This is one I still hear a lot, more often than not from people who don’t write and never will, usually as a prelude to an opinion about who the “truly great writers” are, which will be a long list of highbrow names that the speaker may or may not have ever actually read. As I have said before, there’s a great deal more snobbery among those who want to be perceived as literary than there is among actual writers.
Do I sound like I’m ranting? Perhaps. But as a person who has devoted a great deal of time to writing instruction, and someone who has seen literally dozens of my students later publish, I find this myth not only offensive, not only stupid, but actually destructive. Because it can only lead the person struggling to write wondering if they weren’t “born” to this endeavor, since the words don’t come easily and their early work isn’t nearly as good as they would like it to be.
I personally don’t believe there is a “writing gene,” a special brain synapse, something encoded in the DNA, or even a specialized form of intelligence. I think writing is both an art and a skill, and you learn both by: 1) reading the best material you can lay your hands upon, 2) practicing, practicing, practicing, and 3) getting useful instruction and advice.
Reading is how you feed the muse. Every time you read something of value, your brain absorbs the rhythms, the flow, the style. You’re teaching yourself how to write. No one is born understanding grammar or punctuation, much less mechanics and style. You get that by reading. You cannot write if you don’t read. It’s simply not possible.
Practice is essential. Writing is no different from anything else–the more you do, the better you’ll get at it. Kurt Vonnegut suggested that we all have about a million words of garbage we have to get out of our systems–then we start writing well. I think there’s some truth to this. Even if you don’t ultimately publish what you’ve written, you haven’t wasted your time. I spent about twenty years sending in stuff that was uniformly rejected, for a good reason–it wasn’t very good. Was I wasting my time? No. I was teaching myself how to write.
Good advice and instruction is essential. Yes, there are a few genius writers who did it all themselves, but there are far more who benefitted from a mentor, teacher, or writing program. Maxwell Perkins mentored most of the great writers of his era. Unfortunately, you’re not likely to find that level of mentoring at a large publishing house today–they’re too busy taking meetings. Find a program or person that has a track record of success and learn what you can. I’ve had far too many students come to my writing retreats after spending thousands of dollars on “book doctors” or “writing coaches” who gave them some of the worst advice I’ve heard in my life. Check the resume. If the person hasn’t published anything themselves, why would you imagine they can help you publish anything?
I do think some people develop a love for books and stories at an early age, and that may be the greatest impetus to wanting to write yourself. But don’t despair if it doesn’t come easily. It never comes easily. Writing is hard and always will be. But it is so worthwhile when you do write something wonderful, when you hear that your work has made a difference in someone’s life. And you can make that happen. Just keep writing. And never quit.
By the way, Rose State has extended the early registration discount for our writers conference to August 26. Save yourself some money and give yourself the push toward publication you need. Join us for the Rose State Writers Conference, September 23-25, 2016.