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Can Anyone Write a Novel?

J. Greg Phelan asks the question "Can anyone write a novel?" He believes the answer is "yes!"

By J. Greg Phelan

December 08, 2022

Can anyone write a novel? “If they put their mind to it,” Haruki Murakami claims, in his wonderful new collection of essays, Novelist as Vocation. Unlike other arts that require intense training, foundational skills, tools, and materials, all anyone needs Murakami argues is:

… the basic ability to write (most people have that), a ballpoint pen, a pad of paper, and the capacity to make up a story to turn out something resembling a novel—whether they have received any specialized training is quite beside the point. There is no need to study at the university level. It’s fine if you’ve studied creative writing, but just as fine if you haven’t.

The Perennial Quandary

And so, he dismisses the perennial quandary of “Should I get an MFA or not?” with a shrug. Fine if you get one, fine if you don’t. In fact, he compares the world of novelists to “a professional wrestling ring that welcomes anyone who feels like they can take a crack at it.”

In our Incubators and Book Revision Lab, we have writers who have studied creative writing and writers who haven’t. Based on the dozens of compelling and imaginative first drafts and revised drafts I’ve read so far in our three-year-old venture, I’d agree with Murakami—it’s fine if you have a creative writing background and fine if you don’t. In fact, I love the wonderful variety of prose from so many diverse and interesting perspectives, conveyed with such conviction and enthusiasm.

Together is Better

Which reminds me of an important item that should be added to Murakami’s list of what you need to write a novel, that is, in addition to some sort of writing software (I prefer Scrivener). What I’ve found, and the dozens of other people who joined our book inc writing collective have found, it’s a heck of a lot more fun and effective writing and revising our books together.

You see, we don’t just put our own minds to writing our novels. We help each other break through the formidable resistance that gets in our way, helping each other not only complete our manuscripts but make our books the best they can be.

As our octopus mascot, Octavious,  likes to say, “Nine brains rule!” (Read my previous column “Nine Brains Are Better Than One.”)

And we’re adding new brains to our collective all the time.

J. Greg Phelan has written for The New York Times, America, and other publications. He is the co-founder and board chair of Project Write Now, a nonprofit writing center providing classes and outreach for writers of all ages. In 2020, he launched book inc, a community for memoir and novel writers.