Wednesday, October 25, 2006

What exactly is writing "talent"?

Who's asking: Paul Tomme, Arlington, TX

Paul's full question was: "What exactly is writing 'talent'? Is it pure imagination? Is it skill with language? Is it having something to say based on life experience?"

The question came up in response to my saying that I have trouble with the industry that's sprung up to support and encourage aspiring writers. I can't help but feel that truly talented writers don't need the gadgets and seminars, and the gadgets and seminars don't help writers who don't have any talent.

I'll stand by that -- in general -- although, in much the same way that my pal David Baerwald says that anyone who can speak can sing, I will say that anyone who can speak can write. Not everyone can write well, but everyone can write adequately. It's just a matter of keeping it simple. If you're not confident about your writing skills, keep your sentences short and your words shorter. Subject, verb, object.

Description is never as important as character and action: who's your hero, and what is she/he doing? If you're writing nonfiction, stick to what your senses tell you; don't speculate about what anyone's thinking or feeling, about what happened earlier or what might happen later.

A story starts with a main character who wants something or needs something, or needs to react to an external event. What happens next is the body of your story. How your hero solves his problem or achieves his desire is the story's end.

"Talent" is being able to translate large amounts of information, whether it's narrative or emotional, into a story that entertains or enlightens people. The greatest writers translate universal truths into humdrum details: how to flense a whale, for example, or what the streets of Dublin smell like.

Although I'm wary of many writing programs, the discipline and feedback of a good writers' workshop or writers' group are invaluable to writers who are still experimenting with voice and technique. Finding a good workshop or a good writers' group is like finding a therapist; you click or you don't. If you find yourself in a bad one, you need to cut your losses and get out fast. But "bad" does not mean "critical", and too many writers quit workshops because they're not willing to learn from criticism. (A bad writers' group is one where criticism is given or taken personally, where members are not working on a similar level, where one or more members take up a disproportionate amount of the group's time, or where people feel obligated to give each other only "support.")

I suppose all of this is a long way of saying that "talent" in writing, as in anything else, is a determination to improve your skills. You do that by writing and asking for feedback, not by reading a how-to book. It comes easier to some people than to others, but even "talented" writers have to keep working at it.

1 comment:

Michael Wicinski said...

I'll need to mark this one as a favorite and come back and read it from time to time. Maybe I've got talent or maybe I've just got a lot of good friends.