Discussion in 'The Lounge' started by seixal, Jan 11, 2017.
Do you think writing depends on talent only, or do you think writing can be learned?
What do you mean by "writing"? On the scale of writing well enough to leave a note for the milkman, and writing well enough to write the book of the century, what are we talking about?
Creativity is not something one can learn, it's either there or it isn't.
I believe that the craft of writing can be learned to a certain extent. It is certainly possible to learn 'good' writing: how to set paragraphs, how to make a dialogue flow, how to write an action sequence, clarity and cause-of-effect.
"A master has failed more often than the beginner has tried." [no idea from whom this quote is]. This is true. Just keep on banging your head against the wall.
Past the beginners level, there is another one:
"The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer's radar and all great writers have had it." - Ernest Hemingway
This quote is thoroughly true and I am not sure if this shit detector can be learned, but it can be acquired with lots of experience and trials-and-errors. At least that's what I fancy.
I don't believe in talent as a meaningful factor. Writing is a craft, and crafts can be learned. Some people might be predisposed to picking up on it - I'm bad with numbers but good with words, for instance, so I'm more inclined to be a writer than a mathematician - but work and study can make up the difference.
Honestly I don't even think creativity has to come into the equation. I've read some books that were the literary version of paint-by-numbers, with no individuality or innovation to speak of, but they were still written competently and people obviously enjoyed them.
I think you can certainly improve your writing by working at it. Whether you'll improve it enough to meet your goals, whatever they are, I'm not sure.
It can definitely be learned and maybe even taught.
However, I suspect it's better to start off writing with only minimal training so you can find out:
if you really want to do this, and
what it is you need to read up on.
Talent, as far as I can tell, is the ability to 'let go' and let your self (not 'yourself,' but 'your self') into the work and that, too, can be learned. The idea that someone is born with a talent for anything beyond eating, shitting and sleeping is, IMHO, a fallacy.
Of course you can. Some people may have more natural talent or skill than others, but it is a craft that can be learned.
I certainly believe that everyone has some sort of talent for writing (some are better at dialogue, some at description), but it's mostly just hard work. When you have amassed a collection of rejection letters, and gotten probably pretty close to getting published, you will know that it is mostly hard work and passion that's driving you and the industry, and a bit of luck.
I recall that Stephen King (yes, yes, I know that many people hate Stephen King) divided writers into three categories, with I believe a focus on the value, or lack of value, of them learning to improve their writing. This is from distant memory, so I may get it wrong, but I'm presenting it as a concept anyway, not as a quote from him.
- Those that will never reach any publishable standard. No matter how much they try to learn, they'll never get there.
- Those that are (or can become) competent and can become more so. Working and training and training and working will make them better and better, even though they'll never be geniuses.
- Geniuses, who may not need training at all, and who may create works of genius while breaking all the rules.
He put himself in the second category. I think that the vast, vast majority of writers are in the second category. (Most people in the first category will have stopped calling themselves writers and moved on to a talent more natural to them.) So if you're in that category, absolutely, learning has value for you.
Yes, King said something like that in On Writing. I have to go with Cormac McCarthy on this one, "Writers are born. They are not made." That doesn't mean you come out of the womb with a pen in your hand. There are plenty of great writers who never tried it until they were in their 40s or 50s. But if you don't have the inherent talent, I don' t think there is anything you can to to acquire it. You can get better at anything with hard work and progress, but if you don't have an intuitive grasp of how story, characters, imagery, etc orbit and compliment each other, you're probably not going to get there.
You know what? Scratch what I wrote there. I think you can probably learn those skills, but I doubt you change your personality to fit that of a writer if you don't have it anyway. I mean, writing is really frigging hard and it's very lonely. Can you sit there and do the work day after day and year after year with no rewards other than your own pride and internal motivation? Can you sacrifice friends and family to sit in your office and bang away at an outwardly useless endeavor? Can you deal with people asking you if you're "still trying to write" when that's all you've done in your free time for years? Maybe. I don't know....
I always wonder if the people who believe writers are 'born not made' (or however else they'd put it, eg in King's first group) have considered that they might not've been 'born' a writer. Surely that'd be terrifying? How would they know for sure if they were born with this innate skill or not? I've always assumed that the vast majority of those who think that you either have it or don't sort themselves firmly in the 'have' column, which honestly always seemed rather narcissistic, to me.
Either way, it's much more comforting to believe that, sure, I might be a bit shit at writing now, but give me time and effort and I can get there. Whether it's true or not. I'd prefer to look at it positively.
Oh, you can totally be born a shit writer. I'm living proof of that. I'll bang my face into the keyboard for the next 50 years and never make a dime because I don't know any better.
Well, we're all born shit writers. That's kinda what I mean.
Spoiler: uncouth language in image (also general silliness)
I just don't get the fatalistic "I was either born able to do this or I was born fated to fail at it" mindset when twenty years ago I didn't even have the hang of talking, never mind communicating complicated worlds and ideas and emotions through text alone. Like, damn, give me a minute to get there. We can learn.
Writing hasn't been my dream my entire life; there were a couple dreams before it. But it was pretty early on. And how terrible it must be to spend as much time as I have (and I'm only 23) writing, thinking about writing, researching writing, developing worlds, developing characters, developing styles, failing horribly at everything you try over and over again in the tedious, painful process of getting better at it over the course of years, and always have the notion in your head that maybe the cosmos aligned in such a way that your brain's just not wired for writing, after all.
That fucking sucks.
It's not that I don't sometimes think "Maybe I can't do this, maybe I'm not cut out for it," because god knows I do. But why accept it as a possibility? What do you gain from that? I mean, I have realistic expectations: I don't expect to get published, I don't expect to make a real living off of fiction, I don't expect any modicum of success or respect or ... anything. But I want it real bad so I try real hard. You know? Why devote so much thought, time, and effort to something in a world where you can just by chance not be able to do it? I don't live in that world.
Over the past month I've been renovating my grandparents' place. Before I started this project I had no idea how to wire in a light fixture from scratch or install a sink or put up drywall, because I wasn't born knowing how to do those things. Obviously I'm not an expert at them now (damn light fixture's a little crooked ...), but I'm closer to it. Writing's a bit more complicated than sheetrock, but I've been doing it and failing at it a lot longer (damn plots are still a little convoluted ...), so I'm getting there.
Anyway, I'd much rather take full credit for all the work that's gone into elevating me from a shit-tier writer to a less-shit-tier writer than just chalk it up to 'talent'. I'd much rather hear "you worked hard on this" than "you're so talented". I did this. Not 'talent'. Even if it's crap and I hate it, it's my crap and I own it.
Here's a thought experiment. That's pretend that we're aspiring professional baseball pitchers instead of aspiring writers. We'll swap the creativity and mental acuity of writing (not very quantifiable) for the physicality of athletics (very quantifiable) for the sake of argument. And we'll suspend the whole age thing since physicality declines with age while mental ability should increase.
Player A was born (not literally) six foot four with a 95 mph fastball. Player B was born five foot six with a 75 mph fastball. Now Player A might be dumb as a post with no idea what to do with his 95 mph cheese, while Player B is a Rhodes scholar and a coach's dream. Player A couldn't hit the broad side of a barn, never practices, and drinks whiskey by the handle when he should be working out. Player B has learned everything there is to know about mixing speeds, changing eye levels, painting corners, and deceiving hitters. And he studies pitching every night and eats his wheaties and does everything he's ever been coached to do. Player A and B attend a tryout for the Red Sox, and while the coaches are impressed with Player B's ability to learn and apply new concepts, they know he doesn't have a prayer of success. Know why? Because he wasn't born with a 95 mph fastball and no amount of coaching or learning ability can ever teach him that. Player A may be a head case, but he was the innate skills that can not be taught, so there is at least the possibility of him learning to get dudes out some day. Take it a step further. Player C was born on a remote island and never even saw a baseball until he was 50 years old (pretend there's no age limit for athletes). One day he picks a ball up, fires it against a wall, and discovers he has 95 mph heat. The coaches and scouts start drooling. He has the cheese! We can teach him how to paint! We can teach him how to get dudes out!
I know this a poor analogy but I think writing is the same way. You have the cheese or you don't. You can learn and practice everything there is to know about writing, but if your fastball can't break a plane of glass, you probably won't be very successful. I'm not trying to sound like a dick, my fastball is mediocre at best, but that's what I believe. And it shouldn't discourage anyone from writing, but reality, unfortunately, is undefeated.
I think the metaphor falls apart in the divide between learning a skill and having a physical ability to do something. Like, I'm 5'2, I have no physical ability to reach the high shelves in my closet, and no amount of trying/hoping is going to change it, sure. But I can learn to get a stool. Writing is a mental 'sport' (said Izzy, the chronic doughy pale nerd who's never touched a sportball) more akin to chess or something along those lines, is how I see it. I could learn how to be a pro chess player, but - as you said in an earlier post - I'd have to have the personality to stick to it (spoilers, I don't). I can't learn how to be taller.
Yes you can learn, I did it. I didn't start out knowing how to write, I write pretty well now.
As for creativity, you can accumulate that with experience, in my opinion. I think that's where my creativity comes from, incessant curiosity.
The metaphor is good because it brings us back to high school and earlier, where many talented athletes are exposed. Similarly, if you're a naturally talented writer, it's likely someone non family-a teacher, a fellow student, or a parent of a friend- told you so. Adolescence (and younger) is a good time to spot talent, because the younger you are the less likely it is that your abilities are based on practice.
Obviously many talented people do not make it and many people without much talent do. But the best people who make it are certainly talented.
I think good writing can definitely be learned. In fact, it probably needs to be. How you learn it is up to you. You can read books or attend classes on the subject and learn the widely-accepted rules. Or you can write whatever you want then test it on readers, to see what works and what doesn't, then adjust as needed.
You can also write to many different standards ...all of them acceptable. Some folks strive for effective poetic language and images. Some folk like to write a straightforward, but absorbing story, using prose and images that nobody notices. (That's me.) Some folks like to shock, or bewilder, or challenge. For some the language itself is most important. For some the message is most important. For others, the story is most important.
The one thing I do believe is nearly universal in people who are considered to be good or great writers is this: they all love to read, and have always loved to read.
Think about it. Why would you want to create something in a medium you don't like?
Is there some reason this has to be 100% one way or another?
Like, does it have to be either all nature or all nurture? I don't think so. But I do think that the elasticity of the brain is truly impressive and much more extensive than the elasticity of the body. So we can learn a lot, intellectually.
That said, "I decided to start learning to write and then I was a good writer" isn't an approach that makes sense to me.
Personally, I was raised in a world of fiction. Read to by parents (we used to take long car trips when I was little and my mom would read epic stories to us--King Arthur and Robin Hood and Robinson Crusoe and the rest for hours on end). Read myself (weekly trips to the library with my dad to get a new batch of books). Read in school, read after school. Read, read, read. TV and movies and oral tradition too, but mostly reading.
Honestly, I think to the extent that I'm a "natural" writer, it's because I was inculcated into fiction so damn early, and stuck with it so damn long. So writing itself? I never really had to consciously learn it, but that doesn't mean I was born with it.
I'm sure others have had different experiences, but that was mine.
Can you learn good writing?
From an individual's perspective, certainly not if you never try. Much of the 'talent' is the willingness to keep on keeping.
You don't control the outcome, but you do your effort.
Separate names with a comma.