What Makes a Writer a Writer

Components of a Certain Kind Make a Writer a Writer

A Monte Python skit tells the story of an accountant who was dissatisfied with accounting because he felt it was so boring. He went to a service that analyzed an individual’s personality and capabilities and advised the person on the occupation that would best suit them. The tests revealed that he was a very boring person, which made him perfect for the accountant’s job. The skit gets a laugh, but also illustrates the fact that certain personal characteristics do equip people to perform well in a pursuit.

A number of components come into alignment to result in the direction of a person’s life and career. The components making a social worker are different from the components that work together to make a diplomat or a baker. Why do you happen to be a writer and not an acrobat or botanist? You didn’t become the writer you are willy-nilly. There are reasons. Why were Picasso and Monet painters and not novelists?

Pink lotus on green backgroundBuddhism sets up qualities a life must have if the person is to find fulfillment. One quality is “Right Livelihood:” to be most fulfilled the person must be in the occupation that most suits them and is most beneficial to them. My wife and I have four children. Each is very different than the others but is perfect for their occupation. The analytical one who loves mathematics is the director of revenue for a city. The organized one manages a number of people. The one who wants to help people is a therapist. The most sociable one is a real estate agent helping people find the home they will be most happy in.

You’re a writer because you have components of a certain type—an unusual type—of many personal qualities, interests, motivations, values, attitudes, abilities, experiences, and other elements equipping you specifically for the writer’s life, which I needn’t tell you is anything but an ordinary, typical, or easy life.

Jigsaw puzzle piecesAll necessary components have to be present if you are to excel at the writer’s craft. If just one component is missing, you no longer have an ideal writer. If you are to succeed in an art there must be a fit between the talent you possess and the talent necessary to participate with distinction in the art.

The existence of serious writers is atypical. Most people do not live a serious writer’s life. They do not keep artist’s work hours.  They are not absorbed in words, paragraphs, style, and sentences. They are not concerned with publishers’ deadlines. They do not worry about the rhythms of sentences, their music. Their training is different.  Their friends are different, as are their ambitions and dreams. They are not so self absorbed as writers are. Writers’ lives are like other writers’ lives.

Ernest Hemingway—quite probably the most innovative stylist of all–had all the components. William Faulkner had them all.  Shakespeare had them all, and Marcel Proust, Eugene O’Neill, Virginia Woolf, and Joseph Conrad and James Joyce and centuries before them Sophocles and Euripides. No component was missing.  Stephen King, Joan Didion, and John Grisham have them. People who win Nobel Prizes have them. Do you have them?

Louise Nevelson said: “My theory is that when we come on this earth, many of us are ready-made…Some of us–most of us–have genes that are ready for certain performances. Nature gives you these gifts.”

Needed Writers’ Skills

Tree and grass near a pondWriters and other artists should be able to recall many thousands of detailed memories that form a basis of their writings–a gift to recall sensations and experiences from many years earlier and to reconstruct them in their original freshness and vividness.

A seventy-five year old writer may describe the expression on her mother’s face at her fourth birthday party. And if a photograph of that face that day were held up it would be identical to the skilled writer’s written description.

If you don’t have the writer’s components and wish to excel as a writer you’ll have to acquire them–if you can. For example, having a rich imagination, being comfortable working in solitude, and being inquisitive are qualities that writers should possess. (If writers cannot be productive working alone for long periods they will have problems.)

But not everyone who wishes to be a writer is able to easily acquire all the components. For example, to be considered a good writer, a writer must possess a range of identifiable technical capabilities such as the ability to create an effective dramatic scene.

silhouette of writer working at a typewriterGood writers can do that, but not all writers can, even some writers who work very hard trying to learn how to. Think of any writer’s skill–some people will master it easily, some only with great difficulty, and some will never master it. Whatever they do, some writers’ scenes are not effective.

They become known as novelists or short story writers who though perhaps superlative in other respects, write scenes that are flat. Some writers are masters of the sentence. Their sentences seem to pop out of the text and startle you with their beauty. Thomas Wolfe could not handle the plots of his novels but wrote wonderful episodes.

Or the writer’s descriptions of characters and landscapes are always poor because they have no facility for creating images, metaphors, and similes although a good writer should have an “eye” and know how to write vivid descriptions that enliven the text and appeal to readers’ senses. Some writers must struggle to create a single image while others–painters in words–are able to pull five good ones out of the air at will. They are asked, “How are you able to do so easily what is so difficult for me?” It is a gift.

Hands of woman writing in a parkA writer should have an insatiable passion to write and the skill of persistence. Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific author of fifty-eight novels for a reason. She has good writing practices, and finds no reason why one who professes to be a writer shouldn’t be writing all the time. She says, “When writing goes painfully, when it’s hideously difficult, and one feels real despair (ah, the despair, silly as it is, is real!)–then naturally one ought to continue with the work; it would be cowardly to retreat. But when writing goes smoothly–why then one certainly should keep on working, since it would be stupid to stop. Consequently one is always writing or should be writing.”

© 2021 David J. Rogers

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22 Comments

Filed under Achievement, Motivation, Right Livelihood, The Writer's Path, Writers, Writers' Characteristics, Writers' Life

22 responses to “What Makes a Writer a Writer

  1. Michelle Endersby

    David, once again your words have made me stop and think and smile. I would like to have the dedication and persistence of a writer you describe, but I fear I may be a dabbler, afraid to throw myself whole-heartedly into a single pursuit. And to this point you have wishing Monet was a dabbler too, as I would love to read his novel full of colourful descriptions and angst and frustration mirrored in his failing eyesight. So you leave me torn, I feel the allure but also the terror of being a devoted writer, one who can conquer the struggle and survive the stare of a blank page again and again.

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    • Hello dear Michelle.

      Sounding much like you, Picasso once remarked that he had read beautiful descriptions by a number of authors who he thought should have been painters. You have going for you that you are both. I have spent a lot of time studying high excelling people. It is very rare to find any of them who perform at that very highest level in more than one field. But I do know people who can paint beautifully and write beautifully, though they choose to focus on one more than the other. I purposely don’t invovlve myself in many activities so that I can focus on writing. I began loving writing in the fourth grade when I thought about writing, “this is for me.” It took hold of my heart and mind. I have never been intimidated by writing and have never been blocked.

      Your writing is lovely. Henry James says that the only requirement of writing is that it be interesting, and yours always is, even to your exuberant style. You are in your writing. When I read it, I can hear you in the background chuckling, so however you work, why not continue that way? But if splitting your attention becomes too frustrating, you’ll be driven to a decision, and I’m betting on your artwork.

      Hope you and your family are well and happy.
      Best wishes,
      David

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  2. This is another thought-provoking blog post from you, David. I fear I “cowardly retreat” when writing gets difficult. I’m easily drawn to other interests such as reading, sewing, and music. That, along with my penchant for procrastinating and doubting myself are a recipe for failure. But I can’t NOT keep going back to it. I’m most happy when I’m writing. Your blog posts are encouraging and help to kick-start me.

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    • Janet, Thank you for your comment. I always enjoy hearing from you. I have found that invariably the writing (as a chapter, for example) that is the most difficult for me requires the most work and becomes the best writing I do. There is a section of Fighting to Win that many people have said is the best section of all. That section took me months to figure out what I was trying to say and to write it. But it turned out to be the best. So when I am snagged, I thnk, “Good; I’m going to work extra hard and write something really good now.” The difficulty also makes me buckle down and focus and not to run away, avoiding the tasks by taking up other things. I think, “How can I solve the problem if I don’t work hard on it?”

      I think such an attitude of persisting most of all when facing difficulty can be learned. It would help you to have someone to encourage you and cheer you on, especially when the writing is most troublesome to you. Maybe your sister?

      I’m sorry you are plagued by self-doubt. A way to deal with that is to remind yourself of your successes. Succeeding then, you can succeed again now. I think you should be more egotistical and boast: “I’m a terrific writer, and I can overcome difficulty.”

      I’m glad you always go back to writing because you enjoy it and do it extremely well. It would be a loss if you ever quit writing.

      Best wishes,
      David

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  3. Good morning David,

    Lovely to see you mention Monte Python….I have been enjoying re-watching documentaries featuring the wonderful Michael Palin focusing on his trek through the magnificent Himalayas. Michael Palin is an example of a man who on the one hand is very focused and on the other a master of many disciplines. I digress.

    I agree that for a writer/painter to excel all necessary personal characteristics have to be present. I believe that the dedicated writer/painter is born with these characteristics and then it is up to the artist/writer to hone these characteristics/traits over a lifetime.

    Having a great talent is not enough. Having an intense desire to pursue your chosen craft and the act of tireless persistency must also be present and as you so rightly say….having the ability and enjoyment of working alone for long stretches of time.

    This is a fascinating subject – one that I could ponder over for many hours…and perhaps I do as I go about my own daily life as a painter and now writer – which by the way I am enjoying more and more.

    Something I write about a lot is the fact that I need routine in my life for it all to work. I can’t simply show up every now and then filled with inspiration….it doesn’t work that way. I need to show up every day….and that includes the wonderful days and the not so good ones………..

    Another superb post…thank you David:)

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    • Yes, Janet. I’m a Monty Python fan. It’s always a pleasure and a benefit to hear from you about your insights into the work of creative production creatives devote themselves to. Many psychologists today claim that talent is not inborn but is acquired through practice and training. But I reject that idea. I’ve seen too many examples of creative people who are talented before they were taught a single thing, and I’m happy you, so experienced, agree.

      I like your idea that talent without practice will not take a person far in the arts. Yes, I know how strongly you feel about the craftsman’s need for routine. You’ve made that very clear to me. Creatives I have known, such as you, that show up every day have a great capacity to endure boredom and tedium because those states are steps to good paintings, novels, poems, musical compositions, and performances to be proud of.

      I’ve been thinking about your writing pursuits and am so pleased at your saying you are enjoying them more and more.

      Best wishes,
      David

      P.S. I recently finished a 2,000 word sketch that had a nice ending, I thought. Diana said, “It’s better without the ending. You should cut it.” I really liked that ending, but have so much confidence in her judgment that I lopped it off. It is now a 1700 word sketch, and I find that it is better. Thought you’d be amused.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am amused and laughed out loud:). Thank you for this lovely response. I don’t want to jinx anything, but let it suffice to say that I am enjoying the writing more and more as it becomes less of a struggle. I am simply being me………. and am experiencing long stretches of flow….

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        • Janet, I’m always happy to make you laugh. I think you do so very readily, which is a good quality. Laughter is so important to get us through these difficult times. Our days are looking up because we have been vaccinated. I certainly can understand the state of being in flow. I too feel it almost every day when I sit down at the computer. There is just something about writing for me, and I think you too, that we can be immersed in, although at times there are necessary snags. For example, this morning I wrote a really nice paragraph, and I have no idea where it will lead. I’m sure being at an impasse has happened to you too. It almost always works out in the long run. I do look forward to reading more of your writing because I know I will enjoy it so much.

          Liked by 1 person

        • I agree that being at an impasse can often lead to very interesting outcomes. I have had my vaccinations…and am hopeful that the UK will be opening up by May/June..then we will all be smiling:). Have a lovely weekend. Janet

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        • Yes, I’m looking forward to a summer baseball season here. Have a great weekend, Janet.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I now think that writing poetry is partly a gift.In me it links to music
    I find prose harder.But I have put in a lot of time.I love it when it flows
    But the last year has been hard.I hope we can soon go outside freely
    PS I sometimes remove the beginning of a poem!

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  5. I know that Monty Python skit! Yes, I’ll be a lion tamer because I have a terrific hat…

    But thank you for this reminder in your post. My writing feels lost in the sea of obligations, but your words here remind me that even while swimming against the current, I am a writer. I will find my time. It just takes patience.

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    • Yes, if anyone I’m aware of is a writer tis Jeanlee–and a fine prolific one too. In my book Fighting To Win I talk about the Japanese maxim Mokuteki hon’I, which means “Focus on your purpose.” What wonderful advice. That’s what you and I and other writers should do–say “Focus on your life’s purpose to write” ten times a day–reminding ourselves of what is most important, overcoming obstacles trying so hard to keep us from the work we are destined for.
      Every week I am impressed with your efforts and realize how hard you work. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. David, I’m sorry to be so late, but happy I found this post today. I always enjoy reading your thoughts. The Buddhist perspective is spot-on. It’s just unfortunate that so many people never seem to know quite what it is that they truly *want* to do. Many times I’ve been told that I was lucky to know what profession I wanted. Stay happy and sassy. Hugs on the wing.

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    • Thank you, Teagan. I enjoyed your comment. It’s sad when people end up in the wrong career. Most of my graduate students had jobs. I would ask, “Are you in the right career?” and of course the majority said, no, they weren’t. They were accountants who should have been actors, executives who would have been perfect animators, and so on. Like you, I’ve never wanted to be anything but a writer. Me sassy? You are the sassy one. Hugs to you too.
      David

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  7. Hello David!
    It’s the first time I read your blog and I loved it. Each and every word rings so true. And yes, some things like dialogues do come easily to me but descriptions don’t. Hopefully, I’ll overcome this hurdle with persistence.

    Like

    • anamable,
      Thank you for your kind words. Here it is early morning and you’ve already made me feel good.

      Beimg good at dialog gives you a wonderful advantage. You are fortunate to have that skill. Many writers are not good with dialog. You mention that description is not a strength of yours, and I’m wondering if you saw my recent post called Writing Vivid Descriptions. https://davidjrogersftw.com/2021/04/22/writing-vivid-descriptions/
      If not, you might take a look at it and perhaps find it helpful.

      I like your writing very much, and I like your commitment to persistence.

      Best wishes,
      David

      Like

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