One Boring Secret

One Boring Secret

6/12/08

What I am about to reveal to you is the key to becoming a better writer. It has been passed along quietly through millennia, from person to person, and now—for the first time—will be exposed to the world.

Are you ready?

The secret to writing better is:

Write more, and read more.

What? No shock? No skipped heartbeat? Perhaps you were expecting something more climatic. Unfortunately, those five syllables have nothing to hide.

Humankind treats writing as if it were some hallowed passion, a secretive practice whose adherents know something exclusive about the fabric of the universe. What magic did Dickens have inside his head when he introduced the world to David Copperfield, or Dawkins when he exposed the realm of phenotypes? Perhaps the apparent mystery in writing stems from its introverted nature; if it weren’t for the fact that the best writers don’t really seem to talk much, there wouldn’t be this haze of grandeur around the process.

Though I might be a poor candidate to speak about good writing, I would suggest that the development of a successful novelist or poet is nothing more complex than the development of a track star—or a milkman. Nobody comes out of the womb with a Nobel prize in hand, let alone the faintest sense of the English language. The craft demands hours of practice and reading from anyone who seeks to master it. There is no door to hidden success, no password to a Pulitzer.

It might be that, at 17, I just haven’t yet reached the age of Enlightenment. Perhaps a bearded man will greet me upon my 21st birthday, hand me a magic pill and say: “Here, Kenneth. This is the secret to good writing. Ingest it.” When that day comes, I will be sure to expose it to the world; until then, I stick with my current hypothesis.

On one level, this is sobering news. We like to treat writers as separate beings, superhuman creatures empowered with the Gift Of The Keyboard. It isn’t so. Below their skin-deep fame lies an uncanny habit of excessive reading and scribbling, repeated over the years (or decades) (or century) until others feel inclined to read them. The main reason why nobody has exposed this is that “the secret” to writing is far too dull for the mainstream media, let alone Hollywood.

The silver lining to this all but outweighs the negatives, however. When we take away the secrecy, we also remove the exclusivity. Anyone can write. Perhaps I’m waking up a tired cliché, but is it not true? Take out a pen and draw a word—any word—on your arm. See? Composition!

When one laments that they cannot write, more often than not, they claim that their writing is nothing to look at. It’s a self-fulfilling statement. By denying themselves the very ability to structure sentences and lay out a story, they end up spending less and less time at the keyboard. This cuts them off from the very thing that would improve their composition. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the arrogant brats who declare their writing to be an American classic in the making might just get enough writing in to justify their statement.

I take solace in the fact that my dream job is not exclusive—except to those who assume it is. Much of what I write wouldn’t even pass for kindling; much of what I read is distressingly good. Nevertheless, should a chasm exist between my writing and a professional’s, at least I know the mundane way to bridge it.

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