MAKING IT as a writer
by Robert Anton Wilson
from Starship: The Magazine about Science Fiction
Volume 19, No. 2. Summer- Fall 1981
Most of the characteristics which make for success in writing are precisely those which we are all taught to repress. These characteristics are denounced by religious leaders everywhere, by most philosophers, and by many famous psychologists.
I refer to such qualities as vanity, pride, even conceit; to raw egotism and grandiosity; to the firm belief that you are an important person, that you are a lot smarter than most people, and that your ideas are so damned important that everybody should listen to you.
I have known a lot of successful writers and they all had these qualities. In contrast, the people I knew in high school and college who “wanted to be writers” but have never published anything since then, had all the opposite qualities. They were shy, and meek, and timid; they had the humility that all religions preach; they had a realistic sense that they probably were no brighter or more important than anybody else. They had irony– and balance and pragmatism, and they were not fanatics. That is why they are not writing anymore.
The successful writers I know are not only driven by vanity but are also fanatic personalities.
This is not only true of writers but of great creative persons in all fields. Michelangelo was an ego-maniac who attacked the Pope physically for trying to tell him how to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Beethoven was rude, domineering, stubborn as a mule and never for a moment doubted that he was the greatest musician in all history-and he threw furniture at people who annoyed him. Frank Lloyd Wright, when testifying in court, described himself as the world’s greatest architect, and when his friends told him later that he sounded grandiose he replied that he had to tell the truth because he was under oath.
If you believe that the ego is a “delusion,” that pride is one of the seven deadly sins, that humanity should be reduced to a herd of contented cows, then you might as well give up writing and all the other arts.
You cannot have too high an opinion of yourself because the world will always strive to correct you. The only thing most people hate more than success is self-confidence-a warning signal that you might be a success soon. This is not what they teach you in Sunday School, but it happens to be true: at any evidence that you might be a success, the envious will do every-thing in their power to destroy you. Therefore, there is no chance at all that a high self-esteem will go unchallenged; it will be challenged on all sides, daily. On the other hand, if you have a low opinion of yourself, nobody will ever correct it. You will have it for life unless you correct it yourself.
The second quality writers need for success, besides vanity, is love of writing itself. Nothing is fun to read that wasn’t fun to write (which is a corollary of the basic psychological law that nobody enjoys being with you if you don’t enjoy being with yourself. (Reading you is a symbolic form of being with you.] )
Few writers achieve overnight success, because few people in any field succeed immediately. This does not mean that you have to endure years of poverty before success. Poverty is a state of mind, based on inadequate self-esteem. If you believe in yourself, you are never poor; you are just temporarily short of funds. I was on Unemployment for six months once (1964) and on Welfare for two years (1972-1973) and I was never poor. I was waiting for the world to realize how important I am.
Besides egotism and love-of-your-work, the only remaining thing a creative person needs is something that seems to, but doesn’t, contradict self-esteem. This is belief in something greater than yourself. Michelangelo painted for the greater glory of God and for the greater glory of Michelangelo, in about equal proportions. Beethoven’s music is an outcry of passionate commitment to God, Life, Humanity and Ludwig van Beethoven, in equal proportions. James Joyce, who may have been the greatest writer of all time, said he never met a boring human being; this was because his faith in James Joyce was equaled only by his absorption in what other people could teach James Joyce about human psychology. Other great creative minds have been equally absorbed in getting mankind off this planet, or in Socialist Revolution, or in Feminism, or in whatever happened to seize their imagination.
Robert Heinlein has offered the only pragmatic rules for writers that make sense to me. The first is to finish what you start. The second is to keep on sending each piece out until you sell it. If it has been rejected even 1 00 places, make a list of 100 more, and keep on mailing it to one after another, until you do sell it. If you enjoyed writing it, somebody somewhere is going to enjoy reading it and enjoy it enough to publish it. Since I learned this rule I have sold everything I have written, including even my Ph.D. dissertation, which is the hardest kind of thing to sell to a commercial publisher.
But even these two Heinleinian rules of marketing will not avail unless you already qualify for the three psychological characteristics mentioned earlier-belief in yourself, belief in something greater than yourself, and sheer delight in what you are doing.
Rabbi Hillel put it all in a nutshell 2000 years ago: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
-Robert Anton Wilson