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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Born Ugly: The Ragged Edge Retrospective (Part 1 of 3)

I put half an oil change's worth of miles on the car in the drive (Iowa "to and fro" Tennessee) and won't catch up on sleep til Judgment Day, so if you can't understand this, it is all my fault.

So, I went to the Ragged Edge, the first writer's conference I've ever heard of that openly admitted that it was an asylum. If you have ever been to a professional conference (of any sort) you know that, quite often, you wander through a selection of good (and sometimes not good) sources of information, load up on a lot of good ideas, and then leave energized to implement them. Sometimes the energy stays, but, more often, you lose momentum, have difficulty organizing the disparate bits of good information, and are lucky to implement one or two of the best ideas.

The Ragged Edge was different. I don't feel energized, but I don't feel spent, either.

I feel stabbed.

It's kind of neat.

I suppose it is sort of like when Sonny Liston KO'd Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight championship back in the 1960s. When asked how terrible it felt, physically, to get punched into unconsciousness, he surprised everyone. He said it was euphoric, one of the best feelings in the world, one that lasted through the ten count, until he realized he'd just sacrificed the title to that fleeting bliss.

It was the first professional conference I've ever been to where I was sworn to secrecy (at least for parts of it, on pain of forced total glossectomy) and also the first one I've seen where the presenters could have, and maybe should have, come to blows with one another. I wonder if this much fun has been had at a writer's conference since H. Beam Piper slipped this mortal coil.

For the moment, I'll try to distill the most important lesson that wedged between my ribs, scoring the bone like a whittler had practiced on it:

There are no ugly babies.

That's it.

Oh, sure, other people's babies may be born squash-faced, scrunched up, pop-eyed or a weird shade of purple-yellow. But that's because you can't see them for what they really are. You can't see them as their parents do: as delicate, intricate, mini-mirrors of the haunting Divine.

I can't speak for you, but for me, I place a very high value on editing, polishing, testing, and competing my work on its way to publication. It isn't "done" until someone else says it is, and pays the cash to prove it. I did not realize just how much this outlook had been limiting me for the last decade or so.

Somewhere, I'd forgotten something:

Writing stories is fun, and the story is finished when I say so.

One of the things I like about the Friday Challenge is that it tests one's mettle. Win or lose, what I write is going to be measured (and measured in a really fun way, to boot.)

But, paradoxically, the best stories and books I've ever written are the ones that were "born ugly." These are ones I have, for one reason or another, looked at, decided they were not "saleable" (usually on the counsel of buyers) and tried to forget about them. It has only been recently (in some cases, with the keen eyes of Friday Challengers) that I've come to see those "rejects" as among my favorite works.

By my last estimate, I've written about 500,000 professional/commercial level words (not all of it fiction, but most.) That puts me near or at the end of a career's beginning. It is a very good time to learn to expect beauty. I only wish I'd learned it sooner.

So - mentally, emotionally, the Ragged Edge was a little like Patterson's defeat by knockout: a little bliss, a lot of sacrifice. More on that later.


Epilogue: I warned you it might be hard to follow. In the next one, I'll clear things up a bit by providing a brief rundown of highlights (including the near-Pay Per View event), and in the third part, give a look at some of the writing business insights on the state of the industry. Until then, I'll leave you with this story and the understanding that it may very well have been some sort of metaphor for the Ragged Edge:

The conference ended at 6 pm last night, not enough time for me to drive all the way back home. I had secured a sleeping pallet somewhere in the wilds of Illinois, so hopped in the car, my head swimming from the events of the past two days.

Basic Pleasure Model wouldn't play. Neither would Wreckage of the Modern City. Weird. Another CD was fine, but I'd played it to death on the way down. So, I hit permanent scan on the radio, discovering that on the rural highways of Kentucky and Southern Illinois, Katy Perry gets soooooo drunk on Friday. Fifteen times, in fact.

[I counted. Not hyperbole: 15 different times throughout the trip the song played, often on the same station. I have now memorized such poetry as "I think I need a ginger ale. That was such an epic fail."

Three times, it was on two stations simultaneously. 15 times at 3 minutes a piece, discounting for partial listens, is no less than 20 minutes of Drunk Perry. I believe that it is the genetic opposite to 7 minutes in heaven.]

The route I had selected was - what is the word? - ah yes. Scenic. It is seven o'clock, and my eyes are already bleary. I questioned a turn, and so stopped a the nearest turn-off. It was the facade of a liquor store that had burnt to the ground. A black, bent crossbeam stuck out of the nuked center aisle, pointing like a skeletal finger to the west. So I followed.

Katy's drunk again, and I'm white-knuckling. The woods twist around the bend, and then twist the other way again, over and over. I'm not sure I'm even on the right highway any more. The roadway opens up, and in the blue dusk, a bat, the size of a goose, its telltale peaked wings flapping like the last, slow spiral of a wind-up mechanism sailed high over head, Dracula's forerunner. I was lost in the dark, a thousand miles from home, and suddenly, I wondered if my car's 232,136th mile would be its last. I stopped for directions, and I'll put it this way: the scorched crossbeam was friendlier.

An hour later, I came upon a sign for Slaughters, Kentucky. Finally, I could orient, gather wits, and thunder like the Wabash Cannonball across the border.

I turned onto a completely unlined black highway that smeared into the ditches and trees on either side. North, the silvery death's head moon became occluded by a world-wide wall of clouds.

I drove into a Transylvanian lightning storm.

But, all's well that ends well: though blinded by the dark, the rain, the cataract on the windshield, the shocking flashes, I did not die. I made it through. The road materialized. The rain stopped. The window cleared. I could see my way ahead.

Then I hit a skunk.

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