I unpacked my backpack last week.
This was a significant step. I've worn a backpack, practically every time I've gone outside my home, for forty years. (You never know when you'll meet books that need a home.) But last week I realized: I'm not going to use this backpack again for the foreseeable future. It can't be washed. And it's not the sort of thing I want to be lugging around when I'm wearing contaminated gloves and sitting upon contaminated seating. I need something I can easily reach into and that I can set on my lap. (My World Fantasy Convention bag will do.)
Unpacking my backpack was like unpacking a lost life: Schedules of bus lines that no longer exist. Passes to subways I can no longer reach. Cash that I haven't used for six months. And most poignant of all: the shopping list that Joe wrote down for me on the last occasion I visited the local pharmacy, on the very day we went into self-isolation: March 7.
A few hours after I had put my backpack in storage, I read Dr. Fauci saying, "If you're talking about getting back to a degree of normality which resembles where we were prior to COVID, it's going to be well into 2021, maybe even towards the end of 2021."
And I thought: What kind of normal can we possibly get back to with this in our life?
For me, this is the new normal:
The Danse Macabre.
In a way, this acceptance of death as ever-present is something that has been creeping up on me. I've had multiple brushes with death during this century. Moreover, I'm 57; I always figured, when I was younger, that anything past age 50 was bought time.
But I never really thought that this would affect how I lived my life. I sort of figured I'd just go on doing the same things in the same way (including trying to care for my health) until the moment when it was all over.
There's a science fiction story by Alan E. Nourse called The Martyr, in which a way to extend life forever is found. The protagonist visits one of the men whose life has been extended: a skilled composer who, the protagonist discovers, is working on a new piece.
"Always before it was hit and run, make a stab at it, then rush on to stab at something else. Not this one." He patted the manuscript happily. "With this one there will be nothing wrong."
"It's almost finished?"
"Oh, no. Oh, my goodness no! A fairly acceptable first movement, but not what I will do on it—as I go along."
"I see. I—understand. How long have you worked on it now?"
"Oh, I don't know—I must have it down here somewhere. Oh, yes. Started it in April of 2057. Seventy-seven years."
They talked on, until it became too painful. Then Dan rose, and thanked his host, and started back for the corridor and life again. He had never even mentioned his excuse for coming, and nobody had missed it.
Chauncey Devlin, a tiny, perfect wax-image of a man, so old, so wise, so excited and full of enthusiasm and energy and carefulness, working eagerly, happily—
Accomplishing nothing. Seventy-seven years. The picture of a man who had been great, and who had slowly ground to a standstill.
Being aware of death, I had long suspected, has the opposite effect. Isaac Asimov was once asked what he would do if his doctor told him he had only six months to live. He replied, "Type faster!"
Or as Samuel Johnson put it: "Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
There is another apt quote, which has a zillion variations, but here is the version that catches my eye. It is attributed to Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers: "Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as though you were going to die to-morrow."
I would love to know what she was trying to say by that, because to me, those two instructions have a terrible tension. Perhaps it's because so much of my writing involves long-term planning. Here is when I started some of my novels, and when I finally issued them.
Wizard of the Sun: Started July 1995. Issued December 2018.
Breached Boundaries: Started September 1995. Issued August 2019.
Empty Dagger Hand: Started January 1996. Waiting to be issued.
Although I have way too many older works in progress, I've reached the point in my life where I'm highly unlikely to start novels that I work on for decades (or to hold the finished version of the novel on my hard drive for twenty-three years, which is what happened with Wizard of the Sun). But as I mentioned last month, issuing my AO3 fiction hasn't simply been a matter of plopping whole novels down on the site. Empty Dagger Hand has 38 chapters. Likewise, Breached Boundaries has 56 chapters. Serializing just those two novels takes nearly two years.
At least, that's how long I'd planned to take. But this is where the entrance of the Danse Macrabe comes in. Because if Death is forever here, extending its hand to me (and everyone else), then why am I risking dying unexpectedly while a considerable number of my stories have not yet posted at AO3? And with at least two new novels (Empty Dagger Hand and my current WIP, Search for the Jackal) artificially delayed so that I can serialize earlier, already-published novels in that series cycle?
At the moment, I have various fears about dying unexpectedly, or unexpectedly getting so ill or disabled that I can't work any longer. One of my fears is that the stories I've finished writing down won't all be on AO3, so they won't be preserved for future readers.
That fear is entirely of my own making. It's unnecessary. And I've decided I need to eliminate that fear from my life, so that I can have more room to deal with the real issues that need to be dealt with, such as editing my forthcoming stories and finishing Search for the Jackal in a timely manner. (The latter has been humming along nicely, by the way.)
So I'm going to speed up my AO3 posting again.
The time problem that I mentioned in my previous post on this subject still exists. I don't know how long it's going to take me to post my unposted works at AO3. And I certainly don't expect my readers to keep up with my posting. This is going to be story-posting on steroids.
But the nice thing for authors about online fiction? It's the gift that keeps on giving. Kristine Kathryn Rusch was talking this past week about a similar literary phenomenon, in the context of a discussion of traditional publishing vs. indie publishing. She first talks about how traditional publishing, for historical reasons, is set up so that nearly all the sales have to take place in the first few weeks after publication (which is having horrible consequences for publishers and authors during this pandemic). Due to limited bookshelf space, the books are usually yanked off the shelves of bookstores after those first few weeks.
Then she says, talking about the self-publishing of her and her husband, "Our entire career does not rest on the speed with which our books sell." She goes on to say to her fellow indie authors: "Readers will discover books over years, not weeks. Put your book out there. Yeah, maybe some reader won't find it until 2022. That's okay. Then they get to read your entire backlist."
That hit me over the head like a boom. Because here's what I've received kudos and comments on at AO3 so far this month:
Debt Price: Posted August 2015.
Broken: Posted February 2012.
Eternally Divided: Posted January 2012.
Readers will find an author's writings in their own time. Yes, exactly. Which is reason enough for me to make all my finished stories available now.