Introduction: The Late Starter
Writers come about through a special kind of existential curiosity, relying less on the education system and more an ability to learn deeply from experience. If you excelled at writing in school it was probably down to your genetics and home environment, not your teacher or the amount of homework you did (but it all helps). The education system is equipped to help average writers become decent writers, which in itself is a bigger step than it sounds. Thinking in slightly more aggressive terms though: What measures would someone need to take to transform themselves into a good writer—the 1 in 20 student skilled enough to write a not-completely-shit, publishable book?
In his writing memoire On Writing, Stephen King explains:
While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.
There are examples of good writers becoming great ones out there (David Foster Wallace miraculously leaped from student fiction in high school to Pynchon-class postmodernism in college), but King’s point is that it’s so rare as to be a futile pursuit. And I daresay, perhaps one made on the back of an attempt of his own. Those who have made it have usually had genius-level intellects. For the rest of us, the merely mortal, I think the focus is better placed on open-ended capability; the capacity to express thought with flow and energy and sophistication on any topic the writer cares about. A complicated fiction or an essay on macro economics. If a person has plenty to write about and can captivate the reader in doing so, they are providing the same basic utility as that of any published author.
And what is a writer’s utility, exactly?
She engages minds, breathing life into the thoughts of an audience with crafted and communicated thinking. A favourite quote of mine from On Writing, “Writing is refined thinking. If your masters thesis is no more organised than a high school essay titled ‘Why Shania Twain Turns Me On,’ you’re in big trouble.”
Writers artfully harness the common lexicon to galvanise the human being hidden deep within the reader. They energise the sloth of the unchecked mind, and allow the reader to navigate their own world with a wider and deeper appreciation of themselves and everything that happens around them. Writers provide an escape that can serve to elucidate that which their readers are escaping from. They have true and lasting, human value.
The task of ‘becoming a writer’ is a much bolder proposition than becoming a better one. It assumes that a meaningful writing standard can be developed from a low base and with a late start (as long as there’s a degree of untapped or unpolished talent within the person). The road of any major personal growth is picketed with disciplined practice and influence and sacrifice, and just the same as it is with any pursuit, the process of becoming a writer can be made systematic and purposefully orientated—so long as there’s a burning and resilient passion at the centre.
On music. An often unmentioned benefit of having a musical background, especially one rooted in classical or jazz, is that a person gains a clear vision of how they can radically improve their ability at anything they choose to. Within weeks of focused practice a piano player can feel their fingers start to glide across keys with greater speed and precision, improvements they can clearly see without detecting any change to the directive being sent from their mind. Just that the keyboard seems gradually bigger, their fingers a little slower—it all seems clearer, somehow. Everyone experiences this with any skill picked-up in life, but with a technical/creative pursuit like music, the attention to improvement is tiered and detailed and ongoing in faculties of the creative, emotional and technical. You’re always trying to get better, and for the most part, you are. The body then takes on a transient form that can be manipulated in any direction for the better. You realise you can get seriously awesome at anything if you try hard enough.
The neurology behind skill improvement has been popularised by the psychiatrist Dr. Norman Doidge in his bestseller The Brain That Changes Itself, a memoire on a new cognitive science called neuroplasticity that depicts dozens of neuroplastic (brain-changing) improvement anecdotes highlighting its broad potential. For example, rewiring the brain to successfully counter stroke-paralysis, or the effect of pornography on real life sex drive (it isn’t good), or the guy who became so fast with arithmetic he’s literally called ‘The Human Calculator’ (he can process basic calculator functions faster than students can do them on an actual calculator).
Neuroplasticity is the process of rewiring neural pathways from the brain that facilitate habitual behavioural responses to stimulations of any kind, that gradually become embedded through repetition with an actual physical change in the brain (albeit a very very small one). Neural pathways and connecting synapses underlie every habit that we learn, and can change shape over time. But it’s hard work. The brain matures as it gets older, causing it to lose some of its pliability, and lasting changes can become more challenging to make. They’re by no means impossible, but over time they can require greater perseverance and dedication than if a person had started younger.
A late-blooming writer who has successfully transformed from merely functional to confidently capable finds themselves buoyed by a big advantage. Perhaps the full potential of their talent will never be reached, but an attention to the incremental internal changes around writing development (that is to say, the development of their thinking), endows them with a unique kind of introspection. They see the potential pliability of the mind as they hadn’t seen it previously. They are able to make themselves smarter.
The first advice given on writing is pretty much always the same (reworded here for emphasis, slightly):
Read Like a Fucking Demon
We all know this one. The greatest ally any writer has is their reading, the more prolific and broadly sourced the better. But if a person isn’t benefited with a conditioned reading habit from childhood, it can be extremely challenging to build one as an adult.
The journalist Malcolm Gladwell makes the case in his book Outliers that it takes about 10,000 hours to master anything and to feel like it really ‘fits’, which coupled with Doidge’s accounts of neuroplasticity seems like a logical scope to be working with for reading (and in turn, writing, but we’ll get to that), especially with regard to late-starters. 10,000 hours equates to roughly 4 hours of reading a day, for 7 years!
That may sound excessive, but the goal is to feel more ‘habitually drawn’ to the activity of reading than to activities like TV watching, frivolous time-wasting and social media: consider how engrained those tendencies become over time, the tendency to distract yourself from boredom in increasingly normal-feeling ways. These tendencies develop organically as we age and can feel like core parts of our person. They are not. We develop habits to simplify the structure of our conscious behaviour—things are easier when they’re automatic, when there’s little effort to an action. Through herculean effort and sustained focus a person can choose their habits manually, learning the feeling and repeating the associated behaviour until they fuse and the repetition happens without a conscious thought.
But is becoming a writer-level reader just about reading more? To modify a quote I read recently: “The average reader may read War and Peace and go away able to write a thousand word summary on an adventure story, but a skilled reader will read Tom Sawyer and extrapolate enough to write War and Peace.”
It’s possible to draw an infinite amount of information out of a text: Information the author never intended to be there; information informing language-use; information about the author themselves; information about matters totally unrelated to the story. Everything in our experience can be deconstructed, philosophically speaking, to an atomic level of understanding, and language is one facet where this deconstruction can serve as a key skill.
For example, take a look at this very simple sentence from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea:
He was happy feeling the gentle pulling and then he felt something hard and unbelievably heavy.
Pretty simple on the surface: A man is holding a fishing line and suddenly hooks something large. But what mode of thought would Hemingway have been in to describe it as he did? There is something distinctly lyrical and romantic to the imagery and within the craft of the language itself; think about the juxtaposition of ‘happy feeling the gentle pulling’ — how smoothly corrugating does it read and sound? And then the contrast to ‘hard and unbelievably heavy’, a weighted word combination that drops the lyrical arc to end the sentence!
But let’s go further. What is there to the sound of that combination of words? Why does that particular group ordered such a way leave an impression of ‘lyrical and romantic’; and what, exactly, makes up that impression?
“He was happy feeling” harnesses a slightly alliterative effect, the two ‘Hh’ sounds bridged by the verb ‘was’. A less sophisticated approach might be: “He felt happy pulling the line”. But knowing the line was also gently tugging back it either becomes complicated by needing additional groups, or falls short in its portrayal by not including the term. Hemingway uses passive sounding verbs that emphasise the musicality of the nouns and adjectives; contrast ‘was’ to ‘felt’, ‘felt’ to ‘feeling’ – the ‘t’ sound stops the lyrical energy flow somehow, whereas the ‘ing’ of ‘feeling’ propels it.
But that still feels a bit confused, and incomplete—I’m still missing something. Let’s look at it again:
“He was happy feeling the gentle pulling and then he felt something hard and unbelievably heavy.”
From a slightly higher perspective, concept-wise, it appears the romantic impression noticed at the outset could be formed through a confluence of word-sound, emotional tone and specific emotional meaning, with the sentence divided into three parts:
He was happy feeling the gentle pulling and then he felt something hard and unbelievably heavy.
(Click here to view formatting if you’re reading on the WordPress reader)
The green literally reads ‘happily and gently’, the orange forms an emotionally-neutral, uncertainty-framed bridge, the red reads, appropriately, as a shock to the body, and can be broken down further: HARD and unbelievably heavy.
And I think that’s the magic. I feel as happy as the fisherman does when he feels the gentle pulling, and I’m as reactive when I feel that gentleness change. The masterstroke of the sentence, however, is that I feel the impact of the bite, and the total emotional change of the situation within a moment.
That seems to make sense. I wasn’t thinking about it that deeply in the beginning, but it fits the feeling-response and explains the impression it gave on a first reading. Which is interesting, don’t you think? Could it be possible that a part of our subconscious response to art is to the meta-fusion of different senses? Here Hemingway has combined the music of language with the emotion it underlies, to make the overall reading experience inexplicably pleasurable. Consciously or unconsciously executed, the apparent effortlessness with which these things are achieved represents an extraordinary mastery of the craft.
It makes sense that a sophisticated targeting of multiple senses through art would invite a high novelty value (in this case, sound with emotion), something supported by the fact it denotes a high degree of human talent. As a species, apex talents guide our culture and become accordingly known as ‘talents of great influence’—am I subconsciously appreciating and encouraging a literary accomplishment like Hemingway’s by feeling it as ‘pleasurable’, then subdividing and articulating it as ‘lyrical and romantic’? And if so, has this response-system evolved as a mechanism to drive our culture forward, one little encouragement of an art-form at a time? And does the same sense fusion-to-romanticism-effect equally apply to other types of emotional impressions and other forms of art?
It’s not necessary to go to this extreme (a couple of paragraphs would have been enough to demonstrate the point), but that was just one sentence. Imagine how far you could go with Joyce’s Ulysses or Dante’s The Divine Comedy. And all of this is still deceptively narrow: What about the linguistics of Noam Chomsky, or the language/logic-centric philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein?
Like anything—literally, anything—rabbit-holes of understanding open up in exactly any place you decide to look hard enough. It’s most visible in math and science—who would have fathomed quantum theory 200 years ago—but it’s just as possible in language and philosophy.
On sources. The more broadly-influenced a writer, the better. A narrow line of influence risks coming through in anyone’s writing, making it difficult to find a distinctive and original voice. Reading should be unlimited: Classic literature, Russian literature, teen-fiction, fantasy and sci-fi, generation X minimalism, complex postmodernism, song lyrics, poetry, film reviews, magazine articles, top-level essays, blogs, art critiques, philosophical speculation, opinion pieces, biographies, cultural commentaries, even scientific non-fiction.
Some of the most evocative language comes from postmodernism and modern poetry (Thomas Pynchon, Mary Carr) and at least to my eye, those are the two areas most ripe for language study. Postmodernists like Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo and Wallace are widely regarded as geniuses of language, to mean they have so much intellectual surplus beyond a basic story that their novels become overwhelmed: Stories within stories; word-plays within word-plays; extreme changes in style; parallels to the Joycean; homages to the Dickensian; an endless supply of erudite examinations on anything from quantum mechanics to 9/11 to tennis court heating systems. They have a demanding relationship with the reader that if submitted to completely, is a force for writing development unto itself. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is equal parts entertainment, philosophy and mental exercise: A book that actively sets out to make the reader smarter, and for the compatible mind, often succeeds.
Thoughtfully consuming a variety of language on a daily and prolonged basis is the foundation of any original-sounding, professional-level writer. I think the minimum should be at least a few hours a day, especially for the first few years of progress. Unless reading feels like a deep-seated and habitual thing and there’s a strong ‘literary groove’, the main ingredient to becoming a writer is to read more, but with a close attention. Reading extreme quantities of language, thinking like a writer. The more obsessively and autistically the better. All day every day, if possible. The more the brain is exposed to the cognitive state of absorbed reading, the more programmed it becomes to the flow of language itself. Seamlessly fusing thoughts to words and syntax with increasingly controllable precision—the reason why writing feels easier after a few hours of reading.
Become a Writer-Monk
An aspiring writer is a religious person. They have churches and god-authors and bible-guides and a small but emphatic community of readers and co-writers around them magnifying their resolve. They believe in something deeper than a past-life driven by desires on the surface, and will happily let go of regularity for the sake of their craft.
The goal is tunnel vision. The feeling of being locked into a zone of focus impervious to outside distractions; the total crystallisation of one’s temporal-bandwidth.
Writers are observers sitting in the margins and corners of things, examining and figuring out how everything fits together. Being a writer-monk doesn’t mean being locked in a room 24/7, though, it means living a life through the lens of someone interested in writing it all down. Rooms and places and people all take on a new, heightened apparentness: How to describe this setting I’m in right now, the pattern on that fabric? A good writer has a special mindfulness of the moment. They belong to a silent society of curious explorers, drawing deeply from experiences usually taken for granted.
Think of Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, one of the most influential comedic writers in television history. Think Curb Your Enthusiasm. His whole preoccupation is with the comedy of the banal; situations most people wouldn’t remotely consider having any entertainment value. Haircuts, restaurant visits, microscopic mishaps of communication; the shared but unspoken drama of the ordinary. Think about the level of mindfulness David must hold in common situations, like having someone pushing in line at a bank. He has to be aware of his own emotions while also placing the experience in a social context: Is my reaction sympathetic to the collective feeling of the population? Is it common and unspoken enough to be dramatically relevant? Is it even funny?
A serious late starting writer needs to take things even further though. They may need to become an actual monk, for a time. Such a measure may seem insane, but this is the level of dedication I think is needed for anyone serious:
- Unplug completely from smartphones and the internet, limiting access to emails, studying, language resources and writing projects. No facebook, not even a page limited to the 25 people you’re actually friends with. No social media at all. Communication between humans is perfectly possible without the facilitation of a decade-young invention. Things don’t need to be limited to the phone, either: Writing a handwritten letter to someone can have an endearing novelty and infinitely greater value than clicking the like button of a status update. Especially for friends and family living away from us. Communication can be used as a way to sustain your developing use of language; many of the greats have actually been known for their letter-writing (the most curious example being James Joyce)
- Quit your day job. Perhaps the hardest sacrifice of all, let alone if you have a family to support or a mortgage to maintain. We become deeply accustomed to standards and comforts made available by a decent income. But they have to go. It’s a Million Dollar Baby transformation being made, the rebirth of a whole self into a new, more complete and considered whole. A manifest bending of the brain away from the corrupt habits of frenetic distraction to the purer habits of reading and writing thoughtfully; being more sincere about yourself from the ground-up. To achieve these things in adulthood presents a challenge big enough to require significant life sacrifice. And besides, living a modest and frugal existence can be all kinds of awesome. A single bedroom cottage, with no internet access, outside a small but vegetation-rich country town. A casual job at a local cafe to pay the rent. Most appreciate the idealism of a scene like that, few would ever be able to tolerate it longer than a weekend. Fewer still would forego a 6 figure salary for it. But a writer becomes immersed in the world, gaining the sensibility of a community too archaic and non-clickable for a modern generation to pay close attention to. This is just one example. Another: Don DeLillo moved alone into a tiny Manhattan apartment and ate like a bird for several years, never seen by anyone save for a small group of people. From that vantage point he absorbed the culture of the entire city, and by extension, the whole of America, which he eventually shared with staggering effect. He became a writer there.
- Build self control. A writer benefits greatly from being a self-managing lifestyle coach; someone able to master themselves and lessen the acuity of impulse, to sustain an engagement with a sense of purpose at all times. A mindfulness meditator, a regular bushwalker or cyclist or nature photographer: A writer has to figure out what mindfulness practices they need to engage with to be in absolute control of themselves. The most direct tool available to us in this regard, by far, is the technique of mindfulness meditation. The more of it the better, but just 20 minutes each morning and evening is enough to feel significantly more centred and emotionally balanced. Meditation demands its own post, but with respect to self-managed writer development, I think it should be a must for many people. This article goes through some of its many evidence-based benefits.
Systematise Skill Progression
While it may be true that gifted writers learn language skills organically and with relative ease, the notion of high-class writing being a magically meandering endeavour, I think, is a fallacious one. Within the broader requirements of intelligence and creativity exists countless developable skills, technical skills that if mastered can serve to provide untold freedom of expression. Take a look at this now-famous passage from Gary Provost’s 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing (which I haven’t read yet myself, but based on this example, definitely will soon):
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
Aside from being a brilliant lesson in sentence rhythm the passage demonstrates how writing analysis can itself hold literary merit; the beauty of the language is totally self-contained and unaffected by the meaning.
Objectifying and analysing the craft is simply understanding it better. The equivalent of a violinist practicing technical two-octave scales as a basis to performing otherwise-impossible pieces of music, or learning Galamian and Sibelius to play Paganini. It’s the ‘hard slog’ of growing an ability at anything. There’s no magic lost.
These types of exercises seem to work well:
English study. Write a daily list of every word that isn’t fully understood from the previous days readings. Study their meaning and root epistemology and tangential tidbits, and apply to an imagined sentence at least once for each possible meaning. This embeds it within a context while providing an understanding strong enough to be orally explained. Burn through an entire grammar curriculum, study everything about the mechanical framework of language. Learn every rule and guideline available to be learnt.
Language painting. A pen as a brush, a notepad as a canvas, grammar and syntax as an outline, the lexicon is a colour palette. Consider yourself a painter with a literary medium, and behave exactly as a practicing painter would. Go to different locations of any kind, sit within them, and describe the scene on paper. Transport an audience to that exact moment in time and space. The weather, the nuance, the people. Build a telepathic time machine through word-smithery.
Reverse adaptation. Listen to recordings of natural conversations between people and write them down as a dialogue. Watch a short clip of a movie and describe it on paper, with the focus being to provide exactly the same tone of emotion. Describe the perspective according to the angle of the camera. Try describing broken speech, accented speech, colloquial speech; dialogue in a novel is by no means natural, but the exercise develops an ability to mimic through description, making it easier to imagine characters of significant difference to yourself.
An essay a day. Set a daily SAT essay-component; pick a topic you haven’t considered before and write a structured essay within 25 minutes. On anything: Literature, film, art, politics, culture, philosophy, economics or science. Writing under pressure activates parts of the brain devoted to stress-management and decision making, which conflict directly with creativity. If you can develop an ability to think clearly in these situations it can reduce fragmentation in the thinking process, with thinking from A to B happening in a more linear, ‘straight line’. Writers are notorious for being perfectionists and the tendency to double-back risks worsening without a counterweight. A regular exercise like this one is essential.
Go to university. While a creative writing course may be unequipped to build a writer from the ground up, an aspiring writer can benefit greatly from the shared learning environment. Professors are generally authors themselves, and the sense of community nicely houses any anxieties around focus. Courses help develop critical thinking and provide an excellent forum for critical feedback, which would otherwise be exclusive to biased friends and family.
Build a routine, but do so knowing it will never be complete. A routine conducive to creativity is much more structural than schedule—it’s a measure to navigate, not control. Rather than organising a day around specific time-slots, set a goal to complete an activity thoroughly before moving onto the next. This maximises the amount of retention and means you’ll feel more satisfied than had you switched prematurely. Something like this, for example:
- Read the news
- Vocabulary: Study 10 new words
- Grammar: Study postpositive adjectives
- Syntax practice
- Read 1 culture essay
- Read 1 short story
- Write for four hours
- Research history of Samurai Swords
- Write a journal entry
- Keep reading Moby Dick
Go through intense loss, love, lust, heartbreak, failure, debt, depression, anxiety, addiction, psychosis and torturous mind-altering suffering, and get over it.
Writing is one of the few vocations linked to issues of anxiety and depression, and for good reason. Overcoming and outmanoeuvring serious psychological ailments involves a mind-bending degree of introspection, leading a person to understand the psyche in ways they never would have otherwise. This can then become an outward trait, leading to higher abilities of discernment—how to get inside other people’s heads, and how to make them feel a certain feeling; perfect traits for a writer! It’s a major emotional intelligence with a deep awareness of thought-mechanics and the fragmentation of the mind.
A person doesn’t need to suffer to become a good writer, but those that do tend to have a more interesting perspective. Conflict builds character like few other things can. If a person overcomes an intense psychological issue they gain a heightened sensibility, seeing that those unaffected exist in a much safer, singular dimension of existence—the reason people hardwired to schedules tend to be less creative, and the reason most of us find it so difficult to see perspectives other than our own. Substance abuse can do a lot for perspective, but it does so selfishly. It’s a massage to an ego subunit, more useful for satire and surrealism than understanding the human condition or the way the universe works, things that require empathy and existential selflessness. Intense drug addiction withdrawal, however, sits in a category reserved to a special kind of education.
This point should be especially noted by anyone who has experienced any of those things. Going through a prolonged period of hell can become of real value to other people, allowing you to help others avoid the same experience and to better appreciate their own. It builds a compassionate and realistic value system on life. Not entirely necessary, but beneficial beyond measure.
If you’re an aspiring fiction writer looking for a wide audience, however, enduring some kind of ordeal may be essential. Engaging fiction is built on conflict, and the best fiction comes from first-hand experience. The reason being, readers are searching for depth of believability; the sense they are reading something real enough to suspend their disbelief, with details and inferences to match. It might be easy to imagine the operations of a crew onboard a Navy vessel, but describing it to a level that would captivate a reader is another matter entirely.
If the most an aspiring writer has ever been through in life is heartbreak they’ll most likely write an okay Nicholas Sparks novel; if they’ve only ever lived for themselves, they’ll probably write something as meaningful as Eat Prey Love.
Write to Save Your Life
Reading in greater amounts may improve thought-to-language fusion, but writing practice scaffolds growing style-complexities and builds the mental structure necessary to try more complicated description. It’s ultimately the one activity a writer needs to do the most. And, like reading, it isn’t just a matter of quantity. It’s about improving a cognitive ability.
On thinking. The relationship between writing and thinking is perceptively similar to the relationship between mathematics and logic: They arise from a similar place, and one is symbolic of the other. But the alignment is far from perfect. Linguist and professor of cognitive science at Harvard, Steven Pinker, explains:
When the serial killer Ted Bundy wins a stay of execution and the headline reads “Bundy Beats Date with Chair,” we do a double-take because our mind assigns two meanings to the string of words. If one string of words in English can correspond to two meanings in the mind, meanings in the mind cannot be strings of words in English.
Language evolves through incremental changes guided by economics, trend and culture, and as Pinker demonstrates, it diverges from raw thinking enough to cause some major confusion. Everyone has an internal dialogue of far greater complexity than indicated by their speech, and things go even deeper beneath the surface. Ever felt unable to describe a feeling, when, internally, you implicitly knew exactly what it was? Or have you ever had the experience of hearing someone articulate a private thought with eloquence, and immediately related to them like they had uncovered a secret you’d never told anyone?
Someone good with language, whether written or verbal, is simply someone with a better ability to match the right word and syntax to a felt meaning. What a person actually writes about is more a choice influenced by personality and intelligence and creativity. The difference between being good at writing and being a good writer, basically.
Developing vocabulary and grammar improves the link between externally received word-sounds and an internally felt meaning: Finding a perfect glass slipper for the ten thousand feet in your brain, then teaching them all how to dance. It helps free a focus on craft and emotion and provides a platform for greater complexities to emerge.
Words may not be an exact representation of thought but they hold an important key to unlocking it. As vocabulary grows and embeds within a spoken lexicon, specific meanings in the mind are given more cognitive attention: If you’re able to express a feeling precisely, awareness of that feeling begins to grow. Without a precise description an expression becomes lost within an umbrella term (think ‘nostalgic‘ versus ‘sad‘) and potentially becomes cognitively repressed—a blunting of your ability to match words to thoughts.
At the other end of the spectrum, a writer increases their ability to think about things clearly. And it’s not just about choosing the right word: Grammar confidence allows the emergence of spontaneous-sounding syntax. Thoughts aren’t represented by words alone; they’re represented by groups of words together, with further representation again coming in the form of arrangement and style. This, I believe, is what reading advocates mean when they say, “Reading makes you smarter”.
Expanding language ability enables the mind to consider concepts it would otherwise struggle with. Which makes sense, when you think about it: Matching the correct word-group to thoughts of a complex nature allows you to express those thoughts with other people, enabling an external engagement with meaning that would otherwise be left within a personal context. A greater comprehension develops through challenge and discussion, leading to the potential creation of an entirely new thought process. Which, prolonged enough, can bring about a real and lasting neuroplastic change.
The internal experience is one of increased clarity. With more verbal tools at your disposal, figuring out how things work becomes a lot easier. Some people are strictly mathematical in this regard, but for most of us an increase in language precision leads to an increase in thinking potential. But it requires actually working with those tools. Pushing through barricade after barricade of intellectual laziness; learning something new from every relevant detail in your experience and being creative with your understanding. Imagination isn’t just a tool for making shit up; it’s more functional in adulthood as a tool for empathy, understanding, interpretation and any kind of improvement.
On intelligence. Ever picked up a friend’s thesis or a complicated textbook, and thought it made absolutely zero sense? Terms that were foreign, concepts that seemed too abstract and complicated and totally unrelatable, like you were looking at some kind of alien language written with English letters? Imagine you had studied for a few days and understood the exact meaning of each and every obscurity, right down to the Latin. What would become immediately obvious, is that your ability to understand the text is really held back by your lack of understanding of the base concepts being considered—like not knowing what existentialism is before picking up a text on ‘qualia‘—that are actually well within your intellectual grasp, it’s just you haven’t learnt them yet. There’s undoubtedly a hierarchy of complexity available to us above that scenario, such as there is in the realm of pure mathematics, but the point is that the initial impression of intimidation is no more than an illusion born from a false wall of perceived difficulty. It’s possible to become smarter about anything you’re interested in. The influential art-teacher and second-coming-of-Christ candidate Bob Ross once said:
“Talent is a pursued interest. Anything that you’re willing to practice, you can do.”
Building a greater language ability not only develops writing, it platforms a pursuit into anything intellectual, important or interesting, allowing an understanding of things without the limitation of stifled expression.
It may be necessary to alternate between reading and writing until a decent momentum has been established; if my experience is anything to go by, plenty of brick walls face anyone at the beginning. Writer’s block is often a matter of over-thinking, and reading redirects focus to a broader and looser grip, making it possible to glide on language more easily. Reading intermittently throughout the day helps maintain a zone of writing focus.
That being said, having a warrior-mindset around blockages is also important. If you react to a mental block with frustration and impulsively quit without challenging it, it develops a habit pattern of escapism, making you far more likely to procrastinate in future. It’s about disciplining the unbridled Lipizzaner in your head: Pushing through boundaries of frustration over and over and over until your mind sustains itself without any effort. It’s important to find a balance between the two.
On variety. Evidence has been circulating in the past few months supporting a new approach to learning, where it is noted that frequently alternating methods maximises stimulation in the brain, leading to significantly greater levels of embedment from practice. Mix things up, in other words. Writing gives us plenty of options to work with: Poetry, film reviews, essays, first person fiction, third person fiction, etc. And more than just trying different formats, actually thinking differently as each style of writing is attempted. If changing styles seems difficult, it can be helpful to read examples from other people beforehand.
So how much should a writer practice, or work on their writing each day? Keeping in mind the challenge of the change, I think at least 2,000 words a day; however long it takes. When working on a novel, Jonathan Franzen sets a daily goal of 1,000, and he’s usually done by lunchtime. But consider Franzen’s background: A highly introverted child who read for several hours a day—for over a decade—before he wrote anything, who then practiced and practiced for several more decades before becoming the Oprah-feuding success he is today. And he’s exceptionally gifted; it would be insane to aim for his level of quality. But, it’s more than reasonable to think that if you work twice as hard and keep an unfamiliar patience, you’ll at least become capable enough to lose yourself in your writing, feeling a freedom to describe and examine experience in ways you didn’t realise was possible. A genuine and sustained engagement with the craft that leads to success, without success being a goal.
Which is important. Becoming a writer is about becoming a writer. It’s not about emulating the idea of becoming one, or gaining fame, or getting an ego-kick from something novelty-seeking. It’s a hard slog punctuated by intense psychological challenge; a journey vast enough to distort any hope in the destination. A conviction must be made right down to the bone marrow; a complete immersion into a world of words while pushing a boulder up a never-ending mountain—just like your life depends on it.
An interesting point-of-view, some imagination, some passion for language is all it takes. The challenges and obstacles involved quickly become secondary; passion, when it’s deep and genuine, is like a tsunami over any road block in our way. Think Zootopia.
But the real question is, do you have any potential?
The reality, as far as I can tell, is that it really doesn’t matter. Taking the measures mentioned here would mean an entire lifestyle change; for you to even consider them you would have to be either batshit crazy or have a pretty good gut-feeling about yourself. And let’s say it’s the latter: Perhaps you were singled out as a writer in primary school but never kept it up? Perhaps you have written a movie review here and there and found it surprisingly fun and natural? Perhaps you were a reader once, and know you still are, only you have an Internet habit that’s overridden it? Maybe you feel like you’re sitting on an inactive, eruptive volcano?
Once the creative mind is given free rein you might be amazed what happens. But one question that should be answered, I think, is whether you can feel stories within you. Maybe you’re more of a journalistic writer or an essayist, or better suited to creative non-fiction. There’s no way of knowing until you try, and do so for way longer than seems reasonable.
Fiction readership might be on the decline, but I’ve never been surer about anything than I am about the potential of reading. It may become increasingly marginalised but the fact it holds such a unique and universal utility in our lives—a tool for thoughtful and creative thinking—means it will always have its champions, and a place. And not to mention, there’s still a reservoir of untapped potential in combining art-media: evocative literature-quality prose have a spot in the social media sphere, but it might take a while for the novelty of the medium to settle enough for less sensationalism to take place. The same as it is for most authentic pursuits.
Novels may be shelved alongside cassette tapes and vinyl in the end (or they may not, who knows), but the value of writing is amophorous to format. We are as bound to language as we are to water, and in spite of a deviating reading interest in our culture, we will always need the voice of good writers. Now more than ever.