Confession of an Asimov Wannabee
Isaac Asimov was remarkable in many ways, not least in his incredibly prolific output, producing 470 books during his lifetime, often more than a book a month. This book, number 451 on his list, is a valedictory message (it appeared posthumously). It is his second autobiography, updating a much earlier one. Asimov was already an old man, but still he completed its 558 text pages and 166 short chapters in just 125 days.
The book nicely blends autobiographical content with a retrospective review of Asimov's insights on life. Mixing fact and opinion can be a tricky task, putting a deliberate slant on the story, but here the results seem sincere and free of pretense. It is as if Asimov knew he had but a short time left . He has had an immensely successful career, with little to hide, much to be proud of and much to share, and the views of his private life offered here are surprisingly candid. The story has its ups and downs, but it is never boring.
What struck me in particular were the many parallels between Asimov's outlook and my own. Oh, yes, he was a heck of a lot smarter, more diligent and more articulate than I ever was or hope to be. Granted too that (unlike me) he was socially adept, with plenty of "street smarts" and with a sober outlook on life acquired early on, as a youngster tending his father's candy store. But like Asimov, I enjoy writing popular expositions, and that type of writing was Asimov's forte, far above and beyond (in my eyes) his science fiction stories, many of which seem to be padded (and maybe were, since more editors pay for length than for brevity). Asimov's expositions set an enviable standard for lucidity and liveliness, and in that area at least, I guess I am an Asimov wanabee.
He also loved history (at one time he wanted to make it his career), laced his writing with historical anecdotes--and I share that feeling. Like Asimov I have written science fiction (though never published any), and like him, I have found such writing harder to tackle than expositions. We both have produced poems (his bawdier than mine) and have both experimented with a variety of writing; our views on religion and culture seem to overlap, and both of us had careers in science. He was not always happy with scientific research, perhaps because in truth that is a slow and tedious business for most people--and I know exactly what he meant here. Overall, we seem to have had a complex resonance of views and aspirations.
Asimov began his working career as a chemistry professor, slowly edging into writing, wondering for years whether he could make a living from it. When he finally took the plunge, it turned out that not only was a writing career possible, but that the choice was a wise one, opening the way to a far richer and more interesting life. On the other hand, I can make that transition with no risk at all, retire whenever I wish and live securely and comfortably on my pension. Audrey and I own the house and our kids are grown, the nest is empty. Had I been smarter and less single-minded, I might have retired last month and earned my $25,000 bonus from the government, which dearly wants to cut its payroll.
Well, I didn't. I had my grand vision, of a clever space mission which might pull magnetospheric physics out of its slump, back to scientific progress. If that mission could be realized, I would have had the great satisfaction of knowing that the last thing I did before leaving the field had brought widespread and lasting benefits. It was a vision similar to that of Asimov's Hari Selden, whose story I suspect was cribbed from Jewish history, from the precedent of Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai. I no longer think that my dream will be realized any time soon: the best I can achieve is finish my study, write it up for the record, and hope that after the present decline bottoms out, someone will discover and resurrect it.
But writing is something I can do. I can follow Asimov's footsteps even if my talents are no match to his, e.g. I could never fluently type a first draft the way he used to do--even this essay has already seen rather extensive editing. Audrey rightly keeps asking me, "what will you do when you retire?" The proper answer is probably, pull together all the outlines and beginnings accumulated over the years (including an idea for an SF story "It's not just in your head" which cropped up just a week ago) and start working on the most promising and urgent ones: "The Great Magnet, the Earth," "Numbercrunch", my own autobiographical notes (and my family's story with them), maybe "Memories of the Future" and "Pilgrimages." There--five books right off the bat, and there exist ideas for more. Will I be granted the time and clarity of mind? Have I already delayed too long?
I can hear Audrey's voice, though: "You cannot just spend all your time at the keyboard. You need to interact with people like yourself, or you won't be happy." Incidentally, Asimov himself seemd quite happy at the keyboard. He wrote that he hated vacations, hated to take time off away from his typewriter, and when his wife dragged him away for a week at a resort, he was happiest when he managed to sneak away and do some writing after all. Sometimes I feel like that, too. But Asimov was not a loner, and he managed to find the company of some of the most scintillating people anywhere (the book pays tribute to many of them), and was greatly stimulated by their association.
How does one find people whose outlook matches your own, at least in part? I briefly tried the Greenbelt writers' group, but its members are not too serious about their writing, they seem to be supplied more with personal hang-ups than with creative urge. I should keep searching. The English departments at universities are good places to start with (remember Linda McGinley!)--the U. of Maryland, Johns Hopkins, Catholic U., American U., George Washington, maybe Georgetown, also the Baltimore Hebrew College. Maybe some local library system (Montgomery if not PG) has leads. Maybe university education departments, for initiatives like "Numbercrunch". And there always exist tantalizing distant prospects: oh, how much would I enjoy getting into the league of Richard Rhodes or John McPhee, both of which about my own age! But how does one get there from here? Perhaps the world wide web has clues.
Whatever happens, I can write without worrying about paying my bills, though any extra income would always be nice. (Our daughter already earns $200 a month from articles for a web magazine; I have read her writing, a different style, but hey, it's good money!) I don't think I will suffer from any writer's block, my main concern is that my strength and my mind hold out. Who knows, it could even become a second career!
Author and Curator: Dr. David P. Stern
Mail to Dr.Stern: audavstern("at" symbol)erols.com .
Originally written 19 February 1997, last updated 8 July 2002