My trip to the Pacific Northwest in May was amazing. Laura Anne Gilman acted as my hostess in Seattle, seeing to my every whim for two solid days and giving me extended tours of the area before SFWA treated me to dinner and provided me a lovely audience to read to. Then I took a train to Portland, where the SFWA folks there made sure I had a ride to the event, I got treated to dinner again, and a stranger came up to me exclaiming, “I’m a huge fan!”
I got so much Celebrity Treatment that the trip would have been enough to precariously overbalance my ego — if I hadn’t been to a massive Las Vegas convention just a few weeks before, where not only had no one heard of me, but many weren’t sure exactly what my genre was all about.
In some bodies of water, you’re a big fish. In others, you’re plankton.
My father used to tell me his strategy for dealing with road rage when he was caught in a traffic jam. “I just imagine,” he said, “that I’m rising above the car, higher and higher, until I can see every single car that’s stuck there on that road, all the people inside who are all frustrated, all believing that where they’re headed is the most pressing, important thing in the world.” This image has always stuck with me. Whenever I get too unpleasantly caught up in the right here, right now, I imagine pulling back. I try to imagine what my situation would look like from a helicopter. From an airplane. From the International Space Station. While we don’t like to be told by other people that we are making too much of something, it’s a very calming realization to arrive at on your own, and visualizations like this are how I get there.
But of course, we can’t live our lives at maximum wide-angle every minute. Pull back far enough, and literally everything you do is meaningless. We’ve seen a few dudes throughout history get hung up on this idea and write volumes about it, and they’re not wrong, but they’re also not right. Meaning is, by its nature, contextual. So to say an act is “meaningless” raises the question “to whom?” To the Universe? Sure. To someone you personally care about? Maybe not. If something is meaningful to you, it is still meaningful. Whether you use a telephoto or a wide angle lens — or a microscope, or a telescope! – the thing you’re taking a picture of does not actually change. All that changes is the portion of it you choose to see.
So how do you decide which lens to use? In my experience, the sanest course is to switch them out. Just as my adventures in Las Vegas and the Pacific Northwest showed me two versions of myself – the Nobody and the Celebrity – changing up your perspective can show you new angles on almost anything in your life. Your spouse is an impossible trial, and a saint. Your home is a dump, and a palace. Your job is an adventure, and a bore. We can never hold the entirety of a person or a situation in our minds at once; the human brain just doesn’t have the processing power. So moving around, touching different parts of the proverbial elephant, is the closest we can come to understanding Truth. Get too settled into one perspective and you become the guy in the story stubbornly holding onto the elephant’s tail and insisting that the animal resembles a rope.
Vladimir Nabokov said, “You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite successions of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable.”
If we can’t attain reality, what is the point? To me, it’s the journey. The exhilarating sense of intellectual motion toward understanding. Experience everything you can; read about the things you can’t. Read about the same thing from three different viewpoints. Talk to your opposition until you begin to understand where they’re coming from. The moment you think you understand something, true ignorance begins, because there is nothing in this world – not a pebble, not a word, not a gesture – that is small enough that a human mind can fully contain it.
If you want to be an excellent writer, or even a fully alive and awake human being, my advice is to make of yourself a giant human question mark, as children are. Challenge yourself constantly; don’t get too comfortable. Life is a moving target, and if you keep your aim still, you are likely to miss it.