Monday, January 30, 2012

So You Wanna Be A Writer

People always say that they want to be writers. This is an obvious lie. Anyone who wants to be a writer could be one at any moment simply by sitting down and writing something. It doesn’t even have to be on a computer. It doesn’t have to be grammatically correct. It doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to exist. Writers write. End of story.

But, of course, nobody wants that. That’s boring and hard, too, and it doesn’t mean anything unless someone tells you that you’ve done a great job, right?

Research on children has demonstrated that praising their intelligence often causes them to fear taking risks and to avoid challenges. Why? Because the kids think that if they’re smart, things shouldn’t take effort. In the same way, there is a mythology around talent. You’re either a great writer, or you’re wasting paper. You’re good at math, or you’re failing our nation and our future. You can dance, or you can shuffle self-consciously around the floor in the desperate hope that you will soon turn invisible. This is a problem in our culture, because it gets cause and effect completely backward.

The truth is that a) you can get better at the above things and b) getting better takes work. A lot of work. In his book Outliers (which I haven’t read, I’ve just heard about it and looked it up on Wikipedia. Sorry), Malcolm Gladwell asserts that in order to master something—anything—you have to spend about ten thousand hours doing it. How long is that? About five hours a day every day for five and a half years. Every single day, by the way. No weekends. No Christmas. Forget Columbus Day, which is fine because it’s contentious, anyway. If you’re going to work a typical work week, it’s going to take closer to eight years.

So. When people say that they want to be writers, they don’t mean that. They don’t mean that they want to spend ten thousand hours to be a writer. What they mean is that they want to be born brilliant. They want the work to be easy, and—preferably—over with already. What they really want is to jet off to book signings and have everyone agree that they’re geniuses.

One of the questions I get most often—from adults and children, by the way—is “how can I get published?” Often, these people haven’t actually written anything, definitely nothing that resembles a finished book. These people just want to jump ahead, skip the work, imagine themselves up onstage winning an award. But writing a novel or working on any piece of art isn’t like competing on American Idol. It's not all glamour.

All art is a labor of love. Love of what? Love of whom? Love of art. So my advice is that if you want to be a writer, start writing. 


  1. Yes, I know this territory well. Wanting to do any number of things well but not always wanting to put in the time. Cultivating a consistent practice (because that's really what it is!) is never glamorous. But it can pay dividends in down the line.

  2. Yes, this is the exact reason that I can't speak Urdu! I just never put in the time.