George R.R. Martin’s Best Story

As part of learning my craft as a writer, I belonged to the Rocky Mountain Writer’s Workshop in the seventies and eighties. It was an invaluable experience that took me from a bumbling wannabe to a confident albeit part-time professional. The writer-in-residence for the monthly workshop was the award winning Denver author Ed Bryant. Ed’s generous support helped produce a number of successful authors, particularly in the speculative fiction field. Connie Willis and Cynthia Felice are examples. But the most successful author I ever encountered there was George R.R. Martin, who made a guest appearance in 1980. He was not the world famous and extremely successful author he has since become. But he provided a memorable experience for all of us.

He read one of his newest short stories, and it was obvious that he was very talented. I confess to not being much of a fantasy fan. Exhibit A is that I dislike reading Tolkien. His pages of endless description of the most mundane of objects drives me nuts. Yes, I know. George R.R. Martin is known as the American Tolkien. It is his fantasy novels that have brought him his greatest success. But his “thousand worlds” stories have more in common with William Gibson. And those are what I admired and read with a mixture of enjoyment and envy. There are very few writers I have encountered in the thousands of books I have read that make me wish I had their talent, their “writer’s eye.” But George R.R. Martin is definitely one of them.

It turns out there is a neurological reason for my literature preferences. Humans not only have different thoughts, but different ways of thinking and processing information. People who think in pictures, for example, tend to love Tolkien’s endless descriptions. I think more in sounds. Therefore, I like authors whose stories sound good when spoken aloud. I love the sound and rhythm of language, especially when the accompanying story is fast paced. George R.R. Martin is superb in both areas. But the best story he told that day was about his recent divorce from his first wife. He said, “She just didn’t understand that when I was lying on the couch with my eyes closed, I was working.” Everyone laughed. Later, one of the writers told me that shortly after the divorce, George got a $650,000 advance on his novel. That was a lot of money in 1980. Imagine that. She left him because she didn’t believe in his talent and missed out on a huge financial payoff. The story is interesting, but it gets better.

I never saw George R.R. Martin again, but I continued to follow his career with some interest. While I find his fantasy work impressive, I still especially appreciate his early efforts. I guess I find reality, or potential reality, more interesting and compelling than most works of fantasy and horror. Stephen King has the same effect on me. I love his reality based fiction more than his fantastical, supernatural efforts. This aside, George R.R. Martin’s work on the revival of Twilight Zone and my all time favorite TV show, Max Headroom, kept his name in my private cultural zeitgeist. Then he started hitting the best seller list. I began seeing his books at airports, supermarkets, and pharmacies. I started sharing his couch story with strangers, and I still do.

It always starts with me seeing someone looking at one of his books. “Would you like to hear a great story about George R.R. Martin?” I ask. Usually, the answer is yes. Then I tell them about George R.R. Martin’s first wife and why she divorced him. Shortly after I mention the $650,000 advance, I point out to my audience that this woman can’t go anywhere now without seeing George R.R. Martin’s name and being reminded of the financial success that she missed out on. These encounters always end the same way. “Wow,” they tell me. “That is a great story. Thanks for telling me.” For some time, I wondered why the story resonates so strongly with me and the strangers I share it with. First, I have to acknowledge that I embellish the story a little. This is probably true of the original as well. But the essence of the story is true. This poor woman is constantly reminded of what could have been. It has to be at least a little bit of torture for her. Even if she was and is glad to be rid of him.

Love of stories and storytelling is one of the traits that defines us as humans. And I think the George R.R. Martin story is particularly powerful for Americans. Few countries have such a strong core belief that hard work, talent, and perseverance can pay off for anyone. The wife’s lack of faith, as implied in George’s story, reinforces the idea that family and friends should support artistic ambition. That it is some kind of karmic retribution. The whole thing is a lie, of course. Lots of talented, hard-working people never experience the kind of success George R.R. Martin has had. But the belief that it can happen is what keeps many people going, even when friends and family try to keep them from wasting their time chasing the brass ring.

But creative people really are quite different. Artists, writers, actors, and musicians create for the love of it. We do it first for ourselves and then for whoever chooses to be our audience. Even if it’s an audience of one in a grocery store line. Writing is hard work. I have walked away from it many times because I was discouraged and wasn’t having fun. But the compulsion to write never left me. And after many attempts and failures, I found my voice and niche, and it became fun again. George R.R. Martin’s anecdote kept me going through the dark times by reminding me of the power of words and storytelling. For that, I thank him.