At half-past nine yesterday morning, I poured myself a cup of coffee, settled back to look at the newspaper and discovered that I’d lost my mentor, Gordon R. Dickson. I think he, who’d lived near Minneapolis all the time I’d known him, would have been pleased to know that his passing rated a mention in the news pages of the Orlando Sentinel. It’s not that Gordie had any great need for fame, but he wanted to make a difference.
Heaven knows, he made a difference to me.
I met Gordie in 1976 at an SF convention New York City. It was my first convention ever and Gordie was the first writer I’d ever met, not counting Bob Asprin, and I’d met Bob only about fifteen minutes earlier. I was agog–a technical term which means I don’t remember much of that weekend. Except that shortly thereafter I decided to leave New York City for the cleaner air and streets of Ann Arbor, MI where Bob and a bunch of people calling themselves the Dorsai Irregulars hung out.
The Dorsai Irregulars were, among other things, Gordie’s most dedicated fan-club, so, since I was hanging out with the Irregulars, I got to see more of Gordie and read his books and nurture my secret ambition to become a writer. But I can’t say that we knew each other well in January 1977 when the folks running the Ann Arbor SF convention asked if I’d be able to drive out to the airport Thursday afternoon before the convention started to chauffeur Gordie to the convention hotel; I certainly didn’t plan to tell him about the fantasy novel I’d started writing after Christmas.
His plane was due in at 2PM. At one-thirty, I was driving my VW through snow-flurries and subzero temperatures at the airport exit. At two-thirty, I was staring straight up and wondering why the walls of heaven were painted the same ugly green as my elementary-school cafeteria. I wasn’t terribly upset about being dead, but I’d hoped for better decor.
I’d just about accepted the bitter truth–I wasn’t dead or in heaven, I was nearly naked, freezing cold and stretched out on a gurney in an emergency room corridor when it hit me–
I sort of thought I’d been in an auto accident (My hair reeked of gasoline, my clothes, too–they were in a bag under the gurney; that’s why I was freezing) but couldn’t remember if I’d been alone when it happened or if gotten to the airport. I thought of what the Dorsai Irregulars might do to me if Gordon R Dickson had been damaged in my accident. I panicked, I screamed, and quickly learned that while no one knew more about my accident than I did, they did know that when the fire truck showed up at the ER, I was its only passenger. (Fire truck?)
Someone figured out that the only way to calm me down was to roll my gurney over to a pay phone and let me call Bob back in Ann Arbor. I remember the conversation very clearly:
I’ve been in an accident. I’m in an emergency room somewhere, but Gordie’s not with me. I’ve lost Gordie.
That was it. I had nothing more to say, so I hung up and spent the next twelve hours being shuttled from pillar to post because those snow flurries.... well, they’d turned into a full-bore blizzard and the hospital, like the roads and the airport, was officially closed, not admitting patients, and trying very, very hard to make me go away.
The hospital should have admitted me. I had a badly sprained ankle, a broken ankle, two broken ribs, a severe concussion, an impressive contusion on my forehead and another across my gut that looked exactly like a VW steering wheel. I had broken glass in my hair and I’d aspirated God-alone knew how much gasoline when the tank burst. Every time I tried to raise my head, I passed out. They really should have admitted me, but if they had, I’d probably still be programming computers for a living.
See, eventually Bob found the ER and, since the hospital wouldn’t admit me and I was clearly incapable of taking care of myself, he took me home to his wife, a livingroom sofa, and a houseful of Dorsai Irregulars in town for the convention. We were faced with a choice: either someone had to miss the convention to stay home babysitting yours truly, or they had to get me, my cast, and my orchestra to the convention. Being good fans, they opted for the second choice. I didn’t object, but I didn’t have any staying power. Every few hours I needed to (you should excuse the expression) crash.
Even then Gordie had problems with asthma. Breathing problems were his constant nemesis. I don’t think he managed to get more than a few hours sleep at a single stretch. He’d be awake late; he’d be awake early, but he napped the same way and I think he understood what I was going through. At any rate, Gordie gave my caretakers the key to his room and let them deposit me there whenever I started to fade.
Somewhere between Friday night and Sunday morning we were both in his room–him trying to breathe and me trying to get both eyes in focus. Gentleman that he was, Gordie felt terrible that I’d had my accident en route to meeting his flight. He wondered if there was anything he could do for me. I don’t know what he was expecting, but I remembered my barely begun novel and asked if he’d be willing to help me perfect my craft as a writer.
(It’s been twenty-five years now, and I have a much better appreciation of just how thoroughly I’d sandbagged Gordie with that request. At the time, though, I had no idea how much help I was going to need.)
A little context here–1977 was one of those years when the SF field was exploding. In the aftermath of Star Wars, every publisher in New York was looking to make money with a new, or at the very least expanded, SF/Fantasy genre line. But the field itself was still small, a lot smaller than it is today, airfares and hotel rooms were still relatively cheap and a fan with a “real-world” job could probably afford to do a convention a month.
Gordie looked at his pocket calendar and suggested an Ohio convention the following month. (Mentoring Rule 1: Always postpone any encounter with unpublished prose. There’s a very good chance it will never occur.)
I, on the other hand, had nothing to do but live on the Asprin’s sofa for a few weeks waiting for my sprained ankle to heal enough that I could hobble around on crutches. While Bob and Anne were at work, I read a lot, ate and drank very sparingly, and started to write. By the time Ohio rolled around, I had two hand-written chapters to present to Gordie as soon as I saw him at the convention.
Gordie accepted them politely and said he’d read them later . . . when he could give them his full attention. (Mentoring Rule 2: Never read unpublished prose where your initial reactions can be witnessed by the writer.)
Saturday afternoon Gordie suggested we talk privately about my writing. (Mentoring Rule 3: Be honest. If a would-be writer can’t take criticism from her would-be peers, she’ll editors and professional critics.)
Years later, Gordie swore he’d been brutally honest with me. He swore the first words out of his mouth once he’d closed the door were that I was hadn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming a writer, that he’d never read a less-inspired chunk of prose and, by the way, I couldn’t spell and my handwriting was illegible. Gordie swore that he’d said all that, but I swear that all I heard him say was Lynn, usually, by the end of the first chapter, there’s at least one character on the horizon. (Mentoring Rule 4: They hear what they want to hear.)
So, I’d forgotten characters. Mistakes happen. I was a computer programmer with a master’s degree in medieval history, and I was still recovering from the concussion. I promised I’d fix the all problems he’d mentioned and Gordie promised that he’d read my prose again at Minnecon, in Minneapolis over Easter. (See Mentoring Rule 1)
As soon as I arrived on Friday at Minnecon, I handed Gordie a stack of typewritten, proof-read pages with a character (just one, it took me a while to get Rifkind introduced to my satisfaction) and on Saturday Gordie pointed out that the reason heroes often have companions is that it’s a whole helluva lot easier to write a novel with dialog than without it. I realized I was in serious trouble because Rifkind wasn’t the companion-having type. But Gordie and I had already compared convention schedules and knew our paths would cross again the next month in Kalamazoo. I figured that would give me enough time to come up with a whole new story and boldly promised that I’d have the problems solved by then. (See Mentoring Rules 1 and 4)
That was the month I became a writer. I solved the no-dialog problem without having to come up with a new story idea. I moved my microphone inside Rifkind’s head, so I could capture her thoughts. I put my camera inside her head, too, so the whole chapter unfolded from her perspective rather than mine or a reader’s. I was living her story while I made it up and wrote it down. Later, Gordie and I could agree about what happened in Kalamazoo: He told me it was time to start writing chapter two.
Mentoring Rule 5: They do all the hard work.
I know that now; I’ve had the opportunity to some mentoring myself. There’s very little that compares to the moment when you watch someone put the key into their imagination and turn the engine over for the first time. Gordie and I continued our near-monthly meetings through 1977. I remember them well–I still have a few of them on tape. I’ve paraphrased Gordie’s advice and suggestions, his tricks of the trade so many times that I almost forget where they came from–until I manage to write myself into corner . . . again. Then I’m back in one of those interchangeable Midwest hotel rooms and I can hear Gordie simultaneously taking the magic out of writing fiction and putting it back in.
We learn by teaching, but writers don’t tend get (or give) many opportunities to go one-on-one about the guts of our craft. That’s the payback of mentoring for the mentor: Gordie was a better writer because he gave so freely of his wisdom, even to someone who seemed so very unlikely to benefit from it. When “Daughter of the Bright Moon” was finished, I wanted to say thanks with something more than a round of drinks at the Boskone bar. Gordie told me that there was only one way: once I’d published my million words (Gordie felt that a million words marked the threshhold between a journeyman and a master of this craft) then I’d be ready to do for someone else what he’d done for me.
Time passed: the Seventies became the Eighties became the Nineties. Our paths never again crossed with 1977's regularity. Gordie’s asthma worsened and he cut back on his traveling. I moved from Ann Arbor to Oklahoma and finally to Florida. We communicated Christmas cards and rumor. It wasn’t enough. I knew Gordie was in poor health, but he’d been in poor health for so long, it never occurred to me, when I didn’t get a card in 2000, that Gordie might be dying.
The final rule of mentoring (and the only one Gordie didn’t share with me): Don’t get careless. Don’t let them slip away without saying good-bye.
He’s locked in a thousand memories, each as warm and shiny as amber. I cherish every one and I’ll miss him until I, too, am gone.