Corner Post: “The Intangibles”


In my last essay, I talked about the practical side to creating a writing life—balancing money, time, and place. This month I want to talk about the intangibles—talent, drive, and discipline.

By talent I mean putting words together in an interesting way, in a way no one else has done or is doing. Some people have an affinity for doing just that. They are drawn to words, and they are drawn to a particular encoding of words on a page that give a different take on the familiar, that create new images, and create meaning from those images just as some people are drawn towards making art or taking photographs that give us insights into ourselves and the world we didn’t have before. I think often of talent as the ability to offer the world something that already exists but has not yet been rendered. The key is the transference of voice onto paper. And voice is to some degree how you talk about the world, and to another, how you reflect on it.

One time I overheard an author say this, and I think it is true, a good writer can write about any subject and make it worth reading. For that to happen, you have to have a way with your own words—the vocabulary particular to you. And part of that is seeing the world differently from the usual, expected, taught way of seeing, and seeing the world with more than just a glance. To see the world in a slightly different way and a reflective way begins to unlock it. It is discovery. That takes trust. Trust that how we see matters, trust that we can put it down on paper with the words we own. Always we are expanding our vocabulary, but at the heart of our writing is a core group of words we’ve grown up on. And they are the words we return to again and again. When we filter what we see through those words, it gives us our unique voice.

But no matter how much talent someone may have, talent is nothing without drive. As I mentioned in my last essay, some people are driven to write, and I count myself in that group. No matter how many times I’ve been distanced from my own writing by other demands, eventually, always, I do write. And always I’m either thinking of writing, translating the world around me into words, or I’m putting those words on paper. The thing about drive—it’s inextinguishable like breathing. One time, in grad school, a friend asked, What if you lose your passion to write? And I just looked at him as if that was the most alien thing I had ever heard. For me, if the writing is focused, if the writing is simply happening, then there is passion.

The reason I say drive is more important than talent is because if you have the drive, you will eventually write. For months at a time you may only be able to write in spurts, but you’ll do it. You won’t give up cause you can’t and not giving up matters more than anything else. Otherwise, it’s too easy to talk yourself out of actually sitting down to write. It really comes back to that simple question we get asked and we ask ourselves all the time, What do you want to do with your life? If you had to distill it to one thing, what would that be? And if writing is the answer, then you won’t stop until you’re doing just that, no matter how many rejections you get, no matter how perplexed your siblings and friends and aunts and uncles are as they stare at you across the dinner table.

The last intangible is the hardest—discipline. And there are two ways to get there. If the drive to write is strong enough, you won’t be able to get through a day without spending hours putting your words down in journals or on a keyboard. But if the writing is not compulsory, then you have to make the time. Because ultimately you have to have uninterrupted hours for drafting and revising. And it needs to be sustained. I talked in my last essay about opening up time so you can write. But once you’ve established a routine, in whatever form, the next important step to do is keep going—that’s the discipline, and ultimately, the hardest part. Life has many great and wonderful distractions. Those distractions can take over your time. Where things changed for me was when I realized I drew my understanding of life through my writing. That writing wasn’t merely expressing. I had to write to understand. And no distraction could equal that.

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James Braziel

About James Braziel

James Braziel is the author of the novels Birmingham, 35 Miles and Snakeskin Road. His work has appeared in journals and newspapers including the New York Times. Currently, he teaches creative writing at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.