Zen and the Art of Beating Your Head Against the Wall Revisited

“Everything’s been said. But no one was listening, so we have to keep saying it.” — Anonymous.

I’ve said this before, I know. Look away if you want. I won’t mind. Some of this applies across the board, but this is mostly for the short story people out there.

Ok, tough guys of all genders, do you really think you’re ready for this? Of course you do, and why shouldn’t you? You’ve endured the long hours with nothing but you and a blank screen. You’ve endured the rejections. You’ve endured the shoestring operations that either lose your submissions or close up shop before they publish that story they bought from you, the one that was going to make your reputation overnight. Your grin may have been more grimace for a bit, but you got through it. Now you sneer at editorial indifference, you scoff at bad reviews. You’ve been assayed, weighed in the balance, proven. You’re starting to break through; the venues are getting better, the checks are getting larger. This is no small accomplishment. You’re in. You’ve done it. You’ve passed all the tests.

Not all. There’s still one test left. And while we’re at it, how good are you at being ignored?

Was that a collective “Huh? What’s he on about? I’ve been reviewed in Locus! I even get fan mail now and then. I’m not being ignored.”


At least until your first collection, odds are that the only reason you got reviewed was because you’re one more name that happened to be in a ToC assigned to that particular reviewer, and even that’s no guarantee. Reviewers can and often do skip stories that either don’t interest them or they feel they have nothing to say worth saying about that story. Reader feedback is more promising, but such responses are usually few and far between. Unless you’re one of those few writers who strikes it hot with your first few pieces, you’re just one more horse in the race. And, as you may have noticed, there are a lot of horses in this race. In short, and please get this through your skull now, it’s important–so far as this field is concerned, No one cares. Presumably your friends care, and your family likewise, but the field of speculative fiction? Step in front of a bus tomorrow and you’re one column inch in next month’s Locus. Maybe. That’s it.

“But what about my work?”

What about it? Do yourself a favor: the next time you’re at a flea market or the right kind of used book store, look through a pile of mouldering old magazines from the fifties, sixties, seventies, and check out the ToC of a few. How many of the names there have you even heard of, let alone read, before that moment? All those people whose names aren’t Bradbury or Leiber or Zelazny. These people — with a few exceptions — were producing professional, salable work, sometimes for many years. They’re where you are now. And they were never more than one more name on a ToC. Now, years later, they’re not even a footnote. Read an obituary in Locus about some writer that died six months or a year back and the field is only now noticing. Maybe the obit lists what magazines they published in, maybe a couple of old Ace Doubles or a Belmont Tower novel written forty years before you were born. Maybe they’ll even find someone who knew them when to say a few words. But did you know who they were? Had you ever read anything they ever did? Pick a name. Study it carefully. Realize, to the core of your being that, chances are, in twenty or thirty or forty years that’s going to be you.

See, the final test is time. You might think I mean “posterity,” but no — that’s a separate can of worms. I mean time. To be absolutely clear I mean your life, because that’s what time is so far as you’re concerned. Is this what you want to do with it? Be very sure you know the answer.

If writing is what you do, if producing work on the top of your game and trying to get better makes you happy, if you like and appreciate the feedback but don’t really need it to keep going, well, maybe you’ll kick time’s butt. Or won’t mind so much when it sooner or later kicks yours.

Anything less is grief waiting to happen.

1 thought on “Zen and the Art of Beating Your Head Against the Wall Revisited

  1. Real writers write for one reason only: because they must! Period. End of story. Those who quit writing because their famly and friends tell them they will never “make it” weren’t really writers, anyway. Those who keep writing in order to “make it” aren’t real writers, either. So much for my two-cents’ worth!

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