Recently I’ve read two blogs by published authors talking about annoying reactions they have gotten when they have told a casual acquaintance that they write novels. I’ve been a creative writer my whole life and I’m familiar with the scenario. A lot of times you get a reaction along the lines of “I’m working on a novel too!” or “I’ve always wanted to write” or “I’d write if I had more time” or “I have this great idea….” Many people seem to think that with a little time and effort, they too could be a writer just like you.
I always wonder if this happens to people in other creative professions. My guess is that if you say you’re a ballet dancer, you don’t get 45-year-old fellow party guests who say, “I’ve been meaning to take up a professional ballet career.” You might get someone who used to take (or even is taking) ballet lessons, but they don’t have aspirations to greatness in the field. Okay, but that’s an age thing. What about music or art? Although you can do some guitar playing or drawing with little or no instruction, most people would recognize that if you want to seriously pursue music or art (either as a professional or a serious amateur), you need to undertake a lot of studying and practicing. In other words: hard work.
Writing, on the other hand, looks easily accessible as an artistic pursuit. Everyone knows the English language, right? You can take it up when you’re 45 or 60 or 75. You don’t need to buy a tuba or oil paints. Here’s the problem: Yes, anyone can write. However, writing well takes a lot (and I mean a lot) of practice. I’ve been writing creatively for more than 20 years and I don’t feel like I’ve perfected it. It also helps to get good feedback from a support/critique group and instruction. (yeah, I know some people say creative writing can’t be taught, but you can teach the techniques of effective writing in the same way you teach brushstrokes or reading music.) Feedback and instruction help you hone your technique, but there’s no substitute for practice. You wouldn’t expect to go to a basketball game for the first time and sink every shot you make. Or do a perfect pirouette at your first (or fifth or fifteenth) ballet class. Or sculpt a coherent statue out of a hunk of marble without help. Just because you know the basics of writing — or even if you’ve been doing writing at your job — it doesn’t mean you have developed all the techniques you need for writing a novel.
Actually, I think a lot of people know this (at least subconsciously), but don’t want to believe it. I believe this is why writers encounter a lot of people who want to be a writer. There’s no age limit, so it’s something you can always aspire to be. But a lot of would-be writers have tried writing the Great American Novel and found that it’s more difficult than they expected (hence the “I’m working on a novel too” syndrome). It’s discouraging to have a vision and then discover that your writing isn’t up to the task of creating that vision perfectly (believe me, I understand!). But, rather than practicing their writing by sitting at the computer every day (even for 15 minutes) or honing their skills with feedback from a group or instructor, a lot of these people would rather tell themselves and imply to everyone else, that they would become great writers if only they had enough time. It’s scary to write. I know! But the only way to become a good writer is to write. A lot.
Anyway, that’s my opinion. What do you think?
Been writing poetry since I was a teenager. Wrote a Shakespearean style sonnet for my wife. We put it in our wedding program. A family member asked who wrote it. “I did,” I said. “No. I mean who is the real author. The original author?” He never did believe me!
Great article! I love it!
Good for you! Poetry is the hardest form of writing for me, so I admire anyone who can do it well. Thanks for your feedback!
Well said, Victoria! A close friend of ours became a novelist in his 50s, has had two books published and the third will be out next year. It’s brought it home to me how much work goes into writing a book. Not just the actual process of putting ideas down on paper (or into a computer word processor) but then there’s proofreading, editing, re-writing, re-proofing etc. All of this takes time, doesn’t it? Then, if it’s going into print as a physical book, there’s the publisher’s timetable, actual or virtual promotion tours and probably all sorts of other things that we mere mortals know not of. I’d love to be a writer but have no pretensions that I’d ever be a good one let alone a great one. Just don’t have enough in the way of ideas or creativity.
As long as we have people like you, and our friend, though, I’m quite happy to carry on reading instead of writing. Thank you.
Thank you for your comment — and congrats to your friend! It is a lot of work and not something I’d recommend unless you really, really, really want to do it. But that’s true of anything worthwhile in life 🙂 I am very grateful that there are readers like you; however — you keep people like me going!
I agree with your post. I’ve never had any urge to write a story, although I do enjoy editing/proof-reading. I’ve worked with some wonderful fan fiction writers in the Twilight universe. I stopped doing editing work when I started receiving requests to edit stories that were just so poorly written that there was nothing I could do for the author, short of re-writing it for them. I ended up telling them I was too busy to help, because I couldn’t bear to tell them the truth (I’m a coward). I always felt part of my job as an editor of a story was to encourage and help the author, but I couldn’t honestly encourage such poor attempts. Now I’m happy to focus on reading!
I’ve had that experience too. I edit (mostly nonfiction, though) as well as write. Sometimes you look at something and think: “I can make it better, but I can’t make it good.” Everyone has stories to tell and needs to practice their craft. Hopefully, if they stick with it, those writers will get better. I get frustrated with the people who don’t want to put any effort into it and try to improve. Thanks for your feedback!
“I can make it better, but I can’t make it good.” You are exactly right. I quickly realized that I would have to spend so much time on these poorly written stories that I couldn’t justify it. In the end, they would still be poorly written. Since I was doing this for fun and for free, it wasn’t worth my time. I did work with several very talented storytellers, and that was a joy. I felt I was making a small contribution to something that was already special.
I love your post here, so true!