In order to be able to call yourself a writer, all you have to do is write. But I have another piece of advice: Don’t go passing out business cards emblazoned with that word just yet.
Malcolm Gladwell is a fascinating writer (one who deserves those business cards) who has an uncanny knack for extrapolating from mundane facts and ideas from an oblique — and unique — angle. In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, he describes an intriguing concept popularly known as the 10,000-Hour Rule. Simply stated, it points out that most people who become highly accomplished at one endeavor or another have at least one thing in common: They’ve worked at it for 10,000 hours.
So, if you haven’t devoted an hour a day into writing for the last thirty years, or three hours a day for the past decade, or an equivalent total, don’t be surprised that you can’t find your name on the New York Times best seller list. Take heart, however, that you don’t need to log five figures’ worth of writing time to satisfying your desire to compose prose (or poetry, or nonfiction).
But ignore James Brown’s advice to get up offa that thing — sit down on that thing and write. It doesn’t matter what you write, but it matters that you write.
It also matters that you read — and, similarly, the what isn’t as important as the that: that you read. Read literary classics and airport novels and graphic novels. Read biographies and memoirs and as-told-tos. Read magazines and newspapers and blogs. Read about people and places and things real and imagined.
But learn to distinguish between bad writing and good writing and great writing. Notice the style and tone and technique of the great stuff. Don’t try to imitate it, but recognize it and what it does for your reading experience. Think about what you want the experience to be like for your readers.
Don’t forget, though, the most important reason to write: for your own enjoyment — the joy of creation, the joy of reading the story you had to write because nobody else had done so until you came along. Don’t write with any goal in mind except this one: to complete a story — a novel, a novella, a short story, a short short story — so that you can read it.
I’ll return to this topic with posts about elements of fiction writing and others about writing nonfiction, but I’ll sign off for now, because I don’t want to keep you from your writing.
What are you waiting for?