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Posts Tagged ‘Jay Lake’

I’ve been writing about death a lot. Since my friend Jay died at the beginning of June. Then writer Graham Joyce died about a month ago, and I wrote about that.

Then writer Eugie Foster died a few weeks ago (also from cancer, all three of them from cancer), and I didn’t write about it. Because I felt like I’d been writing about death death death, and also I’d never met her. But her novelette Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast was one of the first pieces of short fiction that I completely fell in love with after starting to write short fiction myself. It was one of the stories that made me realize how powerful short fiction can be. And also, the title! (Also you can totally go read it right now because it is super good.) So I felt a real sense of loss.

And then a few days ago, Zilpha Keatley Snyder died. I was trying not to write so much about death and grief, but I mean, I have to write about this. So. I tried. And this is what you’re getting.

Zilpha Keatley Snyder was the author I wanted to be when I grew up. She was one of my first author crushes. I loved her name; I loved how dignified it sounded, how I’d never heard the name Zilpha before, how it had three parts instead of only two, and how I could never shorten it because otherwise it didn’t have the right ring. I loved that she lived in the same county that I lived in, which meant writers were real people who lived in real places and I could be one of them someday.

Below the Root, how I love you!

Below the Root, how I love you!

And most of all, I loved her work. I devoured her work. I shared her work with my mom; I’m pretty sure my mom read The Velvet Room out loud to me at some point, and maybe also The Egypt Game, but I can’t remember. I loved the Below the Root series so much, it was one of the books I tried to copy in my own young writing, along with The Wizard of Oz and Anne of Green Gables. I spent about a million hours playing the impossible adventure computer game based on Below the Root. I never beat it, but I got pretty far. Well, at least I thought I did at the time.

And then, just when I might have been getting a little too old to be completely enamored with Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s work (I was probably around 12), I found Libby on Wednesday, which I read repeatedly. Because it was about a girl like me, a girl who was too smart for her own good and didn’t really understand the social maze of middle school and, most of all, wanted to be a writer. I loved that book so hard.

My collection of Zilpha Keatley Snyder novels.

My collection of Zilpha Keatley Snyder novels.

I never met Zilpha Keatley Snyder. But her books meant, and still mean, the world to me. They are a crucial element of my personal book collection. They influenced me both as a writer and as a human being.

I will miss you, Zilpha Keatley Snyder. And I still want to be you when I grow up.

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A couple of weeks ago, I was reading over some of my older blog entries. When I’d finished, I sat back and thought, “Huh. That was actually kind of personal.” At least, more personal than I had remembered.

There’s a place where the personal and the important intersect. And we who blog are then called to make a decision: how important is so important that I can’t stay silent about this? In my case, that means I often end up blogging about issues related to people pleasing and boundaries (and occasionally feminism). I know there are lots of people who grew up in dysfunctional families just like I did, who have similar issues, and I know how helpful it can be to know there are others out there in the world dealing with the same kind of thing you’re dealing with. It’s too important for me to stay silent.

This trade-off was brought strongly to mind during this year’s Worldcon, where I was lucky enough to spend some time with Jay Lake. For those of you who don’t know who he is, Jay is a prolific SF/F writer of some note. He also blogs. For the past few years, he has blogged in an unusually open fashion about his difficulties with cancer. He blogs about disease, about mortality, about what he feels his cancer has stolen from him. He blogs about determination, depression, despair, and joy.

He told me he gets more fan mail from his cancer blog than he does from all his published fiction.

Me and Jay at Epic ConFusion this January. Photo by Al Bogdan.

And he pays a price for being personal. I spent time with him at several points during the convention, and every single time, we were approached by people who expressed their sorrow about his health, or asked about it, or gave him their good wishes that he would recover. On the one hand, it was beautiful to see this outpouring of support from the community.

But I looked at him at one point, late-ish in the evening, after a particularly long stream of generic good wishes, and I thought, “This must get completely exhausting.”

And that is the price. Not everyone will be able to look past the cancer and see the man. Because he has blogged so openly about his disease, he can’t necessarily create a veneer of normalcy for himself when at public events like Worldcon. Part of his public identity is linked to his cancer.

But he pays the price with grace, and I admire him so much for doing so. Because it is too important to stay silent. We need to hear about cancer, about illness, about mortality, and about the physical and emotional struggles that come with these oh-so-human things. Our society tends to have dysfunctional attitudes around illness, around death and dying, around grief and loss, and part of changing those attitudes is talking about these things in a frank and open way. And people who have cancer, people who have other serious illnesses, people who have loved ones who are sick, many of them are helped by Jay’s blog, where by writing authentically about his own personal experience, he puts words to so many other people’s experiences.

So I think about this blog, which is perhaps a bit more personal than I had originally intended. And then I think about Jay. And I’m glad to have written about what I think is important.

I’m in fabulous company.

 

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Jay Lake recently wrote an intriguing blog post about his theory of problems. To summarize, he states that problems cannot  be compared–that just because his problems (fighting cancer) are very serious, that doesn’t mean that other people’s “less serious” problems don’t matter too. He goes on to say that he still cares about his friends and that sometimes it can be a relief to talk about something besides cancer, even if the something else isn’t all rainbows and butterflies. (There is more interesting discussion in the comments, so you should check it out.)

 

I am in complete agreement. It is impossible to compare problems or lives, even though people try to do it all the time. It isn’t a contest with all of us competing to see who can have the biggest sob story to tell, who can be busiest and most stressed, who can have their behavior excused because gosh darn it, life hasn’t treated them well. Ultimately, we are each responsible for our own actions regardless of the problems we face. And each of us has the problems we have, and since we can’t literally be in someone else’s head (at least not yet!), we can’t know how our suffering truly compares.

I didn’t always understand this essential fact. I had a tough childhood and adolescence; my mom dying while I was fairly young was just the tip of the iceberg. It was easy to compare myself to others and minimize their problems in my head. “So his parents divorced years ago. That’s not a big deal. Why can’t he just get over it?” I know, I know, I wince to recall it. It’s embarrassing, and my only comfort is that at least I don’t remember usually saying such things out loud. Everyone is deserving of compassion for the hardships in their lives, and problems hit different people in different ways. What may be, for one person, a relatively insignificant event, may be a life-changing catastrophe for someone else.

And honestly, even if it were a competition for who has the worst life, why would you ever want to win such a contest?

Speaking as someone who, for many years, had “worse” problems than many of those around me, I never wanted to shut people down. (Perhaps this is why I had the minimal wisdom to try to keep my mouth shut during my occasional uncharitable moments.) I rarely discussed most of my problems, partly because I dreaded the initial reaction and partly because I didn’t want my experiences to change the way people related to me. I was already isolated enough; I didn’t want further barriers between me and the rest of the world. I wanted whatever normalcy I could get.

It’s a tricky business, because when we know someone is struggling with major problems, we don’t want to burden them with our own concerns, which in comparison seem to middle away into insignificance. But when we aren’t honest about what’s going on with us, when we choose to protect someone instead of share with them, what we’re really doing is pushing them away.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive to be tactful and considerate. If a friend is retching in the toilet, that probably isn’t a great time to start bemoaning an inability to find the perfect juice squeezer. Someone who is ill might very well lack the energy to do certain activities with you. And sometimes there are subjects better left alone for a while. Raving about an amazing romantic relationship to someone who is going through a bitter divorce? Well, maybe not so much. But if you talk to that same friend about problems with your aging parents, it might not burden them so much as build the mutual connection between you. It may give your friend a break from dwelling on her own problems. It may make her feel less alone. Or she may tell you it’s not a good time to talk, and that’s okay too.

In my experience, everyone has problems, even those people who look like they have perfect lives. We all have bad days mixed in with the good, we all have setbacks, we all make mistakes, and we all have to live with the hard parts of being human. But ideally the people with whom we move through life can make the hard parts more bearable and the good times sweeter.

What do you think? Do you find yourself comparing problems? If someone has a really big problem, does that make you feel that you can’t speak freely to them?

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