I have the worst dog.

This is not unqualified hyperbole, either. I am a dog trainer, by hobby at least, and I’m not terrible at it. Vesper is the kind of dog… okay, there have been a couple times where professional trainers watched me working with her and said, “yeah, I couldn’t do that.” By which they meant, “I wouldn’t want to do that much work.”

Vesper is a lot of work.

She is my first dog. Difficult first dogs are supposed to make you a better trainer. I usually feel like a failure.

Vesper is brilliant. My other dog, my puppy, is very easy to train; one or two repetitions of something and he’s got it. He is smart. Vesper is different. She’ll learn tricks, yes, and she’s very good at that, but she would rather solve problems. She’s tenacious. She does not quit. She works at a problem until she loses her temper and then she starts smashing things because she’s not going to stop until she has the thing, whatever it is, even if it’s not that good of a thing. It’s not about the thing, it’s about the problem.

Vesper is intense. She scares people, even though she loves people and wants to lick them. She is pointy and her muscles and ribs stand out and she’s athletic in an intimidating way. She uses her body like a bludgeon and frequently hurts herself. She will try anything; she is fearless.

Vesper is extremely sensitive. She is not afraid–very much the opposite. She would be a fantastic police dog or search and rescue partner; loud noises, weird situations, danger, these aren’t scary. It’s feelings that affect her, not her physical circumstances. If I don’t like someone, she alert barks at them. If I am sad, she is miserable. The few times I have been angry at her directly–instead of at the situation, or myself, or the gaps in our training, like a good dog trainer would be–she was utterly inconsolable, hugging the walls, staring at me from around corners and whining quietly.

Vesper’s own emotions are near impossible to control. She is highly reactive. Her feelings mount until she does not know what to do with them except lash out physically: she lunges, barks, body-slams animals her own size, hangs on anything wooly (poodles, sheep), stomps on tiny things.

I love this dog in a way that is hard to explain, except that most people understand it if they have children or know an animal that has done something remarkable for them. Vesper is inside me in a way nobody else is; she understands my subtle physical and emotional cues and follows them like the partner she is. She’s not a pet. She’s my teammate, my dearest friend. I love all my animals but V is different. Maybe because we have worked so hard to keep her simply functional in a human world that requires things like walking tolerably well on a leash and not frightening the neighbors. Probably because we have gone pretty far in competitions where I was never certain we would get anywhere at all. She has worked hard for me; I have worked endlessly for her.

Recently she picked up a little dog and shook it. There was blood. I am sure she would have killed it if I hadn’t been there.

We were at an agility event; the details are irrelevant except that she was supposed to be working with me and there really wasn’t any inciting incident to send her through the fence, out into the crowd and onto this innocent bystander’s dog. It was like the circus lions getting loose. It was horrific.

I leashed my dog and handed her to a friend to crate her. The other dog’s owner took it to the emergency vet. I locked myself in my car and cried hard for an hour straight.

I’ve had my heart broken before. Never like this. Never when the love was so true.

Vesper has no idea she did anything wrong. You don’t scold a reactive dog for reacting, just like you don’t scream at a toddler for having a tantrum in the grocery store. There are enough bad feelings happening already. We just went home. We had dinner, we played ball. I’ll never trust her to do agility again.

It is hard to explain how much work it took to get us into the agility ring and how it feels to strike a line through all of that in one moment: it’s over. It’s done. She can’t; I won’t put her in that situation again.

It is hard to explain how it feels, to know that this dog I love so intensely is not safe. That I can’t trust her.

What a strange place to be, to love someone who you know would happily, free of conscience, do something abhorrent and break your heart. To not hold that against them–because I don’t; I don’t resent what she did or blame her. Vesper will always be who she is. She’s a rat-killer, a dog-mauler. In public she wears a muzzle that makes her look like Hannibal Lecter. Her emotional roller coaster is so unpredictable and violent it could kill. It’s hurt me many times: road rash, sprains, and one broken bone, all of them unintentional. I just got in the way of her feelings train.

It makes me intensely emotionally vulnerable as well. But really, I already was. It’s just stripped of its cushioning now. There’s no couching this love in the safety of some soft fluffy couch muffin whose full-time occupation is giving kisses. I love a vicious dog. I’m not sure what that makes of me.

If Vivian dies before I tell her I’m in love with her, will I regret that more than telling her I’m in love with her? Because I don’t know what happens to me if I say it out loud. Even if she can’t hear me.

“Epitome,” Asimov’s Science Fiction, September 2016

14095780_10208401657452121_8363381196143810791_n 14183831_10208401657492122_3287253266414444729_n

I’m on the Slog again talking about how badass women in my genre are.

(Actually, this happened on Monday, but I insisted on hugging Cory Doctorow even though he told me not to (I WAS DRUNK) and I caught his flu and I’ve been a hot mess since I got home.)

I always come home from WorldCon feeling like a celebrity, though I am arguably the least important person there. I think it’s because my friends are so cool.

Last day of WorldCon. I keep thinking “Saint Louis” but it’s Kansas City and that just goes to show how much I’ve been paying attention to the world outside my very narrow focus for the last five days.

Of course, a lot happened, some of which I had to be reminded of the following day. But the theme of the week for me was powerful women.

I realize now I didn’t have many strong female role models as a girl. I was taught that women were wives and mothers, and of “pretty” and “smart” the priority was by far to be pretty. Doing well in school, having hobbies and skills, these were important, but too much intelligence was confrontational. It was my job to pose for photographs, not argue politics with my father or ask questions about our religion.

Speculative fiction is still a battleground, like all of popular culture seems to be, where some with privilege are throwing shit-fits about having to share. I’m not entirely unsympathetic. I, for example, do not believe that we can tell people what they are and aren’t allowed to write and talk about. I believe that skill, quality, and a good, thoughtful heart guide a writer through all kinds of difficult territory. I don’t think that’s what the argument is about.

I got to witness—well, I guess it’s a small part of WorldCon controversial history happening. I was in the now-infamous panel where the Pearl-Clutching Incident occurred. Neil Clarke was so angry he turned ashen and physically moved his chair so he would not have to see this bullshit; Jonathan Strahan and Gordon Van Gelder just seemed to think this was an utter waste of their time. It was Sheila Williams, a woman I already admired quite a bit, who took the reigns of the panel.

Firmly and gently she talked circles of reason around a small, angry man who shrank further and further into himself as he seemed to realize that his political screed was not going over the way he hoped it would. Sheila was gracious, patient, and never unkind, but she was so obviously smart and… I think the word I’m looking for is righteous. I was so impressed with her, so touched by her generosity of spirit in simply handling the absurd accusations of an obvious misogynist and returning bombproof answers of why he was, I’m sorry, wrong. She didn’t take it personally. She kept the room calm, kept things from escalating, kept the world turning slowly on its axis.

And then Liza Trombi taught me how to whistle, and we started a gang and flipped a table (carefully). She won an Alfie Saturday night for her work on Locus. I got to hold it for a minute.

I also owe a constant debt of gratitude to Eileen Gunn, who has been such a force of good for my career. She makes sure I get to the right places and meet the right people. She believes in me. It means so much to have someone whose work is so weird, so true, so unsettling, talk about your writing to other people. Eileen is generous with many young writers but I feel like she has bent backwards to make time for me, and I can’t express enough how inspired I am by her. She’s just badass. She’s smart, she doesn’t pull punches, she has fantastic taste and esoteric knowledge. She fits in anywhere. She manages to sit right at the edges of the center of attention; she doesn’t need to be the focus. She doesn’t need her ego petted. She knows who she is. There is no better role model for a young woman hungry for success.

Strong women are the bones of speculative fiction. It’s absurd to pretend that our contributions are less, or somehow bringing the genre down—we aren’t new here. But whatever. We are living through the death throes of a cabal nostalgic for a world that never actually existed, and their power over us is weaker every year. They can shout and whine and stomp their feet but I can’t wait to ruin science fiction for them.

On a more personal note, I’m grateful to have these women in my orbit. I was taught to define myself by the men in my life; I’m only now learning how fucked up that is. Watching smart, accomplished women be generous and strong and funny and take no shit, being on the receiving end of their advice and kindness–I know I am fortunate. My community is remarkable.

“They said shoot a problem monkey, and we shot a monkey. They’re all fucking problem monkeys.”

“How High Your Gods Can Count,” Strange Horizons, May 2, 2016

© 2016 Nora Potwora,

© 2016 Nora Potwora, “How High Your Gods Can Count”

I am getting all nostalgic about Clarion West, as it comes up on acceptance time, as plans form up for this summer’s class and as the CW committee decides on the lineup for 2017 (omg IT’S AMAZE). Classmates, too, have been talking about their own experience and what they think they ultimately got out of it now that we’ve started to recover. It’s become clearer to me in the last few months what I really took away from the workshop, and so I thought I would write it down.

Some of these are oft-repeated, but they do bear repeating. I think if you bring your whole self to the critique table and put your heart into the effort, sparing nothing, being honest, being kind, trying hard, taking feedback and staying openminded, you are almost guaranteed the following. Class of 2016, brace your damn selves.

A network. From the moment CW announced the class of 2015 my Facebook feed became a dogpile of people reaching out to me, and people I didn’t think would ever want to talk to me suddenly interested in who I was. Andy Duncan sent me a congrats message. Andy Duncan! Suddenly I was connected to the pro world, and I had something to talk to them about. Clarion is a great training ground for talking to editors, other writers, and artists you previously would have backed slowly away from–now these people are your resources and you are theirs. Clarion or Clarion West means you are highly likely to do interesting things in the future, so the industry is watching you. You are now officially cool.

What’s more–and you will come to know it in your blood–your classmates, your cohort, are your most important resource. Some of them will be goddamn famous. Some of them will have amazing connections and a deep, possibly-unfounded yet manic belief in you. They will get invitations to anthologies that they will magically extend into invitations for you. They will meet agents that are not perfect for them but are perfect for you. They will think of you when other people don’t. One or two of them may become like family, people whose creative process you know in a deep corner of your heart, whose writing you root for and grind your teeth over and who will do stupid, loving things for you. They will be your conference drinking buddies, your book club, your writer’s group. So don’t fuck it up with them.

Critical thievery skills. When I read a story now, I go, “oh, I see what you did there” 95% of the time. (That last 5% I am going “OMG I am going to kill myself this is impossible” and I am almost certainly reading David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoot.) This is valuable because even if I can’t steal all the skills, I can steal little skills. I wouldn’t know how to even begin researching a book like Nicola Griffith’s Hild, but I immediately noticed how subtly she conveyed character motivation, and started trying my own experiments to do the same. If I had been a coherent enough critical reader before CW, I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to try and steal that skill off of my reading.

The same critical eye for my own writing. I wanted to tell complicated, subtle stories but the mechanics were beyond me, and so I was eternally stuck in second draft. Post-Clarion West, holy smokes, I suddenly and magically know how to identify broken things in my writing. Sometimes I even know how to fix them–not right away, all the time, but the solutions are coming to me faster and faster. I’ve been going back and finding solutions to all my old story problems and it’s kind of blowing my mind. This is a thing! I can do! Holy hell!

The magical ability to get shit done. Writing lost its magic, and by that I do not mean anything negative at all. This is not conjuring, the work I do. It is work. I used to be kind of particular about when and where I wrote–the time of day, the mood I was in. Environmental factors could stop me, or if I felt icky or had too much on my mind or if I thought someone was watching. Thanks to Clarion West I now know I can write a story in 2,000 words, and I can do it overnight; I can write from someone else’s source material; I can finish a draft on deadline even when it feels like pulling teeth; I can write while sick, exhausted, and a giant pile of emotions. I can write no matter what. If I am going to be a pro this has to be a priority, because professional writers have deadlines, and deadlines don’t care if you slept shitty last night. Finish the draft. Just fucking write, okay?

Clarion West truly does set you up to be a professional. While everyone’s experience is different, if you bring a work ethic and a completely open mind I do believe you’ll leave with these resources.

You also might leave with a tattoo. Shrug.

In January I made my first professional sales, one right after the other, to Asimov’s and Strange Horizons. Both are markets I read regularly and admire.

I have been delaying announcing this for reasons I cannot really account for. Well, yes, I can–I don’t have signed contracts and so part of me doesn’t want to believe it until I have absolute proof that I am not imagining this. But I have learned that sometimes signed contracts are lazy, slow-moving things and really, Teegs, calm yourself.


When you have this shit going on all the time:

I’m getting more time to work as the baby dog starts being able to do big-dog things along with the big dog, so I can multitask. And they chase each other when we play fetch so it’s like a two-fer!

I am a cautionary tale.

I’m not warning anyone away from Clarion or Clarion West. It is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life, and the best six weeks I have ever had. It made me a real, grown-up writer. It is Hogwarts. No, it is Narnia.

But if you know anything about magical worlds, you know that once you’ve learned what you need to learn, the doors close and you can’t go back. And anyone who’s been there is changed, one way or another.

Thing is, when everyone leaves the big old house north of the UW campus, we seem to go through some sort of Fate Scrambler. There’s no predicting whose careers will suddenly take off. And there’s no predicting who will return to the real world with a belly flop instead of a splash.

I arrived at CW with too much confidence. Not in my writing–I’m proud of the work I did during my six weeks and in the work I’ve done since. But I really thought I had my shit together, personally, 100%. I knew who I was and I was happy and fine, and Clarion West was a challenge I could handle. My friendships and experience there were intense and unprecedented but I was certain I could transition them back into the real world and I would be okay.

I was totally confident until I got home.

It was a complete surprise to discover that I am one of those people who leaves the workshop and suddenly, out of nowhere, has a major existential crisis. Before Clarion West I thought I was happy, stable, content. Returning home I felt like I had lost my sight and hearing. This place was colorless, passionless. My job was meaningless, my relationships too quiet, my life far, far too careful.

It’s been a little over three months since I left the back driveway of our magical house, and I don’t have answers yet. I’m still trying to figure out how to incorporate the me that I found at the workshop–a person far more passionate and unpredictable than I thought she was, someone who drinks too much and talks too much and indulges immoderately in the joy and pain of her work–into a life with a paycheck and mortgage and husband. There have been big changes and might be bigger ones.

Anyone who has asked me how I’ve been, post-workshop, knows already: it has been hard. It has been harder than I ever imagined it would be. I have cried, and scared my husband, and hurt feelings, and compromised my job. It is frightening.

The point is, I was not expecting this. I thought I knew my shit, and I thought I knew myself. I wasn’t young, I wasn’t searching. I found something anyway.

It has been painful but very, very worth it.

So bear that in mind, as Clarion and Clarion West application season begins. You might learn something you aren’t expecting to learn.

Good luck.

“That’s not a sandwich,” Elise said as her sister swung the refrigerator door open. “It’s a monster.”

“Sandwich,” Devilfish Review, October 2015