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Why Did You Become A Writer?

Updated: Jan 31

A sixth grade class in Colorado recently asked me, "Why did you become a writer?"


Not, "How did you become a writer," which is the question I usually get asked, but "Why?"


And the thing is, it's been so long since I thought about the Why over the How that I didn't know how to answer that at first.


When I asked my sons, "Why do you think I became a writer?" They said, "Because you're good at it."


But that's wrong.


I didn't become a writer because I was good at it.


I became a writer because I was lousy at it.


No, really. I was. And do you know why I was lousy? Because writing isn't something we are born knowing how to do.


Did any of us come into this world knowing how to write letters?


What about sentences?

Or descriptive sentences?


What about stories that include things like rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution?


Do we automatically know how to do that? No. We all -- every one of us -- have to learn that.


And we have to practice.

And make mistakes.

And try again.

And make even more mistakes.

And keep trying.


In fact, it's practically a requirement to first be bad at something in order to be good at it.


But let me pause here for a second: I don't actually like using the words "bad" and "good." For one thing, they're sort of boring overused words, and I'm sure we could come up with much stronger ones, but for another, they don't really describe how we truly learn, grow, change, and improve.


So, let me edit myself and revise what I just said: it's practically a requirement to not know how to do something in order to get better at it.


One thing I had on my side when it came to writing is that I loved doing it. Even as a kid.

And I'm not even talking about pen to paper writing.


[homemade book slide]


You see, before I was writing my stories on paper, I was telling stories at sleepovers about my soon-to-be middle school -- Anwatin -- that I described as being such a horrific place filled with fiends and ghosts and hauntings that I called it "Ann Rotten."


And I loved telling stories to myself about how my stuffed animals came alive at night and had parties on the brown shag carpet in my bedroom. Parties, I'll have you know, they never invited me to. Stuffed animals, man.


[stuffed animals slide]


But even as much as I loved telling stories, all the writing I did in school still came back from my teachers bleeding with red pen corrections. I got even more red pen corrections when I wrote papers in college. Those red pen marks were telling me what I did wrong and how I could do better. But those red pen marks frustrated me in the worst way. Still, I loved telling stories, and so I kept trying to get better at writing. I tried and tried for years until I finally started getting jobs that paid me to write.


[TWOP, cheese, etc slide]


My first writing job paid me to watch TV shows and make fun of them. (I KNOW!) For another writing job I got paid to eat food and write what I liked and what I didn't like! And once I even got hundreds of dollars to write up an entire library of cheese! Guys, that's over three hundred cheeses I got to describe! I also wrote about vampires and manga and Star Trek and being a parent.


And then about nine years ago I started writing and publishing books.


[published works slide]


Now, something my own mother loves to say is that I got my writing talent from my grandfather -- her father -- who wrote screenplays and movies for Walt Disney. And she says this as though I was always destined to become a successful writer. Like I had a special gift because of him.


[grandpa slides 1 &2] But as proud as I am of who my grandfather was and what he did, I do not look at my writing career as a some sort of special gift I got from him. Because that makes it seem like being a successful writer is some sort of magical thing that only certain people get to be, and I just don't believe that. What I do believe is that anyone can become a writer.


Also, saying that I inherited my writing from my grandfather takes a lot away from all the hard work I did to become a writer. The years of learning and practicing. The mistakes, the red pen marks, the failing, and the trying again and again and again -- that was all me. Not my grandfather. And that can be you, too. Every single one of you can be a writer and a teller-of-stories if it's something you want to do. If it's something you love to do. Being a writer isn't about having natural-born talent or having a gift for it. Being a writer is about:


[bullet points slide]


  • Not knowing how to write

  • Practicing how to write

  • Making mistakes when we write

  • Learning from those mistakes and trying to write again

  • Not knowing how to write

On that last one, yes, that's supposed to be there twice. You see, every time I sit down to write a book I feel like I have no idea what I'm doing. Because even after getting four books published and writing over fifty of them, I am still learning how to write.


I have a novel coming out in 2021 that I think you all will love. It's called The League of Picky Eaters, and it's funny and crazy and it's the first novel I've ever written. But as I stand in front of you today, I am waiting to hear back from my editor on all the things I did wrong in that novel and how I can fix them to make the book even better. And you know what? After I go through that process I will have learned even more about how to write.


I'll give you an example of what editor notes look like to me. Here's a peek at all the notes my editor -- who is like my teacher in the publishing world -- gave me on one of my books. (This is giving you a super secret sneak peek at my picture book Hello, Star which will be in bookstores next year.)


[revisions slide 1 &2]


The first thing I do when I open the document is look at that number: 54 notes! And I only wrote 700 words! That's a lot of red pen marks, dude! Often when I open a revision from my editor, I totally freak out at all the notes I see there. So then I have to close the document, walk away from my computer, and only go back to work on the book when I'm in a better, calmer headspace to tackle all the notes, revisions, edits, and changes.


Because going through those notes, revisions, edits, and changes is how I learn. And I won't ever stop learning. Every book, every story, every article I write teaches me something new about writing.


[bullet point slide]


Oh, I forgot to add one more thing to the list:

  • Not knowing how to write

  • Practicing how to write

  • Making mistakes when we write

  • Trying to write again

  • Not knowing how to write

  • Loving it

Now, I will be honest with you guys. I don't love writing all the time. Sometimes I actually hate it and I get mad at myself when the words don't come out on the page the way they're supposed to. I do scream and swear and stomp around the house when that happens. But I truly do love writing about 98.6% of the time.


And that's why I became a writer.


One more thing: when I say, "Every single one of you can be a writer and a teller-of-stories if it's something you want to do. If it's something you love to do" I mean it. But it doesn't just apply to becoming a writer.


Any one of you could become a successful

artist

teacher

athlete

firefighter

pilot

mathematician

physicist

president

friend

human being


Every single one of those things is something you can be. If it's something you want to do, if it's something you work hard at, if it's something you love.


You just keep learning how to do it.


[Books Inc Something Wonderful sign]

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