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The Geek Feminist Revolution
By Kameron Hurley
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2016 Kameron Hurley
All rights reserved.
Persistence, and the Long Con of Being a Successful Writer
It was the answer to a question posed to science fiction writer Kevin J. Anderson in an interview about what he thought a writer required most in order to succeed in the profession.
I read that interview when I was seventeen, hungrily scouring the shelves of the local B. Dalton bookseller for advice on how to be a writer. I'd already sold a nonfiction essay to a local paper by that point, and a short fiction piece for $5 to an early online magazine.
I felt like I was on the up-and-up. By twenty-four, I figured, I could make a living at this writing thing. By that point I'd been writing with the intent of being a writer since I was twelve, and submitting fiction to magazines for two years. Two years feels like a long time when you're seventeen.
The rejection letters were piling up. I needed some motivation.
So I wrote "Persistence" on a sticky note and pasted it to my chunky laptop.
I have it pasted above my computer monitor still.
The question was, how long?
I'd soon realize persistence wasn't an endgame. It was the name of the road.
* * *
When I was a younger writer, I was obsessed with figuring out whether or not I was "good." At most writing workshops I went to, from fourteen onward, I was always the best or, at least, most experienced writer in the bunch. I began writing fiction and studying fiction at twelve and sending it out for publication at fifteen. It got very frustrating. When you're in a group of people where you've got the most experience, you're less likely to learn things unless you're teaching others. And let's be real — nobody wants to learn anything from a cocky sixteen-year-old who knows how to polish a sentence.
So this yearning remained — I wanted somebody who was good, really good, way, way more experienced than me to tell me I was good. To reach out and pluck me from the fray and shake my hand and go: YOU ARE THE ONE.
It's a typical kid fantasy.
Growing up on a lot of fantasy and science fiction novels often means lying awake at night hoping that you, too, are special. That you're not just another mewling meat bag scrambling to achieve a livable wage and mortgage. Everybody thinks they could be Lessa from Pern, Alanna of Trebond, Ender Wiggin, if somebody just gave them a chance. If somebody just noticed them.
One of the rudest awakenings I had was when I went to Clarion West, and one of the instructors said something to the effect of, "Listen. I'm not going to coddle you all and tell you you're talented. The fact that you're at Clarion means you've achieved a certain level of good. So let's move on from that and start working toward being better."
I remember preening at this because it was the first time a professional writer ever said I was good. Thing was, so was everyone else in the class. And in every other Clarion class.
That's a whole hell of a lot of "good" writers. And that wasn't even touching on the number of "good" pro writers.
After Clarion I'd go to the bookstore and pick up books and rage because so many of them were no better or worse than anything I could write, I thought. What made them special? Why were they published and I wasn't?
* * *
My first relationship was with a blustering, panic-stricken teen who soon became a violent, delusional young man. We shacked up together soon after I turned eighteen, and shared a two-bedroom apartment. Lacking a third bedroom, the second bedroom became our shared office. He would blast endless tracks from Rush as he dithered around online while I hunched over my desk, headphones on, trying to write.
It wasn't long before my writing intensity began to wear on his self-esteem. Apparently, when he was home, and especially when we were in the same room, I needed to be paying more attention to him. I'd soon learn that this odd insistence was part of a larger pattern of seeking to cut me off from friends and family and control more and more aspects of my life — a classic abuser pattern that I wouldn't be able to name as such until I started reading feminist theory in my early twenties and found this behavior named for what it was.
All I knew at the time was that my focus on writing became a bone of contention. It elicited a lot of screaming fights and passive-aggressive behavior on his part. But as things slowly spiraled out of control in that little apartment, I found that the writing was the one thing I still owned. It helped me push through it. I might be barely scraping by as a hostess at a pizza restaurant, struggling to pay bills on time, but I could build whole worlds that I controlled totally. I could send out stories. I could survive.
But the deeper I spiraled into depression, the more all the rejection slips hurt. The more it felt like a long slog to nowhere. At my lowest point, I started to fantasize about different ways to off myself. I spent a lot of time crying in the bathroom.
And then, one day, while writing about a blasted northern landscape in one of my stories, I started to look at how much plane tickets to Alaska cost. I thought, "Well, which is crazier — booking a one-way plane ticket to Alaska or killing myself?"
My relationship eventually fell apart. I survived it, despite a lot of screaming and threats.
A year later, I booked a one-way ticket to Fairbanks, Alaska.
* * *
What folks don't realize, I think, is that very often "good" just means "competent."
I got to thinking about "talent" and the need for somebody to acknowledge it recently when I was corresponding with some younger writers. I remember how important it was to me for somebody to tell me I was good when I was slogging on the long road. There are writers far younger than me writing stuff that's far better even than what I'm writing now. And I look at these writers in their early twenties and think, Oh lord, hang on.
Because I have to tell you — being good, being talented, is the easiest part of this business. That's just when things really get started.
* * *
Science fiction author Samuel R. Delany once said that to succeed at writing, he had to give up everything else. He sacrificed his health, his relationships, in pursuit of becoming the best at what he did. The people who won worked harder than other people. They were willing to sacrifice more.
I didn't date for five years after breaking up with my high school boyfriend.
Maybe I was being pathological, I thought. But if I was a dude, who would question it? How many times did Hemingway shut the door and demand a room of his own?
If relationships meant giving up being a writer, fuck relationships.
When not rip-roaring drunk (and often, even then), I'd spend most nights in my dorm room at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks working on short fiction and collecting more rejection slips. My biggest win during my two years of clattering at the keyboard in college was getting accepted to the Clarion Writers' Workshop when I was twenty. This is it, I thought. In two years, for sure, I'll make it. I just need to keep at this. I can do this.
I hunkered down for the long haul. I decided I'd return to this crazy dream I had as a kid, to live in a rustic cabin in the woods in Alaska with a couple of husky dogs and just write books. I'd just write books until my fingers bled.
Clearly, I'd never pissed in an outhouse at thirty below.
After doing that a few times, I figured it was time to move on.
* * *
This business is rough on talent. Even folks who magically hit it big, monetarily, with their first effort out often drop off the face of the map within a book or two. Sure, some of this is that these folks only had one book in them. But more often, it's because the scrutiny is too much. The backend business is tough — sales, marketing, and tons of distribution issues that aren't anything you can control. And then there are the reviews and online harassment and the constant speculation from strangers.
If you get wound up too much in that, you forget all about why it was you wanted to write in the first place. Nobody is out here waiting for you, to bask in the glow of your genius. Many more are quite happy to rip you down and shit on you.
It means you have to work harder. It means you need to be eight times as good as everyone else just to stand out. It sucks. It's challenging. It can wear you down. But being good is only going to get you so far. Maybe you'll publish a few books and stories. To build a career you need to be better than just good. And, more importantly, you need to be hardheaded; you need to endure.
* * *
Durban, South Africa. Cockroaches. Humidity. Nonsensical Celsius temperatures. No air conditioning. Two bottles of wine. A pack of Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes. A master's thesis and a novel warring for my attention.
I lived in a one-and-a-half-bedroom flat with a partial view of the Indian Ocean, with nothing more than a bed and some cardboard boxes as furniture. I spent most of my time tap-tapping away in the "half bedroom," sitting on a rug on the floor, my laptop resting on a cardboard box draped with a sheet. I had books lined up all along the baseboards of the room — perfect hiding place for cockroaches.
I'd smoke cigarettes and muse that I'd finally achieved poor-writer garret-style living. But like pissing in an outhouse in Alaska at thirty below, the realities weren't as glamorous as advertised.
I submitted my first novel to publishers when I was twenty-two, mailing the proposals and chapters out from the university mail room. It was time to be famous.
Every single house rejected it.
* * *
When I lived in Chicago in my midtwenties, I'd sometimes go wander around downtown by myself. I had no real plans. No ambition. I'd just wander around this press of people and pretend my life was on the up-and-up like everybody else's seemed to be. Chicago is a big, shiny city. Like Oz blooming out of the flat Midwestern prairie.
One night I came home about ten o'clock at night after spending hours alone wandering downtown. Just ... wandering. It was one of those aimless, "What the fuck am I doing with my life?" rambles that left me more confused than when I began.
I stumbled upstairs to my third-floor walk-up and went through the mail. In it was a self-addressed stamped envelope: me, mailing a letter to myself. You'd include them with paper submissions, back in the day when hardly anybody took e-subs, so the editor could send you your acceptance or rejection without paying for postage.
I'd put the name of the magazine I'd submitted my story to on the back of the letter. It was one of the biggest magazines in the field at the time.
I opened the letter with that gloriously giddy half-hope, half-dread feeling building in the pit of my stomach.
It was a form rejection letter. The fourth or sixth or eighth or tenth or ... however many, that month. I could barely keep track. All the stories, and all the rejections, just bled into each other.
I had no idea what I was doing with my life, except this. I knew I wanted this. Even if "this" was just some big magazine to say yes to something.
But "this" was just one long road of rejection and disappointment.
It's strange, but I don't remember the name of the actual magazine, because it has since closed up shop.
But I remember sitting on the kitchen floor, despondent, the rejection slip clutched in my hand.
* * *
At twenty-six, I woke up in the ICU after two days in a coma and was diagnosed with a chronic illness. I received a bunch of rejections from agents for a new book not long after. One of them expressed outrage that I'd be so bold as to compare the book I was shopping to the work of Robert Jordan or George R. R. Martin, even though the query book I'd read said to compare your work to other marketable work. I filed away the rejections and wondered if I'd ever sell a book. Maybe I was crazy. Maybe I'd given up everything for nothing.
I lost my job at the Chicago architectural and engineering firm I worked for a few months later. And a few months after that, my relationship with my best friend, former girlfriend, and roommate imploded.
I found myself packing up everything I owned into the back of a rental truck with a couple of generous friends and driving my life to Dayton, Ohio.
It felt like I'd failed at everything. Life was a ruin.
I found myself living in a spare bedroom at a friend's house, unemployed, deep in medical debt, and staring at yet another novel, three-quarters of the way finished.
When I opened my laptop, the sticky note still stared back at me: PERSISTENCE.
In all things. In writing. In life.
I finished the book.
I'd reached a point in my life where I didn't know how to do anything else but finish the fucking book.
* * *
I got my first book deal when I was twenty-eight.
It came at a time when I'd hit rock bottom, professionally, financially, emotionally. It came just when I needed it. It wasn't a million dollars. It was $10,000 a book, for three books. It was enough money for me to pay off three of my four credit cards and move out of my friend's spare room.
Even when the contract was eventually cancelled, and the book never published at that house, I was still paid for the books. I still walked with the money. Thirty thousand dollars for work I never did, for work that they wouldn't publish.
I thought about all that work. About those screaming fights in that shared office with my ex, and the cold, drunk nights in Alaska, and shaking out my bug-infested sheets in South Africa, and thought, Was this it? Was this what it was about?
That money saved my life. But when the bills were paid and my life was in order again, I asked myself what I was writing for besides money, because after writing with the intent of being a writer for fifteen years, now that I wasn't dying in poverty, the money alone wasn't satisfying. It wasn't enough. It wasn't why I was writing.
Which made me wonder what the fuck I was doing, then.
* * *
Another book deal, this time a keeper, a year after my former deal imploded. Books on shelves. Elation. Joy. End of a long road, right?
No. Just beginning.
Arguments with my publisher over whitewashed book covers. Late checks. Money that stops flowing. Then the publisher implodes, sells off its assets — including me and my books.
Take it or leave it. Fight the bullshit. Rage.
Sheer, unadulterated rage, that the work I spent a lifetime to see in print is now an "asset," a "property," a casualty of shitty business practices.
I fight the situation. I persist.
I sign a new contract.
The spice flows again.
But I've lost my joy for fiction.
* * *
I'm at the bar at a science fiction convention. I made $7,000 in fiction income the year before. I'm ordering an overpriced drink that I'll be writing off as a business expense, because I'll likely lose 30 percent of that $7,000 to taxes in a few months.
While I wait, I overhear a successful self-published author talking to a group of folks about how self-publishing can make everyone big money, and how traditional publishing is fucked. I've heard this a thousand times. Kickstarter is the key, he says. You can pre-fund all that work ahead of time, and generate income. He boasts about how he gave this advice to many underadvanced authors, folks paid "these seven-thousand, ten-thousand-dollar advances," who were obviously small, silly fish. He sounds like a self-help guru. He makes writing books sound like a get-rich-quick scheme.
I take my drink. I don't pour it on his head.
I remember this is a long game. I remember that both self-published authors and trad-published authors have the same small handful of breakouts and the same massive, slushy mire of "everyone else" clamoring for signal on the long tail.
I think I've been on the long tail a long time, but the more I talk to other writers the more I realize that that whole slog — the shitty apartment with the shitty boyfriend, the frigid outhouses in Alaska, the cockroach wrangling in South Africa — wasn't actually the start of it. That wasn't the part where things got really interesting.
It was getting the first book. It was after the first book. It was being confronted with the fact that writing is a business, and expectations are very often crushed, and your chances for breaking out are pretty grim. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley. Copyright © 2016 Kameron Hurley. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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