Discussion: Can Anyone Become a Great Writer?

Photo credit: cindiann on Flickr
I came across an interesting article the other day from TIME Entertainment on NaNoWriMo. It questioned whether NaNoWriMo was a positive movement for writers or if it’s actually harmful, and while the article brought up some thought-provoking arguments, there was one point in particular that really caught my attention.

The article reads:
"[A] common complaint is that NaNoWriMo devalues writers' talent by indulging the cliche that everyone has the potential to be a great writer if only they'd sit themselves down and actually write. 'NaNoWriMo relies on the peculiarly American belief that every person has a story—or a novel, or a book of any kind—inside...' the Economist's Prospero blog once sneered. 'There is no analogous drive to write the Great French Novel, or the English, or the German. They very notion that a novel is in everybody's grasp, and could be knocked out as a draft in just a month, is far more likely to induce some cringing in other countries.'" (Read the full article here).
The thing is, I really do believe that with enough practice, dedication and determination anyone can become a great writer. We writers aren't born with some magical ability to write exponentially better than everyone else—we don't come out of the womb with full knowledge of the English language and how to write beautiful images and compelling stories. We learn how to write like everyone else—starting with our names in preschool and moving on from there. I reject the idea that in order to be great at something you have to be born with some magical fairy dust that makes you extra talented in a certain field—writing included.

The difference between writers and everyone else isn't that we're born with a supernatural ability to write well—it's that we love to write. The difference between writers and everyone else is that we do spend the extra time needed to hone the craft of writing and learn how to tell stories people want to read. Not everyone wants to be a writer, and not everyone who thinks they want to be a writer loves it enough to stick with it until they're skilled enough to reach a level of successful publication. I believe that anyone can become a great writer, but not everyone will reach that level—or even attempt to, for that matter.

In my mind, NaNoWriMo doesn't devalue writers—it empowers them. It gives writers who are afraid of writing something terrible, of failing halfway through, of not writing well enough to give it a try and write anyway. It reminds writers around the world that we are not alone—that there are hundreds of thousands of other writers out there who are experiencing the same difficulties and frustrations that come hand-in-hand with attempting to become a writer.

At least, that's my opinion. Now I want to hear yours.

What do you think? Can anyone become a writer, or do writers have something that others don't? Does NaNoWriMo devalue writers, or does it empower them?


Darth Lolita said...

This was a conversation I had with friends a while back, but not about writing, but painting and drawing.

Because my high school is fairly small, all the artistic kids know each other and are usually pretty good friends with one another, plus since it's basically first grade to twelfth grade, they've pretty much grown up together. I've only been friends with some of the artists recently (9th and 10th grade is when I first attended and grew close to them), so I haven't really seen the growth in their craft. To me, they had always been amazing.

But I remember last year, I asked one of my friends if she thought artistic talent was something that one was born with or something you learned, and she was certain it was something one learned. This was mostly evidence because everyone's little doodles at the ages of three, five, and seven are usually terrible. But her and half of the other kids just kept practicing, while me and the rest of the population turned most our attention to other things.

So I think it's the same for everything, not even just the arts, but any profession or hobby. You may discover or be born with a love for something, and that may be encouraged or pushed away, but no matter how much you love it, you need to practice and practice and practice. And you're only going to practice if you love it well enough.

As for the NaNoWriMo thing, I'm surprised at how much it's helped me to accept that first drafts just really, really suck. I have written a ton of half finished stories that I'm always going back to and editing by chunks and pieces without finishing, but not in this one. I wince at just how many little errors there are in that tiny manuscript, but I can't make myself dwell on it too much because that's what December is for. So I keep going.

I think thanks to NaNoWriMo, I may actually finish a novel for the first time.

Mari Stroud said...

I agree with you; I hate the idea that writing is some mystical exercise in the divine that only a fortunate few can hope to do justice to. It's work. It's great work, but it's a skill, and it can be learned if you love it enough. I love NaNoWriMo because it brings people together to make the whole process more fun, less lonely, and not so mysterious.

Daphne Gray-Grant said...

I agree. I've never entered NaNoWriMo -- and have no intention of ever doing so -- but I think it's a TERRIFIC idea. I've never thought the purpose was to show that anyone can write a novel. I've always believed the purpose was to demonstrate it's POSSIBLE to write a novel. So many people become overwhelmed by the number of words they must produce for a book that they walk away from the challenge. To me, NaNoWriMo is simply more evidence that, yes, it is possible to write a novel. And, hey, there are all sorts of people who can do it in a month! I think it's a highly empowering event -- but, of course, has no impact on the quality of the writing produced during it.

Ava Jae said...

Very interesting thoughts! I think you're absolutely right that this discussion can apply to all sorts of fields--drawing included. As you said, while you can be born with a passion, you aren't born with the skill--that requires extra dedication and work on your part. Very well said.

On another note, I'm glad to hear that NaNo has helped you so much! It can be sometimes difficult to accept that first drafts are usually terrible, but that's just the nature of the process. If you obsess over writing beautifully while trying to complete a first draft, it's going to take you much longer to complete it, assuming you don't burn out and move on to something else, which often happens.

I wish you the best with the rest of NaNoWriMo! Thanks for such a thoughtful comment!

Ava Jae said...

Yes! I completely agree Mari, on both counts. Writing is hard work, plain and simple, and NaNoWriMo really has a considerable amount of benefits both to writers who participate, and those who watch from the outskirts who see that there are tons of others out there trying to write novels just like them.

Ava Jae said...

Naturally NaNoWriMo isn't going to produce publishable drafts--but first drafts are never meant to be publishable. What I think makes NaNoWriMo great is that it encourages people to just get that first step of completing a first draft done. Once you have the skeleton of the story completed, you have something that you can work with and improve until, hopefully, it does reach publishable quality.

Larry Wilson said...

I think this notion that anyone can learn to be a great writer is very
damaging. It sets people up for failure It is no more true than saying
anyone can become a great singer, or auto mechanic. I'm sure that with
some instruction I could become better in both of those fields, but
never great. So I think these ridiculous statements not only devalue
writers, but devalue the craft and the profession itself.

What is
true is that with desire and passion, hard work and determination, and
good instruction we can all become better writers. Greatness comes from
an amalgamation of passion and skill, Only one of these can be taught.

Sure, we could all spew out 50,000 words in a month, but that
does not a novel make. It might be a useful writing exercise, but that
is about all. It is not even an exercise that is right for everyone.

would be interested in hearing testimonials from people who have
actually published, through traditional channels or otherwise, anything
produced during a NaNoWriMo.

Margaret Alexander said...

What a great discussion, Ava! I also enjoyed reading the Times article. I have to say, on some level, I do agree with Kate Sullivan. I do think people who go into Nano without a plan and don't really have a solid idea for a novel are bound to produce, well, crap. On the other hand, writing 2k a day is actually very feasible. Especially if you've got your idea solid and planned out. On the other hand, if you're unfamiliar with your characters, have no idea for the ending, and haven't done your research, then it's not likely your novel will be the next best seller. Or it will need major reconstruction for months (maybe years) to come. And I do agree it should go beyond 50k. Below 60k is a novella, unless you're writing MG.

I actually didn't know Night Circus was a Nano novel. I read it and though it was pretty intense, not something written in a short period of time, but as Morgenstern said in her acknowledgements, her editor and agent did quite a job at hacking away at the mess. Still, it produced a solid idea that would sell. Nano's kind of like a double-edged sword. I think we can all write, some better than others (like you said, depending on how much they love it). And obviously you're only going to write if you really enjoy it, why else? So I agree that for those who have the passion, and who love to read, nothing's stopping them from becoming a great writer.

Ava Jae said...

Dedication, determination and a passion for writing. Also, congratulations on completing NaNo in ten days! That's fantastic!

Ava Jae said...

Hmm. Ok. I completely agree that desire, passion, hard work and determination are key to becoming better writers, and as I said in my post, a large difference between writers and everyone else is that we want to write. We have a drive to push ourselves to become better writers, we have a passion for the craft. It's true that not everyone has that, but that's not a matter of talent--it's a matter of where your passions lie. For some it's with writing, for others it's something else entirely.

That being said, I disagree about the belief that anyone can become a great writer with hard work is damaging or devaluing. With enough dedication, I truly do believe that anyone can learn how to write well--but as I said earlier, not everyone wants to learn how to become a great writer, and so only those with a passion for writing will pursue that field. It's not because writers are special with some natural-born talent--it's because we have a passion for writing and thus we want to spend our time improving our writing skill. At least, that's my opinion. :)

As for NaNo novels that were published, Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus and Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants both were novels written during NaNoWriMo that went on to be traditionally published. Here are more examples, if you're interested.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Larry! I'm always up for a lively debate. :)

Ava Jae said...

I think regardless of how you decide to approach NaNoWriMo, the draft you end up with is going to need major work no matter what (as is the cast with 99.9% of first drafts). I also agree that it should probably go beyond 50k, though if you have a tendency of adding to your first drafts (rather than taking away), then 50k can be a decent place to start. It depends on what kind of writer you are.

As for published NaNo novels, there have actually been quite a few novels that started off as NaNoWriMo projects and went on to get published (after quite a bit of editing, I'm sure). If you're interested, <a href="http://www.tor.com/blogs/2011/11/nanowrimo-success-stories>this article</a> talks about six of them.

In the end, I think it comes down to passion and hard work. If you want to be a writer (and you're <i>sure</i> you want to be a writer), the only thing that can stop you is yourself.

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Margaret!

Margaret Alexander said...

Yes, work is always needed. Good stuff, thanks for the share :)

Roton Terron said...

yes! i absolutely agree, with your above statement, yes everyone has a story of their own, and that can create a short or long one, why can't everyone do write themselves with their own life stories and create one. i too have the same which so sorrowful, and mournful i want to share it to the world by writing it as a book.

Ava Jae said...

Good luck! :)

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