Robin McKinley The Wrong Speech: Wiscon 2005

I'm about to give you the wrong speech. Sorry about that.

I tried, really I did. It takes me about six months to write a speech — that's in a good year — and I've been hacking away dutifully since last November, cursing, as I always do, the fact that I was weak enough to accept in the first place any invitation that included speech giving. Arrrrgh. The problem is, as many of you will know, when the invitation comes in, your diary looks full of lovely unbroken white space — sure, I can do that, you think, surrounded by the mad and maddening detritus of what you promised to do last year. Some of us never learn.

It's true however that my first impulse is always to say no to almost anything. I'm no good at being interrupted from whatever I'm doing, and that includes my husband trying to drag me to the dinner table on time as well as climbing on an airplane to go somewhere several thousand miles away. My husband, by the way, has just given me a chiming clock for my office, under the sweet, naïve apprehension that this will make me better about paying attention to the passage of time. The clock is extremely pretty, makes a very pleasant sound and I like it very much, but I'm not there for dinner with any greater regularity. This character flaw may have something to do with why I'm such a bad traveller: all that being at the airport at the right time stuff. I never was a good traveller but I used to enjoy seeing bits of the country I'd never seen before or couldn't afford to go back to on my own bank balance. That was before I moved to England. Now invitations from anywhere in America get turned down almost before I pull them out of the envelope or download them into my email folder. No. No chance. Thanks for asking, but please go away.

I would have made an exception for Wiscon, I think, because Wiscon is Wiscon and as anyone who has read some of my web site or heard me speak before knows, the fact that my books seem to be full of women and female creatures doing things and having adventures is not an accident. I say that I don't make my stories up, they happen to me — which is true — but it's not exactly channelling either. If the Story Council ever mistakenly sent me a story about a guy with large muscles, larger weaponry — any kind of weaponry, hardware, software or, ahem, wetware — and a series of girlfriends (or for that matter boyfriends) with wasp waists so pronounced they are in constant danger of snapping in half, I would take a scalding hot shower and go for an exhaustingly long walk, and if that still hadn't dislodged the beggar, get out the Laphroaig. I admit that, after it was way too late to think again, when I read your semi-final programming list I blanched — I don't even know what a lot of your topics refer to, although certain phrases like 'fairy tales' and 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' do register as meaningful even to a current culture and zeitgeist drop out such as myself. But I'm generally sympathetic to Wiscon's idea that while we were all created equal certain subdivisions of said equality need to band together occasionally and do bolstering exercises with others of the same persuasions, and feminism is definitely one of my persuasions. (I don't know if this is Gwyneth's experience or not, but I've found to my dismay that in England I still get the reaction, oh, you're a feminist? You don't look like a feminist. And we all know what that means. The temptation is to punch them in the eye and then as they stand there trying to staunch the blood, say, now do I look like a feminist? But I don't guess that would do the cause any good, so I have abstained. So far.)

So, as I say, I would have paused, any other year, over an invitation to be Guest of Honor at Wiscon. But fourteen months or so ago when contact was made I was preoccupied with watching my rather nice life self-destruct. The socially acceptable phrase is that we were moving house — which is always at least a bit harrowing — but, trust me, this wasn't just a house move. This was the end of life as I knew it. I don't know why I did accept your invitation; it has kept surprising me that I did, in fact, as I have kept getting updates about it over the last year. I said I'd do what? But anyway. It went into the diary. And I was going to have to write a speech.

Well. We moved. We moved out of the house I thought I was going to live in for the rest of my life — the house I wrote the afterword to Rose Daughter from, about having put down non-transferable roots there, and how having discovered that one has come home at last after thirty-nine years of wandering was a happy surprise. Never come to conclusions. It's way too dangerous.

It took seven months, from the decision to sell to spending our first night in our old bed under a new roof. Because the chief reason for the decision to move is that Peter isn't very well, the burden of the donkey work mostly fell on me — me who didn't want to move in the first place — and I'd worked like a twenty-year-old Olympic shot putter on speed to get everything done. If you're going to do something horrible at all, you're better off doing it as thoroughly and expeditiously as possible; also if you're overstressed and overbusy all the time it's easier not to think — and there's plenty to do, sorting out three generations of Old Family Junk so that you can sell the Old Family House — the old family house that three generations have left junk in because they haven't wanted to think what else to do with it. And so at the end of last July, surrounded by way too many boxes in my new little office-cottage or cottage-office, I told myself, okay, here I am, the old is old and over with and here's the new. All I have to do now is reinvent myself: not like I haven't done it before, many times. It's true I wasn't expecting to have to get this machinery out of the attic again, the self-reinvention machinery, and dust it off and oil its joints — aggressively low tech, that's me — but it's all still there. It'll still work.

That's what's supposed to have happened. Maybe when I turned the old machine on again I put the key in the wrong little hole.

It usually takes me, as I started out saying, about six months to write a speech. And I only really write a new one at all about every seven years or so. Some of you may have heard me say elsewhere that my first speech lasted dozens of deliveries — that was when I was young and strong and still in high-wandering mode — till, in those pre-personal-computer days, the pages began to disintegrate and the marginalia morphed from crisp editorial development of salient thoughts to illegible except by x-ray palimpsest, but its longevity was less to do with its gripping contextual deconstruction than to the fact that in the early days I spoke so fast that nobody ever heard it so couldn't possibly be bored by hearing it again. When I finally, regretfully, retired that speech — it was full of the fiery enthusiasms and overstatements of passionate youth, which you can get away with better when you are young. Being too obsessive to survive starts to look a little silly after you have survived for a while and should have grown out, or possibly burned out, of it.

But the speeches since that first one, after I slowed down presentation enough that people could understand me, have gone through many evolutions and revolutions during the term of office that each was The Speech (I had a computer by then too, which at least made clean copies for fresh marginal notes to go in at midnight in the hotel room the night before I was supposed to give the thing again). There aren't too many themes in my life significant enough to hang a speech on, so when I find one, I have to work it to death. Some writers of fiction may also be astrophysicists or social workers specializing in autistic children or drug rehab, or maybe they just read the newspapers or have a life, and therefore have a range of expertise to draw on, and somewhere to put pegs in and provide triangulation points about human consciousness and the future of the planet. Not me. Okay, I can tell you more than you want to know about horses and rose bushes. But if I'm going to give a speech it is going to have to be about writing fiction, and since I have precious little to say about that other than 'well, er, um, actually I have nothing to say about that', I must perforce talk about my life, which is where my end of the story-telling process comes from, after the Story Council, very red-faced, shuffles some files and re-inputs some data, and takes the hulking hero away from me and sends me something sensible.

The point being that at the moment I haven't got a life to write, not so much about as from. Very disconcerting. I have split seconds or sometimes whole half days when the fog seems about to coalesce into perhaps some suggestion of a shape — for example the morning before I left to come here, going out into the tiny garden that attaches to my cottage, where I've been cramming roses in in a maniacally irresponsible way, and in a few years when they've got going I'll need armour to get out the back door. I didn't get anything planted in time last year, so I'm seeing the new clones of some of my old friends flowering for the first time in my new space, and it's like yes! Life does go on in a semi-recognisable shape! It must be life as I knew it, if it still has roses it.

When I sat down last autumn to think about what I was going to do for Wiscon I knew I was going to have to do something new, or at least I was going to have to try to do something new. Revising my last speech, which, since it hasn't had its seven years yet, should have been the answer, would be a bit like an archaeologist whose field is ancient Sumeria giving a paper on modern trends in depth psychology. Okay, both archaeology and psychology are about people, and people are always more alike than they are different — I believe that, just by the way — and besides, who's to say the ancient Sumerians didn't practise depth psychology too? Maybe Carl Jung was an ancient Sumerian first and that Swiss guy was merely a later incarnation. But I think my archaeologist would still only get away with presenting her paper as within her area of mastery if she's a really good actor. And I'm not a really good actor.

I did think I had a clue what this arriviste speech was going to be about: it was going to be about homeopathy, bell ringing, vampires and magic. Because it had occurred to me that perhaps I should have known that my life was due to go poof when I found myself going back to school two years ago. I had squirted out of Bowdoin College thirty plus years ago with my diploma between clenched teeth, vowing that nothing on earth would ever get me back into a classroom on the wrong side of the desk again — some of you may also know that back in the days when I did a lot of school visits I took perverse glee in saying how much I'd hated school and that barring a pathetically few brilliant and inspirational teachers the whole sixteen years had been a big painful waste of time. Then I discovered homeopathy. This was not wholly unlike my experience of the story-telling process: sometimes I'm quite surprised at what I see emerging from the black squiggles my pen is leaving, or appearing, rather more decipherably, on the computer screen. I was equally nonplussed to find myself going to interview homeopathic colleges and getting out my chequebook to pay one of them to take me. Perhaps the only way the universe can get through to someone who is obsessively single-minded is by the lightning-bolt, coup de foudre, method. It does at least mean that when you pick yourself up off the floor and check for singeing, the message has got your attention. Maybe I should have known when I started bell ringing again, which I'd had to give up when I went down with full time ME and gave up almost everything except lying on the sofa and watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns for eighteen months. I hadn't gone back to it when I got off the sofa again because the fact is I have no gift for bell ringing, I just love it, and missed it, and it didn't occur to me that the ringing community would welcome me back because brilliance isn't required. It's not? Gee. Maybe the lesson there is that it's good to be boring median normal occasionally. It's so much less stressful than trying to excel. And maybe I should have known when after a quarter century of writing stories exclusively in a variety of spuriously pre -electricity, -internal combustion engine and -flush toilet never-never lands, where the peasants are all implausibly clean, healthy and well fed, I found myself writing a modern alternate-this-world story stuffed to the gills with wonky technology and my own personal bitterness about this world — the novel that after a dozen years in England was also my first American novel. All those never-never lands were clearly British.

And while at the moment, rootless as I am, I knock down quite easily, I can dizzily see that there are advantages to this vastly reduced living space and vastly reduced garden that my husband and I are still learning to negotiate. Less room for books and rose bushes, but less upkeep too. There's a pillow on my sofa that reads 'My idea of housework is to sweep the room with a glance'. Yes. And if I have a strange tidying impulse, I'd rather go outside and tidy the garden. My new fragmented and unreconstructed life is almost pleasingly mirrored by the fact of being a new two-career person, a divided construct like a catamaran, which is, I'm told, a very effective design for a sailboat. Although my experience of being a writer and a homeopath is more like a state of continuously patting one's head while rubbing one's stomach, while chewing gum. I never was very good at chewing gum. One of the most schizophrenic aspects of the new non-balance is that I now see clients, and I see them at home. Oops. Better get out the Hoover and the dustcloth after all. But this is me, who has spent most of my adult professional life avoiding people, to the extent that when I left New York City and moved to Maine over twenty years ago my agent and best friend gave me a phone answering machine as a house warming present on the grounds that I didn't answer the phone unless I already knew who it was, and my telepathic abilities are unreliable. She knew — and knows — me well. I had told my minder here at Wiscon that I have to be able to pick up my email every day — never mind contact with my husband; my clients have to know that I'll get back to them within 24 hours. Which is also to say that I have had an active hand in pulling my own life to pieces. If I'm no longer a misanthropic hermit, there are no verities; I have no base line. Never assume. Never make plans. Keep doing the press-ups and deep knee bends: you'll need all your strength and flexibility when your life suddenly implodes. Maybe it won't — some people do lead enchanted lives — but odds are that it will. Some time.

So last November I sat down to write Homeopathy, Bell Ringing, Vampires, and Magic. But the problem is still that while I knew these are the threads I needed to pull together, with a few others perhaps, like whippets and rosebushes, horses and piano lessons, hiking in the Scottish Highlands and thirty hours in the day — I don't know how to do it yet. I know there's something in there hiding, that may make a good speech some day, but it hasn't emerged yet. That shape has not coalesced out of the lightning-threaded fog. I'm still in the early hey, wait a minute, is this the warp or the weft anyway?, stage. Or was I supposed to be knitting? Oops again. No, I think it's just that the loom is upside down. Whatever.

What I should have known is that I wasn't meant to settle down properly and know what the shape of my days is going to be tomorrow or next year. I should know this because my story-telling has always been chaotic, and because there's been way too much in the stories that bursts or sidles into my life later on — my predictive capacity is as erratic as my capacity for identifying who's on the phone by the sound of the ring — but that I'm creating my own reality, as so many philosophies insist that we all do, is pretty obvious. I'd never been to Blue Hill when I wrote Beauty and sent my characters to live in a town with that name; imagine my surprise when I moved to another town named Blue Hill about seven years later. And while I can't honestly claim Peter kidnapped me, nor do his eyes go yellow when he's angry, except that he's never angry so maybe they do, there's a fairly strong parallel there too, or at least our friends and family certainly thought so when we decided to get married after one weekend together and I emigrated to England as a result. And beginning growing rosebushes of course — maybe that was the point all along. Peter said that the gardening disease was obviously lying dormant in my blood since it roused to vigorous, not to say overwhelming or even obsessive, life, with the first touch of my first pair of secateurs, my first gift, by the way, from my doting fiancé, who had perhaps been dropping rose petals and incantations in my ear as I slept to ensure that the magic would come out right.

Here's what I'm beginning to suspect: that I'm going to pieces so that when I finally manage to make that new weaving from all the old unravelled threads on the upside-down loom, or just contrive to stuff all the bits any old where on any old shelf just to get them off the floor, which is how I did the unpacking last summer — maybe when I've done this to my life, I'll find that a lot of the stuff I thought I knew the locations of actually look better in their new order. Er. Disorder. No, order. Most of the stuff that came out of boxes and onto shelves last summer went in higgledy piggledy where there was, or I could make, room, and most of it is still where I first put it because I haven't thought of what else to do with it: because it looks so strange, away from where it was supposed to spend the rest of my life. Some of it is wrong, yes, but a lot of it has started making its own connections, its own context, where it finds itself. That's kind of where the title of the talk I haven't written comes from: while maybe it's really only that my grip on the English language is failing fast, but homeopathy or bell ringing is as magical as vampires or dragons are. Someone was asking me to define magic the other day and I was floundering in what I think was an attempt to say 'all that stuff they can't measure with a yardstick or a CAT scan or an electron microscope.' I've always known that there's magic about the story-telling process, but that's all fiction, right? Fiction and imagination and will o the wisps and — possibly — lies. There's that world, or those worlds, and then there's this one, where you're supposed to be able to see and touch your truths, or at least track them through your fancy lab equipment. I believed this for years — I never liked it, but I believed it, and decided without ever considering it a decision, ie that there was any other choice for me, to live with a fairly simple if stringent division between writing stories about dragons or vampires and living in a world of internal combustion engines and antibiotics. Which are perhaps not utterly dissimilar sets, since none is evil in itself but somehow we humans mostly don't handle any of them very well. So I've been a catamaran all my life after all, and maybe I sail the high seas better than I thought.

I think I'm past being able to revert to saying that I have too vivid an imagination as an explanation of why I believe that the big tower bells I ring back in England are magic — and thanks to the magic of homeopathic arnica for jet lag, the only seasick feelings of 'where am I, and why is home so far away' I've had since I arrived here are when some church tower near the hotel strikes the hours on what is obviously a real bell, and should have five or seven friends in the belfry with it, and some people to pull the ropes to make the magical waterfall sound of change ringing. It's true that bells don't eat, sleep, defecate, or quarrel with their friends (unless their rope-pullers lose the plot which is why change ringing takes so horrifyingly much practice), but they have personalities that mere metal can't explain. Okay, I would say the same thing about my 40-year-old MGB, thus underlining my unreliability about reality; but I think I'll just turn that on its head — after all, this is a speech I'm giving at a SF&F convention, so I'm going to assume I'm preaching to the converted — and say that anyone who can't recognize that any 40-year-old car still on the road has accumulated, any way you want to think about it, a life of its own, is suffering sensory disability and should be felt sorry for. Change ringing is a noisy and spectacular example of a result that is more than a sum of its parts: and how else to explain how this happens but by saying that the additional indefinable something is magic?

But it's homeopathy that has really wrecked my depressing but semi-rational view of life, the universe and everything. I don't know how many of you know anything about it; in the UK it's almost respectable — heavy emphasis on the 'almost' — but my impression is that over here there are little pockets of it surrounded by vast wastelands of disinformation and distrust. I discovered it myself by accident and end-of-rope-itis — known in the homeopathic trade by the acronym TEENTH, as in umpteenth, Tried Everything Else, Now Try Homeopathy — and was terminally infected almost immediately, as upon first exposure to horses at the age of six, or gardening at the age of thirty-eight. And the two loveliest things about homeopathy are, first, that it works, and, second, that no one knows why — they haven't invented the fancy lab equipment that will do that trick yet. The so-called drugs, the actual material stuff homeopathic remedies are made of, have been so diluted by the time you or your client takes one, that in all but the lowest potencies no measurable trace of the original substance remains. And the higher the potency, the farther away from any taint of the mere mundane world the remedy is, the more powerful the medicine. I love it. This is magic. And if the definition of magic doesn't include so splendid an example, then I'm coming out of my pseudo-rationalist, trying-to-live-on-this-planet-and-keep-a-low-profile closet now, and reorganizing the definition of magic.

Which is, roughly speaking, where I came in, or where I was trying to come in, fifteen minutes or seven months ago. There are more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in Horatio's or my philosophy, and I'm glad to see this, and I'd welcome it, except that that word, welcome, implies welcome to, welcome in, and I have no idea where this is I'm standing, in the shadows beyond this podium in Madison, Wisconsin, the mysterious place with the upside-down loom and the shuttle with the thread running backwards, the already loved but still strange cottage I'm supposed to call home, with the new chiming clock, the piles of yellow legal pages with black ink mark squiggles on them, the toppling stacks of homeopathic books and the elderly desktop computer that, as you might expect, keeps wanting to be defragged. Disintegration is contagious.

I don't know. I wouldn't dare give this wrong speech, this not-a-speech, in the UK; it's a small island, and I see clients there, some of whom even know what I do in my other life, but would probably not be reassured by my telling them that at the moment the only things I do seem to know anything about are bell ringing, vampires, magic . . . oh, and homeopathy. Mostly my clients remind me of the magic of the world too, how their stories are the same and different from everyone else's, including mine, and the way homeopathic remedies work on them in their inexplicable and wonderful ways; I admit that the few who not only know about my other life but read what I do with it occasionally want to argue with me about a sequel to Sunshine or the third Damar novel, and I can't delete them the way I can emails on these topics. Maybe it's because I don't tell them what the only things I know are that I don't seem to need to tell them that I may not know much, but I know how to do the research. Which is maybe what life is: doing the research. But what I want to say to you, secretly, thousands of miles away from my consulting room, which is also my kitchen, is that the intuition, the nonrational faculty that lets me see things that aren't there, that lets me write the stories that come to me, is the same inituition that lets me track the right remedy from the pages of case taking to the fine print of the proving of one of the 6000-plus remedies available, the one I think and feel, sense, intuit, is best indicated for this particular client. Maybe I'm a single-hull boat after all. Maybe I don't have to learn to chew gum. Maybe it's all connected. The mad and the sane, the rational and the intuitive, the explicable and the utterly not — including homeopathy, bell ringing, vampires and magic. Maybe there's a connection between big ugly heroes with too much weaponry and feminist SF&F cons, although I can't think of what that one might be at the moment. Maybe you can. Maybe you already know all this. It's been a long slow hard lesson for me, and I haven't finished the research let alone got a passing grade on my thesis paper yet either. Maybe in another seven months or seven years I'll be able to write the right speech and tell some other audience about it. Perhaps this one should have been called Notes from Along the Way, or even Notes from 30,000 Feet Up Over the Atlantic, having one more assault at the concept that's been eluding me all my life, but especially since last November. Although actually I'm a little worried about the 'vampires' part of the equation. Dragons are scary too, but they've got nothing on vampires, at least not to me. I feel that Sunshine's world almost makes this one look safe and kind and sensible and stable. But I'll worry about that when I write the sequel.

And so, finally, I want to say 'thank you'. Thank you for inviting me to come to Wiscon. Thank you for doing it in such a manner (not that I recall how this was accomplished) that I said yes in spite of myself. In spite of having to write a speech. Because if I hadn't needed to write a speech, I might not have realized I needed to start with homeopathy, bell ringing, vampires, and magic, and I might not have realized, at least not so soon, they were all connected. I might not have realized that my life has gone to pieces because I needed to look at the pieces. Looking is as far as I've gotten, but it's a start. So thank you for making me look at the pieces sooner rather than later. Even if it has been at the price of missing most of Wiscon's programming and some hours at Madison's excellent book stores, because I've been holed up in my hotel room, revising Notes from 30,000 Feet, and trying to make enough sense of them that I can, perhaps, pass that sense on to you. Thank you very much.

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