There’s a phrase that I have heard a number of times since publishing my first book. It’s one of those phrases that people think sound profound or impressive when they say it; to me, it sounds a little strange. A peculiar thing happens when you become an author, and start letting folks know that you wrote a book or three. You get to find out how many other people there are out there that have always wanted to write or publish a book. We talked a little about that in last week’s bonus post, ‘One in a Million?’; we learned or were reminded that between eighty and ninety percent of Americans want to write a book.
Want to have a little more fun with precise numbers, and hear what some author hopefuls say to explain why they should be what they want to be? Here’s the first one, and the worst one in my opinion.
“I’ve been writing my whole life!”
It’s always an outright lie, and it doesn’t take much to point that out.
“Really? First day on Earth, and you wrote something that you would stand behind now? Let’s see it, this evidence of the genius you demonstrated before anyone had the time to wipe the embryonic goo from your freshly formed face. I’m intrigued.”
I say this, or something like it, and they generally rush in to clarify.
“Oh, no; I mean since I was a kid.”
I don’t say what I want to generally then, since I shouldn’t have to point out that we have almost all been writing since we were kids. It seems that lots of people think that they’re special for having a basic education, and can call themselves literate. I agree that we are lucky, those of us who had someone push a pencil into our hand and show us how to form those letters; but I don’t think we’re special. I think that saying that you should write a book just because you’ve been writing all your life is akin to saying you should be ready to run a marathon since you started walking so many years back.
Um…it doesn’t work that way.
Also, the statement reeks of prejudice. Who’s to say that literate people have more interesting stories or ordered imaginations than illiterate folks? Maybe the reason all of them think they should write a book is because they have made it this far without being able to read. It sounds like the better book, to me.
When I point out that the number of people I meet at book festivals or author events that have been writing since they were kids is roughly one to one, these author hopefuls like to clarify.
“No, I mean stories.”
Oh, cool. How many do you write per year on average?
“No, I mean I got a lot of praise from English teachers when I was a kid. I always scored well on creative writing assignments. I’ve even had a few letters to the editor published in my local paper.”
Or it’s journals. Or even a job in journalism.
This is part of the problem with having a public education system that was designed to create good factory workers. The problem is further compounded by losers getting bigger trophies than winners in the latest batch of factory workers, and the dwindling number of actual factories for folks to work in. No one has ever questioned the fact that the only way to actually get ahead in this country is also the quickest route to being more broke than everyone else; yet no one ever told me that starting a business was the answer, and that most millionaires are entrepreneurs or artists. My parents and teachers told me to get a good job, and work hard.
There is more missing in that formula than we should go into here.
The point, at this point, is that a writing assignment from someone else is totally different than writing a book. Writing a cleverly worded letter or story is totally different than writing a book. Even writing for a living is different than writing a book. The only thing like writing a book is writing a book, and it’s difficult in a number of ways that none of those things are. There are a ton of good reasons why almost one out of every one people wants to write a book, and only one in two thousand ever get around to publishing it.
A book is an assignment from your own soul. It can’t be treated the same way other assignments are treated, and you can’t just look busy when the boss is around. If the outline is crap, the book will be too. If the research isn’t done, it will show. If the writer doesn’t know how to bring the characters to life and isn’t adept at building a world, then they risk being one of 97% of writers that never finish their first book. They definitely fall far short of ‘one in a million’, and writing their whole life doesn’t make them any more special than everyone else who has been writing their whole lives.
Or rather, since someone took the time to teach them.
It’s not surprising that almost every American wants to write a book. Although we test among the lowest in quality of education, we always score highest in confidence. We tend to think we know more than we do in our country, and we couple that with confidence in our knowledge. Confident ignorance is generally referred to as arrogance in most English-speaking countries. Here, most folks think of people who have accomplished way more than they have when they look for an example of arrogance. It has always struck me as rather strange.
Here’s a much better example, in my opinion. Rather than call a millionaire or billionaire or accomplished actor arrogant, when clearly they are demonstrating confidence, let’s start to give this scenario: Almost everyone in America thinks they should write a book, just based on what they already know or have already experienced. Think about all the people you have met, imagine if they all wrote a book, and then imagine reading all of them. Somewhere along the way you would see the true meaning of arrogance, and understand why we’re so lucky that most people never bother to do that thing they think they are somehow qualified to do.
I always felt bad for singers, especially when I was in a band. No one stands in the crowd playing air guitar or pretending to drum; even if they do, no one can hear them. What do you hear, at a concert?
A bunch of people who would never be allowed anywhere near a recording studio, raising their off-key voices to ruin the vocalist’s precious art. What the Hell? Do they know they sound bad, and don’t care? Do they not realize that they are missing their chance to listen to what might be a pristine performance without their horrific rendition tainting it? Good God, do they think they’re nailing it?
They probably do. That’s the nature of arrogance, after all. It’s why so many people think they could write a book worth reading just because they have been making grocery lists for so many years.
I resisted the idea of writing a book for a long time. I knew there was a lot of crap out there, but that was no excuse to add to the pile. I admired so many authors for good reason: I could see a little of how much work went into writing a book, and it blew my mind. When enough inner and outer voices prodded me toward my destiny, I realized that I needed to write my first book.
Did I start writing? Of course not. I bought and checked out a bunch of books on writing books. I researched the craft diligently before getting started, and had a pretty good idea how much work I was going to have to do if I wanted to complete it. There was no warning, in the beginning, that I would be writing anything more; I thought I could say everything I wanted to say in one book, and get on with my life.
What started as a single project turned quickly into a life-long passion, and I knew that I was going to have to keep learning to keep up. After one story found its way out of me, dozens more started knocking on my inner door. They all liked the way I had told the first story, which had been my own; now they wanted me to tell theirs too, and they wouldn’t let up in their insistence. It was painful frustration until I started learning habitually again, and made it a point to adjust my life to accommodate my passion. Now those voices are fuel, propelling me forward down the road I started building when I realized that I had a path to pave.
I’m not saying that every writer should approach writing a book with trembling uncertainty. I am saying that it should be approached with respect, though. Writing a book is not easy, even if you are willing to publish a piece of crap. If you’re not willing to publish a piece of crap, and I hope you aren’t, then it’s a very difficult thing indeed. If it’s not your destiny, then find what is and do that instead. If it is your destiny, get ready to never stop learning. Get ready to live with magic in your life. Give it at least an hour a day, and commit to making it to 10,000 hours before you even get started. Realize that this is your life now, and that everything else needs to be subordinated to it. If that doesn’t fill you with joy, go find the thing that does.
Dreaming a dream doesn’t make you special; making it come true does, though. It might be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, and consequently the most worthwhile. It’s the difference between yelling out the lyrics to someone else’s songs as they try to sing them and writing and performing your own songs. It’s easy to think you could do it if you never try it; once you do try, and succeed, you may see how inaccurate it is for concert-goers to consider themselves singers and lifelong writers to consider themselves authors.
There are a few exceptions, but for the most part I don’t want to hear about a book that someone has yet to write. If they don’t think it’s worth writing, I don’t see why they think it’s worth talking about. If they do think it’s worth writing, why do they keep talking about it? Wouldn’t that time be better served writing the actual book already?
Alright, I’ve blown off my steam. You should ask me about the word ‘genius’ some time, if you really want to get me going. Or ‘sexism’. They both seem so widely misunderstood.
I promised you an uplifting post this week, and it’s still on the way. Look for it on Friday, a great day to search for ‘The Gifts of Gratitude’.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,