The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Tipping Point

When did you know you were a writer?

I was recently asked this question in an interview, and it forced me to think carefully. Was there a moment when I knew?

The difficult thing is that I've always written. My first story, "The Yeti" (about an abominable snowman in a Canadian lumber camp) was written when I was in fourth grade. Before that, I ws a storyteller, spinning wild tales for the amusement of my classmates. In high school, I used the "Shaharazad" technique to bond members of the football team to me, telling them half a story during lunch time with a cliffhanger to be completed the next day. The result? Well, I used to be bullied quite a bit. Now, my halfback fans would intercede: "hey! Leave the little guy alone!"

I had discovered that storytelling could earn me a tribe.

I came into my own in my last year of high school, when the leadership class asked me to write skits for the assemblies. I even performed in them, and for the first time people recognized me in the halls, slapped my back, and girls were interested. SERIOUSLY interested. Ah, those simple, primal motivations...

But after high school I backed off of writing (I'd been writing stories continuously, dozens and dozens of them) because my Mom was terrified that any artistic career would just open me to massive disappointment. Out of respect for her, I tried to find a different path in life. That lasted about two years.

My third year in college. I entered a writing contest, the winner to read his story to an alumni group. I won, and as I read the story, watching their faces, I realized that this was the greatest love of my life. To my mother's horror, I dropped out of college and went to work. It was write or bust.

I had no choice but to succeed or die, really. And that was fine. It was simple: I WOULD RATHER FAIL AT WRITING THAN SUCCEED AT ANYTHING ELSE.

When you find the thing that means that much to you...the rest is simple. "We win or we die." "Burn the bridges behind you" and other such sayings are expressions of such a commitment, a determination that nothing in life will stop you. One such incident was in 711 AD, when Muslim forces invaded the Iberian Peninsula. The commander, Tariq ibn Ziyad, ordered his ships to be burned. Another such incident was in 1519 AD, during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Hernán Cortés, the Spanish commander, scuttled his ships, so that his men would have to conquer or die.

To reach this "tipping point" you must become clear on the fact that life is short, and that no amount of shyness or retreat will save you. If you hide, death will drag you out from under your rock and flay you with your lost dreams before dragging you down to darkness. But if you boldly stand and proclaim who you are, and what you are, warts and all, and absolutely swear to win or die...then the universe will not waste its efforts, will not go out of its way to hammer you down. You will certainly have to carry your share of existential pain and disappointment, but the fire of your commitment to your dream will sustain you when others quail and run.

Know who you are. Know what you are willing to die for. Then, it is easy to know what to live for. For me, it was writing, martial arts, and having a loving and healthy family.

I got mine. Get yours, dammit. The clock is ticking.



Steve Perry said...

I was sixteen when I impressed my gorgeous English teacher Mary Ann with the alien-invasion short story I did for class. (Aliens land, bent on conquest, but the first house they come to belongs to Dracula, who is giving a birthday party for the Wolf Man and some friends ...)

I was four-eyed shrimp, nothing going for me, but I made the woman smile. It was like magic.

Some of us are luckier than others. I count myself in that category.

Steven Barnes said...

Never underestimate the power of beauty to inspire us shallow males...