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.