Am I a Good Writer?
[photo c. 2013 by Jana Powers]
On my recent self-imposed hiatus from the blog, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing. Specifically, what does it mean to be a writer and beyond that, what makes someone a “good” writer?
Because I wrote constantly from a young age, I’ve always considered writing a true passion of mine. My writing tends to be technically correct, precise, and efficient, which meant that growing up, I was always told what a brilliant writer I was. For years, when I would draft up creative goals for myself, at the top of the list was always this: Write a novel! But I never could. I would sit, try to brainstorm concepts and characters, and – while I could develop the initial foundation of the story – I could never quite get my characters to interact in a realistic way or develop them past the first few chapters. On the other hand, my short stories and poems were fully-formed, meaningful ideas in my head and on paper.
About ten years ago, a friend of mine wrote a novel and I remember he was so excited as he described in detail the plot lines and twists along the way. I was happy for him, but also quite jealous and a bit confused. He was such a terrible speller! He didn’t even keep a journal! How could he finish the project I’d never been able to?
Cut to last year: my best friend from college, Colleen, tells me that she’s started working on a book series– a trilogy about a group of students in flight school. She asks me if I’d be willing to take a look at her first drafts and make some edits. At first I was incredulous. The flight school thing was definitely in her wheelhouse since she’s a pilot, but a book? She’d never written anything else before. I agreed to take a peek at the first book and though it did have its fair share of technical errors, I realized pretty quickly that underneath all of that there was a great story line. She is a good storyteller; she can place her characters in situations with each other and know exactly how they’re going to feel and react. She knows how to keep the story moving forward, something I’ve never been able to master. I was curious to know what would happen to her characters – it was a literal page turner. That said, I believe the final product that exists now took both of our efforts, that the edits I made allowed this wonderful story of hers to really come through clearly and connect with her readers.
So anyway, that brings me back to the beginning: I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes someone a writer. I still don’t have any solid conclusions, but I’m beginning to think it’s maybe as simple as writers are people who have the discipline to write, to show up on a regular basis and see what happens – and that there are different types of writers. Writing a novel doesn’t have to be the gold standard of achievement I use to make myself feel bad. Maybe I needed to remember that although I’m perhaps not the most prolific storyteller, I am a good gatherer and disseminator of information, that it’s natural for me to connect people to ideas or new concepts.
This NYT piece from a few years ago sums up pretty well what I have realized:
A writer with a mind that doesn’t register how words are spelled tends to see through the words he encounters — straight to the things, characters, ideas, images and emotions they conjure. A good speller, by contrast — the kind who never fails to clock the idiosyncratic orthography of “algorithm” or “Albert Pujols” — tends to see language as a system. Good spellers are often drawn to poetry and wordplay, while bad spellers, for whom language is a conduit and not an end in itself, can excel at representation and reportage.
What do you think?
PS – There’s more to come on Colleen soon, as I’ll be interviewing her about her adventures in self-publishing her trilogy! For now, you can check out her books here.