This is a piece I originally published on Medium. I only rarely duplicate work here and there. But it’s one of my most-read pieces there, so I’ll post it here. Do share with anyone who might find it useful. It’s for late-blooming beginners…
A photograph tells one thousand words. A face, another thousand.
Here’s a thought: if you write one page a day, at the end of a year, you will have 365 pages. You might have a book. Or a collection of short stories. Or a stirring number of poems.
With just one page a day.
When do you know you’re a “writer”?
There are those who know from an early age, that they want to be writers. Or that they want to write. And they put it off for any number of reasons.
Then there are others who never give a thought to writing, and suddenly one day, the desire begins to grow in them, from nowhere seemingly — some seed drifted in on a gust.
Regardless of the path, both groups can be certain of one thing: by the time you make your way into your 50s, you have an encyclopedic set of life stories — yours and others, from anecdote to novel-length — with which to work. And that number only increases with all of your own stories, as well as those you’ve “collected” from around you. And you’ve been doing that for years now. Even if unconsciously.
First off, let this go. That is, any smidge of regret for not starting sooner.
The only valid regret is not starting now. So get on with it.
That’s enough about that.
Where to begin
One option is to begin with what is essentially journal-keeping. Journal, blog, letter-writing. And if you don’t begin there, begin anywhere. There is no right place or right story. You can begin by saying, “This morning, I did ________” or “Last night I dreamed ______” and write about your day or your dreams. Maybe begin with a story you’ve always wanted to share about your family. And trust me, you have more than one.
What makes a writer?
Writers notice the little things
The details that others often don’t. Writers observe. And yes, you can train yourself to observe. Then write about the observation, mull it over, and re-write.
I was reading a Ruth Ozeki story this past week (check out her work) and there’s a mention of the yellowed grease on the outside of a kettle. And it made me pause… because just a couple weeks ago, I was cleaning exactly that. That detail gave the story verisimilitude — truthfulness. That detail convinced me of what I was reading; I was there, in the story.
Maybe you haven’t been noticing those small details. Does that mean you are not a writer? No, it just means you haven’t been noticing… until now. NOW you will begin to notice. And more: you will write about it, note it, in a book or on your phone “notes” app or somewhere that works for you.
Writers have a mysterious urge to write
When they say that “writing can’t be taught,” they’re not talking about writing, about putting words together on a page or screen; they’re talking about this: the urge. Do you want to write? Then you should write. And it is a mysterious urge; who knows where it comes from. That is what you either have or don’t.
Writers are okay with spending time on their own
Is this you? You’re okay with this? Bum to seat, hands with pen or keys? To all appearance, doing little. Yet so much going on, that when you walk away from that seat, you are physically exhausted. In the best of ways. (Try it — you’ll feel what I mean.)
Writers have Ideas and Stories
You have these, by the dozens, possibly hundreds. And you quite possibly have less boundaries, and a more cut-to-the-chase attitude than a younger person. Because you’ve earned it. And this is useful as a writer. Write for people you care about and do not be curtailed by those you don’t!
There is in the collective wisdom, the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. Some disagree, I know, but in my own writing and publishing life that this has proven quite true. As in, shockingly close.
After working with a number of students of all ages though, I believe that hours spent in mindful, thoughtful living, rich conversation, and books read — many books read — and travel and world-study can replace thousands of those hours. Enough so that if you do begin to set words onto paper, at a certain age and level of life-experience, you will have already taken a sizable chunk from those 10,000.
Especially if you read, read, read.
Fair to say, the older you are when you begin to write, the shorter your apprenticeship.
Banish the censor
It’s entirely possible that you have already done this—sent censor packing—without even being aware of the moment it happened. Sometime in my early 50s, I realized that I was no longer “seen” in the ways that I was seen decades earlier.
And as frustrating as that has been for things like promotion-at-places-of-employment, it has been freeing in many ways. It is freeing!
This is quite possibly the best piece to beginning to write when you are not young.
You are free to do this. This can be your passion. No one is going to say, “My dear, you are going to need a real job. Writing is not a real job.”
And if they do? You know you don’t have to listen.
One page a day even —
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So true. I've been writing for most of my life. I never felt I was any good...until now. Now I'm retired. The life experiences I've gathered, the books I've read, the stories I've listened to, are all a part of me, and come through in my writing. Take a look and see what I mean... https://benwoestenburg.substack.com/about