Various Art Forms:

Survival – September 1, 2019

Climbing rope

Again, if living well is an art—and I believe it is—then managing your life and taking care of yourself are certainly an important art form. Note the active verbs here: “managing” and “taking.” Living is not a passive activity. Those who drift through life or expect others to take care of them—other than in instances of grave disability—cannot expect to have a good life.

When I was growing up, children were told they could be anything they wanted. And they were encouraged to “dream big.” After all, every little boy in America could “grow up to become President.”1 Perhaps today’s parents, teachers, and guidance counselors still tell children that. It would be a shame if they didn’t tell children to dream big dreams. But … there’s a caveat with that.

To get what you want, to become who you want, to live as you want—and not as other people command, direct, or allow—you have to scramble. You first need to dream, of course, but then you need to work, to do, to persevere, and to fight. And sometimes you have to do these things not just to have your dream job or preferred way of life. Sometimes you have to scramble and fight just to exist. But the alternative is death, either the slow and lingering death of the soul for lack of fulfillment, or the fast and hard death of the body for lack of eating and breathing.

I think too many people today, brought up in the richest, freest, most bountiful, most dream-inspired country in the world, believe that having what they want, living how they want, with the dream job, the inevitable success, and a comfortable living situation, with the big house, plentiful toys, and personal indulgence that go along with it—that all of this will be easy. That all a person has to do is show up, put in a maximum eight hours a day, and not screw up—or not too badly—and then success will be assured.

When I was growing up, everyone in the family thought I would follow in my maternal grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s footsteps and become a lawyer and perhaps one day a judge. I did not have the head for numbers that would have enabled me to follow my paternal grandfather and father into engineering. But I did have a certain facility with words and logic. The law seemed to be a natural fit until I also demonstrated a facility for writing and the imagination to tell stories. I began to think of myself as a fiction writer, even a novelist, after the fashion of a John Cheever, Robert Graves, or Herman Wouk. And my parents did not actively discourage this.

Other members of my extended family certainly did. Two friends of my grandfather, who were editors at the advertising trade magazine Printers’ Ink, advised him to warn me that very few people make a living by writing fiction, and this was echoed by my aunt, who also knew these friends and their negative opinion. Their estimate was that probably only ten or twelve people in the whole country—and this was in the late 1950s and early ’60s—lived solely by writing novels.2

On reflection, I can see the sense of this. A novelist, even one with a bestseller or two, cannot survive an entire career—a span of forty years or more, from the end of college at the traditional age of 22 until retirement at age 65—on the royalties from one or two bestselling books, even with movie tie-ins. A productive writer working in novels must produce a book every year or two. (A writer of short stories has to produce even more in terms of words, because the payout per story is lower and the market is actually smaller.) And then, not every book is going to be a bestseller, because the public is fickle and the competition is fierce. The most reliable way to make a living at writing—if you can—is to find a formula and stick to it. Think of Ian Fleming, who found his model early in the James Bond thrillers and pursued it through fourteen popular books, publishing one a year from 1953 to 1966. Or J.K. Rowling, who fashioned a series of books on the sequential school years of young wizard Harry Potter and his friends and pursued them with miraculous success.3

But still, that’s a handful of authors. And most writers would feel trapped writing book after book to a popular formula, as Stephen King suggested with his novel Misery. A creative writer naturally wants to branch out, try new forms, new genres, new characters in new situations. I certainly tried to do this, with books ranging from science fiction to literary fiction, and various novels based on history, computer science, biotechnology, and time travel. Doing the same old thing year after year is a kind of living death. So you try new things and experiment with genres and forms, but even with loyal readers, not every effort is going to be well received. Look at the difficulty Rowling has had with her novels set outside the Potter universe.

I also discovered that learning to write takes time and effort. Even someone with a big imagination and a facility with words needs to learn the craft of storytelling: how to structure and pace the story, where to place emphasis and what to leave to the reader’s imagination, how to inject the elements of character into action and dialogue, and on and on. I wrote my first novel—a dreadful space opera which could never be published—while in high school. That nailed my ambition to become a published author. I studied English literature in college, which grounded me in the background of storytelling but did not teach me the necessary skills; those I had to pick up on my own by reading and analyzing current fiction.4

But when I graduated from college I discovered an awful truth: most twenty-something people have little to say.5 My knowledge of the actual world was limited to my career as a student in academia. And my knowledge of science fiction and fantasy was dependent on what others had written before me. It would take me at least ten years working in two different industries—first in engineering and construction, then at an electric and gas utility—before I had enough experience of the world and the real people in it to begin framing stories.

In the meantime, I had to scramble. I started in business by using my English degree to work in book publishing, but that’s a hard business with low salaries. I took that experience into technical editing at the engineering company, and from there I got into communications writing: doing newsletters, magazines, and promotional brochures. From engineering I went to the utility company, and then with a few science fiction novels published in paperback—plus a small inheritance from an uncle—I tried to make a living with my fiction writing. I never made more, in total advances and royalties, than one year’s salary from working at my day job. And I was slowly starving to death, because my talent would always be that of a midlist author: a writer with a small following and reliable but not remarkable annual sales on that book-a-year treadmill. And then the midlist died with the collapse of the traditional publishing business in the early 1990s. So I had to scramble again, working as a temp or contractor at a petroleum refinery, a waste disposal company, and finally at a pharmaceutical company. Only then could I translate that experience to direct-hire employment as, first, a document writer, then as internal communicator at the biotech firm. And that was my last regular day job before being forced into retirement.

In short, to pursue my dream of writing fiction, I had to use my writing and editing talents—that facility for words and logic—in a variety of roles at various industries, whose requirements I had to learn on the fly and understand in order to survive. I had to continually reinvent myself. And only now, in retirement with an income based partly on Social Security and partly on conservative investment of my 401(k) savings, can I live the dream of writing fiction full time. I still don’t make much money at it, because I have no talent for self-promotion and marketing, which are required for both independent authors and those who can still make a sale to traditional publishers.

It’s been a hell of a life. I’ve never actually wavered from my dedication to words, logic, and storytelling. And I’ve learned a tremendous amount about the way the world works—and how people survive and prosper in it—at every industry for which I’ve written. It was not exactly my dream on my terms. But it came close.

I hope every child in school today, when told to “dream big,” gets the same chances I had and can make similar choices to survive and prosper. Because the alternative is a slow death or a quick one.

1. It wasn’t the same for girls, of course, back in the fifties and sixties. They could grow up to become good wives and mothers. Or, if career-minded, they could become nurses, secretaries, or librarians—some nice, indoor job where they would be helping and nurturing other people. President, senator, astronaut, truck driver, baseball player, brick layer—these were not in the cards for young girls. Thankfully, that has changed now.
    Oh, and a boy could not be President if he wasn’t a natural-born citizen and resident in the country for at least 14 years. And then he would have to wait until he was 34 years old. Other than that, it would help to have served a lifetime in politics and been rich, but those weren’t absolute requirements.

2. I also had an encouraging letter from the science fiction master Ray Bradbury, when I tried to send him a short story in high school. He declined to read it, but he did advise that if I wanted to be a writer, I should not go to college but instead get a job as a dishwasher and write, write, write every day, then submit and submit until my writing was accepted. Luckily, I did not follow this advice and did go to college, which was the basis for my being able to work at “day jobs” significantly better than washing dishes.

3. Some of the series and authors we think of as wildly successful—the Nancy Drew books by Carolyn Keene, the Hardy Boys series by Franklin W. Dixon—were actually collaborative works by a group of serial ghostwriters. Both of those two young adult series, and a number of other familiar titles like Tom Swift and the Bobbsey Twins, were originated and packaged by advertising genius and writer Edward Stratemeyer. Other long-established and successful authors, like techno-thriller writer Tom Clancy, have extended their range by bringing on serial collaborators who often end up writing the whole book under direction of the senior author. Early in my career, I wrote four books that way by arrangement with my publisher—and I was lucky enough to get my name on the cover, which many collaborators do not.

4. Some writers—even a few I know personally—have learned the craft by joining writers’ groups, attending formal, author-led classes, and going to workshops and retreats. I was never much of a joiner, and I found that what other authors, mostly amateurs themselves, had to say about writing tended only to limit—rather than expand—my sense of the possible. Maybe the workshop model works for some, but I have to explore my talent on my own, driven solely by my inner ear and my personal vision, and ultimately by what works.

5. Yes, there are brilliant young novelists who produce first bestsellers, but most of these books are about young adults coming of age. I was looking for an adult view of the world, like the fiction I tended to read. And I know from experience than any published “first novel” is generally the author’s third or fourth attempted manuscript. Look at Harper Lee’s first effort in Go Set a Watchman. The craft takes time to learn and many tries to master.