Looking Forwards v. Looking Backwards

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Do you read books about the past, or about now, or the future?

Our Nig by Harriet WilsonThis morning I started work on an essay about African-American fiction in the 19th century. It began with a question that had popped into my head: “Who was the first black novelist in our country?” This kind of fun sleuthing on the internet inspires me to write essays. I quickly came across articles about how Henry Louis Gates, Jr. had discovered a long forgotten book in the early 1980s called Our Nig; or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black (1859) by Harriet Wilson. That made me want to research a number of other things. Have earlier novels been uncovered since? What were the second, third, fourth, fifth novels? What about short stories? Were any bestsellers in their day. Before long I realized I could spend weeks on this project.

Men-Into-SpaceI usually think of several ideas a day for researching and writing. I start work on just a fraction of these ideas, and complete work on damn few. Another idea I got yesterday was to write about Men Into Space, a one-season TV show of 38-episodes (1959-60) that worked to be very realistic about space flight. A lady in my online book club mentioned it and I was surprised I hadn’t known about it before now. It’s not available on DVD except as DVD-R sales through places like eBay (because it’s in the public domain). It is available to watch online at YouTube. However, I did find a book, Men Into Space by John C. Fredriksen that extensively writes about the series. I’d love to write a book like this – if I could focus my mind for a year or two.

The Spacesuit Film - A History 1918-1969 by Gary WestfahlWhile researching Men Into Space I came across another book The Spacesuit Film: A History 1918-1969 by Gary Westfahl that covered Men Into Space as well as other movies and television shows that prefigured the space age. Hell, this exactly the kind of book I’d love to write too. But can you imagine the time it would take? But wouldn’t it be fun to watch all those old movies and television shows analyzing them for how they imagined the future? However, how many people read such books? I want to, but the $39.95 price for the paperback stops me. Even the $19.99 price for the Kindle edition is making me think long and hard.

This suggests another idea for researching. How many people buy and read these esoteric kinds of history books? How many people love to study tiny segments of forgotten history? I have this nagging desire to write something longer than blog essays. This month was supposed to be the month I began a book-length project. And I did start on an idea, but once again got side-tracked by too many distractions. But I’m back to focusing my mind on the project.

I have to ask myself, who is going to read what I write and why? Why spend a year, or several, writing something few people will want to read? It occurred to me this morning I could divide books into three categories: about the past, about the present, about the future. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction.

To Be A Machine by Mark O'ConnellI’ve always loved science fiction, which is future-oriented. But when I think about writing about science fiction, that’s past-oriented. Because I write for Book Riot, I can also write about contemporary publishing. I even think about writing books like To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell, which is essentially about how science fiction is affecting our world today.

I also came across this pledge drive for Farah Mendlesohn yesterday. She is writing a book about Robert A. Heinlein and is looking for backers. She’s gotten 143 supportors so far. This is also exactly the kind of book I’d love to write – but is that the rough number of people who would be interested in reading it?

I’m now worrying that I’m spending too much time thinking about the past. Is that because I’m getting older and it’s natural for aging folks to analyze yesterday? I assume that many people who like my blog do so because they are somewhat like me – they are older and thinking about when they grew up, and we all loved some of the same things.

I believe my less popular essays at Book Riot are due to writing about topics that bore their demographic readership, which tilts young and female. This makes me wonder if I should accept that I like to write about things that appeal to a subset of aging baby boomers, or if I should work to write about topics that have a wider appeal across different age groups.

My guess is writing about contemporary subjects or about the future has more universal appeal. I wonder if writing about today or tomorrow isn’t more psychologically positive for both me and readers. But I’m so fascinated by the past, especially esoteric subjects.

I’m currently reading The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman about Paul Erdős, a brilliant mathematician, and The Five Gospels, about the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who work to figure out what the historical Jesus actually said. Both of these books are intensely fascinating. Both of these books are about the past and have little relevance to today or tomorrow.

I have to wonder if I’ve given up on tomorrow because I don’t have much hope for the future, either for myself, or the planet, and I’m finding pleasure and meaning by exploring the past.

I’ve always loved science fiction but when I read science fiction today I’m usually very critical of works that are based on unrealistic ideas. I don’t believe in all those far out futures like I used to. As a writing challenge maybe I should work to write about positive futures that could be realistic, ones we can hope to find. Yet, my most popular essay ever is, “50 Reasons Why Humans Are Too Stupid To Survive.” Gloom and doom does sell. Hell, the TV shows my friends and I binge-watch focus on awful people and horrible events.

Writing is about focus. Writing a book is about intense focus over a great time span. I’m wondering if choosing to write about the past isn’t a way of escaping the present or future? I also wonder if writing about the future isn’t a way to give myself hope for tomorrow?

Maybe you can’t relate to this topic because it’s about writing. Think of it this way. Do you love watching old movies and television shows, or new ones? Do you listen to old music or new music? If you’re mentally young, no matter what your age is, you’ll be enjoying whatever is new.

I’m being more and more drawn into the past. 1950s movie westerns, mid-20th-century written science fiction, 1960s romantic movie comedies, 19th-century novels, 1950s jazz, 1940s film noir, 1920s modernistic literature, Victorian scientific romances, etc. Growing up, I always thought about the future…

JWH

 

Writing and Aging

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 12, 2017

Most skills are best learned young. Few people find initial success late in life. I started this blog a few years before I retired and it has been an enriching educational experience. I consider blogging public piano practice for writing. I hope I’ve gotten better, but I’m not sure. Regular practice should make me better, but aging is traditionally a time of decline. I know there are programs that analyze written texts to give readability ratings, but I wonder if there are programs that rates writing ability that could measure cognitive decline?

writing-engraving

We all know our last years are ones in decline, we just don’t know what it feels like until we get there. And even then, it’s subtle. It’s like that frog in boiling water analogy.

You’d think because writing requires little physical effort I could write for hours and hours, but I can’t. The amount of time I can stay at the computer is dwindling. And I assume that’s a symptom of getting older. However, I’m considering other assumptions. I follow a plant-based diet which helps my heart, but it’s a low-protein, low-fat diet. I’ve wondered if that’s contributing to my declining writing energy. The gurus of plant-based eating argue passionately that their diet restores energy in old age. I hope they are right.

I’m also wondering if I might have something else wrong with me, like diabetes. I get lethargic after every meal and need a nap. But I get blood work done 2-3 times a year because of my cholesterol and my doctor says my sugar levels are always perfect.

I do my best writing first thing in the morning and delay breakfast until after 10 am. Unfortunately, I have to spend some of that morning time on showering and exercising. I have to exercise faithfully to keep my spinal stenosis symptoms at bay. I tend to skip my back exercises if I don’t do them in the morning. I’m wondering if it’s possible to retrain myself to follow a new rut?

In fact, I’m thinking about totally changing up my routines just to optimize my energy for writing. I get several ideas a day for writing projects, so inspiration isn’t a problem. I wish I could write eight solid hours a day. Just two or three years ago I could write 3-4 hours routinely and had occasional bursts of 5-6 hours. Now I’m lucky to have 1-2 hours of writing before my mind fogs. A side-effect of this is I start many more unfinished essays. I could plot the number of unfinished essays. That might give concrete data.

I’d really like to know if this decline is due to aging, a health problem, a mental problem, or something else. I feel like I’m trying harder than ever. I’m sticking to my healthy diet, plus I do physical therapy exercises, Bow-Flex, bike riding, and recently restarted my Miranda Esmonde-White classical stretch exercises too. All activities their proponents claim will give me more energy. But to be honest, I felt more energetic eating junk food and avoiding exercise. However, that led to a clogged arteries, a heart stent, and spinal stenosis. Because of eating well and exercise, my heart has stopped nagging me, and even though I have limited mobility because of my spinal stenosis, I don’t have to take pain meds anymore.

I am managing all my medical problems by doing all this stuff that’s supposedly good for me, which leaves me believing aging is the thief stealing my writing energy. HBO has a new documentary “If You’re Not in the Obit, Have Breakfast” about several high-energy geezers. Man do I envy their energy! The show features Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Dick Van Dyke, Betty White, and others, extolling the excitement of 90+ living! Watching those hyperactive oldsters is inspiring. Why can’t I be like them? Is it genetics? If I’m honest, I have to admit I’ve always been on the low-energy side of the activity spectrum, so I can’t expect to suddenly be a different kind of person.

If my mental energy problem is aging, how do I cope with it? I don’t plan on giving up and becoming a TV addict. This seems to be a Destination Moon problem, a 1950 science fiction film about the first trip to the Moon featuring a problem that I often use as an analogy for many problems in life. The astronauts in this movie used too much fuel when landing on the Moon, so they don’t have enough fuel to get back to Earth. The solution is to jettison all the mass they could from their spaceship. We are often stopped from taking off for our goals because of we’re carrying too much crap that weighs us down.

I’ve come to this same conclusion over and over again. Our desires and possessions weigh us down. I want to write about too many topics. I want to read too many books. I want to watch too many movies and television shows. I want to buy too much stuff. All this saps my mental energy.

Getting old is like being a rocket that has a little less fuel every day for taking off. Exercise and diet have given my rocket a bit more efficiency to use with a dwindling fuel allotment, but I’ve about squeezed as much efficiency as I can out of the process. Now I’m down to throwing stuff out the hatch to lower the ship’s mass for the take-off.

Here’s one concrete example. Susan and I have collected hundreds of DVDs over the years. I have a growing collecting of westerns, science fiction, and classic movies that I love. My mind craves more. Should I spend my time searching out new old favorite films to add to my collection, or spend that time on watching the ones I’ve already collected, or spend that time watching new films I haven’t seen that could be just as great or greater than my old favorites, or should I give up some of that movie time to writing?

My days are divided up between active pursuits of writing and body maintenance, and mostly passive activities of socializing, reading, music, movies, television, emailing, book clubs, web surfing, news reading, crosswords, and other fun pursuits. I have to push myself for the active activities, but find it easy to pleasantly wallow in the passive pursuits. I wonder if less wallowing would translate into more active energy?

What I’ve noticed in these past few retired years is a slow mental erosion. I don’t like that. I know it’s inevitable because I keep an eye on folks older than myself. I know each decade means less energy. I’m sure high-energy dudes like Carl Reiner and Dick Van Dyke notice it too. Charles Dickens used to have so much manic energy that he’d briskly stomp miles and miles all over London when not writing, but even Dickens ran down in the end.

We all know that one day our rocket will not have enough fuel to take off. As we age, fuel management becomes critical, even an art. I believe I reached a stage in life where fuel management demands a whole new level of creativity.

JWH

p.s. – now that I’ve written this I can collapse for the rest of the day into a wallow of pleasant passive pursuits.

 

 

 

 

Rereading: The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 6, 2017

The-Soul-of-a-New-Machine-by-Tracy-KidderI first read The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder just after it came out in 1981, before it won the Pulitzer and National Book awards in 1982. I read it again at the end of 2016. Thirty-five years later it is still a stunning book, even though the Data General Eclipse MV/8000, the title character, died long ago, a few remember. As I read The Soul of a New Machine a second time, I kept thinking, “What happened to these great people who worked so hard?” I decided I’d provide a review with research/annotations/links. If you haven’t read The Soul of a New Machine I highly recommend you do. Most books about science and technology date very quickly, but this one hasn’t. Why? Because it’s about people, not a machine. The story reads like a novel.

I’ve spent days struggling to write this essay. The book is about engineers who push themselves to produce a new computer, working 80+ hour weeks, not for money, fame, or rewards. They are driven to invent by their desire to master knowledge and skills. I’ve always wished I had that kind of passion. A few days ago I read “How to Become a ‘Superager’” in the New York Times, that reports that older people who push themselves mentally stay cognitively healthy longer. It’s more than doing crosswords though. I believe what they were talking about is like how the folks worked in this book drove themselves to master a problem. You just keep going, keep working, keep trying, keep pushing, until the problem is solved. Because I’m retired, I know I can quit and kick back at any time, when I tire of a task. But I want to finish this essay, and I’ve had to constantly push myself. I wanted to reread this book, carefully summarize it, and find out everything I could about what happen to the people in the story since it’s publication.

mv8000I’m going to hyperlink the hell out of this review for two reasons. First, if you just read The Soul of a New Machine and have the same questions I did, this should be a handy resource. Second, if you haven’t read the book, seeing why I’m so fascinated with a 36-year-old book about a forgotten minicomputer should make you want to read it. The Soul of the New Machine is a perfect example of what is now called creative nonfiction, but that term didn’t exist back when it was first written. It essentially means using techniques borrowed from novelists to write compelling nonfiction. This writing technique is old, but I first noticed it in the 1960s. Truman Capote used it in his 1965 book, In Cold Blood, which he called a nonfiction novel. Tom Wolfe used it for The Electric Kool-Acid Test in 1968 and called it New Journalism. So by 1978, Kidder had plenty of models to choose from.

What’s particularly impressive about The Soul of a New Machine is Kidder didn’t know anything about computers. His editor at The Atlantic told him to write about computers. He didn’t want to. Then Kidder went sailing with Tom West, the god of the new computer, and became part of the story. That’s another common aspect of creative nonfiction – the author becomes a character in the story, letting us readers know how the story came to be.

Here’s a Zen koan. Who would you want to be – the storyteller or the subject? Back in 1978 would it have been more rewarding to be Tom West or Tracy Kidder? Or Carl Alsing, Chuck Holland or Ed Rasala. A Hardy Boy or Microkid? But I’m getting ahead of myself, because you probably don’t know who those people are. My point is Tracy Kidder had to learn about computers, but he also had to learn about why computers were so fascinating to this small group of people, and why they wanted to build a new one. Kidder had to go beyond that, he had to learn what how each of these engineers got on the path that led them to become creators of a computer. His effort was no less than the engineers building the Eagle.

When I reread a book I love, I want to know everything I can about it, especially about how it was written, and if the book is about real people, what happened to them after the book came out. This review will be full of links to the articles that answer some of those questions. I wish I could write like Tracy Kidder and write the 2017 update to the story. But just writing these 2,000+ words showed me how much work that involves. Writing 100,000 words is beyond my comprehension.

Plot

In February of 1978, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) introduced the VAX, a groundbreaking line of 32-bit minicomputers. The story opens at Data General, DEC’s competitor, and their need to quickly produce a 32-bit supermini to compete with the VAX. Data General had a popular 16-bit minicomputer called the Eclipse, but decided to design a whole new 32-bit computer, code named Fountainhead, that would be superior to the VAX. As a backup, manager Tom West proposed a second project, to upgrade the Eclipse to 32-bit, which they code named the Eagle. The Soul of a New Machine is about the tremendous management and technical effort to redesign a 16-bit machine to work flawlessly as a 32-bit machine without a mode-bit. So owners of the 16-bit Eclipses could buy the new machine and run all their old software without any conversion. This rush effort took place in 1978 and 1979. In many ways it prefigures Steve Jobs’ effort to produce the Macintosh a few years later. Because they are stories about the men and women working long hours, sacrificing their personal lives, to give birth to a machine.

Setting

Most of the events in the story take place during 1978-1979, at Data General’s headquarters in Westborough, Massachusetts, off Route 495, in building 14A/B. I wish I could find photos of the actual offices and labs, especially where the Hardy Boys and Microkids worked. I’d like to see what their debugging tools looked like, and the prototypes named “Coke” and “Gollum.” This one photo from the early 1980s is the best I could do.

Kidder interviewed his subjects secretly at Data General, and outside of work, going to their homes, parties, outings and even sailing with Tom West. I wish I could find photos of those events and locations, but so far I haven’t. It’s weird to think such an heroic project took place in a dull basement of a nondescript building.

Characters

eagleteamThe first report from Wired Magazine shows the photograph on the right and lists who they were and where they are now. Unfortunately, the photo does not include Tom West, the Ulysses of the story. West was the manager who gathered a team of about two dozen men and one woman to build the Eagle, essentially in secret. Data General gave the real Fountainhead project publically to the engineers who had moved to North Carolina. There were two teams – The Hardy Boys who worked on hardware, and the Microkids who wrote the software. West had two lieutenants, Carl Alsing, who supervised the Microkids, and Ed Rasala who bossed the Hardy Boys.

Tom West – was the top level manager, and essentially the protagonist of The Soul of a New Machine. The best post-book profile of West I found was “O, Engineers!” from Wired Magazine, for the 20th anniversary of the book. This essay is well worth reading because West talks about how the book affected his memory of events. He didn’t always appreciate the fame the book brought. Plus it’s a good summary of the story and an update about how people came to judge the book. I also found The Computer Museum Report from Spring, 1983 which reprints a dialog between Kidder and West. West died at 71, in 2011. Here is his obituary at the New York Times, and one at the Boston Globe.

Steven J. Wallach – was the Eagle’s architect. A 2008 New York Times piece that chronicles Wallach’s whole career. He continued to design computers and start companies after he left Data General.

Carl Alsing – was probably the second most important character in the book. Tom West was often a mystery to the Hardy Boys and Microkids. Alsing was his John the Baptist. This 1974 DataGeneral newsletter has some photos of younger Alsing and West.

I found this YouTube video for the Science Friday Book Club that interviews Asling, Holland and Shanahan in 2015. It briefly shows the ball maze Chuck Holland created and mentioned in the book. When I read that part I really wanted to see it.

Carl Asling, Chuck Holland, Betty Shanahan 2015

 

Goodreads Computer History BooksJust look at Goodreads “Popular Computer History Books” – The Soul of a New Machine comes in at #2. I’ve read many of these books over the years, and I find them incredibly inspiring. I worked with computers most of my working life, but I was always a low-level programmer, web designer, or computer tech support guy. I guess reading computer history books for me is about envy. Rereading The Soul of a New Machine is like reading family history, but about my cousins who succeeded in the big time. I’ve always loved science fiction and computers. I’m not the only one, became that combo is common. The Soul of a New Machine is also #2 on “50 All-Time Classic Books About Computers and Computing.” I have to assume there are many readers out there like me.

Yet, as I reread this book I constantly asked myself why I was reading about technology that went to the scrapheap decades ago, was never famous other than being in this book, and about computer engineers that few people remember today? Yet, reading The Soul of a New Machine was just as much fun in 2016 as it was in 1981. The Soul of a New Machine is about how hard work leads to creativity. It’s about being different. The men and women in this story have keen intellects, were often loners, and all had unique hobbies peculiar to engineers. It’s a story about people who can focus on one goal with such concentration that they almost forget everything else in life. Tracy Kidder tells an amazing story about amazing people in amazing detail. Yet, in 2017, why would anyone want to read about the design and engineering team that built a long forgotten minicomputer, or a company that went out of business, and was never legendary or insanely great? I doubt younger people even know the terms mainframe, minicomputers and microcomputers. Or care about a time when a business struggled to bring out a 32-bit computer to market when 16-bit was the standard.

All of that technical history doesn’t really matter. What matters are the people. Rereading The Soul of a New Machine makes me ask the question at the top of the essay. Most kids today daydream of growing up to be a star – whether in sports, movies, music, television. They want to be rich, famous, or some kind of superhero. If I was a kid reading this book, I’d want to grow up to be like Tracy Kidder, Tom West, Carl Asling, or any of the people in that group photo above, or the people profiled in the books at Goodreads. Most kids won’t become Beyoncé. I didn’t become Bill Gates. When I reread The Soul of a New Machine I experience a beautiful sense of regret. I lived through some of the most exciting times in technological history. I was in the stands watching, and that was great, it wasn’t the same as being on the field, but it was still very cool.

JWH

Artificial Intelligence Wants Us To Write Better

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 7, 2016

For weeks now, my computer has been nagging me to write clearer. I checked Google, and Microsoft has upgraded Office 2016 with two new tools for Word and Outlook: Editor and Researcher. In the past, I’ve thought of adding Grammarly to Office, but using the full version is rather pricey. I wonder if the new Editor feature in Word is meant to compete with it, or similar add-on grammar checking programs? It must be a bummer for little companies that create a business by patching cracks in big programs when those cracks are filled.

punctuation

Anyway, the update feels like Microsoft fed my computer a copy of On Writing Well by William Zinsser, the classic guide to clear writing. Word now bitches at me to simplify my sentences. Little red underlines and popups tell me the same thing my teachers used to write in red ink on my papers. This advice feels like a Deep Learning program studied all the works of Ernest Hemingway and now wants us to write like Papa. It’s hard on passive voice, wordy phrases, and unnecessary words. Words like “really” and “just” are superfluous. And they are, but I often use them to make my writing voice sound like my speaking voice. The AI in Word obviously thinks I sound dumb. Surely, it knows best.

When did AI minds decide clear writing in humans was needed? Did NSA computers ask Microsoft computer to help clean up our language? Spy programs would have an easier time tracking our opinions if we wrote precisely.

Do you take style and grammatical suggestions from your computer? We could tell it to shut the #@&% up. Don’t our grammatical quirks give us unique voices? Won’t Word convince all humans to sound alike? I wonder how many people around the world learn English just so they can go more places on the web? Will grammar checkers convince us all to write the same way? Maybe it’s not Microsoft, but the AI overlords. They want us to be more logical. We’re being evolved.

JWH

Agoraphobic Writing

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 17, 2016

Recent essays written for other sites:

In many ways I prefer writing for this blog, Auxiliary Memory, than writing for other sites. I’m somewhat agoraphobic, so I spend most of my time at home. And the older I get, the stronger that tendency becomes. Now those feelings are carrying over to my writing. I’m inclined to become a writing hermit, and just write for this blog. I like having all my thoughts in one cozy familiar place.

fish-leaving-bowl

However, it’s mentally healthier for me to get out of my house and my blog. Sticking to my comfort zone can be debilitating.

Writing for Book Riot is interesting because I’m way out of my element. Most of their readers and writers are young, diverse, and I’m guessing, female. It’s a challenge to create something they will want to read – and I’m not sure I am. But I like the challenge. Trying to resonate with readers from other generations is educational, enlightening, and good for my literary agoraphobia.

Writing for the Classics of Science Fiction or Worlds Without End doesn’t take me far from home. I’m out of the house, but I’m only standing in my front yard next to the street. I created the Classics site with my friend Mike. And WWEnd is about science fiction and lists, matching my own quirkiness. Their readers I assume are SF/F/H bookworms and book collectors. Some are like me, old white guys remembering the science fiction we read growing up, but others are young, reading books and authors that are unknown to me.

I’ve always said blogging is piano practice for writing. But blogging tends to be cozy and comfortable. The more I remove myself from the story, struggling to write something objective and journalistic, the more I have to mentally push myself. I can actually sense a barrier. Age and ability has it’s limitations, and I often feel like I’m a fish in an aquarium scoping out the edges of an invisible force-field that holds me in.

Even though I want to push myself into new writing territory, I have to admit that I’m most comfortable writing about science fiction. It’s what I know. Whenever I write about something else, I have to do significant research – and that’s time consuming, requiring much mental effort, and psychic straining. It’s like weightlifting. I have to build up my muscles to handle the new load.

Whenever I read a magnificent work of nonfiction, I’m always impressed by the bibliography. That tells me how much work they did. Even when I write about other subjects I’ve been interested in all my life, I feel like I’m leaving the comforts of home. I assume everyone has a touch of agoraphobia about doing new things, but that might not be true. Are there people that are always willing to dive into unfamiliar waters?

Before my mother died, I got annoyed at her when she refused to leave her home, and it was obvious she couldn’t take care of herself. We tried to get her to live with us, but she refused. Nor would she consider assisted living. Now that I’m getting older I understand. I worry that I’m getting so attached to this house that I’ll never move again. I also think about just writing for my blog.

I figure I have another ten years to try new things, until I’m about 75. Because by then the urge to stay home will be too overwhelming – if it isn’t already.

JWH

 

Writing for BookRiot and Worlds Without End

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A couple months ago, Book Riot invited writers to submit two essays as part of an annual process for finding new contributors. I did. Then a few weeks ago I was told my essays were accepted in the next stage of that process. Since then, both have been published, and I’ve been invited to be a regular contributor. That’s very exciting because it’s validation for my retirement project.

Before I retired, I dreamed of writing science fiction because I’d finally have all the free time I needed. But after I retired I never got into the routine of writing fiction. Blogging has kept me busy for many years now, and I’ve learned to love writing essays. During my second year of retirement, I decided to switch goals from novelist to essayist. Since then, I’ve worked towards writing better essays. Blogging is self-publishing, and easy. I figured I needed to write for other sites, and assumed if other folks published my work, it would be proof my writing was improving. When John DeNardo invited me to write for SF Signal, it felt like I had taken a big step forward. Sadly, SF Signal closed its doors May 5th, after thirteen years of award winning work.

Fate brought the Book Riot opportunity just as SF Signal died. And then Dave Post at Worlds Without End asked me to write for them. I feel like I’ve taken a couple more big steps, and hope this means my work is still improving. Acceptance certainly pushes me to work harder. Maybe I need to start reading all those writing books I’ve bought years ago.

Here’s what I’ve written so far:

Writing essays is a great hobby for retirement. It keeps my mind fit, gives me a goal for the future, and reason to make each day count.

Pug9

JWH

Writing For Other Sites and My Health

James Wallace Harris, Thursday, April 28, 2016

I’m publishing less here because I’m publishing more elsewhere. That doesn’t mean I want to give up writing for my blog, but I do need to develop a plan for what’s best to post here. When I write about science fiction its obvious to give those essays to SF Signal, because science fiction is what they’re all about. Plus, they get more readers. And I’ve been accepted at a general book site, so now I can write about all the other books I’m reading for them. I’ll let you know what site that is when they publish my first essay and I have a link. They’ve accepted two essays so far. That leaves non-book subjects for me to write about here at Auxiliary Memory. I just need to find the time. My plan is to publish one blog post here each week. All told, that’s committing myself to writing eight essays a month. The ones I write here might be short, like this one.

I’ve been retired two-and-half years now, and writing essays has turned into my retirement hobby. That’s worked out very well because writing counteracts brain rust. I’ve noticed the longer I go without writing, the more trouble I have remembering words and pronouncing them. I’ve always called blogging piano practice for writing essays, well now I know it’s exercise for the mind too. I highly recommend blogging as a hobby, for the young or old. Writing over a 1,000 blog posts has really paid off.

Essay writing is turning out to be preventative medicine for dementia. Writing is showing me my physical and mental limitations. Because the newer essays require so much research, I’m having to push myself much harder, causing me to hit a wall each day. That’s an effective barometer of my mental and physical health. Each day takes more psychic management, and it’s all too obvious each birthday I pass leaves less creative energy. I doubt I’ll be able to do a fraction of what I’m doing now in my seventies. Getting old sucks, but that’s not news to anyone already old. It might be news to my friends who have yet to retired. Before I retired I thought all I needed was time. Well, at least I’m still learning new things.

I’m learning what it takes to do research, and that’s given me much greater respect for serious writers. It’s one thing to write an opinion piece, it takes several magnitudes more effort to include useful facts. Especially if you order them in some kind of coherent fashion.

I’ve had  two essays published at SF Signal in April. The first, “The Biographies of Philip K. Dick” is about the many books written about PKD. Duh! Titles are important. The second, “How Well-Read Are You in Science Fiction?” serves two purposes. First, it asks how many classic science fiction books do you have to read to feel like an expert. Second, it describes how to use the Worlds Without End’s database to catalog the science fiction books you’ve read, which then allows you to see how you stack up on more than fifty “Best SF/F/H Books” lists. Read the article if you want to learn how, it’s a lot of fun to use the WWEnd database. Here’s an illustration of how well I did with their “WWEnd Top Listed” list. It’s color coded. Blue and green are books read, with blue being favorites, yellow means the book is on my to-be-read list. Orange means I’m reading that book currently. Yeah, I’m embarrassed to let people know I’ve never read I Am Legend by Richard Matheson or Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – but I own both.

top-listed

I don’t think I mentioned another article I wrote for SF Signal. Damn, I forget them as fast as I write them. But I do like plugging this Great Course. See “How Great Science Fiction Works – A Great Course in SF by Gary K. Wolfe.” If you love the history of science fiction, this is an excellent overview of the genre, and is only one credit at Audible.

JWH