Friday, April 29, 2011

Joanna Russ, 1937-2011

I saw it reported at Locus and that Joanna Russ has died.

I was lucky enough to take a couple of classes from her when she taught creative writing at the University of Washington. She was dedicated, sharp, encouraging, kind. I feel like I saw just the tip of the iceberg (or merely felt the fringe of the bonfire) but I was grateful to have met her.

She said a lot of things -- here are a few that stuck. Unfortunately I don't remember her exact words, and using my words instead is like imitating Strauss on a kazoo...

Don't worry about getting enough life experience. Life will surely throw enough at you.

It can help to have a representation of your inner critic. (She took out a little statue of a grim and ridiculous looking bird.) This thing will always tell you you're no good. Keep him where you can keep an eye on him.

Don't make it science fiction if it doesn't need to be science fiction.

If it is science fiction, make details that hang together, not just disconnected ideas that sound neat.

Watch out for having something to prove. Watch out for Imposter Syndrome. (She didn't use that term, but I think that's the feeling she was describing.)

I also remember that she was having back trouble and needed a special chair, and that she approached this challenge without any sign of bitterness or discouragement. If she felt it, she didn't let on. That fits with the bravery that characterized her whole career.

I feel sad that I did not encounter her again after I last saw her in the early 1990s. And more so that health troubles prevented her from writing more. And glad for what we do have.

But what tools, what visions, did this old man or old woman give me? What did he give Madame Stowe and the Mesdames Bronte and Madame Austen and Madame Dickinson and Madame George Eliot and Madame Stein and Madame Woolf and Madame Cather and Madame Hurston and Madame Colette and all the others? I have told you (with some help from Madame Lowell) where we got the tools of our trade, but do you now want to find out what those tools really were?

Are you truly curious?

Then read our books!

-- Joanna Russ, "Sword Blades and Poppy Seed"

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