People often ask me why I work so hard at the writing game. I’ve answered that question in long form dozens of times over the years, but the short form is simply, “This is all I ever wanted to do, and I know the time in which I have to do it is limited.”
We share a lot of similarities and life experiences, we humans. One of those is that eventually, all of us are going to die. For folks who have never head-butted death in the face, this is a largely abstract idea. Yes, yes, of course we’re all going to die, we say, just like we’re all going to get old. The healthier and younger you are, the less tangible these concepts.
I spent a week in the ICU when I was 26 suffering the death throes of a debilitating, undiagnosed chronic illness that nearly killed me. The doctor said if I’d have come in ten years before, they simply wouldn’t have had the equipment on hand that they would need to save me (funny enough, the doctor on call was from Durban, South Africa, where I’d lived from ages 21-23, and he told me if this had happened to me in South Africa, they wouldn’t have had the resources needed to save me either. Lucky break, there).
Staring death in the face once is enough to change you. My spouse is a cancer survivor. He has a great, harrowing story that you should ask him about some time that rivals mine. Suffice to say one of things we bonded over immediately was the new way that we looked at life after staring at death. You don’t care so much about what people think of you. You don’t care so much about life’s bullshit. You want to spend life with people you love, doing what you love, because you have seen exactly how brief your time on this earth really is.
Chronic conditions are especially life-changing because you stare death in the face constantly. “If I don’t take this shot, I’m going to die.” “If I don’t drink this juice, I’m going to die.” “If I get stranded without my meds, I’m going to die.” “If I don’t bring juice with me, I’m going to die.”
It’s this knowledge of the ticking clock that keeps me as busy and productive as I am. It helps keep me relentless. Oh, sure, I was persistent before I was sick, but getting sick brought home just how little time we all have. It’s something I struggle with more and more these days as I get older and the days and weeks and months fly by faster and faster. There’s never enough time. I wake up one day and I’m not 26 but 36, and I know that in another blink I’ll be 46 and suddenly 66 and will I make it much past that… who knows?
There are folks who don’t like a lot of the nonfiction pieces I write because I talk about how blah blah writing and life is so hard, and it depresses them because what they want is a rah-rah cheerleader YOU CAN DO IT WE ARE ALL SPECIAL SNOWFLAKES WITH UNIQUE SPECIAL VOICES thinkpieces. And you know, yeah, I admit it – true things can be depressing, which is why it’s not the truth that we want. We want hope. We need hope. We need Star Wars movies.
But I like the truth. I find the truth very motivating, because I’m very motivated by the odds being stacked against me.
I was reading a book recently called You are now Less Dumb about studies folks have done that show that people who are mildly pessimistic and depressive are actually closer to seeing the world as it actually is than most people (note I’m saying MILDLY here. Read the book). Hopefulness and optimism is what keeps people alive through dark winters and terrible strife. The enduring belief that things will be better – despite all evidence to the contrary – is how humanity has survived this long. It’s why that’s considered a normal state of being, and anything more or less than that skews outside the curve. What that means is that thinking realistically and logically is NOT the default or “normal” human state. If you’ve played the lottery or taken a trip to Vegas, you can attest to this.
But I’ve found a great freedom in knowing that I could die at any moment. I have head-butted death in the face, and though it may be stunned for a while, there’s no knowing when it will recover and come snarling back for me. Perhaps it already is now, and with chronic conditions, yes, this is the more likely scenario. It will come creeping and crawling for me in the darkness, over the long years, until one day I’ll see its great looming face above me, so close and so large that it blots out the sky.
I hope that is years away yet. But I live every day as if it could be tomorrow, or tonight, or an hour from now. Just yesterday I heaved a sigh of relief because I knew THE GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION was in a sufficient state to publish if I died today, and worried over the fact that THE STARS ARE LEGION is not, and I really need to bust that manuscript into publishable shape.
I understand now, maybe, what David Bowie realized when he found out he had cancer, and suddenly time was limited, and there was a mad flurry of last-minute work to do before the end. I first saw David Bowie in Labyrinth when I was 11 years old, and to be frank, seeing a Goblin King dressed like that who still liked women was a revelation to me at 11, and it had a powerful impact on my work and my conception of sexuality from there on out. He was my introduction to genderbending, and the more work of his I listened to and watched, the more it expanded my idea of what people could be. That’s a powerful legacy.
I find myself thinking about The Man Who Fell to Earth – another film I didn’t appreciate or understand until after I got sick – pretty often. It’s a story about how life grinds you down. How even those with the best intentions and the most powerful motivations can find themselves smashed down by bureaucracy, by time, by despair.
I never want to be smashed down.
When people send me emails about how reading my work made them feel less alone, or helped them come out to their parents, or gave them the courage to make a big move or life change, all that work and slog and realism is worth it, though. Even better is when other creators come to me and say that because they read “We Have Always Fought,” they’ve completely changed how they approach writing female characters in their work, and I think, yeah, hey, this is about helping to impact the people who will change the world after me, and that’s what gets me up at 5 a.m. to write blog posts like this one and review contracts and glare at the blank pages of a new short story and spend twelve hours on a Saturday writing 12,000 words.
Stories matter. Our work matters. Our legacy matters. It was reading Joanna Russ’s On Strike Against God at age 23 that completely changed the way I thought about my own sexuality. So I get it when people come to me and say how much my work matters. I grok it, folks. The power of stories is giving us ideas and narratives and showing us what’s possible. This is what transformative artists do.
I’m not a bajillion-copies bestseller right now. Maybe I never will be. But in looking at the slow, steady growth of my backlist sales, the increasing lines at my signings, and the sorts of people who tell me how much my work matters to them, I get the feeling that my work has an impact on people, on the genre, that I’m not really going to understand for a long time. Maybe it won’t be understood until after I, too, am dead.
The fact that we’re all going to die shouldn’t be depressing or anxiety-inducing, but freeing. This is all made up. We’re all gobs of meat. We may as well enjoy the time we have, and do the work we need to do, and give no fucks along the way.
“How do you persevere?” people like to ask me. “How do you put up with all the hate and vitriol and bullshit?” and it’s just this: it’s the knowledge that none of that matters, that all that matters is the work. The rest is bullshit.
I have no children, no legacy but my work. I have nothing to leave but the work. Nothing to offer but the work. It’s why the work consumes me. Because it matters so very, very much.