Growing up, I had a bit of trouble figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. By middle school, I’d settled on getting a Ph.D. in cosmology and learning all about stars, galaxies, and the origin of the Universe. But I also loved going anywhere and everywhere on my single-speed balloon-tired bicycle and reading about mountaineering, polar exploration, and pre-Revolutionary history, none of which had anything to do with cosmology.
And more than anything, I dreamed of being a science fiction writer, though I figured that was a long shot.
I chased the astrophysics dream all the way through college…but in the process I got near-minors in history and economics and even took advanced courses in criminology, law, and geology. On the side, I edited a student paper.
It would take me another decade to realize that writing was the way to put this all together. Along the way, I would collect a law degree and a Ph.D. in economics, teach law, work for a hazardous-waste engineering consulting firm, and teach undergraduate environmental studies. But by 1986 I was starting to sell newspaper and magazine articles, and by 1989, I’d taken the plunge and made freelancing my day job.
As a way to get rich, it is not. But the joy of it is that you quickly learn that anything you’re interested in is worth writing about. If it’s not interesting, find something else.
Over the years, my writing specialties morphed. My first book was a travel narrative about a solo transcontinental bike trip that revolutionized my life. But I’ve also written about everything from history to law, environment, health, and regulatory policy. Increasingly, however, I’ve come back to my early love of science, though I more often write about geophysics and ecology than about cosmology.
Then, two more events intervened, each as life changing as that solo bike trip.
The first was when I got a contract to write what would turn out to be the first of several books about distance running. As a kid, running was something I hated. Not because I didn’t like to run, but because I simply wasn’t any good at it. When the Good Lord handed out fast twitch (speed) muscle fibers, I must have been off on a long, slow run. At the 100m dash, I was doomed to be last. At the 400, I might catch one or two people, but not many. At the mile, I was better, but not by enough to matter.
Then, during a Seattle-based summer internship, I decided to climb Washington’s 14,410-foot Mt. Rainier. Running was the best way to get in shape, so I bought a pair of 1978-vintage shoes and started running three miles, three times a week. A hundred miles later, I made the summit…and promptly quit. Mountains were my childhood fantasy, not running.
But months afterward on a perfect autumn afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I realized I missed it. I put on the shoes and went exploring through autumn-bedecked parks and waterways, basking in the crystalline weather that only a Midwest Indian summer day can serve up. A dozen Forest Gump miles later, I was tired, but hooked. And, rather miraculously, uninjured. I started entering races and, while there were always people faster than me, I was fast enough at these longer distances to take it very seriously.
So, when I was offered a chance to write two books with marathon legend and (now) Olympic coach Alberto Salazar, I snapped them up. Soon, I was using his lessons to coach a local running club, then writing for top running magazines and coaching competitors in the U.S. Olympic Team Marathon Trials.
If you had told 12-year-old me that I would wind up doing anything like that, I would simply not have believed it.
The other life-changing event was one that would also have startled 12-year-old me, though in this case because it was an “impossible” dream come true. In 1999, I started selling science articles to Analog Science Fiction and Fact (the magazine in which Isaac Asimov made his start). In 2002, I was persuaded to submit a science fiction story (by that time I’d given up on writing fiction). It sold. Since then, I’ve sold about 50 more, mostly to Analog. I’ve posted links to some of these stories on the “science fiction” portion of this website.
One of the things I do as a nonfiction writer is essay writing. That means I need to find a way to somehow tie this all together. But the only thing I can get out of it is a lot like a Facebook game. If you could meet 12-year-old you and impart one line of advice, what would it be?
“Prepare to be surprised” is all I could say.
I might also note that writers don’t always have cats. My brother had one, which I’ve written about. I’ve also written about horses (also not mine). But I’ve never chosen to share living space with a feline.
I did, however, have a flatmate who was a rock singer. But that, as they say, is another story.