Sometimes a writer needs a pep talk. You know the kind I mean. “You can do it. You’re just hitting a slow spot. You’ve got the tools. You’ve got the talent. We believe in you.” The kind of thing that is designed to get those writer juices flowing like Niagara Falls on a good day.
The best pep talk I ever received didn’t sound a thing like that. Not even close.
My mentor and friend, the late Charles L. Grant, had a knack for knowing how to push a writer’s buttons. I remember early in my writing career I called Charlie to commiserate about the fact I had a major case of writer’s block and was ready to just pitch it all and quit. His pat of the conversation wasn’t exactly what I expected.
“Charlie, it’s me. I’ve got a problem.”
“Hello me. What’s the problem?”
“The problem is that I haven’t written a word in six months.”
That caught me off guard. “OK? I don’t think you heard me. I said I haven’t written a word in six months. I’ve got a drawer full of rejections, and I’m just plain frustrated.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought you meant.”
Silence. A lot of it. “But I mean haven’t written a word in six months. Nothing I didn’t have to.”
“I got it. I speak the language. You haven’t written a word in six months. I got it. I’ve also got a deadline. You remember those? A publisher in England is paying me not to not write. It’s what I do. And now you have a decision to make.”
At this point I was sitting in the proverbial stunned silence.
“Listen, I love you like you were family, but you have hit a crossroads that we all come to. You either need to be a writer or a reader. Both are fine folks and they tend to get along together quite nicely. The only thing I can tell you is this. If you want to write, then write. If not, then be a reader. It’s that simple. You’ve got the tools. I’ve seen them at work. The bottom line is this: I don’t need the competition. None of us do. The fewer writers there are, the more work there is for the rest of us.
“But … if you are going to be a writer, then just muscle through it and get to work. If you aren’t, then go out and buy my new book. Just make a decision. Now I gotta go because this book isn’t going to write itself.”
What happened to, “You can do it. I believe in you, it’s just a phase”? Actually it was there, just not in a candy-coated-butterflies-and-unicorns-playing-among-the-fairies tone we writers tend to like. It was just reality. Write or don’t write. Just make a decision. I called Charlie back the next morning.
“Hi Charlie, it’s me.”
“Hey me. How many pages did you knock out yesterday after we got off the phone?”
“Are they any good?”
“The need some tightening up, but all-in-all, not bad.”
“You’re welcome. Gotta go. That deadline’s looming. Oh yeah … you better get used to those.”
The line went dead, and 500 miles apart, we both went back to work.
As I write this, it is seventeen years later. I have deadlines. And though Charlie died four years ago, I still hear his voice. Every time I sit down at the keyboard. Write or don’t write. Just make a decision.
Not a bad pep talk.