“Every artist was first an amateur.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
I had a favorite Asian restaurant when I was a teenager. It was a modest Chinese buffet in north Wichita that had been remodeled from several failed restaurants before. The asphalt parking lot was small and cracked, and it stood in the shadow of a strip mall that had lost its anchor store years before. But what I remember most about this bastion of sweet and sour chicken and crab cheese wontons was a wooden 8×10 picture frame hanging on the wall behind the cash register. Oriented landscape, it held a one dollar bill with the words “First Dollar Made” and the date handwritten below. I’m sure this dollar not only served as a sense of pride to the owners, but also a reminder to them that no matter how successful that restaurant would become (I’m not sure of its fate), that humble dollar would always be its beginning.
When I started on my journey to become a writer, my first major goal was to get published. I didn’t care how or where, I just wanted to see my name in print. I assume that’s every writer’s first aspiration. It probably provides the same feeling a musician gets when they hear their song on the radio for the first time. Or when an artist sells their first painting to a gallery. It’s the moment when “shit gets real” as they say. I didn’t know how or when it was going to happen, but still I was surprised by the circumstances when it did. In May 2015, the following short article appeared in the community pages of the Denver Post:
The duties of my day job at the time were marketing and business development for a small construction company. I had prepared a press release detailing the company’s new project, and a few days later the editor of the Post called me to let me know they were using the release as a short article in their upcoming Thursday community section. When I got a copy of the newspaper, you would have thought my wife had given birth to our third child.
At barely over a hundred words, it’s not a piece to brag about, but I wouldn’t have wanted a different beginning. Writing is a line of work which is notoriously difficult to achieve any success—with Stephanie Meyer perhaps being the ultimate exception. Before her first Twilight book (which sold 18 million copies by the way) she had never written anything professionally—no novels, no short stories, not even an article. The four books in the Twilight series together have sold over 100 million copies. But for every Stephanie Meyer there are hundreds of Emily Dickinsons or Jack Londons. Dickinson was largely ignored in her own lifetime, having only about 7 of her 1,800 poems published before her death in 1886. Today, she is one of the most celebrated poets in American history. Jack London’s first novel was rejected almost 600 times before it was finally published, and only then after he had made a name for himself producing short fiction for peanuts.
Should one of my future novels ever become a great commercial success, I’m glad this humble article paved the way. Otherwise, my sense of reality might have been hopelessly distorted. As a new writer, I know I have been and will continue for some time to be a dunce at certain things. I have much to learn, much to improve upon, and a great deal of my craft to explore. I can tighten up my writing, I can have better command of language, and I can use words more powerfully. I will do these things in time with practice, but being an instant success is not real and it’s not character building. I want to start small, I want to learn and make mistakes and be a dunce before I taste real success. I want to stay grounded and have the drive to constantly improve myself. These things will serve me well in the years ahead, where I believe anything is possible. Instant gratification is a cancer in our society, and in the business world the expectation of immediate results can discourage persistence and motivation.
Since I started working part time and devoting one day a week to freelancing, I’ve done less writing than I would have liked. But the time has still been well spent. Instead of just spewing out projects haphazardly, I’ve been researching and learning about freelancing. I’ve listened to close to a hundred podcasts and read six books, all about writing and freelancing. I’ve been making connections with other writers, watching and reading all they do. I want to learn about the mistakes others have made in hopes that I can avoid them in favor of new, original, and interesting mistakes. I believe I’m building a foundation for my writing career that will help me achieve real success in the future, and the Denver Post article helps me remember that the mountain top is only reached after thousands of simple steps. Taking a helicopter to the top is cheating.
Which is why I’ll soon hang that article in a picture frame on my wall. No matter how bold my dreams and how fantastic my successes, my first published article will always be a one hundred word blurb buried on page 19P of the newspaper’s community section. I believe there’s a reason that Asian restaurant didn’t frame a five or a ten or a twenty. It wouldn’t have the same affect.