A lot of people don’t think they’re writers, so they don’t write. Well, except for things like emails, texts, and social media posts—but that doesn’t count, right?
I have been one of those people. I’ve believed that I should always expect to be out of my element when writing. Writing is for “writers,” and I’m just … not one.
This seems pretty common—I’ve heard an unreasonably large amount of people say “I’m not a writer.”
Why do so many of us think we can’t be writers? I can only answer for myself: I’ve believed what seem to be common myths about what it means to be a writer. And I also let criticism keep me from trying.
The myths I believed about being a writer
There were two myths I believed for far too long about what it means to be a writer, and maybe you’ve believed them, too.
Being a writer is supposed to be innate
I always got the impression that if you were really a writer, you just automatically identified yourself with the term “writer.”
You either felt it, or you didn’t. And if you were an actual writer, the perfectly flowing words would just spill out of you effortlessly.
Well, I can tell you: writing did not spill out of me effortlessly.
Nope—writing always felt like work. Like, “pulling teeth” work, not “slow day at the office” work.
Not only did it feel like work, but I always expected what I wrote to just be crap, no matter how much work I put into it. Whenever I’d reread what I’d written, it sounded dumb or embarrassing, and I was uncomfortable with anyone seeing it.
Sure, the grammar would be perfect, but to real writers, grammar’s just details. No one gets a Pulitzer for good grammar.
Real writing is emotional expression
In my small experience of the world, I had come to associate writers with people who relied on emotion over logic. What made someone suitable to be a writer, I thought, was that they were free-spirited, sensitive, and liked to fly by the seat of their pants.
You just couldn’t be a writer if you drew creative inspiration from a more rational place. You know, unless you wanted to write something boring, like instructional manuals. But we all know that’s not what real writers think of as real writing.
Believing this myth stopped me from pursuing writing for another reason, too. It wasn’t just because it caused me to think I wasn’t cut out for it—it also made writing unattractive to me. I thought it would feed a false narrative that was already too prevalent in my life.
Part of being female, in my experience, is that you often get pigeonholed as being much more emotionally-driven than you really are.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think being emotionally-driven is bad. I just don’t relate to it, and hate being falsely stereotyped. When people would treat me according to that stereotype, it made me feel trapped in a world that had no room for me as a real person.
Writing was too dangerous—it would feed a lie that would keep people from letting me be myself.
I also let criticism stop me
Not only did I believe the two writing myths above, but I kind of gave up on writing based on some bad feedback I got.
From childhood through young adulthood I consistently received criticism about one weakness in particular: communication.
It seemed like at least once a week someone felt a need to tell me about how weak my communication skills were. And over time I came to believe it.
I like to work my strengths. If I was only going to ever get criticized for verbal communication, it just wasn’t going to be my thing. There were plenty of other things I could do that wouldn’t lead to me getting chewed out all the time.
Overturning the myths and criticism
It’s taken me a long time to overcome the inertia that has built up in my system against writing. Getting to that place has involved unlearning those myths, and rising past that criticism.
Here are some thoughts that counteract what I’ve learned in the past.
Being a writer doesn’t have to be innate
Writing feels like work? Surprise: that’s what learning a skill feels like.
Maybe it’s innate for some people, but they’re the exception, not the rule.
In his book, On Writing, Stephen King says this:
Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.
I’m a musician, and practice feels like practice. Somehow, the fact that I have to put in a lot of non-glorious work hasn’t stopped me there. It’s different when you know that learning a difficult piece is a matter of putting in the time, effort, and willpower; I simply didn’t have that expectation for writing.
And I should have.
Writing isn’t just self-expression for emotional people
Back in 2012, I was sitting in the cubicle I shared with my friend David, who, at the time, was an editor (and a very good one at that).
He offhandedly said this line in a conversation with someone else, and it stuck with me:
Writing is organized thought.
No joke, these four words caused a complete paradigm shift for me when it came to writing.
I was able to entertain entirely new ways of thinking about what writing was for, and what kinds of people could be good at writing.
If you have interesting thoughts, it’s just a matter of creating a structure for them.
Writing doesn’t have to be a magical, chaotic process that only people with the writing gene can do. It’s just organized thought.
If you’re not saying what’s expected, you’re harder to understand
I think communication is a challenging skill to develop, and an impossible one to perfect.
But I don’t think I’m as irredeemably bad at communication as I was conditioned to believe. And if you’ve gotten similar feedback, maybe this will help you give yourself another chance, too.
Stereotypes exist for a reason: it’s because they make life easier for us, and the world easier to understand. And it’s because they’re mostly true.
If you don’t fit them, you’re swimming upstream when it comes to interacting with people. Everything you say matters very little compared to preconceived notions about what you mean.
This is especially true when you’re younger; everyone thinks they know you better than you know yourself.
Maybe it seems self-glorifying to suggest, but I don’t think I ever was a particularly bad communicator. I just was a weird kid. I didn’t think what people expected me to think, so it was more of a fight to get them to understand what I was saying.
I doubt this is an unusual experience—very few people perfectly fit a stereotype.
What does it actually mean when someone tells you you’re a bad communicator? Could be anything.
But a lot of what people see as “communication” isn’t communication at all. People receive information best when they can just line it up with what they already believe … without having to think at all.
In this sense, someone seems like a much better “communicator” when they’re saying what you think they should say.
So here’s what I’m going to do
I spent a lot of time creating new beliefs around whether or not I should actually give myself a chance at writing. Part of that time was spent writing this blog post. ;)
To really change the way I’ve always thought about writing, I need to do something bigger than just blogging. I’m going to write a novel.
At least 50,000 words long.
In 30 days.
November is National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. People across the US join the challenge to write their novels within the month.
My friend, Tyrel, who pretty much embodies that Stephen King quote earlier in the post, suggested months ago that I join him in the challenge. And I’ve been surprised at how many thoughts I’ve had to process regarding whether or not I’m up for it. “Writing” is a loaded word for me. I’m curious, is it for you, too?
If all it really takes is hard work, organized thought, and giving myself a chance, then I’ll find out by the end of November.
Want to join me? You can check out the NaNoWriMo site to see how it works. You can also join my email list—I’ll keep you updated on what happens.