Distal Muse


by Mark W. Tiedemann

    This is somewhat confessional. Over the last couple of decades of trying to put together a writing career, time and again a rather annoying set of responses  on my part have surfaced, making me rather self-conscious. I dislike the kind of unctuous and pleading "Dig Me-ism" displayed by a certain kind of social climber. The person who name-drops, tries to force their way into every "important" party, and feels slighted with each instance of being overlooked and does everything possible to draw attention to the fact that "Hey, Iím someone, too!"
    Often, such people arenít "someone", if you take my meaning, and their attempts at rectifying the less-than-wowed reaction--or nonreactions, really--of those from whom they believe they deserve attention are pitiable.
    Yet I tend to do that.
    Itís a catch-22, of course. The one thing that is required to be even a little successful in this business is a degree of public recognition. If no one knows youíre publishing, or that your last story or novel are out, and ought to be paid attention to, then you donít make any sales and your career stands a good chance of ending prematurely (in your opinion, at any rate). Being ignored is a slow death for an artist. So you find yourself trying to do things to make sure you arenít ignored.
    Doing them in the wrong way, with the wrong emphasis on the problem, can backfire, and garner you even LESS attention.
    I have a curiously paradoxical reaction to all this. Iím rather uncomfortable when the spotlight gets put on me. At our local major convention last year I was presented with an award. I did not expect it, never thought the con committee would ever think highly enough of me to give me an award, and they managed to catch me flatfooted at the banquet. I was completed flummoxed. Normally, I can manage some badinage in public, good or bad, but I was so stunned and so self-conscious at the event that I was literally speechless. I muttered out a "Thank You!"--sincerely felt and genuinely meant--and staggered back to my seat, stunned, and wishing to become invisible. Minutes before that, there had been a dinner theater, in which I had a speaking part, and participated with enthusiasm, even managing to provoke laughs. But that was a character. Now it was just Me, and I cringed.
    Yet I want that kind of attention and I am one of those people who chafe when I donít get it.
    I cannot stand being ignored.
    To be fair, it is my work that I canít tolerate being ignored. For several years, a certain reviewer of short fiction consistently and rigorously failed to notice my stories. I thought this was an aberration for a while--after all, he didnít review every story in a given magazine anyway--until, two reviews in a row, he mentioned every story in both magazines EXCEPT MINE. He didnít even trash them. Just pretended they werenít there.
    I have no idea what his problem was. But it upset me tremendously.
    I have yet to have a novel reviewed in Locus. I donít know what the deal is, but my tenth book came out in July of Ď05 and Iíve never been reviewed in the main periodical of my chosen field.
    Now, I have not been ignored altogether. COMPASS REACH was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award in 2002, a signal honor. Iíve been asked this year to be a judge for that same award. COMPASS REACH also, barely, managed to make the preliminary Nebula Ballot that year as well. Iíve been reviewed two or three times in SciFiction, Ellen Datlowís recently defunct web magazine.
    But there hasnít been a lot. People donít mention my novels to any significant degree in the Usenet groups; my own local newspaper has never reviewed me; I pass, it seems, unremarked through much of fandom and the reading public.
    Nevertheless, I am not totally ignored. Yet often I feel like the kid who is the last chosen for the team during recess, because no one wants him.
    I tracked this down, finally. It is a neurosis and I can do without one.
    In high school, I became an avid photographer. Got pretty good at it, I think. Iíve made a living at it, one way or another, since then, so I must do it pretty well.
    There was an annual competition then, the KINSA--Kodak Independent Newspaper Snapshot Award--which had a division for high school photography. There were three of us from my school who entered. One of the others also continued to make a living in photography and still does. The third was his girlfriend at the time.
    I put together a broad range of 11 X 14 prints to submit. In fact, I submitted the maximum number allowed. The other guy submitted three prints, his girlfriend one or two. Submission was through an art teacher at another school.
    Now, what followed was to some degree my fault, but not enough so to justify what transpired. I printed my entrees on a particular kind of paper which had the unfortunate attribute of "scuffing" easily. It was labeled "Velvet Surface" and the scuffing was very much like what you would get if you ran your fingernail over a piece of black velvet. Not much, but enough to look...well, not good.
    So to protect against any accidental scuffing, I put a piece of tissue paper over each print. (I used this paper because it also had a very rich tonal quality and the prints really stood out.) The tissue paper was scotch taped on four sides.
    Tissue paper.
    We awaited the results. There were three grand prizes and then a large number of what they called "Key Awards", which were basically certificates, and display in the traveling Kodak KINSA show that would tour the country.
    Both my classmates got keys. We waited. Nothing.
    Then I got word to come pick up my entrees. When I did, they were all there.
    And not one bit of tissue paper had been removed.
    The judges had not even looked at them.
    As this fact sank in over the next several days, I also sank into such a pit of disappointed and self-loathing pity that I couldnít stand myself. I hadnít even been given a chance, either because some judge didnít want to be bothered peeling off the tissue or they thought the image through the tissue was the actual point--I tried to imagine a dozen scenarios. The bottom line was, I didnít get a Key. I thought at the time my work was better, but now I can at least say that it was just as good, than the other two entrees, and when I went to the show a month later I couldnít help but think that I had been royally and inexcusably screwed out of my place.
    To be rejected because the work was bad would be one thing. It would have hurt, sure. But to not even be considered...
    Sure, I should have used a more common paper that wouldnít have required "protection". I should perhaps have sent fewer prints. There are many reasons I can come up with in retrospect that would explain why my entire entree was sent back unexamined.
    Nevertheless, when youíre 17, and that kind of thing happens, it cuts deep.
    Ever since then Iíve had a pathological aversion to being ignored.
    It pops up at the most annoying times, but often--more often than not--Iím alone, at home, or somewhere in private. Hopefully I havenít yet made an ass of myself, like one of those people I described at the beginning of this essay. I need to deal with this, put it to rest, and fix it before I do. Itís bad enough how unspectacular things are just now, it wouldnít help to make of myself someone to be avoided.
    Because thereís a certain kind of person I would like to be. I had my sites set on it long ago and tried to stick to the path of becoming that person. Maybe everybody does this, maybe not. I wonder how many people just go with whatever flow happens to be flowing and accept what turns out to be their lot, whatever it may be. I donít know. Iíve tried to be self-directed. The hard part is less figuring out what you want to be than actually integrating it with yourself in a natural and honest way. I think a lot of people who one might tag as "fake" or "phony" have managed to construct an attribute or suite of attributes, and instead of them coming naturally from who they are, they wear those qualities like clothes, and they seem inauthentic. (As opposed to those who "put on an act" in order to get something they want--thatís duplicity and fundamentally dishonest, something Iíve also done, mainly because I didnít know how else to do it, but sometimes--I said this was confessional--because there was something I wanted and I knew that being "myself" would pretty much guarantee not getting it. This goes to the heart of what we mean when we talk about trade-offs and the worth of things, that maybe if getting that something you really want might not be worth the price of self-betrayal. But thatís a mature onsideration and there was a time when none of us were mature. Those of you who never found yourselves in a position to trade your Self for an object of desire may not get the fact that you reached maturity in this regard more or less untested. I donít know. To paraphrase T.E. Lawrence, you can be what you want, but you canít always choose what you want. Values come with experience, something the fundies donít seem to understand. But thatís another Muse...)
    Anyway, life does throw all kinds of stuff in your way that make it hard to be what you want. I want to write full time and work from home. Not such a big thing, you might say, but so far Iíve been unable to make the kind of money from my words that would allow me to do that. So until I can do that I find myself working a job I donít want, spending hours of my day doing things I donít want to do, and delaying the day I can institute some of the attributes--perhaps theyíre just "furniture"--I would like to.
    Some of what holds me back has to do with reactions I developed decades ago and find I must dig down to find and excise, because they do me no go, and may actually harm me.
    What harm?
    Well, right off the bat, it blunts my appreciation of what I do have.
    I have love in my life. I have friends. I have the ability to actually do the things that I think are important to me, just not quite at the level I want to do them. Most of my genuine complaints are problems of degree. I write and I manage to publish. Not as much or as successfully as I like, but there are so damn few who really get to do this AT ALL, that I should feel like an ingrate bitching about it. I play music, occasionally well enough to do so in front of people. Iíd like very much to have two hours a day to practice so I could play as well as I think I can. But I get to play!
    I can read books--I own books--there are so many people who canít (or donít) but in fact will never get the chance to.
    Time and tenacity will take care of my career problems. I can get past all this.
    And maybe Iíll feel comfortable in my own skin.
    But not till I get rid of some of these old wounds that do me no good to carry around.
    Just wanted to share a little of this with you. Thanks for listening.

copyright © 2006 by Mark W. Tiedemann