You’re Not a Wizard, Harry: Demystifying Writing

[published by Kamena Magazine, 20/01/19]

The division between STEM and Art is often explained by something inherent, something natural, not nurtured. That some people have logical brains that can compute large amounts of data, and some people have artistic brains that output illogical, beautiful creations into the world. Some people are right-handed, some left; some people are scientists, some are artists. That it has nothing to do with want and everything to do with natural talent.

This idea is poisonous, not least in the fact that it grossly oversimplifies the human experience, but also in that it’s so wrong it stops us thriving in our chosen careers. Engineers will tell you that science is actually a highly creative pursuit: that you look at a problem, understand it, but then have to find a creative way of solving it; that no matter how many examples you learn, you’ll always be faced with something new and will have to be creative. People will tell you that science is actually an art, but are less keen to tell you that art is actually a science. That there are methods, skills that you learn and that build upon one another, that it’s something that you can practice and improve upon and that it’s not just something you either can or can’t do.

The idea of writing being scientific is one that is deliberately downplayed because it ruins the air of mystery around the process. If art is inherent, is something we’re born with, then anyone who can do it is immediately the “Chosen One” of their own narrative. They’re “different”, removed from the common rabble not just by a skill but by something unintelligible, something that you could never truly teach and is therefore limited in supply. We want to be special, and if everyone understands what we do, well, how special are we really?

One thing that can’t be taught is passion for art, the drive to create. But so many times you’ll meet people who have that drive, who desperately want to be able to write, but believe they can’t, because when they do, what they write is terrible. The harrowing truth that we hate to admit to these people is that everyone’s terrible at the start. We’ve all written pages and pages of work that we’ve immediately deleted. That we’ve read over afterwards and thought, “Christ, that’s a bit shit isn’t it”, and purged every copy from existence.

But the truly cancerous part of “inherent talent” isn’t the fact that it stops people from getting off the start line: it’s that it weighs you down every step of the way. We don’t let ourselves write bad writing. Every time you write something rubbish, it adds to the crushing weight of your Imposter Syndrome, because everyone else is finding this easy, and you’re not, so it must be you, you’re a fraud, you don’t belong here, you’re only just keeping your head above the water. But then, so is everyone. If you’ve never once looked at your work and cringed at how bad it was, not only are you in the minority, you’re also probably incapable of editing your own work and should be more concerned than those of us who worry every day.

To become a writer, you have to write. Write through those terrible first drafts. Re-read them, learn from them. Don’t delete them, keep them as a reminder of how far you’ve come. Let yourself be bad, because it’s only through being bad that you can improve. To become a good writer, you have to write, rewrite, and then repeat.

Rewriting is the true magic of the writing process. Because at the end of the day, no matter how long you’ve been writing, you’ll continue to write badly. There’ll be mistakes in everything you do, and that’s not a sign that you’re doing something wrong – it’s the opposite. You have mistakes because you can see the mistakes. You can see the mistakes, you can fix the mistakes.

One of my favourite short story writers is Raymond Carver. His work is beautifully sparse, void of useless flowery bits, but full of fantastic character. It’s something I could never write – but then again, Carver himself couldn’t write Carver. His editor, Gordon Lish, is to a large degree responsible for the aspects of Carver’s writings that we so love. “Raymond Carver” is the combination of two artists working at the highest level: the writer, Carver, and the rewriter, Lish.

We may not all have a Gordon Lish, and we shouldn’t rely on others to fix our writing. Instead, writers should aspire to be both great writers and great editors. Take your trash, put it into a drawer for a few months to fester, then pull it out and bash it into shape. Get a friend to re-read it and point out the typos, the sentences that trip them up, that just don’t feel right. Keep pushing your work until you’re happy with it, and if you’re never happy, just look back at how it started. See how far you’ve come, and then push it further.

Writing is a process. We learn the skills necessary for writing through reading, through practicing our craft and fixing it. There is no such thing as a “bad writer”, just one who hasn’t practiced enough, who dozed off in class and still thinks they can ace the exam; there is no such thing as a “naturally good writer”, just someone who kept writing, who kept tinkering, who may not even realise how much work they’ve put into their craft because it never felt like work.

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