Feb 7, 2007

On the Fallacy of "Born" Writers

I had a conversation recently with an associate who was deriding his skills as a writer. I offered some words of encouragement when my friend interrupted me.

"That's easy for you to say," he said. "You're a born writer."

I graciously accepted his compliment, but my friend was quite mistaken. I was not born a writer, and I should add that I was in my thirties before I was even published.

Going back to college in my thirties, I had long forgotten most of what I had been taught about writing. I had to work hard at the craft of writing just to become competent, pestering professors for extra feedback and making use of the campus writing center (which I later joined as a tutor).

I was humbled at having to seek extra help, but I was determined to improve my writing skills. Note to aspiring writers: if a thick-skulled, middle-aged type like me can learn the basics of writing, it can be accomplished by anyone. Those of you in your teens and twenties have an incredible advantage with your sharper minds, but pluck and perseverance do pay off.

Having achieved some level of personal and professional success as a writer, it is comforting to know that I could move to any city in the country and scratch out a living with my words. I do know, though, that the art of writing is an acquired behavior, and writers need to regularly polish their skills to maintain their abilities.

I still make use of online grammar and punctuation tutorials, and I frequently consult style manuals. One excellent general source I recommend is the book On Writing, by author Stephen King. This book opened my eyes to both the creative process and the hard work that is involved with becoming a writer.

I have also learned that everything I write can always use improvement, and that I will forever be in the debt of some kind souls who saw in me the makings of a writer. There was a point some years back when I was ready to leave school without even getting my BA, as I had convinced myself I was a fraud and had no business in academia or any intellectual pursuit. Without the encouragement of a few mentors, I might have given up, but I think that God sends the right people our way when we most need help.

I thus make a concerted effort to encourage those around me who aspire to the craft of writing, perhaps as a sort of "pay it forward" debt of gratitude. I doubt that there are many - if any - "born" writers, but there are millions of potentially excellent writers who just need to work on their games some more.


MP said...

Gifted writers exist. Born writers do not.

The Screaming Nutcase said...

Don't forget reading as a tip! Reading lets you see what others have done with the language, both good and bad.

historymike said...

I agree, Mark, that there are a few people who have an aptitude - genius, if you want - that allows them to attain a lofty perch.

Herman Melville comes to mind.

But too many people give up, thinking "I'll never be any good," when they could achieve something important.

Most of the art of writing is learned by subcomscious modeling or through conscious repetition.

historymike said...

Excellent point, Screaming Nutcase.

The best writers are usually dedicated readers. We pick up many stylistic lessons by reading great writers. One of the reasons I like Melville so much is that he completely kicks my sorry ass, but in the process I learn how to get better.

It's kind of like learning to play golf by hanging around Tiger Woods a lot.

C Eisel said...

To my long lost classmate...
Another excellent, and downright funny, book on writing is Alice Lamott's Bird By Bird...given to me by a favorite professor;).
And, you're absolutely correct about the "practice" of writing. As you know, like you, I returned to school in my thirties, and am somewhat amused, but mostly horrified at my own writing samples, even from a couple of years ago.

historymike said...

Hey Chris! Good to hear from you; I hope they are treating you and Shirley well in your new digs.

I agree about looking back on older work - I have some writing that I think is so poor as to be unsalvageable.

Anonymous said...

btw, historymike - we know from reading your profile that you are a graduate student in history. How is all that going?

historymike said...

No complaints, anonymous. The university treats me well. I have at least two more years until I finish my doctorate.

Hooda Thunkit said...

We are all born with certain talents, giving us each many possibilities and options.

Those of us who chose to take interest in a skill or area that we also have a given talent for usually excel, making it look as if we were a born (whatever).

Mike, you look like a "born" writer to me ;-)

(Hooda flinching with a slight twinge of envy.)