Why I Read and Write Science Fiction

Yesterday, I detailed my struggles with creative writing. And yet throughout the ongoing war with bad writing and my doubts relating thereto, science fiction (SF) has always been there as a sort of talisman, something to read and reinforcing my love of future- and technology-minded literature, both as something to read and something to write.

Why I Read SF

Not too surprisingly for a GenXer, I got sucked into SF courtesy of Star Wars and Star Trek. SF fans got me to read “real” or hard SF (as opposed to space opera), which generally meant “Golden Age” writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov. As I got older, my tastes, politics, and interests shifted a bit. I shifted to Robert A. Heinlein, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Kim Stanley Robinson, Robert Silverberg, and Frank Herbert, plus a lot of one-off titles that I often grabbed based on the cover art or the blurb on the back of the book.

The common elements in all of these novels (and short stories) included a focus on the future…often more technologically advanced and better in some social matters than the present. Perhaps that was what I needed in my moody and bully-populated adolescence: a focus on and belief in a better future. I absolutely needed that sort of attitude at that age because my contemporary circumstances sucked.

SF also featured a lot of brainy or intellectual characters as heroes, which was something I appreciated as someone who was small, thin, weak, bookish, non-athletic, and clumsy. Characters in SF weren’t always klutzy (though the works of Frederik Pohl were more obviously flawed than most), but they were clearly brain-forward and often the worlds they lived in respected that intellectual ability.

Why I Write SF

My fiction writing has tended to be in a science fiction mode. Even when I write “stories” (narratives might be a better description–see yesterday’s post) about more typical problems like personal growth or romance, they are often placed somewhere in a science-fictional, future world. Current problems don’t excite or inspire me. So I’ve tended to write about the future, with the message being that it will be better.

My ghost-writer buddy Laura suggested that I make that sort of fiction my focus, .

Focus on the message or the experience you’d like your reader to have. I write for my younger self. My main message that I wanted 12 year old Laura to receive was one of self empowerment/self belief and also belief in a very cool future. So I wrote into that. 

And really that makes sense. It’s like my blog, which provides practical career advice to my younger (22-year-old) self in the hopes of helping other English majors find a fulfilling way to use their skills and pay the bills. Perhaps I should go back through my younger years and consider writing stories that younger Bart would have loved and found inspirational. There are still kids being bullied in this world, and they’re being fed a ton of dystopian fiction. It would be nice if they read about a better future that’s worth living for, yes?

A Narrative About Storytelling

I spent part of the weekend engaged in analyzing my creative writing journey. What has yours been like? Strangely, mine has gotten more difficult as I’ve gotten older.

My Writing History

My family has home movie footage of me reading a book when I was less than two years old. Given my hypothyroidism, which was not diagnosed until age 1, I struggled with my physical development. It is, therefore, entirely possible that I could read before I could walk. I was drawn (so to speak) to those black symbols printed on bound white paper. Apparently I was also interested in trying create my own. Grandma Leahy claimed I told her at age five that I wanted to be a novelist. (Is it possible that I’d even know that word at that age? Yep.)

The first piece of writing I had “published” was a set of “alphabet stories” we were assigned in second grade or something. It went into my elementary school library, and I fished it out of the shelves when I learned that the school was closing. In one story I wrote about Wally the Whale, who wanted to swim from one U.S. coast to another, so he swam through the Panama Canal. Because, yes, 8-year-old Bart was interested in transportation. In another of those stories, I wrote about the D word–divorce–that had happened in my home the year before. It was accompanied by a rather dark crayon image of a dead man’s corpse burning in a garbage dump. Guess who got to spend some time with the social worker soon thereafter?

As I progressed, I started writing Star Wars stories, transmuting my play time with my friend down the street into typed stories. Eventually, in my teens, I started writing fiction in my own world(s), which alternated between mainstream and science fiction. I got an IBM PC Jr. sometime around then and started writing more. A lot of my story writing was cathartic. Writing in the heroic mode in the Star Wars universe, I would transmute my adolescent (ages 11-20) struggles into wish fulfillment fantasies, in which I was a person with authority and respect. A person who could make an impact. A leader.

At age 18 or so, I got my own Smith-Corona typewriter with maybe 100 KB of memory. I bought a pack of paper and started cranking out short stories in between class papers or over breaks. It would be difficult to say that I wrote stories so much as character sketches or situations in which the main character learned something–I was in college, after all. After college, when I was in Florida and working for Disney, I had plenty of unencumbered time and wrote a startling number of short stories (narratives?) throughout my 20s (29 of them in just two years). Did I submit any of them for publication? Of course not. I was writing for therapeutic purposes. Plus, I also recognized that I was not writing stories so much as fictional narrated experiences. No antagonists, no concrete plots, no character development, etc.

I tried my hand at science fiction here and there. Again, I was writing about characters gaining insights or experiencing strange effects from technology. Conflicts and actual storytelling continued to elude me. I was 30 when I finally wrote my first novel–a Star Wars story, of course, rooted in those stories that were born out of my childhood playtime. That novel continues to be modified and improved right up until the present. I would not write another one until I was 42. I decided to try National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and write an actual story, an historical romance, for a change. Did a bunch of research, threw in a little character development, and everything. The problem was that the book just wasn’t very good (“Everyone writes a sh!tty first draft,” according to Anne Lamott) and I didn’t enjoy the writing process enough to make any revisions to it, probably because it was written as a way of venting my feelings about a previous romantic relationship. Draft? Written. Revisions? Neglected. Into the files it went.

My shift to novel writing and more serious, structured narratives coincided with finally getting work as a technical writer in the space business, a primary career goal of mine. I’d learn the mysteries of launch vehicles, crank out conference papers and other products. As a result, when I came home, I had two things happening in my mind when I sat in front of the computer: I was tired from work, and I was painfully aware that I needed more professionalism and quality in my work.

Two years later, I tried another NaNoWriMo experience, this one science fiction again. And, while more promising than the previous novel draft, this one also lacked traditional conflict, structure, or character development. I gave it to friends (one a published author), seeking inputs. I got the inputs…and then left them to rot in my files with all the other unpublished dreck. I didn’t want to do the work. The work filled me with loathing, self- or otherwise.

Despite this, I still wrote short stories here and there and tried another SF novel for NaNoWriMo four years after the last one. I ended up finishing it a year later because NaNoWriMo got interrupted by a vacation. I had a few people read that one as well…got zero feedback, and let it drop into the files with the others. My joy at writing was diminishing as well.

I met a new lady friend around the time I turned 50 and started writing short stories/anecdotes for her for fun as part of my courting ritual, but the relationship soured and with it my desire to write anything creative, for that matter.

So now I’m 53. I’ve written a lot in my career, from corporate training classes to conference papers, engineering documents, public speeches, news articles, and marketing/outreach materials. You could say I’ve done a few things, most of them without much fear or anxiety. So what’s going on with my creative writing?

My Current Problem(s)

It turns out that I am much more comfortable writing content for other people–customers, bosses, what have you. It’s writing for myself that creates anxiety in my typing.

My fears and excuses for not writing multiply and grow more complex the longer I consider them.

  • Fear of writing something terrible, scientifically incorrect, stupid, etc.
  • Fear of not living up to expectations (education, background, etc.).
  • Fear of criticism/mocking.
  • Fear of offending the always-angry Twitter mob and the perpetually offended. Will I say the wrong thing(s)? Will I be accused of portraying someone different from me insultingly? Will I express the “wrong” point(s) of view?
  • Will the angry people start attacking me online?
  • Will the angry people start threatening me online?
  • Will they not stop there, but show up at my house and threaten me or my loved ones?

Et cetera.

I even have some fear of success, on occasion.

So this morning I asked myself: Is writing something I even want to do anymore? Is this still a ‘passion’ that I need to pursue to feel complete? Is writing the way I will make my positive mark on the world? My legacy? Is there something else I should be doing instead?

One of the books I read to try and nudge me back into creative work was The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Pressfield calls all the doubts and fears I expressed above “resistance.” He says:

The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.

Sounds great, in theory. In reality, I’m somewhere between feeling ashamed about not doing the work but also feeling ashamed about trying to write when I feel like I’m forcing myself to do something I ought to be doing, like a painful obligation. What the hell am I supposed to do with that no-win scenario?

My Path Forward?

I tried to imagine what writing without struggle would be like:

  • Not caring about scientific or engineering accuracy (at least in the first draft).
  • Not caring about how others might receive my work.
  • Not focusing on critical or monetary success or failure, just writing something that makes me happy.
  • Writing the truth fearlessly according to my lights, not the prejudices of whatever mob might find it objectionable.
  • Apply the skills and knowledge I do have to put together something good.
  • Be as ambitious as I care to be, even if it turns out that ambitious is not something I want to write.

A younger Bart remembered how to do most of that, even if his skills weren’t too polished. My older self has learned how to write better but is now afraid to share whatever’s in his head…or worse, won’t write because he has nothing to say.

Writer’s block sucks.

Where is Technology Taking Us?

At 6 a.m., my brain suddenly decided it wanted to write. More to the point, it wanted to discuss the future: which directions might we go, and where we were likely headed. I waited until I’d showered and had breakfast to do something about it because I don’t like writing on an empty stomach. That said, where are we going? Below are some of my thoughts.

Specifically, my busy mind was looking at some dichotomies:

  • More freedom or more control?
  • More efficiency or more redundancy?
  • More complexity or more simplicity?
  • More inclusiveness or exclusivity?
  • More community or more isolation?
  • More choices or fewer choices?

Some of these bullets are technological questions, some are social questions that could be embodied by our technologies. The originators of the internet wanted information to be free. However, ironically, the internet didn’t grow and improve technologically until government and businesses moved in to populate the virtual spaces. Government uses our patterns of electronic behavior to determine our potential risk to lives and property. Businesses use our online behavior to sell us products and services and sell our buying patterns to other businesses so they, too, can sell us products and services.

As my tech-minded friends like to remind me when I complain about mostly free online environments like Twitter and Facebook, “If you’re not paying for the service, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.”

Users are aware of these dynamics, more or less. Some enjoy the convenience of having helpful, fun, or interesting products and services marketed to us (the Hawaiian shirt makers have started swarming my Facebook profile lately). Some migrate to other digital environments, either out of concerns about how their information is being used or because they feel their personal or political views are being censored by large social media platforms.

I can’t say that we’re moving in a purely utopian or dystopian direction. Our computers are watching us, but it’s mostly corporations tracking and shaping our spending habits rather than the government minding our propensity for thought crimes. On the other hand, if people participate in blatantly antisocial or violent actions, they’re likely to announce their intentions beforehand or brag about their “success” on YouTube afterward, giving the government plenty of evidence for making an arrest. Whose “fault” is that?

The sheer number of options for communicating or receiving information has enabled us to customize the electronic “world” we see. And the more we focus our attention in specific directions or toward specific ideas/topics, the more we find our perceptions filtered through our self-grown information ecologies. More choices, but less shared experience. More inputs, but less community.

We’re still moving in the direction of communities off Earth, flying or autonomous cars, and “smart”homes, but we’ve also got people becoming polarized by different views of the world and even different facts. What’s a valid source? Which facts are worth paying attention to, and in what order? These are the questions we are all forced to confront, though it might be harder for younger generations, which never grew up with a more limited print and television environment. How do they view the present? How will they view the future?

Is there a point to any of this rambling? I don’t know. I’ve been struggling (again? still?) with writing science fiction, and I was hoping these thoughts would lead to a story idea or a way of looking at the future, but all it’s done is add to my struggle and confusion. I am not particularly imaginative when it comes toward envisioning the future. I’m much too conservative (in the limited intellectual sense, not necessarily the political sense). Still, I try to understand the present by writing in a science fictional mode because people and their concerns in the present vex and often bore me. SF is about the future of our relationship with the universe and the technologies we use to cope with it. Mainstream/contemporary fiction is about people as they are and their current, personal concerns. I’m not interested in other people’s personal problems. That’s like traveling in gossip. Writing SF is about individual destinies, aspirations, and accomplishments. Technologies might or might not figure prominently in mainstream fiction–though it’s harder to ignore them, even for people focused on personalities.

Maybe I’m thinking about the future of technology as a proxy for trying to figure out my own, personal future, in literature and elsewhere. Where am I going? Where are any of us going?

To be determined. To be continued.