Making Book: A Few Scattered Thoughts

I met Teresa Nielsen Hayden once.

It was an unexpected privilege for me; I'd been accepted in a writer's workshop at a con and she was acting as a last-minute substitute for one of the original panelists. My story was shredded in the workshop (and rightly so).

Being soundly critiqued by Teresa Nielsen Hayden (and, don't get me wrong, other notable and worthy professionals as well) was both dismaying and comforting. The comfort was that the meat of it was stuff I already knew, though I hadn't quite shifted it into the bits of my brain where you know how to fix it: Mainly, the piece in question was based on a fairly tired bit of folklore and didn't do anything particularly original with it, nor even anything interesting.

It was dismaying because I've long held TNH in high esteem, and I was crushed to think that she would hereafter believe that was a sample of my best work1, should she be moved to remember it at all2.

I've long been a fan, you see. Part of this grows out of my teenage years, and a certain wide-eyed naivete toward publishing and the mysterious springs and gears that make it go. I knew she was One of the Editors at Tor, and I knew I loved books from Tor, and so she was part of a canon of semi-mythical creatures to me: the people who made the culture that I consumed.

In more recent years, I've been a fan because of Making Light. Making Light is an exceptional online community, populated with wonderful and erudite persons of all manner. Although I read it without fail, I comment but rarely. It has the distinction of being one of the few places on the internet where I feel thoroughly outclassed in every respect, so I rarely feel I have much to add to the conversation.

This is all by way of context so you can understand what I'm really here to say. I have finished reading Making Book, a collection of assorted writings by TNH. It's been out for years and years, and I'm not sure why I never bought it earlier. And once I had, I wasn't sure exactly what I expected from it. Probably something like a series of Making Light posts? Slushkiller writ large? But the book was not what I expected.

It's easy to think that you know people on the internet when you just don't. And I admire TNH and her work, but I really don't know her, not in any meaningful sense, and probably don't know most of the important things about her. All I really have is the public persona she presents to the internet, which is charming, intimidatingly competent and educated, and all-around the sort of person I'd love to grow up to be.

So Making Book was a fascinating read because it gave me a glimpse of Teresa Nielsen Hayden as she was before she was... well... Teresa Nielsen Hayden. A history, if not an actual blueprint. You see that time in her life when she and her husband were a couple of broke kids trying to build culture while being dealt a number of bad hands. She lays out bare her narcolepsy and the insidious, pervasive influence it had on her life. She's a person in there, and not a fabulous creature borne of the internet and exacting prose.

Is it arrogant to say I saw myself in her words? I did, I really did. I don't mean this in an hubristic sense. I mean: I read a letter that TNH wrote to Ted White, and in dizzying echoes through time I see that she is addressing the fannish culture of the late 60s with the same sense of signification that I might address the fanzine culture of the early 80s. (Though it does bear saying that she actually knew Ted White at the time, whereas I do not actually know Teresa, as discussed above.)

And this in turn makes me wonder at the children who are in grammar school today. Will they one day look back at the internet culture of the mid-oughts and see in our blogs and tweets the determination and luck that will create the next generation of demigod culture-makers3? Will they blink and think to themselves, "Wow, once such-and-such was trying to find their place in the world, just like me"?

I hope so, I really do. It makes the goal seem attainable, to know that your heroes were not born heroes, but had to grow to become them.


1 And here I make my excuses, feeble as they may be: Applying for the workshop was a last-minute thing. The piece in question was ripped from a novel I'd written because it was the only thing I had lying around at the time that could stand on its own feet as a short story, and I badly wanted to meet Jim MacDonald (another panelist and Making Light contributor) and shake his hand over his selfless service to aspiring novelists at Absolute Write. I'd written the chapter/story/work in question years before, and my craft had leveled up significantly in the years intervening. I really should have known better, etc.

2 I expect she does not. Or at least, I'd hope the piece wasn't so bad as to be memorably bad, given the vastness of her experience with bad writing.

3 This is not to assume I'll be a part of that canon, mind.


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