On becoming an “expert”

A while back I answered a question about the intensity of my A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones fandom that wondered whether I’d ever felt this strongly or invested this much time and energy into another author’s work. The answer was yes and no: felt this strongly, sure; invested this much of my life, no. (Not unless you count “comics” as a whole; writing and thinking about comics has basically been my life’s work.) Even today I think I could just as easily be operating a tumblr and opining professionally about Los Bros Hernandez, or Clive Barker, or the band Underworld, or David Bowie (hey, wait), or ’70s glam rock, or Chris Ware, orThe Sopranos/Twin Peaks/Breaking Bad/Mad Men/Battlestar Galactica/Deadwood, or or or. But A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones it is. And it’s really remarkable how quickly my little “career” as an ASoIaF pundit took off, given how vanishingly little effort I put into getting it started!

I started my ASoIaF blog All Leather Must Be Boiled in March of 2011. My daughter had just been born two months prematurely via emergency caesarean section following another two and a half months of pregnancy complications that required my wife’s repeated hospitalization and lengthy bedrest stays, during which time one of our cats was diagnosed with cancer and was also both hospitalized for surgery and confined to a bedroom for recovery. I’d spent a quarter of a year running from work to hospitals to home, caring for the beings I loved as they suffered. A work as grim as ASoIaF was an odd choice for “escapism” to be sure, but it seemed to do the trick, because it confronts serious issues — issues that truly haunt and hound me day to day — in a way that also helps blow off steam about those issues.

So one day I got back from visiting my daughter in the neonatal intensive care unit during my lunchbreak, sat down at my desk, and decided to fire up the old tumblr dashboard and launch a new ASoIaF-only blog. This way, the things I wanted to say about the series would neither spoil it for readers of my other outlets who were interested in catching up, nor drown out everything else I write about for readers who weren’t. Simply choosing to use Tumblr instead of, say, WordPress indicated, to me at least, how casual the thing was going to be. Most of my initial posts were written for an audience of one: me — stray thoughts, things I caught myself, passages I loved, a play-by-play of my journey of discovery through Westeros.org’s archives and forum, fanart drawn by cartoonist friends and acquaintances, anticipatory effusion about the then-upcoming HBO show. It was truly the tumblr of a fan, not a scholar, barely even a critic.

The point is, I learned as I went, simply through going. The more I wrote, the more I found myself able to articulate what was important to me about the books, to formulate coherent questions about the things I didn’t understand, to provide answers about the things I thought I did understand, to find answers on my own and put them in front of other people. Very quickly, “other people” expanded to include people who really were experts. Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson from Westeros.org said nice things, popped up in the comments, and eventually got me hired to work on the official annotations of A Game of Thrones alongside Elio and the books’ freaking editor, Anne Groell. That happened within six months of me starting this tumblr. Stefan Sasse from Tower of the Hand liked what I was doing enough to suggest we start a podcast together, and voila, The Boiled Leather Audio Hour was born. The writing I was doing about the show (and other shows) was apparently solid enough that when I mentioned how much I’d love to get paid to do what I’d been doing for free to my friend Matthew Perpetua, who was an editor at Rolling Stone, he passed my name to his fellow editor Evie Nagy, who hired me to recap Game of Thrones within days of me just idly “wouldn’t it be nice”-ing this during a google chat. Because of the way I write, and the things I write about, and the place I write about it, I find myself in the central overlap of a Venn diagram that includes traditional, Westeros-style fandom, professional pop-culture critics, and the tumblr ASoIaF/GoT community. Best of all, this doesn’t only work in one direction: One day I clicked on a tumblr that had just followed this one, discovered an incredible, fully-formed music critic at the tender age of 18, and passed his name along to the right people, so that I think he was offered his first pro music crit gig within literally hours. (What up, Jaimeson?) To call All Leather Must Be Boiled the most rapidly rewarding writing I’ve ever done would be to understate the case considerably.

And the rewards, in the form of knowledge and enjoyment of that knowledge at least, never stop. As I said earlier, one of the best things about this blog is the chance it gives me to be wrong about things in public. That way, the people who know more than I do can provide me with the right information, and I can grow and learn and get more right in the future. What a wonderful opportunity! It’s a joy to be corrected by Elio, or enlightened by Stefan, or challenged or outright debunked by another tumblr. I want to get better, and that’s how you get better. I think that because I started this tumblr with no pretensions to expertise, simply the desire to talk about these fun books I read, I was responded to in kind. The vituperative, “SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET” responses I’ve gotten to anything I’ve ever said there can be counted on one hand; even then I try my best to put the tone aside and focus on what they’re telling me that I wasn’t seeing or hearing myself. Sometimes they’re just wrong, of course — hey, I’m a critic, I’m going to think other people are wrong, that’s what they pay me for — but most of the time they’re shining a light on something I could’ve used a clearer look at. You can bet your bottom dollar that I take that experience to heart and try my best to apply it to everything I do, online and IRL. There’s no better way to become an “expert” than to do, and do, and do, and sit back and see what comes of the doing.

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