Sunday, January 26, 2014

Shades of Gray

The world is a complicated place. The human mind is a complicated device, and concepts like the self and consciousness are perhaps born out of the sheer complexity of neural networks. The universe is a place of staggering complexity and disorder, from the quantum level of swarming particles that can either be detected or followed but not both at once, to the cosmic level of swirling galaxies of stars, dust and gas that can be observed at a glance but not reliably counted.

Yet if the human mind has one consistent impulse, it is to reduce complexity and confusion to simple rules, categories, algorithms, and equations. The nature of mind and its teachings is to itch and seethe when confronted with shades of gray and push each instance toward the dark or the light, toward black or white, toward the aggregations of the “lumpers” or the categorizations of the “splitters,” and declare a singular kind of truth with its own simplicity and absolutism, the one true answer, the truth that is unchallengeable, uncontested, unexceptional, unchanging, final, and forever.

In politics, we look for enemies or allies. All human actions, all natural causes, all conclusions are made to work either in our favor or against us. The works of man are categorizable as inspired by either angels or devils, by the side of goodness, lightness, and reason or by the side of evil, darkness, and obstinacy, allied with our party or with the hated other. Everything fits within that mental framework. Nothing lives outside of it.

Our politics in the early part of the 21st century has perhaps reached some end stage of conceptual intolerance. People on opposite sides of all sorts of questions, from how to build a house or an automobile to how to tend a forest or raise a child or think about the weather, have become bitter enemies. The other side is not just working under false impressions, or with incomplete data, or in some measure of perceptual confusion. People on the other side are monsters of malfeasance, hatefulness, greed, and stupidity. They have secret, ulterior, anti-human motives. In fact, they are no longer human. They have joined the ranks of criminals and beasts. They have no rights which we need to recognize. They are unreachable and incurable. They should be put down without mercy or pause for understanding, like rabid dogs.

In science, we are more reasonable, sometimes. There are the things we know—which means we have examined their instances and occurrences, developed testable ideas about them, performed enough of these tests to be satisfied with the truth or reality of those ideas, and raised them to the level of principles, laws, and theories.1 And there are the things we don’t know—the grand questions, the eternal mysteries, the things we ponder in our hearts but believe that one day we will understand. We celebrate human knowledge and regret human ignorance, and we think we can draw a line between them. And, with the explosion of ideas and technologies that kicked off in the 16th and 17th centuries and created the western European “Enlightenment,” we have become ever more sure that the line is moving outward, into the darkness, radiating light, adding to the Things We Know, diminishing the category of Things We Don’t.

Even with a large portion of the observable universe still lying on the side of Things We Don’t Know, humans hunger for absolutes and propose the existence of grand unification theories. The physicists have put all known forces and interactions—which they believe includes the superset of all physical forces—into four categories. The first force is electromagnetic, which reflects the various effects of photons moving at various wavelengths. The second is the weak nuclear force, which holds a positively charged proton and negatively charged electron together as a neutron, and occasionally allows those neutrons to decay into their component parts plus a bit of energy. The third is the strong nuclear force, which holds masses of positively charged protons, plus chargeless neutrons, together in the narrow space of the atomic nucleus rather than flying apart, as all those positive charges want to do. And finally there is the fourth force, gravity, which is unlike any of the others and is variously considered an effect carried by particles known as “gravitons” in quantum mechanics, or as a property of spacetime due to its shape and structure in the theory of relativity—take your pick. For most of the 20th century and beyond physicists have tried to write equations and create models that put all these forces into one conceptual box: from particles of the Standard Model of quantum mechanics to the multiple dimensions and energies of String Theory. But what binds the universe of our observations together still remains in the realm of Things We Don’t Know.

And these days, even our science has become politically partisan. Scientists embark on a quest for answers rather than a quest for understanding. We look for a single gene or complex to explain obesity or alcoholism, rather than trying to understand the subtle interplay of genes, environment, experience, and emotion behind such conditions. We look for proof of our own propositions related to climate, society, or economics rather than admitting that what we are observing is a highly complex system that is not susceptible to one-dimensional propositions and solutions. And in all of these searches, we ignore the role of time, the ebb and flow of ideas and mental focuses, the evolution of understanding. We ignore the fact that today’s hot topics and chief problems won’t matter in a hundred or a thousand years, just as the social and economic problems and shibboleths of a hundred or a thousand years ago have since fallen from human memory.

Humans are innate model makers, rule finders, categorizers, organizers, and button, coin, and stamp collectors.

For the fit of human perception to physical reality, look at a map, almost any map. Map making is a product of human genius. Even the most complex maps are really simple objects, the products of human reduction and definition and categorization. Roads pass by here, rivers run there. A mountain stands here, a valley over there. But real roads are only as fixed as the last highway crew to pass through the neighborhood, and rivers meander with time over the underlying terrain. Mountains shade into foothills, which subside into the plains. Outflows of water and ice cut the rocks, and gravity induces landslides that carve the upthrust mountain into high crags separated by deep valleys. The definition of “mountain” and “valley” is a human construct, subject to endless estimation and surveys, followed by revisions and adjustments.

Even rivers are not single, stable things over their courses. Do you mean the river at spring flood, which overflows its banks and drowns the nearby fields? Or the late-summer trickle which can barely find its way down the gullies of the former riverbed? Drawing that river on a map is an approximation, taken at one point in time. And indeed, the river of a hundred or a million years ago may not lie anywhere near its current geographic coordinates. At the same time, those straight lines of latitude and longitude are themselves the constructs of human imagination and convenience. No straight line exists on the land, unless it’s a political boundary—and that’s another type of construct. No one knows the ancient boundaries of Pangaea.

Look at our conceptions of society, our myths and legends, our stories. The mass of humanity is divided in our minds into the Important People—once kings, nobles, and poets, now politicians, corporate titans, and celebrities like sports stars and movie actors—and everyone else. Stories are made around the extraordinary travails and adventures of heroes and heroines. Even supposed “antiheroes” and working class representatives of the “common man” are shown to have extraordinary although previously hidden abilities, attitudes, understanding, and resilience which elevate them to a special category, to become People of Interest. At the same time, everyone else in the story is an extra, a bit of movable background, simple people with plain faces and boring lives—unless they are villains driving the plot, with smiles pasted over their evil intentions and careful hairstyles, wardrobes, and pedicures covering their true horns, tail, and cloven hooves. But the truth is that even simple people with plain faces have complicated histories. Everyone believes he or she is a hero in one story or another. And no one wakes up in the morning determined to be a villain and do evil.2

The human-derived absolutes built into religion and faith are probably too obvious to mention here. But even the Buddha, who conceived of the human condition and morality without recourse to external and eternal gods, devils, and their rewards and punishments, was a systematizer and categorizer. His greatest reduction was the Four Noble Truths. These posited, first, that life itself is a process of change, which leads to anxiety, dissatisfaction, and pain. Second, that the cause of this pain is craving, clinging, attachment to transitory goods like youth, beauty, and perfection, and fear of undesirable outcomes like disease and death. Third, that the highest good is the cessation of this innate suffering. And fourth, that the path to this salvation is through personal adoption of right understanding, thought, action, speech, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration—the Noble Eightfold Path.

But while life may indeed represent change, anyone with a mind and heart can see that some things are indeed eternal—or at least will endure long for one lifetime. A mother’s love can remain unchanged from pregnancy and birth through to the last breath. The eyes of love can sustain another person’s beauty while the bloom of youth fades, the skin wrinkles, and the faculties themselves fail. The delight one feels in practicing a hard-won or well-honed skill continues into old age. If you doubt that, ask any musician, writer, painter, surgeon, chess master, or talented salesman. In a sufficiently complex art, the adept can always find some new insight, technique, dimension, and triumph. Even grand masters are still learning and become excited by their discoveries. O Buddha! To consign all life to pain and pessimism is for small and unsubtle minds.

Any reduction of complexity to certainty, any rule making that seeks to be more than simply provisional, any view that sees absolute black and pure white in the world around us—is an illusion. A construct that we put over the real world like a map over the land. A product of human imagination that will not be found among the endless shades of gray in which the universe is painted. Rather than embark on a quest for answers and truths, we should search instead for instances of understanding against a background of infinite complexity, and then celebrate them were we find them.

The world isn’t simple. Why should we expect our view of it to be uncomplicated?

1. And science admits of two kinds of theories, which are mutually exclusive. The first is an idea that has been insufficiently tested, falling into the category of “your crackpot theory.” It’s a theory that hasn’t caught on yet, and whose truth is waiting in the wings for further validation. The second is an idea so thoroughly tested and tried, and which carries such a towering ziggurat of confident observations, that it might as well be accepted as a principle or a law—except that no one has actually found incontrovertible proof of its existence.
       The Theory of Evolution is of this latter kind: mountains of evidence support it; the entire science of genetics explains it; and its application continually yields new and productive insights in biology and medicine. And yet no one has ever seen evolution in action. No one has ever observed one species turn into another. That may be because the process is too slow for human recordkeeping, or because inter-species transitional types are too fleeting to have left their traces in the fossil record, or because the biologist’s definition of “species” is somehow flawed by being too specific or too limited. Still, evolution as a principle cannot be tested in the same way that chemistry and physics can test the conservation of matter and energy.

2. Even Stalin and Hitler thought they were serving a higher purpose against perilous odds and the threat of greater catastrophes. The ruthlessness of their actions were driven by their perceptions of great need and urgency.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Author’s Job

I’ve said before that the novelist’s job is to create a universe no wider than two palms, fabricated entirely out of words, in which almost anyone can wander, meet new and interesting people, and believe that one or more of those lives is actually passing in real time. That world becomes a reflection of the author’s character and intentions, vision and imagination, reading and study, and intellectual curiosity. These are the preconditions of writing a good book.1

Now I want to convey what that effort requires of the author, both spiritually and emotionally. These are the costs of a good book.

The first requirement is belief. The author must believe in the world he or she2 is creating. I’m not talking here about the externals. The science fiction writer does not have to believe in the literal existence of time travel, wormholes, or humanoid aliens, because such things are not the core of the story but merely conventional and convenient artifacts and motifs that support it.3 What the author must believe in is the emotional truth of what the characters are experiencing and the reality of their situation or problem. And do that the author must put not only his imagination into the story but also his own emotional vulnerability. If at the climactic moment of love or loss, the author is not typing with tears of joy or despair running down his face, the story will probably not ring quite true.

Consider how hard that can be. The author is in fact a god to the world he creates, controlling space and time, placing and removing obstacles in the character’s path, remaining omniscient in terms of knowledge about the world and omnipotent in relation to the actions within it. Yet the author must also identify with the character. In order to project the character’s own fear, anger, frustration, fascination, love, or other dominant emotion, the author must share in it to some extent. So the author must exist in two places at once: inside the story, reacting with the characters; and outside the story, planning the next plot twist and its ultimate resolution.

Or at least that’s my experience. There may be authors who can fake it, who know just the right words to use that simulate emotion, and who have a mask stored away that they can whip out and use to cover their faces. But I’ve never been so facile, or perhaps not so professional, in my own writing. One part of me has to walk through the story, shadowing the character and feeling his or her joys and pains, and closing my mental ears to the Olympian voice from above—my voice from another part of my brain—that is directing the plot and what comes next.

Writing a novel can be emotionally exhausting. When I have a book in hand, occupying my mind, I tend to live quietly. I can’t go out and play or party and then come back, sit down, and write the day’s quota of story. I need to protect my exterior emotional states, avoiding extremes, so that my mind can be ready to react on a fictional level. So even though my actual practice of writing—the sitting at a keyboard and advancing the story line—might consume only three or four hours of my day, I remain in a guarded state for much longer than that. I can sit and read a book from a completely different universe. I can exercise or go for a ride on my motorcycle. But I can’t interact much with new people or engage in wholly new and demanding experiences. When I travel or take a vacation, the book shuts down completely, and I have to prepare for that emotionally.4

The second requirement is commitment. The novelist has to stake out a large fraction of his or her brain and consign it to the work in hand. Perhaps a writer with a short story in mind can conceive of it one day and then sit down the next and write it out, beginning to end, full and complete, discharging the memory banks entirely. But books take more involvement. Not only is the conscious mind occupied with the process—where the author asks questions and invents answers about the story and characters, often writing them down in plot notes and sources—but the unconscious or subconscious mind must also engage with the work as well.5

I tend to imagine my subconscious as a deep pool of some dark liquid, like oil or sludge, somewhere in the subbasement of my mind. Mysterious processes are at work under the surface. It reflects a whole other self—part monster, part angel, part dragon, part child, unseen and unknown—that occasionally rises up and spits out a notion, a word, a sensation, a thought. I can toss things into the pool, like a question about what comes next in the plot or how to resolve a problem with the story. And some things just fall into the pool by themselves, like a fragment of the music I’ve been listening to, a bit of art that I’ve seen, or some random experience. When I am healthy and in good spirits, the answer, the musical refrain, or the image will come back, on average, within three days. It will sometimes come back as a simple echo of what went in, or more often it will come back changed and twisted or interpreted. And if I’m very lucky, the answer to the plot question or resolution to the problem will surface as an Aha! thought that is perfectly obvious and perfectly in synch with the story.

Until my subconscious starts kicking out bits of plot and dialogue, I know that my mind is not fully engaged with the story. The story remains on the outside, a thing, a what-if, an undigested occurrence, something that could belong to any writer. But when my subconscious engages, the story becomes mine to tell.

I’ve said elsewhere that writing a novel is like renting half of your brain to troupe of traveling actors, and they can keep you up at night trying out lines of dialogue and bits of action.6 This is a reflection of subconscious engagement. A part of me that I don’t see and cannot command or control is at work on the story. And part of the story must come from this mysterious and unknown place, not just from thoughts that I can think at will.7

Because the subconscious works on its own timetable, I need to keep a notebook and pen with me at all times, a pad and pencil on the bedside table, and a writing tablet—for more complete ideas and fragments of scenes as they occur to me—as well as a block of Post-Its or pad of note-sized paper—for image fragments and simple reminders—along with a pen handy on the desk. I’ve found that, once the subconscious sends me a surprise package, I don’t necessarily have to work it through and turn it into the full prose of production writing right away. I can summarize it in a word or two, or a single thought, and put it aside for processing at a more convenient time. But if I don’t capture that notion in some written form, it disappears forever. And nothing is more frustrating than having to say, “I had an idea for the book this morning, but now it’s gone.”

Writing a novel is not actually an act of discipline but one of surrender. You don’t force yourself to do it. Instead, you shape your mind and your life through habit, preference, desire, and careful listening into a mental machine that can take thoughts and emotions and translate them into imaginary experiences. You become the book, the world, the characters, and their stories. And they must control part of you to make themselves real.

This submission to the book can be very strong. I wrote my first novel while still in high school. It was a complete manuscript, more than 400 double-spaced pages, about an interstellar empire and the man who leads a rebellion against it. It was derivative and childish, of course, but it dug so deep into my subconscious that I believed for a long while that it was the only story I had inside me. Finishing the book, having no more to say about it, having to let the story go fixed and cold inside my head, was a kind of trauma. It was like having half my brain removed. For a year or two after that, I could not think of another story. I was still dealing with the crater that first one had left in my head.

I think this is the way with many first books. The new author does not know how to celebrate the birth and then let go of the experience.8 The resulting trauma can lead many authors to become “one book wonders” and experience a lifetime thereafter of “literary constipation.” But eventually new stories will come, new notions for plot and character, and the healing brain goes to work on another book.

I wish it were easier. I wish it were possible for me to make up words according to formulaic plots and archetypal characters. But they wouldn’t be “real” for me and inhabit a credible universe. Instead, they would be wind-up toys moving around a painted set. The only way—for me, at least—to create that world between the palms is to let the story go deep, take control of my subconscious, and bit by bit build up the machinery that invents the plots and characters. It’s a painful process and represents a loss of personal control. But in the long run, it’s the only way I can work.

1. See A World Between Two Palms from September 8, 2013.

2. Hereafter and throughout this article, please consider “he” to include “she” as well. Given the equal or greater number of female authors these days, perhaps I should write “she” exclusively. But I don’t belong to that gender, and I identify more strongly with the male side of my nature than the female side.

3. As a case in point, although I’ve used them in my own stories or enjoyed them in the works of other writers, I don’t actually believe in time travel, wormholes, or humanoid aliens. They have no place in my conceptions of physics and biology, and I consider them elements of fantasy akin to magic and ghosts. Still, they are as much a commonplace of science fiction as the hansom cab and telegraph are to the Victorian England of Sherlock Holmes or the telephone to the 1950s play Dial M for Murder, and I treat them as such.

4. Curiously, I could write books back when I was working—but not as regularly nor as intensely as I have since leaving the corporate world. And there were evenings, especially after an emotionally trying or mentally challenging day in the office, filled with either excitement or anguish, when sitting down and focusing on book production was simply not possible. When I was in school, I used to get up early, well before dawn, and write for an hour before eating and showering for the day. But with a long commute through Bay Area traffic, this just wasn’t possible. At some point, rising much before four o’clock in the morning eats up too much of the night before. I can go a night or two on four or five hour’s sleep, but not long enough to produce a book.

5. See Working With the Subconscious from September 30, 2012.

6. See Some Thoughts on the Writing Craft on my author’s website.

7. Curiously, I can advance the mental process by taking a hot shower. Something about having hot water beating on my neck stimulates the imagination, probably by relaxing muscles and increasing blood flow to the brain. If I don’t know exactly how to write the next scene of the book or how to start an article, taking a shower makes the ideas come tumbling out. Maybe, also, it’s because standing there naked and wet is the one time I cannot pick up a pen and paper to capture those thoughts immediately but must mull and develop them on the spot.

8. And, after more than a dozen novels, it still takes me a month or two to let the echoes from one book die down before the thoughts about a new book can begin swirling up. It’s an invisible, unmanageable process for which I just have to sit quietly and let it happen. But if I have any faith at all, it is that my brain still works and the character voices will start whispering again.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Maybe It Was the Butterfly

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.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Years Rush By

Where did 2013 go? I know I lived through it. I mean, it’s not like I went into a coma or disappeared—or not too much—into that combination daydream and typing trance which descends when I’m writing a novel. Yet the year seems to have rushed by. Weren’t we just celebrating the holidays and New Year 2013? What happened?

I’ve noticed this more and more as I grow older. Time seems to be collapsing on me.

As a child I can remember an hour seeming like an intolerably long span of time, especially if I was stuck in a boring class or waiting for something like a doctor’s appointment. It probably went by faster if I was having fun, but I can still recall afternoons of riding around on my bike1 or playing with friends that were satisfyingly long and indulgent. By the end of the day, the morning and breakfast seemed a long time ago.

The school year lasted forever back then. As we got toward June, the two-week break over the Christmas holidays was a distant memory. Yet summer vacation was just ahead: three whole months of play in the sunshine, and it would last forever, too. By the end of August, with the prospect of school looming again, that day of blessed release back in June was also just a distant memory.

Now the hours fly by. I can barely start a project and the morning is half gone. The day fills up with things to do: maintenance activities like eating, grooming, errands, and chores, as well as project work and the inevitable interruptions.2 When I was working full-time at a corporate office, I often had to stay late for an hour or two just to “clear the decks” for the next day’s work before I could go home. And once or twice a month I would come in on a Saturday to catch up … and all this while I was considered a fast and efficient worker.

The seasons appear and disappear, not quite like the flicker of lights in windows on a passing train, but nearly so. Hey, it’s spring, are the days getting longer? Oh, it’s summer, and there’s fog on the Bay. Is it September already? … And the seasons are just standing in for the years, which fly by. I actually lose track sometimes. Did that happen last year, or the year before? Was it really five years ago that we went on that trip? Nine years since we got the dog?

Some of this is simply an effect of being a busy adult with more to do than any child in grade school. But not all of it. When I became semi-retired from the business world and just worked by writing my books, I expected the time stream to slow down, for the days to grow longer, and the years to resume their childhood pace. But it hasn’t happened. If anything, the hours pass like minutes, the days like half the usual allotment of hours, and the years seem about five months long. And time is melting on me faster and faster.

I believe this experience of time collapsing has to do with perspective. At the age of five, six, or seven a person has not had much experience of time at all. An hour or a day is a big chunk of time compared to what he or she knows from previous experience. A year accounts for only a fifth (20%), a sixth (16.66%), or a seventh (14.28%) of his or her total time on Earth. One walks slowly through such large segments of time.3 On the other hand, by age 50, a full year represents just two percent of one’s life experience, and it grows incrementally less as each year passes.

This is not unlike our experience of space and distance. When you first make a certain trip, by any route you can identify and repeat—from out beyond the suburbs into the city, or from one side of the state to the other, or across the whole country—it will seem to take a long time and cover a lot of ground.4 But the second, third, or fourth time you take that route, it will seem shorter, more familiar, less intimidating. If you make the trip weekly, as part of your business travels, or if it becomes your daily commute, it will seem even shorter and less involved. Again, it’s a matter of perspective and attention span. The more often you’ve seen that ground, the more your attention can block out—or do a mini-edit on—the various particulars.5 The ground literally collapses in your mind, the way the time stream collapses in your life.

If the promise of modern medicine and technology holds true, we are all going to live longer through better nutrition, better management of life’s stresses and risks, better understanding of the body and its vulnerability to aging and disease, more reliable medical diagnostics and treatments, organ regeneration and replacement through stem cell manipulation, and all the other advances coming our way. In tune with that, we will also need to work on our personal psychology and our perception of time. What is the benefit of living longer—not just a few years, but a few hundred or a thousand—if the end result is those extra years passing like hours, and the hours passing like seconds? Why, we’d still be dead in no time at all!

1. A big, metallic-maroon Schwinn bicycle with no gears and a single coaster brake. But it had steel panels, rather like bodywork, that filled the space between the transverse bars. It also had a big, battery-powered headlight and heavy tires with whitewalls. It was not spiritually unlike, but had not yet developed into, some of the motorcycles I would ride in later years.

2. As a writer and editor—which describes almost all of my adult working life—I never could be protective of my time at the keyboard. In the modern business world, with telephone calls and urgent emails to answer, you can’t cocoon yourself to get the work done. I learned to parcel my time early on, when I was working as a technical writer producing reports and proposals at an engineering and construction firm. This was truly the world of “absolutely, positively gotta be there overnight,” with distractions coming every ten minutes, sometimes every five.
       I learned to handle interruptions like a computer program putting tasks onto a “stack.” (Think of plates pushed onto the spring-loaded dispenser in a cafeteria line.) So, I would be working on a piece of writing, get interrupted by an email request and start handling that, then get interrupted by a phone call and start researching that, then have someone appear at my desk or in my office doorway and try to answer his or her question … I found I could deal with about seven levels of interruption, seven “plates” on my stack, before I began to lose track of where I was. In time, I could work like an air traffic controller at JFK, just stack up those jumbo jets in line and deal with them one by one.

3. Comparatively, a newborn baby not yet a month or a year old must have an almost frozen sense of time, although none of us can remember that far back and recall the experience. In a way, the newborn’s sense of time must be like that of an astronaut traveling at very nearly the speed of light: nothing … much … happens … for a … long … time.

4. Back when I worked in Oakland or San Francisco, less than a dozen miles from my home in the East Bay, going down the Peninsula to San Mateo or Palo Alto, covering three times that “normal” commute distance, seemed to take me far away and consume a lot of time. It would be an excursion rather than a simple trip. But then I signed on to a job in Foster City, right next to San Mateo, and commuted on that route for ten years. At the end of those years, even though with commute traffic the trip took longer—forty-five minutes in the morning, hour and a half in the evening—it seemed much shorter. Everything depends on what you’re used to, and that alters your perspective.

5. Some of this also has to do with latent anxiety. The first time you make any trip, you are looking out for street signs, exit ramps, map references, and other guides along the way. The second or third time, you’re more confident and remember the route. The umpteenth time, it’s a blur of useless knowledge, and you don’t even think about street signs and exits, but are simply driving by rote in full-brain automatic.