My first fear is dying an amusing death. You know, the kind that ends up as filler in newspaper back pages. Someone falls asleep under a combine harvester and ends up in little pieces in a dump truck full of wheat. Someone trips and impales himself on a lawn gnome or breathes in instead of out when learning to breathe fire.
My second and biggest fear is living the wrong life. I don't want to spend the last 30 seconds on my deathbed thinking, "I should have learned to juggle." That's why I'm a writer — not because I want to juggle but because, even though it's a ridiculous and precarious way to make a living, it's what I'm best at.
Here's a secret all professional writers know:You don't become a professional writer through talent. You become one by being the last man or woman standing.
Every professional writer came up through the publishing ranks knowing someone better: someone who had a better way with words, better ideas, better research methods; in short, someone who was superior in every way. And that person didn't make it. They're gone. Maybe they published a little. Maybe they still write occasional reviews for the local newspaper. But they're not professional writers. Why? Because when things got tough — when the rejection slips rolled in and editors beat their copy into chum — they couldn't handle it and quit. It's tempting to say that they took the easy way out, but I don't think that's exactly it. I think they realized that when they're on their deathbed staring up at a bunch of tubes, sweaty nurses, and impatient doctors who want them to kick already, writing isn't what they're going to be thinking about. At least I hope not.
Trying to become a professional writer isn't about guidance-counselor pep talks, and it isn't about confidence. It's about ignorance, stubbornness, and arrogance. Ignorance because no one tells you how hard it is when the rejections pile up and no one likes your new style or new ideas, and maybe you'd be better off tarring roofs. Stubbornness because even in the face of total publishing indifference you keep working. And then there's arrogance. All artists are arrogant. To think that you have anything to say to the world and that the world should listen, and maybe even pay you for the privilege of listening, is pretty much the textbook definition of arrogance. But it's essential, especially when you're getting started. And don't worry about your arrogance getting out of control. Having editors rip apart a few of your stories and make you start over will activate your humility glands. And when you are published and you get that first one-star review on Amazon, the arrogance part of your brain will slink away into a deep, dark cerebral fold until you absolutely need it again.
How do you know if you're a writer? Ursula K. Le Guin came up with the best description of a writer I've ever heard. She said that a writer is someone who's more miserable not writing than they are writing. It's as simple as that.
I'm sure as hell not going to tell you to follow your bliss, but you should think about what makes you the least miserable and get good at that. "You don't want your last thought to be, "I never learned to make a really good martini."
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Richard Kadrey has published seven novels, including Sandman Slim, Kill the Dead, Aloha from Hell, Butcher Bird, and Metrophage, and more than 50 stories. He has been immortalized as an action figure, and his short story "Goodbye Houston Street, Goodbye" was nominated for a British Science Fiction Association award. A freelance writer and photographer, he lives in San Francisco.
Books mentioned in this post
Richard Kadrey is the author of Devil Said Bang (Sandman Slim Novels #4)