Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me, Part 3: Learning to Be a Writer

Zen in the Art of WritingA lot of careers have obvious training paths. Doctors go to med school, lawyers to law school, teachers need certain education courses, those who want to do certain types of high tech work often enroll in certificate programs. These programs don’t come with job guarantees — there’s a lot of debate these days over whether law graduates can get good enough jobs to offset the cost of their education — but there is no question that you have to get those credentials to follow most of those careers.

This is not true for writing or, indeed, for most other creative careers. There are educational credentials you can get, but while some of them might help you get your foot in the door, they aren’t a necessary step in the process.

There’s really only one thing you need to do to learn how to be a writer: Write.

Well, two things. You also have to read. But that’s it. Classes, good English teachers, workshops, writers’ groups, MFA programs — all those things can be useful for some writers. But none of them are required.

I suspect that’s why so many people — especially parents — tell would-be writers to train for a day job and write on the side. That might be good advice for some writers, but it’s not what everyone should do. Still, if there’s no required degree, no specific training program, how can writing be a career?

It’s not just frightening for parents, who fear their child will never leave home and/or will end up living on the streets; it’s frightening for writers. There are no benchmarks, no certificates, no graduation ceremonies involved in just sitting down and writing every day. That’s why there are so many MFA programs in creative writing, why so many continuing ed programs offer classes, and why the best way to make a living as a writer is to produce books on how to write. These things won’t mollify worried parents, but they do make writers — and not just beginning writers — feel like they’re doing something.

Not that most writers aren’t writing regularly. People come to a writing career because they just can’t help but write. But it’s hard to take that writing seriously when it doesn’t fit into the standard model of a career path.

Which is why I wish I’d read Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing when I was in college and thinking about what to do with my life. Unfortunately, it wasn’t published yet. He wrote the essays over a 30-year period, but they were only collected in 1991. I didn’t get around to reading it until last year.

Bradbury learned to write by cranking out a story a week. He wrote every day. That’s how it’s done.

This ties in with the work psychologist K. Anders Erickson has done on deliberate practice. Erickson is the researcher behind the concept that it takes 10,000 hours of effective work in a field to become very good at it, an idea popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers.

There is a key point here: you don’t just need to do 10,000 hours of writing. You need to learn from what you produce so that your work gets better as you go along. Some of that you learning by reading a lot. Some of it you learn by revising and by learning to read your own work critically.

And some of that you can learn by reading books on how to write, by taking classes and workshops, or even by pursuing an MFA. But none of those things will do you any good if you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing and learning how to both take and reject advice.

Writing programs are tools. They can be very useful. Clarion West was very good for me and so were some classes I took at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. They helped me connect up with other writers and to take my work seriously.

But programs don’t make you a writer. An MFA doesn’t make you a writer. Even publication doesn’t make you a writer (there are plenty of ghost-written books out there).

What makes you a writer is sitting down and writing.



Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me, Part 3: Learning to Be a Writer — 9 Comments

  1. I forgot to mention that one of the infuriating aspects of being a writer is that it’s hard to figure out when you can actually claim the title. In every other field, you get the title when you get the job or you get the certification, but there is no core job and not a single certificate on the planet that makes one a writer. You can be a writer long before you get paid for your writing. You can be paid for your expertise as a writer (as in being paid to teach writing) while still not being a writer because you don’t actually apply butt to seat and write.

    I remember arriving at Clarion with the burning desire to BE a writer. What I didn’t realize until many, many years later was that I was a writer even before I attended a single workshop because I wrote. Silly me.

  2. Merely getting a day job does not suffice. You must carefully select a job that leaves you the time and energy to continue to write.

    In particular, while writing related jobs — English professor, creative writing teacher, editor, translator — are not guaranteed to be a problem, they are, on the whole, dangerous.

    • Writing-related jobs are a mixed bag. I learned a great deal about how to write from years as a journalist, but I found it hard to come home and write after spending the day figuring out how to say something well. It was easier when I did more editing than original writing, though.

      For me, high-stress jobs were the worst, though. I find it hard to sit down and write when I’m worried about something and during the years when I practice law and ran a nonprofit law firm, I was always worrying.

      • One of those things a writer’s got to figure out his own strengths and weaknesses.

        Gene Wolfe managed to combine journalism and fiction writing — he worked for a magazine about manufacturing plants — but he’s the only writer I’ve heard of that really could do that for an entire career.

        • During the years when my primary job was editing, I found it easier to write. When I moved to Austin to work as a correspondent and had to crank out stories on everything from tax to health care to environmental regulation every day, I found it harder even though I was working from home and didn’t have the commute. I think it was because I worked on so many different things that the work was not routine and because writing a news story, like writing fiction, requires you to spend a lot of time figuring out the best way to say something.

          So in my experience, journalistic editing was a useful complement to fiction writing, but reporter work was not.

  3. All people who work in the creative arts have this issue. The number of part-time tap dancers, musical theater sopranos, poets, ballerinas or intaglio engravers is very large. None of these jobs are the sort that usually pays a living wage; the vast majority of these artists have to have a day job.
    The other possible solution is to marry well. If your spouse has the job that has the full health benefits, the pension and 401K, and the big paycheck, then there’s a lot less financial stress. I will say that I know of no people like this, but surely there must be some.

  4. No matter whichever the career is every career stars with writing as we know while pursuing some career we need to write a lot during our education and sometime people get so much attached with writing that it becomes a priority over their main stream in that way a writer comes to existence who never require any certification or specialization to prove their writing ability because it comes naturally and any thing natural is most of the time is acceptable i this world.

  5. My parents told me the same thing, and at one point suggested a writing job. To them, all writing was the same. Except I wanted to write fiction, and all writing wasn’t the same. I tried screenwriting, journalism, and technical writing. Managed to burn myself out on screenwriting, and the other two were seriously unchallenging.

    I tried most of my “training” through craft books, and later some of the classes online. I only recently learned that a lot of these people had very different goals than I did. I want to write full time, but most of those other resources are simply to get a writer published once. Right from the start, I always felt like something was wrong with the advice they were offering, that something was off, and I later discovered that most of these resources either spoke to rank beginners or talked about their process. Whereas the area I needed was techniques that I could adapt to my process — few even address that. I remember reading David Gerrold’s wonderful writing book and thinking how it spoke to me. I was surprised at the negative reaction other writers had to it, because it didn’t give them step by step instructions! Too many people are looking for the easy way, and unfortunately, that’s largely what’s being taught.