So, You Wanna Be A Writer?
Updated: Mar 12, 2022
You’ve heard the story. It’s about a man who prays to God, night after night, week after week, to win the lottery. God finally responds, (paraphrasing here…): “Look, I’ll help you win the lottery, but meet me halfway. BUY A TICKET!”
Students may tell their teacher they want to write, or become better writers. But more often than not they haven’t read any good books, and they don’t want to put in the work. They want “A’s,” but they don’t want to “buy a ticket.”
Here’s how it goes.
A young man aspires to be a writer, but he admits he reads nothing. “Oh, maybe the newspaper some days, or Google news. I read a little of this and that.”
Poor, dark, dusty, mind. Here’s a man who says he wants to write. He believes he can learn to be a better writer by sitting in on a few classes; by reading the paper or scanning some Google news. You know, a little of this and that.
He wants to write, but his interests are not in writing or in reading at all. He wants to write but he can’t share anything stimulating or thrilling, or even a single thought he’s gained from literature.
Sitting on the shelves before him, and just a key-stroke away, is a magnificent endless panoply of time, several thousands of years of which have been captured and preserved in words from which he can add abundant quality to his life.
All around him is writing - inspiring, enchanting, commanding writing. Writing that makes hours pass as minutes, that pacifies grief, mends broken hearts, lifts people to spiritual heights, makes heroes our companions, and illuminates the imagination.
He knows none of it.
He has never been in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Cuba fighting a marlin with old-man Santiago. He has never been floating through the clouds, or dashing toward the sea with Jonathan Livingston Seagull. And he has never swung on the trees with Max and the Wild Things. Yet he wants to move others with his writing.
This young man wants to write, but he isn’t inspired by good writing. What can he have to say? If he wants to make words perform for him, he needs to study them as they perform for the masters. He needs to drink deep from good books and experience life more fully.
“A person who won't read has no advantage over one who can't read.” ~ Mark Twain
If he wants to write, he needs to be able to respond to good writing wherever he finds it.
Take for example this passage from Admiral Richard E. Byrd in his timeless classic, Alone:
“May was a round boulder sinking before a tide. Time sloughed off the last implication of urgency, and days moved imperceptibly one into the other. My thirst was the tallest tree in a forest of pain. I would express whatever urge to pray I had in action - besides, the sheer hunger to live was prayer enough. The storm lantern and the candles were at best only yellow puddles in a cave.
Time was no longer like a river running, but a deep still pool. For the day was coming on; it was heaving ponderously into the north…”
Admiral Byrd leaves nothing to doubt. The reader knows precisely what he felt: alone. This is powerful writing. There’s magic in his words. And that’s the kind of magic any wanna-be writer should want to seek and acknowledge.
“Among the many worlds that man did not receive as a gift from nature but created out of his own mind, the world of books is the greatest… Without the word, without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity.” ~ Hermann Hesse
So, if you wanna be a better writer…
… don’t take words for granted. Feel the boiling steam of words wanting expression and give them life. Make your words leap off the flatness of the printed page and wander through your reader’s mind. Resolve to read good books and study how words perform for the masters. Write as often as possible. Find your own voice. You may not win the lottery or get an 'A' in your English class, but if you do the work, you'll become a better writer.