Creative Writing 101: You Start Here

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a post attacking the practical value of Creative Writing programs in colleges. Since then, I’ve been thinking about how to fulfill the desire many people look to those programs for: we all want a next step, a course of development, towards being a real writer. What is the development, if you don’t get it in a classroom?

Though not very glamorous, author is a “glamour profession” in that it does not depend on education, experience, and job hunting but on ineffable talent combined with pure-ass luck. This disorients most people, since other people’s dreams like “doctor” or “unscrupulous investment banker” do depend on education, experience, and job hunting and they follow a delineated path of milestones towards those dreams.

Furthermore, no one in a position of of advice-giving like teacher or career counselor or college counselor understands how authors become authors, so no one around you really seems to know how any of it works, and it takes about 30 years to figure it out on your own. Here’s some of it.

I’ve heard it said that if you want to figure out your calling, you should look at what you’ve been consistently doing since you were a little child, and myself and other writers I know have been writing down or telling stories since we were tiny and strange little tykes. However, those stories sucked.

Everyone sucks at creative writing when they’re a kid, everyone sucks at it when they’re a teenager, and everyone sucks at it when they’re a new adult. It’s true. No one is any good at it until they’re like 30, or in certain dorky genres, maybe mid-twenties because at that point you can strike the right tone (don’t get me wrong, I love dorky genres, I’m just saying they’re dorky).

And that’s at minimum. It might take until your 40s or 50s or more to really Get There. There are writing prodigies, but they are in their 20s and 30s! Malcolm Gladwell has famously popularized the hypothesis that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to hone a talent until you’re any good, and for most people living any kind of life that takes at least until you’re 30. And no, the exact number of 10,000 hours and its validity doesn’t matter – the principle of about how much time it takes holds.

During all the time up to that point, you’re someone who enjoys creative writing, and shows a talent for it (hopefully), but not someone who’s good at it. And you realize that after a while, and then you are filled with despair. Unlike doctors, who have their med school graduation and residency, or unscrupulous investment bankers, who get hired on at unscrupulous investment banks, there’s no recognized threshold or official point where you cross over.

This adds to the gray-area uncertainty of the “writer” identity. Are you “a writer” because of your inclinations and hobby, because of how much you work, because of being published? Were you “a writer” when you wrote that poem in 5th grade? No one’s going to tell you when you’re ready for big leagues, or even recognize it. You have to be the one who thinks you’re ready to compete, and starts to take action to do so.

Ira Glass has a famous quote about creative beginners having good taste, and then being disappointed by their own work, but how the good “taste” is what got them into it. He finishes with the most important point, which is that work is the only way forward. “Volumes” and volumes of work is the only way to break through to the other side, putting black on white, doing it, doing it, doing it. That’s where the development is, that’s where the identity is, that’s how you do it.

Stephen King famously said you have to “read and write four to six hours a day” and “if you cannot find the time for that, you can’t expect to become a good writer.” Well, you know, fuck Stephen King because we all have bills to pay and people we care about to spend time with, but the principle is correct. It just is. If you don’t put in the time – a lot of time – and effort, what makes you think you’re going to make it? Would you want a doctor who didn’t do all his hours of residency?

How do you do it? The answer is like it’s your job. Because you want it to be. Like any job, it isn’t inspired every day and it certainly isn’t fun every day, and it most certainly – neon arrows here – isn’t something you only do on days when you feel like doing it. Things get done when you have a schedule, you have a quota, and you make – make– yourself hold to those, day in, day out, no ifs, ands, buts, and no matter what you’d rather be doing or that there’s not enough time in the day, blah blah blah. It’s your job, right? You want it to be. Show you can do the job. That’s how you get hired.

The fantasy of the secluded cabin and a weekend of pages flying forth from a classic Underwood while coffee steams from the desk onto your trendy sweater is a lie. You can fantasize about that all the live-long day, and then go to bed again, having put down no actual pages of writing, again. Or you can wise up and keep up a forced-to-do-it, routine, un-trendy schedule of actual writing. You decide.

You are deciding. You have been deciding, for years now. The question is do you want to change your decision. Look at how much writing you’ve actually gotten done with your choice so far and think carefully about this question. Yes, “everyone has their process” but if your process doesn’t actually produce any writing, your process sucks. And you will fail. Inherently. To not write is to fail at being a writer. Nothing can ever get around that.

Evidence shows that writers produce when they have disciplined routines and hold themselves accountable. More writing comes out – vastly, game-changingly more – when they write a little each day than when they do long bursts sometimes. And the only way to have a chance out there is to produce vast, game-changingly more than what average wannabes produce, because what they produce, with their method, is basically nothing.

In his high-and-mighty but fundamentally the truth blog post on Cracked, David Wong talks about people who “think of themselves as writers,” and how when “they introduce themselves as writers at parties, they know that deep inside, they have the heart of a writer” but “The only thing they’re missing is that minor final step, where they actually fucking write things.

He makes an important point, but it’s not the whole nuanced truth. I think we all know, basically, that if you don’t make shoes you are not a shoe-maker. If you don’t write you are not a writer. The thing about writing is that it’s not just a job, it’s an identity about talent and mindset and habit and taste. Both of these things are true. I think the key is to stop thinking of the non-producing writer as a failure, and rather as a phase, a tadpole stage that emerged from the egg of a certain type of person, during which you learn by reading and thinking and practice, whether publicly or privately.

Some people stay writer-tadpoles forever. Out of all the people who call themselves writers, the vast majority stay tadpoles forever. Because they never put in the work, out of laziness or lack of commitment or priority, or because they never had the confidence to put themselves out there. Some probably lacked talent, some were probably amazing talents we would have been wowed by, most were probably in between, and could have been good enough if they had really put themselves to work at it.

The question for each and every one of us is do we want to make that metamorphosis leap, and if so, why aren’t we? In the words of the great Robin Thicke, What, you don’t like work?

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