I didn’t always like to write. When I was a 6th grader, I remember typing nervously on an old Windows 95 PC after school one day, trying to finish a intro-body-conclusion essay about a topic so important it was probably on a dreaded standardized test. My first ever “short story” was a heavily plagiarized handwritten knockoff of the plot of the computer game “Laura Bow 2: The Dagger of Amon Ra” (man, I wish I had that around – there’s something about handwriting in particular that I think invites so many possibilities). The Rubicon I ended up crossing was reading the book “The Haunted Mask,” part of R.L. Stine’s massively popular (and iconically 90s) “Goosebumps” series.
Writing is unique among the creative arts, I think, because the inputs that go into being great at it are so predictable: The best writer are almost invariably the best readers. Moreover, there really aren’t writing prodigies in the same way that there are music or visual art prodigies. Many of the world’s greatest authors – Shakespeare, Sophocles, Shaw, to name but three playwright with S-surnames – were late starters and/or late bloomers.
Shakespeare didn’t publish any play till he was in his late 20s and arguably didn’t hit his stride till he was in this mid 30s. Consider that Hamlet was likely completed when the Bard was 36 or 37, and all of his great tragicomedies (‘All’s Well That Ends Well,” “Coriolanus,” “The Two Noble Kinsmen,” etc.) meaning that he hit was still climbing to his artistic peak at the same age at which Mozart was, more than a century later, deceased (the Austrian composer died obscure and poor a month before his 36th birthday). Sophocles finished “Oedipus at Colonus” when he was almost 85.
The explanation is straightforward enough: Age brings opportunities to not only read more, but to read differently, to add new histories, correspondences, novels, poems, blog posts, newspaper columns, etc. to the brain’s vast, subconsciously indexed repertoire. The base is never forgotten, will never crumble, even as new columns and ornaments are added to it. I remember coming across certain turns of phrase and vocabulary words for the first time, but these discoveries fuel relatively minor bouts of growth. The most lasting learning comes from soaking up writers who are unafraid of using language, because language is for them almost like a surgical tool, the only one they have, for relieving that frenzied, mildly anxious condition known as inspiration.
“Inspiration” may be too mystical a word for it, invoking images of Muses speaking sentences directly to some grizzled Hemingway hunched over a typewriter. For me it’s more like, some sentence that hits the brain like rain would hit a fully spread-out umbrella, formed from the vapors of different overheard sentences or signs read on the subway. Sometimes, there is a phrase that just has to be turned into its own piece, forming the body and then requiring a title as a final ribbon on things, and at other times the title comes first and the body follows.
It’s sort of like cooking: The motions and the measurements vary each time, but the recipe – the things you’ve read, looked at, though about – stays the same and provides most of the final character. I probably would have never thought about all the different ways to compose – starting in media res, throwing paragraphs around the page, writing the intro last, lifting seemingly unrelated anecdotes to provide segues – had I not taken my current job two years ago and been forced to write at such tremendous volume for such a sustained period of time.
Having hard quotas is a way of dispelling concern about perfection, sure, but it is also a spigot for creativity. I don’t have forever is sort of my mentality with writing, rather than the less moving it doesn’t have to be perfect. I have a limited time to get my thoughts on the page and I don’t know who if anyone is going to read them – why be afraid? If nothing else, writing anything, writing it quickly, and then reading it back more slowly later (I always cringe at reading my own stuff in the moment) has a way of fueling the reading-wrying cycle that allows for growth.