Monday Motivation: What makes a writer?
I was lounging in a living room overlooking False Bay with a glass of a robust and musky cabernet in hand, when that question occurred to me: what does it take to be a writer?
Fact is, the answers to a range of similar questions are obvious. What does it take to be a doctor… or an air traffic controller… or an electrical engineer… or a plumber…
But a writer?
Well, of course, my first thought was to consult Dr G. He tells me that a “professional writer” will most likely need to have studied for “a bachelor’s degree, preferably in English, writing or journalism…”
Hmm. That wasn’t quite the answer I was expecting or hoping for. So, on the assumption that the web can’t provide a ready answer to my question, I decided to think it through on my own (and, to be honest, with a little help from a spouse and a partner.)
First of all, in our estimation, a writer has to feel the need to write. Put more exuberantly, writers need to be filled with an irresistable impulse to tell the stories bubbling within them. But even if there’s no internal cauldron of tales, a writer needs to have at least an itch to shape stories and to write them down.
Good. So let’s say a writer requires a passion to write.
Second, a writer needs to persist even when he is most discouraged. Writing one word after another is easy. Finding the right word, and putting them in the right order is difficult. You will make mistakes. You will become frustrated by your inability to put on paper the vision that fills your head. But however difficult it is, you must find within yourself the strength to continue when things seem hopeless, a kind of doggedness in the face of what appears to be insuperable odds. In short, perseverance.
Thirdly, you need to write. Now, this seems obvious, but it ain’t so. Want to call yourself a writer? Then, write. Simple as that. But do it regularly. Every day, if possible; several times a week if you can’t manage every day; once a week if that’s all the time you can squeeze out of an impossible schedule. In other words, you need to practise.
You might by now have detected a subtle pattern in my answers: passion, perseverance and practise. Hmm.
Right, so one of the pleasures of creating a pattern is to shatter it. So here’s my next answer: writers need to read. Stephen King is quite matter-of-fact about this. He advises aspirant writers to “read and write four to six hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can’t expect to become a good writer.”
Can’t put it more plainly than that.
Then there’s the small question of humility. Yes, I know V.S.Naipaul was notorious for his arrogance – but I suspect that when it came to his relationship with the written word, he was as much the servant of the words he wielded as he was their master.
The simple fact of the matter is that writing is a chastening experience. The constant dual challenge of identifying both the inner and the outer lives of your characters – and then of translating that experience into words that are at once accurate, and specific, and beautiful, is humbling. The challenge so frequently ends in defeat that the realisation grows that it’s nigh impossible to do the job perfectly. A writer has to rummage among the ruins of his creations for lessons that’ll help him write the next thing just a little bit better.
Samuel Becket got it right: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
And here’s something that a writer isn’t. She isn’t in it for the money.* Or the fame. Or the glory. She’s in it because she can’t not write.
Cheers to that,
* A recent article in The Guardian by the novelist Lynn Steger Strong reports that, in the US at least, “the median income of all published authors for all writing related activity was $6,080 in 2017, down from $10,500 in 2009.”
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Blackboard or printed page – they’re different jobs‘