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the dog ate my Nebula essay

Madame de Jurjewicz
I used to find writing non-fiction utter torture. Book reviews, school papers, personal essays . . . they took so long and cost so much agony that I pretty much gave them all up as soon as I could - even the ones that paid real money.

Then I started my national weekly public radio show Sound & Spirit. And for many nightmarish startup months I had a 10-15 page script due, not every week, but about every 4 days. A script with music and research included - oh, and some sort of personal essay (or "sermon") at the end. Ohhh, how I twisted and turned, writhed and defended! What if it wasn't good enough? What if it sucked? What if everyone hated it? What if was done but it wasn't the best I could possible do? This had always kept me from finishing anything in the past. But now there just wasn't time to pull my usual avoidance tricks; there was a production schedule, and several people - producers, engineers, assistants - would have their week pretty much ruined and be very put out if I didn't turn up with something.

That's when I learned my new writing mantra:

Done is Good.

And what's more, I learned that it was true. What I was writing was actually not bad. (Well, I learned this weeks later when the produced shows went on the air, and the listener fan mail started coming in. It's not like you can ever figure out on your own whether anything is good or not. Not for a few years after you've written it, anyway; I hear those despised and despicable scripts now, and they're really Not Bad.)

I learned my lesson, and look at me now! Typing up these little confessional thoughts justabout as fast as my 10 fingers can carry them.

Who'd'a thunk it?

Which makes it all the more pathetic when I tell you what happened next:

I couldn't write my Nebula essay.

Could. Not. Do. It.

The letter came from SFWA Bulletin editor Mark Kreighbaum 4 - no, 5 weeks ago:

You have a work on the 2006 Final Nebula ballot. The Bulletin would be grateful if you would share a brief bio and an essay about your nominated work, which will be printed in the Bulletin and available at the Banquet.

The bio should be one or two paragraphs. The essay may be as short as one paragraph or as long as ten. The subject of the essay is entirely up to you. Some authors talk specifically about the story and its genesis, others discuss the ideas and themes of the work, still others write about a topic that is personally or professionally important to them.


This was it: the moment I'd been waiting for all my life! My novel nominated for an award given by my writing peers. At a banquet, they would all sit during the boring bits surreptitiously reading the booklet at their places containing the perfect thoughts of the Nominees summing up their life's work and philosophies of writing in ways that were both moving and entertaining, and ultimately inspiring. I know, because I've read so many myself over the years. Now it was my turn to write one.

I know how to do this. I have profound thoughts about life and art. And I really know how to write about it for public consumption; hell, Bill Moyers once wrote me a radio fan letter about how much my words have moved him! All I had to do was write something for a slightly different audience: Other Writers. Other Fantasy & Science Fiction writers. All of them. People I've known and loved for years. People I've idolized. People I've grown up with. People who've never heard of me and wonder why some stupid girl book is on the Nebula ballot. People whose entire opinion of me and my life's work will depend on my articulating it boldly yet charmingly, in an authoritative yet humble manner.

I wrote Mark, "May I have an extension? I'm on other deadlines right now, and want to be able to turn my full attention to it."

Deadlines passed. I wrote Mark, "May I have another extension? I've been traveling, the holidays are coming and so are my parents."

The holidays over, I wrote Mark, "Is there still time? I've been sick."

I wrote a few paragraphs. They were awful. I wrote a few more. They were hopeless.

I wrote Mark, "Can I have the weekend?"

I wrote some more paragraphs, started over, gave up, started again . . . .

I wrote Mark, "Do you still have room for me if I get it in by midnight?"

At 1 a.m. last night, I finally achieved liftoff.

I'm not saying it's good, or anything. But it's done.



Comments

( 36 comments — Leave a comment )
therem
Apr. 16th, 2007 02:51 am (UTC)
Whew!
Congratulations on getting there at last. Being a long-time procrastinator myself, I can understand putting it off and putting it off, particularly when it seems REALLY IMPORTANT.
ellen_kushner
Apr. 16th, 2007 04:41 am (UTC)
Re: Whew!
Amen, sister!
laurenpburka
Apr. 16th, 2007 03:12 am (UTC)
What if it wasn't good enough? What if it sucked?

A very good friend of mine asked you that question many years ago. You said, "Let it suck!" I try to remember that.
ellen_kushner
Apr. 16th, 2007 04:35 am (UTC)
Wow. I occasionally exhibit some sense, don't I? Glad to know it worked for you & the friend!

A journalist friend has this above her screen (from another journalist):

BASH IT OUT NOW
TART IT UP LATER
desperance
Apr. 16th, 2007 08:58 am (UTC)
Yup. Don't get it right, get it written. Etc.
yukihada
Apr. 16th, 2007 03:11 pm (UTC)
I may have to add all of these above my desk.
handworn
Apr. 16th, 2007 05:40 pm (UTC)
I actually yoinked that from you some time ago when one of your posts included that, and it's now up on my wall. (Not framed or anything, just...)

Can you share the essay with us after the event? I'm sure we'd all admire to read it, as the expression used to go.
ellen_kushner
Apr. 16th, 2007 11:55 pm (UTC)
Thanks - I definitely will do that!
(Anonymous)
Dec. 27th, 2007 05:53 pm (UTC)
It's easy to give sage advice to others. I have a ton of wisdom to share with others meanwhile I flounder in my own life desperate for wisdom. I suspect that this is the root of the "tis better to give than receive" wisdom.
(Anonymous)
Dec. 27th, 2007 07:15 pm (UTC)
upon further review
I just reread my post and it sounds snotty and that was not my intent. It was just an observation that it is easier to give advice than it is to follow it. To follow advice you have to get around all of your personal neurosis. Those issues don't crop up so much when giving advice.
ellen_kushner
Dec. 27th, 2007 10:53 pm (UTC)
Re: upon further review
Understood! You are quite right, too. That's why I enjoyed writing this entry, and getting all the responses. There's kind of a "take one and pass it on" quality to advice; occasionally one hears just what one needs to hear when one needs to hear it. Hope you get that, too, at times.
p_zeitgeist
Apr. 16th, 2007 04:11 am (UTC)
Congratulations on having the blasted thing out. I'm sure it's Just Fine, and years from now you'll find the printed version in your files, look at it, and wonder what the hell you were worrying about, and what you could possibly have thought was wrong with it.
ellen_kushner
Apr. 16th, 2007 04:38 am (UTC)
Bless you. I actually think that what I ended up with at least does the job reasonably well. But the hell that was trying to write this essay about 17 different ways - should it be about this? or this? - and having each of them just fizzle out to a dead end . . . It was not nice. Some of it was because the first paragraph I wrote looked like it was going nowhere, so I set it aside and kept trying for something more Important . . . but my subconscious has a tendency to know what it's doing, and when in desperation I went back to it, suddenly the whole thing started to flow again.

There's a metaphor in there somewhere, but I don't want to know what it is.
kalimac
Apr. 16th, 2007 05:23 am (UTC)
Oh, it's great when you look back at the thing you wrote just to get it done, and think, "Hey, not bad." I've had that experience too, in my limited way. May this be another for you.
therem
Apr. 16th, 2007 02:12 pm (UTC)
This comment just reminded me of two of my weirdest experiences in college, both involving a class on Faulkner and Southern Writers. In the first case, I procrastinated severely writing an essay, blowing off the class at which I was supposed to hand it in to desperately hammer out what I considered to be three pages of pure, uninspired drivel. When I got it back and saw that I had received an A- (a higher grade than I had received for anything else in the class), I could hardly believe it. The professor even used the word "pellucid" to describe my written style. Say what?!

Something similar happened a couple of weeks later when I wrote up a sample exam. This time, the professor read it aloud to the entire class! Thank Peep he didn't actually identify me.

In each of these cases, I really had NO IDEA what I had done right, so it was more of a Twilight Zone experience than a lesson in how to get the job done. However, later on I came to an understanding similar to the one Ellen quotes above. When I look back at my two puzzling creations now, I see that unlike my other writing at the time they don't seem like they're trying to impress; they're just trying to get the point across. The ultimate lesson: stop thinking and just start writing.

Not that I do it, usually. ;-)
yukihada
Apr. 16th, 2007 03:09 pm (UTC)
Hmm I had a similar experience way back when I was a college froshie. I had a paper due for a class on Early Christian and Hindu Iconography. It was the only paper for the class that semester. I had overhead many of classmates the weeks coming up to the due date saying that they had started working on it early; they already had 15 pages...yadda yadda.

I just couldn't think of a topic much less write a paper. I finally tore myself to the library the day before to find a sufficient art book and possible topic. I ended up writing the paper a few hours before the 9am class. I only had 3 pages when I completed it and with a minimum of 5. I did like the topic I had finally been inspired by but I absolutely knew that my paper was wretched and that I would get a bad grade and drop my GPA and lose my scholarship.

Well, when I got my paper back not only did it not fail but I got the highest grade at a B+. She told me that she couldn't comfortably give me an A when I hadn't met the minimum page requirement. So yeah, I failed to learn a good lesson about not procrastinating at that point. But I think you're right, being pushed to get it done I just didn't fool around with BS. I went right into my thesis. I did something similar with a torturous paper on Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Thought that was one of my worst just to have my Senior Capstone prof tell me that it was the best piece in my portfolio.
khatru1339
Apr. 16th, 2007 05:47 am (UTC)
I'm sure some people bash these out easily, and others besides you have agonized over them, but I can't tell the difference. I always enjoy them, every one; it's easily my favorite issue of the Bulletin every year.
ellen_kushner
Apr. 19th, 2007 05:13 am (UTC)
Yeah... we call that *sprezzatura*
belledewinter
Apr. 16th, 2007 06:22 am (UTC)
Well, better late than never? :D
dichroic
Apr. 16th, 2007 09:05 am (UTC)
Congratulations on getting it Done. But another question is, what are you wearing to the awards ceremony?

I mention it because, though it's difficult to judge someone's taste when you don't know them other than through an LJ, I was wondering whether you'd seen this sale. Specifically this necklace looked to me like something that would go wonderfully well with work by some of the designers you've linked to in the past.

But if not, well, sorry and please disregard.
ellen_kushner
Apr. 19th, 2007 05:15 am (UTC)
Oooooo! Lovely.

I think I'll wear my red silk (wedding) dress - I mean, how often do I get to trot that out? And it's been lucky for me in the past...!

Elise's stuff is truly gorgeous, especially that necklace. I wonder if, as with the Oscars, nominees can get fabulous jewels on loan...?
papersky
Apr. 16th, 2007 10:41 am (UTC)
I got mine done the day he asked for it.

The reason I did this is that I knew if I didn't I'd have been in the position you describe, putting it off and trying to get it perfect. Fortunately, I didn't know it was supposed to be full of wisdom and inspiration, I just went for "why I wrote this book".
ellen_kushner
Apr. 17th, 2007 12:03 am (UTC)
I think I would have tried to do that, but I genuinely did not have time that week or the next . . . and by then, you're right, it had just grown to proportions too huge for any mortal to apprehend.

On one failed draft I actually did try for a "why I wrote this book" - but it's an immensely long and complicated story, and I realized it was going to be either too long or else utterly incomprehensible, or possibly both. But then, this tale definitely grew in the telling - it was more than 15 years between the first scribbled sentences (a short story that went nowhere and clearly wanted to be a novel) and the finished ms. Lots of life intervened. Delia & I courted with an intense dinner discussing an early draft. Justine Larbalestier got sick on my sofa and made me pull it out of a drawer and read one aloud to her.

But all the members of SFWA don't necessarily need to know that.

I look forward to reading yours at the banquet!
gardnercastle
Apr. 16th, 2007 01:38 pm (UTC)
Congratulations on finishing it! Now that the agony is over...here's hoping you have a chance to write another one soon :) (I loved The Privilege of the Sword--it was my favorite book out of the 200+ I read last year--I'm hoping you win!)
ellen_kushner
Apr. 19th, 2007 05:16 am (UTC)
Gahhhhh - not even in jest!

I love writing fiction. Even when it's hard, it's fun. (So glad TPOTS made you happy, too!)

Nonfiction is quite another tale.
peregrinejohn
Apr. 16th, 2007 02:36 pm (UTC)
Well damn. If I'd known people like yourself have that sort of trouble (and your writing does, I can confidently say without exaggeration or sycophancy, impress the hell out of me every time, structure to character to language), I'd not have tortured myself about it so often.

On second thought, I'll likely torture away as always, but without the "I should be over this by now" part of it. The writing mantra I may need to adopt, though it'll need a proper mantra-like grinding into my grey matter before being properly believed.
ellen_kushner
Apr. 19th, 2007 05:19 am (UTC)
Yep - that's precisely why I wrote this up for you all. I'm not proud. And this is one of the "secrets" that bears repeating. And seriously: not wasting your Precious Life Force being mad at yourself for not being over it will genuinely help you to put it where it will actually be of some use. Promise.
_starlady_
Apr. 16th, 2007 02:45 pm (UTC)
Oh, my--thanks for sharing that. I'm one of those people who love to read every word in the Bulletin's Nebula issue. Happy to hear that it finally got Done.

Diane
yukihada
Apr. 16th, 2007 03:00 pm (UTC)
Thank you for sharing.
I actually find this entry incredibly reassuring. I can't seem to work without deadlines. Even then, I procrastinate. The more important the particular piece of writing must be...the longer I wait to start it. I wait until the tiny little puff of anxiety has turned into a truly monstrous storm cloud.

To think that one of my favorite authors has the same problem leaves me feeling a little bit better about myself. (Not an excuse for procrastination though). And now I should really get back to writing that philosophy of education essay for my resume.

ellen_kushner
Apr. 19th, 2007 05:26 am (UTC)
Re: Thank you for sharing.
I know exactly what you mean! I actually figured out that waiting til panic struck and I was too tired, late at night, to censor myself was a kind of self-medication for procrastination; it's clearly a way of getting your body chemistry to the right temperature or something.

I've always wanted someone to do a cartoon of me sitting on the sidewalk with an upturned hat and sandwich board that reads: WILL WORK FOR DEADLINES

What does seem to help is just saying that you'll sit down & work on whatever it is for a brief, set period of time; maybe 20 minutes, say, at the end of which you can get up and walk away if it's not working. 20 is ideal because after about 8 minutes of struggle, you often burn into the task as it seizes your attention . . . and an hour later, when you realize you're still working, you've gotten a whole lot done!

Trust me, we're not alone. I know dozens of writers with this problem.
annnimeee
Apr. 17th, 2007 06:57 am (UTC)
Good is done. I must remember this!!!
yaoi_in_exile
Apr. 17th, 2007 09:00 pm (UTC)
Ohmygosh, Done IS good!! :o That's what I kept telling myself over and over again so I'd stop tweaking my Alpha story and just go to bed!! (When the "Bash It Out etc" croquet mallet started scolding me, I knew it was time to go.) WOAHS! :D

Oh, MY. I definitely want to hear that essay! Oh-my-oh-my-oh-my! :3 It sounds like it'll be lovely if you put so much work into it! (And on one of my favorite subjects, too. >3)

It makes sense, you know, that being human and part of a lifelong learning process that you would have trouble writing sometimes too, but...wow! I have trouble wrapping my mind around it! ^^; Naive, I know, but still. And the weird (weird here meaning sadistic) thing about it is, it makes me feel better about my own writing to know that you struggle too, Ms. Kushner! Like maybe I can do as good someday, and just because writer's block strikes now and then doesn't mean I fail at writing.

*squibbles* Oh, THANK you! *hug*
ellen_kushner
Apr. 19th, 2007 05:28 am (UTC)
You're welcome
As Chaucer wrote:

The Life so short, the Craft so long to learn
Th'essay* so hard; so sharp the conquering . . .

(only he spelled it all differently. And the next line is:
"All this I mean by Love"
but I'm not the first artist to take it to mean our art, as well.)


*he means the trying, not writing an actual essay - but I think it works both ways!
avirr
Apr. 18th, 2007 02:45 am (UTC)
Congratulations on getting it done!

When I was struggling with my senior thesis, a wonderful visiting scholar at Berkeley gave me the best advice ever. (Imagine this in a throaty German accent): don't get it right, get it wrote.
ellen_kushner
Apr. 19th, 2007 05:21 am (UTC)
Love it!

My old therapist used to do a great imitation of one of her German colleagues in grad school, striking himself on the brow and crying: "I must focus! focus! focus!" (Say aloud with German accent and you'll see why it's so funny...)
avirr
Apr. 20th, 2007 03:25 am (UTC)
Hee, "focus"!

I've been meaning to say, I'm going to be in NY next months, wonder if I could see you and Delia, maybe for dinner or coffee or drinks or something. I'll be doing conference stuff most of the days, but have free time on the evening on the 14th and the morning of the 17th. Or, I, um, signed up for Jon Stewart's Daily Show for the 16th, and I have three extra tickets, if you'd care to join me.
( 36 comments — Leave a comment )

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