What Makes a Successful Writer?

My wife, Kimmy, and I spend a lot of time at a small, independent coffee shop in the heart of Busan called Hipster Coffee. We’re the only foreigners who frequent the place, and we’ve come to know the owners on a first name basis. It’s a great little place to spend the afternoon writing, reading, or just hanging out. I’m often considered the writer in the family, but Kimmy can do it too, and she’s a natural. In fourth grade she wrote her own children’s book called Egbert’s Stuffy Nose about an elephant with nasal congestion, and it was so well-crafted that her teacher thought she’d plagiarized it.

I’ve told her before that she was born with natural writing ability. I swear that if I had her skills, I’d have penned a novel worthy of publication by now. My first two were disasters, my third was a NaNoWriMo exercise, and finally, my fourth and nearly finished, has been a laborious two and a half year process, which I can only hope is well-received by the readers I soon hope to enlist. Of course, she denies that she’s any good, but that’s just not the case. I can pick up a piece of hers and it’s clear, concise, and reveals a woman well in touch with what motivates others’ actions.

But this lead me to wonder, how much of the writers we love are simple naturals? It’s like sports, I assume. There’s the natural athlete who works hard and easily succeeds and there’s the one who, while still good, must spend much more time in practice to achieve similar levels of skill as his colleagues and competitors. Perhaps it’s the same for storytellers.

I certainly wouldn’t call myself a natural. When I tell my wife a story, I often leave out details, jumping into the middle of a tale, as if she’d known the thought process that lead me to it. I even do this with my writing far more often than I’d like to admit. Nothings worse than someone reading your latest piece and then looking at you with a bewildered look on their face. I naturally lack in my ability to describe, and assume that others will be able to keep up with my words given little to no context. Though I’m aware of this, it’s something I continually do. This is to say, I’ve worked on giving more context, but no matter how much I practice, it has not made me perfect. It’s adages like that, I think, that give people the hope that no matter how poor they are at any given activity, with enough repetition, they’ll be able to master it. But is this the case? Are there those that, no matter how much they try, simply cannot be successful at their passions?

We’re told from a young age that we can be anything we want to be. We just have to put our mind to it, never give up, and it will happen. I’m a natural skeptic, so I can’t say I’m sold on this sentiment. I’d like to be, sure, but it sounds too good to be true, and that makes me suspicious. I’m a cynic and realist (though some would say pessimist) at heart. To believe that failure and success are something we have little natural control over is a disheartening and tragic thought, but it’s one worth considering. Perhaps I’ll spend hours, days, and years working at something while I could have spent that time improving upon my true skill, whatever that may be. Do our passions reveal our skills or are they independent of themselves?

Yet, all that talk from childhood about never giving up has stuck with me. At times I think I’m chasing after the end of the proverbial rainbow, but there is no end, or, if there is, there is no pot of gold. Again, the cynic in me can’t help but get out. It’s a battle between defeatism and optimism, and I’m surprised to say that for the better part of a decade, optimism has won out. However, I’m still haunted by that what if. What if, no matter how hard I try, I never have what it takes to achieve my dream? I don’t have an answer, so I leave that thought open ended. Perhaps I don’t want to know the answer, but regardless of what it may be, I’m going to continue coming to Hipster Coffee, ordering my lattes and bubble tea, and hoping that what I’m working on will someday make it to the bookshelves.

Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.

2 thoughts on “What Makes a Successful Writer?

  1. I completely feel you. When I read what my friends write, it makes me all the more aware of how lacking my own prose is in comparison. And yet, though they all say they’d like to write a novel, none of them have.

    I’d like to think that because you were willing to continue working at it, and to keep trying despite your first three failures, you’ve already reached a point much further than most people ever would. You may not ever be one of those absolutely brilliant authors whose work is timeless, but you can still be a great author whose work touches other people’s lives.

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