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February 24th, 2013

On public and private personas...

So, about a week ago, my dad, who has been reading science fiction since the days of "G-8 and his Flying Aces", was chatting with me (on FaceTime) about Old Man's War. He liked the beginning, didn't care much about how it developed. Speaking as an old writer himself (at 96 years old, he qualifies!) he also expressed an off-hand opinion about some of Scalzi's writerly tics, mentioning in passing "I would have liked to have edited that stuff."

Now, the odd thing (which I suspect he didn't realize) is that I happen to know the guy who actually did edit that book. (Hi, pnh !)

And that weird interface between the "faceless editor" we can safely rail against and the person whom I had dinner with last September has come up against recently in discussions about Pope Benedict.

To my mind Pope Benedict is many overlapping people... He is the (by definition impersonal) world leader whom we can all have strong opinions about, for and against. He is also the person I saw within the place I work, still from a distance but at much closer quarters, operating within a structure that I know I've been constantly puzzled by. The Vatican is about the size of middling high school, 500 employees total, a place that sometimes can do wonderful things in an instant, while other times resisting even some of Pope's more technical (and presumably non-controversial) reforms. But Pope Benedict is also the human being to whom I gave a tour of my lab, who laughed at my jokes and told one or two of his own.

It's odd to hear criticisms about someone I have actually met. It's hard to hear; even if the criticisms are valid.

Meanwhile, I am on a speaking tour in North America and the British Isles (including a short trip to Dublin) and facing the fact that I too am both a public and a private persona. People like my talks, that's why I get to keep giving them; and they like to tell me so. But I get really uncomfortable hearing myself praised. (Not nearly as uncomfortable as when I hear myself criticized, of course!) I feel the pressure to try to live up to the absurd expectations of fans. Likewise, I feel the need to not live down to the absurd expectations of those who, often for understandable reasons, see me as a personification of institutions they have real problems with -- both Big Religion and Big Science.

And the most awkward moments can be with the people with whom I am slowly translating in role from the one (public persona) to the other (friend). I have met some celebrities of fandom and of science where I feel exhilarated to be in their presence, but not yet relaxed enough that I don't also have the fear of saying something really stupid in front of them (something I am very capable of doing, without warning). The lesson is, to be sure that when I'm on the other side of the table, I likewise also learn to give the same slack to my fans that I hope they give to me.

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