Everybody Should Be a Writer
I’ve written before about the ways that theatre education is beneficial for young people beyond basic theatre training – there is plenty of evidence to suggest that arts education can improve a child’s quality of life, self-esteem, and academic performance across the board. There’s also the loftier ideals that the arts instil values and cultural knowledge in young people, so if we’re talking about the philosophical benefit of an arts education, the value is essentially limitless.
But arts education usually stops, for a lot of people. Artist and writer Shaun Tan, one of my first favourite writers, discusses it like this on his website –
I was always interested in drawing as a child, which I think is true of virtually all children, only I never really stopped doing it! The impulse to write stories and create images is essentially the same as an adult, only you bring a lot more experience to the task, and become more critical about the process.
Everyone is innately creative, to some extent, because creativity is more than just writing or painting. Creative thinking lies in our problem solving skills and ability to mentally reason and experiment. I posset that adults that don’t develop that skill, who leave the arts behind them in primary school, become the most critical writers as adults.
Let me explain.
I love my job, but one of the most fun and rewarding parts of it are my university students. I have been lucky enough to teach an introductory creative writing course this year, which has allowed me to work with students who are not creative arts students. Introductory writing classrooms are full of students looking to fill some credit points with a subject that looks easy enough and kind of fun. My students are future lawyers, engineers, science teachers, musicians, psychologists, and everyone in between. For many of them, the last creative writing they ever had to do was when they were 17 years old. They often approach their work with terror and shame. One of my students, who is studying law, told me that they were terrified of submitting their short story assessment. The fear in their eyes was palpable. I asked them why.
“Because I haven’t done it in ages. I’m used to writing essays.”
Which makes sense. Writing for them has become a tool, both of their trade and of their institution. Writing is a hurdle, a barrier, a terrible task to be endured.
Plenty of my students have exhibited some kind of terror over an aspect of writing that I would consider to be almost entirely unimportant. At least three students have asked me, with great trepidation, if they could use italics to show that some sections of their story take place in the past. Another asked me cautiously if they were allowed to only have one character in their short story. Another was convinced their writing was bad because their story was too simple and cliched to write about a walk in the forest.
I am extremely happy that these are the problems they are facing. Because what is significant is that none of my students have complained of not knowing what to write. They all have a narrative or idea or image in their soul that they want to share. They just keep getting caught up in the tangled weeds of grammar and assessment jitters.
When ‘normal people’ have a go at writing, they tend to hold themselves to the same level of quality that they would hold multi-millionaire prize winning novelists. They look at a rough draft, wordy and terrible in the way that all rough drafts are, and decide that they are not worthy of the title ‘writer.’ They don’t get it right on the first go, and feel an immediate need to abandon it. They don't consider that the best stories ever written started in the exact same way.
I wish writing was treated more like sport.
I played cricket in high school for a few years. I really enjoyed it. I liked playing in a girl’s league. The comradery that comes from playing a game traditionally dominated by men is fabulous. There were only two other teams at that time in the Sydney area that we played against, so our pool of enemies quickly shifted into being a supportive, if competitive, community.
And I was, of course, not very good at it. I was alright with fielding, I liked bowling, I loved batting, and I wasn’t great at any of it. I was fine. But that was fine. There were girls on my team who were working their way towards professional leagues and sports careers, and I was not one of them. My batting wasn’t International Test Match Perfect. But I didn’t play cricket because I wanted it to be my career.
There’s a silence you get in your head when you bat. Staring down the bowler, eyes trained on that scuffed pink ball, the sun bearing down on you. Squinting through the grill on your helmet. You can smell the sweat from every head that's been in there before yours, and you can see swallows ducking and weaving through the tall yellow grass behind the wickets, but you can't hear anything. Only your own breath. Everything is so far away, but everything is so immediate. Your training ticks through your mind, and you feel an awareness of your body that you don’t often allow in. And in a flash it’s over- the ball leaves her hand, screams through the hot air towards you, cracks against the wood of your bat, and your suddenly running. Everyone cries out your name, yells for you to run, and you feel free.
But that silence before it, like a standoff, like a dare- you don’t need to be a professional to gain something from that.
The best lesson I ever learnt from having my writing performed in front of a real audience was that I was always a writer, weather someone else determined it or not. You can start to validate yourself years before anyone else does. There is no standard a cricket player needs to meet to be called a cricket player except that they play cricket.
There is no standard a writer needs to meet to be called a writer except that they write.
Writing unplugs something in us. It unlocks and unravels and undoes the things that reality forces upon us. Even the worst writing ever created, the horrible poems and terrible stories we right in the notes app on our phones before quickly deleting it, has that power. The sooner we accept this truth, that writing is good for the soul, the sooner it becomes an act done out of love rather than fear. It is so much easier to care for yourself and find your voice if you treat it as a craft, even if it will only ever really be a private hobby.
The hard part of creative writing isn't finding inspiration or grammar. The hardest part is believing that your writing has value.
It does. It always does.