Awkward

I was an awkward kid, always more comfortable spending time in fictional universes than the real one. I had trouble relating to people in face to face conversations because nothing ever seemed to work out as smoothly as things did in books. Books were great, real life was a challenge. Why couldn’t people be outlined like plots? Why couldn’t encounters have chapter breaks?

In elementary school, I was short and rounder than a good many of my twig-like classmates. I remember myself as terribly fat — and my classmates took to calling me Moose, though photographs from the time do not support this idea at all. (In middle school, I would get the name Pork Chop, because a classmate couldn’t properly remember “Lamb Chop,” the Shari Lewis puppet — he was trying to mock the terrible perm my mom had given me, my hair curled up tighter than well, a lamb’s curls.)

Short and round, I still loved Field Day; we would spend the day outside competing in physical challenges. Running, jumping, throwing water balloons. Somehow, I was good at running and moving — this didn’t gel with the mental image of myself others had given me. The teachers would stripe the school lawns into running lanes with spray paint, and I would FLY. I got ribbons — I remember liking third place best, because it was a glossy white ribbon and whoever had lettered the “3” onto it did a really good job. Sometimes I didn’t get ribbons, but I still ran. Still hurled water balloons at targets.

After, there was no one to celebrate with. Just me and my ribbons and I’d go home and put them up on my mirror and smile every morning before walking to the school where they would call me Moose and not welcome me into their recess circles where they read the same books I did. I probably had things to say about those books, but after being rebuffed, kept to myself, sitting under a tree and reading until recess was over.

Middle school: “Pork Chop” — and by then I’d fallen in with the “smokers” and other outcasts who hung out on a street corner across from school until the bell rang. But I also found friends in French class — of all places — and then we’d take to sitting on the wall outside the school steps, hollering at people in French and pretending we were somehow superior. A girl once got so upset with me because I’d gotten a good grade in science that she challenged me to a fight. I kept running away, until she stalked after me one day with her crowd of allies. Taunting, jeering, because I had done well in science? We settled it with fists and never spoke again.

(Sidebar: during this time, my uncle’s girlfriend surprised me with a trip to my first science fiction convention. Back then, it was a pretty small event, nothing like what you see now. The guest at this convention was Leonard Nimoy and I nearly fell over. I was going to see Spock? I was going to MEET Spock? Shut up. Attending this convention was like stepping into Wonderland — “my” people, I thought. This is where I belonged.)

In high school, my circles remained awkward and strange; I was the kid who wanted to volunteer in the library, because books, and I was the kid who didn’t mind being a science teacher’s assistant because science. I didn’t letter in any sport; I wasn’t an honors student. I didn’t get any ribbons, but I still ran, even if no one noticed. I remember myself as being fat and awkward, but again, the photos of the time do not support this idea. “Moose” was still never far in my mind.

Cut to adult life, we’re post-college and we’re doing what we love — editing and writing, and we’re getting ready for our first WorldCon. WORLDCON. It was a thing I had always heard of, but never quite dreamed I would attend. Friends I had made through my fanzine work said I had to come, it was the law, and who was I to break the law. OKAY. WorldCon was dizzying. It was overwhelming. Still, “my” people, I thought. I felt very small in an impossibly big genre that had been there so much longer than me. I drank in all I could.

At ConJose a couple years later, I attended my first writer’s workshop. I was going to get serious about this thing (ha, I’d been serious about it for a long time). I was terrified, because some part of me was still Moose, bumbling her way through conversations and hallways both. The night before the workshop, there was a writer’s reception; my con partner couldn’t go because she hadn’t signed up, but encouraged me to at least peek in. I went, terrified, because I knew no one.

It felt like recess again — these kids and I had books in common, but I didn’t know how to take part in the conversations and no one invited me. I put my name tag on, and I tried to mingle, but everyone seemed to know everyone already, so I ended up sitting a while on my own, people-watching. I sat on my own, and sat on my own, and then Devon Monk sat beside me. Introduced herself and we chatted, and mostly I was thinking “oh gosh, I read your story in Realms of Fantasy and now you’re talking to me and I’m talking to you and oh my gosh.” I won’t forget her kindness ever.

The following day at the workshop, I sat with writers who were so high above me on the ladder I envisioned us climbing, but I told myself I belonged here, these were my people and I was a good writer. The three pros in my group were James Patrick Kelly, Ann Chamberlain, and Cynthia Ward. The other newbie writer was David D. Levine. Moose was terrified, but gave a good, solid crit of the work before her. (Moose was becoming an editor, who knew!)

David’s story would go on to win a Hugo in 2006; Ann said my story was actually a novel, and she was right, and though I wrote that novel, it’s still not right. I think I’m only just becoming the writer who is capable of handling the ideas I came up with back then. I got a workshop ribbon for my badge (it said I had survived) — I still ran.

There are probably countless stories like this in fandom. People who were bullied and shunned, whether in convention environments or elsewhere. There are people who had (and have) it a lot rougher. I never once looked at WorldCon or the Hugos as something I deserved, as something that just belonged to me — it was bigger than that. Someday I might write something  others liked well enough to name and put on a ballot, but that was always (and is always) out of my hands.

In writing, there are things we control and things we do not. I can’t control who ends up on the Hugo ballot. I can learn, and I can write my best. I can put my work out there to be considered. I can step into the room and do my best even if everyone stays in their own circles. I can put myself on that spray-painted field, put my best shoes on, and run.

Sometimes I get a ribbon, sometimes I don’t. The dictionary defines this as “life.”

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