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  • Jack McDevitt

Blog #44

The most common question that comes up at workshops is how can I know whether I have enough skill to write professionally? The answer is simple enough: If a person has the ambition to be a writer, that suggests he’s already a reader, so his proficiency with the language should be sufficient. And he’s almost certainly developed a creative sense. Which means if you really want to do it, you probably can.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s important enough to bring it up again: we all tend to underrate our abilities. All of us, except a handful of idiots, are smarter than we think. I’ve seen that as a teacher and as a manager. The secret to success in any field is learning to believe in ourselves and then jumping in, making the effort, and sustaining it untilsuccess shows up.

In any field, failure is probably likely if we start with the belief that we, whatever skill is needed, we don’t have it. If that’s what we think, that will almost certainly be the outcome. We’ll try not to make mistakes, play it safe, and so on, which will guarantee a dull piece of fiction.

In 1965, I was still dreaming about being a science fiction writer but had long since become convinced it was a waste of time even though I’d submitted only one story. I was driving through Mexico when I picked up a radio broadcast from, I think, Texas. They were interviewing Harlan Ellison.

Harlan was describing his own efforts to launch a career. It had taken a while, he said, but he wasn’t going to give up. Then he sold a story. I think it was “Glow Worm,” to Infinity Science Fiction. It was published in 1956. He was twenty-two. Harlan said he knew at that moment that he’d have a solid career writing SF. I doubt there was ever a time he didn’t know that. But he’s dead right: nothing matters to a writer as much as that first sale.

I was considerably older than Harlan when arrived at that point. I drifted through two decades talking about writing but never attempting it because I didn’t believe it could happen. My wife Maureen eventually talked me into trying. I was on an assignment in Georgia, but I decided to make her happy. So I sat down and wrote “The Emerson Effect.” It was about a postal worker who falls in love with one of his colleagues. But he hasn’t the nerve to approach her.

One day a letter arrives that had gotten lost in the system. It was from Ralph Waldo Emerson and it contained his famous line, “If you can learn to believe in yourself, you can do almost anything.” The postal worker makes his move.

I didn’t expect to sell it.

When we got home a few weeks later to North Dakota, a contract had come in from Twilight Zone Magazine. It was the biggest moment in my career. Nothing, no award, no formal recognition, nothing quite reached that level.

And years later I realized who that first story was really about.

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