There’s an old joke about a writer and a brain surgeon meeting at a party. When the surgeon learns the writer’s profession, she says, “Oh, how nice! I’m going to write a book when I retire.” The writer replies, “Well, I’m going to take up brain surgery when I retire.”
I support the point the joke is making. Writing is a greatly undervalued profession. To do it well requires as much training, dedication, and discipline as any other skilled profession. I deal regularly with people who just don’t get that what I do is WORK.
But on some levels, that joke troubles me. It implies that writing is a special skill only a few privileged people can acquire, and I disagree. Writing is an artistic gift that belongs to anyone capable of language. If we think we have to be Shakespeare before we begin to use that gift, we’ll freeze ourselves out of ever writing at all.
I’d rather compare writing to singing. Who hasn’t used whatever musical abilities they have to croon a lullaby to a child, comfort a sick loved one, or just put themselves in a better mood? Very few of us will become opera stars, or rock stars. Do our songs (or croaks) lack all value because we couldn’t pass an audition at the Met?
I’m not saying we should be satisfied with mediocrity. I intend to keep learning and improving as a writer for as long as I can hold a pen, and I hope you will do the same. But unlike brain surgery, we can learn writing by actually doing it. It’s something we practice—on our own and with an audience—even as we grow in our craft.
You may have heard that it takes ten thousand words to make a writer. I think it also takes ten thousand creative risks to make a writer. Those risks can be anything from saying “no” to other activities and carving out writing time, to reading at an open mic, to taking a class that will help us improve. To take my own creative risks, I had to get over the “brain surgeon mindset” and start where I was, with the talent I had. Just like singing, we can all learn to be better writers, no matter what degree of natural ability we have at the beginning.
So I don’t roll my eyes people tell me they want to write a book after retirement. I’m happy for them. It will be a tougher road than they think. If they succeed in creating something they’re proud of, they’ll leave a lasting treasure for their children, grandchildren, friends, and loved ones. And if they fail? Well, nobody ever died from a bad novel. The effort is still worth making.