The Work Behind The Work

I’ve been reading the biographies of SF writers lately. I started with Heinlein, moved on to Vonnegut, and am now reading about Bradbury’s life. I love doing this because it keeps me in the mood to write. I read about these now famous guys going through the same issues I am going through — the struggle to find a voice, the ever upward path of getting your stuff out there, dealing with criticism that is sometimes completely off the mark and sometimes right on the money (which may be worse) — and I think, “Well, they got through it all right.”

One thing that strikes me about the lives of these three foundational members of the SF Authors club is that Heinlein and Vonnegut were both older when they got started. Heinlein was out of the Navy after suffering through a horrific case of tuberculosis (although one might more fairly characterize the treatment as horrific) and Vonnegut was working for Westinghouse as a publicist. On the other hand, Bradbury was an actual kid hanging around these powerhouse writers in LA and trying his own hand unsuccessfully at what they did every day.

I’ve come to believe that while it’s important to write (and read) a lot when you’re young, it’s also important to go get a job and have to get up every morning and work alongside people who aren’t artistic by nature. One of the things that strikes me about the differences between the works of these three men is that Heinlein’s stories are full of hard nosed pragmatists with real jobs, Vonnegut’s stories are societal commentaries that lament the dehumanization of mankind and Bradbury’s stories are largely fantasy.

That’s not a bad thing — or even a criticism — because many of Bradbury’s stories are pure works of art, but it makes me wonder if, lacking real world experience, he had to manufacture conflict that takes place in imagined worlds. It also stands to reason that is why he took so long to break through.

This is the reason so many novels have writers as their protagonist. That’s the only experience the author has and it speaks of a particularly shallow dip in the wellspring of human experience.

It would really be better if you spent a few years swinging a hammer alongside a burly Cajun who thinks what’s wrong with the world mostly has to do with college boys. Or work as teller in a bank for a bunch of buttoned-down, needle-nose pricks who are going straight from college to management. Or sell furniture at one of those places that’s always going out of business. If you want to get in touch with the rawest form of evil, working with commission salesmen is the best way to do it. Or work for the NSA where you’ll get an inside look at what a government agency gone rogue is really like.

Obviously, I mention these because they were things I did during my own in-between time and while the people I met and the insanity that ensued didn’t inspire any novels or stories outright, they did form the basis for the characterization and events I use to fill out those stories.

The only real danger in making a living and indulging in a normal life while practicing on the portable Smith Corona tucked under the bed in your flophouse room-by-the-week is that you might get distracted.

This happened to me when I dipped my toe into the nascent world of UNIX programming just as the tech industry was really taking off. Still, I can’t say it was a bad deal. I traded that writing time for two decades of enough income to get married, buy a house in the suburbs and raise two children. And all the while, I was compiling those character traits and anecdotes and outrageous misadventures to use as fodder for when I got back down to business.

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