I recently won a Writers of the Future award for my story “Flee, My Pretty One.” The award comes with publication in their anthology, a cash prize, a nice trophy at an award ceremony, and (most importantly by far) a week-long workshop with big names in the industry.
But y’all want to hear about the Scientology thing, so let’s talk about that first. :)
1. The Contest
Everyone in the SF community knows that Writers of the Future (WotF) is funded by the Scientologists, and used by them for PR. And everyone smiles and accepts that and agrees not to talk about it in public, because the Scientologists do a good job of staying the hell out of the contest itself. All the judging and every major decision is made by respected professionals in the field, none of whom are affiliated with the church. And behind the scenes, yeah, we talk about it. When the WotF staff wasn’t around and we were all drinking, there was quite a bit of chat about it. Because it is kinda weird, and we all feel a bit weird about it. But ultimately, they just provided a huge paycheck to the SF community without asking very much in return.
One of my fellow winners even pointed out that it’s almost a scam in the other direction. The Scientologists take a lot of money from rich Hollywood celebrities, and they take that and funnel it back into funding new up-and-coming SF writers and illustrators, all of whom are mildly-to-strongly anti-Scientology. It’s a weird arts-funding program that uses Scientology money for an actual good cause (assuming one considers SF arts a good cause).
They certainly get something out of it too. The big awards ceremony, while it was certainly a lot of fun and made us all free great and important, was very obviously for them. It talked up L. Ron Hubbard quite a bit. I heard more about him in the two hours of the event than in the entire four days of workshop before then. All the content was geared at making the audience of Scientologists feel good about themselves and assure them they’re being good Hubbard disciples. But you know what? That’s OK. It’s their party. They’ve been super nice and very supportive, and they’re allowed to have a big party and feel good! So what if they’re using us as an excuse to celebrate? They’ve spent a ton of money on all of us, they’re allowed. We’re getting a lot out of it in exchange. Let’s not shit on someone else being happy.
This hangs on the side of their publishing building. I imagine most of the employees inside are pretty embarrassed by it.
2. The People
The Scientologists, at least the ones on the ground, are all super nice and polite. They never treated us with anything but respect and friendliness. And, aside from being the biggest Hubbard fanboys/fangirls I’ve ever seen, never even mentioned Scientology. There were no attempts at recruitment. We’re valuable to them as PR, not as new members.
You could always tell who was a Scientologist and who was an outside professional, though. There’s something about the Scientologists. They’re very tightly wound. They hide behind niceness and smiles, never comfortable. I didn’t like being around them, and I ended up feeling very bad for them. In my opinion, they act like people who aren’t sure how to interface with the outside world, and have been hurt by it so much that they expect only more abuse and more pain, and the only way they’ve found to deal with this is to withdraw. When forced to interact with the muggles, they smile past the fear and hope it’s over soon.
I know a lot of people like this. I used to be a person like this. This is a common experience for young nerds. Yes, it was uncomfortable being around the, because they are bad at social skills, and they’re hurt. But by god, who beats up on these sort of people? Spreading tales of how awful and creepy they are is no different from nerd-bashing. Do you talk about how gross aspies are? Then don’t do it to Scientologists.
The church of Scientology may be ridiculous and/or evil, but most of the people in it are just as innocent as most Catholics. Be kind to people. Don’t trust anyone who gives you weird vibes, of course, your instincts are a good first-defense. But man, it’s possible to treat people with decency without going into secluded places with them, ya know?
They keep display copies of everything Hubbard has ever published. Even the Lisa Frank versions.
3. The Cult
When I first saw the crazy devotion the people here have to Hubbard’s work I was downright envious. They adore him, and as long as they’re around, his memory and his works will be kept alive. In that moment I wanted a cult of my own.
It didn’t last very long though. There isn’t any real memory of Hubbard being preserved here. It’s a weird, idolized version of him, drastically disconnected from whatever real person he might have been. There’s only a story that strangers have built a community around, and recognizing him as he was doesn’t advance that purpose. This is a poor imitation of immortality-through-remembrance. It felt lonely.
Of course, when the publicity crew was following us around all week, and constantly snapping pictures of everything we do, that felt right. It was fitting that everything I do be documented, because I’m totes a big deal in my own mind. :) I finally had that “constant watching presence” that I’d been missing since I realized there ain’t no god. Most of my co-winners didn’t like it as much, though.
I will say I was surprised by how conservative they are! With their reputation as a crazy cult in the middle of Hollywood, I expected them to basically be a bunch of liberals. They don’t drink, frown on bad language, and basically reminded me of strict Christians. They wanted everyone to dress conservatively, including strongly requesting the women wear gowns to the award ceremony. That’s a heckuva an ask for 24 artsy types, you’ll almost always get someone for whom that is not OK. I’ve heard about this being a problem in past years, and they seem to have eased up a bit, because our resident “I don’t do dresses” artist ended up going in a red suit instead, which suited her very well! And it sounded like there wasn’t too much kerfuffle about it.
So yeah, I dislike their religion, they can be off-putting, and I hear their leadership has done shitty things. But the people on the ground are nice, they mostly kept to themselves, and they won me over. Given how much I distrust the media when it comes to their portrayal of weird fringe groups, I’m gonna default to not being a dick on this one.
Seriously though, what writer doesn’t want people to love his work so much they enshrine it like this?
Over the next few days I’ll talk about the workshop itself, as well as the award ceremony. Plus more pictures!
You can buy the anthology, containing my latest short story, at Amazon and most book stores.