Writing Isn’t Brain Surgery


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?

Maria Polson Veres, Writing Isn't Brain Surgery

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.

Surgery Photo: U.S. Army Photo by John Wayne Liston
Cat meme: Paul Anderson, courtesy of Flickr, lic CC-BY-2.0

Just Wasting Time?

art supplies


I was going to start this post by confessing I haven’t written anything. But as I reflected on the last couple of months, I realized this was a big fat lie. Among other things, I’ve revised chapters of a novel, written articles for my freelance clients, and kept a journal. I count e-mails and social media posts as “writing,” too.

So I’ve done a lot more than I thought. Maybe you have, too?

Revised opening sentence: I haven’t written as much as usual. I haven’t been filling my free hours with words.

I’m not blocked. I enjoy the writing when I do it. But I don’t have much to give right now, as I continue to move through a season of transition.

Instead, I’ve spent hours working on an art project. I am NOT an artist. This isn’t something I’ll ever enter in a contest or even hang on my living-room wall—it was pure therapy.

I needed to get away from words for awhile, get away from the pressure to create Something Worthwhile with Lasting Value. I needed to waste some time and putter.

Many of you have heard me talk about the poet Lucille Clifton, who also went through periods of not writing much. The times of low output bothered her at first, until she realized she was taking in rather than giving out. She needed both the low tides and high tides to achieve balance.


Everyone’s creative cycles look different, but we all have rhythms, and we do ourselves a favor by honoring them.


If you’re embarrassed that your novel isn’t coming along like you hoped—or the novel is still just a beautiful cloud inside your own head—there’s no need to duck and hide behind the Easter candy display if you glimpse me at Walmart. Believe me, I understand. I’ve been there. I’m there right now.

I trust that when the time is “write,” I’ll make space in my life to crank out more words again. And so will you.

Until then, let’s enjoy the ride, encourage each other, and do whatever it is we need to do to feed our spirits.

What Keeps Me Going

2018 was a tough year for a lot of us. I know it was for me. There were plenty of mornings I stared at my lofty list of goals and asked myself, “Why am I wasting my time?”

I persisted with my writing and my freelance business, not because I was determined or smart or brave, but because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. It felt like I would never really move forward. And when I did, I wondered if the success was just a fluke.

But one of the best parts of hanging out with other writers is that I get to watch all of you move forward, too.

Here are some of the amazing things I watched you do in 2018:

  • Publish first books (or second or third books)
  • Find agents
  • Stand up on shaky legs to read at open mics
  • Enter contests for the first time

Many of these achievements took years. I’m going to say that again–YEARS.

I saw some of you fail, pick up the broken pieces of your dreams, and rebuild. I watched you realize your old dreams didn’t fit anymore and begin to shape new ones. I heard you share your struggles with more honesty and grace than I ever could.

So, inspired by you, I kept slogging to the keyboard even on days when I would rather have dined on cockroaches. I sat down to scribble poems when I didn’t think there was any poetry left in me (and I always found I was wrong). I sent out one more pitch, asked for one more referral, tweaked my website one more time.

And as I slogged forward, this is what I told myself:

“If [insert your own name here] can do it, I can, too.”

When I came to the end of the year, I realized I had moved forward. Farther than I’d thought. Thanks to you, this tough year was also a good year.

I can’t wait to see what we’re all going to accomplish in 2019.