Why I’ll Never Write Fiction Again

At the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the wizard Prospero puts away his magic.

But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

It’s time to leave the enchanted isle and return to life in the outside world.

The New Yorker just published its once-a-decade 20 under 40 list of fiction writers to watch. Unsurprisingly, I’m not on the list, and, since I’m now 40, I will never be on it. Fiction writing is mostly a young person’s game. And I’m ok with that, although 15 years ago, I was certain—certain—I would be on the list one day. By the time I was 27, I’d written three novels and, for a while, had an agent at a Big Name Agency. But here’s the thing: the novels weren’t very good. Sure, they had a few passages I wouldn’t be embarrassed to let people read now, but overall, you probably wouldn’t buy them. They were the worst kind of mid-list dreck—their stories not plotted enough to make them page turners, and their style and insight not strong enough to make them art.

I think to be a good fiction writer, you have to have at least two of these four traits:

  • the ability to tell a compelling story
  • the ability to create characters the reader cares about
  • a recognizable style in putting words together in a novel and/or beautiful way
  • something important to convey that can only be told via the medium of fiction

Some of the best novelists—Dickens, Twain, Austen, Chabon, McCarthy, Woolf, O’Brian, etc.—have had all of these qualities (although not in equal measure).

I, I’ve come to realize, do not have these qualities. Sure, I can do all of these—just not very well. And, as Clint Eastwood so aptly noted, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” So just as the high school football star eventually has to realize he’s not going to go pro, so to does the college English major have to realize he’s not going to write the Great American Novel. And, while this is sad, I’ve come to terms with it. It’s not the course my life has taken.

To be a fiction writer, you should probably read a lot of fiction, and I just don’t any more. I read quite a bit, probably some 40 books a year, but my non-fiction to fiction ratio is probably 3:1 these days. Fiction writing—any writing, really—takes time. You really have to want to do it, especially to write books, which are the equivalent of marathon running in the sports world. It is much easier to want to write a book than to write one. I simply don’t want it enough. Charles Bukowski, as always, nails it:

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.

if you have to wait for it to roar out of
you,
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

The roaring has stopped for me, so I’m doing something else.

So away goes the Revolutionary War spy novel I’ve been thinking about for over a dozen years now, and away goes the scifi novel set 100 years into an electricity-free, but zombie-full, future that I started a few months ago. I’ll give you the first line of that one:

When the computer turned on, after nearly a century of silence, Arturo, Lord of Willock, didn’t hear its whisper over the clang of swords from the courtyard below.

Feel free to finish it. I have other projects to work on. That’s what this decision is really about: the biggest question of all: what do you spend your time doing? “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” writes Annie Dillard. I already have a hobby that I enjoy that I’m never going to be good (much less great) at: playing the cello. I want to do more of that. I want to grow my business, and make it one of the best design firms in the world. I want to focus on my family; it won’t be that many years until my daughter is goes away to college. I want to do more design projects, and become a stronger, better designer. I want to write another design book on designing devices. I want to design products that are important, lasting, meaningful. All these things require focus. Deeper, not broader is my new mantra.

While I enjoy being well-rounded, at a certain age, a tight focus on what is important and what you realistically can accomplish is essential. We do, after all, only have a limited time on this earth and we really don’t know how limited.

Sometimes, you have to listen to what the universe is telling you. I’ve written two (mostly) well-received design books. I get asked to speak on design all over the world. I work on cool design projects that I enjoy and that can and will change the world. My company is starting to take off. This is a pretty clear message that I’ve found my niche, my bliss, even if it isn’t anywhere close to what I thought it would be 20 years ago. Only a fool would ignore such signs.

I’m a published author, three times over. So it’s not like I don’t have books. Writing non-fiction is something I never expected in my life, and I suppose the lesson there is to leave enough space in your life for the unexpected as well. Frank Bascombe, the protagonist in the great trilogy of novels by Richard Ford, discovers this as well, I think: setting aside fiction writing for sportswriting, and, eventually, selling real estate. We don’t know the turns our lives will take, and, as Ford writes, “The only truth that can never be a lie, let me tell you, is life itself—the thing that happens.”

The roaring has stopped for me. I’m doing something else. I’d like to think I’ll miss writing fiction, but the truth is, I probably won’t. It’s the writing, the creating, the putting of words next to each other in a beautiful, clear way that I like, and I have plenty of that. My life is still quite full without being a novelist. “When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you,” said Lao Tzu. So true.

Shakespeare doesn’t tell us what exactly happens to Prospero at the end of The Tempest. But the final words of the play are his, and he says this bit, which I’m taking with me:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own

What strength I have’s mine own. Yes.

50 Before 50

Like my 40 before 40 list, I’ve put together a 50 before 50 list: 50 things I’d like to do before I turn 50. It’s a 10-year project, so it’s far more ambitious than 40 before 40, since these are for 10 years, not just for a single year. It’s a little daunting, for sure. I moved some of my remaining items from 40 before 40 here, to make sure that I eventually get to them. Wish me luck.

  1. Go on a week-long backpacking trip.
  2. Make a really cool piece of interactive art.
  3. Play a movement of one of the Bach solo cello suites reasonably well.
  4. Set up a real retirement savings plan. Done!
  5. Read Bleak House.
  6. Purchase a piece of real estate.
  7. Write another design book. Done!
  8. Write a novel.
  9. Have a suit made for me.
  10. Attend an opera.
  11. Eat at The French Laundry.
  12. Perform a cello/violin duet with Fiona.
  13. Buy a new cello.
  14. Go to New Orleans. Done!
  15. Go to Rome. Done!
  16. Go to Barcelona.
  17. Go to Africa.
  18. Go to South America. Done!
  19. Go to India.
  20. Go to the South Pacific.
  21. Go to Bhutan.
  22. Go to a state I’ve never been to (I have 10 to choose from).
  23. Teach Fiona how to ride a bike. Done!
  24. Spend a day in a pub doing nothing but reading, talking, drinking. Done!
  25. Prepare an amazing dinner for friends.
  26. Do an extended stay in another country.
  27. Win a design award.
  28. Donate a large sum to charity.
  29. Go whitewater rafting.
  30. Launch a consumer electronics product.
  31. Design a “signature” product.
  32. Learn a new skill.
  33. Do a road trip.
  34. Drink a bottle of very expensive wine.
  35. Have a romantic meal in Paris with Rachael.
  36. Buy an antique piece of furniture.
  37. Take a martial arts class.
  38. Speak at a non-design conference.
  39. Design a truly useful product.
  40. Buy an antique device.
  41. Teach a class.
  42. Reread the Patrick O’Brien Aubrey/Maturin series.
  43. Mentor a designer. Done!
  44. Meet one of my heroes. Done!
  45. Write a personal essay.
  46. Give a talk on something that isn’t design. Done!
  47. Rent a vacation house for a week and have friends stay over.
  48. Read The Baroque Cycle.
  49. Become debt free.
  50. Do something amazingly generous and unasked-for for someone I don’t know.

Thoughts on my 40 Before 40 List

A year ago, on my 39th birthday, I published a list of 40 things I wanted to do before I turned 40. By the end of yesterday, I had finished 25.5 of them. Am I disappointed I didn’t finish all 40? A little, but the list was always aspirational, and in the last year, I’ve done at least 40 great things that weren’t on the list, some of them silly (jumping naked into the icy Baltic Sea), some of them life-changing.

To say this last year was challenging is an understatement; my marriage and my business almost both dissolved, and I’ve been on the brink of financial and emotional ruin several times. Growth is never easy, personal growth is the worst, and I’ve done a lot of personal growth in the last 365 days. Sometimes the best laid plans go astray.

So was the 40 before 40 experiment worthwhile? Of course. It kept my focus on things that were important to me (or at least important to the me of February 16, 2009). Even though objectively, only doing some 50ish percent of them is probably a failure, doing 25 important things was still a good way to spend a year. That’s more than two great things a month on average, and even in a terrible year like the one I just had, that’s not too bad.

I did learn a few things about lists like this, however, if you’re thinking of doing one of your own. Don’t rely on other people, for instance. Keep it to things you can do alone if necessary. Don’t put things that you have to do daily on them, because that just sets you up for failure. Try to make them discrete events whenever possible; break them up into pieces. The hardest ones are (obviously) those you simply can’t go out and buy or just do. The ones you really have to work up to in order to do are tricky, and most of the ones remaining on my old list are of this sort. (In theory, those are the most rewarding as well.)

I’m working on my 50 Before 50 list, which will be (since it is 10 years, not one) broader in scope and deeper in ambition than 40 before 40 ever was. It’s also taking me longer to figure out. But I think it, too, will be a worthwhile experiment.

40 Things I Want to Do Before I’m 40

I turn 39 today, and by next year, my 40th year, likely my life will be about half over. This isn’t a bad thing; I have very few regrets about how I’ve spent my one precious existance. But there is still a lot to do. I don’t fear dying, just not having lived enough. So here’s my list of things I want to accomplish in the next 365 days:

  1. Spend an evening in a fancy restaurant with friends.
  2. Travel to a country I’ve never visited, preferably in South America or Africa (the only continents I haven’t visited).
  3. Go on a long (multi-day) hike.
  4. Make a really cool piece of interactive art.
  5. Play a movement of one of the Bach solo cello suites reasonably well.
  6. Buy a nice watch.
  7. Put myself on the bone marrow transplant donor list.
  8. See a product launch that my company designed.
  9. Eat at Burma Superstar.
  10. Do 100 pushups in a single session.
  11. Get my second tattoo.
  12. Set up a real retirement savings plan.
  13. Lose 10 pounds.
  14. Read Bleak House.
  15. Give blood.
  16. Teach Fiona how to ride a two-wheeler bike.
  17. Do 200 situps.
  18. Spend a day doing service.
  19. Visit a national park.
  20. Go on a decent vacation with my family.
  21. Do 20 pullups.
  22. Get an interesting new pair of glasses.
  23. Go wine tasting.
  24. Build a robot.
  25. Hire an employee.
  26. Discover an amazing new band.
  27. Have a spa day with Rachael.
  28. Listen to a live classical music performance.
  29. Write for, or at least be mentioned in, a major media publication.
  30. Find another series of books Fiona and I can read together, then read them.
  31. Buy a piece of art.
  32. Make a new friend.
  33. Buy a coffee table for my living room.
  34. Go to the real Northern California and see the giant redwoods.
  35. Buy a new desk chair.
  36. Do 30 minutes of exercise every day.
  37. Eat at The French Laundry.
  38. Give Rachael an unexpected gift.
  39. Speak in front of a new audience.
  40. Perform a cello/violin duet with Fiona.

4×4 Meme: More About Me

Brian Haven tagged me with a new meme to learn 16 new things about me in groups of four. So here it goes.

Four Jobs I’ve Had in My Life:

  • Newspaper Delivery Boy. 1984-1987. I’m not sure how I did this. I was terrible at it too.
  • Security Guard, All-Women’s Catholic College. 1989-90. The wolf guarding the sheep, in other words.
  • Marketing Assistant, Women’s Lingerie Company. 1994. A long-term temp job I got when I first moved to new work. Very distracting.
  • Copywriter, TV Guide Magazine. 1992-4. Ponch and Jon go hang-gliding. (Repeat).

Four TV Shows I DVR:

  • The Wire
  • The Soup
  • Lost
  • 30 Rock

Four places I’ve been:

  • Sydney
  • Venice
  • Dublin
  • Helsinki

Four music artists I’m listening to right now:

  • The Raveonettes, “Lust Lust Lust”
  • British Sea Power,” Do You Like Rock Music?”
  • The Waxwings, “Low to the Ground”
  • The Magnetic Fields, “Distortion”

I’ll tag four people with blogs to keep it going: Jamin Hegemin, Brian Oberkirch, Matt Jones, and Liz Danzico.

A Meditation on Fate, Chance, and Luck at Year’s End

I’ve never been a big believer in Fate with a capital F, with its creepy overtones of predestination. I don’t care to think there is an intelligent power who has pre-ordained your life for you, or that your biology and environment makes it impossible for you do anything but what you will do. Even if this may be true, it’s a horrible principle to base your life on, I think. By doing so, you think the future is already determined, and that makes life not really much worth living.

I do, however, believe in chance and luck. Chance, as I define it, is an accidental event you have no control over that happens without your direct action. A bridge collapsing, picking up a magazine in a doctor’s office and finding a great article, overhearing your favorite song blasting out of someone’s window–all are examples of chance. Chance can be random (a kicked-up stone hitting your windshield) or semi-random (a terrorist blows up a building near you). Random (or really, seemingly random) chance is usually a result of some natural or social process. Rust weakens a bridge, for instance, causing it to collapse. Semi-random chance is triggered by someone else’s actions that in turn affect you. A drunk driver smashes into your car. It’s caused by someone’s actions, but you did nothing to instigate or trigger the event personally.

Chance can ruin or make your life worse, as anyone who has caught a strange illness can attest. It can also enhance your life, and this is what we call luck.

Luck is really just a type of chance: an event that goes in your favor. You can meet someone who offers you a job or becomes a spouse. You can find money on the street. You can win the lottery. Bad luck is just chance, really.

Now, there are those who would argue that we make our own luck. You have to be prepared to meet a possible spouse. You have to buy the lottery ticket to win. And I suppose there is some truth to this. There’s probably two forms of luck too. The kind where you’ve positioned yourself to receive it, and the other kind, which theologians call grace. Grace is an unexpected, undeserved gift. You don’t have to be prepared to receive it, or worthy to receive it, you just do.

Coincidence is a form of luck, I think. Bumping into the right person at the right time. Having someone give you a book you were just thinking of. It’s a form of good luck.

I wish you and yours the best of luck in the new year.

2007 Review: Work Travel

Somehow, it doesn’t seem like it, but running the numbers, I traveled a lot less this year than in 2006. The raw stats are 56 days away in 2006 and only 41 in 2007. There were whole months that I stayed in San Francisco this year (January, April, May, October, December) and that only happened once in 2006 (May), and when I went anywhere, it was for fewer days. Good thing I can sleep on red-eye flights!

In both years, there was still one ginormous trip (Sydney in 2006, Malmo-Copenhagen-Amsterdam in 2007). The difference was, I think, a client project in early 2006 that had me on-site nearly every week for several months, and that bumped up the travel time.

This past year, I did spend time in some cool places:

  • The aforementioned Malmo, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam
  • Vancouver
  • Toronto
  • Austin
  • Helsinki
  • Chicago
  • and Washington D.C.

Next year is already filling up with trips to Japan, San Diego, Austin, Savannah, and Washington D.C. already scheduled, and rumors of Copenhagen and Sydney on the horizon.

I’ll see you somewhere.

How to Be Taken Seriously in Blog Comments or Mailing Lists

I moderate a handful of blogs and sit on a number of mailing lists. Occasionally, people will post to a list and get no response or leave a blog comment that gets ignored or deleted. Here’s why.

You won’t be taken seriously by me or anyone else unless you:

  • Use reasonable English grammar. Even if you don’t speak English as your first language, you can at least obey some basic English conventions, like capitalization and punctuation. Amazingly, it is usually English-speakers who are the worst at this.
  • If you have a lot to say, break it up into paragraphs. One giant paragraph is annoying.
  • Actually read what you’ve responded to. It’s amazing how much misreading or skimming of a post people do before responding. Closely read the post to see if your criticism or concern has already been addressed.
  • Be reasonable when what you are responding to is reasonable. Respond to reasonable discussions reasonably. Ignore unreasonable discussions. (This is hard.)
  • Participate in the discussion. If you only post with problems or to complain and never contribute solutions or interesting commentary, you don’t have much credibility.
  • Don’t comment anonymously. If you believe what you are saying, be an adult and put your name on it. If you are too cowardly to leave your name, you probably shouldn’t be commenting.

So there you have it. Feel free to comment. 🙂

2006: A Year of Words and Travel

You’d think in a year when I wrote and published a book, that would be the thing I think about the most when reflecting about the year. But, oddly enough, it isn’t. Instead, I think back on the travel I’ve done this year, easily logging more air miles than probably the last five years combined. Every month, to my family’s chagrin, I was somewhere:

  • January: Los Angeles
  • February: Atlanta
  • March: Austin
  • May: Atlanta (again)
  • July: Portland, OR
  • August: Washington, D.C. and Playa Del Carmen, Mexico
  • September: Sydney, Australia
  • October: New York
  • November: Toronto, Canada
  • December: Knoxville, TN

And that doesn’t even count the short trips to Mammoth, Seattle, and San Dimas! Next year will probably be just as travel-full, with trips already scheduled for Helsinki, Chicago, London, Austin, Las Vegas, Sweden, and Washington D.C.

But yes, this was a year I wrote a lot. Not only did the book come out (to mostly good reviews), I also wrote a few other things: So You Want to Be an Interaction Designer 2006 and Everything You Wanted to Know About Designers (But Were Afraid To Ask). I’ve been interviewed a few times: by Liz Danzico for AIGA and BusinessWeek, Brian Oberkirch for an Edgework Podcast, Dan Brown for some Hot Dan-on-Dan Action, and Jim Leftwich for The WELL’s Inkwell Series.

I spoke at five conferences in three countries. I taught four workshops in four different cities. I started a new blog/project and have contributed quite a bit to Adaptive Path’s blog (most of my best blogging this year has been done there, I’d say). And, oh yeah, I worked on seven projects, one of which launched (here’s a case study I helped write about it).

I read at least three books that changed the way I think about design and designing products (and no, not this one): What Things Do, Everyware, and The Evolution of Useful Things.

It’s been a busy year, and I wouldn’t have missed any of it. If next year is half as interesting and fun, I’ll be doing well. I hope you and yours have a happy holiday season and a great new year. See you in 2007.

9/11: Year Five

This is the last year I will write my annual post about 9/11. I’m alive, and so are my family and friends, and thus I have the luxury of not remembering if I don’t want. And I do not want. I’m tired of looking up every time I hear a plane overhead. I’m tired of being startled by accidental encounters with 9/11 images in magazines and 9/11-themed movies and television shows, determined to wring every last drop of pathos from the event. I’m tired of the most vivid, horrible day of my life being used for political gain, to kill those who had nothing to do with the attack. I’m tired of the ridiculous squabbling over the former site of the World Trade Center. I’m tired of it all.

It is time for me to set that day aside in my mind, as one might lock away a dangerous and volatile chemical–one that should be monitored but not handled too often. It does me little good to reflect on that day; my thoughts turn dark and it is though a shade becomes drawn across the world and everything becomes dim. If you gaze for long into an abyss, Nietzsche reminds us, the abyss gazes also into you.

The message for me of that day, as I stood there–still stand there–on the roof in SoHo watching the Towers fall, is how little control we have over our lives. And that is a message one can either embrace or deny. I have tried both.

My message this year is exactly the same last year: Osama bin Laden is still at large and three thousand people remain dead and unavenged. Nothing has changed, except that more people have died for nothing. But I am not surprised. 9/11 was the excuse for evil people to do more evil. As the Buddha rightly noted, hatred does not cease in this world by hating, only by not hating.

Enough. Enough.

I will close with a piece of my Year Two Remembrance, when I think I saw the event through the clearest lens: close enough to still smell the acrid stench of horror, but far enough away to turn away from it as well.

I also have something else: thanksgiving. I’m glad I didn’t go in early that day. Glad I didn’t get that job on floor 83 of Tower Two I interviewed for just weeks before. Glad I was not on a plane trip or simply walking by the WTC, like I did every day for a year. And glad I could make it home on September 12 for my daughter’s first birthday.

Thanksgiving will come early for me every year from now on. September 11th will be a day I remember how much I have to lose, and how quickly it can be taken away. I will remember the value of friendship, how I fled to Brooklyn and sought shelter at Sylvia Bachmann’s house. I will remember the feeling of walking through my front door the next day and seeing my wife and child. I will remember that although there are those whose hatred of us is so strong they would fly planes into buildings, there are the people who knowingly went into those buildings to save people. I will remember that life is precious, and that we do not not know the day or the hour or the way it will all end, so every day should be our September 12th: a day of homecoming, and birthday cakes, and the smiling face of a one-year-old.

Never forget.

Amen, and amen.