Writers – are they born or made?

I have a confession – I’ve never taken a writing course. I didn’t go to university, was only too happy to leave the boring old classroom behind, and actually, thanks to a snide remark from a teacher (which I later realized was intended as a joke), I didn’t even take English my last two years of high school. As for Pam, she only wanted to be a farmer or work with horses.

So, although we were avid bookworms and lived most of our time in our imaginations, the idea of becoming novelists was as far-fetched as joining the space program. On the plus side, we had a mother who was a born storyteller and we constantly played creative games in which we acted out different characters and adventures. From the age of 5, I obsessively read every book in the library, plus cereal boxes, newspapers, billboards, soup can labels. By the time I moved to London, I was regularly writing ten page journal-type letters to the friends I’d left behind. Ah, remember the days of snail mail? Still I might never have dared to publish anything professionally if I hadn’t lucked into a job in a literary agency. Such is fate.

But then again, working in publishing, I met so many editors and agents for whom the reverse was true.  It was their life-long ambition to be a published author. They’d taken all the right steps – English Literature and Language ‘A’ levels, graduated with honors in English at Oxford or Cambridge, studied all the great masters and what was the result? Total inhibition. After years dissecting the works of Tolstoy, D H Lawrence, Dickens, Shakespeare, they were far too scared to pen an original piece of writing, too burdened by all that knowledge of sentence structure, plot devices, subtexts and character analysis to risk producing anything less worthy than the geniuses they admired. Instead their lives were dedicated to nurturing and guiding raw talent, helping literary novices and unabashed dreamers get their manuscripts on to the bestseller lists.

Which makes me wonder – are writers born or made? These days creative writing courses abound, something that barely existed when I was young. There are brilliant books on writing for those wanting advice.  I read those obsessively for a while: Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, Stein On Writing… I could go on and on.  Mostly what they did was provide glorious encouragement while allowing me to pretend that I wasn’t just a hopeless procrastinator who’d rather do almost anything than take the disciplined, daunting action of putting words to paper.

Do I wish sometimes that I’d had more formal education? Often. Do I think it would have led me to penning incredible Pulitzer Prize-winners instead of commercial fiction?  I doubt it. I’d probably be like those editors I met, comparing myself to the greats and stultifying my own creativity for fear of producing second-rate work. The one-day local writers group I attended had me so terrified of reading aloud and being found lacking, I couldn’t scribble a single word. Which is probably why I’ve avoided writers workshops and novelist gatherings like the plague, while envying the brave souls like Sue Moorcroft who find in them inspiration, community and even lead retreats!

So what do you think? Is creativity something that can be taught? Can a brilliant teacher improve your craft? Or lead you from mediocrity to masterpiece? Or is writing a passion that will find a way to emerge despite the odds? And what about people like Jeffrey Archer who, with no previous literary ambitions, decide to sit down one day and pen a bestseller – indeed a long string of bestsellers – as a means to avoid bankruptcy? A born storyteller? Or just the type of bold lucky bastard we can all agree to hate?

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The thief of time …

Alexandre Normand from San Francisco, United States via Wikimedia Commons

Alexandre Normand from San Francisco, United States via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve blogged about procrastination before, elsewhere. It seems it’s a recurring theme! But I ask you – if you are a writer, can you honestly say that you never procrastinate? Because let’s face it, writing a novel may be fulfilling, rewarding, necessary (there are a dozen important and worthwhile drivers) but there’s always something that’s easier to do, isn’t there?

I think kid myself about my writing – I’m not procrastinating, the scene/dilemma/character is taking shape in my mind while I do other things.

Really? Hmm, well maybe. But on the other hand, maybe I’m just putting off dealing with the challenge posed by that elusive plot twist, the realisation that a character needs more depth, a scene more emotion.

Currier & Ives. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Currier & Ives. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When I was researching this article, I came across this lovely image. Wow, I thought, that’s one the my favourite diversions: a cuppa with some good friends. I headed to an article where it had been used and found – to my great astonishment – that it had been used by a writer (Deborah Makarios) who was writing about, you’ve guessed it: procrastination.

But – there’s a but here – she had used the image in a very different way from what was going on in my head.  It wasn’t about heading down to the nearest café at all. In her research, she had come across a suggestion that a great antidote to procrastinate is motivation, and that one way to keep motivated is to have a mission statement.

Now I spent many years of my life as a corporate communications consultant. What did that involve? Mostly, it was to do with people working in big companies. The big buzzword around the time I left was ’employee engagement’. That is, how do you keep people wanting to come to work every day and, once there, getting them to apply themselves to their tasks with energy, enthusiasm and commitment? I loved the job. After all, there’s nothing in this world as interesting as people, is there?

So, what was they key to success? Most of it (certainly from my point of view) centred on clear communication and reward. Help people to understand what their role was, reward them for a job well done, and engagement would surely follow. (Reward wasn’t necessarily about money,by the way – praise and recognition were equally important).

And one of the simple ways to help people to understand what they were signing up to  – why they were getting out of bed in the mornings – was to try to distil the essence of what the company stood for down into a very few words, a sentence at most. This was ‘the mission’. Mission statements tend to be grandiose. Here are a couple of mission statements from huge corporates – see if you can guess which ones! (Answers at the foot of the blog):

  1. People love our clothes and trust our company. We will market the most appealing and widely worn casual clothing in the world. We will clothe the world.
  2. Use our pioneering spirit to responsibly deliver energy to the world.
  3. Profitable growth through superior customer service, innovation, quality and commitment.

It had never occurred to me that I could carry the corporate ethos forward into my personal life when I left that world. After all, it was what I was escaping from, wasn’t it? However, Deborah Makarios got me thinking. She went ahead and devised her own ‘mission’. It started with that cup of tea – here’s what she wrote: ” … my aim is to write works (novels, plays, what have you) that are like a cup of tea. Sitting down for a cup of tea is both a rest, and a restoration; it eases your weariness and it prepares you to face the world again.” It’s a nice image, and it led her to her own mission: Truth – hope – take heart. (Do visit her blog, it’s lovely.)

Will having a mission statement help to keep me motivated and stop me procrastinating? I won’t know unless I try, will I? So, after a lot of thought, here’s mine: Use my imagination and craft to entertain, amuse and move readers.

In a future blog, I’ll come back and let you know how it’s working! And if YOU fancy devising your own mission statement, do let me know what it is, won’t you?

Oh – and those corporate missions? They were 1) Levi Strauss & Co. 2) ConocoPhillips and 3) BUPA. Did you guess them?