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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Becoming a Writer

When I was young I read somewhere – don’t remember who said it any more – that if you want to be a writer, you should write. You should sit down and write for ten years and at the end of that time you’ll be a writer.

So that’s what I did. That was my way. I thought it was good advice. I still believe it to be good advice. But these days, if I say that to someone, I have to qualify it by stressing that one should also read. Read, read, read.

There are variations along the path to becoming a writer. One thing always leads to another.

After a time of ‘sitting down and writing’, the budding writer, with a degree of luck, enters a phase of consciousness where it becomes a possibility for him or her to choose another writer, dead or alive, and to work with that other writer as a master.

It’s like being an acolyte. You sit at the feet of the other and absorb what it is they have to give. And all the effort you put in during that time is stored away in your writers’ being as reserves of eloquence.

37 Responses to “Becoming a Writer”

  1. Jennyta says:

    Yes, I think that’s really good advice. One thing I enjoy about writing is becoming so completely absorbed in it for hours on end, which I have never experienced to the same degree with anything else.

  2. Ian Hocking says:

    It’s certainly a shame that the apprentice model isn’t more widely used in writing generally. If I wanted to learn carpentry, I could certainly have a bash at making the odd sideboard, but an apprenticeship with a master carpenter would make more sense.

  3. Couldn’t agree more John. What I love most of all about this is the idea of persistence here; that being a writer is not about one book, it’s about ‘the writing life’. I think writers get mad at the ‘market’ too often these days and don’t look to what really matters, which is the work itself; its quality, its source, its truth. Believe it or not I once taught a creative writing class where I focussed on people’s reading – and was asked, ‘why are we doing this?’ Thanks for answering that question more eloquently than I did that evening. I was too stunned, I tell you.

  4. Maxine says:

    Unfortunately for me, I got stuck on the “read, read, read” part!
    But the advice sounds good.
    I’ve noticed that blogging is a good introduction to writers.
    Both my daughters are quite young and have two blogs each now. One blog in each case is quite a personal one, but the other is a “review” blog, where they post reviews of films, books and other things they’ve read or watched. I think this is great practice for writing.
    My elder daughter started posting her poetry on her personal blog. She got some interest from a couple of very kind and generous bloggers I have got to know. One of them gave Cathy a poetry challenge — to write a poem about a carrot (or other vegetable — the key point being that she had to have it in front of her when she wrote the poem). She did it, and then ate the carrot.

    I think this is yet another example of the wondrous power of the Internet. (and the company of bloggers, of course.)

    My daughters’ blogs are linked to in Petrona’s sidebar.

  5. Minx says:

    This is very sound advice.
    Thankfully, after the euphoria of actually completing a whole first novel, I settled back to start another, and another. I can look back on these attempts and see where I was going wrong and where I wanted to improve.
    I studied my favourite authors and read as much as I could fit into the day. I still don’t consider myself to be well-read and I’m still learning to be well-written!

  6. David Thayer says:

    John, I think that decade you describe can’t be shortcircuited by publication, fame, or total failure.

  7. john baker says:

    Hi David. Thanks for dropping by. But I’m not quite clear what it is you’re saying. Isn’t it so that any decade or any period of time can be short-circuited by events in life, or by death?
    A decade is quite long enough for all three of the events you describe, in any order.
    I only wanted to give some indication of a possible way forward for those people who wish to be writers.
    Fame and total failure may or may not be connected with that chosen path.

  8. John Newnham says:

    Ten years is the minimum. I agree with you there John. Some of us need more time, and more talent, not to mention, more stamina. Others of us need more hurt, more love, and more of the stuff of life than can be got sitting in a Starbucks 🙂

  9. David Thayer says:

    John, I was struck by the “sit down and write for ten years” line. I think that makes one a writer regardless of whether commerical success arrives sooner.

  10. john baker says:

    Oh, absolutely. Commercial success or fame might even work against the process of honing one’s skills as a writer.
    And any art worthy of the name comes out of your life, and you have to keep living until you have enough to write about. Maybe a little patience comes in useful.

  11. Ten Years…

    When I finished my MFA, my thesis advisor said that if I gave myself ten years, I could get established as a writer. In the eight years since then, I have often thought about that time period. When I was……

  12. Hisham says:

    Good advice, John. In addition to reading and writing, one should not forget to experiment in life, to live life and experience it. As John puts it, some of us might need a bit more than sitting in a Starbucks [with our laptops or notepads].

  13. Waterhot says:

    Sounds very good advice to me. I just finished my second novel, eighteen years after the idea first began to form in my head, and for the first time in my life I can say in all honesty “I feel like a writer.” Over those eighteen years I’ve read far more than I’ve written. For a long time I worried that the time I spent reading was time lost to writing. More than that, I feared I would end up simply imitating my favourite writers. Now I have the maturity to recognise that it is possible to learn from them without necessarily imitating them, that it is all part of learning one’s craft.

    (Oh, and Hisham, don’t be too hard on sitting in Starbucks with a notepad : that’s exactly how I wrote the final chapter of my book, two weeks ago.)

    jb says: Thanks for this and the previous comments. I find it very interesting to hear the experience of others. If you’ve found something that worked for you, please tell the rest of us. No one’s too old or too good that they can’t learn something new.

  14. Didier Tshibangu says:

    This is a piece of John Grisham interview:

    What advice would you give to one of these kids if they wanted to write a novel?

    John Grisham: There are certain things you can do now. I don’t know how much of it is talent. There has to be some talent there, the ability to tell stories, the ability to handle language. There are certain things you cannot do now, but there are certain things you can do now to prepare for it.

    It is terribly important to read extensively. Virtually all writers I know are voracious readers still, and that is preparation. The more you read, the more you know. The more your imagination works, the more you read. And that’s — those are the tools of a good writer.

    You have to live. Nobody wants to hear — the world does not want to hear — a great novel from a 21 year-old. You’ve got to get a real job and get a real career, and you’ve got to go to work. And you’ve got to live and you’ve got to succeed and fail, and suffer, a little bit, or see suffering, heartache and heartbreak and all that before you really have anything to write.

  15. lisa stead says:

    dear john,

    i feel that i have been compelled to reply! and especially on the college computers! i already as an amature writer have my first book on the go. i have felt the need to be a writer ever since i was at school and now have the chance to do something good with my life instead of just being a so-called bummer! my first story/book is about a woman and her family growing up just after wartime britain. my friend says its about the family but i haven’t told him that its not. he can wait and see. so now i have to get on with my 1000 word report on what its like to be a writer. thank you again.

    jb says: Hi Lisa, Good to hear from you. Good luck with the writing.

  16. Eamon says:

    I agree.

    Although not published i have written a book that I had great fun writing. At the beginning it was painful (I mean staring at a blank page). But after a while I began to get a real kick out of putting words together, creating characters, inventing a story. And although there are bad hours / days of not being able to think of anything to say, they don’t become less bad, after a while.

  17. lisa stead says:

    hello again,

    Just to say that its and games or easy being a writer or even trying! at the moment I don’t have time to myself because of the things that i have taken on and the fact that i am part of the unemployment statistics and yes i am very very active between living on my own and no its not that easy as everyone makes out.

    i even find it hard to finish a book that i must have been carrying around in my bag with me for over a year so when i have time i can manage to read a chapter a day.

  18. Robert Stuart says:

    Dear Mr. Baker,

    I GRATEFULLY found your Blog this evening and have just finished
    reading your Becoming a Writer series. A Writer’s Notebook is next.
    I’m 40 years-old. I have some college but no degree. I have a
    background in photojournalism and I’m now attempting to start a new
    career as a writer. I am writing feature articles for a magazine at
    the moment, and working on my first short stories. It is these small
    stories that give me the most pleasure. They excite me even when I’m
    at rest. I’m determined to improve. I’m reading. I’m writing. I’m
    revising and I’m searching for the best and most efficient way to
    educate myself. Money is tight so college is not an option. I’m
    essentially attempting to create my own MFA creative writing program.

    Can you offer any advice on formulating an alternative writing path?

    Thank you for listening.

    Robert Stuart

    jb says: Hi Robert, any advice I could give is already in these pages or on its way as it occurs to me. The most important thing is to write, to write and keep on writing, and to read everything you can get your hands on, but particularly good, classic prose. Read books on writing if you like, but you won’t get as much from them as you will from reading the best fiction. Good luck with it; seems like you’re on your way to me.

  19. DEXTA says:

    I am someone who loves to write;I have quite an unstable life at the moment and the only thing that keeps me normal is that I go to my own territory and just write(songs,poems and short stories.
    Presently I am working on a story-a comedic,action filled fiction involving a wizard and the whole wizard story stuffz;don’t want to let too much info out but I think it is cool but I need professional advice and little but important tips.I am counting on it to be my breakthrough into the writing world;I think I am exceptionally and unusually creative.
    Please my actual point for writing this comment is to also ask you to please write to my e-mail if you have any advice or send to this blog

  20. Sarahbellym says:

    I have this deep desire to write. I write about everything. I went on vacation to Italy and wrote a 12,000 word narrative about the trip while I was there. I published pictures of my mom’s wedding on our family’s private website and couldn’t stop myself writing some flowery fluff about the day. It’s a deep burning need inside of me to put words on paper. I love to read. To Kill A Mockingbird is my favorite book and I have read it innumerous times. My question to you is are there any must-reads? Can you make some suggestions on what to read? I would really appreciate you input here.

    jb says: Sarah, list are difficult. But have a look at this one and read the ones that take four fancy.

  21. Sarahbellym says:

    Well, John, that certainly gives me a starting point. I am a 40 yr old high school dropout with not much in the way of formal education so I missed all of the literature that higher education spoonfeeds you. I look forward to diving into these books and being consumed. Thanks!!!

    jb says: I approach books in much the same way I approach food, Sarah. Have a little taste and see what it feels like. If I don’t like it I spit it out and probably don’t go back there again until somebody gives me a good reason to try it again. If I’m not sure I may carry on some more or put it aside and try again later. But eventually I come across something that makes me just want to stuff myself to overflowing.
    And that’s the value of having a list.

  22. Dexta says:

    I am writing currently writing a story;a story about magic like in harry potter style.Not writing about Harry potter or anything of its nature but do you think it is legal to use some of JK Rowling words eg the names of some spells and neme of places.

    jb says: Ask a lawyer . . . or Ms Rowling.

  23. Dexta says:

    When you have an idea about a story but do not know how to start or if you have started a story and you get stock,is it advisible to tell someone else your plot?
    I am just asking because my writing is always kept secrete until it is ready for inspection.

    jb says: As far as I understand, Dexta, there’s no copyright on plots. But it is highly unlikely that someone else will write the same novel as you. If I get stuck I always ask someone who can help.

  24. Dexta says:

    Thanks! Iget your your point.

  25. FoundFree says:

    Just wanted to join in and say that I agree. Write until your hearts content. Get it on paper and then see what happens. I’d love to be able to “shadow” another writer of similar interests. Mystery & Crime and the unknown is my style.

    jb says: Hi FF, good to see you here. Yeah, get it on paper, or a screen or something; get it down. That’s the golden rule.

  26. Emma says:

    I’ve recently started writing, more opinions than anything else, and feel slightly contrived in doing so don’t know if it is coming across as patronizing. I read but not sure it is in the context of how it is put across above.

    Observation is the key and identifing trends to what will influence you, that’s my opinion anyway.

    jb says: Hi Emma,If you’re writing and reading, you can be sure that you’re doing the most important things. If you think it may be patronizing you can start to do something about it.

  27. Devon says:

    Hi. Wow, this sounds so incredibly difficult! Not that I expected it to be easy or anything. My point for writing this is I was hoping for some advice in regards to confidence. I feel like I get consumed by my ideas and my need to write, however, when push comes to shove, I end up doubting my ability so badly that I’ll talk myself out of writing all together. This crushing fear of failure is ultimately making me my own sabatour. Am I alone in feeling this way or are other people waiting around for a sign from above or hoping an agent looking for a creative, young, unsigned (and inexperienced) writer will magically be dropped on their doorstep before they will have to confidence to just DO THIS? Do I need a shrink or just a swift kick in the butt?

    jb says: It’s difficult. If you want to be a writer, write. Otherwise you don’t want to be a writer enough.

  28. Geremy says:

    My opinion is following.
    In order to know how well something to write, you need to read a lot of different literature.

  29. Debi says:

    It has been so inspiring to read some of these comments.

    I started a writing degree a few years ago but found the tutors to be too willing to put their own ideas onto us, that I changed courses and direction completely. Now I find myself trained to do something else entirely, but still waking in the night with ideas to scribble down in my notebook. I kind of believed that the things I write hold no value, but seeing the comments here I guess they are all just part of the journey! I have been writing since I was young, but writing seriously for about six months now, so I have a lot of years to go…but I will certainly take the advice to read, read, read. It’s my favourite hobby and I now have the excuse I wanted to make more time for it. Thanks for the advice guys – now I know it isn’t all for nothing!

    jb says: Sounds like you’re on your way, Debi.

  30. Shane Harrison says:

    I have a degree and a masters degree in journalism, and i am now teaching communication and culture, but my real desire is to be a writer. I became a teacher by accident, after being asked to teach at the college i went to when i was studying A levels, but i feel trapped in the politics and pressure of further education to the point where i am desperately unhappy. I read constantly, and because of the nature of my education my heart rests with words and literature.

    I left school and went to college. I left college and went to University. I left University and got a full time teaching job. Now i feel like something huge is missing. I have this burning desire to travel, and write fictitous tales about my journeys. I am massively inspired by writers like Bukowski, Kerouac, Hemingway, Capote, and Thompson, and every time i lose myself in their words it makes me want to leave my job, pack a small bag of essentials and just experience the world.

    Does anyone else share this feeling? I feel somewhat alone and under pressure to carry on as normal.

    jb says: Sounds pretty normal to me, Shane. Only you can make your own dream.

  31. MikeM says:

    If a magic wand was waved and you were given a successful career, what would it be? This was a question an ex-colleague put to a group of peers. I didn’t have to think. Being a writer, working in a room with a window overlooking a tranquil garden may be a bit reclusive for some, but for me it sounds great.

    Unfortunately, so eager am I to fulfill this dream that my first two published pieces went unpaid. At what time does the hobby writer start to exert assertiveness over fees?

  32. Kimberly Langley says:

    Thank you for the wonderful advice. I am a beginner at this with half of a communications degree. Many big dreams of being a writer have danced in my head for years, but it’s a different story when I sit down with a blank white screen and a tiny line flashing in front of me begging for attention. I look forward to staying updated on the limitless world of being a writer through your blog.

    jb says: Hi Kimberly. Endurance is one of the key words here. Good to hear from you and I hope you find what you seek.

  33. allyann says:

    After reading all those comment i was enlightened..Alas!! you dont have to be famous or a degree holder to be able to write, those two reason along with fear hinders me for even trying so i end up just hoping i could be one, i think now i may give it a go but like all warriors getting ready for a battle i want to arm myself…John is getting an online course on writing is a good starting point?. I really wanted to get this writer out of my system, its devouring all other purposes i have in life, my mind is always somewhere passionately weaving stories about everything and anything, its like unfullfilled longing trapped with just a spark of light waiting endlessly for someone or something…. if i dont do anything about it i know i’ll be forever searching for my fading love.

    jb says: I believe that writers write, allyann.

  34. RG says:

    Writing isn’t fun. It’s awful. (Harsh rant) I get tired of hearing from people who are getting their first taste and saying that they ‘enjoy’ writing. The writing is horrible. But that’s the key. You’re not a real writer until you want to bash your head in against the wall whenever you are writing. Seriously.

    The only enjoyment that comes from writing is the sense of achievement. Don’t get fooled into thinking it’s something fun. It’s not fun. It’s hard work.

  35. Beaulah Nabarowsky says:

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  36. Sam says:

    John, i am still a young teenager but in future i would like to be an author. What you have written really helps and with your advice, i will be able to use it in future. 🙂

  37. john baker says:

    Hey, that’s really good to know, Sam.