Not a Natural Writer

Joshua Fields Millburn
Posted on February 3, 2013

Most things in life are not hereditary.

I have a confession: I am not a natural writer. Heck, I’m more of a natural basketball player than I am a writer.

Another confession: I didn’t read my first book until I was 21. No, that’s not a typo; I was 21 years old when I read my first book cover to cover, some pop-trash thriller of sorts. On the other hand, I was 6’2″ in eighth grade, and thus basketball seemed pretty natural at the time.

But as time went on, and I stopped getting taller and my dribbling skills didn’t improve, basketball became less and less natural. Years later, I discovered literary fiction at age 22, and I knew I wanted to take part in its creation; I knew I wanted to be a part of literature’s exchange of consciousness. In short, I knew I wanted to be a writer.

There was just one problem: I was terrible at writing. I didn’t know anything—not a damn thing—about grammar or syntax or sentence structure. I could hardly cobble together a coherent independent clause, let alone a sentence that felt urgent or interesting or even vaguely alive. Although I wasn’t gifted with a congenital writing quill, I soldiered on; I kept writing, letting most of the words hit the waste basket shortly after they spilled from my keyboard.

As time went on—guess what—I got better. And while practice didn’t make perfect, it allowed me to grow considerably. Later, my growth snowballed, and now, a decade after reading my first book, I’ve published seven, all seven of which came out in the last two years, and I’ve never been happier.

You see, writing was never natural for me. But then again, most things in life aren’t innate; individual betterment has little to do with inbred talent. I try to pound this fact into my writing students’ noggins every chance I get: i.e., any teacher worth his chalk dust can be teach you techniques that will help you grow, but individual betterment requires practice and dedication and, to a certain extent, a healthy obsession.

And hence this essay is not really about writing, and it’s certainly not about me. This essay is about you, so take note: many people—people like you and me—want to do something different with their lives (I know I did), but most of these people think that their would-be actions are futile because, well, because they weren’t born with natural talent. These folks feel helpless or defeated, so they never take the first steps, and they certainly don’t dedicate the hours required to develop real talent.

I say balderdash! Life doesn’t work this way. For any dimension of life, for any skill set—be it exercise, ballroom dancing, or guitar playing—you must be willing to drudge through the drudgery to find the joy on the other side. Before a man can even think about being a rockstar, he must earn the calluses on his fingertips.

To do this effectively, you have to find ways to make the menial work more fun. After much practice—many, many hours of practice—whatever you’re doing eventually feels like second nature, which is better in countless ways: second nature always feels more earned, more honest, more real.