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CHANGE OR DIE: WHAT MY WARRIOR POET GRANDFATHER TAUGHT ME.

How to survive tectonic shifts in your industry, and the perils of only doing what you love.

William Sambrot U.S. War Department ID
U.S. War Department ID

In 2020, my grandfather would have been 100, and I think it's for the best that he missed out on that sterling year. Born in 1920 in Pennsylvania to a machinist, he'd been orphaned by the Great Depression, and joined The Greatest Generation, but I didn't know much about these things until long after he was gone.



In fact, the internet has much more factual information about my grandfather than I do, and despite my efforts to have a respectable, creative digital footprint, William Sambrot remains far more searchable than I am.



Every time I look him up, I find something new: his work has most recently appeared on an ASMR YouTube channel that features his short stories being read in a whisper, and as part of an underground experimental music project in London called "Shivers" that pairs Theremin instrumentation with live readings from his collection. A couple of his stories still reside on Esquire servers—one of the rare heritage publications to embrace "digital transformation" with some grace.

At the time of his death, William had some 200 published short stories to his name. Most of his work appeared in the "Slicks": the big, glossy magazines of the day like the Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Playboy, some popular compendiums, appearing alongside Alfred Hitchcock and Arthur C. Clarke, and numerous small Pulp publications in between which—according the the Science Fiction Encyclopedia—"caused him to consequently receive less attention from within the SF world than he might have done, considering (his) vigor and polish."



In my esteem, and now that I am old enough and well-read enough to contextualize his work, he was a brilliant writer who was forced into the same kind of freelancer's purgatory that you can easily fall into in my industry: paid by the word, unable to slow down long enough to write a serious novel, and without the stomach for Hollywood's culture to make a mark in film or television.



He published one collection: "Island of Fear", and abandoned a second that survives as hand-typed manuscripts in a banker's box that follows me everywhere I move as I try to figure out what they mean to the world.



William was seeking legitimacy for a Science Fiction genre that had none, but that would go on to support a multi-billion dollar industry, with now familiar tent-pole properties erected on the same premises that he and his little-known colleagues outlined in the square interim between the end of WWII and the post-Nixon era, when the appetite for science fiction was nil.



And yet, the majority of his work wasn't true Sci-Fi at all, but merely speculative, and a bit too early: warnings of government overreach, stories feeding on Cold War Paranoia and the nuclear threat, such as in "Deadly Decision" (1958 Extension); a story about the President's dilemma as to whether to press "the button", or "Nine Days to Die" (July 1960 Saturday Evening Post), highlighting the problem of nuclear waste. I think some of his work was a little too prescient—a little too possible even— to be palatable, and I would come to see that, in some ways, for certain reasons, he wanted people to be as uneasy as he was.




THE WARRIOR POET


As a boy, I would visit my Grandfather in his little office in the house he built in Napa—a kind of literary apothecary, stocked with a facade of respectable leather-bound classics that hid his curios: photo books on early movie special effects, eerie stills of Metropolis, and King Kong, strange encyclopedias of circus freaks, rare disfigurements, and other chronicles of human anomaly and misery, and suspiciously official-looking dossiers of the pyramids and faces of mars, a collection keeping strange and easy company his own published paperbacks.



He proudly showed me foreign editions of his more popular published works, and I was particularly taken by the Japanese rendering of "Creature of the Snows", a story about a hidden species of gentle family of snow-Sasquatches. He flipped the book over to show me how the Kanji read back-to-front, right-to-left, and down, and I knew then that Japan was as different and marvelous as his Mars, and that I had to see it one day, which I did.

He would let me waste his ink ribbons on the yellowed paper of his old Royal, which he trusted more than the telephone, and which he utilized to harangue the Napa City Council over potholes and fallen trees, drum up increased skepticism over the moon landing, and inquire after royalties and other remuneration—all under the pseudonym Anthony Ayes.

As a boy, I wasn't an avid reader, and my grandfather's picture books made me uneasy. I was more interested in his war stories, if for no other reason than it being a subject which he didn't cushion for my tender years. After dinner when the house was quiet, and with some wine, he would begin to talk about the horrors and ingenuity of the American invasion – as if he were recounting a violent but amusing film he'd gone to once by himself.



These stories weren't told with any notes of pride, shame, misery, or even nostalgia. They were simply reports of what seemed like recent events, certain moments being clearer than others, some skimmed over quickly. Some of them, the things that fascinated him—the feats of the Engineer Corp and Air Force—required crude illustrations made of his flat carpenter's pencil, and scratch paper made of ripped-up old letters.



While my father's Vietnam—his time building fighter jets for McDonnell Douglas—seemed murky, my Grandfather's Second Great War seemed to me something heroic and palpable; a fight against naked Evil that shaped all the world, and gave form to my immediate family. But to him, it was simply a gauntlet of time that all Americans had to pass through to get to the current day; a kind of weather system in which everyone was equally tested and equally miserable working to see the end of something totally unnecessary, and yet somehow natural. When it was over, everyone found themselves both pleased and surprised to have made it through, curious what would be made of it all, and a little disappointed too—sentiments which feel familiar to us all once again 80 years on.



He had been a combat medic, who famously rescued a squad of men from a burning B26 Marauder that had gone down in a minefield somewhere in France.



They'd given him the Soldier's Medal for that—nearly as rare as the Congressional Medal of Honor. In the chaos, they omitted his name. He got stung by a wasp, and overhearing that his arm might be amputated, stole an army Jeep and went AWOL, carousing through the French countryside, using french notes as toilet paper. They made him work the prophylactic station for that one, and gave him a Purple heart, which he threw away.

Crash site: B-26 Marauder, Unknown, France, 1944.
Crash site: B-26 Marauder, Unknown, France, 1944.

He wrote beautiful, angry, heartbreaking letters home, many of which were censored or confiscated.



I believe it was this punitive bowdlerization that caused him to turn to fiction. I feel he would have made a far more potent non-fiction writer had he not been meddled with by ranking officers, who agitated his natural defiance of authority, and made it compulsive.



I know this because the letters that did get through are almost too earnest to bear: to read with my own eyes the thoughts of my own flesh and blood, younger than I am now by half, and the cruel and unlucky ways that this magnetic 23-year old with movie-star looks—a hopeful kid who loved San Francisco, his mother and sisters, loved the German countryside, and even admired the young German POWs—had been so wounded in seeing what humans could do to each other.



It explains a lot about the man who came home, the family he begot, our dispositions, the work we turn to, and away from.

At the close of the war, William stayed in Europe and studied writing at the University of Biarritz in France, then at the University of California in Berkeley, and then journalism and short-story writing in San Francisco. He earned no degrees, but with a mother and sisters at home, he took what he needed and headed back to work.



He carried 50lb bails of sugar for the C&H plant. He was an elevator boy for Bimbo's 365 Club. He was a lifeguard at Fleishhacker. He kept writing.



He got an agent, and took what piecemeal work he could get. He got rejections, and a few sales. He started showing up in pulp and nudie mags, then glossy magazines, known publications, and then the collections.



It all paid very little, until it paid a little more. He started his family, along with the 80 million hopeful Americans who had endured the war. His body of work grew. He was tinkering with scripts, and spent time in Los Angeles defying executives. It was rough-going, but life was more affordable then, more dear, and the Middle Class was suddenly mobile. America had emerged not just as a victor, but a super power.



The feeling that anything was possible was in the air, and so my grandfather, the son of an Italian immigrant machinist, took up the unlikely calling of writing as his mainstay, forgoing the many many things he could do with his hands.



THE PLAGIARIST In 1971, William wrote a short story called "The Bet", about a faked Lunar landing, shot on a secret movie set using special effects. Apart from the destination being shifted to Mars, there are uncanny similarities between the script for "Capricorn One"—a movie which was released in 1978 starring James Brolin, Sam Waterston, O.J. Simpson—and "The Bet", including specifics about the film technology and various effects used.



When my grandfather heard about the films pre-production, he sought advise from his agent, the Science Fiction Writers Association, its president Jerry Pournelle, colleagues Robert Bloch and Harlan Ellison, and the now defunct Law Firm Dumler & Giroux, who offered to initiate an injunction against Warner Brothers.



A writer first and foremost, Sambrot had no interest in "...hassling Peter Hyams or Lazarus III or anyone else", but only sought a credit for the source material if Hyams would confirm that indeed he had come across the short, which seemed far more than likely.



Sambrot was increasingly urged to avail himself to distasteful legal action, and anyone else might have. But he was not a litigious man. He gave up the chase, and the credit. Capricorn One continued with production, and was released to some acclaim, presumably with no knowledge of Sambrot's efforts to treat with Hyams, Lazarus, or Warner Bros.



The film grossed $12 Million and launched some careers. Hyams went on to direct 2010: The Year We Make Contact, which I love, and Outland, which my mom really likes because Sean Connery is in it. Brolin's son, Josh would appear in the most important Science Fiction film of our time: 2021's Dune.


Concluding the matter, Sambrot later wrote to my father:

"What one writer can think of – another can, of course. But once it's thought up and printed, then numero uno has precedence, and all the cry of coincidence in the world availeth naught."



Manuscript - The Bet by William Sambrot
Manuscript - The Bet by William Sambrot, 1971

By my records, my grandfather stopped writing after the Capricorn One debacle. He had built his house, raised his children to the best of his ability, and he had done it all on a freelance writer's salary. For him, the world had become plagiarist, censorious, and cruel, the country as corrupt and inept as his most speculative fiction.



He retreated to his garden, his police scanner, and spent the remainder of his days writing letters, and humoring his grandchildren. Suspicious of doctors and dubious of all psychology, he passed from this world without ever coming to grips with the disappointments of his industry.



THE PERILS OF "DOING WHAT YOU LOVE" (FOR A LIVING)


A side-effect of my grandfather's retirement was that he would never take a book recommendation. He seemed to steer clear of all books, movies, and media outside live sports. I think now he was secretly afraid of what else was out there that looked suspiciously like his work.




As I grew into a teenager who loved science fiction – who had read Dune and Ender's Game and Brave New World, this agonized me.



I was beginning to show an interest in writing, and wanted to share all these great works with the old Master. I couldn't get him to read a single piece of mine, presumably because he couldn't be bothered. While my high school teachers were pulling me aside and imploring me to write, moving me into AP classes, and slipping writing samples off to Reed, he was the only voice that mattered, and he had little to say – until at last one day he said to me simply:

"Brevity is all. Nobody cares about what you think, or feel".

This statement has haunted me my entire adult life, mostly because it's true, and now more than ever: we live in the "TLDR" age, and this article is not exempt. But more, I do lack brevity in my writing, and have been unable and unwilling to attend to it.



I didn't realize then what I accept now: that my grandfather never got over what was either Hyam's remarkable coincidence, or remarkable heist, and while many people in the Sci-Fi community believed him, no one was equipped to act on his behalf, or bold enough to go up against Warner Bros.



He had been made to feel like a nobody in a category that had been his home; a pedestrian, whose only recourse was to entice New York lawyers to stall a movie that he had merely wanted to have a conversation about. He'd lived by a code which seemed suddenly not to apply.



In a letter to SFWA President Jerry Pournelle, William writes:


"Hyams...who claims to have written the script for Capricorn One 'about 5 years" (before the film), couldn't peddle it around until after Watergate because it was so fantastic—the Feds actually faking a Mars shot. After Watergate, says he, his story got a better reception because it was about a government fraud, and after Watergate, people, presumably, were more receptive to fakery by the Feds.


"Should I get an Academy Award", he goes on, as per Kleiner, "...I'm going to thank Nixon, Ehrlichman and Haldeman".


It was this last statement that has persuaded me that I ought to get an outside disinterested appraisal of both my story and "Capricorn One", if only to satisfy myself that this is all just a remarkable coincidence. If not, the very least Mr. Hyams could do would be to include THE BET, along with the infamous trio, in his award speech."



Capricorn One Movie Poster, 1978
Capricorn One Movie Poster, 1978


The world had suddenly changed, and the rules had changed along with it. Outlandish government conspiracy themes were suddenly a hot commodity, and somehow William had been pushed off his own turf. He never got to participate in the suddenly burgeoning Science Fiction space that he had helped create, that he had fought for – that the War had driven him to. A thing that he loved and respected a little too much.



He had been in the exactly right place at exactly wrong time. I don't think many people can wrap their heads around that feeling: the knowledge that you have been a part of something before anyone cared, and excluded just as it comes into the light.


I couldn't even begin to connect these dots when I was a teenager. I just assumed that my grandfather didn't think I was a very good writer, and this steered me off of writing professionally, which I know was the best thing for me, for several reasons.


For one, look at the state of writing and journalism today. We have so little respect for words. But more importantly, I have found that choosing something that you truly love, that's truly intimate, as a vocation, is dangerous.



If noting else, I want to impress upon you that objective creativity is a far more rare phenomenon than our current society is capable of admitting, while being professionally, remuneratively creative – being good to live on it – is rarer still.



The chances of finding success in any creative field are infinitely small; about as likely as becoming a successful actor, but with a much greater pool of competition that grows every day that we mislead people into believing they are talented beyond the trivial. Should you manage to succeed and bubble up through the many tiers of this "attention economy", honestly and organically, with your virtue intact, you are inevitably forced to make dire concessions, and many of them are painful, neutering, and wrong.



The first printing of my grandfathers short story "The Bet" in Adventure magazine was re-titled "Moon Things", much to his annoyance. But when it's your job, when your children's lives are at the behest of your typewriter, it's not a hill you can die on. Nothing is.

For me, design and illustration were and are things I enjoy. But I didn't love them so much that I felt compelled to hang on to them for dear life. I could make concessions. I could take criticism. I ate to bone-crushing critique like it was praise...because I was so pleased to be in the conversation.



In practice today, I'm a wonderful collaborator because I have come to learn and accept that no one person can own a creative property where money is at stake. Certainly, no one person owns a brand or ID. Design isn't art, or the domain of the artist; it's art for industry, and the domain of business, and little else.

Lastly and strangest of all, when you really enjoy something without being married to it, you can more easily excel at it. I don't know why this works, but it does. In my experience, there's a proportionate ratio of passion to failure, and of casualness – to the point of semi-apathy – to skill, and success.



I was a great editorial illustrator because no matter what happened, win lose or draw, I always had writing in my back pocket. I cared about my work, but I cared about the way I thought more. And eventually it was my thinking, not my skills, that allowed me to advance in this industry.



People tell you to have "passion", and to love what you do, but that advice is not tempered or specific enough for the design game. Passion can be delivered to dramatic effect, but it reduces your efficacy over time by making you impervious to input, collaboration, learning, and change. You can "fall off" more easily – get outdated, outclassed, and outperformed by people who "care" less, and it can happen fast. Then, all that love turns to rage and makes you vulnerable to personal, spiritual devastation – which in turn makes you even less competitive. All of a sudden you have more quit in you than skill.

Alternatively, when you hold something loosely in your hand, you tend to be more adept at wielding it. It doesn't hurt if someone tries to snatch it away. It becomes laughably easy to dethrone others who are "the best at what they do", because their emotional investment is untenable, and it costs you nothing to try.

This is why Hyams had an easy time of making Capricorn One, and why it didn't rock his world when it turned out not to be much of a film. He didn't love it. He just liked the idea behind it. And that's how I know: he didn't originate it.

CATHEDRAL OF MARS: A GUIDE TO LEADERSHIP


Back in that tiny office in Napa, above my grandfather's desk hung a painting by Arthur Lidov which had accompanied another of his stories called "The Cathedral of Mars", which appeared in The Post on June 24, 1961.



It depicted two (Russian) astronauts summiting a skeletal mountain on Mars, stunned by the unthinkable sight of an earthly Cathedral. William was so taken by the illustration that he wrote Lidov to complement him. A short while later, the original painting arrived by mail, which Bill proudly framed.



More than any of his other possessions or books or stories, I was transfixed by it: it said so much, so forcefully, with so few visual devices. How did the Cathedral get there? What was inside? You had to read to find out. This was my first peek into the editorial world. Surely this was more important that writing...or at least more feasible.



The Cathedral of Mars by William Sambrot. Illustration by Arthur Lidov, The Post, 1961
The Cathedral of Mars by William Sambrot. Illustration by Arthur Lidov, The Post, 1961

When my grandfather died, I rescued the Lidov from his belongings. It was housed in a sad, impoverished, fake gold leafed frame. I lost it again years later while I was moving house, but by then I had already seen many publications of my own worth framing.



The Lidov painting was more than a piece of visual intrigue. It was a reminder that even as a writer pours his heart out at the coal face of his typewriter and bites his nails trying to be original, an illustrator can intuit his meaning and through the expedient design process, he can manufacture the same world, tell the same story, at a higher resolution, in a fraction of the time, with a fraction of the emotional investment. He's just close enough, and just far enough away from that source material do do a good job, or even a great one.



So, who gets the longer, smoother, more prosperous career? Who is on edge, and who is having fun? Who is the "artist", and who is the "professional"? I think about these things, and I become thankful that I was jilted by my attempts to share writing with my grandfather, and that I didn't listen to my high school teachers and friends. That I kept writing for myself, and chose illustration and design as my meal ticket. And yet, after all that, I still had more brutal lessons to learn.

In 2010, all the editorial work dried up. Illustration as a storytelling device suddenly wasn't important anymore, or at least it wasn't paying. All the major publications were moving online or folding up. While I had been cultivating a portfolio, my colleagues were cultivating the relationships that would keep their income uninterrupted.



I had no plan. I was going through what my grandfather had witnessed: a turning of the page. A tectonic cultural shift. Except instead missing out on an explosion of opportunity, I was witnessing what was being called "the death of print", and everything I really appreciated about editorial work.


I knew that translating dense information into visual language was useful, and that I was good at it. But, it was a long road to connect all my experience and abilities squarely to the pursuit of brand – and I am still on it. In an upcoming post, I am going to be writing at length about the proliferation of automation, and the death of craft – yet another shift that is clearly in the mail, but here's the gist: Don't be brittle. Learn to bend. Don't cling to your "craft", or even your thinking.



Change is continuous and unrelenting. It's all you can do to seek the high ground, the highest vantages, which is a disguised way of saying "become a leader". That's what brutal change is actually asking of you. That's what disappointment is demanding of you. The more "in-love" you are with what you do, the harder it is to answer that call.



Move with the times. Don't die on the hill of what you think you love, because love changes, and hills are always moving. What I've learned in the past 13 years, and what's been underlined in the last 3, is that visual design skills are highly perishable, while Creative Leadership only ripens. Leadership is what's needed. Leadership is about righting the ship. Creative "engines" overheat, burn out, and get swapped out.

Don't get me wrong: Leadership isn't loveless, apathetic, and it should never be casual or cruel. But it is dispassionate, because it needs to be far-reaching, high-altitude, and leaders need to make difficult decisions. Many of these decisions leave the creatively impassioned gutted, even as we try to cultivate their abilities.



Excellent creative leaders try to make more leaders, which is to say: we try to teach other people how to let go, too. It's not easy, and I don't envy the designers, illustrators, and producers of today – even as I rely on them to show me what's new and interesting, and allow myself to be completely surprised.



My advice to them is always the same: don't hold on so tight. Be changeable. Be pliant. Keep moving. There is always someone better out there – more devious. By the time we have finished this conversation, the world will already be a different place. A better idea will have arrived.



I finally watched Capricorn One, which is to say I watched the watchable parts. The script is different enough to be called original, and yet its core idea has been brazenly purloined. The idea is not about fraud or conspiracy. It's not about the Moon or Mars and the unlikelihood of space travel, or Nixon and the fallibility of government.



It's about the expectations of Americans. Our need for belief in a system not just of power, but of values and ideals, even in the face of horrors. The human belief that we are not trapped on earth, crushed – just as young William's hopeful heart was crushed on the anvil of mass-murder.


To me, the story of two astronauts finding a perfectly in-tact Cathedral on the surface of Mars feels much more of our time – the kind of magical realism that Apple TV has been investing in, while the story of a faked Mars landing feels like a no-thought – something I've seen and heard about a thousand times. I don't think it's a hill worth dying on, or a career-ending bit of malfeasance, but that's easy for me to say – nobody ever made a movie based on a story I made up.



What was an exciting idea yesterday is boring today, and what you threw out last year is now someone else's treasure. So, don't cling. Don't obsess. Don't get fussy about the past, the rules you know, and the ideas you felt were yours alone. All of that is what burn-out looks like.


Whenever I'm faced with something awful: an exhausting brief. A terrible client. A noxious LinkedIn post. An automated rejection letter. My portfolio reappearing in a staffing agency's gallery. The wording of my CV copied-and-pasted into a JD. A manager hacking into my email. An EA sending out a company-wide email encouraging riots. An entire ID system plagiarized to sell A.I. Entire companies and sectors collapsing for lack of character. A pandemic, and a recession on delay. Mass layoffs, and people acting out because they've never been through one before. All these things and much worse – when I see them and I just want to quit, I think about my grandfather, and all he went through, and sadly...where and why he failed. Where he held on too tight.



And, I think : "I don't want that. I don't want to be angry. I don't want to be excluded. I don't want to feel let down by my industry. By people. I don't want to feel ripped off. I don't want to give up. I want to keep up. I don't want to just keep up, I want — I need to be ahead. I don't want to spot trends, I want to make them. I don't want to hate this game. I love this shit!"


I picture coming upon my grandfather's Cathedral on the surface of Mars, and how amusing and bewildering it is, how disembodied and sacred. I want to go in. I want to look around. I wonder what kind of a mind could think that up. Surely not an unhappy one. One at ease, unhurried, and unconcerned for the machinations of others. Part of me is marooned up there with him, looking back at all our blue bickering, as we all rocket through space together. And I say to myself:



"Just do the job, man".


William Anthony Sambrot, 1944
William Anthony Sambrot, 1944


If you are looking to build your brand, increase equity through activation, build teams, deliver emotive value propositions, and create loyalty—or even if you don't understand why these are the building blocks of any new or existing venture – let's talk.

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