anything more complicated than "hate you, hate Kansas, taking the dog, Dorothy." Anyone can whistle, and anyone can write, and just like the rest of us microwave addicts watching the Food Network and thinking "I could do that," there's an assumption in a large percentage of the population that anyone can write a novel. Or a short story, or a poem, or...

The thing is, it can be difficult to realize how wrong this assumption is, no matter what side of the equation you're standing on. I mean, I wrote a sonnet every day for the entire time I was in high school. I can write sonnets in my sleep. I admit, I find it genuinely difficult to understand why people, smart people, consider sonnets to be complicated. They're just math and rhyming, right? At the same time, my housemate has shown me how to operate the DVR six times, and I still can't make the damn thing work. We're all wired differently, and something that looks easy isn't always, nor is something that's easy for you always going to be easy for me.

People who try to write fiction when they aren't equipped for it often look surprised by how difficult it is. A novel requires hundreds of hours to compose, complete, and correct. Maybe even thousands. There are people who work for twenty years to finish a single book. There are people who finish three books a year. That goes back to the whole "we're all wired differently" part of things...but it's also an eye-opener for folks who think this is somehow easy. I admit, parts of it are easier than others. Parts of it are even downright fun. But the majority is hard labor, and the only way to get better is to do as constantly as possible.

The Snob Factor.

Remember when we discussed the fact that many people regard writing as being a "glamorous profession"? It's something you do because you want to be Stephen King or Michael Crichton or another of those big authors who make the cover of People Magazine. Never mind that they're a tiny percentage of the overall population of authors, they are, for better or for worse, our public face. Unfortunately, that means that sometimes, when we say "I want to stay in and take care of those revisions," our friends may hear "I am a big-time awesome author who does awesome author things and you're just not good enough to spend time with." Think I'm kidding? Sadly, I'm not. My friends have watched me struggle long enough to hear the words I'm actually saying, but new friends might not. People who've never hung out with a writer before might not. Hell, people who've just had a lousy day and want someone to see the damn Hannah Montana movie with might not hear the words I'm actually saying, because they want my attention already.

There are two ways of coping with this. One requires work on your part. One requires work on the part of your friends. I recommend using both ways, as this is the most likely to result in a positive outcome.

First, your assignment: make it clear to people that your social life is, to some degree, curtailed by your writing. You can be as precise or imprecise as you like. I usually say that I write "a lot," and that sometimes, I have deadlines. You might set aside a specific block of time, or be aiming for a certain number of hours per week. Make your needs clear, easy to understand, and as up-front as possible. For extra credit, do not, ever, use writing as an excuse to get out of a commitment that you have made to a friend or family member. Yes, last minute deadlines come up, but much like boy who cried wolf, if you claim to have a deadline every time I want you to go to the flea market with me, I'm eventually going to stop believing you. That real deadline could wind up being the last straw, and that would be a shame.

Now, the assignment for your friends. Guys, you're friends with a writer. That's awesome. Please understand that for someone who says "I am a writer," writing is a job. It may be a second job, or even a third job, but it's still a job. Now, since your writer friends probably don't drop by the office at two in the afternoon and poke you until you agree to play hooky with them, you should really respect the "working hours" of the writers you know. Make sure to take "I can't" as an answer, and offer other suggestions if you really want to spend time with them. And writers, just to intrude on this second assignment a bit, you should be doing the same thing. If your friends ask you to come out during writing time, propose another outing later. We're social beasts. We need the contact, or we'll gradually run out of things to write about. And that would be sad.

In Conclusion...

We're all weird, we're all crazy, and we're all going to need to take care of business before we go to the roller derby. Okay? Okay.


© 2010 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and has published four novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy.

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