I’ve read a few book prefaces recently that have quoted Toni Morrison’s inspiring advice: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
It seems to me that one barrier to writers’ practice of this good advice is a concern that they lack the expertise to write the book they want to see in the world.
In his Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman helpfully writes:
It’s alarming to face the prospect that you might never truly feel as though you know what you’re doing, in work, marriage, parenting, or anything else. But it’s liberating, too, because it removes a central reason for feeling self-conscious or inhibited about your performance in those domains in the present moment: if the feeling of total authority is never going to arrive, you might as well not wait any longer to give such activities your all—to put bold plans into practice, to stop erring on the side of caution. It is even more liberating to reflect that everyone else is in the same boat, whether they’re aware of it or not.
So why not start writing that book, or song, or painting that piece you can all but already see? Why not tackle that project that feels ambitious because it is, but also feels ambitious because our standards for it are unreasonably high?
Hannah Arendt offered a useful way for writers to think of themselves. In her 1964 interview with Günter Gaus, in response to his question about her desire to “achieve extensive influence” through her work, she responds:
What is important for me is to understand. For me, writing is a matter of seeking this understanding, part of the process of understanding…. What is important to me is the thought process itself. As long as I have succeeded in thinking something through, I am personally quite satisfied. If I then succeed in expressing my thought process adequately in writing, that satisfies me also.
She goes on:
Do I imagine myself being influential? No. I want to understand. And if others understand—in the same sense that I have understood—that gives me a sense of satisfaction, like feeling at home.
Writing as an ongoing “process of understanding” helps relieve some of the pressure of it, and it helps keep writers—and creators of other kinds—humble. Writers are “questing,” as a writing coach once told me. Good writers invite readers to come along with them and learn together.