The Planetary Society
Visions Artists Engineers & Astronauts Scientists Systems
David Brin  –  science fiction author
" Writing is only about 75% skills you can learn. The remaining 25% –– as in all the arts –– comes from something ineffable called talent. "
How were you motivated to choose your particular field?
  What originally motivated me to be a writer? That's simple enough. I scribbled and told stories from a very early age. Things weren't good at home, when I was a child. The adults around me all seemed so irrational and unreliable, I dreamed about other places and times where things might be better... or where the challenges could at least be understood and taken on with a bit of courage and brains. Reading helped –– for books could reliably take you far away from your troubles for a while. But I often felt I could come up with an even better story than the one I just read! Pretty arrogant for a little kid, but that was me.

As time passed, though, I started to notice something. Stories were great –– and so was art, music... in fact, lots of other creative pursuits offered escape from reality. And indeed, that was part of the problem! When you came back from your escape, the real world was waiting, and only once in a while did a story –– or movie or song –– equip you to handle real problems any better than before.

Yes, the arts are great for the spirit... but every single human civilization has had the arts. They all had painting and music and dance and storytellers. And I realized that, gorgeous and inspiring as it all was, it just wasn't enough. Just having art didn't make people better. It made the pain endurable, but it did not solve problems.

That's because a lot of art –– including storytelling –– is about making up stuff! In other words, lying. Beautiful lies, stirring lies. Magnificent lies. But lies nonetheless. Where, I wondered, was anyone trying to figure out what was true?

Then I saw it. Every civilization had professionals dedicated to dreams and wonder... but only one ever had an entire class of skilled workers dedicated to finding out what was real, and what was not. Scientists.

Now look at all the propaganda we hear about the relative merits of the arts, versus the sciences. Science is depicted as prim, meticulous, tedious, and narrow–minded. The arts are portrayed as high, noble, vaulting, and spiritually fulfilling. Funny thing though. The ones doing all of this persuasive portraying are.... artists! Writers and actors and the like. Naturally, they depict their own field as wonderful and science as stodgy, at best.

In fact, though, we have risen for the first time to become a civilization that understands the difference between subjective and objective reality... what we perceive as true versus what really is. In times past, people seldom noted the difference. Today, most people will grudgingly admit  –– "Well, I guess sometimes I can lie to myself." In other words, what I think is true may not be. Therefore, maybe I should listen to others sometimes.

It's a start. It's the most important breakthrough in wisdom in centuries, and it came from science. That impressed the hell out of me, as a kid. For honesty and self-restraint seemed in short supply where I lived, while fervid imagination and drama flowed copiously, with everyone around me convinced that they were somehow victims of plots or persecutions. I was enthralled that some group out there was putting truth ahead of their own egos, willingly testing their ideas with experiments and accepting it graciously when those experiments proved them wrong. To me, it seemed that was what being a grownup ought to be about.

No other civilization ever did this, though every culture had arts. It seemed to me that science was more rare and unique than scribbling and painting and primping and acting, so I decided to try and find a niche in that new world. Well, I guess I succeeded. I won my union card (my Ph.D.) as a real live physicist, who did good work and pushed back the frontiers of knowledge just a bit. I'm proud that I can say I was a scientist and an engineer and a teacher.

But you know what? Time teaches you lessons. And one lesson is that what you want to be isn't always the same thing as what you are good at! Fact is; I am a much better writer and artist than I ever was a scientist. I found this out when my artistic hobby (many scientists have one) started taking over! My side–scribblings turned into a novel that sold well... and then another that sold even better. People wanted to read what I wrote and listen to me speak and above all to share the far-off visions that I created –– scenes of wonder and possibilities about the way human beings may live if we do things right... or if we make horrible mistakes.

I've learned to live with this. Today I do very little science, and instead spend most of my time doing what I'm best at... what I was born to do. People today admire writers more than scientists, and that's flattering, but I don't care about that. What matters is that I've found away to contribute. I try to create stories and tales that deal with issues of honesty, even if the act of storytelling is itself an act of making up stuff. I sometimes call myself a 'professional liar', because I earn a living describing things that never happened to imaginary people. But people say it's a kind of truth, and I'll take their word for it.

Anyway, it's fun. And things could have been worse. I get to live in a rambunctious, fun civilization where people actually think we might send a bunch of people to Mars, someday. I'd love to see that. Maybe, with some stories, I can help a little to make it happen.

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What can you share about your creative process?
    It happened that I had to turn my writing hobby into a profession and my science profession into a hobby, for one simple reason... because I'm a better writer than I am a scientist! My gifts make me a better fabulator and tale–spinner than truth–seeker. And it's churlish to scream at heaven that your gifts should have been different than they are, since it is precious to have any at all! So I'm grateful.

Nevertheless, these two sides of my life enriched each other. Doing other work on your way to being a writer will generally make you a much better writer in the long run. (It also helps pay the rent.)

Despite the raging ego trips, writing is like any other profession in some ways. There's a lot to learn, if you want to do it right. Too many newcomers try their hand thinking all they have to do is "be themselves" on paper. But you have to learn skills –– dialogue, setting, characterization, and all the arty nuances that critics consider so much more important than plot. One nice thing about learning to write, though, is that you can have fun creating amateur stuff along the way. Later, you may even find some of that early stuff is worth taking out of the drawer again, and hacking into presentable shape.

I may have spoken dismissively of critics, but that does not mean that I put down criticism... that is, criticism in its best and most useful form, which is the discovery of correctable errors BEFORE you commit a work to press! In a general sense, criticism is the only antidote humans have ever discovered against error. It is the only way to improve. Yet criticism hurts! The only solution? You must learn to grow up. To hold your head up and take it. If the reader didn't like your work, that may be a matter of taste. But if she did not understand ... or was bored... that's your fault as a writer, pure and simple.

Writing is only about 75% skills you can learn. The remaining 25% –– as in all the arts –– comes from something ineffable called talent. Don't beat yourself up if you find this part is not up to professional standards. Talents are gifts we cannot question. If you discover you aren't a writer, keep searching till you find your calling.

What ideas do you have for a future human community on Mars?
  Don't go unless you have about three (Martian) years worth of water and TV dinners already waiting for you, cached and ready to use!

Find water. Lots of it.

Don't go till you have robots who can make copies of themselves out of local materials... and behave nice and reliably.

Don't rebel against Earth. That's adolescent nonsense. We paid a lot of sweat, blood, money and ingenuity to get you there. Give us a break. Anyway, we have your relatives.

Don't go until you have read all about Shackleton and the Endurance, and you prove you're almost as resourceful as he was.

Enjoy the low gravity and 25 hour day. Talk about them all the time, so every Earthling over forty will envy the hell out of you and want to ship out of this heavy place, where our spines hurt and there's always too little time in each day.

Find gold, oil, lots of cool new foods, and beautiful native princesses. If you can. If not, find a way to hint that you have, but are greedily keeping it secret; so we'll be desperate to follow you out there. Then sell Mars Bonds, default, and sell more bonds. (Hey, it worked here on Earth, about a zillion times! It's how America got started.)

Don't go unless we start showing we have the courage and commitment to be part of the universe.

But then go. Go!

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