The title of this post might seem presumptuous to you. Surely you don’t become a writer: you’re born one. That’s a common assumption about artists. We believe that people who write or sculpt or sing are born with an innate ability for their craft, that perhaps their education had less influence on their artistic success than the capabilities endowed by their creator. And this expectation—that natural talent ultimately determines performance—prevents those of us who didn’t pen Nobel Prize-winning novels at age 12 from ever writing our own story.I want to challenge this common sense with advice for people who want to become writers, but who doubt that they could ever call themselves one. This list presumes that better writing depends on the hours you put into crafting sentences, the habits of mind you develop, and what you choose to read. This might sound obvious, but being a writer isn’t about who you are but what you do. You can choose to make your life more conducive to writing. This should be liberating for those of us who have trouble setting pen to paper.
I’ve adapted part of this list from some advice my old teacher (and award-winning novelist) Zadie Smith gave me, as well as what I’ve learned from my own travails in front of the laptop screen. You might find writing difficult. You know what it’s like to stare at a blank Microsoft Word doc until 3 in the morning the night before your paper is due and feel, as the cliché goes, that you’re staring into an abyss. Hopefully, my advice can assuage some of your (possible) despair. Know that even the writers you worship have days when it feels impossible.
I base this list off of works for me. So, take what works for you, if anything, and leave the rest.
Read: read, read, read
My professors always said that reading is writing. And this puzzled me. Reading is reading, writing is writing, and ne’er the twain shall meet. So, why is reading the most important thing you can do to become a writer? One reason is that a lot of how we learn to write comes from our direct experience of other people’s writing. Think of the many things you learned to do by watching other people do it—eating with a fork, biking, driving. You know how to do these things not so much because someone explained it to you (though you may have received some technical assistance along the way), but because you watched, and this visual information seeped into your subconscious.
It’s the same with writing. When you expose yourself to other writers, you develop an intuition for rhythm, cadence, sentence length, paragraph structure, and all of writing’s more abstract components: simile, metaphor, foreshadowing, allusion. This information seeps its way into your writing. You cannot learn this from a textbook, nor, in my opinion, should you. When you read a lot, you notice the various ways that writers observe the world. For instance, right now I’m reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume memoir My Struggle. Knausgaard notices the smallest details of his daily life: the angle of the light on the drapes, a coffee stain singed into the kitchen counter, or the shape of his breath as he exhales into the winter morning. Reading Knausgaard, I, too begin to see how I can write in this way.
Keep a daily diary
Being a writer means that you notice what’s going on around you, every day, from the smallest details of your daily subway commute—What does the subway sound like when it rushes into Grand Central? How could I describe I that in a sentence or two?—to large, dramatic events: a breakup, a hurricane, a car accident you witness on the interstate. Being a writer means that you treat your life as a text. One of the best ways to do this is to keep a daily diary. There are many ways to do this. Sometimes you might feel like free-writing, just describing what comes to mind. Other times, you may want to write something down as it happens, keeping a Steno pad with you at all times so you won’t let that moment slip through your grasp. Whatever the case, the more you write, the more you notice. And the better you notice, the more you have to write. Not only that, but you can return to what you’ve written and use it later on.
Keeping a diary doesn’t have to be laborious. When I taught English at Phillips Andover, my students and I kept daily diaries. Each evening, we wrote down seven things we saw, seven things we did, one thing we overheard, and sketched one thing we saw. That’s all you need to do. My students didn’t need more than ten minutes to do this, each day. And the students who took it seriously, the students who strove to be specific, discovered that they had more to write later on. This repository of observations helped them overcome writer’s block. Not only that, but they said these diaries made their lives less boring. They (and I) became more attuned to small moments—the anticipation of walking to class each morning under the shade of the elm trees, or the timeless anxiety of choosing where to sit in the dining hall, or the moon shining through the curtains.
Protect your time
This is the trickiest part. The easiest thing to do is to find an excuse not to write—from washing dishes to walking dogs to refurbishing your apartment to look like the Palace of Versailles. Having a social life is important, but friends are often the most tempting reason to avoid writing, because writing is a lonely business. You sit in a quiet room all by yourself, and there’s nothing but you, your computer screen, and your thoughts. If you don’t block off time each day (or every other day) to write, then the rest of your life can overwhelm the precious few hours of writing time.
As you write, you’ll discover a time that works best for you. You might need no more than an hour each day—perhaps one hour in the morning, before school or work, when your mind is clear; your cup of cold brew, strong. Or, the hour after dinner, before bed, when you’ve absorbed everything you’ve done and seen and heard during the day and you’re ready to pour it onto the page. (You’ve noticed all these things because you’ve kept a daily diary!) When you commit yourself each day to sit down and write, at a set time, this frees you from the anxiety of worrying about not writing.
Leave time between writing and editing
When you’ve spent hours at work on an essay or story or poem, it’s difficult to see what needs changing. This is the Irony of nearsightedness. It’s like your relationship with a best friend – sometimes his quirks and insecurities aren’t visible to you by virtue of your proximity; it’s only when a stranger tells you that your friend talks only about his 3.96 GPA, wipes Cheeto dust on his blue jeans, and never pays for dinner when you go out, that he’s rendered anew. One of the most effective editing techniques is to forget your work completely, though I wouldn’t necessarily suggest this. One fine morning, you’re scrolling through Google Drive, looking for that history response paper you wrote the night before, due at noon. And there it is—a short story you wrote back in 2016 and, out of frustration, abandoned. You just couldn’t come up with a last line. Only now, there it is—a revelation. Time lends clarity to our vision, keenness of insight, and sensitivity to the problems and potential latent within our sentences.
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