I Think You Can

Over FWA, I was approached with the following question: Did I think that people were born with the talent to write, or did I think anyone could become a writer with enough work?

Well, those of you who know me probably know how I answered. I believe strongly that anyone who applies him or herself can become a good writer. I do think that there are people who by virtue of their upbringing are more disposed to writing, and those people tend to have an easier time of it. Catherynne Valente, who says she was basically raised in a library, has an extraordinary facility with words, AND has studied enough to know how to use them. But there are certainly a good number of storytellers out there who are not artisan wordsmiths, and yet their stories are engaging and popular and enjoyed by many. You can be one of those people, yes you can.

I don’t know if there is a genetic predisposition to want to read, or if we are products of our environment. I grew up in a house with two English majors and a huge wall of books, isolated from neighbors. Another kid might have spent all his time climbing trees (something I rarely did) or exploring, but I grew bored with that quickly and instead explored the worlds found in books. I can’t say why I gravitated to science fiction and fantasy, given that neither of my parents did, but I devoured book after book, and they were happy enough with that.

But is that how I was born? Or was it because I was isolated in a house of books? If my father had been more sport-minded, if we’d grown up in a suburb with sandlot baseball and football (I was, shall we say, a little too vertically-challenged for basketball), would I have spent more time playing and less time reading? Who knows?

It doesn’t matter, really. Even if you didn’t spend your childhood reading and learning how other people tell stories, it’s not too late to start. You can train yourself to read, or if you have trouble with reading (perhaps you are dyslexic), you can listen to audio books. What you need in order to be a writer is to experience a lot of stories, and make a continuous attempt to tell them. You can train your brain to be a storyteller, but it isn’t easy, and you will be tempted to give up when you do not immediately succeed.

This is what I tell people all the time: you have to read, and you have to write. Reading exposes you to all the wonderful things other people are doing. Writing makes you examine the guts of storytelling, the gears and cogs below the surface, so that you can make your own contraptions work. And reading and writing both keep your mind in that state where you are open to stories, which is the most important thing.

The cool thing about writing is that you can start at any age, and you can write for as long as you can tell a story. Nobody makes you retire, and someone who started writing ten or twenty years before you will not necessarily always be better than you. There are successful writers who started in their thirties or forties and write well into their eighties. All you need is the drive to succeed, and something to write about. And that’s something you don’t have to be born with.

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