As I write this on Friday, May 19th, 2023, it’s been a week and a day since I arrived in Anaheim, California for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association 58th Nebula conference. I’ve been back almost exactly four days.
Originally, before the conference, my plan for this article and the associated episode of Sonitotum with Matthew Wayne Selznick had been to report on the event.
Thoughts and impressions? Sure, but more a blow-by-blow and “What did I learn.” The article and the podcast episode were to be simultaneously released the Wednesday after my return from the conference.
Discovering I was drifting from that intention, figuring out where I’d ended up, and my new course… that took a day or two. Add a couple more days to cut a space in the kudzu tangle of “back home” work and personal obligations so that I could write this.
While my intention drifted, it didn’t exactly change. It’s the same as always: teach through the lens of an experienced beginner. To share, transparently as possible, my own creative life.
So. What did I learn?
Sixteen Years of Context
The last time I attended a conference, convention, or similar was in 2007, the year I went to (not necessarily in this order) Balticon, Dragon*Con, and the New Media Expo.
In the sixteen years since… well, life.
- A divorce, and three major relationships, depending on how you choose to count (I’m not telling you how I count).
- My last two stints as a regular employee working for someone other than myself.
- A move. In fact, four moves!
- The deaths of my niece, my biological father, my stepfather, my mother (in chronological order, not in order of impact), my dog, four cats, and several friends and acquaintances.
- The publication of two novels and the re-issue of my first (twice), a short story and essays collection, a couple short stories…
- I’m probably forgetting a few things; I’m not checking my work; you get the picture.
Also… a life lived, for the above reasons and others, increasingly isolated from the creative tribe I’d cultivated.
I’d like to say the pandemic contributed to that isolation, but by the spring of 2020 my default introversion had already bloomed into something more like increasingly pervasive social anxiety.
When it came to staying in touch with folks, with making the effort… I didn’t do myself any favors.
Worse, it took a long time to recognize that there just might be a corrolation between my cold-molasses-flowing-uphill creative productivity and the absence of a strong creative community.
By 2022, the fog of war began to clear (or, with slightly less or at least different hyperbole, the fight-or-flight pace of my life eased, at least in some of the ways important to the subject at hand) enough for me to see the connections: I was creatively undernourished, if not starving.
Time and space to create were hard enough to come by. I needed community.
In the late Spring of that year, I returned to producing regular episodes of Sonitotum with Matthew Wayne Selznick, and, because sometimes babies cover more ground when they do that adorable run-stumble-fall thing, I re-launched my member community of readers, friends, and fans (through Patreon) at the same time.
Around about then, I re-upped my lapsed membership with the Alliance of Independent Authors and finally took advantage of the fact that I had long been eligible for full membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association.
Finally… hey, what about actually talking to some other writers? I opened Sonitotum to interviews, and recorded a slew of ’em in another run-stumble-fall across two weeks in January, 2023.
The Nebula Conference
Somewhere in the middle of that talkstorm, the available credit on my Discover card burning a hole in my financial good sense, I made arrangements to attend the SFWA 2023 Nebula conference.
Despite my public assertion that I had no expectations about the event, across the next four months or so… I certainly did.
The first morning of the conference, I woke up questioning if I’d made the right decision.
By the time my ass hit that mattress later that Friday night / Saturday morning… I knew I would have paid double.
Friday had played out like the tightly scripted 48-minute pilot of a three-episode mini-series.
I started grouchy and sore. My coffee was disgusting. I couldn’t adjust the air conditioning in the room.
On some level, I wanted to be disgruntled. In another situation, I might have let the minor irritations excuse me entirely, back to the safety of my relative isolation.
But I’d paid — or promised to pay, over time, with interest — a lot of money to be there. There was no retreat.
In the panels I attended that day, I found myself readily disappointed both that they each quickly diverged from their stated subjects (I’d forgotten, after all those years, that this is inevitable), and that they each didn’t go into their mutable topics as as deeply they might have.
In a remarkable demonstration of emotional intelligence I’m still not sure actually happened, I found myself adjusting those expectations I kept insisting I didn’t have. Those first panels might not have taught me anything I didn’t already know, but they did remind me of just how much I did know; how dense my accreted knowledge and experience really was.
I began to adjust my notes to focus on how I might better help my clients, how I might fill gaps of knowledge for folks who were on lower rungs of the ladder than I am… and how it all might apply to some wispy plans I’m still trying to grasp.
Eventually, it was late afternoon, and the prospect of dinner loomed. If one of the reasons for being in this place was to open myself up to new connections and to rediscover my community, I knew I’d feel pretty stupid, lonely, and angry with myself if I walked to some restaurant, table for one, and heard conversation and laughter from other tables full of lanyard-wearing nerds.
But! I hadn’t met anyone at the panels! What to do?
Fuck it. I popped open the conference Discord channel and announced a Dinner for Introverts.
In minutes, folks were chiming in to commit. A location was chosen, then disqualified. A replacement was found (and confirmed after I made a quick call making sure they could accommodate what had turned into a party of a dozen-plus folks who have “trouble meeting people”).
Away we went.
It was a blast.
My hearing, especially in my right ear (due mostly to standing next to a drummer who hit really hard for too many nights a thousand years ago) is fine except when it comes to discerning different voices in a crowd. So there were moments when I, sitting in the gunfighter’s seat at the head of the table, just observed, smiling at what I had wrought.
Many of the folks in that dinner formed the center of gravity for my eccentric socializing orbits the next three days, even if it took most of that time for me to even half-remember everyone’s names… but that’s on me, not a comment on the impressions they made. Y’all are awesome and you know who you are.
The Introverts Dinner gave me people to talk to during the reception that night, which led to meeting more folks, and so on and so forth.
One more thing happened that night that put a neat and tidy third-act bow on the whole day. It’s a bit personal, so let’s just say I had an unexpected opportunity to build a bridge I take responsibility for allowing to collapse sixteen years previously, and the effort was met with a ready generosity that, no kidding, dear reader, makes my chest swell up (and my eyes well up) still.
The rest of the night was full of laughter and fun and camaraderie and… community. I eventually made it back to my room and my bed with my single-episode character arc fully realized.
Show Me Your Pilot!
I am willing to bet my pilot episode wasn’t the only one playing out that night. If you were there and care to share (yes, that was a nice rhyme, thanks), by all means, leave a comment!
I was so much more at ease on Saturday. Lunch in the hospitality room turned into an organic mix of folks coming and going; dinner was an impromptu, smaller, and less logistically intense meeting over small plates in the hotel bar. Another reception that night after the Nebula Award nominees got their due recognition, another few hours swept along in a current of conversation and riffing common to any gathering of folks sharing a niche passion.
More than once over the weekend, I found myself discussing, sometimes a little wistfully, that very thing: the gathering of the tribes is special, and unexplainable to outsiders, and very much a micro-environment, an oasis. Time is different there, and the space beyond is distant in mind as well as miles. Words and phrases like “chosen family” or “clan” came up again and again.
Now, I know there are schisms, rifts, feuds, and unavoidable clashes of ego in any large group of similar people, especially creative people.
Me? I’m too new for anyone to consider me an asshole, or visa versa. To which I should add: “so far,” and, when it comes to what others think of me, “as far as I know.”
I’m digging the honeymoon, in any event, for as long as it lasts.
Sunday played out much the same as the conference wound down and everyone set their sights on the main event, the Nebula Awards ceremony that night.
The brief anxiety I experienced in the afternoon was telling: I fretted over where I might be seated at the awards banquet not because I didn’t know anyone, but because I wanted more time with the people I’d met before we all dispersed and the magic oasis turned into a mirage dropping off the edge of the horizon.
That worked out. My table was a half-and-half mix of the folks I’d been getting to know and folks I was, no surprise, pleased to come to know.
The 58th Nebula Awards Ceremony
The awards ceremony itself was, I submit, the epitome of the specific creative culture we were there to celebrate.
I found myself cringe-smiling in the same loving way one does witnessing a grade school play.
I found myself leading the applause when the late George Perez popped up on the big screen during the In Memorium sequence, maybe freeing the assembled to pay loud tribute to their own lost heroes, influences, and friends thereafter.
I found myself a little surprised by how star-struck some folks were when they realized voice actor Matthew Mercer was in attendance and would be presenting. That was the only time I witnessed the breakdown of the prevailing attitude that we were all compeers. It was a little surprising, but also, again, charming.
I found myself deeply moved by the presentation, and acceptance by Jules Jackson, of the inaugural Infinity Award for Octavia Butler.
Throughout, I found myself with tears in my eyes as the winners received their awards and made their speeches. It was wonderful to see so many (mostly) young people receive the validation of their peers. We all have our own definitions of success, but pretty much everyone is nourished by love for what they’ve done and who they are.
And yes, dear reader, for creators, those two things are very often one in the same. The exercise of creativity is, for many, a perequesite for mental health. When a creative endeavor is experienced by others, it becomes art. When art is recognized as exemplary… that advances the culture.
A Literature of Hope
Speaking of: as a cis white male over fifty, I was mildly surprised and very pleased to see the breadth of representation among the attendees in Anaheim.
I don’t have official numbers; my subjective impression may be off. Given that, I’m pretty sure women outnumbered men. I am certain the ratio of LGBTQIA+ people to cis folks was far above what it is in the general population.
This is a good thing, and it makes sense.
Science fiction and fantasy literature looks forward; it observes and, even in the most apocalyptic works (perhaps especially), aspires; it presents the ideal through an imaginative window that’s also, of course, a mirror (both of the funhouse and magic variety).
Science fiction and fantasy is the literature of the oppressed and the outsider. The literature of “what if” and “if this goes on” is, when you get right down to it, the literature of hope.
I saw a lot of joyous, fearless, defiant hope in this community at the Nebula conference.
The Future of the Nebula Conference
There’s talk that the SFWA may not be able to afford another in-person Nebula conference next year, or beyond.
The reasons for that are, to my limited understanding, both to do with the post-pandemic cost spike across the travel and hospitality industries, and to do with management of the organization’s resources.
The former is out of the control of the SFWA.
The latter, though, is not.
If the SFWA needs more money, then needs more members. Outreach and visibility, as well as putting forth our best possible public face while doing and seeking those two things, should be the priority until the certainty of in-person Nebula conferences is assured for years to come.
That is not to say the virtual component of the conference is not important. Both are essential.
The virtual conference makes it more accessible to all.
An in-person experience is literally — chemically — more… personal.
Over and over, I heard from people who, despite their introversion, were invigorated and energized by interacting face to face with their peers, their colleagues… their tribe.
Myself included, of course. I took on monetary debt to attend in person, and gained a surplus in every other way.
The Final Hours
The end of my conference included joining an old-school beer and liquor run because the hotel bar closed at eleven for some ridiculous reason, and the tribe, many of us sensed, did not want that to mark the bursting of the communal bubble.
The last two or three hours? I let my conference experience gently fade out as I watched, mostly in enthusiastic silence, as a handful of folks drank and danced and sang karaoke in a building more or less built like a lodge.
A ritual of closure, just as we humans have been doing since forever.
Back in my room, back in my bed, I fell asleep to joyful voices drifting across the night.
I’m doing my best to maintain the connections made. I’m doing my best to maintain the energy, the renewed commitment to my creativity. It’s not easy. But it’s both what’s good for me as a human being, and it’s my responsibility.