It would be lovely if we all instantly understood one another. Wouldn't it? Then we wouldn't feel the need to constantly defend our work and our calling.
Yet, if that were the case, there'd be little need for conversation, as we'd already know everything, like a bunch of all-knowing know-it-alls. And yuck to that.
Everyone everywhere feels misunderstood in some way. Does it help to hear that, to know that one thing we have in common is feeling like others don't quite grasp what we feel most profoundly? Below are the seven myths about writers I find myself correcting on the regular.
What myths have you heard? Let's set them straight.
You're born knowing how to do it.
Ha. You might be born with the urge to tell stories, but you certainly aren't born understanding the mechanics of properly paced storytelling and correct word choices.
My goodness, have you ever heard a 3-year-old tell a story? Mind-numbingly boring, that is.
I simply don't believe you're born a writer, a computer programmer, a bookkeeper, a painter, etc. We're born with talents that guide us to certain occupations and vocations, but we aren't born with all the tools and skills needed. Or else schooling would be a huge racket.
We continue to evolve as we age, learning more about creating characters, fabricating worlds and communicating emotions.
"You're not born knowing how to write. You have to figure it out, and it takes a really long time. It's a hard thing to do and you never figure it out. You have the instinct to do it, but you don’t have the skills. I can't wait to see what I'm writing when I'm in my sixties or seventies, when I've lived more and know how to do all of these things in writing that I don't know how to do yet. There's ongoing growth."
-- Sheila Heti, in The Great Discontent
Writers never make mistakes, know everything about grammar and have perfect handwriting.
I happen to be obsessed with grammar, sentence structure and the like, with strong feelings about the Oxford comma. But in an email today, I spelled the word "paid" like this: payed. Payed! Oh, it's a real past tense; Google defines it as follows:
But it is certainly not the word I meant. Oopsie. Writers love to create and tell stories; I think that's a universal truth. But we don't get every word right (it's why we use editors), and sometimes our handwriting is downright ghastly.
It gets easier the longer you do it.
The longer I'm a writer, the more I understand just how hard it is to write honestly. There's a scene between a father and daughter in the book I'm writing, and I found myself truly tormented at the thought of telling a truth between these two characters, having them be realistically honest with one another. What would it say about my own understanding of the parent-child relationship? What might it reveal? What am I trying to conceal by backpedaling, and what does that say about me as a person?
We confront this in The One-Week Daily Writing Devotional, where we dive deep into who we are as people to learn more about who we are as writers -- and that can be some TOUGH SHIT. Writers question themselves, question others, question their therapists and all around look for answers everywhere to explain their world and create compelling work that connects people. That is not easy.
"It never gets easier. It shouldn't get easier. Word after word, sentence after sentence, we build our writing lives. We hope not to repeat ourselves. We hope to evolve as interpreters and witnesses of the world around us. We feel our way through darkness, pause, consider, breathe in, breathe out, begin again. And again, and again."
-- Dani Shapiro, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
Writing is for people who are lonely.
There's aloneness and then there's loneliness. Aloneness is something you choose, and it's true that writers may choose to write alone. But there's a huge swath of them who create amazing work while on retreats and at residencies, surrounded by people. And not only are they surrounded by people, but these people are the type who will question their work, challenge their ideas and make them defend their vocation.
Good grief, y'all.
The universal offering we carry for rainy days is that they're good for curling up with a book. There's nothing lonely about that picture; it's ideal. It's the picture we present as comfort to ourselves when there's yet another wet day of torrential downpour. We aren't alone with a book in hand, and while writers may need to sit alone somewhere quiet to create, that certainly doesn't mean they're lonely.
"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive."
-- James Baldwin
Writers are siloed, working without coming up for air.
Gosh, I actually can't imagine what a story would be like if it hadn't been influenced by jaunts to a museum, an afternoon walk with a friend, a telling conversation with the produce restocker, an overheard job complaint by a TSA worker -- Everything feeds into our writing. Not allowing the outside world to affect our interior creative work means the words that spill out wouldn't say much at all. Writers have to seek out inspiration.
A debut novel means it's the writer's first book.
All writers have had this super-fun party conversation:
New Acquaintance: What do you do?
Writer: I'm a writer.
New Acquaintance: Oh! Have I ever read anything you've written?
Writer: I don't know. I've published a few non-fiction pieces in local papers and am working on some short stories right now. I'm excited about --
New Acquaintance: Have you ever thought about writing a book?
Writer (deadpan): Yes.
There are many, many book-writing "failures" in each writer's past -- "failure" here meaning only that the book hasn't been published, not that they didn't learn, improve and grow during its composition. It's my feeling that even books whose plots don't work and characters fall flat have something to teach us as an exercise. It isn't all about the publishing.
It's the characters who tell the story.
This is an irksome myth. First, it takes the agency and responsibility away from the writer. What would you say if your story didn't work in the end? It's the characters' fault? Not much of an excuse.
Now, what I will say is that when I'm working every day on the same project, without being diverted by client work and touchups on other stories, I do get a much greater understanding of who my characters are. I can plop them into a situation an understand how they'd react and what they might say, and that's a fantastic feeling. But it's still all me in the end. Spoiler: Writers completely make up their characters. It's all on them.