Hopefully Monday’s post invigorated you for the writing process by showing you that you do have (or at least can acquire) the skills necessary for being a writer. It may have raised questions in your mind, however, about whether or not there may be more requirements to being a writer than what I listed. You may have even been told by a teacher or a friend (or an enemy!) that you need to have some of these things in order to be a writer, and you don’t have them, so you give up your quest. I’m here to tell you that I do not agree. All the necessary qualifications for being a writer are those which I already listed, and all of them are things that you can acquire by dedication and practice. You will notice that this list contains several things that you cannot attain by any level of practice or dedication—two of them you either have or you don’t, and one of them is more a matter of hindsight and regret than anything else.
Now I want to be clear that I am not saying that having these things would make you a worse writer. Having these things may make you a better writer, or at least give you an easier time of it, but none of them is a prerequisite to becoming a writer. So I don’t want to hear complaining saying “KR said that X, Y, and Z is irrelevant to being a writer!” As I’ve said, be a careful reader first and foremost, and you are bound to become a better writer (and probably a better person as well, but that depends somewhat on what you are reading). Are there more things that people say you must have to be a writer? Absolutely. But these are the four that I have come across most frequently.
4. You Don’t Need To Journal
This is bound to cause ire with some people. Specifically with people who sell journals. I mean with people who are devoted to their journals. I’ve been told by many hundreds (okay, so maybe only ten or so) of people including friends, teachers, and textbooks that I must keep a daily journal (a diary for boys) if I want to be a serious writer. Frankly, I think that’s nonsense. Being a journaler or not being one has everything to do with one’s personality and disposition towards writing for one’s own edification alone. Now the question of journalling does have some merit because it gets you into a habit of writing every day. This may or may not be a good situation. Obviously, in order to be a writer, one must write. But if you feel a heavy obligation to write, sometimes this can actually squelch your enjoyment of it, which is much more important.
I have personally never kept a daily journal for more than a week at a time, and I’ve always found it to be irritating and stressful. Don’t do that to yourself. It’s not worth it. If you enjoy keeping a journal, by all means do it. But if it’s a burden to you, you are better off doing something else. And although you could argue that writing semi-weekly blog posts is similar to journalling, it’s actually completely different, because people other than myself (hello strangers!) are actually reading what I have to say.
3. You Don’t Need An Early Start
I refer to this as the Christopher Paolini Fallacy. For those of you who don’t know (seriously, folks?), Christopher Paolini is a best-selling author who began work on his first novel, Eragon, at age 15, and had it published when he was 19. He has now published four books in the Inheritance Cycle, and has sold 33.5 million copies worldwide (according to the repository of all knowledge). Oh yeah, he’s only 29 this year. That kind of astonishing success is enough to make anybody feel bad, particularly somebody like me who was also home-schooled and has been writing since he was 12. What really rips me is that I don’t think that Paolini is a particularly great author. Don’t get me wrong, I love his stories (I haven’t read the final book of the Inheritance Cycle yet), but the way he uses words grates on me. Since this post isn’t about style, though, I’ll save my gripes with Paolini for another post.
The point here is that his success is completely atypical of good writers, and you ought not to be intimidated or shamed by it. Timothy Zahn (one of my favourite living science-fiction authors) did not publish his first novel until he was 32. Patrick Rothfuss (who you’re going to hear me promoting quite a bit on here) didn’t publish The Name of the Wind until he was 35. J.R.R. Tokien was 45 when The Hobbit was published. The point isn’t how young or old these authors were. The point is that just because you’re 25 or 35 or 45 (maybe even older?) today and have never published a novel or maybe even finished writing a short story does not mean that you cannot still take up your pen and do it.
2. You Don’t Need Originality
Ouch. Seriously, KR? Who wants to read an unoriginal piece of work? Well, everybody, really. Remember that old line “There is nothing new under the sun”? It is particularly true when applied to writing. Elves in NYC? Been done. Space ship, alien exploration? Uh, yeah, that too. What about a Civil War soldier…nope, read it. It can be nearly impossible to come up with something that hasn’t been done before, and the fact is that even if you think it’s completely new, somebody else is going to say “Oh, this reminds me of….” But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Honest. Remember on Monday, where I said that creativity was essential, but originality was not? You may think that I’m just playing word games; splitting hairs in order to make blog posts. Perhaps. But in this case, I think the distinction is important. It’s incredibly hard to come up with a fully original idea. It’s a lot easier to bring together a bunch of old ideas in a new or fresh way—that’s creative.
I’m currently working on a fantasy novel of my own (ooh, how original!), and there are plenty of ideas in my story that are highly influenced by other writers, from C.S. Lewis to George R.R. Martin to Garth Nix. Does that mean I’m ripping them off? I should certainly hope not. I don’t think that anyone has ever put together the ideas that I’ve put together in the way I’ve put them together with the characters I’ve created. But are they fully original? No, I don’t think they are. But they are imaginative. The main point of this is to write what you want to write—write what’s in your mind, and don’t be discouraged when people say “oh, this reminds me of that.”
1. You Don’t Need Natural Talent
This is the big one. Usually, this is one that we tell ourselves, more than one that others tells us. But perhaps you’ve heard somebody say it to you, or in regards to somebody else you know. The problem with this is that we often confuse natural talent with natural aptitude. Some skills are ones where you need natural talent. For example, running takes natural talent. No matter how much I train, I will never be able to compete in the Olympic 100m dash. I simply do not have the necessary natural talent (in this case muscles and skeleton) to do that. Writing, however, is not like competitive running. When we talk about “natural talent” in writing, what we really mean is “natural aptitude.” Vocabulary, style, imagination—all these are things that can be developed through reading and proper practice; indeed they must be developed this way, because it’s the only way that writing gets done. The natural apt are able to pick these things up quicker than the rest of us, or with less focused effort, but they do not have an absolute advantage over us—a sort of plateau that we will never reach, no matter how hard we try (like Usain Bolt, for example).
Now granted, there have been a few natural talents in the history of writing. William Shakespeare was one. These people go above and beyond the normal levels of writing, and create an entire new language which the rest of the world follows after (but was Shakespeare original? No, he was not), but they are so few and far between that you do not need to worry about them. The vast majority of writers out there are simply naturally apt, not naturally talented. And one of the best things about being a writer as opposed to a runner is that it’s not a winner-takes-all competition. While there can only be one winner of the 100m dash, a naturally talented writer like Shakespeare will actually create more readers who will be interested in what the rest of us have produced. So don’t be jealous of the naturally talented when you encounter them. Be thankful for them instead.
Once again, you may say I’m playing semantics, and to a small extent I am. The point is to encourage you that while it may be hard work to become a writer (honestly, it can be), it is something within your grasp. If somebody tells you that you “don’t have what it takes” to be a writer, stop and think. Are they actually correct, or are they just bringing your dreams down for their own selfish reasons? If they are correct, get what it takes to be a writer. There’s nothing that’s stopping you from becoming a writer that you don’t impose upon yourself.