To Become a Good Writer

Be bad at many other things first

Laura Chouette - Unsplash
Photo: Laura Chouette – Unsplash

The better I got at the viola, the worse I realized I was, says comedian John Oliver to Stephen Colbert in this interview. I know the feeling, brother. If life is a case study in ironies, it is no surprise that comics can be a rich source of pithy wisdom.

Acquiring knowledge is like blowing into a balloon. The more air you put in the inside, the more balloon surface you have coming in contact with the outside. Increased knowledge gives you a growing awareness of how much more knowledge you have yet to acquire. And it can power your writing.

Failure revisited

I trained as an economist, but I didn’t pursue a career in academic economics because I wasn’t good enough at mathematics. I have learned, at different times, to play the guitar, piano, and the saxophone, but I’m not confident (or shameless) enough to inflict my cacophonous attempts at music on innocent ears. I taught myself to program, but I can’t write the code quickly, nor efficiently enough to make a living off it. I also have a decades-long (yes, plural) corporate career behind me, but I quit due to my ill-disposition towards office politics and navigating the corporate bureaucracy.

One might argue that I am a frustrated economist, unrealized musician, useless coder, and a corporate failure, not to mention lousy mathematician, ever unable to shed my status as an outsider in all those fields.

Then John Oliver gave me a different perspective.

Writing what you know

On the page, outsiders have always fascinated writers. They are, by far, our favorite characters. And they usually underpin our most cherished themes. Think hobbits, what business do furry-footed halflings have in an epic clash of wizards and warriors? Or Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell, the oldest Captain in the Navy, can’t get a promotion despite his flying prowess. Think Sam Gamgee, Jack Reacher, Elizabeth Bennet.

Even the fictional book that Dan Humphrey, the shadow protagonist in Gossip Girl pens is aptly titled Outside Looking In.

You see, off the page, looking in from the outside is the most useful perspective from which a writer can see the world. The outsider sees the world with fresh eyes, so when he describes it, his similes sizzle, and his metaphors pop.

The Russian Formalists coined the word ostranenie, literally, to make strange, the way to see commonplace objects or situations with the fresh eyes of an outsider, and overcome the deadening effects of the quotidian. In English, it is often translated as defamiliarization.

David Lodge, in his now canonical The Art of Fiction, calls it simply: “Originality” (p. 55).

So, I may not be very good at a whole bunch of things. But maybe I can get good enough to know how what good looks like? And when I describe good, looking in from the outside, hopefully I can make it sizzle and pop.

The well of originality

In the end, it is about the pursuit of originality. Speaking of which, time for a couple of clichés. There’s nothing new under the Sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). In fairness, it possibly wasn’t a cliché when first written, but that’s the magnetic power of originality: Attracting the flattery of imitators.

Your source of originality, then, is your ability to see things from the outside. So, here’s to you, the misfit, the round peg in the square hole, and your ability to think different. Oops, I did it again, and again, but now you get the point: Write it original, and when the imitators come, that’s when you know you’ve succeeded.

Grow your soul

In a letter to Xavier High School, Kurt Vonnegut advised students to practice an art, any art. Not to be the best at it, nor for reward, nor fame, but grow their soul.

If you read blurbs or book reviews, a positive one often contains the phrase soul-searching. And for good reason too. Writers need to reach deep within themselves to write. Writing is sharing your soul. You may as well grow that which you intend to share, so that there’s more.

Read the original story in Medium.

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