Are You a Luxury or a Necessity?

This question came up in the process of writing the work-in-progress book, tentatively titled, An English Major on Mars. I’ve encountered this issue while writing the book and during some of my job hunts. A lot of it, as my friend Stuart put it, depends on how you think of yourself.

In the Engineering World

When a group of entrepreneurs is starting a new business, especially an engineering business, they usually focus on technical skills: engineering, analysis, and so forth. Such was the case in the early 2000s, when I was looking for a job in the entrepreneurial/”New Space” community. Companies like Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic were hiring, but mostly engineers and technicians to build their rockets, not technical writers to market their products. I ended up at NASA, which had a large, established bureaucracy with enough room for an English major.

While I was at NASA, however, the aforementioned Stuart and a couple other friends were forming their own company and wanted me to join them. Aside from my hesitancy in joining a start-up company with uncertain income, I didn’t see how I could be of value (some of us have bigger self-image issues than others). I declined at the time, though the Zero Point Frontiers guys were pretty persistent, and I did join later. By that time, I had learned a lot more about the space business, I had done more, and I could see better how I could add value as a tech writer: organizing and clarifying engineering documents, punching up (adding literary vigor to) proposals, and marketing an organization so customers understood how they could add value. In fact, I’d learned why it is often advisable to bring in a tech writer early when developing something new.

In the World at Large

My book is a literary effort to describe what would it would take to make a civilization on Mars “safe” for an English major or other liberal/fine arts person. New outposts of civilization–bases, towns, cities, nations–have to focus on building the physical infrastructure of survival before they start thinking about things like creating works of painting or sculpture, writing literature, or developing other works of art.

On the one hand, this makes sense: you need food, shelter, and clothing before you can start worrying about being creative.

And yet…there are things people with artistic sensibilities can contribute growing a new community without lifting a hammer or plow. They can design structures and living spaces that are beautiful or pleasant to live in. They can dramatize through shapes or words important founding moments and ideals of the community. They can help lawmakers add purpose, clarity, or majesty to the new community’s constitution. So on the one hand, these works of art might not seem as essential, but they are among the things that make life worth living and make others want to join that community. They are the things we remember and take the place among the glories of human civilization.

So…are writers (technical or otherwise) luxuries, or are they necessities? It all depends on how you think about it. Consider yourself a necessity.


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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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