As a teenager I played guitar the way I played pretty much everything else: badly, and with pangs of guilt for not doing better.
Apart from a few lessons when I was very young, I was self-taught.
A friend showed me power chords in Grade 9, which was all I needed to learn “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” one of my generation’s defining tunes.
Over time I learned how to play real chords, which used all six strings instead of two. I learned scales and riffs—parts I worked through at high volumes with pals who struggled as much as I did.
I worshipped Jimi Hendrix, because that’s what all the good guitar players did. He was the consensus greatest of all time, and when magazines deconstructed his style they made it sound like magic.
He played rhythm and lead at the same time; he didn’t really need a bassist; he thought he was a crappy singer, but he was better than most.
I figured I would never be able to play like Jimi because conventional wisdom said nobody ever would, so I didn’t even try.
I bought one of his greatest hits collections and tried to understand it, tried to grasp his genius. But I couldn’t even do that right.
Then, a few days into the year 2000, when I was seventeen years old, I visited my friend Adam at his house in rural Ontario. He took out his Gibson Les Paul—a compact, beautiful and expensive instrument that was almost as iconic to me as Jimi—and let me hold it.
I plunked out a few riffs, embarrassed I couldn’t do anything useful with the gorgeous hunk of wood in my hands. Then I gave it back to Adam, who played it brilliantly.
We got around to talking about Jimi, and I mentioned something about how badly I wanted to learn his songs. I said it as if it were a fool’s errand, like asking one of the popular girls to dance.
Adam seemed to think it was possible. He started playing the main riff of a Hendrix song that is lost to memory—I think it was “Castles Made of Sand,” but it may have been “Little Wing.”
This was a relatively weak imitation, but most of the right notes were there. Adam casually showed me the chords, which were broken in ways I couldn’t replicate but had a similar structure to the ones I learned when I was younger.
So, there it was. Maybe nobody would ever play guitar like Jimi, but they conceivably could, if they worked hard enough. He was a god, but he worked with the same elements as the rest of us.
This, to some extent, is how it is with writing.
Most of us will never match The Bard, or any of our other heroes, for that matter. We will probably never win Nobel Prizes or Pulitzers or National Book Awards.
That shouldn’t stop us from trying.
Writing, as writing instructors like to point out, is a learned skill. No one comes out of the womb knowing how to spill brilliance onto a page.
Great writers become great through heaps of study and practice, and that means you can be a great writer too, if you’re willing to devote yourself to the craft.
If you don’t become great, you can at least become good. If you can’t become good, you can at least become solid.
(“Solid” is the word an instructor in my grad program often used to describe my work. It stung, especially because he was not more than a solid writer himself. But he was right. I have been practicing all my life, and I still have a long way to go before I become good.)
All of that to say: great writing has an air of mystery to it, like all great art. We sit and wonder where the brilliance comes from—the insight, the turn of phrase, the glittering sentences that give us shame.
Some of that is singular and hard-fought, the product of life experiences none of us will ever have. But competency—the ability to be good, or at least solid—is something anyone can learn.
So if you want to write, please do.
Forgive yourself for not being brilliant and focus on becoming good. If becoming good seems impossible, focus on becoming better.
Everyone can become better, and often all we need in a given moment is to be good enough.
I have made a career one assignment at a time, doing well enough to get a piece past an editor and resolving to do better with the next one.
Sometimes my writing is solid, like Adam’s imitation of Jimi Hendrix; sometimes it is good. But it is always getting better, and there is nothing mysterious about that.
I study, I practice, and then I study some more.
So trust me: If you want to do this, you can learn.
The first step is to try.