James Scott Bell
Liam Clancy was one of the great Irish balladeers and a key figure in the folk renaissance of the early 1960s. Naturally he ran across 20-year-old Bob Dylan who was starting to get noticed in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village.
In the superb Martin Scorsese documentary, No Direction Home, Dylan recalls Clancy giving him some advice (fueled by more than a few pints of Guinness). “Remember Bobby,” Clancy said, “No fear, no envy, no meanness.”
That is a trinity of sound advice for writers, too.
You have to go to new places, new depths, if you’re going to be worth anything as a writer. Fear will keep you safe but it will never get you up the mountain.
Fear is not something we can always control. It’s a feeling that sneaks up on you, and is actually healthy in certain situations. It can keep you out of a biker bar at midnight, for example. Not a bad thing.
But fear can also debilitate you and hold you back from your best work. Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Socrates called envy the “ulcer of the soul,” and the wise old sage knew what he was talking about. Envy is a useless emotion that is, unfortunately, something most artists are prey to, even if they don’t want to be. Suffice to say if you envy another’s success you are only hurting yourself.
Besides, envy is baseless. The person you think “has it all” probably doesn’t. I’ve known some bestselling authors who are miserable, to themselves and other people. A few are paranoid. You would not want to be them.
Just work hard toward your goals and leave other people’s success out of your equation. Practice gratitude. That is the key to happiness. I love what I do and what I have, my family and friends and career. I’m not going to poison that with pointless comparisons and petty thoughts.
Epicurus, one of the few Greek philosophers who got a whole school named after him, said, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not.”
Meanness in a writer is something I just don’t understand. Most of the people I’ve met in the writing business are good, decent folks. I count many of them as among my closest friends in life.
There are exceptions. The diva. The narcissist. The sun around whom the rest of us are expected to orbit. I remember being at a book conference once when one of these exemplars was getting ready sign (as I was). But a sufficient supply of books was not at the booth, so this paragon of magnanimity started barking at the poor staffers, though they had several other tasks to attend to. The smile that was reserved for the public was gone, as was any hint of charity or appreciation.
It was all about this writer, you see.
As author Michael Bishop once put it, “One may achieve remarkable writerly success while flunking all the major criteria for success as a human being. Try not to do that.”
So there you have it. Simple, clear and solid advice from Liam Clancy, an Irishman who lived it: No fear, no envy, no meanness.
Try it. You’ll be the happier for doing so.