The Infinite Demands of the Written Word

The longer you write, the better you become at it. That is simply because what our grandparents and parents used to tell us has a lot of truth to it: practice makes perfect. Aiming to achieve perfection might be a bit high and mighty, but maybe that’s not what our elders were trying to say. I’ve thought about this pursuit of perfection. I think they were trying to tell us to practice at what we set our hearts to, and we would always improve.

Over the last few years of working at becoming a good writer, I’ve learned repeatedly that it is not a destination to someday magically arrive at. Becoming a good writer is all about answering to the demands that the craft imposes on you. It’s a bit like a relationship. At first everything is exciting and new. But over time you have more expectations of your writing, and it has more of you. If you stick with it, there is a point when you find yourself asking, “Do I want out of this, or am I in it for the long haul?”

I heard the author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert, talk about this a few weeks ago in New York City when she gave a talk at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Gilbert said at the young age of 15, she knew she wanted to give her life to writing and to live with it, and even held a private ceremony in her teenage bedroom to make her vow to the craft official.

Gilbert might be an unusual example, but I think that’s because most people never realize the when they either commit to writing, or leave it behind forever.

My relationship with writing has been rocky at times, but never once have I thought about doing something else. I have wondered how it’s all going to work out and whether I have the energy to keep going. But then there are those magic moments when something–or someone–inspires me to continue.

Beyond practicing (physically sitting down and writing on a daily or near-daily basis), a good can appreciate the written word when it comes from others. They value a well-written book like a treasure. They deeply admire authors who have mastered the craft of their genre. They know what is worthwhile to read and what is not.

So, lesson number one in becoming well-written: be well-read. But don’t read just anything, and don’t force yourself if you know you’re reading something that was poorly done or worse–is self-serving. There have been many times that I skipped huge sections of a book I was reading because the self-aggrandizing vibe coming off every page overwhelmed the story the author was trying to tell.

My personal favorites, particularly for journalists, include Solomon Northrup’s “Twelve Years a Slave,” anything by Frederick Douglass, Dexter Filkins’s “The Forever War,” and anything by Khalil Gibran.

Just remember, though, whatever you read or write, whether it is amazing or very poorly done, can elicit lessons. I recently read a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” which is considered the greatest murder mystery of all time (according to the book’s back cover). It was my first ever reading of a Sherlock Holmes story.

The greatest lesson I learned from Doyle’s writing style is that he was a master of structure and suspense. I wouldn’t study the story for lessons about character development, because he never made me care deeply about any of the characters. But he made me want to know what would happen next.

That, in a nutshell, is why the demands of the written word are infinite. Once you truly devote yourself to the craft of becoming a great writer, you will never arrive at port. You’ll sail upon the high seas in an endless, and sometimes turbulent, voyage. But I believe, as I always have, that it’s every bit worth the ride.

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