Writing, Sans Vacuum

I’m a writer. I love my job. How could I not? I find things that interest me and then I convince magazine editors and book publishers to pay me to explore them.

But it’s not all a bohemian rhapsody. The pay can suck (and frequently does), and self-disciplining your time can prove an epic struggle.

And then there’s the silence. Writing is a solitary business (difficult for a social critter like myself). You can push pixels for months without hearing much of anything from your readers. And, people tend to only talk to you when they think you suck, and they’ll tell you just how much in the most excruciating detail (and purplest of prose). Positive feedback, beside the sparse “thanks,” “good job,” or “interesting article,” is hard to come by.

What redeems this sometimes vacuous process is the weight of the positives, when they come your way. I had a guy come up to me, after a talk years ago, who said that the Happy Mutant Handbook had literally saved his life. He’d decided to go through with the grim deed the coming weekend. But in the meantime, he’d happened upon the HMH in a bookstore, bought it and had spent the weekend reading, postponing his date with the big sleep by the hour. He ended up being so tickled, so inspired by the book, he’d decided not to off himself by the time he’d finished. And so, there he was, at the podium, thanking me for saving his life. This utterly stunned me, the idea that my work had, in even the smallest way, helped save the life of another human being. It made the months and years of little-to-no positive feedback well worth the wait. And then there was the guy who read my article in Wired on neural implant technologies (“The Desire to be Wired,” Wired, No. 4) and decided to go into neuro-surgery and electronic engineering. He’d emailed me a thanks some four years into his studies.

I may sound like I’m tooting my own horn here, but you have to understand, these are two stand-out positive examples in some 25 years of being a professional writer. There have been a few more, but not many. I got another one yesterday…

Michael Aherne emailed me back in October of last year. He was three years out of college, with a degree in engineering. He’d read my Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots and had been inspired. He’d been thinking about going back to school, about applying to Stanford for a Master’s degree in biomemetic robotics. He said that ABG to Building Robots had “brought out some of the best ingenuity and creative thinking” in him. He said he was going to apply to Stanford and hoped that three years of industry experience and his aptitude for robot building (as exemplified by the robot he built from my book) might be enough to get him into the school.

Well, I got email from him yesterday. He didn’t get into Stanford, but he did get into USC. He even sent me a photo of his admittance letter. He’s going to be studying space robotics. A hearty congrats, Micheal. From me and everybody here at Street Tech! Definitely let us know how it’s going and what sorts of bots you’re working on — writers like myself, sitting in the quiet of my cluttered backroom home office, live for such news. Seriously.

Here’s the photo of Micheal’s admittance letter:

And here’s the one-motor walker he built from my book (his name is Charlie):