Saturday, December 17, 2011

Escape from the Revenge of the Son of Aunt Edna

Aunt Edna drew quite a response – about a dozen emails so far – and you all know how the old girl likes attention.  I have begun to allow her some meat with her gruel because she’s been so good.  I’m also taking a moment here to give everyone an Aunt Edna progress report of sorts – suggestions from other people.

I should first mention that the very first appearance of Aunt Edna was in a long phone conversation with my old, great friend Jerry Oltion, and he sent me a quick email on the subject of her:

Hmm.  It's an insightful and possibly more accurate analogy when extended like this, but I confess to a fondness for the original one in which Aunt Edna was locked in the attic and only fed when she produced the magical thing that only she knew how to do (that must be just like the last one, only blue this time).  Then Edna realizes she can just climb out the window and go sell her magical creations in a craft fair, and the rest of the family collapses in an orgy of cannibalism.

But that's probably because I identify with Edna.

Actually, I don’t remember that version at all but Jerry and I both make stuff up all the time – it’s what fiction writers do.  The thing I suppose I would most emphasize is that Aunt Edna has a tough row to hoe because she’s been kept in the dark for a long time, but also because she has really, really liked her dependency – and frankly, that dependency was a pretty good deal for a lot of us in the old days, roughly 1840-1999, when the commercial pro fiction was the only real game. 

Being a dependent gave you a certain freedom and a certain stability.  In the old days, now and then you might do a project for love – One for the Morning Glory was one such for me, and there were some other “Edmunds” as well – and have to beg and plead and have your agent resubmit and resubmit to the same editors, over and over, to get it into print (the noble Patrick Nielsen Hayden bought three of my Edmunds over the years), but once you succeeded, you got at least a modest advance and it didn’t pay that much worse than any other book – the risk associated with doing a book for love, once you  had secured an Aunt Edna like position, was only that it might be a while to recoup the  time invested.  In our new, modern, self-marketing world, Aunt Edna might make her wonderful beaded necklace that takes hours and hours, and never get paid.  The rewards for guessing right are much higher but the penalty for guessing wrong is much steeper.

Too, in those long ago days, sometimes an editor or agent would do something or other to keep you alive, i.e. cut you a check before you actually did the work or prior to  the final approval that was supposed to trigger the payment.  Yes, later on it sucked to have to do work without having anything come for it, and you couldn’t abuse that privilege too much or someone would notice and make your editor stop abetting your petty fraud/float, but there wasn’t nearly as much risk of ending up with your furniture on the sidewalk and your butt at the Salvation Army as there is in our more real-capitalist real-business world of today.

And the fact is that a lot of us writers are Aunt-Edna-like not just in having been locked up and abused, but in not really wanting to take care of ourselves, look out for our own interests, or have any genuine responsibilityMike Stackpole did a moderately bitter piece about “just wanting to write” and I think he nailed a big part of it, though less sympathetically than I would. 

Many people become writers because we’re easily stressed out by human contact, and the idea of spending the rest of our lives in an attic full of books, tea, and cats (or a hunting lodge with books, guns, beer, and room for plenty of dogs), getting money dribbled to us by a mysterious source that just wants us to keep writing, seems pretty well glorious even if there’s not much meat in the gruel.  Sucking up to exploitive patrons for subsistence may be the very definition of life in the demimonde, but it’s explicable and human in a way that playing directly to a big audience – and operating a small business – is just not. 

So Aunt Edna, bless her, has a pretty bad case of PTSD, maybe a big dose of survivor guilt, and many of the mental habits of a dependent – i.e. rather than looking to please customers on the average, she tends to look to do exactly what a patron tells her to.  The thought crosses her mind all the time that if things could only go back to the way they were, when sometimes they brought her hot chocolate or a new kitty, she could be so happy, and when there’s real trouble, she really feels how much she wishes Cousin Ted would just turn up and fix everything.  She is not particularly brave and independent, and she doesn’t mentally have a band playing behind her; she’s a scared old lady doing what she has to do because events drove her out of the house (and that’s where I really disagree with Jerry; most of the independent self-pub types I know, even the very successful ones, were driven to it much more than they boldly seized the opportunity to carve out a living on the new frontier.)

Back before he became famous as the longshoreman-philosopher, during the Great Depression while he was a migratory farm worker who survived the winters in public libraries, Eric Hoffer became interested in the 49ers because of a hunch, and asked the oldest native Californians (at the time) he could find: did you know any of the people who came out during the Gold Rush?  What were they like?  Now, he was fishing for an answer he wanted, and he was the only reporter of it, but he claimed that almost every 80 or 90 year old Californian who had known some actual Gold-Rushers would say, “Actually the ‘49ers were pretty much like the Okies.”

I.e. people who had mostly lost poor existences, and went where there was at least supposed to be work and a chance.

That’s Aunt Edna, or the commercial writers of today.  And not surprisingly, we’re making massive mistakes in all directions and some of us, to mix up our gold rushes and our aunts, are going to freeze to death because we didn’t realize we were building our fire under a snow-laden tree.  Some will probably just give up and walk sadly away into teaching or managing a supermarket.  Some will hang out at would-be writer gatherings talking about who they used to be.

And some will pull it together, but the truth is, it won’t be because we are uber-fit super-writers.  We’ll have some combination of circumstantial luck (landing in the right place at the right time) and personal luck (happening to make some right guesses, or avoid some big mistakes, early on). 

So no, I root for Edna, with all my soul obviously, but I don’t think it is at all a foregone conclusion that she will turn out fine.  Making a new life while you’re still damaged from the old one is never easy, whether we’re talking about the collapse of dreams, addictions, marriages, or industries.

With regard to that, the next correspondent I’m in debt to is Charlie Petit, a writer’s-lawyer among writer’s-lawyers, known to many of us as “Charlie the Shark,”  and generally cool guy, who suggested a couple more members of the family, which also caused me to think of a couple more.  I’ve revised Charlie’s enough so that I’ve renamed them, but the inspiration, directly and indirectly, came from him.

So here’s a few more people around the house

•Uncle Larry, who is the accounting department.  He spends all his time with Grandpa the publisher, and some people think Larry is not allowed to talk to anyone else, and some that he doesn’t want to.  He’s the one who goes to the bank every month to pick up Aunt Edna’s bank statements, and then doesn’t let anyone, especially not Edna, see them.  He just tells Edna how much to write each check for, and slips envelopes of cash into some people’s pockets.  Even Grandpa sometimes seems to be afraid of him, and no one is sure that he’s actually a relative but they don’t want to make him mad.  He may or may not know where the money actually goes but it’s quite clear that what is really important to him is making sure that no one else does. 

•Cousin Brandon from California, who is some kind of distant relation of Grandpa’s; he comes out once a year or so, wearing large shades and a flat expression, tells everyone what they should be wearing, flaunts some bling, and goes home before anyone thinks to ask him about anything.  The day after he goes, the house is ringing with Aunt Edna’s pathetic shrieks because she can’t find some of her mother’s jewelry, Cousin Ted is trying to calm down Aunt Tilly because she just bought six tons of organic rice and now Brandon won’t be here to eat it, and Grandpa is asking everyone if they’d like to move to California. 

•Sylvester, Aunt Edna’s beloved cat, and the representation of the muse.  Aunt Edna’s great secret: every now and then, Sylvester talks, and when he does, it’s a great, make-your-year kind of idea.  Mostly he sleeps and tries to look important, while Edna tries to get him to eat and changes his box over and over (in the forlorn hope that this time he won’t go on the floor).  No one but Edna believes that Sylvester talks (although Cousin Ted tries to humor her about it).  Whenever she’s really desperate and miserable, Aunt Edna quietly asks Sylvester to come up with something.  Once in a very great while he deigns to do so; mostly he leaves her standing there saying “Good kitty, tell me what to do,” pretending to be asleep, while all the cousins mock her.

And that’s pretty much a wrap for this follow-on.  For those of you just joining in the last couple of days (and a big shout out to Dean Wesley Smith who appears to have started that ball rolling), this is the blog where I talk about a little bit of everything.  Next things up are probably a link to a never-before-published story (and some thoughts about its never-before-publishability and what makes science fiction identifiable), a Christmas piece that I’ve been working on for a couple of days, and something or other about global warming/climate change (as the author of Mother of Storms and an inhabitant of this planet I feel like I should say something).  In the somewhat more distant future, I’ll be doing some blog-based projects on data massage (how to get results out of crummy data, not how to rub Brent Spiner); book doctoring; maybe something about the semiotics of the sales process; and other stuff, and those projects/blogs will be announced here first.   Thanks for coming by and I hope you’ll be by again!