In my early years writing, I spent a lot of time asking myself, “Do I have talent?” “Am I a good writer?” “Am I smart enough to be a writer?” Those were all “to be” kinds of questions, and implied an immutable, fixed, essential notion of ability–something that you “are” rather than something that you “do.” It implied that talent was genetic, and I was either “good” or “bad,” “talented” or “untalented.” It implied that who you were was static, and could neither change nor grow.
Then I realized that “to be” questions should be replaced by “to do” questions, and that who I really am is about what I do–my habits, my actions, my gestures–rather than what I “am.” There is no “am” at the end of the day, only what I’ve done and will do. What I do–how I garner my identity through actions–truly determines my talents and abilities.
To do questions are useful: “Do I revise frequently, and do I make my work better every time?” If yes, then I’m a good writer. “Do I do the necessary research, and does my research enrich the world of my characters?” “Do I submit my work to friends, and find ways to incorporate constructive feedback?” Those are all much better measures of one’s ability, skill, and talent, than “to be” questions.
“To do” questions acknowledge the fluidity of ourselves, and our ability to improve and change through discipline, application, and education. “To do” questions acknowledge the expansion of our brains, the mystifying effect of inspiration, and the magical power of self-efficacy and self-belief.
“To be” questions are elitist, self-defeating, un-self-loving, and ultimately, inaccurate and unhelpful. Inaccurate because so much research shows that nothing about our brains is “fixed”–our intelligence is certainly not fixed, and everyone can “stretch” their abilities. Biology and genetics are the worst possible determinants of success as a writer. The successful writer was not born with some kind of special gift. The successful writer simply has been doing the right things longer than your average writer. (The right things meaning reading a lot, writing a lot, refining one’s craft.)
The work of people like Malcolm Gladwell has been key in doing large-scale debunking of our myths about genius. Rather than genetic advantages, those highly original and successful individuals simply benefited from particular circumstances, i.e. birth order and/or exposure to technology and information. They may also have benefited from having to overcompensate for some kind of real or perceived drawback. One isn’t born a genius–one simply does genius-like habits and customs. I’m reminded of this every day, when I consider how much the quality of my thinking changes depending on what I do that day–for instance, I find that exercising has a tremendous effect on my brain power. And traveling (being in new environments) has a profound effect on my ability to be creative. When I travel, I don’t even need to tell myself to write. Words simply start flowing.
At the end of the day, there is no “I am a good writer” or “I am a bad writer.” There is only “I do the things that make a good writer good,” or “I don’t do the things that make a good writer good.” Nobody’s born “good” or “bad” at writing, and no one’s stuck at the same level of skill. A good writer doesn’t be a good writer–she simply does a good writer–and we all can, too.