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My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Mailbox: Do I Have What it Takes?

How do I know I have what it takes to be a writer?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I will even answer them if I'm sick. I just love you all that much.]    

Salma asks:

Quick question, how do I know that I'm a good writer? I've written in journals since I was born, and I literally can't live without it. I've also written a couple of articles but I always find a lot of people who write way better than I do! How do I know that I have what it takes? [Writer's note: I received this question through FB, so it had a number of lower case letters, missing apostrophes and grammar errors that I fixed. The content is the same.]

My reply:

I'm still a little under the weather today, so I'm just going to do a quickie. (Wakachika wakachika.)

One of the things I think is most important when this question of "making it" comes up, Salma, is to ask yourself what does that even mean to you. I've written about defining success for yourself before, and in this context that is why it's extra important. You're already writing every day, so you have made it as a writer. When you say "make it" do you mean publication? Any publication? (Traditional publication? Zines? Self publication? A blog?) Do you want a book deal, or just publication in a magazine? Do you mean that you want to make money? How much money? Do you want to write for a living? A posh living? Megabux McMillionare living? Do you want to hire somebody to chew your food and bathe in champagne? Light your Cuban cigars with hundred dollar bills? Drive a Lamborghini?  Do you want to be read by a certain number of people? What is that number?  (I've been read by half a million people, but I still can barely pay my cell phone bill with what I make from Writing About Writing.) New York Times Bestseller? One billion readers? More copies than The Bible?

What are we talking about here?

The reason identifying what you want is so important is because the basic conceit in this question is a perception about writing that I think is mostly inaccurate. The "trope" in writing that there is some thing, and you either have it or you don't is largely wrapped up in the idea of talent and genius. Too many movies with, "You got the gift kid!" Not enough that show how much work it takes. People want to be blessed from on high with some inner quality that will mean their writing will just be awesome on its own. They expect to bashfully hand their work to some author or creative writing teacher and have them say, "This is..... My god, this is incredible!" But there's about as much chance of that happening as a kid off the street who's never been in a fight beating up a boxing champion.

Work trumps talent every time. Writing is a skill. It has craft elements, technical elements, and creative elements, but all those things can be improved with time and effort--just like any skill. If you don't think work trumps talent, find a writer bequeathed by someone around them to have "talent," but who writes once a week or a few times a month. Find another with no such talent and a skill and ability level far less than the former but who writes every day. Check back in on them in about two years.

Talent and genius may exist (though they are given far too much credit), but almost every writer you talk to who has made it is going to tell you that the only really important thing is actually hard work. A lot of hard work. Most writers will never produce anything as good as Shakespeare or Steinbeck or O'Conner or Woolf, but it doesn't take that level of skill to be a working writer either. There are plenty of Grishams and Jameses and Meyerses too out there making (lots of) money with compelling plots and mediocre prose.

Look at me! I can't write for shit. (And when I started this blog, I was even worse... And ten years ago, I was even worse than that...)  But I get up every day and do the work, and I somehow manage to make a little money at it. I have a growing audience, a growing income, and a growing body of work. All this from someone who on his BEST day can barely write a post that doesn't have an unfinished sentence.

There are also a very small number of people who probably won't be writers. Ever. No matter what they do. They don't like to play with their imagination, they don't enjoy words or the possibilities of teasing language to do new things, or they simply don't have the empathy to divorce themselves from their own point of view for long enough to write compelling characters. For most people any of these things improve with practice and lots of reading, but for a few they never will.

Such folks might get heartfelt advice after a few years that perhaps they would make better editors. But to be totally honest with you, I think there are as few such people as there are true geniuses.

For most people--the VAST majority of people--it's just about the work. It's not genius and it's not futile; it's just work. Good old fashioned, grandpa telling you in his gum-toothed (yet stern) voice that "the only place success comes before work is the dictionary," uphill, both ways, sweat-on-your-upper-lip work. You have to do the level of work that will get you to the goal you're hoping to achieve.

If you just want to publish an article in a zine, that might not be too much work.  If you want to be the best selling novelist that ever lived, you better get cracking. And if you write ten pages a day of your best work for sixty years, you may not have Stephen King's success, but you will have some success.

I would love to tell you that if you look behind your lower left molar you can find a bump and if it glows then you "have it."

Actually, that would be kind of creepy.

But I would love to tell you some way to identify something that you have or don't have so you could know whether to pack it in and call it a day or keep working. Because a lot of people (artists especially and WRITERS super duper especially) seem to want to have some ineffable quality that will mean they don't really have to struggle and toil for years before achieving success.

Sorry.  That's just not how it works.

If you love writing, keep writing. If you want to write for an audience, learn the ropes for the kind of writing you want to do and practice that kind of writing. Put your work out to be seen (by gatekeepers or the world depending on which route you take) and then keep working hard. If you want a hobby, put in the time you would on a hobby. If you want to make part time job money, put in part time hours. If you want a career, put in career caliber effort. If you want to be the best, let it consume you.

I wish I knew of a shortcut. Let me know if you find one, okay?

And as for your last sentiment....the only person you should compare yourself to is you from yesterday. There will always be better writers. Always always always.  Read the fucking shit out of them, learn some of their tricks, work hard, and move on. Unless your last name happens to be Stein or Faulkner, there will ALWAYS be a better writer out there somewhere.

Also writing since you were born? That's HARDCORE, Salma. I didn't start until I was eight or nine.

2 comments:

  1. I'm not sure it's always, "Want to have some ineffable quality that will mean they don't really have to struggle and toil for years." I think it's more like, seeing that struggle and toil ahead, they want to have some kind of reassurance that it will be worth it, that they eventually will get good. That there's some seed planted there and that watering the earth will do some good rather than just waste water on barren rock.

    Of course, the world doesn't work like that, either. No guarantees, just work hard and hope.

    Then there's the Imposter Effect (or whatever it';s called) which is that most people with any level of success go around believing on some level that they don't quite deserve it, that they're not good enough to be at whatever elevated level they've achieved, and that sooner or later someone is going to figure them out and expose them. Such people also have a tendency to think that everyone else is more competent than themselves (as in, "I always find a lot of people who write way better than I do"). But of course, there are people looking at you who feel, "I could never write as well as that," and some of them may be the same writers as you think are better than you.

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    1. True, but my point is that it's like anything: you'll get good if you practice. There are people so klutzy they can't play sports, and there are people who are magnificently gifted. Most athletes just practice their butts off though. Chances are, we all have a seed. Most people who won't make good writers at all, kind of don't like writing. It's very rare to find someone truly hopeless who likes writing. (Which, unfortunately, is not QUITE the same thing as saying that it's very rare to find someone truly hopeless in love with the *idea* of BEING a writer.)

      My personal feeling is that if you struggle and toil (really) and fail, you'll learn something really important in the process. Like maybe you're better at journalism or tech writing or editing. Or something!

      Impostor syndrome effects everyone. Even multi-NYTimes Bestsellers believe that they are faking it and will be discovered at any second. I like your last bit though because I've actually been told "I wish I could write like you" by people who I thought were WAY better writers, and a couple of people I've GIVEN that compliment have also turned around and told me they thought I was actually better than them. So I think you nailed it there!

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