Nil Illegitimi Carborundum

[August 2013] I first saw that phrase on a “sampler” hanging from the wall in a co-worker’s office some 20 years ago. My mother studied Latin in school—my sister, who is 12 years older than me might have, too—but I didn’t, so I wasn’t sure what it meant. So I put on my thinking cap. Nil = nothing. Easy. Illegitimi…well, that looks familiar. Carborundum, though? Well, it sounds like a mineral and the root looks like “carbon,” so I guessed: Nothing ruins diamonds or, in other words, Diamonds are forever. Got it! Yay me.

Except the faux-Latin phrase was concocted during World War II to mean Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

A couple of  things brought this phrase to mind recently. First, there was a brouhaha over a writer’s post containing a checklist that determined whether or not a person should consider himself a professional writer or not. A lot of people were incensed by it, and others posted their own criteria as a rebuttal. The most reductionist and on-the-nose quiz had a single question: 1) Do you get paid for your writing? If yes, then you are a professional writer. None of the other questions are relevant and were seen by some as elitist or exclusionary.

A post by Kelly Braffet (author of Save Yourself, which I highly recommended), unrelated to the aforementioned to-do, jarred a memory. She wrote about a high school English teacher who actively discouraged her from being a writer. Based on the story, it seems that the teacher was an aspiring but failed writer who was going to let her own bad experience inform her opinion of other people’s chances at success in the field. Fortunately, Braffet bridled at the “advice” and is now the author of three novels.

I had a somewhat similar experience, at about the same age. During a medical examination prior to going to work for the summer in the local paper mill, the doctor determined that I was partly colorblind. I’m sure I must have realized there was a problem before that, but I have no recollection of it. What I do remember is the doctor stating as fact, “You’ll never be an electrician or a chemist.” I had no plans to be an electrician, but I was leaning toward chemistry as a major when I went to university, so this pronouncement was disturbing.

Granted, I did ultimately experience some problems in the analytical chemistry lab. Detecting the first visible trace of pink in a clear solution during a titration defeated my limited color perception. I muddled through and was delighted to prove my titrating abilities during another experiment using an iodine indicator where the solution went from black to white in a single drop. That I could do! I completed a BSc in chemistry with honors and went on to obtain a PhD in the field. So there.

I have no way of knowing where I’d be today if I had listened to that one opinion, but it would have completely altered the course of my life. Completely. I wouldn’t be living where I am, I wouldn’t be married to who I am, and I wouldn’t have had the job I’ve held for nearly 25 years. I might not even be a professional writer, too.

I am reminded of John Locke from Lost, who bristled every time someone suggested that a certain task was beyond his abilities. “Don’t tell me what I can’t do,” he would respond, and would redouble his efforts at whatever the task was.

So, don’t let anyone discourage you. Don’t let anyone tell you you’ll never be a writer, or that you’ll never make money writing. Truth is, even if you aren’t a terrific writer, you might be one of those flashes in the pan that astonishes everyone. The 50 Shades of Gray author made nearly $100 million last year, five times as much as Stephen King earned. (You might also win the lottery—the likelihoods are similar, but still…)

If writing is your passion, go for it. If people say you aren’t a very good writer, keep at it. You’ll improve. You may not be Hemingway and maybe you’ll never sell that 1000-page opus. The marketplace will decide if there is a market for your work, but if it’s your passion, keep at it. Enjoy it. Don’t let anyone else’s opinion hold you back or keep you from enjoying what you do.

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