Relearning an Old Skill

I have been writing stories since I was eight years old. I have the hard copies to prove it. For the next twenty years after that, I was writing a lot of fiction. It was a mix, really, though mostly mainstream and science fiction or somewhere in between. Once I started writing to pay my bills, my fiction productivity dropped off tremendously. More to the point, I began to lose interest in storytelling at all. The reasons for that are a bit complicated, but I’ll give it a shot here. Continue reading “Relearning an Old Skill”

The Tools You Use

I pursued my first English degree with the intention of being a science fiction writer. I wrote a lot more in my teens and twenties and my stories were filled with the concerns of a young man: pursuing adventures, making a difference, falling in love. The Bart who wrote then is a very different person from the person who writes blogs and training documents and journalism pieces now. Aside from my additional 20 years of life experience, the tools I use to write have changed as well. Continue reading “The Tools You Use”

What Good Am I?

Edith Keeler: Did you do something wrong? Are you in trouble? Whatever it is, let me help.

Captain Kirk: “Let me help.” A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He’ll recommend those three words even over “I love you.”

–Star Trek, “The City on the Edge of Forever”

I don’t invent machinery, I help explain and market it. I rarely speak at conferences, but I have volunteered to work at or run them. I am neither a scientist nor a cheerleader, yet I help keep a bunch of them communicating and organized. I don’t write original ideas in paper or book form, yet I contribute editorial and narrative support to others. I do not formulate bold new space policies, but I do help polish the language and try to share them with others.  I do not build, I assemble. I cannot program a computer, but I am a quick study as a super-user. I am rarely a leader, but I make a good second or third in command. 

I am not handsome or dramatic enough to be a star, but I’d make a decent character actor. I might not form some amazing partnership–personal or professional–but I am likely to introduce people who do. I don’t come up with new philosophies or remarkable spiritual insights, but I will take them into my soul and integrate them into my life so others can see the results. I’m unlikely to be in a parade and much more likely to be one of the people cheering from the side. I don’t write great books, I read and review them.

Why am I sharing this? I suppose because I sometimes doubt the value I contribute. And maybe because as I get older I’m getting more realistic about what I am likely to accomplish (or not accomplish) in life. There’s a lot of emphasis in our culture on being the star or the originator of great things. There isn’t much glory attached to being just a member of a team. Yet my motto for years has been “I’m here to help,” and I try to prove that with every opportunity I can. There are those who originate and those who must deliver. Somewhere along the line, I learned the value of helping make dreams into reality even if it isn’t my dream. Maybe I’m content to let my life be this way, with the trust and hope that what I’ve done has been worthwhile. At the end of the line, I’ll hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” and that will be enough.

The Abundance Mentality and Helping Others

My professional blog, Heroic Technical Writing, is a public education service. My goal was and is to honestly help people seeking advice about the business of technical writing. I’m not interested in putting up a pay wall, though I might write a book at some point. That’s about as far as my selfishness goes here.

Most of the time, I write blogs for a generalized technical writing community of students and professionals who check out my writing from all over the world. Every month or two, a reader contacts me directly asking for specific advice about their particular situation. What’s amusing to me is that a lot of the people who contact me directly all have the same intention: they want my job!

I understand that passion–I had it for years and it took me nearly 25 years to finally achieve it, so I appreciate that people think I have some magic formula for helping them reach the same destination.

Irony

There are a couple of ironic twists to the advice I release out into the world like a kid blowing soap bubbles in the park. The first amusing part is that I no longer earn my living as a space writer, and haven’t since I was downsized out of my full-time job (through no fault of mine or my employer’s, I hasten to add) in 2013. I do some space work, but that’s not my primary source of income. The other thing that amuses me is that as I offer advice or even suggest points of contact, it occurs to me that I am creating a cadre of potential competitors for future work.

I still offer the help. Part of it is because I genuinely want to help. Also, I suppose I’m confident enough in my abilities that I feel I could get specific work if I pursued it (I’m on a contract right now, so there hasn’t been a big rush). And the last reason why I keep helping is that I’m trying to develop what some folks call an “abundance mentality,” as opposed to a scarcity mentality.

Scarcity vs. abundance 

A person with a scarcity mentality sees the world as a zero-sum game: if I get a job, someone else will not get it. Or they think, as I suggested above, that helping others get a job in my field creates my pool of competitors and reduces my chances. There are, in fact, only so many full-time “space writers” out there–and I know or have met many of the best in the business. Surely I can’t afford to flood the market with proteges who might take the food out of my rice bowl! The scarcity mindset says, “I need to protect what’s mine!”

That’s one perspective. The abundance mindset, however, says that people can create their own jobs and careers. People thinking this way believe that the economic pie can and will continue to expand and that people can create their own special niches as the professional ecosystem diversifies and grows. The abundance mindset says, “There will always be more opportunity!”

And space is an expanding field (no pun intended). It isn’t just NASA or the Defense Department anymore. There is now a small but steadily growing entrepreneurial sector with companies starting to compete not just for launch vehicles but also satellites, space stations, asteroid-mining equipment, and other types of hardware. The sooner those private-sector companies reach and expand their respective customer bases, the sooner we’ll see additional start-ups to support the markets that the primary space companies create. And as the space market expands, there will also be more opportunities for government to settle in along the edges, should you wish to work in the civil service.

Thinking differently about your path

The point being, to be a writer in the space industry, you don’t have to be working directly for NASA or one of its contractors, though that’s still a good option when the jobs are available. Likewise, if you’re not a space enthusiast but care deeply about animals, hunger, or nuclear power, there are alternative ways to support those causes that don’t require you to be right on the front lines. I also know people whose actual job descriptions are nowhere close to scientist or engineer, but because they work at NASA, they take immense pride in “doing their part” for the space program.

No one needs to follow the exact path I did to get a job as a space writer–in fact, I highly recommend that you don’t: chose an easier route! However, there are many ways to serve a cause that you believe in, and having an abundance mentality allows you to be open to multiple possibilities and multiple ways of reaching your preferred destination. And you might find something along the way toward your goal that you like even better.

So if you are a seeker of advice, fear not: I will continue to give whatever wisdom I can offer. If you manage to get the same type of job I have, fantastic! Space is a difficult business and it could use all the good communicators it can find. Just remember to say thank you if I helped and to pay it forward if you get to a point where you’re able to help others. Think abundantly!

47

By the time you read this, I will be on vacation, not home. I decided to get out of town, even if it’s still in Florida. Still, I try to do one of these birthday essays once a year just as a way of checking in with myself and with you, my readers (I appreciate both of you) to see where I am with respect to myself or the world.

I’m coming more and more to know the sort of person I am and the sort of person I am not, and I’m willing to accept both. I am very much an introvert, for example. I can go hours or even days at a time without engaging in much verbal conversation. Much of the time my apartment is even quiet as I start my day: no radio, no TV, just me, the sounds of my daily routine, and whatever foolishness is buzzing about in my head. This does not mean I dislike people, merely that I don’t seem to require the presence of another person in my domicile. In fact, I’m usually more relaxed if I don’t have company. My habits are those of someone who requires a “Fortress of Solitude,” and is increasingly aware that such a lifestyle is likely to keep people at a distance. So be it.

I am still not an athlete, nor do I desire to be. Those of you who feel the urge to climb a mountain or run a marathon–God bless. You can take my turn. I won’t stop you, but don’t feel you have to invite me to your quest. My favorite physical activity is walking through aesthetically pleasing landscapes, interesting architecture, or preferably both. I can walk anywhere from one mile to ten at a stretch and do not notice or mind the passing of time. It’s hard to say what I’m thinking about on these walks. Often I’m not thinking at all, but merely using the exercise as a way to clear my mind and the scenery as a way to relax it. A long stroll through a museum would probably do me just as well.

I’m a very serious person, despite my verbal habits of wit and sarcasm. My reading list consists of a lot of philosophy, history, science fiction, and other such things that help me ponder or understand Big Questions. It’s all very abstract, dry, and contemplative. My musical tastes have been shifting, too. Not as much ’80s pop or John Williams soundtracks while I’m writing, more Mozart, Beethoven, or other classics.

Vexed by some of the rather angry chatter I’ve seen on Facebook, I’ve ratcheted down that hourly habit to something closer to a brief daily lurk before I find other things to do. The extra free time has allowed me to catch up on my long-neglected reading list, and so I’m trying to take a good whack at reading those books I’ve meant to read for a decade. So far, so good. Thirty-four books read this year; only 197 more to go before I can start adding books back onto the list again. I’m sure some will come to mind.

On the whole, thanks to a very loose freelance schedule that still manages to pay the bills, I’ve become less of a workaholic. I’ll do whatever work is in front of me gladly until the pile has dwindled, then I set thoughts of work aside and go read a book or take another walk in the vegetable-steamer heat of summer in Florida. Slowly, I’m learning how to be inactive, to take pleasure in downtime. This is a big shift, as I spent much of my time from 25 to 45 thinking about work. On the whole, I think this is a good thing.

Politically, I remain a gentleman of the Right, though more and more I find myself in the Libertarian camp, especially as the two most prominent prospects for president this year fill me with equal dismay. I maintain very strict standards for myself (and very definite opinions about others) but I have no interest in inflicting my personal morality on other people. Nor am I particularly interested in having someone else’s ideas foisted on my unwillingly. I live by an increasingly outmoded notion of “Live and let live.” I figure it’ll be appreciated somewhere down the line.

Otherwise, to quote that great philosopher Popeye, I am what I am: a graying, somewhat overweight, middle-aged and self-contained Anglo who usually has a book, pen, or computer in his hand. Eventually I’ll think of something useful to do with all the ideas I have in my head, but for now I keep on living my life, hopeful that eventually it’ll all make sense at some point or, barring that, I’ll do something constructive to do with myself that makes me feel like the journey has been worth the fare.

And so I celebrate living another year on this blue planet, curious to see what happens next.