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Learn Discipline, Earn Dollars: Excerpt from Magic Steps to Writing Success
by Charles W. Sasser

"Don’t you have to have talent? How do you know if you have talent?"

These questions in one form or another are almost always asked whenever I speak at writers’ conferences or to writers’ groups. Taking a cue from Socrates, I answer by telling about a friend of mine who wanted to be a writer. I met Ken when I served a hitch in the U.S. Navy as a journalist, feature writer for a military newspaper called Prop Wash. Ken, a reporter on the same paper, was brilliant. He had a truck load of talent, more talent than I could even dream of.

Although Ken possessed ambition, he lacked an essential ingredient that would have enabled him to realize his goals. Ken had no discipline. He slothed around until deadline approached, then put in a coffeepot all-nighter to get his copy in on time. He freelanced a short story now and then, whenever he felt inspired, but no editor could count on him. Ken couldn’t even count on Ken. His philosophy seemed to go something like: "What’s the advantage of being a writer if I have to work so hard at it?"

On the other hand, I arrived at the Prop Wash office two hours early every morning to work on my short stories and novels. In addition to my duties for the newspaper, I was also burning oil learning the writer’s craft. I was receiving bucketsful of rejection, which I promptly tossed into the circular file. I have never understood why writers collect rejection slips, which serve only to remind them of their failures.

"Sasser, why don’t you give up?" Ken chided. "Lets face it—you don’t have the talent."

Give up? Maybe I wasn’t smart enough to give up. I kept plugging away. Every day. Laboring to realize a dream I had nurtured since I was a kid. I was going to be a writer, come hell or high water, as my old grandpa used to say.

From the time I was six years old I was out in the fields picking cotton, helping with the planting, driving an old brown mule named Jude up and down the furrows with my grandpa. Milking cows, working the garden, building fence. Everyone in the family worked. We were semi-migrant workers in that we followed the crops around Oklahoma and Arkansas. Cotton. Spinach. Strawberries. We moved a lot with the harvests; we had no real roots. At various times, we occupied a dirt-floored chicken house, an old barn in Burns Flat, Oklahoma, and once lived in a house the rent for which was ten dollars a year.

I learned the value of discipline before I learned to either read or write. The year my Aunt Ellen gave me that box of books, thereby opening up my world beyond cotton fields and the rear end of a mule, we lived in a three-room shack in the woods of what we called the "ticky place." Ticks were thicker than lice on a coyote. The shack was unpainted and hadn’t been lived in for over twenty years. It wasn’t a house; it was the hull of a house, its ghost. We took old tarpaper and anything else we could find and tacked it on the boards inside as insulation. In the winter, snow and ice blew underneath the door and halfway across the living room. The cane heater stove ate up firewood and roared to stave off the chill.

There was a living room about ten feet by twenty, a smaller bedroom in the middle, and a kitchen to balance out the other end. There was no plumbing; water came from a dug well a quarter-mile from the house. Two beds fit in the bedroom, one on either side of a narrow walkway that connected the living room and kitchen. We hung our clothing on strands of baling wire stretched above the beds. Mom and Dad slept in one bed. Joe and Kenneth, my two younger brothers, and I slept in the other bed. I got my own personal, private bed when I enlisted in the navy.

I was about seven or eight when Mom built me a desk out of old boards and vegetable crates and placed it in a corner of the kitchen. That was the start of my discipline as a writer. Every morning I was up by four a.m. I built a fire in the heater to warm up the house, then hurried to my desk. Where, wrapped in a blanket to keep warm, in the light of a kerosene lamp, I went all over the world in my imagination. Writing about adventures I would have one day, exploring what small talent a ragged little hill kid might possess.

"I’m not gonna pick cotton," I assured my mother. "I’m gonna be a famous writer and travel all over the world. I’m not gonna live one life. I’m gonna live many lives and write about them."

Mom remained tolerant, Dad mocking. Unable to read, he therefore couldn’t comprehend writing.

"What you had better do, boy," he scoffed, "is get you a good high school education and get you a good job. Like out at the creosote plant or something."

I ignored him and kept writing. Every day.

When I was fifteen years old, the Sequoyah County Times sponsored a writing contest that changed my life. Entrants were required to write an essay on some aspect of living in Oklahoma. I wrote on a topic I knew well—cotton fields—and won what at that time was an amazing prize of $25, considering I was making about three dollars a day picking cotton from sunup to sundown.

"You mean you can really get paid for writing?"

Somehow, I must have known you could, but it had never occurred to me that it would be so easy. And such big money. Dad looked at the check, held it right side up and upside down and had Mom read it to him. Mom was hand ironing clothes in a laundry six days a week and earning about twelve dollars. Dad made less than thirty dollars a week laboring at the creosote plant.

Dad shook his head disbelievingly and walked off. I returned to my desk—and it was never that easy again to earn big money. But it demonstrated to me that it could be done. All I had to do was stay at my desk, get up and write every morning. No matter what.

"Any man who keeps working is not a failure," Ray Bradbury said. "He may not be a great writer, but if he applies the old-fashioned virtues of hard, constant labor, he’ll eventually make some kind of career for himself as a writer."

Great talent, I was discovering, may not be necessary to be a successful writer. Discipline is. Ken might have had the most talent, but I had the most discipline and perseverance. That made the difference. Today, I am a multi-published author. Ken has yet to publish anything significant. He has a real job in California, putting in his eight hours a day.

© Copyright 2003, Charles W. Sasser

Charles "Chuck" Sasser is author of more than 60 published books and thousands of magazine articles. Visit Chuck’s website, www.CharlesSasser.com

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