Looking back over my career history, I have to admit my function in the economy has been that of a drone in the beehive. I have produced nothing that my society desperately needed and sometimes nothing it even wanted. Yet I’ve been gainfully employed for most of my forty years in the business world, except when I took sabbaticals to write my novels and then lived on my savings. Calmly accepting my dronehood may seem like a harsh view of affairs, but as you near the end of a long run, you become dispassionate: the big picture is bearing down on you.
I always knew I was on economically shaky ground. One of my grandfathers was a civil engineer who built skyscrapers, the other a lawyer and county judge who helped people with disputes, wills, and land sales. My father studied mechanical engineering and pursued a career that included helping develop radar during World War II, then working on early developments in nuclear fuel processing, digital computers, and electronics. My mother studied landscape architecture and became a draftsman during that same war before retiring to become a housewife and mother to two boys. All of them led good productive lives. But I thought I had a talent for writing, and so I studied English literature—and even then it was considered the classic pursuit of the useless dilettante.
When I graduated from the university, I might have become a teacher. English teachers help young people become expressive and imaginative. The world would be a darker place without such people to introduce young minds to the literary and dramatic arts. Or I might have become a journalist. Journalists investigate and inform millions of people, and occasionally they change the course of history. But either career, teacher or journalist, would have required me to engage in specialized study, a different undergraduate major entirely from English literature.
My undergraduate degree pretty much qualified me to get into graduate school. There, with another four years of study and research, I might have earned a PhD that qualified me to teach at the university level. And whom would I teach? Other undergraduate English majors aspiring to become English professors, wear tweeds, smoke a pipe, attain tenure, and be paid a scholarly stipend to find the deeper meaning in the works of Jane Austen and Henry James.1
But when I graduated as a baccalaureate, after sixteen years of continuous schooling since the age of six, I was already burned out on learning, deep reading, and research. Applying to grad school in order to enter a life of same had for me the feeling of walking into the ocean, then swimming, then floating, then drowning.
So I found other things to do with an English degree. I wanted to write novels from the start, but at first you need a day job. With the help of two of my favorite professors, I was accepted as a book editor at the university press. That meant sitting for eight hours a day marking up scholarly manuscripts for prose style, punctuation, and printer’s instructions. That job ended with the state’s next budget crunch,2 and I traveled west to California. There my dad had retired from engineering and was running a custom drapery making and cleaning business; so I hung curtains in high-rise offices—my only non-English-major job since graduation—until I found work as a book editor for a publisher of railroad histories and Western Americana. That meant more hours of marking manuscripts, this time for enthusiastic railroad buffs and amateur historians.
After that job ended, because the owners were winding down the business, I moved on to technical editing—marking up and coordinating the production of engineering reports and proposals; then to public relations—writing press releases and marketing brochures; on to employee communications—writing in-house newsletters, magazine articles, and executive speeches; and finally into manufacturing documentation—writing procedures for scientists and skilled labor making pharmaceuticals and biotech reagents.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed this work and found it personally rewarding. I got to rub elbows with engineers and scientists working on the cutting edge of modern technology: civil and mechanical engineers building hydroelectric dams, steel mills, cement plants, transportation systems, and power plants; utility engineers developing alternative energy projects and building electricity and gas transmission and distribution networks; control systems engineers monitoring processes at an oil refinery; biological scientists developing new medicines; and chemists and engineers inventing new ways of studying the genome. In every one of these jobs I found that, if you ask the right questions and don’t pretend to know more than you do, you can learn a tremendous amount.3
But upon reflection I can’t claim I was ever necessary to any of these industries.
The scholars, railroad buffs, and amateur historians whose manuscripts I edited really weren’t bad writers. I might have rearranged a few of their dependent clauses and unsplit a few infinitives, but it’s not as if I was turning straw into gold. And marking their manuscripts for the typesetter, specifying line widths, paragraph indents, and punctuation marks—for example, making sure each and every dash was designated as an em-dash, as if the typesetter might suddenly go crazy and start inserting en-dashes or hyphens—was sheer fastidiousness in pursuit of absolute clarity.
The engineers and scientists I worked with were all already pretty good at explaining their work. They could make it clear to me; so they could easily have gone ahead and produced their own reports, proposals, and manufacturing documents unassisted. They might occasionally have misnumbered a paragraph or left out a comma or left in an unexplained acronym, but technical understanding would still have been achieved.
The employees for whom I wrote newsletters and magazine articles—and later created topics for the company’s internal website—already knew what was happening inside the firm. Whole batches of our newsletters got dumped in the wastebasket as soon as they arrived at local offices. The magazines went into the trash as fast as they arrived in home mailboxes. The internal website was notoriously unread and unremarked. The company events and meetings I arranged and managed drew perhaps three percent of the employee base, because everyone else got the inside scoop from their supervisors and managers.4
The executives for whom I wrote speeches were all able speakers. They would work over my text for two or three drafts and then, arriving at the podium, just glance at the topic headings and wing it. A capable engineer or executive who knows his business can always speak confidently about his or her subject—just as a capable politician, general, or attorney can speak well extemporaneously. I might have found them a joke or two to start, arranged a few of the thoughts in the middle part, and given them a logical stopping point. But they didn’t need the talents of a writer in order to use their own words.
In every case, I held these jobs and performed these functions, not because the actual authors, readers, users, and speakers required me, but because someone higher up in the organization’s management felt a need. The executives in charge of funding my position thought those readers and users needed a special functionary—me as editor, writer, and coordinator—in order to backstop the process, prevent the occasional costly mistake, or put across their message. I was a security blanket, a safety net, a spoonful of grease in the gears. My real function was to put the minds of the organization’s chiefs at ease. When I dealt with those chiefs directly,5 I was just a chauffeur to their words—as if they were incapable of driving themselves.
And between these gigs in editing, writing, and documentation, I wrote my novels. I consider that my true calling, although it’s never been very lucrative, only personally rewarding. Writing fiction doesn’t pay the rent. Most months it doesn’t even buy a dinner out.6 It’s not that I write bad novels.7 It’s that I’m competing with a million other English majors who also have a talent for words, a bright idea, a typewriter—now a computer—and a ream of paper.
The point of all this explanation is not to justify a woe-is-me. I’ve done very well, thank you. These jobs rewarded me adequately in my younger days and then very handsomely toward the end of my career. They enabled me to support myself and my family, pay the mortgage, eat out regularly, and buy both the necessities of life and my preferred toys, books, and music. Life has been very good for me.
I can say this as a person who never made an ounce of steel or cement nor designed or built the plants that produce them. I never generated a kilowatt of power nor strung a foot of transmission wire. I never discovered any new medicines nor invented a new technique for exploring the genome. I have written books that help explain the human condition to my satisfaction, but I can’t claim to have given a vast crowd of readers much insight or many aha! moments.
The point of all this explanation is that we have a rich economy—rich beyond the dreams of any conquering Ramses, Alexander, Augustus, or Napoleon. Working through free markets, widely shared scientific principles and technological discoveries, a mobile labor force, and the driving tempo of creative destruction, we have built an empire of vast wealth. Our economy produces enough surplus wealth and productive energy that we have been able to graduate millions of English majors, fine arts majors, psych majors, anthropologists, and other pursuers of philosophy and letters over the years and still find them good-paying jobs as handmaidens to business and industry.
If the economy is an ecology, where the more economic activity you have, the more niches for productive enterprises and aspiring people you create, then I’ve been a drone in the hives of busily pollinating worker bees. I can’t imagine that the barren, dreary economies of places like Soviet Russia and the old Communist China were ever able to find so many happy niches for their own literature, arts, and psychology majors. Or that they were able to contemplate educating and graduating so many drones-to-be in the first place.
Western civilization, with its distinctive market practices and technological revolution, has erected a fountain of wealth and privilege. I’m grateful for the opportunity it gave met to exercise my one best talent and still make a good living.
1. For a while I did wear tweeds and smoke a pipe. I can’t say they did anything for my image.
2. The press was attached to my alma mater, Pennsylvania State University. That job crossed paths with the first of a long string of recessions that have since plagued my working life, this one starting in 1970. It came down to plowing the back roads of Pennsylvania that winter or employing someone like me to edit scholarly publications. The plows won. That was the last government job I ever held—and good riddance.
3. I spent my university career avoiding math and science in favor of literature and the arts. I spent my working career making up for the self-imposed deficiencies in my education.
4. The most meaningful parts of my job, as far as everyone else was concerned, were the annual Halloween haunted house and the Christmas lunch. They were big hits—until another budget crunch came along.
5. This is that “C suite” and “C level” stuff job descriptions keep talking about.
6. I once added up all my advances and royalties from fiction writing over the past quarter-century and figured they amounted to approximately my annual salary from one year in the middle of my business career.
7. Or that’s my opinion.