Why I didn't write

If you know me well you know I've had story ideas floating around in my head for years ("The Last Joke" dates back to, I think, 2007 or 2008, and a first draft got written in 2014). Writing fiction is something I've wanted to do for a while. But I didn't resolve to really commit to it until this year. Now I'm sitting over the weirdest plate of spaghetti carbonara I've ever had (what flavor is this, did they use the chicken powder from a package of ramen noodles?) and chugging along confidently from where I was last night. What's changed?

I think there are two pieces. The first is comfort. When I finished grad school in summer of 2014, I had plenty of time, sure, oppressive amounts of free time while I was looking for a job. But I was at a completely loose end in life: I knew what I wanted to do but emotionally it was hard to get to a place where I had any self-confidence or even really any sense of self-worth.

This figures into being A Writer in that a certain measure of cockiness, even arrogance, must figure into the process: if one is aiming to get published, one must necessarily be able to assert to oneself that what you are making is so good that strangers should take time out of their day to read it. Being a teacher parallels strongly with this: teaching in a classroom is, I've always felt, very much like acting or storytelling.

I was teaching for a little while in Wales, and in those days I was up at 5am, in bed at 10pm unless I had to stay up late for an assignment, and on my feet or on the move almost all the time in between. Then I was teaching for a little while at The Hellscape, facing insufferable pressures from management at a place where actual education took a back seat to what was frankly just marketing. In those circumstances there was neither free time nor even really joy: my wife says she could see in my face how depressed I was, and I'm glad the place is closed.

Here in Finland, I am in the classroom four hours a day, and I have maybe two or three hours of preparation to do for any given class. The students mostly manage themselves; if I assign homework, they do it, and they help each other out in class so much that they really shoulder much of the teaching burden on their own.

And when the teaching day is done, I have a few hours to myself where I can set up in a café (my current favorite is Rytmi in Toinen linja) and express myself.

Then I come home to a partner who loves me & supports me, and we live together in a warm home and rely on two stable jobs. (I suspect also my wife prefers me writing to the creative activity I had taken up just before I moved to Finland, namely, teaching myself to play the banjo.)

For the overwhelming majority of people this is impossible. "Mute inglorious Miltons" Thomas Gray called them: all the world's creators who are never given the opportunity to create. I must always keep in mind that just to be able to attempt to do what I am doing, I am very very lucky. (One of my favorite authors growing up was Larry Niven. Niven lived off a trust fund so he could start writing.)

Comfort isn't all of it. I've been safe before. In graduate school I was safe; for parts of my PhD there were months where I had very little or nothing to do. My network then, though, was not creators or artists, not really--it was student union activists, Socialists, and to an extent educators. All good people, for the most part! I don't regret my political activity and I continue it as best I can in the cold & rarefied air of the Nordic countries.

But I will tell you: throughout my life, ever since the Internet came to Stafford Springs, Connecticut, I have been trying to engage with organized fandom and it is only here in Finland that I have succeeded. As a high school student I hung around on the fandom message boards on Prodigy; I made no lasting connections. As an undergraduate in Washington DC and dabbled in conventions and sci-fi society meetings; I did not stick. In Boston I attended Arisia and Boskone and enjoyed it; I never penetrated beyond the dessicated outer layers of fandom's epidermis.

Online Terry Pratchett fandom brought me to Britain for graduate school and many of its leading members remain friends. Even living in Britain though (in Wales, which many people will forget is part of Britain) I found the geographic separation made it difficult to engage. Online fandom is great but traveling within the UK, thanks to the systematic devastation-by-privatization of the railway system, is expensive beyond the dreams of avarice for someone trying to get by as a PhD student.

Nonetheless I owe alt.fan.pratchett and its satellites a huge debt: through it I met my beloved wife.

But now I am here, and here things are better. I made my way to a Worldcon 75 volunteer evening in November 2016. From there I learned of the regular Helsinki Science Fiction Society meetings, every other Thursday evening in St. Urho's Pub.

Suddenly now I am around other fans and other writers, and I feel like I can be part of that collectivity. In particular I'm grateful to Mikko Rauhala and Kimmo Lehtonen for putting up with me and my beginner's questions. They have been interested in reading what I have to write, and from time to time I see a draft of Mikko's. This process has not merely been educational; for the first time, I feel accepted as a full member of a community.

Is there a language barrier? Yes. We work around it--Helsinki Sci Fi Society's members have been infinitely patient with my wobbly Finnish and lots of regular attendees prefer English.

Even if that barrier were far higher, though, I think I would still persevere. One thing which stands out prominently from the living in the US: it's such a big country, hundreds of millions of people, that when someone gains fame--I always felt this with political figures--that person is hugely distant from us ordinary people on the ground. You'll never meet them, you'll never cross paths with them.

Finland is much flatter. My wife runs into the former president Tarja Halonen in the supermarket when Ms. Halonen is buying cat food. Everyone seems to know everyone. For quite a while I wanted to meet Syksy Räsänen, whose physics interests overlap my own--I ended up finally meeting them at Worldcon 75, and it turned out I was only one degree of separation the whole time.

This is not a case of seeming to become a bigger fish by moving to a smaller pond. Rather, something I always tell my students is: the way you know you've really synthesized a skill into your skillset is when you're able to explain it to someone else.

Throw in some Maslow. Throw in some Marx. Self-actualization comes only when basic needs are filled. Consciousness is a collective process, and we are, in the final result, a product of the people who are around us.

I feel like I am finally ready to tell stories about people, because I finally feel like I am one.

Edmund Schluessel

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