Everybody writes. Did you just tweet something? Post on Facebook? Send a quick email? That’s all writing. It’s all using words. It’s all flexing your lexical muscle. Does it seem too small to count? It still builds up habits and uses your skills. It still displays them, too.
My wife is a figure skater. She skated professionally for nearly a decade and has been coaching ever since. When we go to a public rink for open skating, she doesn’t do jumps or spins (unless the rink is empty), but you can see her skill in every move she makes. She skates with more grace, poise, and fluidity – and less obvious effort – than anyone else in the rink, and she does it without even having to think about it. It is a pleasure even just to watch her skate forward. Likewise, good writers write well even in short notes. They feel the words in their blood and muscles. There is no writing that doesn’t count. These are words, for heaven’s sake!
But there’s being a writer and being “a writer.” I worked for a short time at a daily commuter newspaper, and it had a guest column open to unsolicited submissions. It didn’t pay, so it didn’t tend to draw people who made their living writing, but it did draw people who wished they could write for a living. Each column had a short bio of the person. We edited the bios, of course. The first thing we did nearly every time was delete “is a writer.” As the editor-in-chief said, “Everyone’s a writer.”
Of course they didn’t just mean they wrote, like everyone else does; that was trivially true. They wanted to be “a writer.” Millions of people want to be “a writer.” They want to have written great things. They want the glory, the sense of accomplishment, the validation of who they are: someone who is listened to (read) and admired.
The only thing is, most of them don’t write much.
I once went to hear Terry Pratchett talk, and one thing he said that has stuck with me is “Most people don’t want to write. They want to have written.” In other words, they want to be “a writer” but they aren’t eager to sit down and do the actual work of researching, writing, revising, finding someone to read it, and so on. Sure, they write as much everyday stuff as anyone else does – emails, text messages, tweets, whatever – but they’ve got that book in them that just has to get out and when it does…
Sorry, you don’t have a book in you. Not unless you just ate one. You have the ability to write a book. In fact, you have the ability to write several. You also have the ability to sweep the floor, repaint the bathroom, take out the trash, go get the groceries… I mean, if you’re reasonably able-bodied, you have the ability to climb mountains, if you develop the fitness and techniques, but it sounds kind of silly to say you have a mountain in you, doesn’t it?
Maybe it doesn’t. Many people want to run a marathon, to be marathoners, so they may think they “have a marathon in them.” It’s a bucket-list accomplishment. But it’s also 26 miles 385 yards (42.195 kilometres) of running. Unless you’re an extremely unusual person, you can’t just get up one morning with no training and complete that. You’ll run out of energy and probably injure yourself before you finish. And if you do a short training course for it, you may finish it, but it will be a spectacularly unpleasant experience, may leave you injured, and will probably put you off running for life. On the other hand, if you start running shorter distances and shorter races and build up to it over the course of a couple of years, you will have something that is more thoroughly rewarding and lasting. The odds are that the marathon itself still won’t be all roses; the last 10 kilometres will probably be quite unpleasant, and you will be tired and sore for days after. But you will continue to enjoy running, and, weirdly, you will probably want to run another marathon. The same goes for writing a book, which is a far more gruelling process than people usually suspect. If you’ve built up a habit of writing and you enjoy doing it, writing a book will still be hard work but you’ll keep going. If you haven’t, if you don’t actually enjoy writing, I don’t make much of your odds of finishing a book worth reading.
There’s the big thing: Do it because you want to do it. I know that writing can be exhausting, and even some famous writers find it really takes a lot out of them. I have a friend who’s a bestselling author; my wife and I were walking down the street with her one day and she said something that caused my wife to say, “Don’t you like writing?” And my friend said, “Oh, no, I hate writing. I write because I have to.” I’ll take her word for it, but I can tell you that she’s still writing, and she’s over 80 now. So maybe she doesn’t enjoy it, but she sure wants to do it.
It can be hard work, of course. But hard work can be enjoyable. You’re figuring out a complex puzzle, and the pieces are words, and if you solve it, it unlocks a black box that is the reader’s heart.
Above all, though some people may disagree with me, if you don’t want to write, don’t. Writing is an extremely crowded field. Even though many people who want to be “a writer” don’t write much, there are still appallingly many people who do write a lot, and some of them are very good. Most of the very good ones will never get rich or famous from it. You, too, will almost certainly never get rich or famous from it. The only thing you can be sure of is that you’ll enjoy doing it, and you can only be sure of that if you do enjoy doing it. So if you don’t enjoy it, if there’s nothing compelling you to do it, why in hell should you do it? Just stop. Go find something you enjoy doing and do that. You’ll probably have better odds of becoming rich and famous at it too.
And if you’re still itching to tell a story, find a way to enjoy doing it. Work up to it. Try different things. Blog it. Write it on posters and stick them up around your neighbourhood. Carve it into your model airplanes. Make a map of it. If you can’t be motivated to do the same thing millions of other people are doing, do something else, and feel glad that you found a way to do something new and fun.