Do you have a way with words?

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Photo by Lívia Cristina L. C.

Recently, I asked a couple friends what they think I do best, and resoundingly, the answer was writing. Which was both surprising and unsurprising.

I don’t write for a living, or even very much for fun anymore, but I do my best thinking on paper, and have had a short career in journalism.

Many times I feel like a fraud, like I don’t deserve to call myself a writer because I don’t spend every day plugging away at the keyboard.  I think about this blog, where I’ve published rarely, and see a glaring piece of evidence that suggests I don’t have what it takes.

After I stopped getting chances to write effortlessly (for the school paper, or to meet a deadline, for example), I floundered because producing anything worthwhile would now require real effort, and meeting my own standards.

I think many times people assume that by being better than their peers at writing and having good intentions, success is guaranteed. But let’s face it, a lot of people are shockingly bad at putting words together eloquently, so maybe being above average isn’t that much of an accomplishment after all.

Among the writers I know, writing is considered more of a talent than a skill. There’s a sort of elitist notion that when it comes to writing, you either have it or you don’t.

I suppose it’s the kind of thinking that most artists possess – that you’re part of some exclusive club, and that true art does not require effort as much as a gift you’re born with.

While the idea is nice for those with an aptitude toward writing, it’s taken me a few years to truly realize that writing is a craft like any other, one that you have to work at constantly and improve through hours of effort. The best writers aren’t good because magic pours out every time they put their pens to paper. They’re good because they’re persistent, because they keep holding themselves to an ever higher personal standard and forcing themselves to achieve it. And if nothing else, they’re productive.

Maybe that’s why even with the glut of coffee-shop writers and self-proclaimed authors, only a few ever see real success. Because while we all get excited about starting a new endeavor, not many of us seem to have the discipline to try at it, fail and try again.

Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, describes this ability – to persist in spite of multiple failures – as grit, and she says it’s essential to success.

I struggle with this in my own life sometimes – trying to achieve perfection on my first attempt, and then, inevitably, growing impatient when I realize that the results will require more effort than I previously imagined.

This quote from Anthony Doerr’s Goodreads interview for me says it well:

I think when you’re getting started as a writer or an artist, you feel like, “Oh, everybody knows what they’re doing except for me.” You read something perfect, like Virginia Woolf or Cormac McCarthy, and you think, “That must have come out perfectly.” Then as you get older, you start to realize, “No, these are artists who have painstakingly hidden all the work they’ve done, and the false starts and the ten years of nerves.”

There’s a pressure to not only put out perfection at every turn, which I think has deterred me from really treating my writing as a craft, to be honed. But if it’s true that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery at an existing talent, maybe something similar goes for writing too?

10,000 hours? 10,000 drafts?

I can’t say for sure, but I know it won’t come easily.

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