September 15, 2016
There've been two occasions during the past week in which writers, whose work has been published, have written informing me that they are ready to give up, that they don't believe they have the talent to put together a writing career. I've seen enough of their work to know it's not true. But I've encountered this multiple times.
Usually the people involved have dropped off the charts and gone in other directions. And that's fine, for anyone who actually prefers to get clear of rewrites, criticism, writer's block, editorial rejections, and all the other associated negativities of the business. But there are also a few who've gone on to sterling careers as SF writers.
If writing, or medicine, or astronomy, or teaching, or car sales, is what we actually want to do, what we care most about, then quitting and walking away is something we should do only when we run out of alternatives. It is not a good thing to advance into our later years and recall how much we wanted to pursue a particular activity and wonder whether we might have made it happen. If we'd only really tried.
And I know how some will respond to this: It's time to recognize the truth, that I simply do not have the talent. I have no argument with that. Except that we are demonstrably not good at recognizing the level of our own capabilities. And this is not just me talking off the top of my head. There is a vast amount of research that shows we have a tendency to underestimate what we can do.
In 1965 I was driving through Mexico and picked up a radio interview with Harlan Ellison on a Texas station. Harlan made the comment that, once he'd sold his first story, he knew there'd be no stopping him. I've told this story before, so bear with me: The comment rang a bell. There was a Ralph Waldo Emerson observation that if you can learn to believe in yourself, you can do almost anything. Harlan made it happen. (I should add, by the way, that he has no recollection of the interview. But I recall it clearly.)
Self-confidence is not an easy perspective to acquire. Most of us grow up with authority figures, parents, teachers, bosses who are forever pointing out our mistakes. They mean well. But, especially in our earlier years, we tend to buy into what we hear from the people we trust. And most of us consequently grow into adulthood underrating our creativity. And our intelligence. The result of that, apparently, is that we concentrate on trying to avoid mistakes rather than trusting our instincts.
That's a path to nowhere.