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So, a lot of people have already weighed in on the brief twitterburst the other day, when Neil Gaiman, in a well-intended tweet encouraging folks to apply to Clarion, made an unfortunate choice of words. The things I’d have said first off have mostly been said. (Disclaimer–I went to Clarion West in 2005 and found it to be a transformative experience. It is, however, not for everyone, not necessarily good for everyone who applies or attends, and not a possible choice for everyone who might want it or benefit from it.)

In the followup to that, though, I’ve seen a few comments about how the original tweet was obviously hyperbole and people were overreacting and mobbing Gaiman and it was just another example of pointless twitter outrage.

So. For starters, Gaiman? Can safely ignore most of what went down on Twitter in the past few days. He stands in a position of amazing privilege on that score (and on several others, but those aren’t at issue right now).

But many of the people speaking out the other day cannot safely ignore Gaiman. His status is such that even casual statements of his carry weight. And writing (at least, writing fiction, at least, among the writers I know, which at this point is a considerable number) is fraught with all sorts of anxieties. I don’t know many writers who aren’t neurotic about their writing in some way, and the rest are probably just hiding it well.

You develop different ways to cope with those anxieties–you have to. You have to have some kind of psychological defense against rejection, and eventually, if you’re lucky, bad reviews. You have to find some way to persevere in the face of constant apparent failure, because it can take years, sometimes decades, from first sitting down to write seriously until your first sale. You have to find some way to continue on in the face of writers who sell in their first couple of years out, who hit big with their first novel, while you’re still typing away with, you think (possibly incorrectly–keyword: neurotic) little to show for it, and what do they have that you don’t?

One of the handiest ways to do this is to assign whatever rejections/bad reviews you can to the Inconsequential bin. “That’s one reviewer, what do they know?” or “That’s just one story hitting one editor at the wrong time.”

There are people (or particular submission situations) that are difficult if not impossible to assign to that bin, though. Your personal heroes. People of very high status in the field. Prestigious publications or workshops. Much, much harder to say those rejections or negative comments mean nothing, when they’re so widely vested with such significance. Any given writer’s cry of protest at one of those doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t take rejection or bad reviews generally, or don’t have the fortitude to deal with life as a writer. It means that this particular situation is beyond the edge of where they can currently pretend it doesn’t matter.

I’m at a place now where I can consign nearly anything to the Insignificant bin. One star reviews at goodreads or amazon? If I happen to see them, they generally make me laugh. On the rare occasion that a negative comment does truly get under my skin, I can dry my tears with the cloth I use to dust my awards, and console myself with a stop for ice cream on the way to the bank to deposit my royalty checks. I can afford to be amused at most things I see, and pay no attention to any of it unless I want to. It would take a disparaging remark from one of my personal heroes to cause any noticeable pain.

Three or four years ago this would not have been the case. Three or four years ago a couple of close-timed rejections could leave me contemplating giving up. And I had it easier than many–my whole family, from when I was small, had encouraged me to write and constantly validated the idea that I could be a writer. I had a degree from a fairly prestigious university and no debt from that degree (because my parents were employees at that university). I grew up speaking a prestige dialect of American English. I had (still have!) a super-supportive husband with a decently-paying job. My children were (and Mithras willing will continue to be) both healthy. I myself have so far been able-bodied, and not in need of much (if any) help or accommodation. And with all that, it was hard.

Imagine if I’d had even more piled on. A family, maybe, who didn’t understand or care about or actively opposed my wanting to write. Bigger financial difficulties. Health problems, or family members who needed my constant attendance and care. What if I lived outside the US?

What if, on top of all of it, a writer I looked up to, with very high status in the field, quite casually said that I NEEDED something to be a writer that I knew I could never have?

Yeah.

Now, Gaiman has no obligation to worry about the emotional states of every new or struggling writer. He can quite easily ignore a day’s cloudburst on twitter. But a lot of struggling or aspiring writers? Can’t ignore him as easily. And by speaking, they send a message to other, silent folks on the sidelines–don’t let this stop you, do your best to put this tweet in your Insignificant bin, keep writing.

This is, by the way, part of the reason I absolutely despise the “discourage aspiring writers, because if they’re really writers they’ll write anyway” thing. Who the fuck is anyone to decide who is or isn’t meant to be a writer, who does or doesn’t want it badly enough? Fuck that. It’s hard enough in the best of circumstances, nobody needs that extra noise. Help where you can, and let people decide for themselves. But that’s a whole other rant, and I have things to do today.

9 Responses

  1. Sara

    This is a thoughtful and kind response. I can’t imagine myself taking that tweet literally, but then, I’m not trying to be an sff/horror writer, and my background is similar to yours.

  2. Kelly

    YES. Thank you for this. Personally, I wasn’t upset by the Gaiman thing but I understood why some were. What irritated me were those who were so threatened by people’s negative reaction that they actually mocked people for being upset.

    Nobody gets to tell other people how to feel. If people are upset en masse, there’s likely a damn good reason.

    So thanks for being sane, Ann.

  3. C
    Charles Oberndorf

    Just a side note: Someone linked this piece on Facebook. I thought Neil may have made a terrible gaffe because in the opening you didn’t quote his tweet. So worried about a truly “unfortunate choice of words,” I was truly surprised how innocuous the tweet was when I finally found it. In fact, I kept looking for other tweets in an effort to find something offensive.

    I think what you’ve written is a very balanced take on when and if an experience like Clarion might be of use to someone who wants to write professionally.

    1. Ann Post author

      Honestly, I don’t think he meant to hurt any feelings at all–and I would hardly have noticed that “NEED” in there, myself. But it clearly struck quite a few nerves, and that’s a real thing and not something I’m comfortable with dismissing.

      I didn’t link to the tweet because the post wasn’t about the tweet, it was about the dismissals I’ve seen of the hurt reactions to the tweet. And I didn’t want to direct any sort of accusation at Neil. Because I don’t think he did anything particularly bad, in and of itself–and I could easily see myself stepping in something just as easily. But the dismissive attitude of some toward what were clearly (to me) sincere reactions was bugging me.

  4. Jo

    WELL SAID.

    Also:

    1) What about my idea of a masked Clarion West? Everybody in masks the whole time. Nobody knows who’s there and who’s not. Neil Gaiman could even go, all dressed up as a husky or a snake or what-have-you. Anybody can claim they’ve been to Clarion West and really, who is to say. “Oh, I went all right, I was the squirrel.” “But I was the squirrel!” “You weren’t the squirrel, Neil Gaiman, nobody believes that you were the squirrel.”

    2) The broader question of “a room of one’s own,” or “a Clarion West of one’s own,” or “a matrix of interlocking privileges of one’s own,” and the fact that different fledgling writers face hugely different challenges. This is about that as well. And what we do about that is, we don’t seek to justify it with cruel & empty truisms about hard work & playing the hand life deals you. And we don’t pretend we can fix it either. We look for lots of little ways to ameliorate it. I wonder if something good could spring from this particular kerfuffle? If perhaps alumni could put pressure – who exactly, I don’t know? – to expand the range of scholarships, and make this super-prestigious and super-amazing course just that little bit more accessible? Or hell, maybe Neil Gaiman and some of his friends should set up a bursary!

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  6. Saoki

    While I agree with you that some people might be discouraged by all that workshop talk, let me just give you my opinion, as one of those struggling, aspiring writers that happens to be female, poor and not from an english-speaking country.

    I think people that *could* attend a workshop (maybe, if they saved money and if it made sense to use that money that way, which is to say: if they decided to go reckless) are the ones that get mad at sentences like those. I know we, that could *never* attend a workshop in another country much less consider it the only way to be writer, can’t afford to give a damn.
    If I go around thinking that the only path to writing is the one that white men in rich countries get to have, than it means I can’t possibly write. But I do write, and there’s a market here (away from english reading eyes, in these untranslated waters of ours), so I have to know our way is valid, regardless of hyperbolic tweets from beloved exponents of the genre.

    The others, though, that maybe aren’t so poor, or are american or applied for a scholarship and didn’t get it? Maybe the ones that are already working on a self-published career, outside the whole workshop and publisher circle? Those are the ones that might get hurt from those words. I do hope they manage to see there’s more than one way to be a writer.