Anyone can write, right?

2013-06-13 00:00

A PARENT from the school where I work, who is an editor and writer, recently sent me an interesting article by American writer Ben Yoda titled: “Warren Buffet is a better writer than I am. Damn it.” In the article, Yoda describes the sinking feeling he gets whenever he reads something written by someone who isn’t a writer by trade, but who can write better than him.

Yoda describes the sinking feeling as especially bad when the people in question aren’t “creative types”.

So when Yoda reads the memoirs of actor Richard Burton or folk legend Bob Dylan (his examples), he feels bad, but feels a whole lot worse when it’s someone such as investment guru Warren Buffet.

The article is written with style and humour, but there is little doubt that Yoda has picked up on an issue that resonates with many writers, even low-key, very occasional freelancers like myself.

Just take Yoda’s example of Dylan. After decades of phenomenal success as a singer and songwriter, the first volume of his autobiography (Chronicles) is published in 2004 to widespread critical acclaim — it turns out that he is a pretty good writer as well.

Success in so many different fields while most of us are desperately struggling for some kind of recognition in just one — it doesn’t seem fair, does it?

And where is Malcom Gladwell’s famous rule when you need it — a requisite 10 000 hours of practice before becoming an expert?

But I agree with Yoda that the fact that Dylan is at least a “creative type” does soften the blow — he is at least still “one of us”.

But when it is someone like Buffet, things are a lot bleaker. It’s not that he is already the world’s most successful investor, fabulously rich and by many accounts a really decent guy.

Being over-blessed isn’t the issue here, nor is being exempt from the 10 000-hour rule. It’s rather that he is a logical, analytical, left-brain dominant person with a Master of science degree and no creative background. Yet he is able to casually, and with apparent ease, produce some pretty sharp writing — in a letter to shareholders no less.

The subtext of this is: if someone with Buffet’s kind of mind can manage this, how hard can writing be?

Any mystique associated with the creative process (which I think many writers secretly enjoy) gets pretty much dismantled as well.

Writing is very vulnerable to this kind of exposure. Unlike most other occupations, writing has almost no educational or legal barriers to entry and just about anyone can give it a go. For example, if after reading this article you feel that you could put together something more interesting, better crafted and generally just better, there would be nothing to stop you doing so. Send it to the features editor of a newspaper or magazine and if they like what you have done, you could see yourself in print.

But to practise as a doctor or lawyer, for example, requires extensive formal training and legal certification. You can’t wander into a surgery, pick up a scalpel and try to remove a mole from someone’s cheek because you were pretty handy at getting splinters out of your brother’s feet when you were a child.

Nor are you able to deliver an argument in a court of law because you were captain of your high school debating team and are still pretty persuasive.

Architects, engineers and psychologists — almost all the professions, in fact — enjoy similar protection from “intruders”.

But I believe that there is a brighter, more positive flip side to all this, and it’s something that I really love about writing.

While there is very little preventing people from writing, there is very little to protect them while they do so.

Writing is performance- and product-based. You are judged by the words you put on the page, not those on your C.V., or on a certificate that hangs on your wall — and this applies if you are Buffet, Dylan or the manager of your local DVD store.

So, while the answer to the question: “Can anyone write?” has to be “yes”, it comes with a rider — anyone can write, but you have to be able to.

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