And so I return from WorldCon, awash in the glow of camaraderie and inspiration, with the lingering scent of stale gin. There were all the usual Breakfast Squad shenanigans, interesting panels, and of course the Hugo drama. I’ll save the newsy wrap up and my profuse thanks to the Consortium of Ridiculously Kind Persons for a Facebook post later, what I want to talk about now is one of the less pleasant feelings that hits me—and I suspect some others—at SFF cons: inadequacy.
I adore speculative fiction of all stripes–fantasy, horror, science fiction, and all of their many sub-genres. If there are ten great movies playing at a theater (sadly, never a reality), I will always choose the science fiction flick first. I’ve watched every episode of the Firefly series about thirty times. I grew up playing Star Wars with my neighbourhood chums, I owned a massive comic book collection by the time I was nineteen, and I would go on to perform stunts on shows such as Stargate, Andromeda, and X-Files. In fact, I have a photo of myself and William Gibson who co-wrote the X-Files episode “Kill Switch”, which I appeared in as “Kung Fu Nurse”, (he also wrote a little book called Neuromancer). Oh, and I also have three published SF novels out in the world.
Pretty strong geek cred, no?
At every con I attend, I am floored by how much I don’t know about, well, everything. Everywhere I turn people are talking about books I’ve never read, authors I’ve never heard of, and famous figures within the SFF community whose names mean nothing to me. With each new interaction, I feel myself shrink inside my own skin. Why am I even here?
At the panels and talks, it gets worse. Many of the speakers are walking encyclopedias whose knowledge spreads well beyond the boundaries of SFF fandom. Not only do I not know enough about this thing I supposedly love but I am also a dunce when it comes to science, economics, linguistics, art, history, and on it goes.
Sitting in a talk about macro evolution, I felt pretty good that I was able to grasp the ideas being put before me. Then it was time for audience questions. Oh Cod, the questions. Where I had understood the talk well enough to summarize the basic premise, these other people had questions that showed a level of understanding that made me look like a chimp banging a rock against the ground. Or perhaps against her own head.
It is easy, too easy, to walk away from these events feeling stupid and small. Too easy to get defensive, to slam the doors shut on the joy of learning and embrace the familiar well-worn paths of the past. But that way lies despair and stagnation.
I joined a running club in 1995 with the goal of one day running a marathon. I had tried running on my own and hated it. There was a circuit my friend and I used to run in his neighbourhood that took us about twenty-five minutes to complete and always left me feeling breathless and sick. I couldn’t imagine running for twenty-six miles but I signed up with the club and soon found myself trudging along with a gaggle of other better, faster, more experienced runners.
This was no movie training montage. Every run was pain and frustration. I was the slowest in the pack, lagging well behind people twice my age. I didn’t give up because I have this weird little stubborn switch in my body that demands I not quit. The leader of the group told me that if I wanted to run fast, first I had to run far. Yet, after months of training, I felt as if I was no further ahead than the day I’d started. How would I ever run a marathon?
One day the regular club run was cancelled and so my friend and I decided to run our old route, just the two of us. Not long into that run, I was amazed at my speed and endurance. Hills that had always been a grind were easy and I finished well ahead of the old twenty-five minute mark, ready to keep going. No pain, no sickness, only elation. Somehow, without even realizing, I’d improved.
How had that happened? One mile at a time.
In 1997 I ran the Victoria Marathon. I was slow and I had to rest for a week afterward but I did it. I would go on to join a triathlon club and compete in my first triathlon three years later. I still run regularly. When I’m at my best, I run six miles every other day at a decent pace.
I turned forty-six this July. Some days I hear the clock ticking loudly, reminding me of the finite amount of time I have left and all the things I still haven’t learned or done. It ticks loudly at SFF cons, in the face of all that I do not know and possibly never will know.
It is not easy to tune out the ticking, but I do.
My life has been full of marathons—tasks I believed impossible and then went on to complete. Not only that, but my life has also been full of adventures most people only dream of. I may not know the taxonomy of a bronze whaler shark but I know what it feels like to see one swimming ten feet below you in the open Pacific Ocean. It is too easy to see our own knowledge and accomplishments as small in the face of others.
However difficult it may be in the immediate moment, I choose to focus on what I can learn—no matter how insignificant—instead of all that I do not know. I choose to humbly admit my lack of experience and knowledge, to keep the doors open wide. I dream of the day I will be the one at the front of the room at a big SFF con, talking about my areas of expertise.
When that day comes, to the person in the audience feeling inadequate, please remember that I got there the only way you can get there: one mile at a time.