What is a writer

What is a writer?

Guest of Honor Speech

Wiscon, May 2001


Way back then, in the mid-Eighties, I was attending V-Con, a Canadian SF Con taking place in Vancouver — I think it was there ; anyway, it was an anglophone convention. There was a panel precisely on another version of this question, “What is a professional writer?” with very few Canadian writers (there were not so many considered of Stature then) and The Important American Guest, Fred Pohl. Who told us in no uncertain terms that a Professional writer was a writer who had an Agent, who published many Books and above all, who made Money with his writing. Candas Dorsey and I were in the audience, seething. Sotto voice, delinquently, we agreed that for us, a true writer was someone who had organized her or his life in order to write, period.

Now, some fifteen years later, I still agree with us, of course. Making choices in one’s life, accepting the consequences of those choices and living with them day in day out, yes. In another universe, I am a Professor at some French University, or in Chicoutimi, or elsewhere ; I teach Literature, I publish learned, opaque articles, I have a car, I vacation in Cancun, Greece or wherever, I worry about having enough money for my retirement. I do have vacations and reasonable prospects of retirement, I mean. And I have never written a word, writing having been a fad of my silly youth.

In this other universe, as I see it from this one, and as far as I (only I) am concerned, I am dead.

A writer is someone who’s organized her life in order to write.

But is it not potentially the same for any artist who is passionate about what she’s doing ? And not only for any artist but for anyone who is passionate etc. ?

What is a writer?

A month ago, I finished meeting my students for their end-of-semester evaluation and grading, three days in a row. For I do teach — again, after eleven years, at the University in Chicoutimi ; not as a professor but still as a temp, although teaching that one and only course, “Creative Writing”, might well become permanent. It is not a workshop for aspiring writers, it is not even a Creative Writing course (an expression which feels terminally weird to me) ; no, it is a course on Creative Writing, through assisted practice, an obligatory requirement of their cursus. Thirty-six twentysomethings, two or three of which do want to write, perhaps, some of which have never written a personal line in their life, most of which have been forced to write three pages stories in three hours in school (with original, surprise endings, to boot !) — and none of which have a clue. They’re so lost they don’t even have questions, can you imagine that ? Well, after teaching that course twice already, I have had time to come to terms with it. And in a sense, it is a good thing, because mostly what I have about writing is questions, and not many answers. If I have any, they are of the biodegradable kind, subject to change without much notice.

Still, one answer which did coalesce — for the time being — while I was thrashing the darn thing out with my students is this :

A writer is not someone who has ideas, imagination, a unique point of view on the world or whatever. These, everyone has. A writer is someone who has a certain kind of relationship with words — and not the written word only, but all words. Someone who loves words, the very concept of words, who loves their forms, sounds, rhythms, history, mutable meanings. Someone for whom words are not merely tools but exists in their own right, as living beings. But even more than that, it is someone who, through some quirk of her circumstances, has come to channel her whole being-in-the-world through words, and more specifically, stories. Someone who tells herself stories all the time, who feels, an impulse, a desire, a need, an obsession, a perversion, to tell stories ; that is, someone for whom the whole universe is a story, and herself a part in it, engaged in a constant dialogue with it, at once telling it and being told. Not for “money, fame and the love of women”, as Balzac said — women or men, same thing, that deep impulse to tell needs neither others’ love or acknowledgement, it just needs to be. It is there.

For me, writing is breathing. If I don’t do it for too long, or not enough, I fidget, I get itchy, I get bitchy — I choke. What is this ? This is weird. How did it come to be this way? I do not feel it is a “calling”, for instance — nothing, no one called me except myself. Somehow.

But how? And while I’m at it, why the heck, among all the things I could write, do I write mostly science fiction and fantasy?

I have many answers to those questions by now, I’ve been asked so many times — you know, with that special tone of voice… Asked by fellow academics, fellow mainstream writers, interviewers… by students… by my mother… Why, oh, why ? But there are questions that never shut up, and never should.

Well, as it happens, I am also a feminist. Feminists have a hallowed tradition of telling one another their life stories. And so, after much scratching of head — “What on Earth am I going to give them in the required speech ?”, (and my charming liaison, Gabrielle Bates, can tell you I’ve been scratching ever since being told I was a guest!), I thought it might not be inappropriate for me to tell you mine.

So here goes.

Once upon a time…

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived in a box. It was small, but it was a nice box. Mommy and Daddy lived there too. They worked at the Store, but they came to see the little girl now and then during the day, because the Store was just on the other side of apartment’s. The store was a Pharmacy. Mommy was a Pharmacist — that meant she talked nice to a lot of people who came to tell her things about themselves, and she concocted magic potions for them in the back of the Store. Daddy had been a soldier in two wars, and now he helped Mommy with the Pharmacy, but everybody thought he was the Pharmacist. And at bedtime, they told the little girl wonderful stories.

In a way, both Mommy and Daddy were stories that the little girl told herself during the day, waiting for them to appear. Mommy came from a very, very far away place called Indochina, where she had been born and had lived until she had somehow escaped just before something called the Second War. She had brought with her some strange and wonderful things from there, like ivory and jade little women who played the flute ; sometimes she prepared weird but mouth-watering meals which had nothing to do with chicken and fries, the Sundays usual fare. And sometimes she even spoke in the tongue of that place, a funny, sing-songy language. She’d taught one word of it to the little girt : it sounded like O-zoï-Oï, and it meant something like The Sky is Falling ! The Sky Is Falling !

Daddy was a different kind of story. For more than a year, after the little girl was born, the box had been elsewhere, in another, less far away country called Germany, and only Mommy lived in the box with her then, although the little girl did not see her very often either because Mommy was an important person there, with the Oc-cu-pa-tion Ar-my, and a lot of soldiers and other people were doing her bidding all day. But every night, before going to sleep, Mommy showed the little girl a picture of a man whom she told her was “Daddy”, and she made the little girl say goodnight to the picture and kiss it. One day, Mommy took the little girl away from Germany, and when they arrived in Paris, at the train-station, there was a man waiting for them, and Mommy told the little girl :”There, it is your Daddy, say hello to him !”. The little girl was quite disturbed : this man was obviously not the Daddy ! He had way too many dimensions, and he moved on his own ! And he talked to her !

After a while, the little girl let herself be persuaded to talk back, in German first then in French, for she spoke both then ; and she ended up loving the three-dimensional Daddy very much — he played with her more than Mommy, because he had more time. But at the back of her mind, from then on, there was always some vague distrust, or at least some wonder, about what was real, and what was not.

She was three, then four, going on five. And she was very lonely when Mommy or Daddy were not with her. She saw little of the other children in and apartment and she did not go to school yet. All she had were her few toys, the stories she told herself all day long, and the ones her parents told her at bedtime. She knew those by heart, she could almost read them — but not quite. She just knew that those small, regular squiggles on the page were words, like the ones people spoke, but better, because those ones told stories. She also knew there was something called writing, that transformed sounds in those strange images that were words — but that kind of magic was still beyond her.

Until one afternoon when she was entertaining herself alone, as usual, in the big bedroom she shared with her parents. She was playing with her wooden cubes, the ones Mommy had given her, with the letters and numbers and images on each brightly colored face ; Mommy had been teaching her the letters and numbers. They had one-syllable names, (except Double-You, a fascinating one) and who were somehow supposed to be like the image on their face of the cube, but were obviously not since there really was no resemblance whatsoever between M and the house, “maison”, pictured on M’s yellow face.

And so the little girl was playing with the cubes, in various arrangements. The combinations she preferred were the ones where the images told a sort of story, the longer, the better.

What happened that day ? I really don’t remember. But at some point, the story goes, while she was chanting the sounds of the letters to go with the story, something… clicked. No other way do describe it. Click. She got it. The way the letters and the sounds played with one another to make words, and she could take the letters and make them make words. She could write words. And she did. She wrote her first story, and it was sheer fantasy, because with her wooden cubes she wrote “maison bleue”, blue house.

I had never seen a blue house. There were no blue houses where we lived, only all shades-of-grey ugly buildings, or all-shades-of-dirty red-brick houses. Blue houses simply did not exist. And yet one existed there, somehow, in front of me on the carpet, one that had not existed before — and I was the one who had made it.

I too could do magic !!!

I do perfectly remember the exhilaration, the sense of incredible power — and the wonder.

How could I not become a writer after all this — and a writer of SF and Fantasy, I rhetorically ask myself, and others, with forty-forty hindsight.

But nothing is as simplistically cause-and-effect in a life, and it would be downright bad in a story, would it not ? Those things should be treated more like… genes : a predisposition to become this or that, which the environment plays upon. And boy, did the environment have a ball ! But we can skip ahead a few chapters here, it is quite typical : lonely childhood, picked upon at school, books my only friends — and there were a lot of books at home, every kind but science fiction and fantasy, actually. If one excepts romances, but what did I know of that then ? And anyway, it was not a question of reality versus fiction. I lived in words, period. Words were life.

Was I determined from then on to become a writer ? Noooooo. Not at all. But I had noticed my parents’ ooohs and aaahs every time I wrote something. I learned quickly which side my toast was buttered on — especially since the oohs and aaaahs were much less enthusiastic when I draw or painted something, although I liked that much more. So from about my seventh year on, the drawing and painting fell slowly by the wayside, and I wrote… I wrote poetry, the rhyming kind, not stories. Until at fifteen I realized I wanted another kind of relationship with space and time than that allowed by French poetry at the time. Without being aware of it, I wanted to tell stories. But narrative in French poetry…. Naaaa. That’s when I began writing bits and pieces of this and that — I rewrote the ending of the Alamo, for instance ; I loved the John Wayne movie, but I wanted Bowie and Travis to survive and become fast friends, damn it ! And at last I had a sort of friend, or best adversary, a girl as crazy as I, who did write stuff, and we encouraged one another, and I began writing a novel. No preparation at all, paper and pen, let’s go! And it went quite well, although from the very first sentence the narrator who told, first person past tense, the story of the me-character, said he was a boy, and took a lot of place thereafter. But hey, it was fun to see oneself through his eyes !

Somewhere near the last third of the story, though, my main character, the girl whom everybody loved, perversely insisted on being still unhappy, and borderline suicidal. What ? I was furious — I was terrorized, of course. I buried the contrary, unfinished thing in a drawer and swore off writing main-lit. forever.

And as chance, serendipity, fate, destiny and/or the Author would have it, this is when I met science fiction, fantasy and everything else that roamed outside the box. For the little girl got out for real, then, of all the boxes, increasingly bigger, but still boxes, that she had inhabited after the one with the wooden cubes. And especially her teenager’s box, that filled her with inchoate despair because it was inscribed all over with these words, silently uttered day after day by everyone around her : “It is like this, it has always been like this and it will always be like this”.

It was not true !

The Universe was much bigger, wilder and wondrouser than I had been taught by my not so bad teachers, and even by my beloved books. It was like this, yes, and it had been like this for a very long time, perhaps forever, but it did not have to be like this forever.

Oh yeah.

I do not mean I became “a feminist science fiction writer” right then and there. But the fix was in. Two years more and I would go three hundred kilometers away from home, all by myself for the first time in my life, to the University, and it would be the mid-Sixties, and a lot, my friend, would be blowing in the wind.

Also, I would have been writing science fiction in my closet since 1965 and the Big Meaningful Dream from which had sprung, almost fully-dressed, a galoping, multi-generational Science Fiction Saga which would become the five books of Tyranaël more than thirty years later. I lived there, on that Tyranaël planet, during the mostly horrid university years, while I went to the classes, wrote the papers, passed the exams, got the degrees. I breathed there, writing — writing Science Fiction, which was so not about boring and ugly little me ! Writing, which was escape, and freedom, and power !

And learning. Learning to write, and learning to read what had been written, and rewrite and reread and rewrite and… ten years down the road, after the fourth version, all two thousand pages of it, living in Chicoutimi then, I would be able to admit at last that it was about me, had always been about me — what else could writing be about than what we know or think we know best, ourself ? But this “I” was much more than my mere here-and-now me-myself and I, this “I”, my Self, was Legion — and above all, I was always touched by and always touching others around me, my family and friends (for, yes, finally, I had some), my society, my time, the whole world, its past as well as its present and future, and all its places and cultures, and on and on to the wonderfully endless, the endlessly wonderful Cosmos.

The funny thing is that I never considered myself a writer then. I just needed to write, and I did. My own secret garden, or my own secret shame, or both.

By the end of the Sixties, though, I was beginning to feel vaguely disappointed, not really understanding why, by the science fiction I still read voraciously. And even writing the stuff, my stuff, was not as satisfying as it used to be… But There Came Le Guin.

Oh, I’d loved Sturgeon, and Simak, and Cordwainer Smith and Jack Vance, but the all important One who really gave me permission to write what I wanted to write, was Ursula Le Guin. (Me and about a zillion others in my generation, I know. But I was the one and only freak in the whole world who loved and read science fiction, at the time.)

There had been the New Wave as offered by the few Judith Merril’s anthologies I had found in second-hand bookstores, — and her one translated story, “That Only a Mother”… And the Dangerous Visions of dear old Harlan ; and I had indeed begun to hear new voices, but I was not really aware that their newness, their resonance, was linked to their femaleness. After The Left Hand of Darkness, I was. (Even though the two others who gave me permission were Frank Herbert, with Dune — hey, it is allowed to write a much more than two hundred pages SF novel ! — and quite late, Tolkien — hey, it is allowed to build a world by playing with invented languages ! —).

My awareness became more specific after 1970. It was not the birth of my political conscience, I already had one, especially after 1968, a turning point for me as well as for many of my generation in France. But it was the taking over of my political conscience by feminism. Because, in the literature I read for fun not for work, there was the explosion of the Seventies’ science fiction female authors. Joanna, Suzy, Pamela… (an “explosion” for me, who lived in France until 1973, mind you ; there was some very definite time-lag in translations then). And I can say that I became a feminist more through their science fiction than through the texts of the Grand Old Canonical Feminist Mothers, which I read much, much later.

Still, there was that James Tiptree Jr., the one man who allowed me to entertain some hope for male SF writers.

Then I learned that a woman was James Tiptree Jr., and that’s When It Changed, for me, forever.

Because by then I knew I would write all my life — published or not, that was irrelevant. And the question of what writing is was becoming very important for me. And correlatively, the question of male writing, female writing, gay, bi, yellow, red, blue with polka dots writing, did matter to me !

That was in 1978. I still have no definite answer.


The one answer I have, of course, since that question of the masculine/feminine/gay/bi etc.writing is still asked of me ad nauseam, is that its formulation is sure to foster endless and pointless though hot-headed debates, since it assumes that a) the opinion that there is a feminine, masculine, gay, bi, etc. essence is an absolute (not culturally relative) and b) that there is only one essence de feminin, de masculin, whatever, whereas it should be obvious by now that everyone gaily swings over several shades of the human gender spectrum in one’s life — some even swing over the whole sex spectrum, but that’s another story.

I unflinchingly call myself a female writer. Unlike some of my mainlit colleagues, and most of my female students who use the masculine (you can do that in French, alas) when putting themselves in the position of the writer, and some even deliberately because — are you strapped down ? — because the masculine is “more neutral”…

Ah well. Being a feminist is having a pebble in one shoe you can never take off.

Anyway. Unlike… some, I sometimes simply, sometimes forcefully describe myself to everyone and sundry as a woman-who-writes, even though I don’t really know what that means. But it’s OK. If I knew this, or anything else for that matter, I would not write.

A writer is also, it seems, someone who writes because she or he does not know.

How nicely Socratic.

I do now know what is reality, or fiction, reality or dream, — I’m quite happy circulating from one to the other and back without having to flash a passport everytime. I do not know what a woman or a man or a human being is, what is Same and what is Other, but I am quite happy to explore what they could be.

Now, is this creating what wasn’t there before or discovering what is there for all eternity ? I do not know. Either. Both. Yes, please, I’ll have an order of both. Why not ? Who’s to judge ? I’m not sitting in the Ultimate Reality’s lap. None of us are. We fumble around, in creative misunderstanding at best, trying to dance, to keep a balance. I am a dreamer whose dreams become words, become books, whose books go into readers’ hands and then in their minds, and some readers tell me that they dream of my words, of my worlds. Now what the heck is happening here ? I am not sure — but I like it.

I am a woman. I am a writer. I am a woman who writes science fiction and fantasy and poetry and essays and variously nondescribed texts. I am a woman who writes all this mostly in French, and way up there in Chicoutimi, Quebec, Canada, North-America, Planet Earth. Now, how Other does that make me — how Same ?

You tell me.

October 16th, 2001

Something happened since I wrote this speech. The Fall happened. We humans keep falling and falling and falling again. Which means we get up again and again and again – some of us do, at least. Would I write the speech differently now ? No. It would be more somber, and fraught with even more questions about the worth of literature and writing, but all considered, those would be rhetorical ones. We must do what we can and know how to do, each in one’s little spacetime, each with one’s little talent. For various accidental reasons, I ended up being a writer and I must write, it is as simple as that. Writing is breathing to me and I must breathe – it is as simple as that.

I have not been breathing much since September 11th 2001, more like passing words to and fro, others’ words mostly, to console, educate, enlighten, renew bounds. But my own words will come back to me. They always do. I will breathe again. I must believe that. I am a creature of words. I must believe in words. It’s as simple as that.

Copyright © 2001 by Élisabeth Vonarburg