“No man is an island, entire of itself,” wrote John Donne, more than 400 years ago.
As I look back on my own career as a writer, that truth shines like the sun. No man is an island. No writer stands alone. We all owe our success, such as it is, to those who taught us, inspired us, helped us understand and persevere.
My first influence was my father. He wasn’t a writer; far from it. My dad spent his life working pressing machines in men’s clothing factories. He taught me that life is what you make of it. He was a happy, optimistic man, despite never going farther from South Philadelphia than the factories in which he worked.
And he was a wonderful storyteller. He would regale us for hours with uproarious stories about his youth, stories that always ended with, “Don’t ever let me catch you doing anything like that!”
In high school I was lucky enough to encounter George Paravicini. He was the English teacher who encouraged me to write for the school newspaper. He also taught a class in journalism, in which I learned the fundamentals of writing newspaper copy. And the importance of writing clearly and succinctly. And, more important, the crucially vital need to meet deadlines. Delivering on time is the hallmark of a professional in any field of endeavor.
Then there was Dr. Irving Levitt, director of the Fels Planetarium in Philadephia. I wasn’t even in high school yet when I met him.
At that tender age I had no interest in science. I would go to the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia’s science museum, on Sunday afternoons because it had one of the first television sets in the city and I could watch the National Football League’s Eagles play. Then I would go in for the planetarium show.
After several weeks, I realized that the quiet little fellow who was watching the games with me was the guy giving the lectures in the planetarium. I taught him about football, and he took me under his wing and began to teach me about astronomy.
I got the better end of the deal, by far. Dr. Levitt opened up to me the endlessly fascinating world of science. He truly changed my life; he lifted my eyes beyond the narrow streets of South Philadelphia.
When I started writing I wrote science-fiction stories. Write about what you know. At that time, the most powerful editor in the field was John W. Campbell Jr., editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. (He eventually changed the magazine’s name to Analog.)
Every newbie science-fiction writer wanted to sell his stories to Campbell. He was inordinately kind to young writers. Even when he rejected a story he usually sent a long letter that contained lots of ideas for new stories.
I eventually sold a few stories to Campbell, but I didn’t meet him face to face until we both attended a science-fiction convention in Washington, D.C.
Somewhat hesitantly, I introduced myself to the great man. He shook my hand, then said, “This is 1963. No democracy has ever lasted longer than 50 years, so this is obviously the last year of America’s democracy.”
I said something intellectual, like, “Huh?”
“I’ve told that to dozens of people,” Campbell went on, “and only two of them understood what I meant.”
Obviously he was challenging me, probing to see how smart I was, and how quickly I could think on my feet.
Desperately, I calculated; 1963 minus 50 is 1913. The end of American democracy? It hit me!
“In 1913 the Constitution was amended so that U.S. senators could be elected by the people of their states, rather than appointed by their state legislatures.”
Campbell beamed at me. “You’re the third!”
Over the ensuing years, John Campbell encouraged, cajoled, suggested, demanded the best stories that I could write. He was a lasting influence on me, and a very beneficial one.
There have been others who helped and influenced me in my life, too many to list in this limited space. I’m not an island; no one is.
I’m thankful for that.
Naples resident Ben Bova is the author of more than 120 books, including “The Return,” his latest futuristic novel. Bova’s Web site address is www.benbova.com