Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen

All night lj: Writer's Autobio

Okay, so one of you asked for a writers' autobiography (of me, as I'm not really qualified to write anyone else's autobiography). I think by now there's some law that mandates a certain percentage of autobiographies start out, "I was born in the wagon of a travelin' show." So take that as a given.

I learned to read and write when I was two, but I wasn't very efficient at it, so I would make my mom take dictation when I had a story that needed telling. It's that fundamental a function of my brain: this is a thing what tells stories. If I don't write them down, they rattle, so. Gradually I got faster at writing, and around that time -- kindergarten-ish, maybe first grade -- it got to be more of a private thing for me. I wasn't ashamed of anything I wrote, I just needed it to be mine and for me and not for other people.

My gifted ed teacher in early grade school was a fabulous influence. Kathy Kinkle was her name, and I wish we were still in touch, but she married and is called something quite googleproof now, so I hope she finds me someday. Among her many other stellar qualities, Kathy did not assume that I should be doing something Age-Appropriate. She paid attention to what interested me and did what she could with it. So in second grade, she noticed me huddling over stories, not showing even her, much though I loved her, and she had a brainstorm. She talked to me about the books I loved, about going through and figuring out the cast of characters and what was going on in each scene, why different elements of the story were there, how we knew things about what had happened or what people were like or whatever. I was seven, and it was just what I needed. It meant that I wasn't entirely stuck flailing at this thing that interested me, that I had some framework for making it go. It also meant that some grown-up was willing to look at what I did and take it seriously on its own terms. Kathy didn't insist on reading my stories and sending them to precious little children's story contests. She gave me the tools to do real work on them. I desperately needed real work at the time. I needed something I did to matter concretely and not in some artificial school framework.

(I think this is one of the reasons I get along so well with a lot of kids: I don't treat them as though their stuff is unimportant just because they don't know how to do their own laundry.)

Where was I? Oh, right, grade school and writing. My family spent a year in Lawrence, KS, which was hell on my parents and paradise for me. And I had friends who liked books, and they leaned on me and over my shoulder and needed swatting away while I wrote my first novel, which was not exactly Swallows and Amazons fanfic, but which bore, shall we say, a certain discernable Ransome-ish influence.

The next year I reread the novel and destroyed it in a fit of disgust. I didn't have a habit of scorning the things I'd loved in any other area of my life, but my first two novels (the second when I was 14) were horribly embarrassing to me a year after their completion, and I didn't have the perspective to see that I might enjoy seeing what I was doing later, even if it was not for anyone else's eyes. (gaaldine and I have discussed this more than once. She's an academic with some interest in juvenilia. I'm a writer with some interest in privacy. For the first and only time in our friendship, there is an issue on which we are not marching in lockstep.) I also stopped showing anyone any of my "real" fiction, though I wrote an over-the-top future history of my girlfriends' and my lives, the summer after eighth grade, for humorous purposes. It amused the participants greatly, at least, and it took pressure off to show anyone anything I was serious about.

In my senior year of high school -- on New Year's Eve, if I remember correctly -- I let scottjames read a scene from the novel I was working on. He didn't ask, I volunteered. I never finished that novel (and if I ever do a related project, it will be completely unrecognizable), but it was a way of making myself take it all seriously. If my best friend knew what I was doing (and my dislike of total orderings aside, Scott was clearly my best friend at the time, not just one of my best friends), I would have to do it as well as I could. Other people could wait, but I couldn't disavow something if it was part of how Scott knew me. I was letting it become real at that point.

In early college, I was immensely torn. I wanted to be able to support myself independently, and I wanted to do physics, and I wanted to write, and I wanted to become a parent at some future point. And it looked to me like those would each take at least half a Mrissa to do well. As cloning was not available, much angst went into this problem. I had an internship with an actuarial firm the summer after my freshman year, and the principal was a former physics major who read SF and spent most of my work hours talking to me about what I was reading and what he was reading. (In retrospect, I think this man had no fannish friends at all.) He drove a BMW and had a gorgeous house. He said he wished he'd stayed with physics. I listened and nodded and went with it, and I didn't entirely notice that I'd spent a good deal more time actually working on fiction than on even thinking about working on physics that summer.

The next big leap for me was the second semester of my sophomore year. I took an Intro Creative Writing class, which did two things: it started me keeping a regular journal, and it gave me a cheerleader. The regular journal helped me to move on from shiny ideas and snappy lines rattling around my head over and over again and into finished drafts of stories. I wrote a novella. I wouldn't submit it now -- I didn't even submit it then -- but it's around here somewhere, or at least not deliberately destroyed. It featured physicists keeling over on their work. Joyce, my professor, thought it was really outstanding student work. For about half the semester, I thought Joyce liked everything. Then I heard my classmates complaining about how tough she was on them, and I realized she just liked everything of mine. This mattered.

Here's the thing: I never doubted that I was obsessed enough to keep hammering out fiction. I just doubted that anyone else would care.

The summer following my sophomore year of college, I went to the University of Toledo (Ohio, not Spain) for a summer research program for physics students. As soon as I had learned to do the data analysis necessary for the project I was assigned to, the equipment failed. There was very little I could do that was in any way related to the project. Many days I would take long lunches and get sent home in the afternoon when it became clear that the fixed equipment was not going to arrive. I would sprawl in the grass under the trees and read and read and make notes and read more. My main source of books was the university library, which was Library of Congress system, which is not conducive to just plain browsing for fiction. I sat myself down and decided that if I was going to write -- which, clearly, I was -- I was going to take it as seriously as I took physics. No one was going to hand me a course of study in Becoming A Science Fiction Writer -- taking a Science Fiction class at Gustavus made me more convinced of that, not less -- so I would just have to figure it out myself. So I started with the award lists and read through great swaths of them, and I started reading some criticism in the field, and I wrote down titles I hadn't read yet that seemed to be getting a lot of mention, and I fetched them from the library and read them, too.

The next summer at Oregon State, almost exactly the same thing happened: we learned to do what we needed to do for the project, and then the equipment broke and left me with little do to but read and write stories. That summer was my breakthrough summer: I started writing stories I didn't hate a month later. I started writing stories that could see the light of day without making me cringe and pretend they must be written by Marissa Lingenqq, the famous Dutch author. I wrote "In the Gardens and the Graves," and when I got back to Gustavus, I showed it to this strange guy who liked SF as much as I did, and he badgered me into submitting it, so I dug up the Asimov Award contest and sent it off to them and promptly forgot all about it: there was a big famous author-person coming to our very campus that weekend, so after I got timprov satisfied that I had sent the thing off, skzbrust's reading looked a lot more important.

And it was important, actually, because it was my first introduction to a Real Big Famous Author Person, and he was awesome. He went with a bunch of us to Perkins after the semi-official reading segment of the evening, and he acted like we were real people and not just stupid kids, and he acted like Timprov and I were real writers and not just stupid kids. And since we knew for a fact, firsthand, that we were just stupid kids, this was quite something. When the Asimov Award people called and said I had won, I was thrilled and terrified, and I only dealt with the terrified part by remembering that I'd met Big Famous Author People before, or Person, or -- well, not Alfred, this is not that play, but still -- and he had been really, really nice to me. Some of you may find it odd that I faced an entire con full of strangers by thinking, "Maybe they'll all be like Steven Brust," but it was very comforting at the time. (I can think of less comforting ideas now, to tell the truth. Rather easily, in fact.)

So off I went to Florida, and I did a reading, and people even showed up, and nobody threw produce. And I got introduced to more Big Famous Author People, and all of them were spectacularly nice to me, too, and Gay Haldeman sat me down for a quick run-through of Stupid Things Not To Do To Sabotage Oneself. (The biggest one I remember was doing extensive revisions on every short story after every rejection.) And it was March and the sky was violet at night and people whose books I liked complimented my legs and I went around in kind of a floaty daze. And Gay Haldeman said, "You're ready. Now it's just time to keep writing short stories and revising them and sending them out."

And it was excellent advice, and I promptly did not follow it. I got married and moved to California and started nuclear physics grad school and got mugged by a novel. I had so many good intentions about short stories, and so many good short story ideas, and this is why I say I'm a novel writer: because faced with a dozen good short story ideas and one good novel idea and at least a dozen reasons why it's a bad time to write a novel, apparently what I say is, "So in Chapter 4 I think what needs to happen...."

timprov read Fortress of Thorns as I was writing it (non-sequentially, as always), and markgritter received a progress report every evening, even if the progress reported was the null progress. I wanted to do it right. I didn't want it to go awry while I was paying attention to physics. And it didn't: physics went awry while I was paying attention to Fortress instead.

All these people, some of whom barely knew me, treated me like a writer. They acted like I could do this. They pointed out that to a certain extent I already had done this. And I couldn't back off from it, so when I got the opportunity to do a bunch of freelance articles (related to physics and mathematics) and quit my grad program, I did it, and it was a good decision, and I don't regret it.

So then I wrote a bunch of short stories, and then I accidentally wrote The Grey Road, and then my biannual "I am a science fiction writer, too, dammit, and not a fantasy writer only" kick hit at the right time, so I wrote Reprogramming. And the short story sales started trickling in, and since I am officially not a short story writer, the fact that it is a trickle and not a flood doesn't bother me. And somewhere around then, the Not The Moose Idea ate my brain, and Dwarf's Blood Mead and The World Builders came pouring from my fingers while I was trying to make Thermionic Night and Sampo go.

And lately I'm not worried that I won't get more ideas. I'm kind of confused about what I should do next, but something will turn up. Either I will get an agent-person who will tell me, or I will get an editor-person who will tell me, or I will just keep putting words on something until it rolls over me and squishes me into the grass and leaves me running after it shouting, "Wait! You forgot your setting! And wear a sweater, you'll get cold!"

Tags: at least you can shop there, full of theories, kasota stone and tornados, stupid vertigo

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  • The end of an era

    I just made my blog cross-post to dreamwidth rather than to livejournal. That's how it's going to go from here on out, so if you want to read my…

  • So here is what

    It looks like people who cut their teeth on lj are pretty attached to this style of aggregator for their reading. So I'm going to look into getting…

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    Like many of you, I do not intend to follow Russian law regarding what minors can and cannot read about, nor do I feel that having an "adult content"…