So you want to be a writer? What must you do? Two words: read, write. In that order. Saul Bellow, Nobel Prize-winning writer, said, “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.” Read widely. Read beyond your tastes. Read with the writer’s eye, which continually asks, “how did the writer just do that?”
I’ll offer one more necessary ingredient: a willingness to revise. One mark of a writer is his or her willingness to do whatever necessary to improve a piece of writing. He or she acknowledges that there is nothing sacred about a first attempt, and that (contrary to some proponents of a particular poetic school) “first thought” rarely equals “best thought.”
How about a definition of a writer? A writer is someone who regularly reads, writes, and revises. To label oneself a writer and not ever revise (in other words, moving beyond mere editing) is intellectually dishonest and, moreover, a contradiction.
(I realize that there’s nothing flashy or glamorous about any of this. See title.)
If you are serious about writing, the late Richard Marius said that you “give up other pursuits to pursue writing.” One of my grad school professors regularly talked about the idea of “trade-offs.” In other words, if you are devoting an hour of your day to working with words, that’s an hour you’re not socializing, not watching movies, not playing video games, etc.
There’s no immediate pay off, most of the time. Friends or family members might question your pursuits. You might even question your pursuits.
No one will (likely) bang on your bedroom or office door demanding that you write that poem, that story, that essay. But you are building up the hours, you are working on craft, you are acquiring small successes and small failures.
While studying highly skilled people, Malcom Gladwell observed that they spent a minimum of 10,000 hours to “master” their particular discipline. Writing, of course, is a craft, but as Ernest Hemingway said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” Nonetheless, spending your time wishing you were a writer, moaning about your lack of inspiration, lying to yourself that you have nothing worth writing about—these are all avoidance tactics you’ve generated that restrain you from committing the physical act of writing.
Writing is a solitary task, and here’s the clincher: no one can do it for you. No one. Yes, you can share your work with others and hope they might offer you honest and helpful feedback, but in order for you to receive feedback, a draft must be written. You must write that draft.
Isak Dinesen encouraged writers to “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.” The writer must avoid the equally fatal traps of believing that everything he or she has just written is magnificent or that everything he or she has just written is best suited for recycling (or better yet, shredding).
Finally, I’ll offer some personal disclosure. More often than not, I approach the writing desk not inspired, not energized, but I “choose” to sit at the desk and start. And something always happens. I never leave not having written anything. It might be raw, messy, and/or underdeveloped (and most times it is), but I sure feel a lot better afterwards. And then I have material with which to work. For the writer, genuine delight begins with the second draft.
So may we begin those necessary first drafts today, rather than waiting for the elusive and ephemeral some day.