Writing is easy.

This is going to be a short one. I just wanted to air this.

Someone told me yesterday that anyone can be a writer. I know this individual meant it to be encouraging, but I couldn’t help hearing “You’re not doing anything special,” and “It doesn’t matter whether you’re any good at this.” He meant well, really, but it was backhanded and full of subtext, and just flat wrong. 

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t like to be exclusive. I firmly believe that everyone has a calling, something that they are best at, and at which they will excel.

That does not mean that anyone can do anything. There are conditions.

First, define “writer.” Most simply, a writer is someone who writes. Okay. But that is rarely what people mean when they describe someone as being a writer. When people talk about writers, they usually mean someone who is good at writing and who makes money with it. I go with a combination of the last two, because people who are good don’t always make money, and people who make money aren’t always good, but both fall under the colloquial use of “writer.” Someone who writes  but is neither good nor makes money… I don’t know. That guy who stands on the sidelines for the whole game and then accidentally scores for the wrong team might be on the soccer team, but is he really a soccer player?

Anyway, my encouraging friend meant it in the sense of making money, and I usually mean it in the sense of being good, so I’ll go with those.

1) What you want to do and what you’re called to do have to coincide. I wanted to be a physicist, but I was only (at best) mediocre at physics. I’m good at writing, but it took me years to make that into a primary goal. I was fine with writing on the side, writing things no one would ever see. I didn’t realize until much later that writing for myself just wasn’t enough for me. The thing is, I had to realize that before I could really start striving to “be a writer.”

2) You have to work at it. I moderate a couple of writing groups on DeviantART, and I’ve seen a lot of “I started writing a couple months ago and I can already tell I’m the next big thing” type stuff. Mind-blowingly, there’s a lot of “You should be honored that I’m even interested in your stupid little group” stuff, as well. The funny thing is that those people are usually just flat bad writers. They’re bad enough that they can’t tell they’re bad. They have no interest in improving, because improvement is for losers.

Even if it’s your calling, you have to recognize that skills aren’t picked up overnight. You’d be pretty damn pissed if I put you on skis and shoved you down a mountain with no instruction, right? No one can jump cornices with no experience. Likewise, just because I put a pen in your hand does not mean that you can write like Milosz.

3) You have to accept criticism. In those same DA groups, I’m always pleased to see things like “I want feedback so I can get better at this.” Often that comes from novice writers, but a lot of times, I see that from people who are much better writers than I am. They’re really, really good, but they understand that good advice can come from any corner. Even people who can’t write often are able to read something and see that it needs a few words cut out, or a few words inserted, or a little more explanation. Art critics can’t necessarily produce a Renoir, and Olympic judges don’t do a whole lot of long jumps, but their observations are still valid. You can’t always see the flaws from the inside; you need an outside perspective.

4) Work hard, accept criticism, want to do it. But you know, honestly, that’s not enough. Hard work will only take you so far. I worked damn hard at physics and got next to nowhere for my trouble. You have to have a certain amount of in-born talent. I know that’s not a popular or politically correct thing to say, but not anyone can be anything. I couldn’t be a physicist, and not anyone can be a writer. You have to be wired the right way, able to produce not only a technically acceptable sentence but an elegant one. Can anyone learn the mechanics of writing? Short of those suffering from aphasia, yes, I think so. It’s a technical skill akin to muscle memory. If you do it enough times, it becomes second nature. Can anyone create something beautiful with words? Honestly, no. I could learn oil painting if I wanted, maybe make some happy little trees, but I doubt if anything I ever painted would be genuinely attractive. I can describe those trees, though, and do it beautifully.

5) Straight-up writing skill is not the only factor in financial success – which is what my encouraging friend meant by “be a writer.” (Because of course, writerhood is not defined by writing or writing well, but rather by selling that writing to millions of people… Of course.) To sell, the market has to want your product. Few people would argue that Stephenie Meyer is a master of characterization or even technically proficient, but she does have a knack for writing exactly what a huge demographic wants to read. That’s a skill in itself. I have no idea what the masses want to read, so I can guarantee that, no matter how hard I work at writing, I will never make it as big as Stephenie Meyer. I’m okay with that. I’d like to be filthy rich, of course, but my goal right now is just to make enough that I could quit my day job, if I wanted to.

Yes, there are prodigies who are innately brilliant and don’t have to work hard and shoot to the top of the bestseller list without breaking a sweat, but they are few and far between, and they are not “anyone.” Unfortunately, the idea that writing is easy seems to have completely pervaded society. The teen-angst-poem writers on DeviantART (and there are some who do that well, but again, they are few and far between) all think that they are modern Shakespeares, because anyone can be a writer. Plotting is a lost art. So is character development. I tell these people that I have hundreds of pages of backstory for some of my characters, and they can’t understand why. They can’t understand why it sometimes takes me a week to write a thousand words, or the necessity of a proofreader. They don’t understand that writing is a job.

This ended up a lot longer and more ranty than I meant it to be, but I had to get it out of my system. I do not appreciate it when people belittle something at which I have worked so hard for so many years. Writing is not sitting down and spitting out a story. Writing is squeezing a story drop-by-drop out of a nearly-dry brain. It is not easy.

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35 thoughts on “Writing is easy.

  1. This makes me think of the quote from the end of Ratatouille.
    “In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto, “Anyone can cook.” But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist *can* come from *anywhere*.”

  2. Very interesting. I like it. I would also add that ‘anyone can write’ is a reductio ad absurdum. And it’s also what continues to drive the delusion that any single writing proficiency makes one a writer.

    Anyone might be able to perform the action, but not everyone can capture the essence of it. So when I hear someone tell me they’re a writer, I nod and continue on. If they say, however, that they are a storyteller, well, that’s a horse of a different color. There is a great gulf between the two.

    • Yes, it is. It’s also largely a societal perception, though. Speaking from the perspective of a teacher, I can say that it’s a lot like the perception that, because there are bad teachers out there, teaching is easy. It’s “I know this material, therefore I can teach it” with no regard for pedagogy, effective assessment, multiple presentations, or monitoring progress. “I know this language, therefore, I can be a writer.” It isn’t that simple, and to reduce it to that level of simplicity is both disrespectful and ignorant.
      You’re also right about the different aspects of writing. I’m primarily a fiction writer, though I do occasionally turn out a nice poem. I write academic papers, but those papers will never be of the same calibre as my fiction, because that’s just not my forte.

      • I hesitate to say that the middle is the most important part, but it’s certainly just as important as the beginning and the end. If there is no middle, there really is no story. A weak ending can be a disappointment, and I’ve certainly read enough reviews to the effect of “slow beginning, picked up later,” but if there’s nothing in the middle… nothing has happened. I’m not sure how that could ever possibly work.

  3. You’re absolutely right. Not anyone can be a writer.
    It takes practice, a certain amount of skill, and innate talent. Figuring out where your forte lies is important also, and if it is not in writing, or in a certain type of writing then with luck you may be able to do something with it.

    • Exactly. It’s a shame that there is such a stigma attached to so many valuable jobs, completely disregarding the amount of skill required for them. If you’re not white-collar, sitting behind a desk, moving nothing but your fingers, your skills are shown as worthless. People should be allowed to do what they’re good at.

  4. I totally agree. Personally, I have a knack for writing fiction and I churn out a decent poem or two once in a while but I’m still just an ambitious teenager who’s been helped on the way by some talent for arranging already made and approved words in a certain order according to certain rules. I like to think of myself as a writer-in-learning, a wannabe apprentice of the great ones like Neal Stephenson and Terry Pratchett. I still have a looong way to go though.

      • 😀 Thank you! Yeah, I care about writing and improving my writing skills. My biggest problem right now, however, is my attention span (or rather my lack of it).
        Yes, Pratchett. I discussed time travel with my dad and my little brother here the other day, and we used the Trouser’s Leg of Time.

  5. Oh, I like this, MR Graham. I’m very happy this blog turned out to be longer than you planned. You’ve made so many wonderful points. It is not easy to be a writer. It’s hours and hours of planning, back-tracking, and planning some more. Of developing characters, and their back-stories, who are true to the story. It is not easy and it has to be a passion. Otherwise, how many people would get up, erase the work they accomplished the previous day and start all over again. And then there are those magical moments when the characters just seem to take the story in a whole new direction. That’s a gift. Designing/achieving fiction with words is a job, as you say.

    • Thank you, Jill! That means a lot from you.
      The revision, as you say, is agonizing, and I think that’s the part that throws off most would-be writers. No one talks about revision, and that’s the unromantic stage of things that always gets left out of movies about writers. People don’t realize that, sometimes, those last ten thousand words just have to go — and it hurts, and even if they do realize, they still refuse to do it.

      • Very true. Sometimes you have write and re-write a section or a chapter 3,4 or a half-dozen times before it just feels right and suits the story-line. Do that 3 or 4 times per book and you’re talking work, in capital letters! LOL

  6. Thank you for liking ‘My Story’. Writing is not easy. What is easy for me is to share what I am learning from others. I do it out of pure joy of discovery that I want everyone to know about. Everybody will not necessarily be as joyful about it, but for me splashing my own joy out there is sufficient. So, no, writing is not easy. It is a gift, a calling a talent. And you’ve got it.

    • You’re very welcome! I loved your photograph.
      Sharing is definitely a good reason to write. You can learn from the writing process, too, and writing to other people encourages them to write back, and suddenly, everyone is writing and learning.
      Dear, sharing joy is an amazing gift. 🙂

  7. Ah you hit the nail on the head! Writing takes time, energy, motivation and dedication. Even with these in place I still struggle!

    Thanks for visiting my blog and liking my Darth Vader post 😉

  8. Hello MR Graham. Wow! I noticed your LIKE on my blog and not knowing you I thought I would pay you a visit to see what delights you have to offer. And !! Oh my !! An expert on writing and you didn’t tear my post to pieces !! I am either very honoured for your LIKE or I am waiting in dreaded anticipation for a three page comment shredding my piece to a million letters. 😉
    Have a great weekend MR G. Ralph
    ps I’m following (thinks: should appease him 😀 )

  9. I think most people confuse the statements: “Anyone can write”, with “Anyone can write for a living.” the point made in your blog here. I totally agree, and fall into the same category of being a writer, but not necessarily a successful one. I also fall into the same category as you, having been a writer for many many years, but happy to do it to apease that inner sense of being a writer, without the expectations of being recognized nor compensated for it. Perhaps some day we will, for our own sense of peace.

    • Oh, yes, I agree. I do believe that, as a hobby, anyone can sit down and put words to paper and love it. I suppose what got to me was the “Anyone can do what you’re doing because it’s not hard” aspect of that statement, one that was more present in the tone than in the words themselves. It drives me nuts. xP

  10. Your friend meant well, I am sure! I have to laugh because I have always written, since junior high school but I finally got onto a blog due to funny circumstances. Yet, every person who knows me likes my humor but it is light and not very recognizable. You have talent, drive, creativity and I appreciate your work. Keep it up and thank you for checking my silly drivel out!

  11. What you have said is very true. This Christopher Hitchens quote is particularly relevant. “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.”

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