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  • Jack McDevitt

Blog #4

Writing workshops have always been fun. They allow me to spend time with people who would love to break into a writing career. But getting launched –let’s face it-- is a challenge. It’s hard to imagine seeing a book with our name on the cover. It was an early ambition for me. I started a novel when I was about ten years old. The title was to be The Canals of Mars. I don’t think I got much past that.

I lost all confidence in my ability to get published when I was in college. That might be because I discovered people like Theodore Dreiser, James Thurber, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Bronte. The downside of reading through their work is that they set the bar pretty high. I knew quickly that I’d never be able to manage constructing drama at Dreiser’s level, or make people laugh the way Thurber did. Trying, I concluded, was a waste of time. So I graduated at the height of the Cold War, joined the Navy, and after four years came out and started a career as a Philadelphia taxi driver.

In the late fall of that year, 1962, I drove a couple of fares to the Sheraton Hotel, where Philcon was being held. They mentioned that Isaac Asimov was going to be there. And I wondered who else? Maybe Robert Heinlein? Ray Bradbury? Anthony Boucher? After they left the cab, I waited a few minutes, watching the crowd going in. I did not want to be sitting outside in a taxi. I desperately wanted to be inside, part of the celebration. I remember thinking, as I finally pulled away, that my life had failed.

I know that sounds over the top, but writing SF had been a dream since watching the Flash Gordon serials twenty years earlier. And deciding that I’d missed the boat imposed one of the darkest moments of my life.

Three years later I’d become an English teacher and was on vacation driving through Mexico when I picked up a radio broadcast from Texas. Harlan Ellison was being interviewed. At one point he described what it had felt like when he sold his first story. I can’t quote him; it’s too long ago. But he commented that when the acceptance arrived, he knew he could take a writing career wherever he wanted. It was one of the most enthralling moments of his life. I sat in my car wishing I could experience that kind of moment. But it wasn’t happening. And of course it would never happen because I’d simply written myself off.

Another fifteen years drifted by during which I continued reading all the science fiction I could get hold of. But I made no effort to go beyond that. And I doubt I ever would have had my wife Maureen, when we were living on St. Simons Island in Georgia, not persuaded me to make the effort. She told me it was clear that I had a passion for the material. And finally, to make her happy, I wrote “The Emerson Effect” in 1979. It sold to The Twilight Zone Magazine. When the acceptance note arrived, I thought immediately of Harlan. And by the way, it’s been framed and has a central location in my office.

Curiously, the critical event in the narrative was a lost letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson, containing his famous quote that if you can learn to believe in yourself, you can do almost anything.

It’s true. We all have a tendency to underrate ourselves. Many parents, teachers, bosses, and other authority figures spend a lot of time showing us our defects, explaining to us what we can’t do. Don’t touch it; you’ll break it. After a while we begin to believe it.

There’ve been numerous studies to support this tendency. The bottom line to this is significant for all of us: We’re smarter than we think. Don’t give up on an ambition, or a passion, because you think you can’t pull it off. You do not want to get down to the final years of your life and wonder what you might have achieved if you’d tried.

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