Monday, February 8, 2010

Writing: The Career With a 20-Year Internship

I sometimes wonder if there is some pathological contrariness in my brain that sways me to a difficult path where easier or less risky options exist.  Certainly, everyone can think of a person in their life, whether friend, co-worker, or family member, who thrives on melodrama and enjoys the attention that comes with living a life of one sordid tragedy after another.  It is exasperating, because you know if that person would just put down the idiot ball and confront his or her problems rationally, many would likely be solved.  I never wanted to be that person, but in finding my calling as a writer -- no, that's deterministic language -- in realizing that writing is my passion and the highest creative goal I will pursue in my life, I fear that I may have doomed myself and my family to a needless purgatory.  They don't deserve that, so I am left frustrated, grasping for an answer and wondering if it wouldn't be better to just hang up my keyboard and go be a truck driver or something.

My internships during law school lasted the length of a semester.  A physician's internship and residency last a few years at most.  In academics and the sciences, a person who has completed a graduate degree is, at that moment at least, essentially as close to the cutting edge of that discipline as its most celebrated researchers and theorists.  A writer needs more time to master the craft.  While a journalism graduate right out of college can and does often find work writing in the media, to craft the kind of quality content that will lead to a genuine literary career, decades of work may be necessary.  (Most writers will not rise suddenly from poverty to lucre like Joanne Rowling.)  Economically speaking, spending half a working lifetime learning a craft seems like a pretty lousy idea!

The situation is even further skewed toward a lengthy apprenticeship in the fantasy and science fiction genres: nearly every major figure in the field published his or her seminal work later in life, often after retiring from (or prompting retirement from) an existing, unrelated career.  Terry Goodkind was a carpenter and wildlife artist before writing Wizard's First Rule.  Dr. Michael Crichton was a physician before hitting it big with The Andromeda Strain.  David Eddings, James Rigney (Robert Jordan), and Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr.) were all retired from the U.S. military, and J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor and retired British serviceman.  A few notable names such as Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein actually were journalists before finding enough success to proceed on their own tickets, while Ayn Rand was similarly a screenwriter and playwright selling smaller work to studios before breaking through with The Fountainhead, but the writer-all-along story is the exception here.  There is very little parallel in the fantasy or science fiction writing world with the doctor or attorney who grinds through half a decade of schooling and credentialing, grinds through six to ten years of heavy practice, has his or her first heart attack, and then settles back into a professional armchair to enjoy shortened golden years finally free of debt.

And the baffling thing is that people still want to be writers!  Worse, they seem to think they will duplicate Rowling's feat instead of toiling in obscurity for decades as Herbert, Rigney, or Rand did.  Writer Dani Shapiro, a professor of fine arts in California, cannily observed this seeming perversity in an article from yesterday's Los Angeles Times, noting:
[MFA grads] do not include insecurity, rejection and disappointment in their plans. I see it in their faces: the almost evangelical belief in the possibility of the instant score. And why not? They are, after all, the product of a moment that doesn't reward persistence, that doesn't see the value in delaying recognition, that doesn't trust in the process but only the outcome. As an acquaintance recently said to me: "So many crappy novels get published. Why not mine?"

The emphasis is on publishing, not on creating. On being a writer, not on writing itself. The publishing industry -- always the nerdy distant cousin of the rest of media -- has the same blockbuster-or-bust mentality of television networks and movie studios. There now exist only two possibilities: immediate and large-scale success, or none at all. There is no time to write in the cold, much less for 10 years.
Shapiro is either wrong for the right reasons or right because of what's wrong; take your pick.  Those successful authors I named from the fantasy and science fiction genres did write "in the cold" for 10 years or however long, but they eventually succeeded on the strength of their content.  All the others who pushed and prodded their way onto the mainstream shelves with an eye toward publishing and "the market" ended up as industry roadkill just as Shapiro observed they would. 

"Trust in the process," Shapiro taught the new generation of writers, but they never grasped her lesson.  And she wasn't the only one.  Hiroshi Yamauchi, CEO Emeritus of Nintendo Co Ltd., uttered a mantra meaning much the same thing thirty years ago: "Content is everything.  We will put all our efforts into producing great content.  Then we will have something we can sell."  Yamauchi was right, and in under three years Nintendo singlehandedly brought the American video game industry back from the grave of its 1983 industry crash.  Frank Herbert himself recognized the primacy of content when Dune became a blockbuster hit:
A man is a fool not to put everything he has, at any given moment, into what he is creating. You're there now doing the thing on paper. You're not killing the goose, you're just producing an egg.
Yamauchi and Herbert would laugh in the face of the person who expects there to be room in the market for his or her "crappy novel," to borrow from Shapiro's anecdote.  Why waste an instant pushing subpar material when effort, practice, and dedication can make possible an "excellent" novel instead?  Sure, Stephanie Meyer is raking in millions of dollars with pulp trash about sparkly vampires, but she is the exception that proves the rule.  Most subpar books that aren't cheap fad exploits are rejected by publishers, and of the few that see print, most languish on discount shelves until the market mercifully dismisses them.  Who would you rather be: William Hung or Garth Brooks?

Producing an excellent novel, of course, means mastering creative tropes, mastering characterization, mastering plot and pacing, and sharpening technical writing skills to produce compact, vivid prose.  It means having a broad imagination and enough patience and discipline to craft the entirety of a story and see it through to completion.  It means spending so much time developing these skills that an entire secondary career can come and go in the meantime.  Chuck Jones, the artist who brought you Bugs Bunny, once joked that every artist has 20,000 awful pictures in them -- best to get them out of the way early and get on to the good stuff.  What Jones meant, of course, was that through constant devotion to the craft, the artist's pictures improve to the point that he or she probably will be producing good material well before closing in on 20,000.  By immersing himself or herself in the craft, the artist accomplishes true and measurable improvement, and eventually reaches the point that his or her content is so good that sales seek the artist and not the other way around.

Jones' truism could be adapted for writing by saying that every author has at least three dozen novels in them that are absolute trash -- might as well get them written and over with and move on to the good material!  That is the position I am in now.  The few publications of mine that you see linked at the upper left of this blog are just a tiny fraction of what I have written, and are generally the best of it that I have managed to complete.  These, still, are not written at the capability level I know I can one day reach!  I also have a torrent of crud that I won't be publishing anytime soon or perhaps ever, and I have quite a few tasty morsels that are better but that I haven't managed to finish yet, so there is still more work to do.  I have been writing since 1992, and I have been writing with a serious notion of mastering the craft since 1999.  I expect it may take another decade before my writing is finally good enough to produce content that pays a livelihood all by itself.  And that's if things go well.

Is it fair to subject Steph, Allie, and Evey to such a waiting cycle?  Is it fair to put my daughters into a position where they may not be able to attend the best college that accepts them because the money simply isn't there?  Is it fair that my wife has to spend time working for middling wages instead of raising my daughters and having dominion over my household, as she will tell you she'd greatly prefer?  No, it really isn't fair, and that's why I still grind out a commute to produce documents for the government for a salary that serves as the Bahr family lifeblood.  One day I will either set it aside or actually reach retirement, and from then on it's going to be writing until the day they nail my coffin shut, as Robert Jordan famously quipped.  It would be so much easier if I were content to punch the clock every day until I walked away with a gold watch, and spend every night in front of a television set being told what to think.  It would be easier -- but that would deprive me of creative experiences I am unwilling to forego.  I guess all those other career opportunities will just have to wait for the resume of someone else.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Will MegaCorp Own Your Grandchildren?

It is understandable that you might laugh at such a question, given that the question of "ownership" of a human being in the United States became terminally moot right around 1865 -- or so we thought.

Anyway, you've seen Gattaca, right?  Without spoiling anything about that particular cinematic science fiction masterpiece, the setting is a near future in which embryos can be genetically engineered to produce children who are strong, intelligent, and free of hereditary diseases or disadvantages.  Within a short time, the engineered children, "Valids," become society's elite, and create a glass ceiling that is all but impossible for normally-born children, "In-Valids," to break.  Only Valids are professionals; all In-Valids are menial laborers.

The genetic engineers in Gattaca, the "Eighth Day Center," have tremendous power in that society.  The film presented their work as selective and not directly creative -- they did not actually make embryos, but selected from among the billions of sperm donated by the father and the eggs of the mother to find the few optimal matches.  As the Eighth Day doctor says, "These babies are still you, just the best of you."  Without a doubt, Eighth Day would have a patent on the filtration process, but they create no new material and thus could never have an interest in the subsequent issue (unless by some contrivance of contract).

The ominous questions arise when Megacorp figures out (or buys from some inventor or university research department) a process to actually engineer an embryo -- most probably taking an existing filtered one like in Gattaca and grafting on additional code.  Some possibilities:
  • Enhanced physical strength, for many obvious applications.
  • Enhanced eyesight, possibly crossing into areas off the normal human spectrum such as ultraviolet or infrared.  Your child could see in the dark, and would probably make an amazing soldier -- or assassin.
  • Slowed aging, using genetic code to create the antithesis of progeria.  Combine with "enhanced beauty" for an attractive movie star that could be "in his/her prime" for decades.
  • Additional body parts.  Gattaca hinted briefly at this with a 12-fingered pianist.  I won't explore this too deeply here in order to keep this speculative and not squicky.
  • Bloodstream or dermal augmentation, granting high resistance to heat or cold (but probably not both, due to the limitations of physics).  Uninhabitable wastelands in Siberia, Greenland, Nunavut, and Antarctica could suddenly become the trendy exclusive neighborhoods for the rich -- no need to worry about the "riff-raff" moving in, because they can't tolerate or even survive the climate!
  • Enhanced intelligence -- the sky is the limit.
Ah, but even a genetically enhanced human with created code in DNA wouldn't necessarily be owned by MegaCorp, you might argue.  Well, first let's look at the genetic code itself.  Current common law suggests that MegaCorp would have the right to patent their code and protect it accordingly.  In the case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303 (1980), the Supreme Court held that living, genetically engineered material is patentable subject matter.  The modified organism, due to human intervention, was not a product of nature and fell within the definition of "manufacture."  This was at issue because laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas are not protectible as intellectual property.  To be patentable, one must develop a machine, composition of matter, or manufacture.  In nature, there is no "invention" -- only "discovery."

OK, "So what?" you might ask.  "So MegaCorp has the patent on how they engineered my grandson's embryo.  I wasn't planning to go into the fertility business, so what do I care?  Their competitors can develop their own processes if they want in on that action."

The problem comes with adverse conditions.  Specifically, the problem exists because adverse conditions give MegaCorp a back door through which to introduce revenue mechanisms to the extreme detriment of consumers -- who might not have any choice in the matter.

Andrew Carnegie's "secret of wealth," paraphrasing from Napoleon Hill's classic self-help book Think and Grow Rich, is to make something that everybody wants, that nobody can make themselves, and that gets used up and must be replenished.

Imagine, then, if the genetic code of the engineered children came with a built-in trigger: every ten years, the enhancements naturally decay until the individual is left no better than a "normal" human being.  That is, unless a person purchases from MegaCorp an individually-customized genetic code "patching" pill that halts the genetic decay for ten years.  MegaCorp could charge anything they wanted for that pill... $10K, $100K, $500K... and "Valids" would pay it.  (In the world of Gattaca, Valids had extremely high-paying jobs.  It stands to reason that if this societal construct came about in real life, banks would probably be willing to lend $500K for a booster pill knowing that the Valid debtor would be able to retain a seven- or eight-figure job.  For example, virtually all professional athletes would be Valids.)

Oh, and it gets better: MegaCorp could engineer the booster pill to contain their patented and copyrighted genetic code, and it would be illegal for anyone to attempt to create a work-around, thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998.  It would not be illegal for someone to reverse-engineer a booster pill or someone's genetic code "in the wild," but the realities of economy of scale and the fact that the reverse-engineering could not make use of any patented or copyrighted code make it likely that creating such a substitute would cost more than just buying the booster pill normally.

Importantly, MegaCorp is not visiting any specific harm on its client or "creation" -- they are simply imposing a time limit on their product or service, as it were.  Once the time is up, the client is no worse off than if they had never utilized MegaCorp's genetic enhancements.  But in the context of a society that could very quickly be polarized by "genoism" into a world of Valids and In-Valids, MegaCorp would be the gatekeepers to health and prosperity. 

While the parallels to drug addiction are fairly obvious, this concept, taken to the Nth degree, more closely parallels the modern conveniences of refrigeration, air conditioning, and easy access to personal motor vehicles.  Sure, we can survive without any of those things, but does anybody really want to?  And so we pay.  We pay loans and interest (usually) to own houses and cars.  We pay cash for appliances.  We pay for upkeep and repair.  And to some degree we're already experiencing the MegaCorp scenario with "disposable" cars -- vehicles engineered to work well for a few short years and then be replaced.  Anecdata in point: Steph's Mitsubishi Mirage is on its last legs despite being two years newer than my 1999 Honda Accord, which still runs beautifully.  Your Money or Your Life, indeed.

So your granddaughter, a physical and intellectual specimen the likes of which would have been one-in-a-million naturally, learns upon finishing graduate school at 19 that she is going to be doomed to a lifetime of janitorial work or prostitution unless she mortgages herself every decade to pay MegaCorp an exhorbitant retainer to maintain her Validity.  MegaCorp dominates the economy, because they have made a product that everybody wants, that nobody can make themselves, and that gets used up and must be replenished.  Nothing MegaCorp has done is technically illegal -- man is mortal, and no mere product or service will reverse the chains of time and decay -- and yet the state of society creates an adverse landscape in which your granddaughter is an irrevocably indentured servant.  And so is everybody else of her generation and those that follow.

In fact, the only way to make this scenario any more frightening would be to substitute "MegaCorp" with "the Government."

Perhaps I should cash in on this dire prophecy while I still can.  After all, it seems like there may exist here the raw materials for a classic science fiction story.  We may hope that it never comes to pass, like Anthem, 1984, or The Handmaid's Tale, instead of growing more plausible by the year, like Atlas Shrugged, Brave New World, or Neuromancer.