This afternoon, while driving through Ohio farm country, I remembered how I was in an agriculture class in high school for exactly one day. That’s all it took for me to know I was in the wrong place. I was there because my father was a farmer, and even though he supported me in my eventual career path, I’m pretty sure he hoped I’d continue in his footsteps. Our first assignment? To bring in a soil sample. After class, I went to the principal’s office and convinced him that I should enroll in a general business course rather than Ag 1. The general business course didn’t exactly correspond with my natural talents, but it was certainly closer than the agriculture class. I was relieved to be surrounded by adding machines rather than dirt.
That said, I’m tremendously grateful for those who have the skills that I lack. I’m thankful, and yes, at times envious of the welders, the woodworkers, the mechanics, or any other professional who knows how to do what I can’t.
We can spend a good deal of time as writers wishing we were someone else—wishing we could write like this person or that one, wishing for recognition and success, wishing we knew how to write what we perceive to be the latest hot trend, wishing we were someone other than who we really are.
All of this wishing is wasted energy. We’d be better served accepting the talents we have and putting them to maximum use. An important part of our journeys involves figuring out what we do well on the page—that and understanding the sort of writers we are. We don’t have to be like someone else; we only must be the best version of ourselves.
I’ve always thought of my early attempts at writing as efforts to answer the voices I heard in the things I was reading. My mother was taking an American Literature course via correspondence in order to complete her bachelor’s degree, and I liked picking up her anthology and reading poems. I was particularly drawn to those of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, and Carl Sandburg, particularly the narratives that moved me. I started writing because I wanted to respond to the work that brought a lump to my throat or a tear to my eye. I wanted to be part of the conversation that the realists were having. I was grounded in realism, at an early age, and it’s been an aesthetic I’ve appreciated all my life.
Then I found the Theatre of the Absurd, particularly the work of Harold Pinter, and I was drawn to the menace in his plays. If you look at my work over the years, you’ll see his influence. If we’re lucky, we understand our talents as writers, and we seek out the professionals who are writing in the same vein. Over time, we understand the worlds and voices to which we’re attracted, and little by little we start to write the things that only we can write. We pay attention to the way we respond to certain types of work, and we open ourselves to what they have to teach us about craft and also about the type of writer we’re meant to be. From that point, it’s a matter of practice, practice, practice. Read the work that interests you, steal what you can, sharpen your natural talents, explore the world you know more intimately than anyone else, and don’t waste time trying to be the writer you think the world wants you to be. We can only be ourselves, both in person and on the page. The sooner we understand that, the more we’ll be able to concentrate becoming the best writer of (fill in the blank) we can possibly be. There is work that only you can do. It’s your job to find out what that is.