It’s a lot more than just taking a few courses in college.
The other day, I met a 20-year-old guy named Doug. (Not his real name, of course, but it will do.) Actually, he introduced himself to me. He’d heard I was a writer and wanted to meet me. He thought I wrote novels and when I explained that I wrote computer how-to books, he seemed disappointed. He told me he was going to school to be a writer. He wanted to write fiction.
I asked Doug what he’d written so far and his response disappointed me: “Nothing,” he said. “I’m only 20.” He then went on to tell me that he was still learning how to write. That’s why he was studying it in school. So far, he’d learned that stories had “a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
To understand my take on this poor misguided soul, you need to understand that I’ve always wanted to be a writer. And I began writing when I was about 13.
I didn’t always want to write computer how-to books. Computers — well, the desktop kind, anyway — didn’t exist when I was a kid. I wanted to write fiction, just like Doug does. But I didn’t have any illusions about going to school to be a writer. (At 13, I didn’t expect to attend college when I finished high school.) So I started writing on my own. Practice makes perfect, right?
Years later, after following a career path that didn’t interest me and paying my dues, I found success writing computer how-to books. I didn’t go to college to become a writer. All I had was two semesters of creative writing. (I was able to skip English 101 and 102 because of my ability to write an essay that proved I didn’t need these basic English courses.) But I had years of practice — and am still practicing here.
So when I met a 20-year-old who wanted to be a writer, I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t writing. After all, how can you be a writer if you don’t write?
I was disappointed and, in all honesty, a bit disgusted with Doug’s lack of insight and drive on his chosen career. (At 20, I already had my BBA and a full-time job.) But I didn’t want to be rude, so I thought I’d venture a suggestion. Doug was working at a part-time job that had a lot of down time — time he wasn’t particularly busy with job duties. I suggested that he spend his down time people watching. “Keep a journal,” I suggested. “Jot down bits and pieces of the character traits you see and conversations you overhear. You might be able to draw on these real-life characters when you develop your own fictional characters.”
As you might imagine, he didn’t seem very interested. And that’s when I decided to stop wasting my time.
What’s strange about all this is that I’ve been invited to speak to my local high school’s journalism class about writing. I’m not a journalist, but I’m pretty sure that the kids taking this course have writing interests besides journalism. I plan to share with them some of the “secrets to success” for being a writer. I think they’ll be surprised by what I’ve got to say.
I guess what I’m thinking about all this is: if you’re 20 years old and you need to take a college course to learn that a piece of fiction has a beginning, a middle, and an end, you’re probably not going to be much of a writer.
To be a writer, you need to be a writer. The only way to do that is to write.