Posted by: Casey Lybrand | June 24, 2010

One is not born a writer, but becomes one.

Riffing off this quote, which Lua Fowles presents, along with her beautiful refutation of it, at her blog:

writing is not a journey but an occupation, no writer could ever help another writer because they are egocentric people.

Lua explains in detail what is wrong with this concept, and I would like to add to the conversation as well. Lua, thank you for this compelling topic.

no writer could ever help another writer

You get variations on this all the time: No one can teach another how to be a writer. You are born a writer or you aren’t, no one can teach you. And so on. You’ve read this kind of thing? I have, over and over. It always bothers me. I don’t think it’s accurate. I’m not saying I can’t see what people could mean by this — I do: becoming a writer is a very personal process — but as a general concept, I think it leaves something out of the equation.

It’s akin saying no one can help another become a person [1]: becoming a person is a very personal process, after all. But do we really not learn from example, and learn from instruction, and learn from the subtle cultural cues we pick up from within our social environment, every day?

The answer is of course we do.

Is becoming a writer not like that: example, instruction, subtle cues we pick up from whatever writing environment in which we are immersed — the books we read, the blogs we read, and yes, though our personal interaction with other writers, including experienced writers. Do we not learn *anything* from experienced writers, in the way that a young person learns from someone older?

Somehow I doubt it.

I am not asking the question of whether one can be taught voice; that seems like asking whether one can be taught to have an extroverted personality, or an introverted one.

I am not asking whether one can be taught to have a talent with words; I suspect not. But I also suspect that even a linguistically-talented child would never learn to speak, if she existed in a context entirely without language. And no, that’s not quite right. I more than suspect this; I know it: language is acquired.

Conventions of writing are acquired as well. As are techniques, structure, craft.

All the voice and talent in the world would not help a writer raised in a world without the written word — craft and convention have to come from somewhere. That “somewhere” is other writers. It always is. Can’t write without other writers. Not should not. Cannot. (At a very basic level: how do we know how to write at all? As in inscribe words to paper? We all read something along the way.)

Reading, of course, is crucial to the writing environment. But personal interaction with other writers? Including more experienced writers? What would be *wrong* with that? I can only see the good. A bountiful society, not an impoverished wilderness, is what we should wish for writers. [2]

I am incredibly privileged to live in a place where Creative Writing courses are abundant and affordable. [3] If I did not — and “did not” is a *very real* alternative — what would I do if I could not look to *other writers* for context, enculturation into writing convention, guidance, example. A writing environment in which to learn and emerge someday as a more mature writer.

Experienced writers teach and help aspiring writers become more mature, more experienced writers, just by being a part of the writing environment — including though personal interaction — in which aspiring writers operate. And many do, and I thank them. I am not sure why the writer Lua quotes does not want to be part of that process.

Of course it is your own journey. Of course it is your own ego. [4] But we are people.

People — we have to hang together. Writers — we have to hang together as well.

1: I am aware children are people, even before they grow up: they are people in progress (generally) toward become fully-realized members of society. I am using person here to mean
an adult member of society — a woman, a man, a person of any gender — a fully-realized person.
2: If you wish to be alone with your writing and your books, that is fine with me as well. To each her own. I am hoping there will be plenty of writers who want something more social. And I don’t have to hope: it’s obviously the case that there are.
3: Affordable to me. Privilege again.
4: I know good and well that’s not the kind of ego to which the writer Lua quoted refers. Trying to take it to a higher level, here.


  1. Lua Fowles struck the right note on a compelling subject – whether writers are born or made. Your two pence added glory to the subject.

    I find that once someone becomes a writer, they tend to ignore what made them that. Rather, they get on their high horse and attribute their success to their innate talents. That’s the worst kind of ego possible.

    Sometimes, even I find myself a little wary of creative writing classes. ‘Why’d I go there? I’m good as I am…’ And then I come across a random article on copy blogger that tells me I’m incomplete.

    Unfortunately, writing classes are rip off here.

    Even without creative writing courses, truth remains that a writer evolves. Even I have evolved since I first picked up the pen. It’s the influence and guidance that helps me grow…Otherwise, I’d be what I was in 6th grade.

    Interesting read.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lua Fowles, Casey Lybrand. Casey Lybrand said: Becoming a writer: […]

  3. Thank you, Maimoona. I’m pleased you found it interesting.

    It is true that a writer evolves. I’m so glad you have found guidance and influence to help you develop as a writer, and I hope you continue to find it!

  4. The most important part about creative writing classes is that they discipline you to write. Sitting down to write, if you don’t already have the habit is the hardest thing on Earth. Cleaning toilets is easier(if rather less rewarding). If you’re doing it right, a creative writing class can get you over that hump. Just keep on writing. Not saying it’s easy to keep going; just that it’s easier than starting. As a prospective writer who is trying to pull himself up by his bootstraps, I know this.

    As well, while I agree that writers have something to learn from other writers, I think the most important way to learn from another writer is to read what they write. (Eeee! Except for me. As you can see from that sentence, my soapbox-pontification is of much better quality than my writing)

    Which brings me to my last point. Nobody is born a writer. Regardless of one’s inborn talents, the first thing they write WILL be crap, the second thing they write will likely be crap, the third thing they write will probably be mediocre at best. If the fourth thing you write is good, you are DEFINITELY a writer. If the seventy-fifth thing you write is good, you are DEFINITELY a writer. Personally, I hope I’m a writer, but I haven’t written enough, yet, to be sure…

  5. I agree that discipline to write regularly is important: the act of just writing is crucial to becoming a writer. But what you write and how you write is shaped by your cultural experience: what we experience in society and with interactions with other people — including other writers. That interaction can be through their writings — and I agree reading is absolutely essential — but I long for and value more personal interaction as well as reading.

    I tend to think of writers as “people who write”, or perhaps more specifically “people who write, and who also think of themselves as writers”. I’m big on self-identification. (The bit of social science education I have is to thank for that.) I’m not attached to this definition — it’s the one I use, but I love hearing other perspectives on the issue!

    I really like how your becoming-a-writer list includes improvement over a long time. I’m sure you are a writer — or will be — by your own standards. You are already a writer to me! (Unless, that is, you don’t want to be: that whole self-identification thing again.)

    And haha, Colin. Your soapbox pontification comes with a dash of humor! That’s always nice. :)

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