How to Know if You’re a Writer

My favorite quotation about writing is by the German novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955):

“A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

If you’re good at something, it should be easier for you, right? But I agree with Thomas Mann. If writing is easy for you, then you’re almost certainly not a writer. (The photo above is Mann at work.)

A few years ago, I chatted with a colleague who was retiring from his administrative position here at the university. In retirement, he planned to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a writer. As soon as we sat down, he said with excitement “I just wrote my first book! And it only took three weeks!” Inside, I groaned. I knew the book would be no good.

This semester, I’m teaching my undergraduate class “The Psychology of Creativity.” Right now we’re studying creative writing. We start by talking about our creativity myth that the author is someone inspired who perseveres and overcomes failure. The myth is that the author has a magical touch. Insights spill out onto the page. But sometimes, authors themselves are guilty of keeping the myth alive. Here’s Edgar Allen Poe:

Most writers, especially poets, want people to think that they compose in a sort of frenzy, in an ecstatic intuition. They really don’t want the public to know how they really write. They keep hidden the fully matured fancies, discarded in despair. They hide the cautious selections and rejections. The painful erasures. This is how it really happens, ninety-nine times out of a hundred. (Poe, 1846)

My advice is to carry around a notebook and write snippets of dialogue or brief descriptions of a scene. The best writers use what researchers call a problem-finding style of creativity–the ideas emerge from doing the work. They don’t know what they’re going to write until they start writing. Writers who use this problem-finding style are more creative than writers who start with an idea in advance (Moore, 1985). Creativity researcher Albert Rothenberg, in his study of writers and poets, found the same thing:

Over and over again, my subjects have told me that they seldom knew what a poem was really “saying” until they were well into the writing or until they had actually finished.

To be a writer, just start writing. Don’t wait for an idea. Don’t look for inspiration. Get out your computer and start typing. Take a tiny notebook everywhere. Keep a notebook in the bathroom on the toilet. Keep another one in the kitchen. Spend at least half of your time reading and editing what you’ve already written. Spend another 25 percent of your time skimming your notebook and looking for something that seems promising. You’ll only write new text 25 percent of the time or less. That adds up to a lot of hours, and that’s why writing is hard. There are no shortcuts.

All quotations are from the book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation (second edition)

This blog was originally twice as long. I had several quotations from a New York Times article by Stephen Marche. Marche’s article inspired me to write this blog post. But by the time I was halfway through, I had ended up deleting all references to the blog post. Don’t fall in love with your writing. Let the words go when you don’t need them any more.

2 thoughts on “How to Know if You’re a Writer

  1. Careful re jazz musicians. They know something.

    Actually, the reality of the writing process you outline here is closely analogous to the jazz musician’s journey of practice and search for new forms of creativity. So, when actually playing in a public concert, most musicians may be improvising in the moment but there is much ‘woodshedding’ required by almost all brilliant jazz artists. Even for Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, to name just 3 of our giants.

  2. Absolutely! Jazz requires practice and there’s a lot of expertise involved. I agree it’s like writing–there’s the same sort of myth that “jazz players are just untrained musicians who have lots of soul and inspiration” and it’s the same sort of contrast with the reality, which is putting in the time to know what you’re doing. There’s a difference between jazz and writing, though–pretty much anyone who’s literate can write _something_ that at least makes sense. But you can’t play jazz, even badly, without a lot of specialized knowledge.

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