What You “Be” v. What You “Do”

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.

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5 thoughts on “What You “Be” v. What You “Do”

  1. Joan Gross says:

    I just finished your book and loved it very much. I have three Korean esl students, young mothers, to whom I have been reading bits of it. I would like to know if there are any plans to translate this book into Korean? They would love to read it but are not fluent enough in English to enjoy trying to read it in the original language.

    • Samuel Park says:

      Hi Joan–thank you so much for the kind words! I’m thrilled to hear that you enjoyed it. We’re still trying to figure out if there’ll be a Korean edition, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Thanks for taking the time to write me–I do appreciate it!

  2. Eileen Kelley says:

    I just finished This Burns My Heart and wanted to find a way to tell you how much I liked it. My husband and I adopted two kids from Korea in 1973 and 1975 (yes, they’re now in their thirties!) and reading your book gave me an insight into the Korea my children were born into. Through the years we have always participated in Korean-American activities, and not always just through adoption groups. In the eighties we belonged to a Korean church in Boston, and have always considered our family to be half Irish, half Korean. Anyway, I really enjoyed the book, am going to recommend it to the kids, especially my daughter, and want to thank you very much for it!

    • Samuel Park says:

      Hi Eileen–Your note really made my day. It kinda makes me realize how the book does different things for different people, and I was tickled to hear of its personal significance to you. Your family sounds wonderful! Thank you so much for taking the time to write–reading notes like yours has made my publication experience all the richer and more meaningful. Cheers! –Sam

  3. girlgeum says:

    What you “be” is who you are. What you “do” can be an extension of that by way of actions and words. By being you state what you want with your life; by actions you state how you are going to get there.

    Have yet to read the book, but one decision can lead to a lifetime of regret(s). A mysterious stranger versus the familiar. Experiences like that happen daily. Not only in love but job/career choices, college choices, friendship choices, family choices, etc. Change or stay with the mundane or the safe.

    .And yes, the wrong choices can leave a heart burning, perhaps hardened.

    How much of the past is in the present in modern day Korea? Traditions and customs?

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