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June, 2008 : Essay:

The Parrots of Bad Cannstatt

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Being in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

This essay is derived from a Guest-of-Honor speech presented to Italcon in March of this year, in Fiuggi, Italy.

Ever since they started appearing in the trees where I like to walk, I've wanted to write a story about the parrots of Bad Cannstatt. Bad Cannstatt, the part of Stuttgart where I live, has one of the largest populations of wild parrots north of their native jungles of the Amazon and Central America—the big ones, Yellow-Headed Amazons, that tend to be about forty centimeters long. According to recent estimates, there are up to one hundred parrots living in the parks on the edge of Stuttgart and in Cannstatt along the Neckar River.

Opinions diverge quite a bit as to whether a native population of rain-forest birds is a good thing in Stuttgart, but one thing all the experts agree on is that they are definitely thriving, their numbers growing every year. The Yellow-Headed Amazon is on the red list of endangered species, but you wouldn't think it if you heard how often they fly past my window while I'm working on the latest novel or short story.

And you hear them when they fly, because they squawk. Loudly.

No one knows precisely where the parrots of Bad Cannstatt came from. People first started sighting them in the mid-eighties in the parks near the Neckar River. The Wilhelma, the Stuttgart zoo, claims the birds couldn't have come from there because they had no Yellow-Headed Amazons at the time. But wherever they came from, they seem to be happy in Stuttgart. The cold apparently does not bother them, and the concentration of parks along the Neckar between Stuttgart and Bad Cannstatt provides them with plenty of trees for nesting. They've definitely made a home for themselves.

I've been in Stuttgart longer than the parrots have, and at first I wasn't quite as good at adapting. Being a young student with all the time in the world in the middle of Europe was wonderful, of course, but being a young mother in a conservative German suburb was another thing entirely. I felt very out of place in those years. I missed the casual friendliness of an American university town, missed the smile on the street and in the supermarket—even if the supermarket smiles might well have been ordered by management.

I especially suffered from the mentality that a woman belonged at home with her children, or else she was what in German is called a "Rabenmutter." Literally translated that means a "raven mother"—a woman who neglects her children. Nonetheless, I continued my studies, got my M.A. and then Ph.D. in literature, and produced a fat tome of literary criticism in German that no one reads.

But perhaps more than anything else, I missed my native language. And for many years, I despaired of ever being able to become a writer living as I was in a German environment. In another life or another time, I might well have been right. But then something happened.

The Internet.

I'm talking about the Internet before there was a World Wide Web. But even without a graphical user interface, there were writers who were connecting through the ether, founding virtual communities of discussion groups and workshops. I was extremely lucky that I stumbled upon the network Genie, where an astounding number of great writers of science fiction and fantasy hung out. Sometimes I would watch the names flicker across my screen, fluorescent yellow on black, and could hardly believe that this idol or that was actually conversing with me—even if it was time delayed. I had discussions with Vonda McIntyre, I got the first pages of my earliest attempts at writing short stories ripped to shreds by Damon Knight.

And I had a whole world in English again. Not only in English, with English-speaking writers.

Finding the online community of Genie was a big part of learning to adapt to my life in Germany. I no longer had to be homesick for my native language, and not only that, belonging to a community of writers made me start taking my own writing ambitions more seriously. I learned how much work these writers did to actually become writers—and I learned I still had a long way to go. But I began writing more and more regularly, although at this point I was still trying to fit writing into my life rather than fitting my life around writing.

At about the time I started writing seriously, my sister gave me a framed plaque with a quote from the famous German writer Goethe in calligraphy: "Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."

I don't know what happened to the plaque, but I do know that for a long time it hung above my desk and helped me to feed my dreams.

I also got myself a theme song, like the characters on the late great television show "Allie McBeal." The theme song I chose for myself was an old Tom Petty tune, "Running Down a Dream."

Obviously, with both a quote and a theme song, I was set.

But there were other aspects of being in the wrong place at the wrong time—or according to the metaphor of this speech, a parrot out of the jungle—that were still a problem for me, even once I had begun to move forward with my writing. Normal life changes helped in at least one area. My children were getting older, and they were turning out pretty well. According to the German philosophy of child-rearing, I had done nearly everything wrong that a mother could do. And here they were, growing into friendly, intelligent human beings, without any major psychological problems or neuroses, except perhaps that of teenagerhood, which is pretty unavoidable.

Maybe I wasn't such a bad mother after all.

Then there was that business of missing everyday friendly smiles in Germany. So as an experiment, I started doing the smiling. Often enough people stared at me as if there was something wrong with me, but on occasion I got a smile in return (probably from someone who thought they should know me and must have forgotten my name.) I had a bit more success with being friendly in the checkout line at stores. There I was surprised at how many people responded happily to a casual comment about all the Easter eggs they were buying—a children's party? Or how grateful the poor harassed woman at the cash register was when I greeted her with a smile and a good day. That may all be examples of superficial American friendliness, but it's still friendliness, and for me it made normal daily interactions much more pleasant—and I like to think sometimes for the people around me as well.

I was making my own habitat in a foreign environment, starting to adapt as well as the parrots—and learning a bit about being multi-lingual and multi-cultural at the same time.

I also tried to stop worrying as much about what I missed and appreciate the advantages of my new home more. Of course, one of the main advantages of living in Germany is: the beer!

Finally, I began to rediscover one of the best things about living in Europe: travel. Prague. Rhodes. Berlin. Venice. Once my children were old enough to make do without their mother for a longer period of time, I started traveling a bit more again. I love to see new, exotic places, love the sound of foreign languages, and the differences between cultures fascinate me. Sometimes I even enjoy a certain amount of culture shock—when it's a vacation and I don't have to live with it, that is. I have had to live with it, and I've made my mistakes, and it's not fun. It's so very easy to approach a different culture with the assumptions of your own, after all—so easy that we often do not even realize we've made a mistake until we're deep in doo-doo.

"Write what you know" is rather problematic advice for writers of science fiction and fantasy—not many of us have direct experience with space travel, or dragons, or morph technology. But I do know something about linguistic and cultural misunderstandings. I'm quite sure I never would have written "Looking Through Lace" if I hadn't gotten stranded in the middle of Europe with a family and an imperfect grasp of cultural differences.

But of course there's more to it than that, as there is with every story.

Cultural and Linguistic Imperialism and the Genesis of Story (One at Least)

One of the main impulses for me in writing "Looking Through Lace" was to create a fictional expression of the damage unreflected cultural assumptions can do. I remember quite well what got me mad enough to start brainstorming a story about language and linguistic and cultural assumptions, and it's really quite mundane. I was reading a short story set in Germany which employed a sprinkling of German words and phrases. And it used them wrong. It was obvious that the author had merely taken a dictionary and replaced one word for another, without having the least knowledge of grammar or usage, and without making the effort to try to find someone who did. Not only that, the implicit assumption seemed to be that every language followed the same rules as English.

As anyone who has studied a foreign language in depth knows, it's a lot more complicated than that.

What really made me mad about that story was that it was an insult to the complexity of language itself, and by extension human culture. Transposing one word for another is just as doomed to fail as trying to transplant cultural assumptions one to one.

There have been a couple of reviews and articles dealing with "Looking Through Lace" that refer to me as a linguist or a specialist in linguistics. That's not strictly true. I could be called a linguist in the sense that I've learned several languages (and forgotten most of them). But I am by no means a linguist in the sense of an expert in linguistics. I slept through the linguistics lecture in college; my Introduction to Linguistics course was right after lunch, and the professor was not exactly the most entertaining lecturer I have ever heard. Besides, it was a very warm spring, and the lecture hall was not air conditioned.

But even though I didn't retain much of the linguistic theory I supposedly "learned" way back then, I have a love of language. And I have a passion for its odd intricacies. I love science fiction, but one of the conventions of the genre that has long had me climbing metaphorical walls is the magic black box that will automatically translate conversations between completely foreign beings. And everyone understands each other perfectly.

I find it fascinating to what extent people underestimate the complexity of language, including those who really should know better. Back when I was a post-graduate research fellow at the University of Munich, I had an interview with the head of the computer linguistics department. He predicted that there would be automatic translation programs within five years that would do away with the need for human translators.

As I recall, I expressed some skepticism. And I didn't get the job.

According to his predictions, I would have been superfluous about the time I got into the translation business to support my writing addiction. Of course, for anyone who can't afford the services of a human translator, there's always Babelfish.

For some reason, much of science fiction that deals with foreign worlds and foreign cultures hardly addresses the language question at all and tends to play down cultural misunderstanding as well. So one of the main impulses in writing "Looking Through Lace" was to remedy that at least a little bit. Living in a foreign culture and working as a translator, I'm well aware of how difficult it is to get a foreign language right, even when you know all the rules and have dictionaries available. How much more difficult must it be if you're starting from scratch, trying to parse the language for the first time? I wanted to write a story that could express that difficulty and make it an integral part of the plot.

And now, instead of worrying about being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I was using that experience of foreignness to feed my fiction.

The things that drive a writer

Given the questions I was asking myself in brainstorming "Looking Through Lace," my protagonist would have to be a xenolinguist. I had never written outer-space type science fiction before, and I was worried I might not be up to the challenge. Because of course if I have a xenolinguist, I have to have a previously unknown world. And if I have an unknown world, how can I make it different and interesting?

I have this nifty Writer's Digest book by Stephen Gillett entitled, "World-Building: A writer's guide to constructing star systems and life-supporting planets," which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to write science fiction and doesn't happen to be an astrophysicist. So I'm flipping through the pages of this nifty book, and I find a section about rings around a planet.

Ooh, yes, rings! Rings would be cool! Rings would make for really neat special effects and a world people might even remember!

Brainstorming is one of the things I love most about writing.

But of course it didn't stop there. I needed to work out the culture to go with the world to go with the topic I wanted to treat. So next I asked myself: If I want to have cultural and linguistic misunderstandings at the heart of my story, what kind of culture would be good for that?

And then I remembered an article I'd read several years back about a language in a region of China spoken exclusively by women. Now wouldn't that be neat! I'd get both my interest in language and my interest in gender roles into the story.

And on and on. What was the history of this planet? How had things developed to give me the culture I was creating? How would I be able to give the reader the right clues? What was going to be my red herring, my misdirection?

As I continued brainstorming, however, the story idea began to feel bigger and bigger—too big for me. I had to create not only one language but two—and I had to create ways in which they could be misunderstood.

Then I started getting frustrated. I couldn't finish this thing, it was too big, too much, more work than writing. Whenever I got to that point, I would put the story aside again for a week or a month. At that rate, I needed over six months to finish the first rough draft.

And I didn't like it. Something was missing; the conflict was too pat, too easy, the resolution too predictable, the story too long without enough payoff.

I put it aside.

A few more months went by. The story was itching at the back of my writer brain, but I didn't know how to fix it. I wasn't even sure if it would be worth trying. So I decided to give it a test run. For many years, I belonged to the Online Writer's Workshop, or OWW for short. I brushed up about the first third of the story and posted it for critique.

And lo and behold, one of the critiques I got made a guess as to a potential future complication—and it was exactly what I needed to fix the story. When I read that critique and knew how I could save the story, it was like an epiphany, or some kind of incredible high.

From there on out the story came together for me in a rush. No only did I have a fix that gave me an added level of conflict, I realized that the rings around my planet were not only pretty, they were also a metaphor for my story. And once I realized that, I finally had a title for the thing as well, which until that point had been going by the less-than-satisfactory "Christmas Story"—for the name the first contact team gave the planet.

That rush, writing that final draft, that was the way writing is supposed to be. Everything was coming together, everything was working.

And in the end, a year and a half after I first started the story, I had a 19,000 word monster that I could submit practically nowhere. The upper limit for the biggest magazines was 15,000 words.

But I'd already sold a story to Asimov's, and the editor Gardner Dozois had been one of our instructors at Clarion West. So I sent Gardner an email and told him I had a story that was a couple thousand words over his limit—did he want to take a look at it after all?

He did, and he bought it.

Perhaps I wasn't in the wrong place at the wrong time after all.

While I was at Clarion West, Kim Stanley Robinson told us that we should use our anger in our fiction and the energy it creates—readers like to read stories by obsessives. And Paul Park gave us an exercise to write a story about the most painful thing that has ever happened to us. And Greg Bear told us to write about what scares us or what makes us mad.

When it comes down to it, they were all telling us nearly the same thing—write about what moves you, write about subjects and characters and places you're passionate about.

That's why a writer writes, to express that passion, whatever it is, whether it's anger, love, fear, or pain—not to write a bestseller, or a story that gets nominated for a couple of awards, and maybe even wins one. In the final analysis, a writer can't even write for the sale itself. At the same time, a writer can't wait for passion or inspiration to strike—a writer has to find what inspires her and use that. I try to write every day, and I try to maintain an average of five hundred words a day as well. I can't grow better as a writer if I don't write consistently. Inspiration comes to those who work—your writer brain has to be active all the time, or else inspiration will pass you by.

In order to be a writer, you have to force yourself to write even when the sun is shining and you're not sure what you could possibly be passionate about today, and while you are writing this work of induced passion, you have to assume that it will be rejected.

Sound like fun? It is.

Yes, sometimes it can be a bit difficult to maintain joy in the face of regular rejection. Here too the parrots of Bad Cannstatt can provide a metaphor—for the joy that can be found in surprise, the little details we don't expect, appreciating the odd and new, even when we are in the wrong place at the wrong time. But a writer is always looking, and there are always unexpected details to be found, the sparks that ignite stories—and in turn bring us joy and epiphany, the knowledge that we have completed something good.

I have yet to write a story about the parrots of Bad Cannstatt.

But I'm sure one of these days I will.

Copyright © 2008, Ruth Nestvold. All Rights Reserved.

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at


Jun 3, 03:54 by IROSF

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The article can be found here.
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