Last night, in my “Creative Writing for Absolute Beginners” class, a participant asked about the art and craft of writing. He wasn’t certain whether he had the talent (art) to be a good writer, but he was in the class to learn the how-tos (craft) of writing. I’m glad he asked that question, because I hear this debate a lot when it comes to creative writing – that the really good writers have a special talent most of us are not born with.

While there is no doubt some people seem to have a real talent for prose or poetry – currently, I am astounded at the way Karen Russell comes up with surprising and delightful metaphors and similes in her debut novel, Swamplandia – still, I lean more towards the notion of the 10,000-Hour Rule Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book Outliers. His basic notion is that to be successful in any field has little or nothing to do with talent; instead, it has to do with practice – whether learning computers, becoming a financier, or crossing the line from a person who dabbles in writing to become a “talented” writer. If you are passionate enough about any endeavor that you are willing to put in 10,000 hours of practice, chances are you’ll get pretty damn good at it.

Here’s how I explain it in some of my classes:

  • Writing is not something mysterious that only a few people can do. Writing the way Shakespeare did might fall into that category, but we can all write well.

  • It is not a hit or miss affair, left to chance. All good writers will tell you they had to work at it. They may take classes or they may read good writing and then emulate it. But the main thing they do is write and rewrite.

  • It doesn’t always flow perfectly, no matter how long you have been writing, but if often gets easier to recognize when you are on the right track.

Perhaps this is not enough to convince you. Perhaps you still believe that there are writers out there who sit down, beckon their muse, and lyrical poetry streams out of them unhindered (I had one poem arrive that way – only one). It’s pretty common knowledge that Hemmingway was known to rewrite some of the endings of his stories dozens and dozens of time. He’s not alone, however, in having to slough his way through writing that doesn’t work to come to those moments of perfection that make all the sweat and tears worth the effort. Here’s what some other well-known writers have about how they work (doesn’t sound like it pours out of them either):*

Nadine Gortimer, noted, “. . . with each book, I go through a long time when I know what I want to do and I’m held back and puzzled and appalled because I don’t know before I begin to write how I’m going to do it, and I always fear that I can’t do it.”

Thomas Sanchez acknowledged, “I used to greet each morning spitting blood in the wash basin, having the night before gnashed the inside of my mouth while dreaming I had misplaced a comma in my writing of that day, throwing off the pattern of speech given to a character who lived two hundred years ago. Years later a dentist asked me if I had a history of mental illness, because the mentally ill often exhibit the advanced molar grindings I did.

Maya Angelou said she writes in the mornings, then after dinner, reads what she wrote that day. “And more often than not, if I’ve done nine pages, I may be able to save two and a half, or three.”

Alice Munro, explained, “I have stacks of notebooks that contain this terribly clumsy writing, which is just getting anything down. I often wonder, when I look at these first drafts, if there was any point in doing this at all. I’m the opposite of a writer with a quick gift, you know, someone who gets it piped in. I don’t grasp it very readily at all, the ‘it’ being whatever I’m trying to do. I often get on the wrong track and have to haul myself back.”

Good writing ain’t for sissies – nor is it only for a chosen few. Start adding up your hours today.

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*Source for quotations – Paris Review and Writers on Writing by Jon Winokur.