Discovering Your Niche

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While reading the first volume of William L. Shirer’s memoir, Twentieth Century Journey, I was struck by a passage Shirer wrote about an Iowa friend of his, Grant Wood. Shirer wrote,

Like [James] Thurber, Grant Wood was utterly dissatisfied with what he was doing [in Europe]. But unlike [Thurber], he had by the end of the summer discovered in himself not only what he was doing wrong but what he would do about it…

“All those landscapes of mine of the French countryside and the familiar places in Paris! There’s not a one that the French Impressionists didn’t do a hundred times better!… All these years wasted because I thought you couldn’t get started as a painter unless you went to Paris and studied and painted like a Frenchman. I used to go back to Iowa and think how ugly it all was. Nothing to paint. And all I could think of was getting back here so I could find somethign to paint–these pretty landscapes that I should have known Cézanne and Renoir and Monet and others had done once and for all.”

He then went on to say something that resonated with me and that I found particularly insightful.

“…I’ve learned something. At least, about myself, Damn it… I think you’ve got to paint… like you have to write… what you know. And despite the years in Europe, here and in Munich and the other places, all I really know is Iowa. The farm at Anamosa. Milking cows. Cedar Rapids. The typical small town… I’m going home for good… and I’m going to paint those damn cows and barns and barnyards adn cornfields and little red schoolhouses and all those pinches faces and the women in their aprons and the men in their overalls and and store suits, and the look of a field or a street in the heat of the summer or when it’s ten below and the snow is piled six fieet high.”

Shortly after returning to Iowa, Wood painted Woman with Plants followed by American Gothic.

This seemed to me to be a remarkably astute self-assessment, and one that is incredibly lucky to make and recognize when one still has the time and talent to put it to use. Reading this, I immediately thought of my early attempts to write science fiction.

I could, for as along I remember, write fairly well. When I decided to begin writing, it was only natural for me to write what I knew, which was mostly science fiction. My apprenticeship lasted fourteen years–that is, fourteen years of writing stories, submitting stories, collecting rejections, writing more stories, and repeating the process–before I finally made my first professional sale. Other sales followed on quickly. But none of what I wrote was particularly earthshattering. A few of my stories had positive reviews, and a few of them made notable story lists in places like Tangent Online.

A big reason I stopped writing science fiction, however, was the very similar to Grant Wood’s reason for giving up French landscapes: there were many other people who could write science fiction far better than I ever would. My stories might be entertaining (at least, to me) but they would never be close to the quality of the best in the genre. It wasn’t easy to recognize this, but it was important for me to do so.

Instead, I put that energy into nonfiction writing and in particular, creative nonfiction, much of which appears here on the blog. I am better at writing these essays than I am at writing science fiction stories. I enjoy them more than I enjoy writing stories. And ultimately, these posts of mine have proved more popular than my science fiction. Even when attending science fiction conventions in the previous decade, it was not uncommon for someone to come up to me and introduce themselves, and admit that they’d never read any of my stories, but they knew me entirely from this blog.

This revelation of Grant Wood, now about a century in the past, reminded me that it is important to recognize one’s limitations as early as possible, and to focus on one’s strengths. I think that is what I have been trying to do here.

Written on March 30, 2022.

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