I’ve chosen to drop my shields for a moment and show you my gooey center to give you some insight into why I don’t publish my fiction. My apologies if I’m oversharing–I usually don’t open up like this until something like the 17th date. Continue reading “The Mid-Life Writer’s Crisis”
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”
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.
I write to pay my bills. I’m a technical writer, that’s what I do. It’s a great pleasure that I’m able to turn something I’m able to do reasonably well into cash and groceries.
But that is nonfiction, and work done on behalf of someone else’s idea or business. I still write for myself. Why?
First, it might be helpful to explain what I consider “writing for myself.” This would include:
- Journal writing
All of these activities serve personal, what some might call “antisocial” purposes because they are for my own benefit and enjoyment, not necessarily others’. Note that I am not a published/paid writer in any of those categories, so why do I bother?
I’ve been writing fiction since 1978 or so. I’ve been writing poetry since 1984 or so. I’ve been keeping a journal since 1988. Again, not for profit. Occasionally I’ve let others read the stuff, but not as a regular habit anymore. So why do I bother?
Maybe writing is just a hobby? A literary form of therapy? I write in these various forms for my own personal enjoyment. Sometimes I learn something. Sometimes I just feel better afterward. Sometimes I want to say something about the state of the world (or my reactions to it) and saying it straight out is not the most effective way to do it. If I have things I want to say or think about, why not just mull them over in my head? Why bother with the physical activity of putting pen to paper or fingers to laptop keyboard?
Maybe because writing is my way of leaving monuments. I was here, I lived, I had ideas, I mattered: here is the proof.
If you write, what compels you to do so?
Just a middle-aged white guy with short grey hair and Van Dyke beard, wearing a faded green Hawaiian shirt adorned with game fish and boats. He studies the book in front of him with Irish blue eyes that peer out of a florid face and narrow bifocal, Transitions lenses. His arms are hairy and he has a quarter-inch brown mole on the slightly browned skin near the middle of his forearm. All of his skin has a slick sheen of sweat and sunblock. The torso is thick, but not grossly so—just extra fat at the middle and slight love handles. His shorts are baggy and rise above a pair of pale but well-worked legs and scuffed white cross-trainers. His legs are crossed as he sits on a shaded park bench under the hot Florida sun, but his body is more or less relaxed and at ease.
At any moment he will decide he’s had enough with reading, bend over one corner of a page, bound upward, and begin walking. He keeps his gaze on the sidewalk or briefly at the obstacles in his way. His brow furrows and his mouth is turned slightly downward, moving but making no sound. Occasionally he pauses, strokes his beard, tilting his head and nodding before setting off again.
He rarely makes eye contact, merely scanning faces as he arrows through a crowd. His pace, when not lost in rumination, is brisk and his steps long. At a steady four miles per hour, he can get anywhere or nowhere in good time, often sweaty at the end of his march.
Now and then he looks at a building or some piece of nature that attracts his attention. If something really interests him, he pauses, pulls his iPhone from his front pocket, and captures the image before moving on. He is not thinking about anything in particular. He is not angry, merely lost in thought. This is what you see, this is what he does.
In a posthumous release of his correspondence, science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein reported to a friend that he had not been writing and had felt miserable and sick with a cold that wouldn’t go away, but once he started writing again, he felt 100% better. Something similar can happen to anyone who feels the creative urge.
Writing, for those of us who treat it as a natural and necessary part of ourselves, is essential to our health. It can be the source of our income, to be sure, but it is also sustenance itself. The very act of writing feeds our soul and helps us sort out the world. Writing is there to help us make a roadmap through the world, calm us when we’re irritable, allow us to rant and vent our rage when doing so publicly would be socially unacceptable. Creating something new–especially new worlds, characters, or situations–is exercise for the imagination.
It’s sad but true: my fiction writing has dwindled over the years. In fact, I can directly trace my loss in fictional productivity to starting my career as a paid technical writer. I dropped from writing anything from half a dozen to a dozen stories a year to two or three to one to writing every other year. I felt sad at the change but considered it a necessary by-product of spending all my day in front of a computer, hacking out words for other people’s use. By the time I got home, I had very little energy to write for myself.
In truth, my imagination has gotten flabby, much like my body can do due to lack of exercise. I have a lot of incomplete stories in my files–stuff I started and dropped because I felt the ideas stupid or the execution lacking and I lacked the energy or interest to rethink the story and fix it.
It’s one thing to write bad fiction (and trust me, I have plenty–note that I’m a professional technical writer, not a professional fiction writer). It’s something else again to transform the sow’s ear into a silk purse. That requires inspiration, alchemy, and careful feeding of the Muses, but mostly it demands a lot of hard work and a commitment to Heinlein’s dictum that “You must write. You must finish what you write.” After a long day at the office, it can be very easy to go slack on your own stuff, especially if no editors are clamoring for it and you have no deadlines to meet. So I’ve been lazy.
I’ve also been somewhat down lately. Lots of little things piled on to give me a Class A First World funk. Trust me, given a choice I’ll take my problems over anyone else’s any day, but that’s not to say that the marvels of middle age don’t vex me from time to time. I have worries and annoyances and things in my life that irritate me or make me seriously unhappy, just like everyone else. So yesterday morning I made a list of a dozen things I needed to do to get some feeling of control over my grouchy disposition. By the end of the day, I’d done maybe two. I went home from a social gathering feeling less than productive and not particularly proud of myself.
As I am prone to do when I’m in a funk, I lecture myself. I was giving myself a good earful in traffic about my general laziness and ingratitude for the gifts I’d been given in life when something strange began happening in the long-neglected imagination center in my brain. Hey, you know you could write a story about that, my subconscious was saying. My conscious mind stopped lecturing and said, “What?” Yeah, my imagination continued, you could write about someone seriously gifted going lazy. Why would he do that? What would make a genetically modified super-genius decide to underperform? So my logical conscious mind joined in the fun and started playing with ideas.
The story had practically written itself in the back of my brain by the time I got home. At least I had the structure, the main character, and the motivation. The rest was filling in the blanks. I think the story ran around six pages. Maybe ten. Whatever. But wow, did I feel better afterward! I had accomplished something, I had done something creative again, and I slept with the comfort of being myself again. My subconscious, rewarded for doing such a good job and nudging me out of my funk, treated me to a lot of various and confusing dreams, but it was like, “Okay, you wrote that, so here’s a bunch of other thoughts I’ve been storing up. What about this? What about this? What about this?” It’s a blur now, but there was enough stuff churning around that I’m sure the important thoughts will come back.
And all it took to restore myself was writing again. If I was feeling really ambitious, I’d try to get that story published, but let’s not get crazy. Silencing the inner critic is a blog for another day. For now, all I can recommend to writers who are in a funk is the same old rock ‘n’ roll: write it down, baby. Get it all out. You’ll feel a lot better.
Human beings have been telling each other stories for millennia. Why? What, exactly, is a story, and why do we bother?
A story is a narrative about an individual or group in conflict with the universe–another person or people, nature, forces within, etc. A story includes moments of danger and suspense: will the hero(ine) survive? Will they succeed in their mission? How will that success occur?
Stories fulfill a deep need in our natures for our existence to make sense. We want to believe that we can overcome dangers that face us in this universe. We want to believe that the values we defend mean something and that, even if our existence ends, those values will continue on after our death. The interplay of good and evil (or protagonist and antagonist) engages our emotions. The ratcheting up of suspense adds to the suspense of the moment and raises the stakes. All these things tell us what stories do, but they don’t tell us what stories can and do say.
Looking over human history, we’ve had stories that involved gods–superhuman versions of ourselves–as well as human heroes and villains, dragons and other terrifying creatures. We have told stories that challenged the forces of nature; defined ourselves as independent beings; saved villages or nations; fought tyrants or ambitious people like ourselves; and confronted the dark forces of the emotions or motives within ourselves. We continue to tell stories that force us to confront the dangers of the technologies we create or the evil we do in the present day.
Sometimes we tell these stories in the language of the present day. Sometimes we set them in the past. Sometimes we set them in the future. Sometimes we set them in realities completely different from our own. The motives for storytelling–even if the environments, moral structures, heroes/heroines, or tactics and tools change–remain the same. We are always trying to explain ourselves to ourselves. The stories that impressed me the most at an impressionable age were from science fiction and religion, giving me forever an interest in science, technology, and philosophy.
So the question I have for you is: which stories have you read (or written for yourself)? Which stories resonated with you and told you, in a convincing way, “Yes, life is like this, it’s about this, we should be this?”
It’s taken my over 30 years, but I’ve come to realize that being intelligent or a quick thinker doesn’t necessarily make you original. I wrote a lot of fiction in my youth (8-28), but that activity eventually passed. I became more interested in studying what other, brighter minds than mine had created. Some of that might be based on my day job, technical writing, wherein I translate engineering concepts (developed by someone else) into prose that other people can use on a practical basis. I’m not flashy in my writing, nor particularly emotional or dynamic. There’s a reason I’m a technical writer, not a marketing copywriter.
I really should have been a history writer, recording the thoughts and actions of brighter, better minds. And I might still do that some day.
What set me on this train of thought was not a rereading of my own writing (egad, perish the thought!), but simply reading about the history of a country I plan to visit someday soon. There were people in that nation’s past with more ambition, more exciting lives, more ability to change the world than I will ever have. In the present day, I can work for those people–Jason Hundley at Zero Point Frontiers and Darlene Cavalier at Science Cheerleader are true forces of nature–and I have just enough talent to be able to translate their ideas into something practical. I just lack the ambition or imagination to be them or to create the same level of dramatic enterprise.
Perhaps this is why I’m happily middle class, or middle management. I can execute other people’s brilliant ideas, I just don’t have the talent to come up with the bright ideas myself. And the thing is, at some level I’m okay with that. Changing the world involves too much struggle and aggravation. And, again, maybe being “bright” just isn’t good enough. If you’ve ever seen the movie or play Amadeus, I’m more like a contented Salieri than an effortlessly brilliant Mozart. I work to pay the bills, quite often. I’m not writing for the sheer joy of creation. I envy those people whose minds are exploding with new ideas…but would I want to be them? Not necessarily.
I have become a conduit and amplifier of brighter people’s good ideas. Am I okay with that? I suppose I’ll have to be. As was said in a Star Trek episode, “You can’t just wake up and say, ‘Today I will be brilliant’.” Raw talent can’t be taught. I’ve got to make the best of who and what I am. That’s not so bad, is it?
Update: This post is quoted (nearly) in its entirety in Gutsy Choices: Action Steps for Super Life Change by Russell DeWitt. Aside from my little bits of wisdom below, I commend it to your attention for further reading.
This post was prompted by a question from my friend Russ. The specific request was:
[P]lease tell me what benefits the world of writing has done for you in your development as a person?
Since childhood, I’ve done multiple forms of writing, from fiction to school assignments to work products and journaling. School and work products are necessary for intellectual and professional development–development of the mind. Story telling is an exercise in creativity: imagining things that never were, jumping into the unknown of our subconscious and making it known through characters, actions, and places. Journal writing is an exercise in self-analysis in literary form.
Each of these forms has its own virtues and develops a different part of the whole mind.
Fiction writing is the equivalent of a mental quest or vacation. I’m trying to tell myself or other people how I see the world. Fiction helps me express myself. Sometimes it helps me solve problems or express I see in the world. Maybe some of my stories have brought some good to those read them.
Journal writing, for me, is the tool I use to fix problems with myself. I’ve been keeping a regular journal since I got a typewriter for Christmas 27 years ago. Sometimes I write with the assumption that someone else will eventually read my thoughts, most of the time my audience is myself. I’ve speculated on how to make the world a better place, identified ways to improve myself or to find fault with myself. Sometimes my journal is a one-sided therapy session where I explain what I’m feeling, either in handwritten or electronic form. My journal lets me plan, vent, grieve, shout, laugh, and pontificate in ways that might or might not be acceptable to others, but it helps me clarify who I am to myself.
Has writing made me a better person? That would be harder to say. I look back at my journals from years back with some embarrassment, either because my half-smart philosophies at some point in my past now seem childishly wrong or because problems that cause me pain today are all too familiar and haven’t been resolved. Some problems I’ve resolved, others have arisen to take their place. And yet I keep writing, in a constant quest to better myself and to understand myself and my place in the world.
I write because that’s what I do and how I perceive the world. It is so much a part of me I hardly know life without it. When I am gone, my writing is all that will remain. Perhaps that will be enough to speak to the ages.
One task I enjoy doing as a professional communicator is taking meeting notes. Without bragging too much, it’s a thing several leaders have valued in my skill set because I can listen to a lot of information and identify the main point or the most important point, which is a slightly different skill set. My mother would call it “reading between the lines.”
I haven’t written about this topic before, partly because I try to avoid bragging, but also because I am uncertain how to teach others how to do it. I will give it a shot here, though (the word “essay” is French for “try,” after all).
Summaries (or lack thereof)
Some meeting leaders are kind enough to summarize a decision that was made or an event which has transpired, making it easy to pass on “the big news” afterward. However, sometimes meetings end ambiguously, without a clear decision or summary. Could that be the most important point? If the sole purpose of the meeting was to reach a decision, yes indeed.
Scope of impact
You could be listening to fact upon fact upon fact (try sitting through a monthly status meeting for a launch vehicle sometime). This mass increased by X pounds. The thrust of the engine increased by Y percent. The flight test moved to Z date. Obviously if you’re a structural or propulsion engineer, you might have different priorities. However, if you need to go back and report on a fact that affects everybody, which item will get your attention? The flight test date, obviously.
Other “hot button” items are facts that affect the budget, workforce, or ability of an organization to deliver a product or service at the agreed-upon level of quantity or quality. In short, will something that you heard affect the organization’s ability to accomplish its primary goal or mission?
This could take many forms, from good to bad. Did someone get a promotion? Have layoffs been announced? Did people come out of meeting upset? Angry? Elated? Was there a long-drawn-out argument? Human dynamics are important and can sometimes be more important than any facts that are announced during a discussion.
The “most important” fact in a meeting will sometimes vary by the priorities expressed by your organization, culture, or individual leader. When in doubt, it doesn’t hurt to ask: “Is there anything you want me to listen for?” Sometimes priorities change. Sometimes (and I’m sure every meeting leader is about to cringe reading this), there is no important information to come out of a meeting. It happens. Odds are, if you say that “nothing important” happened, you can record every individual fact at an equal level of importance and let the meeting minute readers make their own judgments. Still, prioritizing information is a useful skill to have. Keep it in mind the next time you’re sent to a meeting.