Will I ever be a good writer?

#29. Learning from an attempt at fictional writing

I want to write fiction, but I find it hard enough to write about my daily thoughts and experiences.

Yesterday I began writing a fictional short story. I started out optimistically; I had a calm, clear mind and spent about an hour creating a plot for the story I was going to write. I was happy with the slow and steady progress and was excited to make the story a reality. As I finalised the plan, my mind started to feel a bit foggy and lethargic so I decided to take a break, hoping to return refreshed, re-invigorated and ready to write.

I went downstairs, made myself a coffee and chatted with my mum for a bit. I returned to my room, sat down at my desk and opened my computer. It took me a while to re-fresh my memory of the story — before my break the idea had felt fully formed but now it seemed to have split into fragments and I was having difficult piecing it back together.

I decided to just start writing, hoping that the global picture would return and the story would flow. However, due to my lack of clarity regarding the direction of the story, I wasn’t sure of the relative significance of events. I wrote detailed descriptions of the first scene, only to realise that I had used up half the word limit and still had four more scenes to go.

Long-standing doubt about my writing ability started creeping back into my mind. Memories of sitting in front of a blank page in English class. I struggled on for another two hours, but ultimately called it a day without much satisfaction.

The initial excitement I had felt after writing the plan had faded and been replaced by self-doubt. Will I ever be able to write fiction? If this is something I am not naturally good at, should I just forget about it and focus on what I AM good at?

Can anyone write fiction?

A fundamental assumption here is that one can ‘learn’ to write fiction. The growth mindset believes this to be the case and supports its claim with many real-life examples. For example, people with a life-long fear of mathematics were shown to have the ability to excel after transitioning from a fixed to a growth mindset.

But I accept there are limitations; if I haven’t developed critical skills by a young age it is unlikely that I will live long enough to fully develop them. Most ‘geniuses’ are people who, by fate or fortune, started serious practice at a young age and thus accumulated the “10,000 hours” of serious practice that Malcolm Gladwell describes; for example, Mozart started composing at age 11 but didn’t produce his first masterpiece until age 21. I started reading books when I was 22 so I shouldn’t beat myself up if I don’t become the next Shakespeare.

How to learn to write fiction

Become competent in non-fiction

I believe that writing non-fiction is easier than writing fiction. This may be because I have read more non-fiction, or because my brain is wired in this way, but I writing fiction requires the same skills for non-fiction plus additional ones.

So by continuing to develop my non-fiction writing abilities, I will develop transferable skills that will help me to write fiction. This will require continuous, sustained practice, to the point where I can write with unconscious competence.

Learning from others

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Becoming outstanding in any field is almost impossible by yourself — you must learn from others. So far in my life I have read about 15 fiction books. That’s less than one a year on average since I learnt to read. So I shouldn’t be that surprised if I struggle to write fiction.

But to learn quickly from others you have to practice output — it can’t be done passively. As I tried to write yesterday, I noticed myself recalling passages from fiction books I’d read, coming to new realisations about literary techniques and then trying to incorporate them into my writing.

For example, a book I read recently used overlapping narratives without explicitly stating this and as a reader I felt a sense of accomplishment from figuring it out. I would never have noticed this technique had I not been trying to write myself.

I will continue to read lots of fiction while bearing this in mind, so that I can incorporate new techniques into my arsenal and choose the most appropriate ones to incorporate for any particular story.

Is it worth it?

I accept that I am never going to be a ground-breaking fiction author. I know that conventional advice is to focus on cultivating what I’m good at if I want to make an impact. But I truly love the challenge, and for that reason I’m going to keep on striving and see what happens.

Data Scientist + Junior Doctor in London, Cambridge medicine grad, striving to improve healthcare through technology and education. chrislovejoy.me

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