The whole ‘Are Writers Born or Made’ debate is still very much alive, and I thought I’d have a go at unwrapping this onion from the perspective of a writer who believes they are very much not “naturally talented” at writing. I’m not saying this to be humble or self-depreciating – I really wasn’t very proficient at writing when I was little. I remember quite vividly during ‘story writing time’ at around age 10, always wishing and dreaming that the teacher would finally pick my story to read to the class. But she never did. Because there was always someone better and more ‘talented’, who could express themselves far more succinctly on the page than I could. And so I was left with my daydreams, keeping my stories hidden and out of sight.
When I was about 13 I noticed that one of my friends, who was particularly intelligent, appeared to be born with a knack for putting pen to paper. She could spout flowery, knotted prose on command. My words were jagged and messy in comparison, and most just didn’t make sense half the time. Her poems were layered with double entendres and cute euphemisms, my poems were full to brimming with gaudy alliterations and over the top onomatopoeias.
The level of skill my friend showed was miles ahead of my own, even though I was the poor mug plugging away, day after day, typing up stories into my parents old desktop computer. My friend didn’t write very often, but when she did, there could be heard adoring ‘ahhhhhs’ from teachers all around. It didn’t seem entirely fair, as my friend didn’t even enjoy writing. And even though I was always in the advanced English class, I had to work really hard just to stay there.
There certainly are people out there who sit down to write their first novel – and joyfully discover that they are actually really good at writing. It comes naturally to them, like breathing or eating chocolate. This category of incredibly blessed writers need only a bit of spit and polish before they become truly wonderful writers, conjuring up stories that can make your heart simmer and glow… or whimper with despair (think Jessica by Bryce Courtenay).
Then there are the rest of us poor souls, destined to spend countless years and thousands of hours typing away on our laptops before we can join their ranks – if at all. Occasionally we will finish a story and proclaim it ‘marvelous’ only to look back on it years later and shudder in horror. For someone who was clearly not born to be a writer, how long will it take them to tidy up those adverbs?
Chris Allen informs us in his guest post at The Creative Penn that:
“ It takes ten years and one million words to build a good writer ”
That’s a helluva lotta time! And to make matters worse, Malcolm Gladwell popularised the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. I mean, that’s just ghastly! I much prefer Ivan Izo’s interpretation over at Write on Fire, who points out that 10,000 pages is a far more realistic estimate – which is still a s— load of writing. But which guide post should we be using? And should we be using one at all?
I decided to be a little crazy, and I compiled a word count of all the stories I’ve ever written since I was 14 (unfortunately I don’t have access to the ones that are still on my parents’ old desktop computer) to compare my own stats to these numbers. I am quite happy to poke fun at myself and admit that some of my stories are tragically bad. Like picture what you imagine is bad, and then add a layer of soggy cake on top and that’s how bad they are.
So… far I’ve written 796,436 words or (divide that into roughly 250 words a page) 3,185 pages.
Dang, that’s nowhere near 10,000 pages! And I’m still many thousands of words short of Chris Allen’s one million word goal – say about 3 books to go?
You know what, I think it’s best to just completely disregard these insanely high numbers, and do what works for you (otherwise your sanity may be threatened, and I’m very much against that happening). I believe that if you work hard enough, you will one day become that ‘good writer’ you want to be, whether it’s two months or ten years from now.
There is no doubt that the most important attribute you really need to be a successful writer is resilience, not talent. Not ony to put up with all the rejection you’ll undoubtedly face over your career, but to be brave enough to continue writing even when you’re afraid you’ll never be good enough.
If it’s your dream to become a published author one day, don’t ever give up hope of finding an editor, publisher or agent who thinks your story is f—— brilliant and needs to be told ASAP. Because they’re out there right now, just waiting for your query. And we all know what separates the published authors from the unpublished ones. Published authors never give up.