The Human Condition:

Life as a Mad Scramble – April 22, 2018

Word pile

Because I had already written one novel in high school—not a good one, a derivative space opera, but still it was a complete story in 472 double-spaced pages—I determined to go into English literature as my major at the university. I believed that, when I got out, I would become a novelist, a fiction writer, in order to make my living.

Most English majors around me at the university wanted to become teachers, either at the high school or college level. To teach in grade school or high school, they would need teaching credits from the College of Education, as it was then called at my university. To teach at the university level, they would need to take a master’s degree and then a doctorate to become a full professor with tenure rights. But this matter of learning English literature in order to teach English literature seemed self-perpetuating to me, like learning Japanese swordmaking in order to teach others to make Japanese swords. So long as society felt a need for students and the adults they would become to have a grounding in the literature of their civilization—or an in-depth knowledge of the artistry of swordmaking—the process might be self-sustaining. But let the faith in either literature or historic arms fade, and the teaching paradigm collapses.

But I was on a different path, learning to write novels. I actually proposed as my senior thesis to write a work of fiction instead of some scholarly dissertation, and my advisor agreed to consider it. But when the time came, I didn’t have an idea for a long story or novella. And when it came time to graduate, when in my dreams I would step away from the university and begin writing the novels that would make my reputation and earn my living, I discovered I didn’t have much of anything to say. That one novel back in high school, the story I had been dying to tell, appeared to have stood alone in my mind.

On a feverish Saturday morning in the winter term before my graduation, I actually went across the street to the building that housed the School of Journalism and found a professor in his office. I described my situation and asked about the prospects for an English major in journalism. He was kind but also, of course, amused. In his world, learning to become a journalist took years of training and practice—and this was back in the day when print ruled supreme and reporting with the written word counted for everything, while the mechanics of radio and television were taught as an interesting sideline, and the internet had not even been invented or imagined. He suggested that I should have started back in my sophomore year, switched majors, and dedicated myself to learning the reporter’s trade.1

In the end, I had the good luck of having impressed two of my professors. One recommended me to an open position at the university press, and the other immediately told me to bring my first editing assignment over to his house where, after dinner, his wife gave me a crash course in copy editing and manuscript markup.2 I held that university press job for all of six months, until the current depression hit home, the state university was squeezed for funding—in competition with the budget for plowing the state’s roads—and I was laid off two weeks before Christmas. But it was a start in the publishing world.

After being laid off, I came west to California, where my parents had established themselves the year before, and worked in my father’s business until I found a job editing trade books at a small press that specialized in railroad histories, western history, and Californiana. The job didn’t pay much, but it was interesting and served as a great introduction to my adopted state and a part of the country I knew only vaguely.3

From publishing, I went into technical editing at a local engineering and construction company, and that job turned into a position in their public relations department. And from there, I went to the local gas and electric utility, first as a technical writer and then in internal communications. After a stint of writing and publishing my first eight novels of science fiction—and getting caught up in the tidal wave that swept over the publishing world in the late 1980s and early ’90s (see The Future of Publishing: Welcome to Rome, 475 AD from September 9, 2012)—I went back to the working world at, first, a biotech company that made pharmaceuticals through recombinant DNA and, then, a manufacturer of genetic analysis instruments and reagents. In both cases, I started with technical writing and editing, then worked my way into internal communications, interviewing scientists and managers about new products and company issues.

At every step in this forty-year career, I had to scramble and reinvent myself. And I had to keep learning, asking questions, and absorbing new scientific and business knowledge along the way. But I never resorted to teaching professionally and I never once—in that old joke about English majors—had to ask, “Do you want fries with that?”

In my university days, I often hung out with engineering students. They would deride my English courses because, in their view, all I had to do was “bullshit” my way through a term paper, while they had to solve difficult equations and get the right number. Imagine their surprise, some years later, when I met the same kind of young engineers at work, and they were just discovering that “getting the right number” was the job of junior engineers. To advance to senior positions like project manager and vice president, they would have to write and speak well, entertain clients who were not all engineers or had grown beyond the engineering techniques they had learned so long ago, and understand a lot more about business and economics. That is, those engineering students would have benefited from a healthy dose of the humanities that any English major or liberal arts student was supposed to take along with his or her major. These talents last longer and go farther than the particular knowledge an engineer learns in school—although you have to keep up with the technical advances in any specialty.4

And when I got into the biotech world, I saw any number of postdocs who had devoted their academic lives to one submicroscopic scientific specialty. When they got into the working world, they were beginning to learn that, outside of academia or a government lab, they would need a lot more generalized understanding of both their area of science and the business principles that make a successful product function and sell. If they remained within their scientific “comfort zone,” they would limit themselves to just the one or two laboratories that did their own specialized line of inquiry.

Liberal arts education used to prepare generalists for work in management and government, where breadth of view, a knowledge of history and its patterns, and a familiarity with different viewpoints and ways of thinking—not to mention the common sense gained from this exposure—were valued more than any particular technical knowledge. Now they teach even social science and public policy as a specialty where students think they can safely ignore literature, art, and music. We are training a generation of termites for fitting into the narrow functions of the hive.

And in all of this, I am reminded of the quote from Robert A Heinlein in Time Enough for Love: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

1. I have since learned a bit about journalism, because writing for an employee newsletter or magazine—which I had to do as my main job in internal communications—uses the forms and principles of professional reporting: the 5W lead (i.e., Who, What, Where, When, and Why, or sometimes How) and the inverted pyramid style (i.e., tell the most important facts at the top of the story and then gradually descend into more minute details—because readers may not stay with the story to the end and want to know they are not missing anything important if they stop now, and because editors are constantly repositioning the stories in their newspaper and want the convenience of shortening the text from the bottom up without having to call for a rewrite). An internal communicator, even though he or she is presenting a viewpoint congenial to the company’s interests, must also present the story objectively or risk losing the employee-reader’s trust. And then, articles in a magazine will of course have a different structure—with a traditional beginning, middle, and end—because they are not necessarily jostling for page space and the reader’s attention, time, and interest.

2. Twice since then I have paid the favor forward, taking people who had just been hired into the editing profession, showing them about copy marking and typography, and presenting them with their very own copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, the Bible of the book publishing world.

3. Because this publisher had started out as a job printer, they were was one of only three houses in North America at the time that put all the elements of publishing under one roof. Right back of the office where I worked on manuscripts and read galley proofs, we had the linotype machines, which set the copy for all their books; the photography department, which made screened photo reductions and stripped the plates for the printing presses; the small four-color press for book jackets and the large sheet-fed Harris press for the interior pages; the bindery where the folios were folded, sewn, and bound; and the stock room and shipping department, where the books were stored, packaged, and sent out. Manuscripts and cartons of loose photos came in one door, and bound books went out the other. They even had a massive flat-bed letter press in the back, which printed directly from the cast type, one sheet at a time. Working there was a daily history in the civilization of the printed word: This is a Printing Office.

4. Except, perhaps, in the study of English literature itself. Since I left the university, the English Department there and everywhere has been taken over by critical analysis and the theory of deconstruction, which focuses more on the mechanics and limitations of language than the quality of literary expression. As I understand it—and I never studied the deconstructionist philosophy professionally—the approach would have you believe that no modern reader can fully understand, say, Shakespeare, because the language and the meaning of words and application of concepts has changed so much since the plays and sonnets were written. This would seem to undermine the idea that great literature presents us with themes and concepts that are universal and that resonate with human nature itself—and that’s a faith I tend to live by.