There’s a legendary joke about the writing life, often attributed to Margaret Atwood. It goes like this:
A brain surgeon and a writer meet at a party. The brain surgeon says to the writer, “How interesting, I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and in fact, when I retire, I’m going to be a writer.”
The writer replies, “Well, isn’t that a coincidence. When I retire, I’m going to be a brain surgeon.”
Countless young people want to pursue writing while still in school, but ultimately choose more stable careers (whether brain surgery or accounting or lawyering). Some think they’ll have time to write on the side, but it rarely turns out that way. So, as they near retirement—or when they have all the money or stability they need—then they write their first book. Often, it is unpublishable by traditional standards. Why? Not because they’re bad writers, but they’re emerging writers, despite their age and experience. For most of us, it takes more than instinct or desire to produce a skillful story.
In this month’s Glimmer Train bulletin, Erika Krouse discusses the myth of the natural writer—or the realization that few people (including herself) will be inspired, as if by magic, to produce a story that effortlessly works. She says:
I continued to write the same-but-different novel for seven more years, in seven completely different directions, with seven different middles-to-endings, all ludicrous. It felt like I was shooting one very slow bullet a year, hoping that if I closed my eyes and aimed at random, I’d hit the distant target I had only vaguely envisioned. How was I going to complete this idiot book?
Read her full essay: Plot Structure and the Myth of the Natural Writer (Also, Ducks)
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