Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Biggest Kind of Little

You know, I have never felt smaller than I did when I was trying to be a big name. Now I am a small name, and I have never felt bigger. HUGE love to Nancy Golden and the entire Carrollton League of Writers, and big congrats to Jennifer Rabey Crippen, Lauren Bass, and all the winners. It is an honor to be adjacent to your greatness!

Friday, December 7, 2018

Rapping on the A-Train

So while I was in San Francisco, I took the subway to go visit my friends. It was the end of rush hour, so not very crowded once we got into the city proper. Then a guy got on, carrying a little portable speaker and a microphone, and arranged his gear in one corner.

And then he started rapping.

The song was something about peace and harmony - it wasn't very loud, and I couldn't quite make it out. Of course, my first thought was "God, what a jackass. Doesn't he know nobody wants to hear that?"

When he was done, he walked up and down the aisle, soliciting donations with his white-papered can. Everyone ignored him. And my second thought was, "How pitiful. This is like, the saddest and most awkward thing I've ever seen."

He got off at the same stop I did, but before I headed up the stairs, I waited - and watched him get on another train heading back the way we had just come. His microphone fell and dragged on the ground as he boarded, and my last glimpse was him gathering it up and turning on his speaker as the train doors closed behind him. And my third thought was, "Oh God. That is me. That is what I do. That is what my author-friends do. We are all just hapless schmucks belting our hearts out to a crowd of indifferent strangers and trying to get paid for it."

So today's thought is: let's do what we can to be kind to each other. Some of us are more skillful or subtle about it than others - but at the end of the day, most of us are just rapping on the A-train.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Seminal Seniors of SMOFcon

On the bus back to San Francisco after a fantastic too-short weekend at SMOFcon (The SMOFs, of course, are the Secret Masters of Fandom). It's a "convention runner's convention", where the programming and presentations are all about hotel negotiations, crisis management, codes of conduct, and so on. But it's also a fraternity of sorts, with traditions both hallowed and deeply silly.

I tell you what, though: for me, the coolest thing was to sit down at a workshop about social media, or software migration, and see that both the presenters and a good majority of attendees are people my parents' age. They did not grow up with any of this stuff. They might not ever use Twitter or Instagram for personal enjoyment. But they are passionately dedicated to mastering it and sharing that knowledge, because that is what their event and their fan community needs them to do. And I am so grateful that they are willing to keep carrying that torch forward, especially when so many people of my generation don't yet have the financial security or free time that you absolutely have to have before you can consider taking up the reins on an all-volunteer nonprofit event that's going to involve a thousand people, a quarter-million dollars, and over a year's worth of planning. 

Now I leave much gratified and more than a little lonely. My commitments to my own little community mean that I don't have the bandwidth to even attend, much less help out with, the fantastic conventions they're building out for next year and the ones after. But friendly friends - if you are ever tempted to doubt or despair, go listen to Ray Stevens' "Shriners Convention" and know that our reverend elders are doing tireless good work that is almost entirely invisible to the outside world... in between running late-night "statistics and probability seminars" with a nickel buy-in :)

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

A Well-Earned Campaign Tribute

My friend Michelle O'Neal said it better than I could have:

"I can't wait to vote for Allison Campolo again.

FWST Bud Kennedy said of Beverly Powell... 'Her strongest opponent turned into her strongest ally. Euless Democrat Allison Campolo, a young progressive half her age, ran a tough primary race and then instead of going home, helped organize the county get-out-the-vote campaign.'"

That's how we do it, y'all. You fight for your wins, learn from your losses, and keep your eye on the prize. At the end of the day, it's not about whether you can do the thing - it's about whether the thing gets done. I have NEVER been more proud of my big, beautiful, red-and-blue state... or more thankful that I stopped knocking my sister's teeth out before she started doing kung fu.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Making Space

I don't act on it often enough - but I believe to my bones in making space for the people who are making space for people.

Here's one of them right here. Her name is Shayla Lee Raquel, and for the last three years, she has moved heaven and red Oklahoma earth to raise up a first-class writing community in her backyard. She runs the Yukon Writers' Society, which just hosted the FABULOUS Writers Olympics. She travels down to DFW on the regular, donating her time and expertise to make events like WORDfest possible. She has been the fiercest pro-bono advocate an indie author could ever have (including nailing a VERY pointed set of theses to the Oklahoma Book Festival's double-standard front door). And anyone who has ever taken a turn with the organizer's hat knows how completely a good cause will tornado its way through your own personal life and projects. 

But today at last, it is Shayla's turn for the spotlight. Cinderella finally gets to go to the ball - not because a fairy godmother waved a wand and apparated a Pumpkin Miata for the occasion, but because she hitched up her homespun dress, laced up her trainers and walked her own self to the party.

It is terribly important to me to make sure that people like Shayla get more than a warm, fuzzy feeling for their efforts - that they are materially and powerfully thanked for the hundreds of hours they've given to making space for the rest of us. And if you would like to sign your name to that effort, this is where you can go to give her your congratulations, read up on her work, and gift a copy to the person in your life that her words were meant for.

Friday, October 26, 2018

A Sultry 'Bootoir' Moment

Everybody has been telling me for the better part of two years now that I should start wearing boots.
The WORD squad, knowing too well what happens to *any* task I am entrusted with, took matters into their own insufferably wonderful hands.

So here is my first-ever 'bootoir' photo, captioned thusly: if you are lucky enough to know Marsha Hubbell, Kathryn McClatchy, Daniel Wells, David Douglas, Sarah Hamilton, Amanda Arista, or god help you, William Humble, then you know one-seventh of the joy, passion, generosity, patience, hard work, and unrelenting refusal to quit that knocks me acock on a near-daily basis. I expect working with these folks for the past two years has been perfect practice for donning a pair of Ropers, actually - cuz they have seen me through ten thousand miles, in every kind of weather, and they just won't quit.

Thank you for everything, posse. They fit like a dream.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Sock-Sacks and Happiness

Okay, so after Writers in The Field, I have a new thesis statement: we have too many huge, giant, apocalyptic nigh-unsolvable problems in this country, and not enough small ones.

On Saturday, for example, my main problem was not dropping the cookies (that LB Clark and Erin McGowan brought all the way up from Galveston!) while a hundred of us were running through the mud to escape the tornado warning.

On Sunday, my main problem was not owning a second pair of shoes. (As it turns out, grocery sacks make fair-to-middling sock-condoms.)

Today, my main problem is that I can't quite figure out how to get up off this couch.
And all of these are small, satisfying, and completely surmountable challenges.

I didn't have to worry about getting Kathryn McClatchy up off the floor of the ticket booth during the tornading, because Marsha Hubbell is a PTA Green Beret. Didn't have to figure out how to feed everyone after the food truck fell in a ditch, cuz Alex and Allison Campolo delivered pizza through flooded roads like Evel Knievel jumping the Snake River Canyon (in a Lexus, no less). Didn't have to know how to get the food truck *out* of the ditch, because as far as I can tell, Shane Richmond just Force-lifted it up like an X-wing from the Dagobah swamp. Didn't have to stop and thumb-type every late-breaking announcement, because Kathryn and Sarah and Amanda blew up the hashtags harder than a questionably-colored dress. Hell, I didn't even have time to wonder about getting the margarita machines in during the storm, because Brandon Burgess is the all-weather swashbuckling Jimmy Buffett this country needs.

My point is: all of these very short, specific, twenty-minute micro-crises are now 100% handled. Mostly because we had exactly the right people on point to handle them.

But also - you know, in a world where everything we need magically appears on a shelf or in a box at our front door (even as we wither in constant, paralyzing, existential fear), it was so good to remember what small, short, tangible challenges feel like. And now that I'm back home, clean and dry in my climate-controlled condo-box, I am jonesing for my next fix. Can these shoes go the dryer after I hose them off? I don't know, but I can't wait to find out!

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Tilting at Tomorrow

Sometimes I feel like I'm living in a parallel universe. I get so wrapped up in making flyers, planning activities, visiting and traveling and trying to keep up with myself - and after a long, happy day of hard work and hobbit-wrangling, it's a shock to log on and read about a profoundly broken world.

I worry sometimes that I'm too fortunate and insulated - that all of what I'm doing basically amounts to building castles in the sky while Rome burns. I hope that's not true. More than anything, I want what I'm doing to matter. I expect we all do.

But here's what I know for a certain fact: there is going to be a tomorrow in which the all-consuming crises of today don't feature. Our current problems will pass away, just as surely as the Cold War and the 1918 flu did before them, and new ones will grow in their place.

And when tomorrow gets here, I want to make sure that we still remember how to co-exist. I want to make sure that clickbaiting and fearmongering and runaway intellectual inbreeding don't deprive us of our friends and neighbors. We're in the middle of a hard and essential fight right now, but there's something completely unlike it already waiting in the wings... and whatever that is, we absolutely can't afford to meet it at half-strength.

I hope you registered to vote today, if you weren't already signed up. I hope you have been using every good means at your disposal to weigh in on the big decisions, and take ownership of the small ones.

But I also hope we remember the last vital stranger who helped us - on the side of the road, in the hospital, a thousand miles from home - and how little their political views mattered when we really, desperately needed them. And I am going to join my fellow big-hearted eventroverts in continuing to raise up little tentpole-spaces for good people to meet face-first and practice helping each other out... because that's the best way I know to ensure we still have a common ground left to come back to after today's fight is finished.

And because I just god damn love wearing a fancy name tag and buying tax-deductible donuts.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Failing and Flailing

Real question: is computer ADHD a thing? Because I feel like a really pretty almost-together person in real life, and then as soon as I open up my laptop to do some work, everything turns into a giant digital shitblizzard.

What was I supposed to be doing? Which of these emails do I answer first? (Which of these inboxes do I even look at first?) Oh damn it, that interview was due a week ago... and there are all these texts... and I forgot to reply to that nice message because Facebook Messenger already marked it as read (I HATE that). And maybe I should just make like I never even got those last ten emails, because they're a month old already and I feel so guilty.

I hate it, y'all. I hate doing bad. I hate feeling bad. Somebody please tell me how to stop failing at pixels. Or at least tell me I'm not the only one.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Because Blood Is Thicker than Hilton Water

Question of the day: who here already knew that David Douglas was a miracle-working shoemaker-elf, and what are you leaving out for him at night?

Seriously, y'all. He is singlehandedly holding up half a dozen different writers organizations over here, and I am just so bowled over and thankful for him on the daily. And for Shane Richmond and William Humble and Kathryn McClatchy and Sarah Hamilton and ALL of the WORD crew, who have been BUSTING IT for weeks now to help us get Writers in the Field off the ground.

And for you guys. Man, I can't think you enough for all that good love you gave us yesterday, right when we really needed it. We blew our ticket sales target *totally* out of the water, and for the first time since, like, May, I am waking up with a cut in my strut and a glide in my stride, cuz I don't just have to believe we are doing good work - I can SEE it.

Big, big love, y'all, and endless gratitude from all sides. I know what we're doing isn't the most important thing in the world, but you sure are lighting up our little corner of it. Thank you for being our ice-cold cucumber-jalapeño water of life: we don't have to know how or why you happened to us to be strangely proud that you did.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Why's That Dog In Here?

You know, I have been incredibly fortunate to belong to a number of volunteer programs over the past few years. One of the things we don't talk about too much is where our society's volunteer base comes from.

Sometimes volunteers come from fortunate circumstances: active retirees, students on summer break, and stay-at-home parents whose kids are in school.

But sometimes a salaried working person becomes a volunteer when their life-plan is drastically, permanently altered. That's Kathryn McClatchy to a T. She is an absolute champion for us at WORD (I was literally crying on the phone to her yesterday as she patiently scooped things off my agenda-plate until I could function again.) And we probably wouldn't have her if she were still working twelve-hour days as a teacher - if a series of strokes hadn't forced her to completely re-learn how to read, and walk, and bang out her life plan all over again.

But she's out there every day, working like the dickens to contribute wherever and however she can - to her church, to the Writers Guild of Texas, to WORD, and I don't even know what-all else. Her latest contribution is a book called "Why's That Dog In Here?", all about the wild, hilarious, infuriating and unforgettable reality of life with a service dog. She is determined to put it out into the world the right way, so that everyone can benefit from the rocky road she's travelled - and for that, she needs some extra backing.

So. If you've enjoyed anything I've done, please know that it is only possible because of people like Kathryn. And if you can lay down a few extra dollars to help her passion and positivity ripple even farther out into the world, you will be doing a powerful service to a person who serves powerfully. The volunteers of the world don't get paid, by definition - but they deserve all of the enthusiastic support and appreciation we can give them. Are you in?

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

America the Bountiful

Y'all, I'm sorry I've been so neglectful with replies and comments and all. I'm averaging seventy/eighty hours a week so far this year, and feel like a fat pile of tired lying beached on a heap of broken promises.

I tell you what, though. I wouldn't be half this knackered if I hadn't gotten so dang addicted to going and doing in every random corner of the country. We have so many wonderful places and people here, from the homemade truck nuts of Texas to the gluten-free toasters of Oregon to the ukulele-enhanced worship services of Ohio and the feral beach-chickens of Hawaii.

It probably shouldn't be surprising that we have such trouble feeling like one united nation sometimes. And silly as it sounds, I really feel like we would treat each other so much more kindly, if only everyone had the luxury of visiting their thousand-mile neighbors on the regular.

But don't despair, guys. I'm gonna make those mega-millions any day now, and when I do, I'm handing everyone a fat check so that you can quit all that awful day-jobbing business and come romance the open road too. And we will love this country whole again, from sea to shining sea.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Writers in the Field, Weigh In!

Man, y'all. I've been Oregone for two weeks, Idahoed with the best of the best, and got myself a sweet summer Montan to boot. Now I am home again, and there is no place like couch. Thanks, y'all, for putting me up and holding the fort!

If I can ask one more favor: Texish writer-buddies, will you weigh in and tell us what you want to see at Writers in the Field: Chapter Two this year? We need to know which Hogwarts professors to invite and what carnival marvels you want to see.

Survey is here!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Parable of the Peach

All right, y'all - here's your moral motivator for the day.

We took the cats in for their annual indignities, which always requires gassing Peaches down in a Tupperware box. As if that weren't enough, her paws are too dark for the heart monitor clip to read accurately - so they got creative and hooked it up to her nub instead.

The Parable of the Peach thus teaches us two lessons:

1. Use your damage to your advantage - every chance you get

and 2. Be grateful for any day that doesn't involve having a jumper cable clamped to your ass!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

#GIFcon18 - Fictional Identities and Real-World Protagonism

This is part three of "Once Upon a Time in the West" - the keynote address I delivered for the Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations conference in April 2018.

Here is a question for the assembly. How many of you know your Meyers-Briggs personality type? ENFJ, INTP, all that? What about your Enneagram? Okay, what about your Hogwarts house? (Where my Hufflepuffs at?!)

So let’s think for a second about the last one – about fictional identities that we cleave to here in the real world. One of the first things that a human being does in unfamiliar surroundings is to look for their own type. When we travel, we hurry to find the ‘right’ part of town, where the people who are most like us are most likely to be. And in fantasy, whether we are traveling back in time or through the wardrobe or into a mirror universe where vampires are real, we do the same thing. Fantasy is *fantastic* at deliberately disorienting the reader, knocking us out of our existing prejudices and worldviews and leading us to fall in with strange bedfellows.

In a decent story, we find the good guys pretty quick. But in a great story, there is more than one kind of good guy. And, y’all, fantasy is SO GOOD at ensemble casts and sentai groups and adventuring parties and superhero teams – to me, this is half the genius of the genre. Fantasy says, “all right, here’s your map and your compass and your three magic coins. Now, do you want to be a wizard, or a fighter, or a cleric? Are you a Hufflepuff, or a Ravenclaw, or a Gryffindor? No, don’t just roll the die – let’s think about what you’re like and what you’re good at and decide what your heroic major should be.”

And I want to be clear. Anybody can do the A-Team. Anybody can tell a story about an unlikely band of lovable misfits, each with their own special talent. But what I see my favorite kind of fantasy doing is creating entire discrete categories of heroes, and explicitly inviting the reader to choose one for themselves. No kid reading Harry Potter has ever wondered whether they are a wizard. They wonder what kind of wizard they are.

And this is so important, y’all. This is SO VITAL. The magic of these categories, these self-chosen identities, is that they bypass the question of power and heroism entirely. You spend no time wondering whether you are good enough to be a hero in that world. Your power is *assumed*. Your potential is *a given* - and the only remaining question is what KIND of power you would have, what KIND of hero you would like to be.

More than that, these fantasy identities are safe and welcoming – because they are voluntary. I will never see a news story about how some other gnomish cleric went on a shooting spree and killed twelve people. I will never be passed up for a job or treated unkindly because of what some other Hufflepuff has done. I can’t say that about my fellow white people, my fellow fat people, my fellow Americans, my fellow women. I didn’t get to choose the identities that I was born with, and neither did any of you.

And this is where I would like the Western to help push fantasy one step farther.
So let’s think about what causes protagonism. Is it congenital? Is it genetic? Is it idiopathic? Is it contagious?

In fantasy, even in modern fantasy, it’s genetic. After all, in the Harry Potter books, the only way to get to be a Hufflepuff is to be born a wizard in the first place – and that is strictly a matter of birth. That’s where we see the roots of old-school fantasy, that says you’re either special or you’re not. And that really bothers me. Even in series I love, like the X-Men and the Incredibles, like Nickelodeon’s Avatar, like Steven Universe, the special people are orders of magnitude more powerful than the ordinary ones – and if you aren’t born into that club, there is no other way in. Not even if one of the special people bites you under a full moon. (Can we call the vampires-and-werewolves method ‘contagious’ protagonism? You can be a hero, but you have to wait for the plot to find you first.)

Conversely, Western protagonism tends to be an equal-opportunity gig. It says that who you are and where you come from doesn’t matter – it’s what you do that counts. (Even and especially if nobody else notices it.) I like that so much better. And I like the idea that even small, anonymous acts of heroism are hugely important and worthy.

Still, I don’t need to tell you that who you are DOES matter. I don’t need to tell you what it means to see girls and women in tears watching Wonder Woman. I don’t need to tell you what it means when black audiences are lining up around the block to see Black Panther for the sixth time. And I don’t want to belabor this point, because I suspect that you are already passionately, personally dedicated to the push for more diverse characters and stories. Can I get an amen? AMEN!!!

But I don’t want to leave it there in the fantasy world, y’all. I kind of want to take this big idea back through the wardrobe here into Mugglespace – and this is where you come in.

Today, there is a real momentum, a real push for everyone to own their identities – especially marginalized identities. Right? Back in the AOL days, the question was A/S/L – age, sex, location. Now our Twitter bios tend to include our gender and preferred pronouns, our sexuality, our race, faith, and so on. The discourse is very much about owning our identities, and pressing for better representation and improved opportunities for marginalized ones.

Now wade with me for a second into the real deep end of that pool. Have you ever heard of Otherkin? The folks who feel that they literally do have the spirit of a dragon, or an angel, or Sephiroth, or Goku. It’s pretty far out there, even by today’s standards – they are pretty far down on the hierarchy of nerds.

But I saw a post from a fellow once, which I thought was really profound. He said, “All right, so you have the soul of a dragon. Now, what I want to know is, what is it doing for you? Are you kinder, braver, more courageous, because you are a dragon? Because if so – batter on, buddy. I’m up for that.”

And so, once we have selected the labels that represent who we ARE, I want to develop vocabulary for labelling ourselves according to what we DO – and I’m not talking about what we get paid for. I'm talking about having words to communicate the flavor of the greatness inside us (whether we think of it as a dragon or a Ravenclaw or just the "Eye of the Tiger" montage from Rocky) - and to remind us to continually put that greatness out into the world.

This is really important to me, y’all. This is one reason I’ve left off writing for a bit and turned my attention toward mentoring other writers. *Everything* in our culture – well, my culture – encourages us to identify ourselves by how we vote, where we shop, which shows we watch, what brands we wear and eat and use. We’ve been asked to orient ourselves almost exclusively around the axis of consumption… but the axis of creation is beckoning.

I feel like we desperately need to go beyond identifying ourselves by what we consume, and also to go beyond identifying ourselves by the boxes we check on the census form – because I tell you what: whenever I see on the news how some hapless jack-ass has shot up a school, or driven a truck into a crowd, or blown up a bus or whatever, I KNOW that that person was profoundly disconnected. So often, they took one of their identities to a toxic extreme. And before you think “oh yes, men’s rights” or “oh yes, religious extremism”, or “oh yes, white supremacy” – don’t forget, you guys, that marginalized folks are not exempt from the ugly consequences of isolation and disconnection. The difference is that they tend to do violence to themselves, and it tends not to make the evening news. But I promise you that that violence is every bit as devastating to the people left in its wake.

So this is why I think we so badly need a new set of identities, ones that describe the kinds of goodness we have in us, the ways we like to contribute to the world. It’s good to be proud of who we are. It's great to find other people who enjoy some of the same games and books and TV shows we do. But as far as I can tell, the people who are excited about what they DO – about their writing, their art, their gardens, their kids, their church choir, their profession, their activism – those folks are much, much less likely to hurt themselves or other people.

And that’s where I want to see fantasy and Westerns team up to help us become our better selves. The Western is egalitarian – it says that anyone can be a hero, and that small acts matter tremendously – that you don’t need to wait for a wizard to come knocking on your door in order to find a problem and solve it. Fantasy adds to that by saying that there are different kinds of heroes, and gives us language to describe them. Fantasy says that you can be a Hufflepuff straight off the bat, before you’ve learned one single spell – but it’s not a passive attribute. Your Hufflepuffery hinges on your values, on your actions, the way you think and behave and solve problems – and at Hogwarts at least, the other students of your house are affected by what you do.

I like that idea a lot. And I want to take it farther. I want us to push the envelope even farther beyond Hogwarts houses, and Westeros houses, and My Little Pony cutie marks, and tell more stories that invite real people to find power and magic in the way they live their everyday lives. I want people to go out into the world thinking, “I’m a naturesmith, and that means I help animals and pick up trash wherever I see it.” “I’m a hospitologist, and that means I bring goodies and anticipate people’s needs and make sure everyone at the party is having a good time.” “I’m an enthusomancer, and that means I rally the troops whenever a person or a cause needs extra help.” (Big shout out to our chief enthusomancer here, Dr. Maslen.)

Those are good ways to see value in ourselves. But just as importantly, I want to help cultivate a language that invites us to see value in people who aren’t like us. If it turns out that I’m a liberal and you’re a conservative, then we might sort of bristle and get ready to argue. But if it turns out that you’re a hippie peacenik ecologist druid and I’m a survivalist doomsday-prepper druid, then we still have a means to relate to each other, because we have identity-words that emphasize our common ground (and invite us to bond over our shared contempt of idiotic wasteful city-slickers, of course.)

We do have that common ground. I believe that we do. What we don’t have are a lot of words to understand it with. We have a few, like ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’. But we need so many more. We need words that describe who you are during a night out with your friends. Are you the ruckus-raiser who rounds up the crew and drags the introverts out of the house? Are you the logistician who chooses a place and arranges rides? Are you said introvert who REALLY doesn’t want to go but dutifully shows up and pours your drunk idiot mates carefully into a taxi at the end of the night?

There is a term in linguistics called ‘hypocognition’. Has anyone heard it? It basically proposes that when your language doesn’t have words to express a certain idea or feeling, it is much more difficult, or even impossible, to mentally process those ideas or feelings. And that is what I think our discourse is missing, y’all. We need a vocabulary of contribution, a set of identity-words that speak to our gifts and passions and the ways we like to help the people around us.

I believe that the more of those words we have, the better we will get at seeing ourselves as heroes in our own everyday lives – and the more readily we will be able to recognize value and heroism in people who are profoundly unlike us. This is what I want to see here in the real world, guys. I want protagonism to be CHRONIC. I want it to be contagious. I want it to be endemic!

So that is my proposition. That is the quest I would like to put to you – because I believe that you-all are the best possible people to undertake the task.

You-all here today are at the center of the Venn diagram of power and possibility. You are creative enough to envision a better world, and articulate enough to put that vision to the rest of us. You are old enough to know what’s important to you, and young enough to make it happen. You are smart enough to do this job, and dumb enough to take it. And guys, after hearing you this weekend, after seeing how brilliantly you analyze and draw from these fictional worlds, I cannot WAIT to see how you will transform this one.

<--Part 2: The Fantasy of the West

#GIFcon18 - The Fantasy of the West

This is part two of "Once Upon a Time in the West" - the keynote address I delivered for the Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations conference in April 2018. 

So in the quest to write a truly American fantasy, I started looking at Westerns, because of course it's the quintessentially American genre.

Question for the assembly: what do you think of when you think of a Western?

There are guns, of course, and horses, and hats, and all those good things - but those are just the set props, the tropes - they are the "envelope" of the genre. Think about fantasy for a sec: the "envelope" includes swords, dragons, and elves, but what is the essence of fantasy? It's magic. It's adventure. Above all, it is 'what if'.

So let's talk about the essence of a Western for a minute. Setting all of the props and movie set backdrops aside for a moment (and speaking strictly in crass generalizations for the time being), here are the essential features of a Western that stood out to me.

What I noticed is that:

1) In a Western, who the hero is or where he is from is ultimately immaterial. He doesn’t turn out to be the son of a wizard or a king, and there’s no Hand of God aiming a prophecy square at his head saying “right, you – get on with it.”

Instead, 2) he becomes heroic by being the person who looks at the problem, hitches up his britches, and decides to go handle it. He's not the hero because he has a special power, a special object, or special knowledge. He's usually not the only person who CAN handle the problem. He's just the only person who WILL.

And 3) that problem is usually intensely small-scale. We’re often talking about one town under siege by bandits, or one rancher’s daughter about to lose her land to the bank, or think of Jack London’s To Build a Fire – the stakes are literally one fire, one person’s life.

And because the stakes are so small, 4) the hero’s deeds will go unnoticed and unrecorded by the outside world – what he does matters intensely to the people involved, but does not change the larger status quo.

And yet, 5) there is an incredibly intense moral code involved.

Let's talk about that last part. Have any of you ever seen HBO’s Deadwood? It’s a revisionist Western series from a few years back, and I’d like for us to look at the first scene together. (Fair warning: there's a hanging involved, and a healthy dose of swearing.)


1. Both the prisoner and the sheriff have the same understanding of the rules of their society: the prisoner was caught stealing horses, and that’s a hanging offense. Which may seem strange and cruel, but think about it with me.

Let’s say I’ve caught you stealing my horses. You don’t seem like a bad sort, really. I understand you were desperate. But out on the frontier, there’s no proper prison to put you in, and we couldn’t really afford to feed you and keep you even if we did, so ultimately I have to either kill you or let you go. In a kinder, more generous world, I would let you go. But in this one, letting you go means taking the risk that you will steal my neighbor’s horses next, and I will be liable and he will be ruined. And so what happens next is going to be hard for both of us, because we are the children of a hard place.

2. Because we have the same understanding of the rules, we can afford to be kind, even friendly to each other, despite our mutual sadness at what must happen next. Ultimately, the sheriff and the prisoner are on the same side - they have a common enemy.

3. When the outlaws show up, they threaten to wreck those rules. And even though it hardly seems to matter whether the prisoner dies by shooting or hanging, the moral stakes are tremendously high here: if we let the outlaws have their way, then we admit total powerlessness in the face of violence and anarchy. We lose order and society itself.

4. The sheriff does not push the prisoner. He beckons him, and waits for the man to step off the platform of his own accord. The sheriff’s kindness goes beyond what is strictly required (asking for last words and wishes) and grants the prisoner this tiny measure of agency in his own death. Again, a small, crucial measure of control as chaos threatens. (He does him a second kindness by jerking his body downwards to give him a quick, sudden death, so that he does not suffer.)

5. In this way, justice prevails – and anarchy loses its power. The outlaw leader has lost status in the eyes of his men, who see nothing else worth fighting over. Everyone leaves peacefully, without a shot fired. In the end, the result is just what it promised to be at the beginning of the scene – the sheriff and his deputy depart for Deadwood, as planned, and the prisoner has died lawfully, (almost) as planned, and the sleeping townsfolk have no idea that anything was ever out of the ordinary. But the WAY in which these things were accomplished feels tremendously weighty, as if we have fought and won the battle for civilization itself in the space of five minutes.

…and that’s what really enchants me about Westerns, y’all – that feeling of living at the edge of the firelight, as it were.

 Are any of you Firefly fans? Do you remember how many episodes were about survival? They were out of food, or out of money, or broke down and out of gas in space. That lack, that want, drove the plot forward (often without any need for a villain), and gave us so many great situations and stories that you can’t do in Star Trek, say, where there is plenty of everything. More than anything, the Western is a tale of scarcity.

So often, the virtues that the fantasy genre fights so valiantly for – charity, mercy, kindness, redemption – have to be painfully rationed in the Western. They are as rare and precious as water in the desert, more valuable for being so difficult to come by.

And to come back to the theme of our event, that to me is where we escape the escapism. A decent story of whatever kind might end with killing the bad guy and going home a hero. But a great story, to my mind, asks us to consider not just whether we CAN do the right thing, but what the right thing IS – and what it might cost. This is how Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter stuck the landing, as it were: there was no victory without cost.

And what is fascinating to me is that we seem to have an endless appetite for stories of any genre that indulge our fantasy of smallness. The ones that say, “remember when we were tiny helpless creatures – when we didn’t worry about crushing the planet with our carbon emissions – when we could be devoured by giant nameless creatures or disappear mysteriously in the night – when we huddled close by the campfire and prayed to survive until morning.”

And this is where it finally clicked for me, y’all. This is where I finally found the connection between the fantasy novels I read in the car and the Western vistas passing by through the window. They DO work well together, because they share a common origin. They are the children of a single timeless parent. Both fantasy and Westerns can trace their lineage back to the time of Beowulf, when the lone Geatish gunslinger first rode into town to liberate the Danes from the ravages of the outlaw Grendel.

At its heart, whether we are talking about outlaws or wilderness survival or the railroad coming through town, whether it is set in Arizona or the Yukon or Japan or outer space, a Western is fundamentally about the conflict between the world you know and the one you don’t… and fantasy is the one you don’t. Literally the only requirement for a fantasy story is that it takes place outside the world as we know it… and that gives it power like no other.

Examining fantasy and Westerns side-by-side is such a valuable way to understand our common past – and I believe that bringing them back together can help us chart a path to a better future. Here’s how.

Part 3: Fictional Identities and Real-World Protagonism --> 

<--Part 1: Building Droughtworld

#GIFcon18 - Building Droughtworld

This is part one of "Once Upon a Time in the West" - the keynote address I delivered for the Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations conference in April 2018.

Hi all! And thank you so much for having me out. Before we get started, I just wanna say… y’all got ALL the purdy words. Makes my skull-meats all tingly :)

It’s been such a rare treat to get to hear your work over these last couple of days, and I have to confess that I’m a little nervous – you are an awfully hard act to follow. But I’ll try to string my corn-fed gruntings and hillbilly ululations together into something entertaining, at least. I’d like us to have a thought about the fantasy and the Western genres, and what relationship they have – but after that, I have a proposition for you. A quest, if you will, to use your excellent words to take what we talk about in the next few minutes and do something new with it.

So this is me, and these are my books. I grew up in Texas, Dallas specifically, which you can see as the biggest bright spot just below dead-center of this map here.

Can you see the difference between the eastern and the western halves of the US? It's really something, isn’t it? So while I didn’t grow up in the West per se, I’ve lived in a place that’s sort of at the edge of the light – and as fantasy enthusiasts, you know very well how many exciting things can happen there.

Anyway, so I grew up in Dallas, but most of my extended family lived in Houston, which is about four hours drive, and in Albuquerque, which is about twelve. I am here to tell you that that is a looooong time in the car when you’re a little kid. And most of it looks like this.

I mean, it’s not all boring. There’s lots to see on the road...

...and those gas stations have all KINDS of fun treasures.

Anyway, so I got a lot of reading done on those car trips, and it was fantasy from top to bottom. By and by, around my junior year of high school, I had a great idea. “I’m gonna write me a book!”

And I did.

And it was ANIME.

But that was all right. I kept revising and refining, starting over, trying out new ideas, and had a great time. But even after I’d gotten fairly decent at things like characters and dialogue, I kept hitting this wall with the setting. I kept trying to write what I’d always read – which was to say, a vaguely European medieval nowhere – and it kept dissolving into a pile of generic mush. I wasn’t excited about it, but I didn’t know what else to do.

So it was around that time, after college, when my roommate brought home a copy of True Grit. Have any of you read or seen this?

Let me back up and say that I had never paid much attention to Westerns before. I thought they were all about stubbly-jawed white guys putting bullets in their problems, and since that was never going to be me, I never gave them a second look. Plus, you might have heard the stereotype about how Westerns are basically romances for men. I mean, think about it. They’re shamelessly unrealistic. The traditional gender roles are dialed up to 11. At the end, the guy gets the girl. And you know how you can tell they’re men’s books? Cuz at the end, he leaves :)

Anyway, but here was True Grit – the story of Mattie Ross, a14-year-old farm girl from Yell County, Arkansas, who’s going to risk everything to track down and bring to justice the hired man who murdered her father, because nobody else cares.

And y’all, that was a revelation for me. Look at her. This is not a spunky princess going out for an adventure. This is a squishy little hobbit-person who has NO business being out in the big wide world, and no way out but through. And that was when it hit me, y’all. That was when I realized that Westerns are for EVERYONE.

And I thought – hang on, why am I trying to write Europe? I’m not from Europe. I’m from Texas. For us, ‘Yurp’ is one syllable. Why don’t I write an American epic fantasy – one set in my own back yard? Hell yeah! That’ll be great! Let’s do it!

…guys. Have you LOOKED at American History? Oh my grits. That is some grim stuff. And it’s a hard thing to wrestle with, too. On the one hand, it’s so special to belong to a truly exceptional place, a country that was founded on an idea… but on the other hand, there is no part of my country that we didn’t take from somebody else. That is a hard circle to square. In some ways, it feels like we are both the Rebel Alliance and the Empire, and I wanted so much to bring that feeling front and center to my work.

So I started seriously looking at Westerns, because it’s the quintessentially ‘American’ genre. And I thought hard about what it meant to write about my country.

I didn’t feel it was responsible to write any so-called American story that did not include a representative variety of Americans, or failed to confront the violence and cultural warfare of our history head-on. But I also didn’t want to contribute to the volume of Dances With Wolves nonsense – “oh, and then the native people all quietly packed off to a reservation and disappeared, isn’t that sad.” It’s not good writing, and more importantly, it’s not true. There are over 500 federally-recognized tribes today! They are still here, despite what this jackass author would have you believe.

So, all right – we’ll have the war, but make it come out differently. Make it more of a stalemate, have the native people actually fight to a standstill and take some of their land back from the settlers.

Good, yes. But how? By what means? And the obvious answer that I reached for was the fantasy answer: well, the native peoples can fight back because they have magic, and the settlers don’t.

But that didn’t sit quite right, because it falls back into the old toxic stereotypes – that native people are either more or less than human, that they’re innately different from us ‘regular folks’, more connected to the earth, and so on and so forth. And so I really had to think hard and ask: what, historically, did indigenous Americans have that Europeans didn’t?

I found the answer in New Mexico, actually. Have any of you heard of the Acoma Sky City? It is a really special place – the longest continually inhabited settlement in North America. It’s a little town sitting on top of a mesa just west of the Sandia Mountains, and it has been there since the 1100s.

The Acoma people still live there, and on the land down at the foot of the mesa – unconquered, unmoved, unbroken. They have changed significantly since European contact, but much of that change has been on their own terms.

And that was it, y’all. That was when the light bulb went on… which was ironic, since there’s no electricity up there. In MY American fantasy land, magic power comes from cultural continuity. The more you eat the way your ancestors ate, live on their land, speak their language, and worship in their traditions, the more potent your magic is – and it is specific to your people. 

So over here are the Washchaw, the bear people, tremendously tall and strong and powerful – as long as they live according to their clan laws. If you belong to the Ant-Watching clan, you have a sacred obligation to protect the small and the weak, and you may not have any contact with the dead. And over here are the Ten-Maia, the people of the corn, the geomancers whose harvest-drums can actually crack open the earth… and over here working in the silver mine is Ah Che, who is losing his magic, because when you are Ten-Maia, you are not supposed to be burrowing into the ground like a greedy little parasite. And over here are the coyote people, who celebrate a variety of gender-fluid identities, and the crow people, who definitely do not. And here are the telepaths, and here are the necromancers, and here are the house-guards, and here is where the astronomers used to be, but we don’t like to talk about what happened to them.

All right, so. Magic power comes from cultural continuity. But there is more than one kind of cultural continuity, right? So actually, some of the settlers do have some of their old-world magic – the wealthy ones who have been living on the family estate or plantation for two hundred years, who know all their begats and can trace their genealogy back twenty generations and are tremendously proud of their magical pedigree. And even the ordinary folks who don’t have any of that might have just a little unexplainable spark of something – a little knack for mending, maybe, or a bit of a way with animals.

And finally, there is Día – a fire-bending science nun, and one of my favorite characters. She is the child of escaped slaves. She has no idea who her grandparents were, or where her parents came from. But she has taken the faith she was raised with to heart, and become a grave bride – a consecrated woman, who has dedicated her life to studying the mysteries of creation and burying the unclaimed dead. And through her faith, she is POWERFUL. At one point we see her walking barefoot through the desert, leaving smoking footprints behind her, knowing that she could start a wildfire that would burn the whole place to ash.

So, all right. Maybe your continuity comes from your family. Maybe it comes from your faith. Maybe it comes from your profession – you know, if a first-rate blacksmith takes you on as his apprentice, and it’s through studying with him that you begin to inherit his power and become a steelbender, or what-have-you.

And so in a world where power comes from continuity, we can use magic to look at the questions that we wrestle with today. How much continuity – how much orthodoxy – can you accumulate before it becomes stagnation, or oppression? If you’ve been cut off from your ancestral past, how and to what extent can you reconnect with it? If you were lucky enough to make it through the cataclysm, how much of your old ways can you afford to keep in this new world, and when is it heroic (not selfish) to willingly give up your own power in order to try or do something new? Those are the things that I really enjoy thinking about, and I find that fantasy provides a terrific medium for exploring them.

Part 2: The Fantasy of the West -->