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.


Writer’s block sucks. It’s unfathomable to the non-writer and demoralizing for the writer. After all, you write because you love it, right? So what happens when that love of the work turns into something else or gets wrapped up in other feelings? A whole lot of nothing. I’m in the midst of a four-year run of this condition now, and it’s starting to eat away at my soul. Maybe blogging about it will help. I’ve done sillier things.

I should emphasize that the “block” I’m dealing with is personal in nature. I don’t get writer’s block on the job (i.e., for other people), except in rare cases. Writing for myself is something else. The needs of a customer are always known, or if not known, can be discerned by asking questions. I’m a much more difficult customer.

  • Do I know what I’m trying to accomplish?
  • Do I know who my audience is?
  • Will this work be engaging to the reader?
  • Is the work saying what I want it to say?

I don’t always have the answers to these questions, nor am I terribly confident when I answer them.

Ghosts from the past

Several years ago, I got into the habit of sharing one piece of creative writing with a lady friend on a daily basis. Part of the courtship ritual, as it were. However, the relationship did not go as hoped for, and so it ended.

The problem is that in the process of ending that relationship, I also yanked out a lot of the wiring that I used to write creatively for fun. Writing was something done for her. Being a creative writer was someone I was in that relationship. Writing after that brought me right back to the mental state I was in fresh out of the relationship: No, I don’t write anymore. That was something I did for her. That was a different life, a different person. Somewhere along the line, I made the mistake of using a real person as a “Muse,” and now find myself, years later, not wanting to return to the writing habit because it puts me back in the headspace I had when writing for that specific person.

Given the number of relationships I’ve screwed up over the course of 40+ years, you’d think I’d have the sense to separate the creator of the product from the recipient. But no, my subconscious juxtaposed the two in this case and decided that writing “for myself” was no longer possible.

It’s vexing, and a little sick-making, to be honest, because it’s not like real people are flawless or will never let you down. They will, just as I no doubt let down the person in question and others along the way or since. Indulging in a “muse” is a great way to short-circuit a professionally minded brain because when I have paying work, I don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike before getting to work. The work must be done, sit in front of the goddamned computer and crank out the prose. If you don’t, you don’t get paid and you don’t eat. QED, the writing gets done.

However, that’s business. Writing for oneself is a slightly different animal for me. I never felt confident (or good) enough to write fiction for a living. I was a little too addicted to things like eating and having a roof over my head to write stories for a living. I pay the bills by writing and editing content for others. Fiction or poetry became things that I wrote for myself, in my free time, when I felt like it.

So when you start connecting all these dots together, you can see how writer’s block can and will interfere with the idea of writing for pleasure. I write content for other people or organizations. And while I do enjoy the process, especially when the content has to do with human space exploration, I realize that the thoughts are not my own but the ideas of others. I settled for that sort of writing to pay the bills because I lacked the confidence to write stories for a living. I suppose if I had forced myself to earn my living writing fiction, I might have gotten better at the craft through sheer repetition, persistence, and practice.

Yet the daily practice stopped when I ended that relationship. I was writing for her, after all, and she was no longer part of my life. So then what?

Quitting drinking helped clear my head, mostly. Yet I still had this injury to my soul lingering the background. It’s like a mental limp, hobbling my ability to fully express myself, either because I felt that my reason for writing went away or because I lost confidence in the person who wrote because the writing (or I) was insufficient to keep the relationship going. In the process of breaking the relationship, I inadvertently broke something fundamental to my well-being as a human being. The recycled mantra in the head is akin to, The writing failed, I failed, and so I don’t write anymore.

I can appreciate the works of others–indeed, my reading has been voracious over the past few years–but I can’t contemplate my own work without a feeling of vertigo or seasickness. The person I was in that relationship was someone who wrote, and that person failed. I haven’t been able to become that person again, and that hurts. I need to fix this. I’m tired of hurting. : (

Expectations: Fiction vs. Real Life

I take my fiction experiences–whether they’re written, on a stage, or on a screen–very seriously. An interaction on Twitter this morning made me consider some of the ways my feelings toward fiction manifest themselves.

Here was the Twitter exchange I had this morning:

I didn’t appreciate having my attitude toward villains described as “simple minded” or immature, yet I responded politely as shown. Yet it’s true: I’m not interested in the motives of bad guys in books or movies.

This is an old habit, going back to my youthful love of the Star Wars saga. The fascination people had with Darth Vader or Boba Fett, for example, eluded me. Even Vader’s revelation that he was Luke Skywalker’s father didn’t move me that much. My 11-year-old self assumed that he was lying. The subsequent confirmation of Luke’s parentage made for an interesting resolution to Return of the Jedi, but I remained a fan of the heroes. Vader didn’t redeem himself until very late in the game.

The prequel movies depicting the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader was a narrative mess, and I still wasn’t that interested in Anakin’s fall from grace. What did bother me was the Clone Wars movie, which was set between Episodes II and III. There, Lucas had already set the trajectory of Skywalker as heading down a dark path. What, then, was one to make of this cartoon that depicted him as becoming better or more heroic? Were we supposed to feel that much worse when he succumbed to the dark side? Anyhow, it didn’t work for me, given the narrative arc shown for the character at that point in the series. I was also not pleased to read “there are heroes on both sides” in the opening crawl of Star Wars III. The original Star Wars trilogy worked because it depicted a straightforward morality tale of good-vs.-evil. Who the heck do you root for if there are heroes on both sides?

For me, fiction is about structure and meaning. This is probably because I read and wrote stories as a way to make sense of the world or to make the world a better, more just place, if only in my mind. I had enough examples in my adolescence of the bad, the mean, or the violent succeeding; I didn’t need or want that in my fiction. Call it idealism, call it escapism, call it what you will: to be satisfying to me, stories with obvious heroes and villains need to end with the hero triumphing.

I recall another expectation about fiction that created a great deal of amusement for one of my professors in graduate school. It was a hypertext class, and one of the reading assignments was a “novel” called If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino. That had to be one of the least-satisfying reading experiences I’ve ever encountered. The book consisted of a series of episodes in different genres, none of which connected to each other, and all of which ended without resolution. I came into class infuriated that the author had wasted my time. The professor, amused, asked me, “Why are you so upset by this?” I replied, “Good fiction isn’t supposed to do that!”

Since I’m probably on the verge of being called simple-minded again, I’ll just state my objection here: If I wanted that sort of experience, I could turn on the news.

Much of the fiction that works for me takes the form of a structured morality tale. There are other works that are not conflict-focused or are more ambiguous, like man vs. nature–I’m talking here about man vs. man stories. There are also tragedies, such as the darker works of Shakespeare, but those don’t appeal as much to me, either. Again, I’m trying to make sense of the world and perhaps reinforce my rather naive hopes that good will triumph in conflicts. If I wanted to hear that “the world doesn’t make any sense,” I could read any number of columnists or bloggers. If I wanted to see conflicted human beings acting in a manner perceived as villainous, I could turn on the evening news. If I wanted to see evil triumph, I could read histories about some of humanity’s worst despotisms.

There are writers and readers out there who thrive on relatable, multi-layered, or even sympathetic villains. I wish them well. However, I am not the market for those sorts of stories. They don’t interest me.

Writing for My Own Pleasure

When I turned 30, I sat down and turned the little Star Wars stories I’d written between ages 8 and 18 into a full -blown novel. I never tried to get the story published, of course, but I enjoyed the process. With the ending of the Skywalker saga last year, I toyed with writing a sequel. I haven’t (yet), but I keep arguing with myself about the project.

I had multiple reasons for not attempting to publish the first novel. Lucasfilm had its own set of stories, many of which mine was not as good as or compatible with. Plus, it was just for fun—fan fiction. Also, as a first novel, it had any number of first-novel faults. However satisfying it was for me personally, it just wasn’t that good.

So now, 31 years later, I find myself mulling a sequel. I’ve written a few more novels since then, so it’s not a question of ability. At age 51, I’m simply struggling creatively. I don’t write much fiction at all. playing around in the SW universe is easy. I know that place. Many of its environments and “rules” are already established. Writing fiction there is fun. All I need to do is move my own characters 30 years forward in time and adapt them to the stories depicted in Episodes VII-IX.

But why write such a story? Why put in the work if it’s only for my own amusement? Maybe to prime the creativity pump. If I put in the time for that story, other ideas might come to mind. I’ve done sillier things to kill time. I just need something to fill the dusty, empty space that has occupied my life over the last year or so.

Forced in on Myself

I’m not expecting any great “transformation” or personal insights during this period of enforced isolation. They could happen, mind you, but I’m not expecting or forcing any. What follows are my thoughts about the state of my soul before and during this shared crisis called pandemic. Continue reading “Forced in on Myself”

Star Wars in the Age of Immersive Entertainment

In the last two weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to experience what I guess I’d call the cutting edge of entertainment: Star Wars: Secrets of the Empirea virtual reality experience licensed to a company called The Void, and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the new “land” at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Each experience, in its own way, shows the direction we can expect interactive entertainment to go in the next few decades. Continue reading “Star Wars in the Age of Immersive Entertainment”