My Life as a Writer
A Partial Autobiography
I was born in 1950, in San Francisco, California, on the anniversary of the date shared by Mozart's birthday, Lewis Carroll's birthday, and the Surrealists signing their manifesto. Also the same date as the birthday of that quintessentially blond, baby-faced, early-sixties silver screen heart throb, Troy Donahue. Go figure.
I was christened Michaela Marie Roessner the Marie to honor my maternal Grandmother, a sharp, elegant, self-invented woman whose miller/farming family had immigrated from Catalonia to Oregon when she was very young, in the early 1900's.
After going to considerable trouble to find such a lovely, mellifluous name for me, my parents made sure all their efforts came to nought by using the appellation solely when they were really pissed off at me. I can still hear, ringing in my ears, outraged shrieks of "Michaela! Michaela Marie! What in the Hell have you done now? " This was a phrase I heard a lot as a child, so it took me decades to develop a fondness for my name. When I wasn't being yelled at, I was addressed by a cute, kicky little nickname, which I won't mention here, as it's one of those unfortunate nicknames that don't age very well.
I grew up all over the place. Before I turned two we moved to New York City, stayed there for a couple of years, and then kept moving to Pennsylvania; Bangkok, Thailand; Virginia; and Cheingmai, Thailand, picking up some younger siblings on the way. After that my parents divorced and we ended up back in my mother's old stomping grounds, Oregon. I stayed put there through Junior High and High School, before returning to my natal state, California, for college.
Genetically speaking, wordsmithing in one form or another appeared to be in the cards for me. Both my father and his father were writers, mostly
My grandfather, Elmer Roessner, was born in 1900 in Oakland, California, and started working for the San Francisco Bulletin when he was still in his
teens. The great flu epidemic of 1919 decimated the newspaper staff and he ended up as a very young City Editor. He married my grandmother and, since they were living about as far west as one can live in this country without becoming fishes, they couldn't follow the maxim, "Go west, young man. " So they moved their family to New York City. Elmer worked for various news agencies over the years, including N.Y. World Telegraph. During the 1920's he was a prolific war-pulp-story writer, and later published pieces in Esquire Magazine, including the original "drinker's diet" and "The Dragon of Somerset Street."
My father has also worked as a journalist. He began as a copy boy for the Washington Star during World War II, when he was only seventeen, and worked later for the New York Times.
Another thing my dad did was read science fiction. Not the classic novels, particularly, but he had a fondness for the short story anthologies from the "Golden Age" of science fiction. So I grew up with these readily available. I devoured them like popcorn: taut, clever stories that dealt with the "what if...?" possibilities of new ideas.
In spite of the literary bent in the family, I was hell bent for a life in the Visual Arts. Sure, I'd done a lot of "creative writing" as a kid, but I left that far behind me as I labored to rack up two of the perhaps most useful college degrees in the universe: a BFA in ceramics, and, after I scrimped and saved up enough over several years while working as a janitor, an MFA in painting. I followed my academic endeavors by getting office work in an educational textile institution in Berkeley and started to exhibit my artwork here and there.
I was pretty happy I loved my work, I loved where I worked and the people I worked with, and my work gave me good connections within the art world in general. I also loved continuing to develop in my own artwork, and I was teaching workshops in stuff like maskmaking on the side at various venues. I felt I was, if not exactly fast-tracking an art career, at least solidly on my way.
Every once in a while I'd think it might be nice to do some writing, particularly because I'd thought of a couple of visual arts/writing arts projects I wanted to do, but I'd picked visual arts and that was that it was just too late to tackle writing too. By now I was in my late twenties.
Then a couple of things happened. I'd continued reading in the speculative fiction field over the years, especially the collections that were the inheritors of the "Golden Age anthologies" tradition I'd enjoyed while growing up. When I was 29 I read Ursula K. Le Guin's Language of the Night, which made me realize that was I neither too old nor was it too late for me to start writing, but that I was probably right on time.
The other thing that happened was that the board of directors at the textile institution decided to dump the director of the institution, who we, the employees, were all devoted to and then they laid all of us off while they regrouped. Although I was eventually offered my job back, with cutback hours and a pay cut, I was so disillusioned with working in arts administration that I decided I needed to look elsewhere for ways to make a living. So I did lots of other stuff for a while.
During this period of time I remembered that at one point I'd picked up an anthology of writing from a workshop called Clarion, that was held someplace in the Midwest. But I couldn't find the book again. Although I'd never been involved in fandom, I was vaguely aware that a certain inter-connectedness existed in the science fiction world. For one thing, a lot of the forwards to stories were often the fond, chatty, anecdotal reminiscences of friends. So I ran across another anthology, called Orbit, edited by a writer named Damon Knight. In the back of the book was a short paragraph saying that if you wanted to submit short stories to him for subsequent editions of Orbit, you were welcome to write to him at such and such an address. So I wrote him a letter saying that I wasn't submitting anything, but because I had the impression that all science fiction writers knew each other, did he know anything about Clarion, was it still being held, and was there any way I could find out more about it?
Damon sent me back a postcard saying that yes, Clarion was still being taught, in the summers, at Michigan State University. He provided me an address to write to. (But he cleverly abstained from mentioning that he and his wife, Kate Wilhelm, were integral teachers at the workshop).
So I made myself write my first short story to submit to Clarion. It was pretty damn bad, but my strategy was that this was the spark that would jump start me into writing. I figured I'd submit it, it would get rejected, and I'd just keep trying over subsequent years until I got better and got admitted. My plan seemed like a reasonable, well-considered, rational, leisurely-yet-not-lazy way of launching into a new art form. The joke was on me I got accepted. Suddenly I had to come up with the cash to attend 6 weeks of writing-intensive dementia.
I managed to pull it together to go, taking off with the blessings of Richard, my husband. Clarion was a maniacal experience, but I probably got more out of it then most of the other apprentice writers that year: I had absolutely no idea of the elements of the craft of writing. Though I often felt as though the immersion experience was drowning me, I eventually learned to flail around sufficiently to keep my head above water.
When I got back from Clarion I started working two part time jobs for a while at a children's store called Such-A-Business as a toy-person (no, I
don't mean that I'm very small or a wind-up), and at Locus Magazine as an editorial assistant. Eventually I worked at Locus full time as an assistant editor. I didn't end up staying there long, but I met a lot of people in the field. In the meantime I kept on doing art, kept on writing, and kept on working at the usual low-paying jobs.
I joined different writing workshops, eventually including one that Pat Murphy and Lisa Goldstein were running. By now I'd spent several years writing short stories that could all be summed up as interesting failures. Pat, Lisa, and Richard Kadry kept after me to gather up my courage and turn one of those short stories into a book. It became my first novel, Walkabout Woman, an anthropological novel set in Australia. They even helped to get Shawna McCarthy, (at that time an editor for Bantam Books), interested in looking at the nascent volume.
Trouble was, they thought I should write novels (they were right), but their workshop wasn't set up to critique novels. So I segued over to a workshop that Elizabeth Lynn was running. I'd met Lizzie first through Locus back in 1980, had even eventually taken a spec fic class she was teaching at San Francisco State, and after that had let her persuade me into taking up Aikido. It was interesting to workshop novel chapters with a teacher who a couple of hours before had been gracefully throwing me across a room.
It was under Lizzie's guidance and with the help of other writers in the workshop, (especially Gerry Perkins, Reba Leon, Jim van Syoc, and Mark Kreighbaum), that my writing skills became stronger, sharper, more embodied. I workshopped Walkabout Woman to completion with this group, and a good chunk of my second book, Vanishing Point, a science fiction novel set in San Jose,California, mostly in the Winchester Mystery House. Then Richard and I moved to the Southern Sierras, and I was pretty much on my own, except....
...that I started getting invited to and attending some of the professional peer-level writing workshops off and on: Sycamore Hill, Evergreen, and Rio Hondos. Some writers swear by workshops, others avoid them like the plague.
I don't need them for my novels at this point I've got a terrific editor, and one or two close friends I can turn to if needs be. But because I'm so isolated, I like to go to a workshop every year or so to get my batteries recharged by the company of other writers, to learn from their ongoing concerns. There's always something to learn, always ideas to generate.
Novels are still my long suit I write the way I talk, which is waaaay too much. Following Vanishing Point I wrote the first two volumes of a trilogy on the life of Catherine de' Medici. At present I'm working on the third and last volume, and then I intend to escape from the Renaissance back into science fiction for a while.
I did finally start publishing short fiction: There's a bibliography elsewhere in this website. And I haven't forgotten my original motivation for becoming a writer. Someday I will finish up the combined art-and-writing project. It's never been far from my heart.
Text & Photos Copyright © 2000 by Michaela Roessner
Updated by VNM