The Only Way to Make It: A Message from Neal Barrett, Jr. to a Young Writer (Way Back in the Year 2003)

I know, you’d rather read about the prequels to THE WATCHMEN and Alan Moore’s disdain, and maybe I’ll toss my rather boring opinion on you (short form: I’m siding with the evil corporation and not the wizard of Northampton), but I had a hankering to talk about inspiration.

Most writing books are full of it. In fact, almost all writing books can be divided into two types: instructional and inspirational. Most are a bit of both. These days, though, I’m finding a lot more on the inspirational side. And something about it bugs me. We all need inspiration, of course. Support in a profession as loaded with rejection, poor returns, and a long arc for a career means there will be lots of lows (big and small) and we all deal with them in our own way. One tool is to find inspiration. While I have yet to put my finger on why, I have a mixed reaction to inspiration as a gift from other writers. Sometimes it sings true. Other times it smells of snake oil from a self help guru who is feeding off the hard times of the needy. Maybe I just don’t like being needy!

I know I’m inspired by Lawrence Block’s SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB essays, but other writers doing a similar dance feel like traveling medicine show hucksters. I’ll chock this up to taste until I have a more concrete answer.

To do so, I’d like to mention a couple things that were inspiring to me. If it smells like snake oil, you let me know. So, let’s get in a wayback machine and head to the dark and grim year of 2003.

I’d begun writing short stories in late 1999. By the winter of 2003, I’d sold two stories for contributor’s copies and nothing else.

Wow! Two sales, and massive amount of rejections for dozens of other stories (sadly, I don’t have any impressive stats from this era. But, trust me, I was working hard at being bad and trying to get better). Then, in 2003, I got a rejection from an editor that had a snide comment. The gist was that I didn’t have writing chops and should probably stop.

Being used to form letter rejections, I was stunned. I had no desire to give up against the horrible odds, but my confidence had taken a pretty good jab. So, I decided to ask for some advice.

I’d been reading and enjoying the work of Neal Barrett, Jr., a multi talented writer of just about everything. I loved THE HEREAFTER GANG and so decided to email him about how to weather the storm and make it in the profession of letters.

He was kind enough to respond, but his first shot across the bow was a wake up call:

“I have sold 53 novels and hundreds of short stories. I sold my first in 1959—and, if you think it’s all smooth sailing now, I must say that isn’t so. ”

He talked about how computerized tabulation of bookstore sales in the 1980s had led to publishers and bookstores being unwilling to “grow” authors over time as much as want “instant” bestsellers, that the mid list was shrinking, that only rock star authors made a great living off their words and this was not going to change soon.

“This is not the kind of thing a starting writer wants to hear,” he said, “but very few people will give you a reality check on this profession, and what I say is true.”

But all was not doom and gloom. And this is where the inspiration part kicked me in the teeth.

“If this is what you want, keep DOING it. Period. There is a saying (don’t know who said it): No one can make you write, and no one can make you stop. This is the most basic and sincere advice I can give.”

There were two more pillars.

“READ. No one ever wrote successfully who didn’t read,  constantly. I doubt if I have to tell someone like you that.”

“WRITE. Write, and learn by writing. You can either do it well or not.”

“This advice may seem simple, but it IS the only way to make it. If this is what you want to do, you must do it. ”

He brushed aside the young writers who wanted short cuts, quick fixes, and secret handshakes to making it as a writer.  They were lazy and weren’t willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears that it took. Then Neal said something that hit me even harder: “That’s not your way, I feel sure, from your letter, but you’ll hear this from others trying to do what you are doing.”

Something I’d said in my letter made it clear I had the courage of my convictions, that I wasn’t a pretender or dilettante. That stuck, too.

He wished me the best and thanked me for reading his work.

Nine years later, I’ve sold over forty short stories, have an agent, released an ebook, and see the sparks of the next phase of my career catching some fire. But what I loved about Neal’s advice was that even if none of these things happened, as long as I was dedicated to being a writer, working hard, trying to improve, then I was in the driver’s seat. That point, I think, was most inspirational. That I had some control. I wasn’t just a cog in the machine. That as long as I kept at it, I was doing the job.

Still am. And I like where the headlights are going.

If you found this post inspiring, please consider buying some Neal Barrett, Jr. A list of his available work is at his unofficial fan site here:

JSR

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About ridlerville

Jason S. Ridler is a historian, writer, and improv actor. He is the author of A TRIUMPH FOR SAKURA, BLOOD AND SAWDUST, the Spar Battersea thrillers and has published over sixty stories in such magazines and anthologies as The Big Click, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Out of the Gutter, and more. He also writes the column FXXK WRITING! for Flash Fiction Online. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He lives in Richmond, CA. Visit him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/jason.ridler.56
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8 Responses to The Only Way to Make It: A Message from Neal Barrett, Jr. to a Young Writer (Way Back in the Year 2003)

  1. Brenn says:

    You know.. The inspiration I get from you and Erin is your work ethic and determination. If I ever say I’m trying to emulate you, that’s what I’m talking about.

    Keep driving Ridler!

  2. debs says:

    There is no magic bean for climbing up to the next level? But there must be. There must be.

    *laughs* sound advice. I had a similar revelation from Jay Lake on his blog when he talks about psychotic persistence. And I though: Yes. I can do that.

    I sometimes hear other young writers talking darkly about, it’s not what you write, it’s who you know; or what your name is; talking about cookie cutter stories that published in top venue etc. I’ve never believed that.

    However I still believe in the magic bean. A little. Still looking for it.

    • ridlerville says:

      All hail the magic bean! And, sure, there’s some folks who work connections. Happens in every business. Sometimes its being professional (talking to editors at a con and having your novel come up organically), sometimes its seedy. And some mags like template fiction. But there a hundred ways to succeed in this business. My favorite example was Jeffrey Ford, writing amazing short stories inside and outside genre mags, and he wins a World Fantasy. He was like “Great! What’s a World Fantasy award?” Ha!

  3. Pete Aldin says:

    Mate, that is just what I needed to hear today. Thanks so much for the share on Codex. Well said, and well intentioned. I appreciate it!

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