A Name Against the Nothing

Artax in the Swamp of Sadness, from The Neverending Story

A few times at Clarion West, on the Sunday evenings when we met our instructor for the week, we would be asked to go around the table and describe the kinds of stories we wrote.

Occasionally, I’d be asked the same question at the Friday night parties, and at other random moments, like when I went to the comic book store in search of a poster for my bare dorm room walls.

“You’re a writer? Cool! What kind of stories do you write?”

I was supposed to know this, right? Or at least be figuring it out.

I started to have a bit of an identity crisis.

“Fantasy,” I’d say. “But not like elves kind of fantasy. Other kind of fantasy.”

Or I’d list my favorite authors. Kelly Link. Margo Lanagan. Elizabeth Hand. John Crowley.

But it didn’t quite work. I needed a place on the grid, a way to plot myself among the writers I was learning from.

I needed a name.

On one of those Sunday evening roundtables, Alisa Alering gave a great description of her stories, which I now cannot remember word for word. But from her description, I embraced my own. I wrote stories where strange things happened to normal people.

This helped, but it wasn’t until recently that I found a name that I am comfortable wearing.

During my thesis defense, my advisor referenced the term “slipstream” often. I had heard of slipstream before, but it wasn’t something I had researched. So instead I talked about my stories moving back and forth between literary mainstream and science fiction. Sometimes I’d swing to one side, sometimes to the other. Overall, my stories were inching closer to some strange place in the middle. But the middle couldn’t have a name, right? It wasn’t really a place.

The middle turned out to not be a swamp of sadness. In fact, it’s the place where most of my favorite authors hang out.

This is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility. ~ Bruce Sterling

Having a term I can use to describe my writing gives me guideposts. I don’t always have to stay on this path. Maybe ten years from now I’ll laugh at the idea that I once identified with slipstream. But for now, it is a way to navigate. It’s a name to fight against that terrible feeling of the Nothing closing in from all sides.

After searching for a long time, all it took was a great writing friend to help me find a name.

And, of course, a little luck.

One thought on “A Name Against the Nothing

  1. I've been struggling with this very thing for a while now. Caleb, especially, has been pressuring me to pin something down. As he told you. 🙂 I like horror. I know I'm not a horror writer but a lot of that aesthetic shows up in my stories. I like romance and mystery, too, and there they are. I've been telling people I write F and SF. Usually that shuts 'em up. I'm glad you found a place you can be comfortable with, at least for the time being!

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