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E VERYONE'S A STORYTELLER. Walk past a group of kids, and you'll almost always hear one of them telling the others a story ("And he's there...and she's there..."). Jokes are stories. Telling someone about your day is a story. Recalling the details of a traffic accident is a story. Evidence suggests even prehistoric people told stories. There seems to be a neverending need for people to exchange stories, to define our world and our selves with narrative. I wonder sometimes whether the real difference between human beings and other animals is the practice of telling stories. Do animals tell stories? I suppose the scout bee that does its elaborate aerial dance detailing the path to the nectar could be thought of as telling a story ("Turn right at the big tree. Then fly over that field of timothy"). And maybe a wolf marking its territory with urine is, in a way, telling a story ("Stay away! This is my place, and I am fierce!"). Even a sign can be a story ("Slow! Children at play!"). Whatever your definition of a story, the one certain thing is that stories seem to be a vital part of what it means to be a human being.

Cave Painting
Paleolithic Cave Painting
So there are stories all around us and as far back as the beginning of recorded history, and surely long before that. Maybe that's why some people think writing is a natural, and not a learned, ability. They think writing is a talent you're born with, one that can't be taught or learned. "Writers are born, not made," they say. In fact, some people think teaching writing is harmful to the creative impulse. They think there are no rules for writing fiction. Writing, they think, is as natural as breathing. "She's a born writer," they say. Either you have an innate talent for it or you don't.
But all this is untrue, a lie in service of the ego, and it leads to all kind of silliness. It leads to thinking that all you need to be a writer is an attitude. Maybe that's true if all you want to be is a bad writer. Is that all you want to be?
Gardner was right. There are no rules for writing. But it takes a lot more than attitude to become a writer. It takes work. It takes practice. It takes reading until your eyes throb. It takes the willingess to endure criticism. It takes deep thought, high energy, magic, and luck. It takes what zen buddhists call shoshin, "beginner's mind."
What follows is a set of practices and assumptions that seem to work for me. They may not work for you. But if thinking about mine helps you to come up with your own, that may be just as good. In fact, better. After all, there's more than one trail to the lost coast. And the best one for you is the one you make yourself.


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Nebraska Center for Writers