Finding Yourself in SF: On Dancing With Unicorns & Other Essential Experiences

Last spring, I attended the SWFA Nebula conference for the first time, spending three and a half days at the Palmer House Hilton in the company of some of the most charming, interesting, funny, and insightful people around: sf people. At a panel discussion of Octavia Butler’s legacy, I asked a question about introducing my students to her writing, looking for suggestions about where to start. As it turned out, how I prefaced the question would make me a little infamous that weekend. “I have the best job in the world,” I said. “I’m sorry, everyone else, but you can stop looking. It’s already taken.” And I told the panelists about my students, about teaching sff and creative writing, and less than ten minutes later had people introducing themselves to me by saying they wanted to meet the Lady with the Best Job in the World.

That title lasted the rest of the weekend: “Oh, hey! You’re the one with the best job in the world, right? I’m Lawrence.” And so on. No one questioned it. The people who used that ad hoc label accepted it as true and real, and by extension, me as true and real. It’s hard to express how much that meant to me, a writer with a brand-new book contract and very little idea of what the road ahead would look like.

In fairness, I don’t own the best job in the world entirely on my own merits. I have excellent students, a creative and supportive teaching staff around me, and some truly amazing professionals in my field to lean on. One of the ways I can confidently point to having the best job in the world comes around once a year, in the form of Michael Damian Thomas and Lynne Thomas of Uncanny Magazine.

Two years running, the Thomases have come to the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, my professional home, and spoken to dozens of students in our Speculative Fiction Studies class. That by itself makes for a great day at the office, but the part that makes having Uncanny’s support so powerful — and the part that makes my day job the actual best job — is what they give my students. “Behind the scenes” knowledge about publishing and writing. Personal anecdotes about their struggles and failures, and the winding road that shaped them into editors of one of the most successful sf semiprozines running today. Memories of their own experiences as readers, and the power of writing as a teacher of empathy and humanity.

Most of all, Michael and Lynne give my students a sense of belonging every bit as powerful as the one I felt shaking hands with people at the 2016 Nebulas — authors and editors I admired so much, I was left fumbling in their presence. The Thomases, like the professionals who unironically greeted me as the lady with the “best job,” look my students in the eyes, listen to their questions, and talk (and get talked to) beyond reasonable human endurance, actively becoming allies to anyone and everyone in need of thoughtful support.

Here’s one story about such a moment from their most recent visit, Friday April 7, 2017.

After a long luncheon with some select students and faculty, and following a long morning of presentations, Lynne and Caitlin retired to the department offices we’d set aside as Uncanny Base Camp. Michael trailed after, surrounded by students like some sfnal philosopher at the Agora. They talked sf culture. Conventions. Networking. Contracts. How to build your voice and audience as a writer. Everything. Inch by inch, Michael managed to gain ground toward the English department door, but stopped just at the threshold with eight students gathered around, still full of questions, anxieties, and hungers. Once Caitlin was settled, Lynne came out, too, and it was all I could do to get them each a cup of tea, so few were the breaks in avid conversation.

An hour passed this way. Just standing in a hallway, filling the air with absolute enthusiasm for the genre and the industry. And, more importantly, rewarding my students for their enthusiasm by showing them it is normal and good to be curious and feel passion.

Once the student group finally realized there was a chance they were about to miss OTHER classes, they dispersed.

All except for one.

That student lingered another hour, suddenly converting what was supposed to have been a break for the Thomases into a spontaneous interview about his possible future as a writer of color who didn’t wish to be understood through color alone. That’s a tough topic for anyone to field, let alone in conversation with an almost complete stranger, but Michael and Lynne saw it as an opportunity rather than a landmine. They shared anecdotes about writers of color they’d worked with, experiences that united and (sometimes) divided them, ways these authors had framed their work in and out of the context of race and identity. They talked about college, and career planning, and not sweating the small stuff on the way to bigger stuff. At any moment, they could have looked at the clock on the wall and said, “Kid, we’ve been talking about three hours total here. We could use a break.”

But they didn’t, because for this student, this might be his only chance to have this conversation, and that took precedent. They saw him — really saw him — and knew both that he had value, and that he needed to understand that he was valued by them, specifically.

All of this happened because Michael and Lynne saw in the chance to spend a day talking to gifted high schoolers about sf a chance to invest in the genre’s future. Students of every background and description filled the auditorium where they spoke, waylaid them in the halls, and wrote them thank-you notes the Monday after, because they knew they’d been given a gift — one I get to take a tiny bit of credit for because so many in sf have been so generous to me.

I aim to pay them back, someday.



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