Over the past few years, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin (GRRM) became one of my most beloved fandoms. These aren’t books that I would recommend to everyone, but they gave me a lot of what I look for in a story: complex and compelling characters, a rich and carefully crafted setting, themes that are dear to me, and a deep love for the fantasy genre translated into a reconstruction of some of its classical tropes. Unfortunately, we won’t see the next installment of that series so soon. How do we satisfy our need for GRRM’s engaging writing?
Reducing GRRM’s career to A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) is actually unfair. He began writing professionally in the 70s, sold his first story in 1971, got his first nomination for both Hugo and Nebula Awards in 1974, and published his first novel in 1977. While he’s best known for his epic fantasy series, GRRM also published five other novels and over 60 short stories, wrote several television scripts, and became editor to the multi-author Wild Cards series, to which he also contributed. His writing embraces what are possibly my three favorite genres: fantasy, science fiction, and horror.
Despite being slightly obsessed with ASOIAF, I never bothered checking GRRM’s other works until very recently. You know those stories that enter your life in the precise moment they will impact you the most? A Song for Lya was one of those stories for me, quickly becoming a favorite. This made me wonder what other treasures and potentially favorite stories could be hidden in GRRM’s bibliography.
So over the next few months I’ll be exploring GRRM’s stories outside of ASOIAF and documenting my literary adventures for you. I want to analyze each story on its own, but I’ll also be looking for connections with his other works that I’ve read so far (including ASOIAF). Welcome to the GRRM Reading Project!
One of the best starting points for GRRM’s writing seems to be Dreamsongs: a RRetrospective. Originally published in 2003 and divided in two volumes, Dreamsongs collects 34 pieces of fiction, including several short stories, two TV scripts, and two of GRRM’s Wild Cards contributions. It’s divided in nine thematic sections, more or less arranged in chronological order.
The career-spanning collection gives us plenty to sink our teeth into, including several of GRRM’s most relevant stories. Some of his older work would be otherwise hard to find, at least where I live—dreadful foreign lands that didn’t see the publishing of A Game of Thrones until 2010.
Aside from introducing the project, my intention with this first piece was to examine some of GRRM’s older writing. However I soon found myself invested in a different story: the story of George R. R. Martin himself.
Unbeknownst to be, Dreamsongs contains autobiographical writing too. Before each of the thematic sections there’s a commentary by GRRM himself, discussing that part of his career, or what drove him to a certain genre, or the influences behind certain stories.
I’m not gonna lie, I love behind-the-scenes talk. Of course stories should speak for themselves, but it can be a fascinating look at the creative process. Plus, checking my favorite creators’ influences and references is a good way to discover new media I may potentially love. And what’s life other than a long list of fandoms we have yet to join?
I also love reading autobiographical or non-fiction writing from my favorite authors. There’s something endearing in tales about young George’s dinosaur phase or his nights “lying in the grass beside the Kill van Kull, pondering the light of distant stars”. One of the biggest strengths in GRRM’s writing is that there’s so much heart in it, he invites you to feel so much; there’s so much poetry there. His autobiographical writing is no exception.
There’s a lot of humor too. I couldn’t help but laugh at the “turtle equivalent of Mordor”, or little gems like this:
I learned to read with Dick and Jane and Sally and their dog Spot. Run, Spot, run. See Spot run. Did you ever wonder why Spot runs so much? He’s running away from Dick and Jane and Sally, the dullest family in the world.
His memories are also a great insight into the state of fandom in the 60s. From superhero comic books to science-fiction shows, George was a fanboy like any of us. He wrote fiction for fanzines (though not fanfiction, as he would stress), he attended cons, he wrote letters to his favorite authors, he met other fans that would later become writers themselves too. And don’t get me started on his reaction to Tolkien. He was so invested in the whole thing, just as we often are too.
Creators and Us
As an aspiring artist and writer myself, I have a huge soft spot for creators discussing their own process and craft. More than the fun anecdotes, the autobiographical bits of Dreamsongs are inspiring for anyone who loves bringing their own creations to life.
From the boy writing stories about brains in goldfish bowls to the international bestselling author dubbed as the “American Tolkien”, the road was long and not always easy. GRRM’s earlier years as a professional writer were so full of insecurities and frustrations that I can’t help but see myself in his words.
His career today is a writer’s dream (minus the crap TV show adaptation of his masterpiece), so it’s inspiring to see that he faced much of the same obstacles I’m facing too. Like when he realized how little he actually produced compared to other writers, or when one of his short stories collected 42 rejection slips (!) before being finally published (it’s still his personal record).
Still, the “most relatable” prize goes to young George thinking that after college he would live in his own apartment, get a girlfriend, and start working at a real job, only for none of that to happen. Instead, he got a part-time job at the Parks and Rec department (please, somebody make that crossover happen). He believed his college years were a waste and would be forever trapped in that life. But he kept writing.
That summer he finished a story every two weeks, on the average. Seven stories in total, including With Morning Comes Mistfall, his first Hugo and Nebula nomination. All seven stories would be eventually published, though for some it would take years. Of that summer, he notes:
That summer of 1971 proved to be a turning point in my life. If I had been able to find an entry-level job in journalism, I might very well have taken the road more traveled by, the one that came with a salary and health insurance. (…) Instead circumstances forced me to do what I loved best.
And probably my favorite part:
During the next decade I would find myself directing chess tournaments and teaching college… but those were only things I did, to pay the rent. After the summer of ‘71, when people asked me what I was, I always said, ‘A Writer.’
The autobiographical content of Dreamsongs elicited as many feelings in me as any of GRRM’s stories. I know how his story ends, but much like ASOIAF, what matters is the journey, not the destination. By seeing myself in this journey, I realize how much our favorite creators mean to us beyond the stories they create.
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. I remember the joy of my teenager self upon discovering that J. K. Rowling was a woman (sadly, the confusion was intentional). I feel something similar every time a writer I admire faces problems that I face too. Or when I see those lists of people who excelled in their fields of choice despite only starting later in life.
We always talk about how much stories influence us, but the creators matter too. This is especially important for aspiring creators with socially marginalized identities. Every time we see that someone like us has the career we want or fulfills the dreams we hope to fulfill, we feel less alone. We realize that maybe we can do it too.
It’s also important for all of us who want to be involved in media creation in some capacity—writers, directors, illustrators, actors, costume designers, you name it—to be honest about our struggles. Sometimes when we look at people who are where we hope to be someday, we don’t see much of the hardships they faced. We don’t see the rejections, the unfinished drafts, the abandoned ideas, the failed auditions, the countless hours of study and practice. We don’t see the self-doubt, the challenges to keep their mental health, the moments they almost gave up.
When have an honest dialogue about our common dreams and obstacles, we create a sense of community, and that sense makes us stronger. As a wise man once said, it’s dangerous to go alone. Art is an act of defiance and defiance isn’t easy, so we must gather all the strength that we can. Of course this varies from person to person, and some of us are more privileged or lucky than others; but everyone had to fight their way somehow and another person’s journey can inspire us on our own.
Some people just enjoy their favorite stories, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but others develop a relationship with the creators of those stories. We want to learn more about them, we let their words and their life inspire us, we place expectations on them and their stories. Sometimes those expectations can be too high, and we should always remember the creator is a person too. This is not a strange discussion among GRRM fans, be it because of the issues found in his writing or his infamous writing speed. The limits of what fans have the right to demand and what becomes fan entitlement deserve a piece of its own, but for the moment I’ll say that more important than being flawless is how creators choose to deal with their flaws and mistakes.
I’m not sure if media creators are aware of how much they affect people—not just their writing, but them. What they say, how they behave, what they let us know about their process, the positions they take in relevant issues, everything. Isn’t that fascinating? How a person that I’ve never met, that doesn’t know I exist and likely never will, can inspire me?
In the end of the day, it’s fair that this project is titled after GRRM: this is about him too, about everything that I love and find inspiring in his writing, and how this can encourage me and several others in their own stories. This probably means I’ll have super high expectations for his stories now, but how could it be different? Through his fictional worlds, characters, themes, we’re not just following somebody’s career, we’re following the materialization of their dreams. And who knows how many other writers will count those stories among their influences too?
See you in a couple of weeks, this time with Only kids are afraid of the dark.