For a few years in my late 30s, I was a poet.
I’d never really written poetry until then. In college, as an English literature major, I took the bare minimum of poetry courses, if you don’t count Shakespeare. (The Milton course was anything but paradise.)
After college, I went straight into writing about technology. If you don’t count lyrics of songs and arias, my poetry exposure was pretty light to this point.
Signing up for a Continuing Education course on writing poetry as an adult was a stretch. But the course wasn’t graded, so I figured I’d try something different.
Once enrolled in the course, with a regular thrum of assignments, I enjoyed not only writing the poems, but also how the process affected me.
Poetry became a new lens for reality—a filter through which to examine my life.
I started noticing the sounds of language, relishing the rhythms of syllables and clash of consonants. Occasionally, a full opening line of a poem arrived in my head like a gift from beyond.
It was such fun that a few of us from the course formed a writing group and continued meeting and sharing poems, just to keep the groove going.
When I wrote poems, I lived in the world as a poet.
Here’s the thing: I never thought of myself as a poet before that time. I didn’t start writing poems at a young age, nor did I spend all of my hours reading poetry. No one would look at my life and say, “Oh, she’s a real poet.”
But I was a poet for those few years, because I was writing poetry.
I’m thankful for my brief time as a poet. It added a beautiful texture to my life. Those poems offer a window into my world at that time.
That’s why I get upset when I hear people say that you need to be a real writer to try a book, or that if you’re not completely driven to write, you shouldn’t bother.
The idea that some people are born to be writers is a fallacy—and a harmful one at that.
The Naturalness Bias
No one is born a writer. I have yet to see a baby or even a toddler produce great prose. It’s always a developed skill.
Yet it’s a favorite excuse for why we’re not trying something: I’m not a poet, I’m not a writer, I’m not a <fill-in-the-blank.>
When we look at the people who are expert at something, who have put in years of intentional practice and effort, it’s easy to think that they have a natural gift, because they are so far ahead of us. But that’s a damaging belief, for us and for them.
Believing in natural talent discourages people from developing skills that they might enjoy (like my poetry). If I’d clung to the idea that I wasn’t a poet, I wouldn’t have tried.
This mindset also minimizes the effort of the expert and skillful.
Angela Duckworth writes about the costs of this belief, which she refers to as the naturalness bias.
“The ‘naturalness bias’ is a hidden prejudice against those who’ve achieved what they have because they worked for it, and a hidden preference for those whom we think arrived at their place because they’re naturally talented.”Angela Duckworth, Grit
We want to believe that people who achieve great things got there by talent, because it lets us off the hook to try.
Sure, language comes more easily to some people. Telling stories even seems like a natural skill to those who have spent their lives doing it. But you don’t have to have spent your life writing to be a writer.
Some people believe that to write a book, you must be driven by an irrepressible demon. In his excellent book Perennial Best Seller, Ryan Holiday shared this quote from George Orwell:
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”George Orwell
Well, heck. Not only do we need to be born writers, we need to be tormented as well.
I reject that idea. Just because some tormented souls are great writers doesn’t mean all writers must be tormented souls.
What To Do If You Don’t Feel Like a Real Writer
If you need to get out from under the naturalness bias, here are a few suggestions.
- Read Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s first novel, published right before he turned 60, or Stones of Ibarra, Harriet Doerr’s first book published when she was 74. Is it too late for you?
- Stop thinking about yourself and focus on the people you want to serve with your writing. Is this about you, or about them?
- Most of all, write. Then write some more. Do it all the time.
Write a poem every week, and you’re a poet.
Work on a book, and you’re an author. You cannot be a published author until you are first an author.
Starting writing anything, consistently and with a purpose, and you’re a writer.
It doesn’t matter if other people would grant you the label. What matters is that you take the action. Do the work to improve and build your skills.
As long as you’re doing the work, you’re a writer. A real one.