04 July 2006

The Bison Tenniel -- An Origin Story

Last night my wife Jayne and I engaged in our little ritual of watching the musical "1776" and went to bed sometime around 2 AM, having renewed our vision of "America." When I got up on July 4, today, I turned on CNN for space shuttle launch coverage, and, after the anchors congratulated themselves on their impressive picture of the launch pad, they launched into one of those junk news bits that 24-hour news demands.

Where were you in 1976 for the Bicentennial? they asked. And that reminded me of what I'd intended to write and celebrate today. It was a unique sort of American experience, strangely concerned WITH and not concerned at ALL about the 200th National Birthday Celebration.

In a profound way, my writing career began in earnest on the Fourth of July, 1976, the Bicentennial. But before I tell you where I was, I need to tell you how I got there.

In the winter of 1975, I had realized (even though my "body" had already known for a few years) what I was going to be when I grew up. I was going to be a writer. It seemed the only possible answer, and it was not so much an "AHA!" moment as an "Uh, DUH!" moment.

I had been writing specifically for publication since the fall of 1973. Letters in the TCU DAILY SKIFF, true. But concerning the issues of the day. Eerily to me, they are still very readable, and recognizably in my style.

But I hadn't known it until late December of 1975, and, from that point, I tried to take the classes that would turn me into a writer. It seemed a logical choice. I was a junior in college, had switched from a physics major to a philosophy major, and, while I was minoring in English, to be a writer didn't require any of that.

After most of a semester with the "writing guru" of TCU, I was utterly disillusioned. Nothing that she knew was of any use to me. Indeed, I read her "experimental" novel in manuscript, and it was just utter garbage. But I was critically reading at a rate of 50-60 books a week -- attempting to strip them of their writing secrets.

I know that sounds like braggadocio, but it's true. I took the Evelyn Wood speedreading course with my then-wife, paid for by my father-in-law to boost his daughter's college fortunes. At the end, everyone else was reading at about the same speed I was reading at the beginning. I just read fast.

So, I continued reading the way that I read, but it was very fast, and I was reading a lot of science fiction, along with Burroughs, Vonnegut, the Illuminatus Trilogy (which was just coming out as paperback originals), Tolkien, Ayn Rand's elephant-choker, ATLAS SHRUGGED, Hunter S. Thompson, James Joyce and the rest. I was reading a lot of then-obscure Philip K. Dick (courtesy of Paul Williams' essay in ROLLING STONE, to which I subscribed), Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, Ursula K. LeGuin, Samuel R. Delany -- whose DHALGREN I suffered through, each and every word -- Robert Heinlein (though he was then, as now, politically incorrect), Joanna Russ, Cordwainer Smith, Kate Wilhelm, H.P. Lovecraft, Frank Herbert and Theodore Sturgeon.

Pay special heed to those last two names.

My writing professor did me one great favor, though: She loaned me her copy of the 1975 WRITERS MARKET, and, in reading it, I realized that the way that you became a writer was that you MADE yourself a writer. You either did it or you didn't. It was purely a meritocracy: no degrees, no aid on Earth (or in Heaven) could make you a writer unless you yourself did it.

I took it as a sign that the cover that year was a pencil blasting off into space, as a cartoony rocket metaphor.

Any number of events formed a thought in my mind that in order to become a writer, I would have to go where the markets were. Fort Worth, Texas in general, and TCU's English Department (and J-School) in particular, offered me no assistance in what I proposed to achieve. It was nailed down when I received my NEWSWEEK one fine spring day: the cover story was: "WHO NEEDS COLLEGE?"

There was a little problem with the student housing office that bears mention, but just barely so.

I had two choices: Los Angeles or New York City.

Since I thought I might like to do screenplays and multimedia work, and not just paperbacks (it's a steady job/and I want to be a paperback writer/paperback writer -- Lennon/McCartney), I chose Los Angeles.

In May, we packed up the household for a long, terrifying journey to LA. I withdrew from my second-semester Junior year classes, and we traveled up to Omaha, and thence across Nebraska, into Colorado, to 1-70, and across to I-15 and Los Angeles, staying with skeptical relatives along the way. ('Skeptical' being an euphemism for 'highly doubtful.')

Green behind the gills we were, driving in the hottest part of the day through the California desert in a 1964 navy-blue Ford Econoline van, and it was touch and go with the temperature gauge for one terrifying day in the Mojave.

We drove all the way to the beach, and spent our first week at the Topanga Beach Motel, in a little bungalow. Across the Pacific Coast Highway was the ocean. We didn't have a lot of money, so we walked on the beach a lot.

A month later, we'd managed to get into an apartment in North Hollywood; had starved for two weeks while the Bank of America had waited for a Cashier's Check to clear (they took our money FIRST, told us about the hold only THEN). And we had a fight. She took the Ford Econoline van, sold it, used the money to buy a ticket and fly back to Massachusetts, to her parents' home in Sudbury.

Then I was sitting an apartment with a month's rent paid up, no job, four cats, a little money, and utterly terrified. But there was a bookstore within walking distance, and it had a lot of science fiction. I picked up some recently used magazines, including an ANALOG that reprinted Robert Heinlein's famous speech to the naval cadets at Annapolis on his Five Rules. That got me started.
Heinlein's Five Rules:
  • First: You must write.
  • Second: You must finish what you write.
  • Third: You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
  • Fourth: You must place it on the market.
  • Fifth: You must keep it on the market until sold.
-- From James Forrestal Memorial Lecture, April 5, 1973.
That was THE important essay at the important moment in my life. Indeed, in that magazine, there were listings for science fiction conventions, and I noted that one was to be held a couple weeks hence at the Los Angeles Airport, called "WESTERCON 29."

It would be over the July 4 weekend, but I didn't notice that. There would be MANY science fiction authors in attendance, including Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon and Frank Herbert. I had enough money, so I wrote a Bank of America yellow check and mailed in my registration fee.

By sheerest chance, I had enough money.

When the time came, I hitchhiked the thirty or so miles to LAX. Don't ask me how I did it. At the time you could still hitchhike as a means of transport, but getting from North Hollywood to LAX took sheerest dumb luck. That weekend I had it in abundance.

And so, with no money to get back, and knowing (literally) no one in Los Angeles (except for my cranky Locksmith and Lawnmower Blade Sharpening landlord, whose office was right across the street from my apartment), I arrived at WESTERCON 29 in 1976 with a lean and hungry look.

There, I met three young Science Fiction writers who would play significant roles in my life over the next year, Richard DeLap, the editor of DeLap's F&SF review, who would publish my first compensated writing in the winter of '76; Paul Bond, who would be my roommate and a friend until his untimely death in the early 80s. And Russell Bates, a Kiowa author who is in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, and with whom I still occasionally correspond. Russell's preferred coinage is not "Native American" or "Indian" but his own, "Novamundian," which means, in Latin, a "New Worlder," more or less.

DeLap passed away in the late 80s. His papers and book collection are housed at the Spencer Library at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence.

I have written of these three elsewhere.

But, and I did not know this until a few moments ago, I met Theodore Sturgeon at William Rotsler's Birthday Party (a WESTERCON tradition at the time) on July 3. I had always thought it July 4, but I find that I am mistaken. July 4 makes a better story, but there you have it.

Because Bond and Bates were Science Fiction Writers of America members, I had access to the SFWA suite on the top floor of the Hyatt House hotel -- which was where the actual writers hid out from the ofttimes hebephrenic fans. And, for the same reason, I was admitted to the Rotsler birthday party.

There, in the bedroom, seated cross-legged on the bed, and surrounded by an exclusively female audience that crammed the room to overflowing, was Theodore Sturgeon, pipe wafting Captain Black's tobacco (then, a wondrous incense, and not, as now, a horrible attempt at second-hand murder).

We could not enter the room, and so Russell and I stood by the breakfast bar, eating string cheese (the first time I'd seen it), and watching as Jerry Pournelle attempted to remove the cork from a wine bottle with his pen-knife, succeeding to the extent that he managed to spill wine all over me.

But the bottle was yet uncorked and unpourable. Perhaps this explains what would come the following day. But Pournelle had already managed to put a cigarette burn in my polyester print "good" shirt the day before. Why this odd enmity, I shall never know. I requested the bottle, pushed the cork INTO the bottle, and the wine was dispensed. This didn't please Pournelle, who continued in his boisterous manner.

Bill Rotsler was a great bear of a man, legendary as a fan artist (won a Hugo or two for fan art), a sometimes author (PATRON OF THE ARTS) and a man with connections to men's magazines (He wrote for KNIGHT and ADAM, which would be significant to my career) and, oh, hell, here's a bit of the obituary from LOCUS magazine, following Bill's death in 1997: https://www.locusmag.com/1997/News/News11.html
"William Rotsler was born 3 July 1926 in Los Angeles, California. He worked on a ranch in Camarillo as a teenager, and served in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1945, learning the profession of photographer. He discovered fandom in the mid-'40s and was part of the Los Angeles fan scene for over 50 years. He attended Los Angeles County Art Institute, 1947-50, and worked as a sculptor of mainly outdoor modern work from 1950 to 1959, then gave it up to become a photographer, filmmaker, producer, director of commercials, documentaries, etc. He worked mainly in the "erotic" industries, selling photos to Playboy, writing columns for Knight and other men's magazines, writing, directing, or acting(!) -- or some combination of these -- in such movies as The Agony of Love (1966), Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill (1966), Shannon's Women (1969), and The Secret Sex Life of Romeo and Juliet (1970). He frequently used fan friends as extras in his movies. This part of his career mostly ended by the '70s. During all this, his prodigious output of cartoons and drawings continued unabated. He was fan Guest of Honor at the World SF Convention in 1973.

"He also became a professional writer in the '70s, first producing non-fiction book Contemporary Erotic Cinema (1973) and then his first and best novel, Patron of the Arts (1974). To the Land of the Electric Angels (1976) was also noteworthy. He collaborated with Gregory Benford on Shiva Descending (1980). Most of his books were movie and TV tie-ins or children's fiction such as Tom Swift books with Sharman DiVono under the name of Victor Appleton, Jr. His most recent book was Science Fictionaries (1995), a collection of sayings and quotes from SF writers."
Now, while I was taking this all in, Theodore Sturgeon emerged from the now-disbanded conclave (of which symposium's subject I remain ignorant to this day), and, since I was standing in the path from the bedroom to the bar, he stopped, and greeted Russell Bates, whom he knew from Clarion:

"Hello, Russell," he said, and Russell Bates introduced him to me. "This is ..." he said. Sturgeon turned and his laser-beam eyes bored into mine:

"If you are going to be a writer, you have to get inside your characters. Don't just write about yourself. See the world from inside their skin. The (Indians) have a saying: 'You never truly know a man until you've walked a mile in his moccassins.'" And he walked on.

I would not have appreciated the magical nature of this interchange had not Russell Bates been watching closely:

"You didn't say a thing about being a writer," he said.

Sturgeon had, in some mysterious, oracular manner, divined my raison d'etre and given me what I needed. This would continue until his death in 1985, although neither of us had the slightest inkling of it at the time.

It remains the first magick in a long and magickal association that continues in a very real sense until this very day. There is not time, nor is this the place to delineate the rest.

Instead, we move forward in that significant weekend to July 4, in the SFWA suite. Evidently Pournelle had taken an instantaneous dislike to me. Why? I do not know. But it was not the first time -- nor would it be the last -- that a complete stranger has, on a purely instinctual level, instantaneously styled himself (or herself) my implacable nemesis. The anti-matter to my matter, as if it mattered.

Pournelle was at the SFWA bar, talking to Robert Silverberg. The previous night, I had heard any number of "insider" stories from Silverberg, sitting in a hotel room in the wee early hours of the Bicentennial, with a few of his fan friends, being a fly on the wall. He revealed, for instance, that the publisher his ACE doubles had a streak of anti-Semitism, and that he'd written under WASP-sounding names, like "Calvin M. Knox" at the publisher's insistence. I asked "What does the 'M' stand for," and Silverberg replied, "Moses." He even autographed a copy of his Knox novel to me as "Calvin Moses Knox," but, alas, the book has long since been stolen.

Pournelle was talking in an obvious stage whisper, and telling Silverberg about this sweetheart deal he had, speaking to a group of wealthy technophile businessmen, with a great dinner and a sweet honorarium. "You are just the kind of speaker they're looking for," he gushed. Then he did a strange thing.

He turned to me, as though I'd said something, and in a LOUDER stage whisper said: "Well, they might want to hear from you after you publish your FIRST NOVEL!" It was meant to be humiliating, and it struck me at particularly vicious at the time.

I was nobody from nowhere, who'd come up with the insane idea that I could move to Los Angeles cold, without any contacts or friends, and become a writer. I had lost my van, and, seemingly, my wife, and was completely broke in a place in which I had nothing to fall back on, and, I have to admit, it was the scariest time of my life.

But Bates said, "You didn't say a thing to him. He's just being a jerk." And I fought back the rising tide of panic, and just maintained.

That was the Fourth of July. What came next was the best part of all, in a way.

Everyone was into the "hip" show, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," and the latest episode was tuned in on the hotel TV. I was not interested. Bates left to socialize with a group down in the coffee shop, and I could only move as far away from the hotel TV as the suite would permit.

Another fellow shared my aversion to the entertainment provided. He was dressed in a three-piece suit, like Santa Claus attending a board meeting, except that the suit was of a light color, and I think he was wearing a turtleneck. But he looked every bit the successful author.

And so he was.

It was Frank Herbert, the author of DUNE -- a book that changed the face of science fiction, and was the first true "breakout" novel of a genre that had been previously relegated to the slot in bookstores somewhere between westerns, nurse novels, and soft porn paperbacks.

And, for an hour, Frank Herbert talked to me about writing. What he said was incredibly important, although I remember little of it. But it was the validation, the justification that whether or not I'd dropped out of college (a huge source of fear at the time), I could be a writer through my own industry. I didn't need to know all that fancy 'parts of speech' and grammar stuff. I could do it. All I had to do was DO it.

He said one thing that has always remained with me, however. He explained that those days, mostly he traveled around giving lectures at universities. And they would ask him complex and abstruse questions about foreshadowing, or split infinitives, et al, and he said this: "I don't know about that stuff. I'm a newspaperman."

And then he said this, which I will never forget. "What do you do," I asked.

"I smile, I nod, and I take their money," Frank Herbert said.

Here, from Wikipedia:
Frank Herbert was born in 1920 in Tacoma, Washington. He knew from an early age that he wanted to be a writer. In 1939 he lied about his age in order to get his first newspaper job on the Glendale Star.

There was a temporary hiatus to his writing career as he served in the U.S. Navy as a photographer during World War II. He married Flora Parkinson in 1941, but divorced her in 1945 after fathering a daughter.

After the war he attended the University of Washington, where he met Beverly Ann Stuart at a creative writing class in 1946. They were the only students in the class who had sold any work for publication -- Herbert had sold two pulp adventure stories to magazines, and Stuart had sold a story to Modern Romance magazine. They married in Seattle on June 20, 1946. Their first son, Brian Herbert, was born in 1947. Frank Herbert did not graduate from college, according to Brian, because he only wanted to study what interested him and so didn't complete the required courses.

After college he returned to journalism and worked at the Seattle Star and the Oregon Statesman; he was also a writer and editor for the San Francisco Examiner's California Living magazine for a decade. (for the rest of it, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Herbert )
Ted Sturgeon had shown me the soul. Heinlein had shown me the way, and Frank Herbert had let me know that I was on the right path. That I wasn't as crazy as everyone in my family, as the TCU faculty, and my TCU friends, and my wife and her parents seemed to think that I was.

And I remember thinking distinctly the thought: This is the American Bicentennial, and I'm sitting having a one-on-one conversation with Frank Herbert. And it is ironic that what he did was to quell my fear. From DUNE (The Bene Gesserit "Litany Against Fear"):
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
A few months later, taking Bill Rotsler's name in vain, I tricked my way into ADAM Magazine, and began a literary association that would continue for the next decade. Later, Rotsler was sure that he'd recommended me, but in fact, I lied. I said that he'd mentioned it at a science fiction convention, and Jared Rutter, the editor, assumed it to be true.

But that only got me in the door. I had to be able to write, and it turned out that I could, and I did. I worked with Rotsler for a long time after that. I was even in one of his soft porn movies, with Kitten Natividad on my arm. (I was clothed. She was not.)

And in 1978, at BooksWest, Ted introduced me to his new wife Jayne. A year later, I would become Ted's editor at HUSTLER. He was our book reviewer, and I was responsible for assigning him books to review, and rewriting those reviews into HUSTLER style. He would often say, on the phone "Talk to Jayne."

And Jayne and I would talk, because we were into the same things, and had much in common. Ted became a friend, and remained so until his death in 1985. At one point, when I was living on the edge, homeless in Boulder, Colorado, he told me that when I was in trouble, I could always, and SHOULD call him collect any hour of the day at his new home in Springfield, Oregon. He had relocated there from Los Angeles/San Diego, as his final 'retirement' location, after scouring the world for the right place to live.

In 1993, Jayne and I reconnected, after nearly a decade since Ted's passing, and were married in August of that year.

And so, I find myself surrounded by him, in that magical relationship that continues to this day. I still find his pipecleaners marking pages in paperbacks. I have seen the privately printed copy of Philip K. Dick's CONFESSIONS OF A CRAP ARTIST that Phil autographed to Ted. And his reading glasses turned out to be the cure for my presbyopia.

I have seen the typewriter on which he wrote "Amok Time" and "Shore Leave" for the original Star Trek, and it turns out to be the same Smith-Corona portable model that I began my writing career on -- which I'd been given to go to college, even though I steadfastly refused to type out manuscript of any sort until I had decided in 1975 to become a writer.

The Bicentennial was a transformative weekend in my life, if not THE transformative weeked of my life. Except for Jerry Pournelle, Robert Silverberg and Russell Bates, everyone else in this story has passed away. I haven't heard from my first wife since 1981, and that time seems almost as long ago as the July day in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was signed, 230 years ago.

I live in Eugene, Oregon because of that weekend. I am married to the woman that I am married to because of that weekend. I am a writer in large part because of that weekend.

There's one last grace note. Jayne met Ted for the first time at COMICON in San Diego two weeks after that Bicentennial in 1976.

And that's what I remember of the Bicentennial. Or, as we styled it, we young SF writers at that convention, "The Bison Tenniel."



Blogger mochif said...

Great story & nice piece of writing. I have to mention my wife's art work titled 'Bison Testicle' from 1976. She is from Wyoming, of course.

3/11/2008 08:33:00 PM  

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