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Words have always fascinated me. I was the kid that was always in motion – until I learned to read. From then on you could find me sitting, reading a book. Lots of books, I go through books like Patton went through France. I did even when I was in grade school.
I loved writing, too, from first grade on. Sure, I was not great at it, but I got better fast. By fourth grade I wrote a Christmas story (as a class assignment) an uncle tried to get published in New York. (No. It did not get published. It had “serious flaws,” according to a reviewer from the publishing house. What can I say? I was nine, trying to run with adults.)
I glommed onto every opportunity to write from age 8 on. I was the public information officer for my Civil Air Patrol cadet squadron (writing press releases). Wrote the newsletters for my high school wargaming club, wrote a fanzine in college, and did the newsletter for the JSC Astronomical Society when I started my career. I also wrote for my company magazine when I worked for McDonnell Douglas.
My dream job would have been to have been a full-time author. While I really good with words, I was also pretty good with mathematics. Good enough at math to run the numbers and realize making a living as a writer was a good way to starve. While I was a really good writer I was not nearly good enough to make it as a professional, full-time writer. For that you need to be in the top three percent. (Only one percent of all authors get published by the big New York publishing houses.)
I pegged myself at the 89th percentile. Have you ever heard Sturgeon’s Law, named after one of the great SF writers, who posited it? It states 90 percent of everything is crap. He meant it to apply to SF, but it is pretty well universally applicable. In most creative endeavors only 10 percent is worth keeping. At the 89th percentile I am not quite there.
Do not get me wrong. I am not bad. I am just not good enough to be great at writing. Even more frustrating I am good enough to know the difference between great and not quite great. As a writer I would be the literary equivalent of the athlete good enough to play Double-A baseball (or Triple-A, if enough players got hurt and I was in the right farm team).
There are a lot of writers like that. You see them hanging on in writing careers, pretending they are better than they are. They are not getting published because they are unlucky. Or because no one appreciates their art. They hang on around some literary giant like a remora on a great white shark. They become big in fandom or the convention circuit, serving as self-important gatekeepers.
That was not for me. Instead I became an engineer. I was not really great as an engineer. As with writing I was very good, but not great. Which was okay. You can make a decent living as a good-but-not-great engineer, the work was interesting and fun, and I like working with smart people. (Engineers tend to be smart, even if they lack social skills. Stupid engineers either weed themselves out of the gene pool or enter management.)
I quickly learned something. Most engineers are smart, but many are poor communicators. I may not have been a great engineer, but I was great with words (as measured against other engineers). Soon I was the go-to guy when something needed to be written. I had a dozen technical papers published my first few years out of college. I wrote the reports, procedures, and manuals. I even worked on new business proposals. I loved it. It meant I was writing.
When my engineering specialty became obsolete after the Shuttle program ended I transitioned to becoming a technical writer. It seemed better than waiting around for the space industry to pick up. Besides, there was a real demand for technical people who could write. I was earning as much as a tech writer as I did as an engineer.
In the meantime I was writing for pleasure – and selling what I was writing. It is easy to pick up a four figure income annually doing freelance writing, and not terribly hard to hit five figures. I discovered I had myself pegged back years ago, when I decided to become an engineer. (In no year has my writing income exceeded what a Double-A minor league baseball player could expect annually.) Regardless, it is fun. And a nice supplement to the day job. How many people have serious hobbies that bring in five figures annually rather than cost them five figures annually?
I value my writing skill. Words have put bread on my table for nearly 50 years. Even when I was not a writer, I was writing. How lucky can you get?