People often tell me, “I’m not a writer.” Even though I write for a living, my response is usually “Neither am I.”
If your idea of being a writer is publishing thrillers or romances, I’m not a writer. Poetry isn’t my strength, although I’ve composed verses for textbooks and tests. Do I produce deathless prose? That’s not my ambition. My goal is to give readers information that’s easy to understand and to use. That doesn’t take a masterpiece.
Even Ernest Hemingway, who won both the Pulitzer and a Nobel prize for fiction, didn’t consider himself a “writer.” He said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
Did Hemingway let this insight discourage him? He didn’t sit around moaning “I’ll never be a master.” He kept right on apprenticing.
Imagine what would happen if people thought about talking the way they often think about writing. “I’ll never give a speech as good as Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream.’ I’m not a speaker, so I’ll just stop talking.”
Stop greeting people, sharing news, making jokes, asking for directions? You don’t need to be a great orator to do all that. In the same way, you don’t need to be a great author to put ideas into words.
What if writer approached writing the same way the doctors on M*A*S*H approached surgery?
Before serving in Korea, Dr. Charles Emerson Winchester had only contempt for meatball surgeons. He prided himself on his meticulous incisions and sutures. Under battlefield conditions, he learned that taking time to make small, neat stitches on one soldier’s wound might cost a critically wounded patient his life. Winchester swallowed his pride and became a meatball surgeon.
I don’t know that M*A*S*H writer Larry Gelbart ever used the phrase meatball writing. However, he did say, “You have to allow yourself the liberty of writing poorly…. You have to put down less than marvelous material just to keep going to whatever you think the end is going to be—which may be something else altogether by the time you get there.”
Like meatball surgeons, experienced writers learn to prioritize. They ignore refinements as they focus on drafting. They abandon dreams of perfection. Instead, they “put down less than marvelous material” and keep writing. They write something—anything—rather than indulge the delusion that every piece should be the best they can produce. Meatball writing? Maybe. But their words keep flowing and their job gets done.