The Human Condition:

Maybe It Was the Butterfly – January 12, 2014


The story goes that the Chinese Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a butterfly, flitting in the sky. And when he awoke, for a moment there, he could not remember whether he was Chuang Tzu dreaming he was a butterfly—or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tzu.

I had a similar experience the other day. It had nothing actually to do with dreaming about butterflies, but it involved considering the path my life has taken. When you retire—as I pretty much have, with only my writing to keep my brain active and my life involved with the economic world—you begin to make the inevitable evaluation, the summing up, trying to corral your life experiences, and beginning to prepare your case for the examination to come. And my sense was, this all might have been a dream, a life that has passed in the few minutes of REM sleep before waking up.

This has not been a very eventful life, it turns out. And for that, I am thankful. Mostly.

I have never known great hardship or loss. The years since I graduated from the university have seen serial recessions, then steep inflation and economic stagnation, followed by two giddy technological expansions and two even deeper recessions. Through it all, I’ve worked in four different industries, usually changing jobs at the cusp: as a copy editor in book publishing; as a technical editor and then public relations writer for an engineering and construction firm; as an internal communications editor and speechwriter at an electric and gas utility; and finally alternating between technical writing and internal communications at pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. These have been totally different industries, but the same kind of work. Or rather, I think of it as encountering different substrate materials—stone, wood, clay—but doing the same carving. And along the way, I began writing and publishing science fiction, first with a paperback publisher and then for myself with ebooks.

In my late twenties, I married a good woman who is a native San Franciscan. We’ve remained together for thirty-seven years. Although we never had children, we did help raise a young man who is like a son to us, and he and his family are our next generation. We still live in the same condo we moved into right after marrying. For a while, we looked at houses in the Bay Area and thought about scaling up—but neither of us much liked the thought of taking care of a big house. Neither of us wanted the expense and upkeep of a yard, either. And we found we could lock the condo’s front door, stop the mail and newspapers, put the dog in a kennel, and fly off to Mexico or Europe without a care in the world. Over the years, we’ve also saved a fortune by staying put, and that has enabled us to pay off the mortgage and live well in relatively early retirement.

So … the years have slipped by. Occasionally, I’ve had a new job and a new commute. Or maybe I was driving a different car or motorcycle. Maybe I had a different book to write and finish. But life has bumped along, never getting rich in the booms, never going broke in the busts.

I think back to the various lives I might have experienced, and I recognize some divergent points.

First, when I was in junior high school, I dreamed about becoming a novelist. I greatly admired Ray Bradbury’s science fiction, and I sent him a letter asking if he would read a story I’d just written. He declined gracefully, but then he offered me the master’s advice on becoming a writer. Don’t go to college, he wrote, just take enough of a job to get by and write, write, write. Sooner or later I would become a published author.

I didn’t take that advice. If I had, I believe that today I would be a retired truck driver living in central Pennsylvania with a bad back and a drinking problem. I know enough about my writing talent to understand that, while I can write good prose relatively fast and perhaps even charmingly, I don’t think up enough good story ideas and can’t develop them fast enough to live on the income from publishing one book every year or two. And the kind of ideas I do get don’t lead to bestsellers and movie tie-ins. My head and my sense of story and character are too quirky—by turns too conservative and too speculative—to dovetail with the fiction market that other writers seem to tap into so easily. So my “enough of a job to get by” would have been my life’s work, with occasional boosts from publishing novels in the mid-list. Without a college education, I certainly could not have worked as a book editor, technical writer, or internal communicator. So I would have driven a truck or tried to sell something like cars or insurance, although I have absolutely no talent at face-to-face persuasion. It would not have been a bad life, but not as exciting as mine has been.

The wonderful thing about being a technical editor or a communications writer is that you learn the inside of the industry where you’ve landed. I’ve had the good fortune of working alongside top-notch engineers and scientists, and my task has been to make their ideas and creations accessible to outsiders—to bankers and financiers who will back the construction project, to the manufacturers and users of the new product, to other employees at the company, and even to other engineers and scientists in different disciplines. By asking the right questions, I’ve learned about the technological infrastructure that makes our civilization work in several important areas. That has given me a solid database and a wealth of material to fuel my writing. I couldn’t have done that by driving a truck or selling shoes.

The second life choice came at the end of high school. I had already been accepted at the university of my choice, and that gave me my 2-S student deferment from the draft. But for two weeks that spring I seriously considered a different course. Rather than go right into college, I would volunteer for the service. And since I’m more romantic than practical, I wanted to go into the Army or Marines, to go to war—which at the time meant going to Vietnam. I’d always been a bookish lad and not particularly physically fit, but I entertained the possibility of putting myself in the military’s hands, to let them make me into a soldier, and then to go into harm’s way.

My parents would have been horrified, if I’d told them. But I did share the idea with one of my teachers whom I greatly respected. She told me that, of all the students she’d taught, I was one who definitely belonged in college. So I put away thoughts of war and went into liberal arts and became an English major, building on my longstanding idea of becoming a writer. Before I graduated, the draft had become a lottery system, and my lucky number was 347. So I never had to go to war.

If I had—either right out of high school, or after college—I would have done my best. I could have hacked the discipline. I have great respect for those who have served, who put their lives on hold while letting the service shape them. I don’t know where I would have come out of the experience, perhaps as a career soldier, perhaps as a wounded veteran, and perhaps even dead. It might have been an exciting life, and I might have been better prepared with more material for exciting stories, but it wouldn’t have been the life I’ve had.

The third life choice came right at the end of college. I had wanted to be a writer and became an English major. As I faced graduation, I realized that although I deeply loved reading and stories, characters and their fictional lives, I didn’t have even one book in me yet. In high school I had written a complete novel—475 double-spaced pages, typed with a carbon, about rebellion in an interstellar empire—and realized even then it was derivative trash.1 I knew I would need some growing time and psychological distance to get ideas for the kinds of books I could write. So I thought briefly in the last couple of months before graduation—and after my 347 in the draft lottery was secure—about changing my major to journalism and having ready-made access to material. Then I was lucky in that one of my mentors at Penn State, Stanley Weintraub, arranged an entry-level position for me as an editor at the university press. Another mentor, Philip Klass, helped by asking his wife Fruma to give me the world’s fastest overnight course in copy editing, so that I could survive in the job.

I was good enough at it that the next logical step would have been moving to New York and trying to get a position at one of the big book publishers, Random House or Harper & Row. Beginning fiction editors made a pittance in those days, less than I would make a year later as a trade publishing editor in Berkeley and much less than a technical editor at the engineering firm three years after that. But when the recession came and I was laid off after six months at the university press, I went west to join my father in his new business cleaning draperies in California, rather than east to New York and the publishing world. I hung draperies for a couple of months before finding the trade publishing job, editing books about western history, Californiana, railroad histories, and steam transportation. From there I went into the other industries.

If I had stayed in the east, I might have advanced in publishing to become an acquisitions editor or maybe—flip side of the coin—a literary agent. But I probably wouldn’t have started my own writing career. And I still wouldn’t have had much to say, because living and breathing other peoples’ work doesn’t give you original material for writing fiction. Also, I certainly wouldn’t have met my future wife, who became the companion of my life and whose second cousin was orphaned and became like a son to us.

Also, I know by now that if I had stayed in the east and worked in a big publishing house, I would have been doomed. Changes in the tax laws subsequently changed the economics of publishing printed books in the 1980s and led to a meltdown of the industry and the end of mainstay, mid-list publishing in the ’90s.2 Unless I had become either very important or very powerful in the publishing world by then, I would have been out on my rear end and gone into selling shoes or insurance. So I dodged an economic bullet there.

In an economic sense, my life as a wandering English major has been a mad scramble. Little did I realize that I would have to reinvent myself as editor, writer, and communicator,3 and then migrate from the book industry through engineering to biotechnology in order to stay employed. Being resilient, being willing to start over, and not being afraid to ask questions have been the keys to success in this turbulent past half-century.

And now it all seems like a dream. Might my life have been different as a starving would-be author, a truck driver, a soldier, or perhaps even a publishing executive? Certainly. Might I have experienced a different kind of family life had I remained on the East Coast and married a New York girl? Certainly—perhaps with one or more children, and possibly even with a mistress. Some mornings I wonder if I’ll wake up and find myself back in college, but this time with a draft number in the low 100s. Or wake up in a tent in the jungle with 300 days left on my tour of duty. And what will the butterfly do then?

1. I wrote a second complete novel—this time without the carbon paper, because photocopying had become practical—when I was with the engineering company. It described the process of bidding on construction of a major industrial project. It wasn’t exactly trash, but it lacked the emotional impact that I would learn to create with my third manuscript and my first real work of science fiction—the book that became The Doomsday Effect. Every first novel is actually the third or fourth book the author has produced. Every overnight success is about ten years in the making.

2. See Welcome to Rome, 475 AD from September 9, 2013, as part of my blog series on the changes in publishing.

3. Corporate communications, either of the internal or external variety, has become more than just writing and editing. You also have to become good at computers, graphics, typography, photography, video, printing, page layout, website design, opinion polling, and a host of other technical disciplines. Luckily, I am the Son of a Mechanical Engineer, not afraid of technology, and fascinated by small computers and their applications.