Hello, Pike’s Peak. I’m Seanan McGuire, and I’m your last keynote speech of the weekend. I’m pretty sure they put me in the hangovers and absences slot because they were worried I’d say something unfortunate, which is fair—I swear a lot. But this is pretty thrilling so far, huh? Endless adventure!
I write books. I do it because I can’t stop doing it. Before I wrote books that people were willing to pay for I wrote a lot of books that no one was willing to pay for, and I wrote a lot of fanfiction, and they were usually not the same thing. Currently, I’m lucky enough to make a living doing what I can’t stop doing anyway. I feel like a cat. They wander around being cute fluffy assholes, and in exchange, they get room and board and all the petting they want. Well, I wander around generating an endless stream of text, and in exchange, I get room and board and food for the cats. It’s pretty cool. I like it.
I know that if you’re here, it’s because you really care about writing. That’s awesome. I really care about writing, too. We have something in common! Having something in common is the foundation of all good friendships and social relationships. And because I am a cat in more ways than one, and cats never do what they’re told, I’m mostly not going to talk about writing today. Instead, I want to have a talk about kindness. I think it’s important. I think it’s relevant. And I think it’s something that all of us could work on, because at the end of the day, this is what we’ve got. This, right here.
We’ve got to be kind.
There will always be people who are ready and even eager to tell you that writing is a zero-sum game. If I’m going to succeed, someone else is going to have to fail. There will always be people who say that anyone who has any success at all will hoard it jealously, and give bad advice, and refuse to boost anyone else up. They’re the ones who tell you that your story got rejected not because it wasn’t right for the project, but because a friend of a friend of a guy they met once told them that if you didn’t have an “in” with the editor, you didn’t have a chance. They’re the ones who invent conspiracies to explain their lack of sales, or the reason that someone else got something shiny that they wanted. There’s always a reason, and that reason is always malicious, and it’s never their fault. There will always be people who want nothing more than to tell you that the world is against you, that the world is not kind, that the world can never be kind.
Those people are frequently conflating three words that get used in similar spaces, but mean very different things. I’m not asking you to be nice. Niceness is frequently treated as weakness, and more importantly, niceness doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Niceness at its worst says “how will this make me look,” rather than “how will this improve the world.” If you are a nice person, embrace it. Be awesome in your niceness. Some of my favorite people are genuinely nice. I am not. Nice is not a trait that I possess, unless we’re going back to the time when it meant “neat” and “precise.”
And I’m not trying to convince you that the world is fair. That’s a bill of goods too big for me to sell in fifteen minutes, and you’d all tune me out midway through, because we all know the world isn’t fair. Half the things that people attribute to malice can honestly be attributed to the basic unfairness of reality. Why did the person in front of you get a free balloon, and you got told that sorry, they’re out? Why do rich children get to go to Disney World, while poor children have to wait until they grow up and build a decent credit rating, and then get told that they’re weird for going to an amusement park as a childless adult, when they’ve been waiting for their entire lives? Why does one person get food poisoning, and the next get a lovely dinner? Because the world isn’t fair. It’s never going to be.
We conflate “nice” and “fair” with “kind,” and then we act like the fact that nice people can be cruel and the world isn’t fair proves that kindness has no virtue. And that’s not true. That will never, never be true.
The world is not zero-sum. If you take the last cookie and don’t choose to share it with me, sure, I’ll be sad, but there will be other cookies. There will be other opportunities for dessert. And if I say to you, “hey, great cookie, I love cookies, can you let me know if there are more later?” I am much more likely to be on your mind when the next cookie platter hits the table. I’m definitely more likely to have left a positive impression than if I tried to snatch the cookie out of your hand, or told you to go screw yourself because I don’t like cookies anyway. You’ll remember me as someone friendly who likes cookies, not someone unpleasant who likes yelling at people for beating her to the buffet.
I have met dozens of writers who see everyone else as the competition, stealing their sales and dimming the light of their genius by refusing to get out of the marketplace. Some of them are more established than I am, and they do give bad advice, and they do hoard opportunities. I’m not saying that writers who don’t want to share their toys are the bogeyman, invented to frighten newbies and without any power to do harm.
But I have met hundreds of writers with open hands and open hearts, who only want to help. Who understand that there’s room for all of us, because the reality of this business is so much bigger and more complicated than the zero-sum game. When I blurb a book, I’m saying to my readers “you may like this.” I’m also saying to that author’s readers “we are similar enough that you may like me.” When I talk about the work of others, I establish myself as someone who reads enough to know what a good story looks like. And on, and on, and on. Selfishness benefits you in the moment. Kindness benefits you in the world.
Being a writer means living largely inside your own head, where the ghosts are. We’re all haunted houses, and it can be difficult to see what’s going on outside of our own walls. What we need to remember is that houses have windows. We need to remember that sometimes what looks like malice can be confusion, or fear, or insecurity. We need to look for reasons when things happen. Sometimes those reasons will be bigger than we think they are.
This is a changing field in a complicated world. Right here, right now, it’s easier for an author with a “white sounding” name to get published traditionally, and easier for them to find a readership once they’ve been published, whatever the channel. Urban fantasy written by women will be reviewed as less “literary” and less deserving of critical praise, even while we control the lion’s share of the market. The same thing happens in young adult fiction, where men are lauded for “saving the genre,” even though the genre—again, female dominated—doesn’t need saving. Books about gay characters are “message books” or “shoving your politics down my throat,” even as books about straight characters in near-identical situations are praised for the stories they actually tell, rather than being judged on the sexual orientations of their protagonists. These things, these awful, frustrating, infuriating things, are all proof that the world is unfair. The world is not interested in giving us a hand up, or giving us a level playing field.
We have to do that ourselves. We have to do it for each other. We have to be willing to say “let me help you,” and “I need help.” We need to reach out and share our resources, and realize that the universe is not zero-sum. I can make myself better, and brighter, by making you better, and brighter. Kindness counts. A willingness to look beyond our own wounded feelings and see the context of the world around us...counts.
People like to say that all writers are thieves. They say that we beg, borrow, and steal from the world around us to tell our stories, and they—the nameless, nebulous “they”—they aren’t wrong. Terry Pratchett called us the “storytelling ape,” and that urge to essentially tell lies for fun is one of our defining traits as a species. Because of that, I’m going to finish by stealing something beautiful. A quote from Kurt Vonnegut, who said a lot of very smart things, which makes him especially vulnerable to this form of highway robbery:
“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”