The Price of Inspiration

James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), best known for his Leatherstocking Tales, including The Last of the Mohicans, didn’t start out to be a writer. He was driven to writing because he had bills. He didn’t set out to create literature; he needed income.

Cooper couldn’t compete with his father, a US Congressman. Daddy sent James to Yale, but he flunked out. So he joined the Navy. Then he tried farming. That didn’t work either.

Soon he was in debt and at age 30, James Cooper tried his hand at writing. His first book, published anonymously, flopped. So he tried again.

Learning from failure

It’s good to have literary aspirations, but sometimes we write because we need the income. More than one writer has composed what used to be called pot boilers—something to sell to put a chicken in the pot.

But Cooper was honing his skills, improving his craft, and learning to write what publishers and the public wanted.

That doesn’t mean he always met with acclaim. One contemporary critic said Cooper’s writings were “monumental in their cumulative dullness.” But ask critics today about Cooper’s work. He stands tall in the list of great American authors.

Rewards of perseverance

Each of us comes to writing for different reasons. Needing extra money isn’t a wrong motive. If we feel called to write, can take criticism, and are willing to improve our skills, we may, as Cooper did, make a contribution that will influence readers even after we are in our graves.

Cooper started writing because he had to. He kept writing because he became good at it.


Roger Palms, a longtime Guild mentor, is the former editor of Decision magazine and the author of 15 books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles.

Photo Credit: © Maxim_Kazmin –

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