Many have been the times in my life when I have begun to do something because I thought I ought to, because convention tells me I should or because of other peoples’ expectations.
It didn’t all work out terribly well. I still can’t really do anything that you might refer to as swimming, even in the broadest sense, and I can’t drive. However, when swimming was on the PE schedule I turned up with my bathing costume and I got in the unheated outdoor pool at my school. I never asked for a note from my parents, and if I had they’d have laughed at me. The same applied to driving lessons, which I diligently continued on with even when I was growing increasingly heavily pregnant, had to stop at every public convenience (I learned to park pretty quickly) and began to frighten the instructor with my emergency stops; eventually the instructor suggested it might be a good idea to cease and desist.
On the other hand, sometimes I’ve disliked doing something until I’ve learned to do it well, and afterwards I was very glad that I persevered. As a consequence, I can touch type (why can’t more people do this in the age of the keyboard?), knit, sew, cook, and draw and paint a little bit.
People don’t seem to enjoy those sorts of experiences any more. Children, in particular, are never expected to fail at anything, and so are never required to do anything for long enough to recognise how inept they are. As soon as a grown-up sees that a child doesn’t have a natural aptitude for something or other, whatever it is, he is whisked away to try something that he might be good at.
When I was a kid, if I began something, I was expected to finish it, and I’ve expected the same from my children. Each term they were allowed to choose an out of school activity, but, whatever it was, no matter that it didn’t live up to their expectations, they were expected to finish the term before moving on to something else. They were not allowed to cry off, and I’ve always been intolerant of tantrums. I think it has paid off.
What does all of this have to do with writing?
I’ll tell you what.
Writing is a long, hard slog. It takes a long time and a lot of practice to get good at it, and it takes even more time and even more work to get someone to recognise that you’re any good at it. At the point of being published, writers have a lot of help from agents, editors, proofreaders, designers, cover artists and all manner of professionals, which is lovely, but a writer’s calling card is generally all his own work. That means knowing what you’re doing, understanding language, how it works and why; it means developing a vocabulary and having some idea of where you fit into the continuum.
We all learn to read, but writers have to learn to be better readers, more critical, more discerning, more engaged. We all learn to write, but we have to learn to be better writers, to be on better than nodding terms with the dictionary and the thesaurus, and the grammar primer.
I don’t know where our next generation of writers will come from, but I suspect, with our polarising experiences of the education system, more people will want to write, while fewer of them will be capable of producing anything that the rest of us want to read.
Yes, I’ve said it before, but I’m saying it again, now: Persist, engage, and work, and if you read and write a lot, and you have a little bit of luck, who knows, maybe you will be a writer one of these fine days.