Write your short story – Always a Beginner

Elvis Elvis

My first professional sale was really good for my ego. I’m all in favor of boosting the ego whenever possible, because all those rejections can really strip it down if you’re not careful. If we were all Zen monks, we’d never worry about being published or being rejected. We’d just stay in the flow, write, send the stories out with zero attachment to the outcome, and write some more.

There are quite a few Zen monks out there, I guess. But I ain’t one of ‘em.

I try my hardest to live in Zen mode. I try not to stress, to focus on doing good work and not on seeing it in print in my favorite market. I sincerely believe that this is not a competitive industry (read Molly Childers’ interview with me if you want to find out why), but I was born and raised in the Western work ethic, which is all about finishing first and being nice last.

When it comes to careers in the arts, the Western work ethic just doesn’t work. It might be great for the corporate maelstrom, but where we live and breathe, it’s useless. In fact, it’s worse than useless. If you use the “acquisitive” model – which is about what you can get out of it – for success as a writer, you’ll see every rejection as failure. Since there’s every likelihood you’ll have way more rejections than acceptances, you’re setting yourself up for a really tough life.

Sometimes, it hardly feels like you’re making progress at all. I encourage you to attempt to “think Zen” when those moments hit. We do our work because we love the work. If the work is accepted by the world at large, that’s terrific. It’s benefit, but it’s not the goal.

The goal is the act. The fiery moment of impact, words striking the page like meteors. That’s where the juice is.

But it’s so easy, once the sales begin, to think of the endgame as primary. Not “I am writing truth as I know it,” but “I am writing what I think Playboy will publish in the May issue next year.”

Write your short story   Always a Beginner

As far from truth as you could hope to stray.

One of the things that happens when you begin to think like that – not only think it, but embrace it – is that you close yourself off. You cease being a student of writing, and think of yourself only as a teacher. When you think of yourself as a pro, you think you don’t have any more to learn.

I subscribed to Writer’s Digest for five years. When I started to sell stories, I canceled my subscription. I didn’t read the magazine again for nearly twenty years (I just subscribed again).

So beautiful, Harlan Ellison says. And so dangerous.

The ego cares nothing for creativity. Its sole concern is self-preservation. Safety. Comfort. The cave to crawl inside. The shell in which to hide.

Big surprise: you’re not going to see anything to write about from inside a cave. You’ll stop learning. If you stop learning, you stop growing. If you stop growing, you might as well just dig a hole, jump in, and rake dirt on top of yourself. It’s over.

Fortunately for us, the potential for rebirth is quite literally infinite. Because every time you begin a new story, you’re a new writer all over again.

Certain experiences will improve your work, of course, Mentoring will improve it permanently (hint, hint, and if you don’t like that ham-handed, self-congratulatory bit of advertising, just thank your lucky stars I don’t have an ad budget). Regardless of your experience level, education, and publishing history, every foray into the fictional realm is a brand new pair of roller skates. EVen if you just got back from Clarion West, you still have to find the key.

Is that complaining I hear out there? I’m sure it’s not. I’m sure all of your are rushing forward to embrace the idea that every time you get a new idea, you arrive at the page virginal and unblemished, all sparkly and fresh and ready to drop your first chisel onto the tablet. I’m sure no one out there is saying, “Dave, you have completely lost your mind. I am published. I have arrived.”

With experience comes a sense of entitlement, and that is – I believe I may have said this already -

So beautiful.

So dangerous.

Don’t get me wrong. Be proud of your successes. Celebrate your sales. Recognize yourself. You deserve that. Particularly if you publish in Playboy.

That sense of entitlement has a place in your career, but not in your work. There is a very firm line drawn in the sand between these two places, and it is essential to enter the writing place with your ego-armor off.

When you come to the page, be a baby.

Of course I do not mean you should start whining, kicking, screaming, and requiring hourly diaper changes. Babies have fresh minds. They see it all new. Have you ever noticed how their eyes wander, never latching onto any one object for long? The scientific explanation is that they’re only able to focus on objects less than six or eight inches away. Science, schmience. Science used to tell everybody the world was flat.

Babies aren’t looking at anything. They’re looking at everything. They’ve never seen any of it before. There are no labels, no preconceptions, no attachments. They’re just checking it all out. If a baby could answer questions, and you asked, “what are you looking at?” I think the baby would reply, “Oh … nothing in particular.”

That’s your job. See it all. Then, share. Simple.

With no ego in the middle.

It’s a good thing, all these chances to start over. What other line of work offers you that?