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Ingredients Of The Writing Life
by Charles W. Sasser

If you write only for your own pleasure and not for publication, then you should be properly content to scribble down about anything and shove it into a bottom drawer for posterity or the trash man, whichever comes first. However, if you long to publish what you write, then maybe I can help with a few broad generalities I learned the hard way over more than two decades as a full-time freelance writer. I call these generalities the vital ingredients of the writing life.

"How do you know if you have talent?" It’s a question I’m always asked.

I tell the story of a friend who wanted to be a writer. Ken was brilliant. He had a truck load of talent, more than I could even dream of. Yet, I became successful. He did not. I possess the vital ingredients Ken lacked. Ken had the most talent, but I had discipline.

I began writing when I was less than eight years old and living in poverty in the Oklahoma hills. I climbed out of bed every morning ahead of the rest of the family, and I wrote. I have written like that on a regular, disciplined schedule during all the years since then. I wrote when I received nothing but rejection slips, hundreds of them. I wrote in the military, when I was a cop. I wrote at war and at peace. I wrote when my heart was breaking as well as when I had great joy. I wrote.

"But... but how do you get your inspiration? I have to be inspired before I can write."

Waiting for inspiration to strike is just an excuse for not doing the very difficult business of writing. If you have to wait for inspiration, then you will never be a writer. None of the great writers sat around waiting for the muses to descend upon them in a flash of illumination. They possessed the ability, a vital ingredient, to inspire themselves.

"But don’t you have to face reality? Doesn’t there come a time when you have to admit failure?"

If you are a writer, you will write. I wrote for many years without publishing anything significant. Some people said I hadn’t enough sense to know when I was defeated, that I was simply too stubborn to quit. I call this ingredient perseverance. I have published over 40 books and at least 2,500 magazine articles and short stories. What If I had given up in the early years?

"How do you set goals?"

Goals are a vital ingredient toward attaining success, without which you are wandering in the wilderness looking for breadcrumbs. Do you want to be a novelist, a nonfiction writer, journalist, newspaperman...? Whatever it is you want out of writing, focus on it and work toward it. You must risk greatly in order to succeed greatly. That can be very scary. But remember, Santayana said reach for the moon and you will at least catch a mountain.

"Where do you get your ideas? Doesn’t the well every run dry?"

It would run dry if I simply waiting for ideas to fall like rain from the sky to fill it. The best wells don’t depend only upon rainfall. You have to dig your well deep enough to tap into that vast network of underground springs and streams so that when you draw out one idea, another floods in. Little water comes from a shallow well.

The capability of producing ideas is an ingredient that springs from hundreds of sources. I read books, newspapers, magazines, billboards, the ingredients on the backs of Jell-O packets. I study people, nature, weather, sunsets and sunrises, the progress of a ladybug along a leaf. Ideas flourish with deep thought, with introspection and time spent alone getting to know yourself. They come from conversations with friends, relatives, strangers in an elevator. They come from living life. Living it. Some people are dead; they just don’t know it yet.

"It doesn’t matter, does it, if my English is poor and my spelling awful? Isn’t that what editors are for?"


There is a man who wants to be a carpenter. He has a grand idea for a wonderful house he wants to build. Problem is, he cannot drive a nail, pour concrete, or miter a joint. What do you suppose his house will look like when he finishes it?

Writing, like carpentry, demands that necessary ingredient called craft. Your life may be blazing with inspiration, your well flooded with ideas—but the house you build will not sell unless you possess the crafts to build it properly. Contrary to what many writers would have you believe, the craft of writing can be learned.

"One cannot give the writer an ear," admitted Sol Stein, a noted novelist, editor, publisher and friend, ‘but craft can be learned and, surprising to some, even observation can be trained to be more acute, precise, particular."

Many of the most successful writers are not overburdened with raw talent. They have a modicum of it, naturally, but the ingredients they really possess are discipline, perseverance, self-motivation, goal-orientation, an observant sponge-like life, and a desire to learn, to write, and to succeed.

Not everyone, of course, is going to be a John Irving or Jean Auel. Not everyone has the same dream but all who succeed at their dreams must first mix the proper ingredients of the writing life.

© Copyright 2002, Charles W. Sasser

Charles "Chuck" Sasser is author of more than 60 published books and thousands of magazine articles. Visit Chuck’s website, www.CharlesSasser.com

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