A writer’s mind is unknowable. Writers see poetry where ordinary people see nothing. There are two types of people in this world: writer, non-writer; gifted, average; sighted, blind; divine, human.
That’s what you hear at writers’ events. I heard it repeatedly as a volunteer at the South Australian Writers Centre: not from writers, but from guests – self-labelled non-writers. This attitude is frustrating, because most writers don’t go out to demean their fans and most writing events are, at minimum, a good time. To me the issue arises when hero worship leads the non-writer to think, “I am not worthy”; which then becomes, “I am not good enough and will never be good enough.”
The writer/non-writer divide is physical at writers’ events. The writers sit behind a desk. The non-writers sit in plastic chairs, facing them. Event organisers and volunteers introduce people across the divide: writer, meet non-writer. At some events the writer stands on a stage, literally elevated above the non-writers like the son of God on the Mount. Even atheist fans sometimes see quasi-religious elements in writing. Are writers really conduits for divine inspiration? Does God compose and dictate each story to the appropriate writer?
Stephen King is sceptical about this. His book On Writing focuses instead on the hard work of writing, which is why I consider it one of my two writing bibles (The Elements of Style is the other). King compares writing to laying pipe or driving trucks. He despairs about his contemporaries, who believed “serious art came from … out there!” He talks instead about writing “one word at a time”.
But even King cops out sometimes. He doubles down on previous comments to describe stories as “fossils … part of an undiscovered pre-existing world”. He still implies God or something else writes the stories. Writers merely discover them, thanks to some kind of sixth sense. And if you’re a non-writer, without this sixth sense? As King likes to say, fuhgeddaboudit!
Even writers like King, who talk about writing as a craft, not a gift, can talk voodoo when it comes to idea generation. Every writer dreads the question, “Where do you get your ideas from?” Writers hate it because idea generation can seem unscientific. Whereas analysing ideas, as E. B. White might say, is like dissecting a frog: “Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Ideas just happen – don’t they? If they don’t happen, then maybe you’re just average, or blind, or human. In other words, not a writer.
Are writers really conduits for divine inspiration? Does God compose and dictate each story to the appropriate writer?
Fewer people talk about the craft of generating ideas. Look around: pick an inanimate object, invent its story. There’s an idea seed. The trick is turning that seed into a story worth writing. That’s craft –not divine crap shoot. No part of the writing process is beyond comprehension; writing is based on skills that can be learnt and honed. Perhaps it doesn’t feel that way because most of this learning isn’t part of formal education – it requires reading, writing, living, and reflecting on all of the above.
Some great writers seem to defy the craft approach. They’re the Bradmans, Jordans and Babe Ruths of writing. Perhaps these are the ‘gifted’ writers. But maybe theirs is a gift of learning, not writing. The great writers (you’ll have your own list) seem to understand every nuance of the craft by the time their first work’s in print. They pick up the craft as intuitively as Bradman picked up a bat, but that doesn’t mean they don’t practise their swing.
Nor does it mean anyone can write a novel after attending a few writing events and reading a few guides. Mastering any craft is hard work. (Stephen King suggests writing a minimum of 6,000 words per week.) Maybe that’s why some people believe in the writer/non-writer dichotomy. “It’s not my fault I wasn’t born with the gift.” But it might be your fault you’re not working hard enough.
Maybe I’m saying this because I don’t have the gift and I can’t admit that. Somebody once put that argument to me. They suggested, kindly, I wanted writers to be unspecial so I could count myself among them. (I’m exceptionally unspecial, apparently.)
My time at the South Australian Writers Centre helped dispel that argument, at least. I definitely didn’t meet any gods. Most writers spent the events laughing awkwardly with each other, because it’s embarrassing when people treat you like Jesus.
Writers generally don’t need to enforce the divine/human dichotomy. Non-writers, as they label themselves, do that.
Antony Scholefield’s writing covers fiction, news and analysis, and has appeared at New Matilda, Your Friend’s House, Seizure, Pure Slush and several other publications. He works as a healthcare journalist.