A couple of weeks ago I was having dinner with some family friends, talking about my latest book, and their teenage daughter asked me, “How do you come up with your ideas?”
What a great question! I blinked, tilted my head to the side, and answered, “I kind of don’t come up with them, they’re just there.”
My young friend looked at me and said, “No, but where do they come from? How do you think up all those stories?”
Her mom smiled and told her daughter, “Some people’s minds just work differently like that.”
How true it is! But it also begs the question: Are writers born or made?
We all learn to write at some point. For me it was first grade. I had learned my letters like everyone else, and as that eventful school year progressed I learned the magic of putting them together to make words. This was more than just an exercise in phonics. It was the dawning of a whole new era. I still remember the day that I learned to write the word “grasshopper”. It was the longest, most beautiful, most complicated word ever! I remember staring at my extremely wide-ruled page of writing paper and thinking *sigh* grasshopper!
When mankind first began creating signs and pictures to represent words it was considered miraculous. Storytellers who could capture their words in stones or on paper with a few simple lines were considered shamans. They were revered by their tribes as people of great power and wisdom. They could do what no other people could do: they could speak to people far, far away. They could tell stories years after their deaths. These were amazing people.
But does the ability to form words on a surface make you a writer? Evidently not, as my young friend reminded me. How do you come up with your ideas? People have been asking writers those questions for millennia.
At the same time, coming up with stories and ideas isn’t exclusive to just a few magicians. If you watch young children at play you can see they are just bursting with stories. Whether its reenacting their favorite tale or coming up with an explanation for why the toy dog and the toy dinosaur aren’t getting along, children create stories by nature. Play is the developing mind’s way of ordering the universe and making it familiar. Coming up with stories to explain the narrative of any given play session is just what kids do.
So if we all spend a huge amount of our childhood making up stories, why do only some of us become writers?
Ah. Here’s where I think my friend’s explanation to her teenage daughter was right. Some people’s minds just work differently.
I happen to believe that you can’t teach someone to be a writer. You can teach someone to write, you can teach them grammar, you can teach them plot structure and character development, but you can’t teach them to have a passion for it. And you definitely can’t teach imagination. Imagination is as much a genetic trait as athletic ability or musical talent. Either you’ve got it or you don’t.
But what if you do have it? What if you’ve got the perfect storm of neurons and synapses that allows your imagination to run free and the passion to drop everything in order to focus on getting those stories out there? When does natural talent translate to you being a writer?
My argument would be that you become a writer when you start writing. Not when you learn to spell grasshopper, not when you sign a book deal with a big six publisher, but when you first decide that there’s nothing more that you’d like to do in a given moment then find a pencil and some paper and write a story.
For me that moment came in third grade when I realized that I didn’t have to wait for the teacher to assign a creative writing project to write something. I was ten years old. It was awesome. For my niece it might just have come earlier. A couple years ago, when she was eight or nine, her mother, my sister-in-law informed me that my niece had taken to writing plays for her and her friends to perform. Thus furthering the argument that this crazy writing thing is genetic.
Do you have to start when you’ve just learned to write grasshopper? Not at all. You’re still a writer and have every right to call yourself one if you wait until you’re old and grey to pick up a pen for the first time. I might be willing to argue that you become a writer when you start imagining stories in your head, whether you write them down or not. Although if you do that you might actually be a filmmaker, like my brother. But as long as the spark is there, you’re on your way.
So what about you? When did you first realize you’d become a writer? Do tell!