Thursday, June 3, 2021

Notes towards a manifesto • 1


Truth be told, I don’t miss SF/F cons. I used to attend quite a few of them, not because I enjoyed the experience so much as because I felt it was a necessary thing to do to help promote my writing career. Doing a con always left me feeling drained, though.

At first I attributed it to the travel schedule, the late hours, and, let’s be honest, the drinking. Did you know that when you are a semi-famous science fiction writer, the fans will provide you with all the alcohol you can possibly drink? There was this one particular WorldCon where I ended up in a private party with a bunch of Japanese fans, who decided the author of “Cyberpunk” really needed to learn how to drink sake the right way, and he needed to keep practicing until he got the hang of it…

Decades later, the memory of my hangover the next morning still gives me a headache.

Eventually, though, after eliminating the drinking and trying to change all the other variables and still not fixing the problem, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t the travel, the hours, or the overindulging: it was the con experience itself that I found exhausting. It was the having to be on, for hours on end and days at a time, all the entire while that I was at the con. 

My epiphany came when I once again found myself talking to a bunch of aspiring writers about how I made the transition from being a musician to being a writer, and how the great thing about writing fiction is that you don’t have to book a venue and rehearse and perform your stories. As a musician I loved working in the recording studio; I could spend hours in the studio trying to get the perfect three minutes down on tape and at the end of the session feel completely energized by the experience. But at the same time, I came to realize that I hated performing in front of a live audience, because no matter how well it went, the experience always left me feeling keyed up, while at the same time disappointed and drained.

Ooh. Little light bulb suspended in mid-air over head flicks on. When I’m at a con, I’m not being me. I’m on a sort of a stage, performing the role of Bruce Bethke®, Semi-Famous Sci-Fi Writer, for the duration of the con. That’s why I can never seem to get the con over with and get out of there fast enough. 

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There are introverts and extroverts, and people who land in all kinds of different places along the spectrum. Generally I’m an introvert, as are most writers, but I’m that odd duck that psychologists label an outgoing introvert. I can switch it on and fake being an extrovert, for a few hours, but the transformation burns a lot of energy and all too often I wind up waking up the next morning in the wolf pen at the local zoo, wondering how the Hell I got there.

So, here’s an unexpected benefit of the COVID-19 pandemic: it’s pretty much killed off the con scene. As an adaptation people have begun holding virtual cons, using various sorts of Internet teleconferencing software, and now that I’ve done a few of them, I find them a vast improvement. I’d be happy to do more.

Admittedly, as you can see from the photo, my current teleconferencing setup looks a bit… silly. I do have a really first-class HD web cam, but it hogs a lot of bandwidth. By putting this laptop on top of a stack of disused monitor stands I instead put the laptop’s good-enough camera at eye-level, thus avoiding that chronic crick in the neck I get whenever I have the laptop at desk height, and as an unexpected bonus I get remarkably good audio quality. I did a series of test recordings using various headsets—I have six or seven of them, I think—and was very surprised to find that I got the best voice quality from the laptop’s built-in mic. 

Hmm. Maybe I don’t need to buy that USB mic I was eyeing up after all. Darn. I love new toys.

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My most recent virtual meeting was with the Chalk Scribblers, a writer’s group based in London, and it was done using Google Meet, a platform I’d not used before but that I found worked much better than Zoom. I had an interesting time, and they asked a lot of good questions, some of which caught me flat-footed and thus remained stuck in my mind and provoked further thought. For example, one writer asked if I had any suggestions for how to maintain a work/life balance.

Honestly, that’s something I’ve never been much good at. I’ve always been a sort of work/work person, who has a great deal of trouble switching off Bruce Bethke® long enough to just relax and enjoy life.

And that, as I thought about it more, became my suggestion: 

Throw out all that stuff you were taught in school about finding your “inner voice” and expressing the real you and all that. Adopt a pseudonym. View your writing career as a piece of performance art. Perform the character of Famous Writer You®. Create a strong barrier between Writer You and Real You, so that you can stop performing that character 24x7.

Remember, Writer You is a greedy parasite, and if you don’t find a way to keep it safely sealed up inside a terrarium, eventually it will devour all of your time and energy, leaving nothing left for anyone else in your life. 

Submitted for your consideration,

—Bruce Bethke





b/w “Buck Turner and The Spud from Space”

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