A little over a week ago, the paperbound edition of my novel The Breast of Everything launched online, quickly followed by the first digital edition (on Kindle). To make this happen, I’ve been wearing more hats than Bartholomew Cubbins and every time I take one off there’s another one lurking underneath. I’ve been graphics designer, webmaster, researcher, publisher, publicist and personal assistant, while continuing to cover my usual roles in the office and with my family. If someone offered me a choice between a spot in the New York Times Book Review and a vacation right now, I’d actually have to stop and think!
Part of the challenge over the last few months has been making my way through a thicket of technology (it would have been accurate here to say “hacking” my way, but that word no longer conjures up images of swinging a machete through a rain forest—at least not when talking about technology). I’ve taken on learning, or adding to my skills in, WordPress, Photoshop, InDesign, Scrivener, and the CreateSpace and Kindle KDP interfaces. Plus setting up some new things in Facebook and Goodreads.
As a boomer with a liberal arts degree, I was awed by the scope of the available tools and astonished that I could use them. This may all be a yawn to your average high school Junior but this kind of technology wasn’t around when I was growing up. During college, I worked an entire summer to afford a portable electric typewriter. It wasn’t only the tasteful caramel color of the case that compelled me; in those days, the pop-in self-correcting and colored-ink ribbons were breathtakingly state of the art. Five years later, I had the opportunity to learn my first word processor. It was one of those “dedicated” word processors (before word processing software had been developed for personal computers) that required the floorspace of an L-shaped desk and stored a few dozen pages of text on a mylar disk the size of a vinyl LP record; the dot-matrix printer required another wall and a sound-muffling Lexan hood. Temp word processing was a great survival job for a struggling actor, so I learned seven or eight of these machines, the size shrinking rapidly over time. DOS-driven personal computers were next, once they supported word processing software good enough for my own writing purposes. I taught myself well enough to train others. I learned my first simple database program because I needed to organize my consulting work and my submissions to playwriting competitions. These self-taught skills eventually go me hired by my first software company, where I picked up bits of assorted knowledge while working with developers as a user-assistance specialist.
Now I make my living as a technical writer, specializing in what I like to think of as “helpful Help.” Not what you’d expect for someone with a double major in Theatre and History. Sometimes I joke that I’m something of an end-user idiot savant when it comes to software technology, but the truth is that the essential thing I learned in college was how to learn.
I was lucky that way. The push towards specialization began just a few years after I graduated. Instead of going to college to broaden their knowledge and experience of the world, students today go seeking job skills and every other one of them seems to go on to get an MBA in something. With so many complex disciplines to master, professional development training is extremely valuable and it’s great that there’s so much more of this available in schools and in the workforce. But no specialized work skills can replace analytic thinking, critical thinking and the ability to perform research.
Job skills learned today will be outmoded in less than a decade. Entire occupations go extinct every year (ask anyone who works for a newspaper). There’s no way of knowing what the future will bring, but most of us will, whether voluntarily or needfully, change occupations many times over the course of our working lives. And it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of us will never have an IPO or live in McMansion or live out one of those dream retirements that feature in financial planning ads.
But with a liberal arts education behind me, I’ve been able to adapt to new disciplines, changing times and evolving tools. I’ve traveled through Tuscany using public transportation, learned to knit entrelac and managed to connect my blog feed from my website to Goodreads. All that, and I get to have the fun of yelling “how can you not know that!” a lot when “Jeopardy” is on TV.