by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Writing is focusing thoughts. Herding your thoughts into an essay reveals the chaos of thinking. When I was young I wanted to be a science fiction writer but that was not meant to be. Now that I’m retired writing is the hobby that keeps me sane. It’s vitally important to have at least one hobby when retired because the purposelessness of waiting to die can get existentially challenging.
Having goals in the last third of life can be tricky. The primary goal when aging is staying healthy. Working at maintaining health can be both time-consuming and energy draining. Any other ambitions depend on mental and physical vitality. Some days my batteries are so low all I can do is daydream and listen to music. But when I do have extra energy I want to make the most of it, and that means writing.
When I first retired in 2013 I had a long list of hobbies I wanted to pursue. I’ve since learned I can only get better at one skill. I can piddle around with many interests, but if I want to see actual progress requires focusing on what I know best. Because I’ve stuck with it, that’s writing. However, at 66 my writing ambitions are tiny compared to what huge dreams I had in my twenties. Anyone young reading this essay should heed this advice: Do it now.
I’ve written over 1,500 essays in the last ten years, and most of that was piano practice. I’ve improved but my progress has been slow. Theoretically, there are magnitudes of possible improvements left to achieve, but it all depends on my health. Realistically, I know I’m not going to start pounding out bestselling novels. I have to match my goals to my vitality.
For years, I’ve been content with blogging and writing for a few other websites. I’ve recently started a new series, “Reading the Pulps” at Worlds Without End that’s got me excited. On the other hand, my efforts for Book Riot have declined as I’ve realized my perspectives might not be suited for a site where the readers are so young and mostly female. For the last few months, I’ve struggled to find something to say that would appeal to that audience. That struggle has led me once again to think about my writing goals.
Writing for this blog is easy, maybe too easy, and not challenging enough. Writing for another site requires thinking about the audience. This blog allows me to write anything I want. I write to please myself. I’m happy if others want to read it, and I try hard to make it read-worthy, but its primary purpose is to let me think out loud while practicing my writing skills. My goal has always been to write at least two essays a week for this site.
When I write for another site I realize I have to write content that helps that site achieve its goals. Other websites build audiences to make money. Their readers want reading satisfaction or they won’t return. My job as a content provider is to be so useful that readers will remember and keep coming back.
Book Riot makes money by showing ads or getting readers to buy books from an Amazon affiliate link. It takes a lot of page hits to make money from ad views. It’s faster to make money from link sales. Thus, my essays need to be either very positive about books or about something that inspires many page views. I know how well I’m doing because I’m paid a portion of what the page makes. I’m not making that much, so Book Riot isn’t making that much off of me. One writing goal I’m considering is to write something more appealing to their audience. This has become hard, but I haven’t given up completely. I love the challenge. I contracted to write two essays a month for Book Riot but I’m not sure I can keep that up for a third year. It would help if I could find an ongoing gimmick or angle.
Worlds Without End is slightly different. Right now it’s mostly a database system for readers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror to find new books to read. WWEnd’s appeal is seeing how many books you’ve read on over fifty notable lists. It’s quite fun to use but users tend to come use the database for a while and not come back. The creators of WWEnd want to attract a community of fans that routinely participate in a growing list of new features. They want content contributors like me to help attract science fiction fans to that community. Like Book Riot, WWEnd’s audience is hardcore bookworms, but the age and gender demographics are wider. They do narrow reader interest to the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres, and science fiction is my main interest.
Most people who write about books write about new books. I’m more interested in old books. That limits the appeal of my essays. Currently, I’m having a lot of fun writing about stories that came out of the pulp magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. I have no idea how many readers are interested in that topic. (It’s pretty damn narrow, don’t you think?) However, one of my sub-goals is to get better at writing about the details of history, even if its a very tiny slice of history. That involves a lot more research. Lucky for me, that research coincides with what I love reading at the moment. I’m actually quite anxious to write two essays a week for this project.
If you’ve mentally kept a tally, you know I’m committing myself to 4.5 essays a week. I can actually do that if my health holds up. On bad weeks I’ll be behind 4.5 essays. However, I have two more goals. I want to try writing fiction again. Just short stories, but even that is probably way too ambitious. I have thousands of hours of momentum behind essay writing, but except for thirty unpublished short stories and two novel attempts from about twenty years ago, I have little experience writing fiction.
Writing fiction might always be a pipedream for me. However, I’m mostly reading short stories these days and that’s making me want to try writing one too. I think this goal goes beyond the limits of health. I’m finding it extremely difficult to start a new discipline as I get older. I feel like a fish in an aquarium. I’m reminded of my all-time favorite short work of science fiction, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. It’s a story about limitations. Delany was a young black man becoming a writer in the 1960s, so he knew all about overcoming limitations. You can read it here.
My last goal, and probably the least obtainable of all is to write a book about science fiction. There are countless books about science fiction and few people read them. I believe I have a unique slant on the subject. Mentally, I can’t imagine working on a project as large as a book, but I can imagine writing fifty blog essays. Each essay could be a chapter in a book. If I added one more essay to my weekly goal I could finish a book size project in one year.
There is a reality to making plans in the last third of life. We’re on a downward slope, and it’s hard to plan for erratic ever-shrinking vitality. In the first third of life, it feels like we have unlimited potential. Even in our middle work years we still feel we could do more if we could only find the free time. But now that I have all my time free I’ve discovered it’s not all useful time. Sixteen hours a day does not equal sixteen hours I can apply myself.
There’s one last factor. I think it’s age-related. The desire to make an effort. That desire fades more and more as I get older. Often now I tell myself I should be doing something and I mentally reply that I don’t want to. It’s so pleasant to just sit and daydream, or hang with friends, or read a book, or watch television, or listen to music.
The sirens of small pleasures are more alluring than ever.