I have this little chest of drawers crammed fill of Things I've Written. Journals, clippings, articles from the school paper, and school assignments. Most of them are crap. I have this pile of writing assignments from ninth grade, assignments that should have been right up my alley. Good, creative assignments from a good, creative teacher. Every one of those is terrible. And not just ninth grade terrible. They're messy, impossible to follow, and they've got grades on them to match. And I'm not sure why. Maybe it was crippling depression, maybe it was that I wrote most of them the morning they were due, maybe it was that I couldn't stand said creative teacher for reasons I can't quite recall. Whatever it was, if you look at those assignments, you won't see them as diamonds in the rough, and you won't see the work of someone who would grow up to be a writer, even a technical one.
I got better. By sophomore year, I had teachers telling me I knew I could do better, by junior year, they were telling me that I wasn't living up to my potential, and by senior year, they were telling me how gifted I'd be if I just applied myself. All of which are the best compliments I was going to get under the circumstances (the circumstances being my epic underachieving). I'm getting somewhere. I swear.
A lot of writers and writing teachers will insist that you have to have at least some natural aptitude to be a good writer. As Stephen King put it "if you're a bad writer, no one can help you become a good one, or even a competent one."(And I love me some Stephen King, but seriously Stephen King? Lawnmower Man. Lawnmower Man.) I've tried seeing it that way, but I just can't.
Maybe it's just me wishing myself a better writer, but I believe that anyone can become a good writer, or a competent writer at the very least, who is brave enough to strip their writing naked. Competent writing boils down to precise nouns and strong verbs. It boils down to using the fewest, most effective words possible to express a concept. Competent writing begins the same way competent reading does: with Dick and Jane. If you can learn to write Dick and Jane, in my opinion, you can learn to be a competent writer. After that, how good a writer one becomes depends on how hard one works. That doesn't mean we'll all ever publish bestsellers, and it doesn't mean any of us will ever get published. It does mean that if we choose to, we can write clear effective stuff that means something to somebody. And all of us, I promise, can write something better than Lawnmower Man.
Sorry, Mr. King, I kid because I love.