Categories: sumana | Introspection
Reflecting on myself
# (0) 20 Apr 2017, 12:02PM: Penguicon, Orwell, ETAOINSHRDLU, and Being Important:
When I was eight or nine years old, I think my parents went through a chunk of "how do we support this weird kid?" planning and work. Around this time I remember coming across a book my parents had acquired, something like How To Deal With Your Gifted Child, the kind of book that has 70 pages of large-print line art-illustrated stories to read to your kid and discuss with them, followed by 40 pages of smaller-print nonfiction prose meant just for the adults. I read the whole thing, of course. Pretty hard to prevent a kid who loves reading from reading the whole book and finding use and joy where she can.
Another one of the paperbacks that made its way into our house around this time was about word puzzles, trivia about English, neologisms, and so on -- it had something to do with Mensa, I think. This is how I learned that the twelve most common letters in the English language are, in order, ETAOINSHRDLU.
Also I remember being given a collection of modern British short fiction and essays, for use in a supplemental tutorial or something -- this is how I read my first George Orwell, his essay "Shooting an Elephant", and my first D.H. Lawrence, his short story "The Rocking-Horse Winner", and my first taste of how truly dark Roald Dahl could get, "The Great Automatic Grammatisator".
The advice on dealing with myself, as a gifted child, helped some -- I got it into my head that an aversion to doing things that I wasn't already good at would be harmful, for instance, even if I couldn't prevent acquiring a bit of it anyway. Everyone who comes out of childhood has scorch and stretch marks. I'm glad I got an early start on Dahl, Lawrence, and Orwell, warning me about technology's effect on art, obsession's effect on childhood, and imperalism's effect on the oppressor, respectively. And though ETAOINSHRDLU caused me to regard "Wheel of Fortune" the way many programmers feel about Sudoku -- that it presents problems to humans that properly ought to be solved by computers -- and thus be a bit of a funless jerk for a while about a TV show that provides pleasure to many people, it's has proven useful in countless games of Hangman, and in an inadvertent audience participation moment during a play I saw in Manchester in 2014.
There's a bit in Sherlock Holmes: A Working Hypothesis where a lecturer, solving a Hangman-style puzzle and mocking the audience for our wrong answers, says something about the likelihood of the next letter. I blurted out something like "E, then T, then A, because the twelve most common letters in the corpus of English-language writing, in order, are ETAOINSHRDLU". The speaker teased me occasionally for the rest of the act, and I later learned that several other audience members inferred that I must be a castmember, a plant.
More and more frequently I find that other people in my communities treat me as though I must be one of the cast, not one of the audience. As though I am important. One way of looking at impostor syndrome is that it looks at two people with the same characteristics and pasts and treats one as less important, always the audience and never the cast, solely because it's the self. The How to Deal book had stories about kids who got swelled heads, and stories about kids who never believed they were good enough. "Shooting an Elephant" said: once you're in the cast, you have to follow the script or there'll be hell to pay. And ETAOINSHRDLU has long represented to me the power of double-checking whether something really is random, and finding patterns, and sharing them with others, empowering us. Which can break a kind of fourth wall between watching and acting.
In a little over a week, I'm a guest of honor at Penguicon, and one of my sessions will be a reprise of my LibrePlanet 2017 keynote, "Lessons, Myths, and Lenses: What I Wish I'd Known in 1998" (description, video, in-progress transcript). I'll give the audience a menu of topics and they'll select the ones I talk about, and the order. It'll be massively different from the LibrePlanet version because the audience will choose different topics or a different order, barring deliberate collusion. One reason I'm doing my Guest Of Honor talk this way is because there is too much to say, and this way each story or insight has a fighting chance to get said. But another is that I have given written-in-advance keynote speeches enough times before that it's in danger of becoming a habit, a local maximum. And -- perhaps this does not speak well of me -- I think this particular audience participation method also provides a release valve for the pressure of being the Important one in the room. Instead of performing as a cast of one, I turn everyone into a plant.
To close out, my favorite chunk of Orwell, the ending of "Some Thoughts on the Common Toad":
At any rate, spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can't stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can't. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, Spring is still Spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.
# (2) 07 Apr 2017, 09:08AM: Changing How I Deal With Those Humiliating Teenage Memories:
When I was in high school in Lodi, California, I worked on the school newspaper. It came out every two weeks; we gave it to the printer on Tuesday night or early Wednesday, I think, and we received and distributed it on Friday. So there was a deadline night every other Tuesday. For dinner, our tradition was to order calzones from a particular Italian place in Lodi; they didn't deliver, so one of the students who could drive would drive their car to go get the food.
One night I was the one who collected people's orders and made the call. But I lived in Stockton, some distance from Lodi. When finding the restaurant's phone number in the phone book, I absentmindedly chose the Stockton location and placed our order with the wrong restaurant. Catie* drove to the Lodi restaurant came back from her drive very unhappy and empty-handed; there wasn't time to go all the way to Stockton back and still hit the deadline for the printer, so we didn't get dinner that night.
Later that week, maybe the next day in the journalism room during lunchtime, I was about to go to the cafeteria, maybe to get my own lunch, but definitely also to get Catie's as well (she paid for her own lunch, it wasn't completely feudal). I think someone else said they could do it, but I still remember Catie snapping: "Hari can get me a burrito."
(Everyone at my high school newspaper called me by a shortened version of my last name, pronounced "Hairy". My journalism teacher called everyone by their last names, and had a devil of a time with mine, so on the third or fifth day of class my freshman year, I offered this solution. I have lost track of everyone I knew through that paper but I bet most of them would still think of me as Hari. I feel as though I ought to be embarrassed by this, or as though I should have been, but this is one of the ways social obliviousness protected me, for which I'm grateful.)
This happened twenty years ago and I still remember it. I especially remember it when I am taking care to order food from the restaurant location I intend, as I did last night.
The memory still has the power to wash chagrin over me. I can see why it does. I wasn't diligent about checking a detail, and so some of my team went hungry for a night,** and at least one of them was still irritated with me the next day. I feel a lot more embarrassed about that than I do about a nickname that didn't hurt anyone but me.
Several years ago, when I thought about this or similar past mistakes, I'd flush with feeling, humiliation coursing through me. I would subvocalize my self-loathing. Stupid.
Then I matured a bit, and my response changed. When I felt that rush of humiliation, I'd try to actively say, I love you, Sumana, and send myself some compassion. It helped me avoid going into a complete spiral of self-loathing, but it didn't stop the memories from coming back, unbidden, every so often.
Then I got enough distance to look back and see patterns. I grew to be different enough from teenage Sumana that I could see what she needed to learn -- like asking for help, resourcefulness, organization, resilience, dealing with failure. I'm better at those things than she was. And I can see ways that the people around me could have made better choices, too. I tried to make little moral lessons out of those still-piercing memories. As the saying goes, good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.
But all of these approaches assume the pain of the memory is a problem to be solved. Today I'm going to try to lay that aside. What if I just accept and experience that pain? This is what I'm feeling right now. And then this too shall pass; I always do move on to thinking about something else, empirically. Maybe I will just keep on occasionally remembering this and feeling bad about it, maybe on the last day of my life I will remember this thing and feel bad, and that's okay.
* Not her real name.
** You know what, actually, we probably could have figured out a way to get some food that night anyway if we'd thought about it, call someone's parents or something.
# 03 Apr 2017, 12:41PM: A Small Language Note:
I try not to say "don't get discouraged," because to me that sounds like telling someone not to cry or telling someone to calm down. It's a way of saying "stop feeling what you're feeling." Instead, I try to acknowledge that something is discouraging but also -- if the other person's ready to hear it -- that we can come back from that: your feelings are legitimate, and here are some ways to work with them.
# 02 Dec 2016, 09:30AM: Answering the Phone:
In one of my earliest internships, I volunteered in the local district office of my state Senator (that is, the guy who represented my area in the upper chamber of California's state legislature). I reordered and rearranged informational brochures for our waiting area, I filed, I took phone messages, I think eventually I graduated to writing drafts of replies to constituents for the staffers to revise and send. I volunteered there for a summer, which means that my time there overlapped with the Senate's recess, so I remember a lot more constituent service calls than policy calls -- and the district offices probably got fewer of those calls than the Sacramento office did, anyway.
One day, someone called and said something like, "I'm calling about the Senator's ethics violation." I had never heard anything about this and said "I'm sorry, which ethics violation is that?" to which the caller said "You mean there's more than one?!" I sputtered and put them on hold and took a message or transferred them to a staffer, which I clearly should have done as soon as I heard the tone of their voice and their general topic of inquiry, but hey, inexperience.
Within a few days, there was a letter to the editor in the local newspaper that mentioned this call and named me (I'm pretty sure misspelling my name) while excoriating the Senator and our office. My boss and colleagues sympathized and told me these things happen, and basically reassured me that this was not a black mark on my Permanent Record.
Decades later, I'm calling my local city councilmember, my Senators and my Representative who represent me in Congress, and related offices, spurred by emails from NGOs, aggregators like
"We're His Problem Now" or Wall of Us, and local meetings. And sometimes I stumble over my words, not sure whether they want my name first or my message. But when the intern on the other end of the line says "I don't know what her position is on that; could you call back in 15 minutes? All the staffers who would know are in a meeting right now," I can smile and say "Yes, I can, and I know how it is, I've been on the other end of this call, it's fine." And at least I know I'm not utterly blindsidingly frustrating to deal with. I know, empirically, that I am not as bad as it gets.
# 27 Oct 2016, 11:06AM: Learning Styles:
For years, while mentoring others, I've been using these engineering learning styles as a tool to help newer engineers reflect on how they learn, and to give them a sense of the possible toolbox of learning approaches, so that if they get stuck, they can recognize what approach they're using and try another one. But students don't have different learning styles, really, per science-based required reading for a Software Carpentry train-the-trainer class I'm about to attend. I need to rework my advice.
# 10 May 2016, 08:18PM: Crossover Edition:
Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing a series of Black Panther comic books. I just stopped into a New York City comic book shop and they were sold out of #1 in the sequence; tomorrow they'll get some new printings of #1, plus the brand-new issues of #2. I hung around and chitchatted with another customer and the clerk, about the new Captain America movie, about DC doing gritty movies and sunny TV shows and Marvel doing the reverse, about the importance of Clark Kent's dorkitude, about the fad of re-starting series numbering at 1 to bring in new readers, about whether I'd need to read any backstory to understand the new Black Panther run.
The clerk mentioned that Doctor Strange, the Silver Surfer, the Black Panther, and Moon Knight are great characters who never seem to get a real continuous series. I'd never heard of Moon Knight so he explained who he was.
The clerk, who's white, said that he started getting curious about Coates's work, since this guy was attracting so many new customers who were asking for Black Panther, and since he hadn't read any of Coates's work before. So he got and read Between the World and Me. And he was caught off-guard by some stuff in there, references Coates made to aspects of the black experience that he didn't know. I nodded and said that this was true of The Beautiful Struggle too, like references to particular black musical artists I'm not familiar with. But the clerk said that what really struck him was a thing Coates said about how a black man who was a friend of Coates got pulled over by the cops and shot and killed, for no reason, and the cop covered it up by lying and saying the guy was reaching for a gun. And this happens all the time, over and over, and cops do this to black people, and lie about it. He double-checked with a friend of his, who's black, and his friend said, oh yeah, there are states he won't even go to, because it's such common knowledge that this happens.
I decided, in a split second, not to feign surprise, not to say "how did you not know about this already?" The other customer, a South Asian-American guy, evidently made the same choice. I'm glad that comics fandom, in one small way, made one white person in the US more aware of racism and police brutality. I told Leonard about it and he said, "he's one of today's unlucky ten thousand." But I have a heavy heart right now, thinking of the things I have to know that I wish didn't exist at all, of how Moon Knight is a pretty paltry trade.
# 26 Apr 2016, 01:12PM: Temps:
As Leonard has blogged, he and I just returned from a weeklong anniversary trip to Paris, courtesy of my mom. I'm still a little jetlagged and I've said "Excusez-moi" when brushing past a stranger here in New York. But I'm awake enough to blog. In English.
We got engaged on April 18, 2006, and then married a few days later, on a spring day in the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park in New York City. That was ten years ago. It is the tritest thing in the world to be astonished at the passage of time, and yet, I remain astonished, because how can it possibly have been ten years ago that I went to that Macy's on 34th Street and bought those white trousers and camisole to wear, ten years since that Friday we came back home together and I felt like I could for the first time see decades away, as though atop a summit within my personal landscape and I could see the plains of middle age and old age stretching out beneath me?
Paris is a gratifying place to enjoy a vacation, gorgeous and delicious, and a humbling place for two Americans to celebrate Ten Whole Years of a marriage. The Celts and the Romans and Robespierre came and went before we ever paid a visit. The Arc de Triomphe has names carved into most of its sides, but then there are a couple of blank pillars, as though they're waiting. Versailles has a gallery of paintings celebrating French military victories that graciously includes a depiction of the Battle of Yorktown within the American Revolution.
I broke out my middle- and high-school French and found that French shopkeepers, bus drivers, and waiters and waitresses were friendly. They tried to speak with us in French and helped us get what we needed; one bus driver in particular went above and beyond in making sure I got on the right bus. Saying "Bonjour" upon walking in evidently sends the good-faith signal. Even the security personnel at the Paris (CDG) airport were friendlier than their counterparts at SFO or JFK.
I took a moment to visit a Hindu temple in an Indian neighborhood of Paris. The same smell of incense, the same chants, the same bellsong; a moment of home in a foreign land, even though I haven't been to a Hindu temple in the States since November. Familiarity is its own consolation, and a dangerous one. I can feel within me that impulse that would lash back against any change in the rituals, because even though of course there should be women priests and a less membrane-irritating alternative to incense smoke, I didn't grow up with them and the improvements would strike those synapses as jarring, off, ineffably wrong.
Paris's museum on the history of technology displayed not only a Jacquard loom but its predecessors; others had done programmable looms but their versions didn't auto-advance the program along with the weave, or didn't allow composability (replacing individual lines of code), and so on. Jacquard was Steve Jobs, integrating innovations. I need to remember that there are always predecessors. Leonard will probably blog more about our museum visits and meals and so on; I may not.
I now have almost three whole weeks at home before I leave to give my next conference talk. The summer's so full that I'm skipping Open Source Bridge for the first time since 2010, and even though CON.TXT and AndConf look amazing I will aim to attend them in future years.
I've been thinking about Ruth Coker Burks and role models, and Better Call Saul. I've been reading Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures by Betsy Leondar-Wright, In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri and translated by Ann Goldstein, Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology, edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer, Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, edited by Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown, and The Science of Herself by Karen Joy Fowler. That last one I read in the hotel room using the bedside lamp, next to my husband. Still such a strange word, "husband," or "wife" for that matter.
# 06 Apr 2016, 11:49AM: Reducing Twitter Usage:
I just posted this on Twitter:
I'm feeling bleh about Twitter recently. http://www.listen-tome.com/wasted-hours/
It's a closed-source platform. Recently time-to-load feels slower and navigation feels more unwieldy.
The speech I want to perform and experience doesn't fit in tweets or Twitter conversations/threads.
I want less glibocracy and more vulnerability, exploration, play, context, slow reflection.
The ads get under my skin, but so do the templated speech acts; we become headline writers.
In the attention economy, Twitter is an attractive casino; the house always wins, though.
Many of the reasons I don't use Facebook https://www.harihareswara.net/sumana/2010/10/19/0 continue to apply to Twitter, even more post-Snowden.
Twitter bots are great art! https://points.datasociety.net/bots-a-definition-and-some-historical-threads-47738c8ab1ce http://www.crummy.com/writing/speaking/2014-Foolscap/
But I'm here to signal-boost, get news, see friends & promote @ChangesetLLC, not to make art.
So tell me your blog's RSS feed (I use Dreamwidth https://www.dreamwidth.org/support/faq#othersites ) or podcast/newsletter, so I can subscribe.
I'm reducing the # of accounts I follow; I want to spend less time in the thoroughly surveilled casino.
We don't have robust etiquette here to use; I may hurt feelings. Sorry.
And blogs are great, so instead of Storifying, here's the text of what I've just said: [link to this very blog post]
# (1) 07 Mar 2016, 10:05AM: No Minimum Order:
The office/business supply company Uline has discovered that I have started a business, and thus I have started to receive giant catalogs from them. Yesterday Leonard and I started looking at those catalogs; perhaps you saw my tweet about crinkle paper:
As I kept reading, I was struck by how this catalog systematically lists the unnoticed objects that surround me in every office, workplace, shop, hotel, restaurant, and school. Certainly I had marveled, as a child, going into the Office Depot with my dad and seeing the boxes of badge holders, the desks and chairs, the day-to-day accoutrements of bureaucracy. But the Uline catalog goes further. Uline sells desiccant packets and takeout boxes and those gridded walls to hang merchandise from and bollards and red velvet ropes and PLEASE WAIT HERE signs and mats for cashiers to stand on and benches and wheeled utility carts and feminine hygiene dispensers.
I feel a curious awakening, as though given X-ray glasses for one of the systems that make the world go. I knew you could get these sorts of things on Amazon, sure, but I had not yet been confronted with a curated list. I don't have any plans, right now, to open a storefront or run a warehouse, but this list of products helps me see how I could. I would buy these things, and they would organize and streamline my operations, and my customers and my workers would react accordingly. I could put up a STOP sign, and people would stop. I could place a clothes rack near the entry to an event, and people would leave their coats there. I could put my team in white coveralls, and they would distinguish their colleagues from outsiders. The Uline catalog promises ways to make your world safer, cleaner, calmer.
But, reflexively, I also see this catalog as a set of heists, scams, and cons waiting to happen. You can buy and customize tamper-evident shrink bands for the caps of bottles -- and thus hide evidence of your own tampering! What better way to get a saliva sample from a smoker than by installing your own smoker's receptacle someplace you know they'll be? Reserve more handicapped-accessible parking spaces wherever you want by buying and installing "reserved parking" signs!
I am an entrepreneur and a manager who dreams about building things and works to build some subset of those things. And I am a suspicious security thinker who imagines ways to break and steal things, and blows off steam by talking about movie plot threats with her spouse, who transmutes a fraction of those conversations into science fiction. And on some level I am void fill, as are we all.
# 21 Jan 2016, 11:00AM: Risk Mitigation:
Next week I'm headed to Belgium for my first Free and Open Source Developers' European Meeting. I'll give two talks. I'm excited, because it'll be a chance to listen, learn, influence, introduce myself to potential clients, and see old pals.
But I asked one old pal whether he'd be there and got the reply:
Don't plan to be at FOSDEM; one of these years, maybe after their CoC isn't a joke.
For some time, FOSDEM participants and people who'd like to attend have asked FOSDEM organizers to improve their Code of Conduct. In October, one of the people organizing the Legal and Policy Issues DevRoom suggested,
FOSDEM is a fantastic conference and the only thing I can think of that would make it better is publishing a Code of Conduct...
Discussion ensued, and in November, the organizers announced their new Code of Conduct. I appreciate that different organizations need to customize their anti-harassment/friendly space/conduct policies, as the Wikimedia technical community did under my leadership, and I recognize that FOSDEM -- entirely volunteer-run, requiring no attendee registration, and charging no admission fee -- has its own particular challenges. But I see why my friend looks askance at FOSDEM's CoC. If you compare it to the example policy offered on the Geek Feminism wiki, you see how lots of little differences add up. For instance, FOSDEM's policy doesn't give a way to anonymously report a problem, and it doesn't suggest how you can find or identify team or staff members.
I figure I can go, this time, see how it goes, keep my guard up a bit, and then, as a member with more standing in and a more nuanced understanding of the FOSDEM community, ask for specific improvements, and explain why. My support network, my judgment, and my courage are in good enough shape that I can handle the most likely nonsense without taking too much damage.
But there's this one wrinkle.
The night before FOSDEM proper, the organizers run a beer night that -- according to my friends who have attended -- is a highlight of the convention. Since many FOSDEM attendees spend the session days in subject-specific devrooms, and since I want to meet people from many and varied projects, this beer night is probably the most high-value networking event all weekend. But. As the Geek Feminism wiki astutely notes,
Intoxication (usually drunkeness) both genuinely lowers inhibitions and provides people with an excuse for acting badly even if they genuinely knew better.
The data makes me cautious. FOSDEM improved its policy, but not enough to completely reassure me, and we still have yet to see how they implement it. Many individual devrooms and affiliated events, such as the FLOSS metrics meeting where I'm speaking, have added their own CoCs, but that doesn't cover the beer night.
So how will I mitigate risk? Maybe I won't go to the beer party at all. Maybe I'll go, but stay in loud crowded places, even if that makes it harder for me to have the kinds of in-depth conversations that lead to sales. Maybe I'll mention my husband a lot and dress androgynously. Maybe I'll mostly talk with women, with other nonwhite people, and with friends I already know, trading off serendipity against safety. And, despite the organizers' suggestion that I "don't miss this great opportunity to taste some of the finest beer in Belgium," and even though I enjoy trying new beers, I'll probably stick to water.
(And then next year I'll be part of the whisper network, helping other folks decide whether to go.)
I'm writing this to help people who don't have to make these risk calculations see a snapshot of that process, and, frankly, to justify my attendance to those who can't or won't attend FOSDEM till it's more clearly dedicated to a harassment-free experience for participants. And comments on this blog post are closed because, as Jessica Rose said:
Any extended conversation around a code of conduct will eventually demonstrate why a code of conduct is necessary.
P.S. I tried to think of an appropriate "free-as-in-beer" joke and could not. Regrets!
# 26 Jan 2014, 08:42PM PST: Plunge:
It is easier for me to write a confrontational email in which I will disappoint someone than for me to open up a coding problem that I fear I will fail at. With the former, I know the territory; I know the rhythms of anxiety and release, I know viscerally that this practice will never stop and that I'll just get asymptotically better. With the latter I still obscurely fear some definitive NO telling me I'm no good at this, and I don't quite have enough experience of quietly positive outcomes to salve the scars away.
I draw upon my memories of Hacker School and I remember that growth is change, and I start up the video game music and a task in Project Hamster, and I switch to Emacs.
# (1) 18 Jan 2014, 02:59PM: Cleaning My Virtual Room:
In late December 2013, my personal email inbox got to over six thousand emails. Many of them had been there for years. I was using nearly no filtering, and so there was important stuff in there that I just forgot about. It caused me a lot of anxiety. I knew the kinds of tips Val suggests, like setting up filters and avoiding abusing "unread" markers, but I had just not kept up this hygiene, and it was getting to me. I have been a bad correspondent for years, and my overwhelming inbox is part of why.
Therefore, the last days of 2013, I rapidly went through big swaths of them -- Twitter notifications, a few less relevant mailing lists, and so on. By the minute 2014 started, I was down to two thousand. I started using Beeminder to track my goal: down to 10 messages in my inbox by the end of January 18th.
Today's the 18th. I'm at 160 messages. And this is the hard stuff, now. Here I find the heartfelt notes I saved for reading later, then didn't read for months, then felt embarrassed about. Here lie the year-old "here's my address since you promised to send me something!" notes. Here I see stories I promised to give feedback on, guest posts for Geek Feminism I started arranging, invitations to my cousins' weddings in India, followups from friendly people I met at PICC 2011 or Open Source Bridge 2012.
I am in a comfortable apartment, in reasonably good health, in no physical danger. And yet my body reacts to looking at these letters. It's absurdly hard work.
Doing this requires confronting my past negligence and remembering that I may have hurt people by that negligence. And thinking about tasks I've put off.
I'm reminded of Paul Ford's "Cleaning My Room", in which Ford talks about his years of slovenliness and then a sudden urge "to face down the beast of disorder".
Now I've reached 143, that old pager code for "I love you," and am reminded of that old saw, "Work is love made visible."
# 12 Jun 2009, 08:57PM: Let's Hear It For (Labors Of) Love:
Here is another narrative of my WisCon: something I learned from editing and publicizing Thoughtcrime Experiments, and what that makes me want to do next. It's long (the longer the post, the more I feel I'm leaving out), but there's some filk silliness at the end. (Title hat-tip to the Smokin' Popes; cue up Destination Failure while reading this, it'll take about that long.)
I arrived with ten copies of Thoughtcrime Experiments and nearly immediately gave away or sold them. I probably could have sold fifty, if I'd had them. I made about 200 copies of my flyer (seven-megabyte PDF, used a canned iWork Pages template) and people eagerly took them. I got to show contributor Alex Wilson Erica Naone's reviews of the stories, including her review of his "The Last Christmas of Mrs. Claus." In the "Was It Good For You?" panel, I mentioned three stories that made me feel unusually at-home: Connie Willis's "Even the Queen," my fellow panelist K. Tempest Bradford's "Élan Vital," and Mary Anne Mohanraj's "Jump Space" from the anthology I just published, squee!
Throughout the convention, people sounded receptive when I chattered about the anthology. Several people told me how exciting they found our project, and a few made noises about following Leonard's instructions and conducting the experiment themselves. And a few people said: "what are you doing next?" or "when you do it again next year..." A flattering boost and a natural assumption, but not a completely justified one.
Do I want to do it again? Good question!
In the "Was It Good For You?" panel, I observed that some editors and authors start with a vision they need to express (my nickel version of auteur theory), and some start wanting to respond to a community's need for certain viewpoints or stories. The way Leonard and I divided up anthology work reflects that division. He did line edits, pushed for more variety in the art, exhausted himself tweaking the layout to perfection, indeed conceived the project in the first place. I publicized the call for submissions, recruited artists, read slush and wrote rejections, and promoted the finished book electronically and in person.* My revealed preferences: sociable work. I want my work to make others happy. (When we got the first galley proofs from CreateSpace, I said it's real. But the reality of the literary marketplace is socially constructed, and foisting Thoughtcrime publicity onto hundreds of minds at WisCon transmuted the book into something more real.)
But how many people experienced any happiness from Thoughtcrime Experiments? A few thousand downloads and page hits, maybe ten thousand fleeting "oh it's neat that they did that" impressions. Is that enough? Would I spend my energy on a sequel anthology for a readership of less than, say, fifty thousand?
I mean, when I promoted the call for submissions, and when I went to WisCon, I couldn't help but see how many quality small presses and mags our genre enjoys. Shimmer, Goblin Fruit, GUD, Ideomancer, Small Beer, Electric Velocipede, Clarkesworld, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine**, Strange Horizons***, Verb Noire, Aqueduct... I'm just going off the top of my head. Some are electronic, some are print, some are more regular than others, but it's not like any one part of Thoughtcrime is new. Rejected Quarterly plus Creative Commons licensing (already done by Stross/Doctorow, not to mention Strange Horizons & others) plus easy online reading (several abovenamed pubs) plus good payrates (several again) plus gumption (passim). Thoughtcrime is a tiny fish in the pond.
When I see us in context, of course we've gotten maybe 4 emails of praise and 10 blog mentions from people who don't know us. What kills me is how little attention all these presses get. If Leonard weren't an author seeking markets, he wouldn't have started Thoughtcrime, and I wouldn't have heard of most of these presses and magazines. I'd see Tor's and Orbit's stuff in the bookstores, and maybe if BoingBoing or Tor.com or Making Light**** said something really positive about a particular story online I'd go click.
The ease of publishing doesn't mean readers automatically get hooked up with content they'd enjoy. Publishing is a binary switch, off to on, and new technology makes it cheaper to pull that switch. But publicizing -- marketing -- is analog, and really lossy. I'll only persuade a percentage of my desired audience to go read x, and I'll only ever hear about the fraction of that percentage that somehow signals back. Logs and analytics just tell me about impressions, not lasting impressions.
I am like the googolith person to observe, "it's a shame awesome indie stuff doesn't get as much mindshare as the mainstream does! It is almost as if having a large, established, for-profit publishing apparatus is good at turning capital into reputation, accessibility, and distribution!"
But just as I should be less in love with originality when appraising my past work (so what if Thoughtcrime did no one new thing? It combined a bunch of those things for the first time and it's a damn fun read), I don't have to put auteur-y novelty first on my priority list when allocating my future efforts. Why should I just turn five or nine stories from 0 to 1 on the publishing meter when I could get thousands of great stories from 1 to 2 or 5 or beyond?
Well, that "beyond" would be pretty tough. One assessment that sounds oppressively real: "The problem for SF writers and publishers today isn't that there's not a mass audience for high-end SF storytelling; it's that there are immense numbers of other diversions on offer for those hundreds of millions of people." Why should a person read at all, and if she reads why should she read the particular work I adore and want her to read? What particular need would I be uniquely fulfilling in her? Because that's where marketing starts: identifying or arousing a need.
I can reckon how a person might go about increasing the mindshare of any given indie scifi publisher among people who already consider themselves scifi fans. It's never been a better time to be a publisher or a cheapass reader; Amazon, Bookmooch, ManyBooks, Goodreads, DailyLit, the Kindle, blogs like Tor.com and BoingBoing, and other resources help hook up readers with the abundance of awesome fiction that already exists, for free, online. (If you are a cheapass scifi reader and you are saying, "Where do I start? SHOW ME THE FREE STORIES," Futurismic's Friday Free Fiction weekly roundup will get you started.)
Indie publishers still need a little marketing to get into many of those channels. Search engine optimization, some tech hairdressing, and time writing the equivalent of press releases come to mind. I can see a path to getting a rabid scifi fan to taste something new. I'd grow the market a little (rewarding!), but also displace the readership of my rivals, Big Publishers and other small presses (kind of disheartening!). I actually don't know how zero-sum the economics of this project would be, and am curious; I'd want to collect a lot of metrics, and set a quantitative goal in hopes of avoiding existential despair.
But the project of turning nonreaders into occasional sci-fi readers, and occasional readers into rabid readers? Unsolved and incredibly exciting. I'm wondering who else is doing this, and how; comments welcome.
I would like to make the pie higher, as the saying goes. Thoughtcrime Experiments will never be a huge slice of it in any case, and I'm not so delusional as to think it's objectively the tastiest portion.
So Leonard and I have different ideas for what's next (not that either of us is about to start anything; our jobs, writing, travel, friends, worries, etc. are consuming us for now). He's tentatively interested in doing what Brendan dares us to call Again, Thoughtcrime Experiments. I'd help again if he wanted. We found stories we loved and made them more real, and I love doing that. But my ambitions point me in another direction: scaling up.
* It wasn't till like three months into Thoughtcrime that I realized I was following in my parents' footsteps. My parents did a zine! Amerikannada, the literary magazine my parents ran for several years, printed fiction and nonfiction by the Kannada-speaking diaspora in the United States. The Amerikannada logo was a hybrid eagle-lion. They've been editing and writing and celebrating Kannada literature for decades, but I remember Amerikannada specifically because I got to help with kid-friendly mailing chores. After Leonard and I had an argument about art direction, I felt like I'd unlocked a memory of another editorial argument, conducted over my head as I pasted stickers to envelopes in the rec room of the first California house. I have no idea whether that's memory or invention, and indeed know nothing of how Mom and Dad divvied up the work, ran submissions, decided on timetables, or made any of those editing/publishing decisions I now find fascinating. I should ask them.
** You can sing "Andromeda Spaceways" to the same meter as "American Woman." As long as you're here: "Goblin Fruit" works as "Stacey's Mom" ("Goblin Fruit / is made of hemp and jute") and I always want to sing "Clarkesworld" to the tune of "McWorld!" from those old McDonald's ads.
*** Strange Horizons is a special case all on its own. When I started realizing that they've been publishing quality fiction and nonfiction weekly for more than seven years, paying pro rates, and generally been ahead of every curve I thought I was exploring, I couldn't believe that I hadn't been a fangirl earlier. I'm feasting on archives now, especially their reviews. You can start with Anathem and Little Brother, and then see if you find this analysis of Ted Chiang's work and this West Wing analysis as thought-provoking as I do.
**** I have been reading the Nielsen Haydens for like six years or more. Patrick and Teresa taught Leonard at Viable Paradise, and Patrick gave Leonard advice before we launched the anthology. We thanked them in the acknowledgments to Thoughtcrime. Teresa reminds me of my late mother-in-law, Frances, in a lot of ways. And yet, and yet.***** Nora speaks better than I could.
***** I meant to write about WisCon racism discussions weeks ago. Explanation seems impossible, so I'll sum up. Thank you, Rachel Chalmers, for putting my head straight when I saw you in January. Thanks to all the antiracists who have put spoons into this discussion, in education and anger both. And thanks to WisCon 33 and its participants, for being the place where I had drinks and panels and meals with uncountable fans of color. (Pleasantly disorienting: the meal where I was the only heterosexual and the only monogamist but not the only woman or person of color.)
My perspective on race in fiction has shifted. The short edition: if you write or edit or critique fiction, looking out for lazy racism is no longer optional. Analogies: 1. The feminist infrastructure is strong enough that sexist writing gets a bunch of flack, and the antiracist infrastructure is getting there. 2. An antiracist lens is going to be a usual mode of critique from now on. This is part of the new normal. The discourse has shifted. Someone trying to pretend this is a fad or a personal attack is like the RIAA lashing out to protect business models that no longer work. Some thoughts on problems and solutions in an upcoming post, I hope.
# 09 Mar 2009, 04:13PM: Lego Learning:
When I was rejecting submissions for Thoughtcrime Experiments, I told many writers that I'd give them suggestions for improvements if they wanted them. Some replied and took me up on the offer. Today I'm working on some of those critiques. Suddenly I am interested in litcrit theory and practice, because now that is a tool I can use to help people.
# 29 Jan 2009, 11:48PM: Surprise, Surprise:
Having a publicly viewable stats aggregator displaying how quickly I read Thoughtcrime Experiments slush makes me want to work more and faster.
If only I could have responded to most Salon Premium tech support questions with "not suitable for our needs at this time, thank you."
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by emailing the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.