In my junior year of college, I began to take some creative writing courses as electives in my journalism minor. All told, I took 4 course, beginning, intermediate, advanced fiction, as well as metafiction. In that first beginning fiction class, I had as my professor Stephen Minot. He was a good professor but he kept urging me to write about things I didn’t want to write about. I was writing science fiction or contemporary fantasy and he would say to me again and again, “I wish you wouldn’t write that genre fiction,” as though it were beneath me somehow.
At the time, I made efforts in a “literary” direction that seemed to satisfy him. My favorite effort was the story of a young man in the 1960s who wanted to be a science fiction writer, wanted to have a story published in ASTOUNDING, but whose professor didn’t like genre fiction and would critique his stories rather harshly. In the end of the story, the boy gets an acceptance letter from ASTOUNDING on the same day that he gets his draft notice for the Vietnam war. Minot’s comment on the story was that I had “neatly prevented him from commenting on it by having the professor in the story say just about exactly what I would have said.” The story was titled, “Properly Creative.”
Nearly 15 years have passed and I am still writing science fiction and I am proud of it. In fact, looking back on my experience in that class, I’m disappointed in Professor Minot. In discouraging me from writing genre fiction, he was discouraging me from doing something that I enjoyed immensely. I suppose he was thinking that there was greater artistic value, perhaps, to mainstream literary fiction, but I never cared about that. The only thing I ever cared about was writing and publishing science fiction stories. Why would a professor of creative writing discourage any kind of creativity, regardless of the genre? If I could go back in time, I would ask him that question.
I write because I enjoy writing. I like making up stories. Like many science fiction writers, I like dreaming up possible futures. There is a measure of achievement in writing a particularly good character, or doing something that pushes the creative envelope, but none of that was ever my intention. My intention was to be like my science fiction heroes and write stories that were exciting, that made me think, that probed the world in a way that mundane fiction cannot do. But more than anything else, I write my stories to entertain me. I get a great deal of enjoyment from the process of writing, and I get an equal amount of enjoyment rifling through a finished draft, reading my own words. My guess is that this is true for most science fiction writers, though I suspect it is not true for most writers generally.
There are times when writing is tough, when I worry if I am turning out junk. But these days I look upon these times as opportunities to learn. I’ve read enough short fiction to eventually be able to identify what is wrong with my story. Half of the fun is thinking about these problems and come up with novel solutions. Yes, sometimes it is painful and frustrating, and the only ones who understand the pain and the frustration are fellow writers. Most of my friends are not. I can go to them and say that I’m having trouble with a story, but only a fellow writer will understand what that really means. Even so, I love it and I wouldn’t trade writing science fiction for any other type of writing. Professor Minot might have guaranteed that I would someday be a literary superstar if only I gave up science fiction. I would have refused to give it up.
Science fiction doesn’t have to be glamorous or respectable. It just has to be enjoyable to those who read it and those who write it. And even so, the times are changing. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road just won the Pulitzer prize for fiction. It is a post-apocalyptic story which could be categorized, loosely, as science fiction. Furthermore, the Pulitzer committee issued a special citation to Ray Bradbury for “his distinguished, prolific and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy.” So maybe there is respectability within science fiction after all.
But that’s not what I’m in it for.
When I write science fiction stories, I sometimes imagine that I’m living in the 1940s and writing the stories for John Campbell’s ASTOUNDING. The feeling I get from reading those stories published in the Golden Age, and the feeling I get from reading stories published in science fiction magazines today is why I write science fiction. You either know the feeling or you don’t. It’s a sense of wonder: wonder in the writing process; wonder in the reading process; wonder in wanting to be like your idols. When I write, I feel like an Isaac Asimov, an E.E. Smith, a Robert Heinlein, a Lester Del Rey, an Arthur C. Clarke, a Frederik Pohl, a Cyril Kornbluth, an Alfred Bester, a Clifford Simak, a Sprauge De Camp, a Ray Bradbury.
There’s no better feeling in the whole world.