Forward by Nino Ricci
by Nino Ricci
IN MY FIRST YEAR OF UNIVERSITY, eighteen years old and fresh from the farm but already firm in the belief that it was destiny to become a world famous novelist, I enrolled in a Creative Writing course being taught by a well-known Canadian writer. Three weeks into class, just after my first submission, I received a phone call from his secretary telling me the writer urgently wanted to see me in his office.
His assessment of my submission was blunt.
“You’ll never be a writer. My advice is get out now so you don’t waste five or ten years of your life trying.”
It was good advice. Being eighteen, and with no other identity or plan at hand to substitute for my famous-novelist one, I did not take it.
A lesson someone might glean from this story is, Stick to your dreams. That is not a bad lesson to glean, and is one I myself have often urged on people the many times I’ve told this story, probably to the chagrin of parents who would have liked me to advise their children to play it safe and become accountants or lawyers. Over the course of my life I have been struck by how many other writers have similar stories of having pigheadedly persisted in their writing despite the active discouragement of others. Indeed, whenever I try to figure out what distinguishes those who have made it as writers—in whatever complicated and ultimately ambiguous way making it can be defined for writers—this seems the single quality that joins them, one that might have nothing to do with innate talent: that they persisted.
Any decent writer, of course, will tell you that a story that ends with a simple moral like Stick to your dreams can’t be a very good one, and is almost certainly not being honest or true. Where is the ambivalence, the nuance, the dark night of the soul? And what about all the poor sods who also didn’t take the advice and ended up wasting five or ten years writing novels they couldn’t publish, becoming not the lawyers or accountants they might have been but meth heads and service workers? Then it is also possible that what saved me from becoming a lawyer or meth head wasn’t my iron will but that being the pigheaded eighteen-year-old I was, getting told I would never be a writer was exactly the thing to make me dig in my heels.
There is probably more truth to this last reading of the story than I would care to admit. At the very least it allows an entry point for some of the nuance missing from the first reading. I did go through a dark night of the soul through after leaving that writer’s office—one, I suspect, that involved a not inconsiderable degree of substance abuse—but afterwards I realized I had a hard question to face. It was entirely possible the writer had simply missed the clear mark of my genius, in which case I would avenge myself by publishing an award-winning international bestseller at age twenty-two and then a tell-all exposing his own shortcomings as a writer and human being. What was more likely, though, was that my submission simply wasn’t very good, and I might have some slogging ahead of me before breaking out to the big time.
The hard question, then, was this: was I ready to do the work? Most of us are familiar by now with the ten-thousand-hour rule which Malcolm Gladwell talked about in his book Outliers, and which Macklemore wrote a song about: that it takes about ten thousand hours of practice to get really good at something. Though no one had expressed the matter in such precise terms back in my own day, it nonetheless seemed a no-brainer that you couldn’t get good at something unless you put your mind to it. So that was what I set out to do. Many of my ten thousand hours came in the form of learning to read well, and in reading extensively. The rest came in writing, and writing some more, and writing some more, and then often enough in scrapping all of it and starting from scratch again.
I might never have got through this phase of my writing apprenticeship if I hadn’t found other idiots like me who thought that getting good actually mattered. I found them in creative writing workshops, at coffeehouse readings; I found them milling around the offices of journals like Scarborough Fair. Like most writers I know, I lost my publication virginity to a university journal. I still look back to those days as the purest ones of my life as a writer, when I was surrounded by people who cared about writing with a clarity and passion that the wider world would soon be all too ready to taint with its cynicism and crassness.
It is very easy, from the distance of that wider world, to look at literary journals like this one and think of them as marginal, minor, dispensable, cut off from the realpolitik of the publishing mainstream. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, they are everything, the stepping stones without which the vast majority of us writers would have drowned. They are there at the hardest point in the journey, when everything and everyone around us is telling us that we must be sensible, be practical; when every story or poem we send out seems to come back with the same form rejection letter; when every time we sit down to write we feel doubt ready to blow us apart like a roadside bomb. For those of you, then, who are lucky enough to be seeing your work appear in these pages, know that you are in good company, and that every writer worth his or her salt has been here before you. And for those of you who have entered here as visitors, know that these are the writers whose names you’ll be watching for in years to come.
I never really got the revenge I’d hoped for against that well-known writer. When my first book came out and was getting some not-too-shabby reviews a journalist contacted him, but he had no recollection of me. Who knew how many other aspiring writers he had said the same thing to, many of them no doubt going on to become successful lawyers or accountants. By then, in any event I felt more gratitude toward him than spite. He had forced me do the work, maybe more quickly, and with more dedication and focus, than I might have otherwise. He had also forced me to choose: whether to hedge my bets and get that law degree on that side, or go all in. So far, I haven’t regretted my choice.