After watching the first episode Starship Troopers the CGI series this evening, I decided to look up the life of Robert Heinlein. He had a long career that spanned many decades and wrote until he died in 1988. I look at authors like this and wonder if my career will end up being remotely the same. I know that all authors tend to have very unique career paths, I can’t seem to help comparing myself to their careers.
The cover of the edition of Have Spacesuit I read as a child. It belonged to my brother.
I don’t mention Heinlein much on my list of authors that have influenced me. I do respect the author but his books didn’t catch me in a way that Asimov, Clark, Tolkien and others did. I do have a history with Heinlein. What few know is that one of the very first Science Fiction books I remember reading was a Heinlein novel. It was part of his series of Juvenile books he wrote for Scribner called Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. I didn’t know this at the time or that this book was the last of the juvenile stories he wrote. It did have a big impact on me and I remember the story well.
I’ve been writing for a long time but I’ve only had a small amount of success. I grew up reading authors from the Golden Age of Science Fiction, an era that Heinlein is a part. Many of these writers found a bit more success at a younger age then I. Of course, looking in to Heinlein’s career I realize that he didn’t get going as writer until his early thirties.
Born in 1907, Heinlein lived until 1988. His first published short story came out in 1939 when Heinlein was 32 years old. Before becoming a published author, Heinlein lived a full life. He grew up in Kansas City in the early 20th century and went to college at Annapolis in preparation for a Naval career. He didn’t start writing fiction until after he was medically discharged from the Navy in 1934. Between 1934 and 1939, he worked a series of jobs and ran for public office. It wasn’t until after he was left destitute from his political campaign that he started publishing his stories. He started to bring in more money than the military gave him for his medical condition. The rest, as they say, is history.
I look at authors like Heinlein and think “What will Biographers make of my life after I’m dead?” I wonder if I’ll ever be a success of any sort. I wonder if these unknown biographers of the future will read posts like this and wonder if I’m insane.
The question I really want to ask is this: What is success?
Right now I am aiming for a very small amount of money to live comfortably. I’m one of those people that don’t need a lot to live. I’ve spent most of my life in small spaces and without a lot of money. I just want enough money per week to be able to travel and pay my bills. Yet, I do know success isn’t all about money. If that was the case, I think I could’ve been rich years ago shelling whatever to whomever.
Is success all about fame? I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the point of being called a “Grand Master” like Heinlein. I do know that there is already a small group of people who like my work. It still is odd to hear people I don’t know tell me they read some of my work and liked it. I don’t know how to react. I have to admit I enjoy people liking my work much more than people not liking it, but it still is slightly uncomfortable. I am learning to embrace that sort of uncomfortable feeling and not be afraid of success. I do know I’m not doing it for the fame. I am not stupid; I know becoming a bit better known will help get me work.
If Success isn’t purely about money or fame, what is it about? At least in my mind.
Heinlein made a point to write a variety of stories that reflected his views at the time. Reading his stories in chronological order is like seeing the evolution of a child in to an adult. He goes from a pretty liberal mindset in to something a bit more conservative and satirical. I am hardly a Heinlein expert, but I think his view of success would be a bit different from many. He seemed to like having the freedom to express his views while entertaining people and getting paid for it.
I could be reading my own feelings in to how he viewed his own career. He was a man who was willing to consider new ideas that may have shaken up his own views on life. All his experiences were put in to his stories, including his Military man heart and ever evolving viewpoints. He put this all in his work as he lived and wrote. I also know that Heinlein, at least in the early years, wrote mainly for money. He found success in bringing in a paycheck as a writer but refused to get less money for his work then what he thought he deserved. He found success in keeping a quality level in a time when pulp and hack writers were the norm. He had a work ethic that probably formed in his family as a young man and was sharpened in his college days and military career. His success came at putting out quality work and expecting to be compensated in kind. He didn’t make a huge sum of money at first but he had a belief that as he became more well-known, he never wanted to go backward in quality or pay.
I like this attitude and I’ve come to realize what success is for me. Success is being able to travel forward in my career and know my worth as a writer.
Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, and Isaac Asimov, Philadelphia Navy Yard, 1944
I have a file full of articles that I don’t consider top quality work. I’ve spent the last two years churning out stuff I wouldn’t want my mom to see. Not because of content but because I know the quality is fairly low. I’ve learned a lot from this experience but I also I don’t want to ever go back to that point. All writers have their own issues and I am the first to admit that. However, I want to travel forward for here on and not find myself in familiar territory that I left behind. Heinlein was very careful not to go backwards and I think that is one lesson that we all can take from his career.