Thank you, Jerry


“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”     Calvin Coolidge


“Once you’ve mastered anything, you know how to master anything else.”–Jerry Pournelle



I remember being a young writer, trying to figure things out.


I wanted to be a published, bestselling author. That was my dream, because I just had this sense that there was something inside me that I needed to get out.   It felt like I could make my own life better, but also change the world.  I was  unpublished but cocky as hell.  I BELIEVED in myself, but it was getting harder to maintain that confidence.


I wasn’t selling yet, getting rejection slip after rejection slip, and it was getting frustrating.   I was working in the student store at Pepperdine and asked my friend Otis Allred where I might be able to find real live writers, figuring that my smartest path was to find real live writers and get their “recipe” for success. That approach has worked for me in every arena of life, and I’ll follow it until I die.


Anyway, the suggestion was the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society in Burbank, where two guys named Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle hung out on Thursday nights.  I went out there, wrangled introductions, and began to get to know them.


Jerry was an impressive figure, really somewhat larger than life, having worked in Aerospace and politics and served in the Korean war and taught college (at my Alma Mater, by odd coincidence) as well as being a best-selling SF writer.  Seemed to know a lot about almost anything, a seriously impressive mind.


He made a specific suggestion to me about the book I should read to understand writing.  I obeyed (I’m a damned good student!) and bought the book, and it is WONDERFUL nuts and bolts stuff. What a writer the author must be!


Well…I watched a movie he’d written. Horrid. And read a book he’d written, an entry in a franchise series using a house name.  Really rote and devoid of inspiration.


Wow.  What a bummer.  A few years later I was doing an autographing at DANGEROUS VISIONS bookstore, and a fairly famous writer came in.  I’d heard him speak on writing at conventions, and he was impressive. Really knew the nuts and bolts of writing and the business thereof.  He handed me his business card.


It read: “Freelance Hack and Literary Mechanic”.   A year later, he was dead of alcoholism.


Over the years, I saw a lot of this.   People who really, really understood the mechanics, BUT NOT THE INNER GAME.   They could teach writing, but they couldn’t write.  One of the most famous writing coaches in the world, whose opinions and theories I find amazing, cannot write at a level even vaguely approaching his many, many famous students.


No “inner game’.  I compared this to Harlan Ellison and other master performers I’ve had a chance to get close to.  And some of these people, the actual performers, can teach what they know, but most cannot–it is at such a deep level that they literally don’t know what they know.


But what they have is PASSION.  DRIVE.   THEY DO IT.


And it hit me that what I was going to need in my life and career is not only the “external” structure of writing, but the “internal” structure of maintaining that fever, that passion, that burning creative core, that mastery of fear, that focusing of purpose.

Other than that book recommendation, the single most valuable thing Jerry ever taught me was: “once you’ve mastered one thing, you know how to master anything else.”

Really?  Well…I didn’t think I’d mastered much of anything at that point, but I did know what masters in multiple arenas said…and I began to put it into use.

So I began to search, and study, techniques from psychology, yoga, martial arts, hypnosis, “positive thinking”, and far more.  I didn’t want to be a hack, like the guy who drank himself to death. I didn’t want to be like those brilliant teachers who couldn’t actually do it: centipedes who know where all their legs are, but cannot dance.


I wanted a long, successful career, writing stories that made my heart happy, and also appealed to people enough to pay my bills and support my family.  BOTH.


And my conclusion, after almost 40 years of studying this stuff, triggered by that book and author Jerry recommended as well as his advice to use the same thought patterns in all my basic activities, is that “talent” has little to do with it, save only the “talent” of being able to focus and work every day, week after week, month after month, year after year, after the “naturally talented” people have given up.   I needed the ability and intent to model the behaviors and attitudes of people who have already succeeded.  Put those things together, and you have as close to a recipe for a happy career as anyone can promise you.



Write with Passion, Live with Purpose!

Steven Barnes


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