This was a very different kind of story for me, and an uncomfortable one to write. In order to write it, I had to peel back some of me that hides the edges, the angry parts, the unfinished bits. I’d spent a long time covering those over, so I’d fit in better.
Cut to the past few weeks, as I’ve learned that the story is a finalist for several awards. I’m still nervous! I’m also completely shocked and honored.
I first read the story aloud at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (where I read a lot of my stories for the first time, including Updraft, The Jewel and Her Lapidary, and, this year, a new novel).
When I finished reading “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” I looked up to a completely — and terrifyingly — silent room. What had I done?
“That was unexpected,” someone said after a moment. The story was so angry and visceral, which wasn’t like me, they thought. They didn’t mean it unkindly. In fact, they really liked it. But I was rattled. I’d done something unsettling, and I hadn’t realized exactly how much so until that moment. Others, a bit later, told me in various ways that “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” would be easier to read if it was in third person. Less scary, less uncomfortable.
But as time went on, I realized I’d written this story to be uncomfortable. My life is uncomfortable. The story is in first person because I’m in first person.
I’d written a story about being different, disabled, a bit of a medical oddity. From a very young age, I was the one with the metal and leather braces on my feet, the Milwaukee cast encasing my back. I wrote a bit about it for Invisible3 this year. In 2014, I wrote a post here about why I ran slow, because of some of this as well. (I tried to make those posts easy to read. Funny & hopeful too, because humor and hope are good shields.)
I’m not running at all right now, and it turns out, there was more going on than we thought. I’ve spent the past few years finding out how much, and sometimes that makes me feel very frustrated, sometimes uncomfortable. At the same time, during my search for answers, I found myself reading fiction and nonfiction that sent people like me, and many others I knew, into the realm of the show… figures to be viewed and discussed and described — often with the best of intentions — by others. My skeleton and jaw have been in medical books. I’ve been part of the parade route of new medical students more times than I like to think about, often in very uncomfortable ways. I’m one of those on view. It IS uncomfortable, in many ways. It feels powerless, often.
The story is a meld of Victorian cabinets of curiosity with some of the children’s hospitals I visited as a patient — the old part of the AI Dupont Children’s wing, a building at Penn I was too young to remember the name of — and the old freak show / dime show complexities. The narrator is part of the staff, a guide, and an exhibit also. This is a guide with opinions, with some power.
And I didn’t expect, at all, ever, for this story to get the reception it received. I wrote it because I was angry, because I wanted these voices and opinions, this discomfort to be seen and heard. I feared the anger in it. I was lucky enough that Michael and Lynne Thomas at Uncanny Magazine saw it for what it was and could be. Luckier still that Amal El-Mohtar read it for the podcast, while Julia Rios interviewed me for the story). Thank you so much to Siobhan Carroll, Kat Howard, Natalie Luhrs, Aliette deBodard, Marieke Nijkamp, Annalee Flower-Horne, Will Alexander, Barry Goldblatt, and Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, among those who read and believed in early drafts of this story. Thank you to Patrick Nielsen Hayden who has found more titles for me than anyone.
Later, I wrote an essay to go with “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” called “We Will See You Now,” (Wherein one fights to be seen, gives up, believes one should not be trapped under or behind glass, is proven wrong, and almost disappears. Told in parts.) which may clarify more elements of the story, or make them murkier, who knows? It’s me, and my experiences on that page too, in a series of described images.
The experience of publishing “Clearly Lettered,” with the exceptional support of Uncanny Magazine, has been one of coming to terms with my uncomfortable side as a writer, of being more public about my own experiences, of being more aware of myself — all of me. It’s not always easy, or pleasant, but it is necessary. It’s also nerve-wracking, because we are at a crossroads where some now in power perceive disability as a failing, or a cost-sink, instead of what it is, at least for me: a genetic thing that my body decided to do.
(sidebar: In the process of this year, as I’ve posted about this, and about other things, I’ve found myself shying away from replies on social media that told me I was great, or kind, or strong, though I appreciate people reaching out and wanting to connect. I want to be kind, but I am never kind enough. I was raised to crave perfection and I know I am imperfect. I am trying to be better. Learning. Human. But I’m also angry, fed up, and raising my voice louder.)
All of this is important, because humor and hope are good shields, but learning one’s own twists and turns and uncomfortable edges is sometimes better; gaining strength while charting growth, while trying to see and understand myself and others, without becoming a part of someone else’s show? … all of this feeds into and grows out of this story I wrote.
To have “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” nominated for both the Nebula and the Hugo means more to me than I can say. It means it’s okay to feel strongly, to be a bit scary, to let my edges show. I hope it means it’s okay for others to do the same.
Thank you so so much for seeing this story, for reading and sharing it. Thank you for your comments and notes about the story. And thank you most of all for remembering it among the wide sea of extraordinarily beautiful short stories that emerged in 2017. I am stunned, and I am so very honored to be among those nominated.