Big Think: In That Outer Windy Darkness

“It was such a small world. We kind of clung to each other, you know. A fellow nut you would think of out there in that outer windy darkness…you kind of cling together because you speak the same language.”

–Leigh Brackett, in a 1976 interview for Tangent

If you make a habit of following my rambles on this blog, you know I make no bones about what I like to write. I also make no mystery of my admiration for the long-gone writers on whose shoulders I stand (or flail, or wobble, depending on your estimation).

I could spend this post singing that lineage, so to speak, tracing the line that runs from my efforts back through Brackett and Moore and Howard and Burroughs and London and beyond, all the way back to the Gilgamesh poet—and it would be a good, fun, post (at least for me).

But that’s a topic for another day. Today, I’m inclined to speak not of the writers of the past, but of living writers who have, through some confluence of good fortune, become a presence in my life today, whether in the living flesh or in this realm of swiftly pulsing electrons we call the internet.

Make no mistake: there’s good in knowing where you come from, and there’s good in looking to the words and thoughts of those who’ve gone before. Yet there’s nothing quite like a living comrade in the here and now to help us along on our endless march and to be, as Brackett puts it, a fellow nut in the outer windy darkness.

These are the folks who offer kind words and guidance when things seem bleak, who share a laugh or an enthusiastic conversation, who bolster us and who are (we hope) bolstered by us in turn. They are our writers’ groups, our fellow enthusiasts, our friends.

If we want to be grim about it, they are our oarmates below the decks of that lumbering trireme called Writing, chained to the sweeps with us as long as we all endure our fates. If we’re of a more positive mindset, they’re our traveling companions on the long adventure we’ve all undertaken, each for our own reasons and to our own ends.

But however we see the situation, the point remains: we’re in this together, we few.

Not everybody writes. This is equally true of other pursuits. Not everyone paints, or sculpts, or builds, or sings. We each have our own callings, and for each of us the community that does, more or less, what we do is relatively small.

Smaller still the community that does just precisely what we do. That gets us, emphatically and instinctively. That speaks our language.

In the genres of SF and Fantasy alone there exists a myriad of subgenres, countless cubbies into which we can slot ourselves and our work. We can argue just as endlessly about where those distinctions begin and end, who fits where, and whether that writer’s work is a good and worthy fit.

But the point here isn’t dividing ourselves. Life does that well enough for us. Instead, it’s vital, I think, that we find and support one another when we recognize our own.

After all, though we aim to make stories for the public, our work is most often a solitary thing. We can labor for months and years on a manuscript, spending most of that time in relative isolation. If, on grim days, we turn to our friends and family who do not write, looking for support, we may not find it in spite of all their best intentions. Or perhaps we are unlucky, and the uninitiated around us greet our travails with indifference at best, hostility at worst.

Ah, but the rare soul who gets us! A fellow traveler who is going down the same road, or who has been there before, and who knows the nature of the thing we do! There’s a sudden flash of recognition there, and a sense of kinship. These are our tribe, our people, and with them we are stronger than we were alone.

The trick, though, is finding them.

The greatest thing that ever happened to me in that regard was the internet. Before that, my contact with people who shared my interests was limited to a few classmates, some of whom were inclined to talk to me—and some of whom were not. Add to this the fact that few in my family shared my passions, and it could get lonely at times.

And, when I started writing, the world got narrower still. Of course, I had good friends, several of whom always read my stuff and asked to see the next chapter, but as far as I was aware, I was the only person I knew with a (shitty) manuscript on her hard drive.

The only other folks I knew did that for certain—well, they were published authors with books on the shelf at the store. Gods, they seemed to me, magnificent and unapproachable, dwelling somewhere far beyond my reach.

But that changed when I got on AOL.

Sometime in 1995, a friend at school told me about this amazing place you could get to with a modem and a computer. It had all kinds of things to explore, but most importantly, there were certain discussion groups there, places where people just…talked about All Things Science Fiction and Fantasy.

My people, I thought, more or less. My people are online. I must find a way to get to them.

And so began the great campaign to get my household online. Eventually, my parents gave their blessing, and I soon discovered that this strange electric place that existed in the narrow valleys of the phone lines and the pulsing cities of the server banks was better than I could have imagined.

In fact, there were even some well-known published authors on AOL back in the day, and I eventually worked up my courage and emailed a few…some of whom replied.

(Raymond E. Feist, if you ever read this, thank you for being so kind to the idiot ninth grader on the other end of the keyboard.)

Online was the first place I really felt like I wasn’t wandering a howling, empty void. There were others there with interests like mine, doing what I did. In many ways, it was like coming home.

More than two decades on, not too many people from the old days keep in touch with me, though there are a rare and storied few. Most of us have drifted apart, borne on the winds of time and life and shifting circumstance.

But for all that Time is a thief, that old bandit has also opened up new horizons. In some cases, old friends brought me into contact with new ones. In other cases, I’ve gotten to know writers whose works I’ve read, or whom I met at an event or a gathering.

Just as they did more than twenty years ago, the other voices in the darkness continue to remind me that I’m not alone on this long, sometimes maddening journey—and my life and work is unquestionably better for it.

Without the support of my fellow travelers, I might have long ago given up on this pursuit. Their kindness has propped me up in dark times, and our shared joy and sorrow has made the world a wider, grander place.

So if you’re among that band, know that I’m grateful for you. And if you’re a fellow wanderer who, having stumbled onto this piece, finds it strikes a chord in you, maybe drop me a line or leave a comment.

After all, it’s good to know we’re not alone.



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