There's been a lot of talk in the past two years about things you don't learn in school. Billionaire entrepreneur-turned-venture capitalist Peter Thiel has gone so far as to offer kids a cool hundred grand to drop out of college and start a company instead. A video called "What Most Schools Don't Teach" starring the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates has racked up close to 10 million views in a little over a week.
It got me thinking: What skills do I rely on that I didn't learn in school?
Here's the honest answer. I haven't taken a class on the craft of writing since high school (although I had some extraordinary teachers at Punahou, including now University of Nevada English prof Jen Hill). And I only took a handful of literature classes at Stanford.
I don't believe that studying writing will prevent you from becoming a better writer. I'm sure for many people it has played a vital role in their development of style and voice. However, I posit that becoming a great writer does not require any formal education in the subject.
In fact, I believe that developing skill as a writer requires that you commit to only two actions, both of which are highly accessible regardless of your income level, physical location, or prior life experience:
Let's talk about reading first.
I am blessed to have grown up in a household of bookworms. My mother read to my elder brother and me every night before bed until I was 10. I looked forward to this element of our daily routine more than any other. Together, we galloped across a wind-swept Virginia island with Misty of Chincoteague. We learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House on the Prairie to tickle our taste buds with maple syrup poured atop freshly gathered snow. We survived shipwreck, built a tree house, and discovered a wild array of animals with the Swiss Family Robinson.
By the time I had reached middle school, I had developed an incurable reading habit. Books offered solace during hormonal corkscrews, entertainment in the days before the Internet, tablet computers, and in-car DVD players, and always, an endless vista for the imagination.
It doesn't matter if you grew up loving to read, however. That's no excuse. It is never too late to cultivate the habit. Read a little every single day. Read everything: fiction and non-fiction, blogs, newspapers, magazines, and books. You needn't even limit yourself to print. Listen to books on tape and fantastic storytelling programs like This American Life. Watch well-told documentaries. Go to free author events at your local bookstore to hear writers read their works aloud.
Consume writing voraciously, and you will absorb writing skills by osmosis. You will come to appreciate an unexpected word or turn of phrase. You'll intuitively develop awareness of what makes a story arc engaging or a character tantalizing. Above all, you'll cultivate your capacity to dream and imagine.
But enough of the fun stuff. Let's get down the dirty work: Writing.
One of the best articles I've ever read about being a writer was published several years ago in The New Yorker. It profiled Nora Roberts. Not Nora Ephron, the beloved romantic comedy writer of When Harry Met Sally fame, but Nora Roberts the romance novelist. Surely most New Yorker readers view Nora Roberts' writing as plebeian, a Ph.D. at least away from fine literature and completely unworthy of their consideration. But Nora Roberts writes at an alarming rate, and Nora Roberts' books sell. (By the way, she is also a "self-taught" writer.)
Question: What is "America's most popular novelist's" self-professed key to success?
Answer: "Ass in the chair."
I couldn't agree more. If you want to be a great writer, then write.
Malcolm Gladwell provided scientific evidence for the "ass in the chair" theory of becoming the next Ernest Hemmingway in his 2008 bestseller Outliers. He claimed that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.
If you want to be a great tennis player, play tennis. If you want to conquer the Rubik's Cube, fiddle with it for hours each day. If you want to be a great writer, then write.
Write in your journal. Write a blog, even if no one reads it. Carry a notepad and pen with you at all times and scribble down your thoughts as you sit in the subway, wait for an appointment, steam rice. Keep a notebook in your bedside table and, when you awake in the middle of the night from a dream in which you're a dragon breathing firey winds of destruction over the Himalayas, write it down. Write thoughtful, heartfelt, long emails, Christmas, and birthday cards to your friends, family, and lovers. (Bonus: They will love you for it.) Write catchy Facebook posts. Try varying your first word and sentence structure to see which one gets more likes. Tweet: Expressing yourself in just 140 characters is a wonderful writing exercise.
Don't worry too much about what you're writing, if you haven't figured that out yet. Maybe it's a memoir, or maybe it's a novel, or maybe it's a series of blog posts that will attract a following as vast and faithful as those of Zen Habits and The Happiness Project.
Don't worry too much about who you're writing for. This goes contrary to all writing advice I've ever encountered, which states: "Know your audience." I say: "Know yourself." What do you have to say to the world? What makes your heart sing? The best way to get to know yourself, your strengths as a writer, and your voice is to write.
Don't worry about asking for critiques of your writing for a long, long time. You're better off protecting your writing from critical eyes until you've had a chance to rework it, fine-tune it, and get it to a place where you feel pretty darn confident that it kicks ass. Then when someone says, "I don't believe this character would fall in love with a tomato," or "You're lacking a coherent narrative structure," you can either nod in polite agreement and make the changes, or nod in polite agreement and ignore the recommendations. Because you know what you wrote kicks ass.
Now get your kick ass in the chair, and start writing.
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