Life Goals Past and Present

In the grand historical scheme of things, 2005 largely sucked, but personally it was a very fine year indeed. I hope the two are not related, since I want things to get better for everybody else, but I’d also, you know, like to keep on doing what I’ve got going. I suppose if there were some sort of verifiable inverse relationship, I could take a hit for the team, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

In many ways 2005 also represents the closing of one significant chapter of my life. When one is young, one keeps a list of all the things one wants to do with one’s life, and I’m no different in that regard. This year, I published a novel — two, actually — and edited a magazine, and in doing so, I checked off the last major experiential goals of my youth (other ones included, in no particular order, being a newspaper columnist, getting married, being a father, writing an astronomy book, and being a fill-time writer). No matter what else happens in my life from this point on, I can say definitively that I got to be what I wanted to be when I grew up. I am naturally happily gobsmacked at the fact.

This does naturally lead to the question, “well, if you’ve done everything you wanted to do when you were a kid, why don’t you just shove off?” (Well, maybe it doesn’t naturally lead to this question, unless you’re morbid. But what can I say. Hi.) The short answer to this is that, yes, I’ve achieved the goals that I set out for myself as a kid, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have other goals, formulated as I’ve gotten older and I’ve seen what opportunities, desires and challenges lay before me. That said, allow me to enumerate some additional life goals that I have presently, which remain unfulfilled at the moment. In no particular order:

* I want to create a solid body of fiction. Which is to say, good reads that draw people in and make them look forward to whatever I make up next. This is separate from a best-selling body of fiction or even a significant body of fiction — in both of those cases it’s not entirely up to me. What is within my power is to write fiction that is worthy of being read, by the relevant metric of being work I’d want to read. What would I define as a “solid body”? I think 20 novels would be a fair start. I mean, right now I’ve written four and I’m contracted for three more. Unless I’m hit by a bus, 20 novels seems doable.

* I want to evangelize science. I firmly believe that 80% of all science is understandable to anyone who can walk upright — it’s just a matter of presenting the information in a way they want to read it or experience it. Writing my astronomy book was a life goal, but I’ll tell you what was a real eye-opener: Writing pieces for Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe. I wrote about a third of that book, with short little pieces on everything from types of clouds to the evolution of the eye to the signs of the zodiac, and I wrote them in a fun and entertaining way, and I had a ball doing it. And you know what? From what I understand, the book sold more than 100,000 copies — that’s 100,000 people (at least) who now know a little bit more about science thanks to a non-intimidating, humorous format. Perhaps it’s not dignified for people to be learning about science while they’re pinching one off, but look around us today and tell me people shouldn’t be learning about science by any means necessary.

I’m not a scientist, but I understand quite a great deal of science — and more importantly, I can explain it well to people who have no real experience with it. Out of anything I do, I would consider this a calling, a thing I do out of a personal moral imperative… and also because I simply love the ideas of science and want to try to make other people love them too. It is a joy to share ways to understand the universe. Writing is the obvious way to share, but I’ll do it however I can.

* I want to help my daughter become a good human. Because its what parents are supposed to do, and in helping her become a good person, I will hopefully become as good a person as I hope I am helping her to become. Raising a child, in my experience, makes you want to be a better person, for the sake of your child and for your own sake as well.

* I want a species named after me. Because, how cool would that be? Any species in any kingdom would be fine. I’m not picky. This is the only life goal I have that is entirely out of my control, unless I hack my way into the Amazon and find a frog species no one’s bothered to classify before, and, well. I’m not likely to do that. So all you biologists out there: Help a guy out, here. First biologist to get a species officially named for me gets a book dedication. See: I get something, you get something.

* I want to stay married, and happily so. Takes work. It’s worth it.

* I would like to teach writing in a formal setting (which is to say, at a college). I think this may actually be the most difficult goal, not because of the task of teaching itself (which is formidible enough, to be sure), but because no matter how many books I publish, I have only a bachelor’s degree, and the idea of going back to school at this point to get a master’s degree that I don’t particularly want or feel that I need seems pointless and stupid, and a PhD. even more so. This is not to say you MFAs and creative writing PhDs have wasted your youth and vigor. Just that it’s not for me. I’m more inclined to slap down the four novels I’ve written and sold so far, and maybe toss in my astronomy and SF film book, and suggest they indicate a decent mastery of that whole writing thing. Call me a practical experience snob if you will.

* Related to the goal above, I want to write a book on writing. I’ve been writing professionally for 15 years, I’ve been making a very comfortable freelance living from it for several years, and with the exception of screenplays, I’ve written and sold pretty much every possible form of writing there is to make money off of. I feel sufficiently competent in both the craft and business of writing, in other words, to bore people about it in book form. I’ve been talking with my non-fiction agent about this, off and on, since about 2002.

The major issue with this goal is that it’s not as if there aren’t already books on the subject, ranging from the practical Writer’s Digest “how to sell your manuscript” connect-the-dotters to things like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which many people love but which I found a bit twee (I was more engaged by Stephen King’s On Writing, but I suppose this should not be surprising). If I’m going to write a book on this subject, it damn well better not be the same crappity crap everyone else has to say on the subject, or at the very least, it should be the same crappity crap done up in a way that’s not already tiresome the moment one cracks the cover. If I’m going to try to compete with Stephen King on the same ground, I’m going to get squashed, and rightly so. I mean — hey — I would read King’s book on writing before I’d read my own. So I want to find the right way to do it that’s going to be new and useful to the people who read it. Writing about writing is already like admitting you’re masturbating; putting it into book form means you’re admitting you’re an exhibitionist, too. So you might as well give your audience a good show, one that leaves them shaking their heads in wonder and saying “Wow, I didn’t know you could do it that way.” That’s my goal. Bring a poncho.

* I want to visit New Zealand. Why New Zealand? Dunno. Just always wanted to go. Yes, even before Lord of the Rings. I’m not that shallow.

So those are the unrealized life goals at the moment — some of them, anyway; there may be others I’m not telling you about, or still thinking about whether to punt them into “life goal” status. How long will I work toward these goals? Well, it took 36 years to realize the first set of life goals; I guess if I have all of these addressed by the time I’m 72 I’ll be doing just fine. As you can see, I’m not in a huge rush. That’s why they’re life goals.

29 thoughts on “Life Goals Past and Present

  1. Perhaps it’s not dignified for people to be learning about science while they’re pinching one off

    Maybe not, but I’ll bet that people who know a lot about science have probably spent a little of their loaf-pinching time doing just that.

  2. John,

    Get that last one planned and done sooner rather than later it will lend itself well to the rest in one way or another.

    Me being generally afraid of going to a country where I dont speak the language and my wife generally having a goal of hitting all the continents before she kicks off makes for a bit of a challenge for us both, but New Zealand was a great place to start–even before LOTR. Almost immediately we were struck by the overwelming sense that this would be a great place to travel with kids–we now have kids and I might ammend that to include an age range if pressed, but Athena would fall in it.

    If you perform any sort of activity from getting a hotel to flying a glider plane you will be struck by the derth of litigation and the sense that you are responsible for your choices. We never paid for anything till after we had enjoyed it unless it was convenient for us to do so ahead of time and we never signed anything like a waiver.

    As a man, you might enjoy the plumbing in more ways that you can expect: toilets with option #1 and #2 flushes, toilets raised up above the normal height of the bathroom (oddly satisfying), and the return of pee on the wall style urinals.

    Plus there’s the sites (sights?)

    Enjoy!


  3. * I would like to teach writing in a formal setting

    * I want to write a book on writing.

    Ah, yes. Time spent surrounded by concrete gargoyles can warp the viewpoint. You can easily end up thinking somehow that teaching, research and didactic publishing are more noble, pure, and important than simple, direct acts of creation.

    Don’t fall for it. It took me a long time to realize, but every minute spent thinking about finishing a degree or teaching a class or writing a great “how to do what I do” book is a minute not spent writing great fiction, or recording great music, or coding great software. Worse, it’s a minute not spent doing one-on-one mentoring of some promising young writer/musician/coder. Unless you’re a really great teacher, this a net loss for everyone involved. Most creators help humanity and themselves more by doing, and by being seen to be doing, than they ever do by teaching.

    [Or, teaching may end up being your true calling, in which case ignore everything I just wrote. I've just heard too many of these unrequited yearnings from the feral academics that Chicago produces in droves.]

  4. Well, naturally, one of the reasons to try teaching is to see if I’m any good at it; if I am then I might do it some more; if not, I just chalk it up to “now I know.” There are things I’ve done before that have been good and useful experiences, but my main takeaway from them was “this is not for me.”

    However, I don’t think a book on writing is a complete waste of time, particularly if one wants to continue to write non-fiction regularly, as I do.

  5. FWIW — I do teach writing in a formal setting at Hartwick College and don’t have an advanced degree. I do have two BAs (which is a long, uninteresting story), a big-ass folder full of clips, ten years of work at newspapers and a book by a real publisher under my resume belt, which helped land the gig. But you have all of that (and more) and could easily find a gig at a smaller school as an adjunct.

    For me, the teaching itself is both wildly satisfying and mind-numbingly irritating in equal measures. The largest problem is that I seem to pick up all of my students’ writing evils by the end of the term and it takes a few weeks to purge.

  6. * I would like to teach writing in a formal setting (which is to say, at a college). I think this may actually be the most difficult goal

    Actually, probably not as difficult as you think, as long as you don’t approach Snobbery U. As a former member of two state university English departments, I can tell you that the one field where an advanced degree doesn’t matter is creative writing. Might be a bit harder to do non-fiction, but if you have enough experience, they might wink at your lack of advanced degree and take you on. I say this because not one of our writers in residence in the time I was in academia had more than a BA. You probably couldn’t get a tenured position, but then I doubt you’d want one. But certainly someone would snap you up for a year-long appointment, which would be long enough to learn whether or not teaching is for you. And to achieve a goal.

  7. While I certainly agree with the characterization of the “feral academics,” there is no reason not to do both. While my undergraduate and graduate work has all been in English but not creative writing, I have taken a fair amount of creative writing classes. While teaching is certainly not for everyone, the best creative writing professors I took were also successful writers with a desire to teach. Some with advanced degrees and some without. I’ve seen quite a few Visiting Professors with novels instead of initials after their name.

  8. fill-time writer? well, that part shouldn’t be hard. in fact, you can call that “blogging”…

    why do you want to write an astronomy book? where’d that goal come from?
    (side request: if you do, please don’t put anything about the sun’s contractractions being on the same timing as your wife’s contractions during birth. that’s one of the gems I took from my college science requirement “Wanderers in Space.”

  9. You also will also have a lot of time to do all those things you didn’t know you wanted to do. Dying well would be a good goal to set. Not leaving a mess behind would be a good one, too.

  10. 1. Regarding teaching writing in a formal setting:

    What about getting your feet wet by trying to start up a writing seminar through a university? I know that Orson Scott Card has done that before, though I haven’t seen any news about it lately. If anything, it’ll give you a taste of teaching (albeit in a less formal setting,) and also give you some classroom experience. I’m sure you are already aware of all of this, but he also has a “Writing Class” area at his website (www.hatrack.com) which if you were to do something similar, would allow you to combine the teaching and the “writing about writing” aspects. Which leads me to

    2. Regarding writing a book about writing:

    If you write it, I will buy it. Your essays about writing were what brought me to the Whatever several years ago and I abide by them to this day. I also greatly enjoyed King’s book on writing. Personally, I prefer to receive writing advice from writers who are themselves actually successful writers. It seems there are a lot of books about writing, written by authors who nobody has ever heard of before. I would group you into the successful category, and therefore your advice would be worth considering.

    I think this is the longest comment I’ve ever written.

    Happy Holidays.

  11. Except for the bit about teaching and writing a book on writing, I’m in pretty violent agreement with everything you’ve said.

    I did almost finish my book this year, and I’m treating it like a learning experience. I don’t know if it’ll ever sell. Still, it’s just about finished.

    This was mostly a good year for me, except for my inability to remain gainfully employed (not that I tried that hard until the fall) and some health issues (blah). Jim and I had a great year, we traveled quite a bit, and our daughter now has a second Associate’s Degree.

    I particularly agree with you on “evangelizing” science. One of my projects for next year is to assemble “Science Saturday” the main thrust of Confluence programming on Saturday. We have a few robotics and astronomy folks planning to come, and I expect most of the writers we invite will have a particular scientific expertise.

  12. * I want to evangelize science.

    Duuuuude. Have I mentioned before that I want to shake your hand? Well, that urge has increased.

    Incidentally, a few years ago my favourite science magazine, New Scientist, had an article called “Science Needs You” by Mike Holderness. It was an amusing, revelatory piece that I think helped dispell many people’s misconceptions about science, even though it didn’t actually explain any specific science. Coincidentally, New Scientist just published the results of its annual contest; this year their topic was modifications to humans. A non-trivial number suggested green chlorophyll skin. I wonder if they were Scalzi fans out in the wild.

  13. * I want to evangelize science.

    I echo RooK’s enthusiastic approval of that. A laudable goal, sir.

    * I want a species named after me.

    Consider “name a species after Scalzi” on *my* list of life goals. I suppose I should find an appropriate postdoctoral fellowship for that sort of thing…

  14. At your first mention of writing a book on writing, a skeptical feeling washed over me – not because you are not an excellent writer, but because in my opinion the ultimate book on writing has already been written.
    Then you mentioned that you would be working to be as good as said book, Stephen King’s On Writing, and I knew that we were on the same page and I would gladly delve into your book.
    I own the audiobooks version, which King himself reads aloud, and it’s cover would be well worn if it wasn’t a CD cover. King takes the previous “best book” Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and wraps anecdotes and clear examples and metaphors around it.
    So if that’s the bar you’re setting for yourself, John, I say bravo!

  15. John —

    Even without your master’s, you could probably get hired at a community college as lecturer. I don’t think you can actually be considered a Professor or even an adjunct without your MA or PhD — but students would be lucky to have you as a teacher!

  16. I think you’d like New Zealand. It’s a lovely place. And the lamb is delicious.

    As for the whole science evangelizing thing, will you be putting articles up on the blog as well? Because I’ll read anything that’s put in front of me, it’s getting the textbooks under my nose that’s the hard part. (Sez the recent college graduate)

  17. Something that struck me was this combination:

    * I want to help my daughter become a good human.
    * I want to write a book on writing.

    We homeschool our boys, and the textbooks we have seen for teaching writing to children have been a bit disappointing – either patronising, or ferociously rule-stuffed and formalised.

    Currently we’re looking at http://www.writing-edu.com/ but I’m sure you could do better.
    Failing that, is this an area you have reviewed books in yourself?

  18. I hate to tell you this, but even if you did hack your way into the Amazon and discover a new species of frog, it’s considered bad form to publish a description for a new species and name it after yourself. You could name it after a loved one, or maybe let someone else author the description, but you’ll probably just have to wait until you become a significantly notorious public figure to earn the honor (like Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush and their respective species of sucking lice).

  19. Evangelize science? Great idea. Scientists need all the help they can get. You could argue, pretty convincingly, that one problem in this whole evolution/creation debate is how bad of a job scientists have done in getting people to embrace evolution, and to see, with a sense of awe and wonder, how remarkable it is that the world turned out the way it did, and that we are alive on it. Bill Bryson does a great job in his book on science–but too much time is spent of trying to stamp out creationists and trying to prove that evolution means that God doesn’t exist–and not enough time opening people’s eyes to the wonders of science

  20. For the love of the great and noodly FSM!

    Please go write your book on writing. I would buy a hundred copies.

    Well, actually I would buy one and if it wasn’t, you know, crap, then I’d buy the other 99.

    In all seriousness, I took up writing again after 15 years. One of the greater contributing factors to that has been Mr. Scalzi.

    (insert much rear smooching and whatnot.)

    Now if only someone could give me a secret cheat code to create some time in between raising my daughters and running my business to read a book let alone practice writing.

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