The True Role of a Role Model

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. – Maya Angelou

A couple years ago there was a period where I was getting the J.K. Rowling reference a lot, because I tend to write YA fiction. This comparison always tripped me up, because it set the expectation that my success had to look a certain way.

And don’t get me wrong, I would love Rowling’s fortune. All those books you read – that is a person’s work and it takes more than a little blood, sweat, and tears for that person to bring that work to you. Authors should be duly compensated for it. They have families and retirement funds and travel bugs just as much as anybody else, and they should be able to make a living off their work.

There are two things you should never say to a writer. The first is that you should never ask them what they’re working on or what they write. Only a few of us know what to say and can wrap their work up nicely in an elevator speech (and to you, sirs and madames, I tip my hat), but most of us don’t have it together.

The other thing that you should never, ever say to a writer is something along the lines of, “When you become the next J.K. Rowling” or “When you’re as famous as Gillian Flynn” or whatever authors people are crazy about these days, such as checks NY Times bestseller list Anthony Doerr or Paula Hawkins. They’re not doing so bad, either.

But the money isn’t the only motivation (and if it is, then you’re doing this for the wrong reason). If there’s one way in which I can emulate Rowling, it is,


When the Harry Potter series was complete and the films and franchise had made Rowling oceans of money, she did not stop writing. She went on to write The Casual Vacancy and the Cormoran Strike series. She could have retired just on Harry Potter, but she didn’t. She kept working.

Even after writing 54 novels and over 200 short stories and seeing many of them adapted into movies and TV shows, Stephen King continues to write, because he is someone with more stories than he can sit down to write.

As a young man, my head was like a crowded movie theater where someone has just yelled “Fire!” and everyone scrambles for the exits at once. I had a thousand ideas but only 10 fingers and one typewriter. There were days – I’m not kidding about this, or exaggerating – when I thought all the clamoring voices in my mind would drive me insane. Back then, in my 20’s and early 30’s, I thought often of the John Keats poem that begins, “When I have fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain… – from The NY Times

King keeps writing, because he can’t help it.

When people have role models, they sometimes model after the wrong things. Entrepreneurs want to be like Steve Jobs, so they wear black turtlenecks and meditate, when only Steve Jobs can be Steve Jobs and he really showed up at his job and was the best Steve Jobs he could be.

To model J.K. Rowling or Stephen King isn’t to model their magnificent success but to model what made them successful: hard-ass work and



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