A Young William Gibson

Wouldn’t it be great to knock the ball out of the park with your first novel? Write a revolutionary novel that goes on to become a classic? That’s the dream. And while some writers do cement themselves with their first book, their number must rank in the decimal percentages. And it’s nowhere as easy as that infinitesimal number might make it appear.

William Gibson is one such writer. After falling into writing almost by accident and a few acclaimed short stories, he wrote NEUROMANCER, a novel that changed scifi and brought about the cyberpunk subgenre; while Gibson has written a lot of other novels, it was this one that secured his legacy. And it’s not just his first published novel: it was his first attempt at a novel.

But in reality it wasn’t such a straight line to success.

As with any good writer, Gibson spent a lot of his childhood and teenage years reading: J.G. Ballard, Henry Miller, the Beats, science fiction pulps. He lost his father in childhood, and after his mother died when he was 18, he decided to dodge the draft and travel to Europe and Canada, where he would eventually settle. There, he suffered weeks of homelessness before scraping together a living from working at a hippie drug store and appearing in a documentary film, with his little extra cash going mostly towards psychedelic drugs. And it was there that he met his future wife, with whom he again traveled to Europe.

She had a teaching position. Gibson, rather than get a real job, first went to thrift stores trying to find items marked way below their value and then selling them, before returning to college as he felt maintaining a high enough GPA to qualify for rich student loans was easier than work. Here he took a class on science fiction and wrote a short story in lieu of a final paper. This turned into his first published story, FRAGMENTS OF A HOLOGRAM ROSE, which saw publication in 1977.

His next story got published in 1981, but during those years he was still working: JOHNNY MNEMONIC was started the same year as FoaHR. Not too mention the inevitable false starts and stories that didn’t measure up. A few more well-received stories flowed from his pen, earning Hugo and Nebula award nominations, and eventually he was commissioned into doing a novel. And rather than summarize the unease and anxiety Gibson felt while writing this, I’ll let him do it for me.

The best writing advice I ever heard was to go out and see the world. If you stay indoors reading and writing all day, you’ll eventually become a great writer but have nothing to write about. Gibson embodies this principle: a well-traveled homeless hippie. No wonder most of his work deals with those rejected by society. It took him a bunch of years to try writing, and a bit of encouragement and practice after that to really get the ball rolling, but once he was ready, there was no shortage of material for him.

So remember, as the weather grows warmer, to put down your books and pens and get out of the house. The inspiration for that break out story might be one block’s walk away.

A Young James Joyce

When it comes to writing (or almost anything that takes practice), no matter how much I want to deny it, inherent talent definitely plays a role. The question is, how big of a role does it play?

Some writers, like Stephen King, have said that if you do not have talent, it is not worth attempting to become a writer. I disagree. It can give you a leg up but it is far from the end all be all, and besides, even talent won’t get you too far.

Today’s subject is James Joyce. If there was ever a writer with talent, it was him. Between the ages of 22 and 25 he wrote all of the stories contained in DUBLINERS. His first published novel, A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, is a classic, still widely read, and then there’s ULYSSES. All of this, along with a play, some poems, and the occasional essay and journalism, published before his 40th birthday. There are many other writers who don’t begin publishing quality pieces until their late 30s or early 40s; Joyce had burst on to the scene at the age of a college senior with short stories that would become canonical. If there was ever a writer with talent, it was Joyce.

But he also worked very, very hard. At age 9 he wrote a poem about the death of Irish politician Charles Parnell that his father thought was good enough to be published. Though there is little else recorded from this time in his life, it is quite likely he continued writing. He also began to read voraciously, to the point where his English teacher at school let him sit quietly and read during class as he had already gone through everything they were teaching and could answer questions about the texts with ease.

At 18 he had his first official publication, a review of a Henrik Ibsen play, and wrote a number of other articles as well as two unpublished (and now lost) plays. The next few years were quite eventful for Joyce: he travelled to Paris to try and study medicine and failed, his mother died, he met Nora Barnacle, his life partner, and his first short stories were published. He also wrote an essay dealing with aesthetics, entitled A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST, which was rejected by magazines, and which he decided to revise into a novel.

He and Nora soon eloped to continental Europe, where Joyce took a bunch of jobs as a teacher, tutor, singer, and bank teller to support themselves while he continued reading and writing voluminously. His career as an author had run into some problems: none of the printers wanted to publish DUBLINERS, deeming some of the stories obscene, and Joyce refused to censor the offending passages. He finally had them brought out in book form in 1914, after approximately 8 years of attempts at publishing them. The novel he was fashioning out of his essay, STEPHEN HERO, was never published during his lifetime; he later started over from scratch and wrote A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN.

From there, Joyce would become a celebrated figure of Modernism, one whose works still enjoy renown today. Clearly he was talented when it came to writing, but more important than that were the hours he spent reading books and authoring various texts. Publishing classics when you’re in your early/mid 20s suddenly becomes a lot more understandable when you’ve read enough to know more about literature than your teachers and write a number of articles and plays before attempting prose fiction. And even then, it still took a number of years to publish his books. Had he been talented but not determined, Joyce could easily have given up after a year or two of rejection.

So talent is obviously important, but not nearly as much as hard work and determination. So to anyone feeling depressed because of rejection, just remember, even the greats had to deal with plenty of it too. The problem is that many short biographies online gloss over these rough early periods for many famous writers.