Not a Natural Writer

Air Millburn, Photo by Adam Dressler

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.

22 Comments

  1. Jordan Ayres
    February 4, 2013 - Reply

    Again, another inspiring article, Joshua. Thank you.

    For the past month, I’ve been writing every day, as soon as I wake up. Sometimes I find writing uncomfortable. Sometimes I overthink, which more often than not leads to self-doubt and paralysis by analysis.

    The only constant is that each day I show up; the rest is touch and go.

    If I’ve learnt anything from the past month it’s this: when you’re starting out, it’s important to focus on the process, not the product.

    • February 5, 2013

      Jordan,

      “When you’re starting out, it’s important to focus on the process, not the product.”

      Well said. Bravo!

      JFM

  2. February 5, 2013 - Reply

    I can relate to this, except for the fact about reading books. I started when I was 11, though I got the writing bug about 2 years ago. I still consider myself a newbie and I’m not satisfied with my writing skills. But looking back, I can see that I’m improving and I hope to get better. :)

    • February 5, 2013

      Denise,

      Colin and I were talking about this the other day. He said, “If I’m not embarrassed by what I wrote a year ago, then I’m not growing fast enough.” While I don’t completely agree with the timeframe, I agree with the sentiment.

      JFM

  3. Cheryl
    February 5, 2013 - Reply

    I am a writer. OK–I said it. I kept hand-written journals for years before I got my first computer. Then I started typing “entries” into individual word documents that today I started to sift through only because I felt I “should” clean up my laptop somehow. Perhaps I was bored. I don’t know. What was interesting, though, was the realization that there were several hundred “entries” over the past 10 years or so that were quite excellent–not only in the overall quality of the writing to capture what happened to be going on in my life at the time–but excellent in that I had honestly and truly taken the time to choose to write something about the important stuff. I had forgotten most of it. So now I wonder what to do next? Do I print out all of these “entries”? Organize them by date? Put them in a binder? Do I copy what I just wrote here into a word document with a date and save it for reading later? I am a writer. I am also a gardener, a reader, an historian, a genealogist, a licensed clinical social worker, a mother, wife, sister, daughter, niece, retired person. I am a writer.
    Thank you for this essay. Thank you, thank you.

    • February 5, 2013

      Cheryl,

      Your call. I say do whatever you’d find the most value from.

      JFM

  4. February 5, 2013 - Reply

    Killin it, JFM, killin it. Your posts, both here and on your other site, have been resonating with me like crazy.

    • February 5, 2013

      Trace,

      Thanks, brother. Long time no see. Are you still in Nashville.

      I’m speaking at a college in TN this fall, so I’ll likely do a Nashville meetup around that time, too.

      JFM

    • February 5, 2013

      There’s a chance! I will be out of the country for most of this year, but I will be coming back to Nashville in October for my roommates wedding. Are you at liberty to say what school at this time? I would love to meet up again! Y’all are two of my greatest inspirations, I honestly mean that. If I knew more about the publishing scene I would apply for that internship with y’all.

      I’m getting back into this community because I’m trying to pump out some new writing here in the next two months.

    • February 5, 2013

      I think it’s Middle Tenn. U. in late September (the last weekend). So a meetup would likely be around the same time.

    • February 5, 2013

      Awesome! I’ll shoot you an email around that time! I would love to see you again!

  5. February 7, 2013 - Reply

    [...] loved the theme of this post from Asymetrical ~ Not a natural writer. It is more than the title and beginning [...]

  6. BV
    February 9, 2013 - Reply

    Here’s the thing – what made you decide to become a writer when you weren’t naturally good at it? And at what point?

    • February 10, 2013

      BV,

      I think the answer is in the essay: “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.”

      There were a few authors—DFW, BEE, Denis Johnson, Don DeLillo—who had a significant impact on how I see the world by way of their words, their emotions, their exchange with the reader.

      JFM

    • Amnah
      February 22, 2013

      Thank you so much for this Joshua, really needed to read this today.

      In a field like writing where there is so much emphasis on natural flair, it’s good to see an author being so honest and open about having “drudged through the drudgery to find the joy on the other side.”
      Can’t wait to read more about the process.

  7. Andrew Kureishy
    February 22, 2013 - Reply

    First time on this site and been connected to your other site for about6 months.

    I really look forward to your essays as I always take something away from them. Don’t always like the ” uncomfortable’ feeling I get but I guess that’s just part of the growing process.

    If you ever come over to the UK, I would be happy to help in arranging a ‘ meet up’

    The UK needs this stuff.

    Thanks again for the inspiration

  8. May 5, 2013 - Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I’m becoming a little bit obsessed with your websites :)
    I try to keep all this in mind when I try to practice… you know I want to be a musician and artist. I’m 32 now and I’ve been learning constantly, though not aplying much I guess. I think my problem is to decide. I like too many things and can’t decide on which one dedicate my time to get better on. I like to paint (with watercolor, with color pencils, with oil, with dry pastels) and I like to play music (keyboards, guitar, bass, drums). I have to admit I am not excellent at any. And when I have to think to drop any of them I feel like I will miss something. This is the most difficult part for me.

    • May 5, 2013

      Daniela,

      Welcome aboard.

      The best advice I can give is to pick something. Just one thing. Put all your eggs in one basket, and do it. Do it well.

      My all-time favorite quote is from Abe Lincoln: “Whatever you are, be a good one.”

      Ergo, it takes a lot of practices doing one thing well to “be a good one.” Eventually you can add other things over time.

      You might also want to listen to this: http://themins.com/entrepreneurship

      JFM

    • May 6, 2013

      Thank you for your reply Joshua, actually I’ve been listening to the SXSW talk daily since last week. I need to decide, ok I’m doing it! Just the thought of how it would feel to focus in one thing gives me relief.

  9. Layla
    June 7, 2013 - Reply

    Twice within the past month I’ve been complimented on something I wrote. I’d never been complimented on anything I wrote!

    Since high school, I have always thought of myself as an awkward writer. English class was interesting, until I had to write essays which I struggled with. My goals became “make sure I communicate my idea without confusing the reader” and “get really good marks in math class to make up for it.”

    I’ve always wanted to be a good writer or learn how to mind-meld (like in Star Trek), because otherwise how else can I communicate ideas and experiences? I can have the best stories in the world, but no way to truly share them… until now. So… yay, after reading this article I’m feeling empowered.

  10. March 25, 2014 - Reply

    […] note: I originally posted this essay earlier this month over at the Asymmetrical Blog (complete with silly photo of me dunking a basketball while wearing a white dress shirt). […]

  11. March 25, 2014 - Reply

    […] it is by definition not natural, not comfortable. In the long run, though, I don’t keep drudging through tasks I don’t enjoy. I move on to something new. Life is too short to do shit you […]

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