Who Can Write?

A little while ago, a friend of mine emailed me with this question about  the ability to write stories:

Don’t you think one is born with it, or not born with it?  It probably wouldn’t appear magically at the age of 45, right?

I actually think the capacity to tell stories is there in everybody.  We are all telling stories, all the time, but don’t realize it.  We’re wired that way, because the human mind is a meaning-making machine.  Whenever we encounter something new, our brains immediately set about trying to make sense of it.  We really can’t help it.  Take for example, this image:

giant skeleton

Chances are, your brain went straight to task of figuring out just what the heck you’re seeing.  In fact, you probably saw the picture and started doing that before you even began reading this blog entry.  (If you don’t already know about this image, click on the picture to find out more about it.  Go ahead.  There’s probably a part of you that really wants to know, and that’s kind of the point.)  We figure out our world by categorizing and organizing, by asking questions of ourselves and hypothesizing answers, but it happens so fast we often aren’t aware that it’s taking place.  The process has to be fast, even unconscious, or we wouldn’t get anything else done.  We’d spend all our time and resources just trying to sort out the world, because life is full of new situations.

When writers  are telling stories, most of us are doing the same thing, only we’re doing it more consciously, slowly enough to direct the outcome.  We see something, hear something, or think of something that starts us asking questions.  And the answers to those questions become a story.  It could be a character, a situation, an idea.  My stories, and I think most stories, have their roots in the answers to the classic who?  what?  when?  where?  why? and often in the big “What if?”  Most of us writers are using our stories to make sense of the world for ourselves as much as our readers.

For example, the novel I’m currently writing came to me as a scene in a dream.  One scene that by itself was not a complete story.  It’s too early to go into details about the novel, but based on that scene I started asking myself questions when I woke up.  I had to make sense of it.  What were those characters doing there?  Where was that place?  Why did everyone look so frightened?  As I answered those questions, the scene took on meaning and the story emerged from there.

But there’s another way that everyone is engaged in the story process, and that is memory.  When we remember a life event, we often think in terms of recollection, of retrieving the memory from someplace in our brain where we’ve stored it.  Well, there is no hard-drive in our brain, no filing cabinet where we keep our memories.  It is actually more accurate to say that remembering is an act of reconstruction.  And as we remember our experiences, that same meaning-making drive exerts its influence automatically on the memory we rebuild.

When we look back over the events and experiences of our lives, we cannot help but try and make sense of them, to order them, to find purpose in the way things have happened.  We look for the reasons why things happened the way they did, and often that reason only becomes clear in retrospect.  We seldom know the reason in the moment, but that’s because the story isn’t finished yet.  Aesop knew that you have to reach the end of the fable before you find the moral.

Remembering is essentially an act of telling a story to ourselves, about ourselves, to find the meaning in our lives.  And when we relate our memories to others, we are telling our story for the benefit of our audience, and we usually have a point we are trying to make, or a purpose in sharing the memory.  So we impose some kind of structure and meaning on the memory to achieve the purpose in telling it.

So to answer my friend’s question, I would say that yes, you are born with it.  Everyone is born with it.  The only difference between writers and everyone else is that we’ve practiced and learned how to use the process creatively.  And I believe that anyone can learn to do it.  45 is not too late.  95 is not too late.

Everyone is a storyteller.  We are all actively and constantly engaged in making meaning out of our lives, sharing the story of our lives with others, and dreaming about our futures.


5 responses to “Who Can Write?”

  1. What an incredible, mind-bending post. I wish the picture was real.

    I will keep hope alive, but in a few days the clock will tick to 46.

    Are you back from you fancy-smancy authorial conference yet?

  2. Interesting. I would add that the desire to write is another big part of who can do it. You have to have that burning need to put it all down in words. Not everyone cares. Writing is satisfying, but it’s also painful, it makes you vulnerable and a little neurotic, and it takes an extraordinary amount of hard work. Without a powerful desire to write, I don’t think it would ever happen. Personally, I always had that deep-down craving, but I didn’t start writing fiction until I was 39, mainly because I didn’t believe I could, so 45 doesn’t sound too late to me. You just have to figure out that you need to.

    • Well, this may seem like splitting hairs, but I would say there’s a difference between those who can write, and those who can be writers. I truly believe that anyone can learn to write stories, but that doesn’t mean they’ll want to, nor does it mean they should. To become a professional writer, you need more than ability, as you pointed out, Elena.

  3. For me, deciding to write a novel came only after a very compelling experience. It was an experience to me possibly not unlike it would be as an archaeologist to come upon such a skeleton as that portrayed in the picture. And by that time, I was an old man, well past forty-five years of age. And now I’m older still. The novel is written, but it remains unpublished, and I still find myself polishing it. I would say, if one feels compelled to write, he or she should write. And I would say don’t delay. A person will bring whatever innate ability they have to the task, but only effort and time will hone it. If you bring little ability to the table, you will need to work extra hard and extra long. Don’t delay. And this is a message as much to me as to anyone.

  4. I agree that everyone has a story in them. Everyone tells me about the story they want to write. But I agree that not everyone can be a writer…unless they want to put in the thousands of hours it takes to do the job right–and most poeple don’t want to do that. Can’t wait to read your story, Matt 🙂

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