Month: March 2015

Are You Supposed to Be a Writer? Fuck If I Know.

For about, oh, the first twenty years I worked at writing, I had a lot of strange fears about whether I was “supposed” to be a writer (as opposed to something else better suited for me, like a kindly college professor).

My students often wonder that about themselves, too, so I made this handy chart:


Teaching Talent

Several interesting and smart people (Ryan BoudinotChuck Wendig, Nick Mamatas, Theodora Goss) have written lately about “talent” among writing students, whether it really exists as an inborn thing and whether it is worth teaching people without it.

Nobody in the history of art has ever debated these things, so I’m glad to weigh in at the forefront of an emerging issue to help solve it once and for all before we move on.

I have two sets of thoughts about it, one as a creative writing teacher and one as a creative writing student, so today, I’ll focus on teaching.

For the last four years, I’ve taught undergraduate creative writing at a state university. I’m not very good – “talented” — at it, so these observations may or may not be particularly valid.

  • All of my classes meet the basic English education requirement, so large numbers of my students take them because they think making shit up is easier than looking shit up. So lots of them don’t really care if they’re talented. Which is probably a good thing.
  • Each class of twenty contains from one to three students who seem to have both a natural facility with language AND an interest in working more carefully than the other students. By “carefully,” I mean, caring about what they could do better and trying new things to accomplish that.
  • Those students are more often psychology majors than English ones. Probably twice a year, I get one who turns out to be majoring in a completely non-writing subject like biology, and it breaks my heart when he or she says, “I’ve decided to switch my major because of you!”
  • English majors aren’t doomed as writers, but I think they operate at a slight handicap: they’re English majors partly because they see writing as something magical and important, and they’ve been taught a particularly turgid kind of writing for academic essays.
  • The only real help I offer those “talented” writers is to point out a couple of significant areas where they should think more carefully about what they’re doing. I guess I also provide a bit of structure and reassurance: when a story seems to go awry, that’s perfectly normal and here are some things you can do.
  • I worry that I’m doing harm by not being more critical (that being what I could have used as a student), but I want to encourage them to keep tinkering with and examining their own work without relying overmuch on someone else.

Are some students more talented than others? I’ve come to think that the difference comes down to the following non-innate things:

  • They tend to notice more about the world around them.
  • They tend to have an empathy for what other people might find interesting.
  • They tend to tinker with their stories like machines, noticing what isn’t working and experimenting with ways to make it work.
  • They tend not to see writing as magical or God-given or destined.
  • They don’t stop when other people would.

I tell students that art is never stopping short, that by definition it is the more-than-necessary. If I had to define talent, it is an ability to give a shit about doing something more than most people do. I don’t mean persistence – God knows there are lots of dipshits persistently mauling mediocrity like jackals. I mean an interest in doing something extra.

If I taught classes in making chairs, most of my students would hand in stumps. A few of the terrified overachievers would hand in stools: a slab of rough-hewn wood with three legs nailed into it. The persistent ones might add a fourth leg and a back.

The talented ones would run those legs through a lathe and carve something into the back, not because they had to but because they thought it would be cooler.

That’s the difference I’ve seen.

Postcard Story: Four Squares a Day


Dharma missed the pot smoke and the bongos.

The pot smoke didn’t do much for him — he was already a fairly chill soul, as The Man with the Long-Tailed Typewriter and his friends used to say — but it made them more like cats. They slept more, they lolled more on the furniture, they ate less politely, and they contemplated the subtle vibrations of the universe.

The bongos just kind of reminded him of the soft patter of his own feet on rooftops.

It was not Dharma’s choice to be taken in by the Wilsons, and it definitely was not his choice to be renamed “Mittens.” He had no mittens, not even white dabs on his paws, but Juney always wanted a cat named Mittens and here he was.

Here he was, listening to Juney’s soft cooing, to the rasp and squeak of Mrs. Wilson’s needle through fabric, to the crackle of Mr. Wilson’s newspaper and the sizzle of his ulcer, and to the yowling of the radio box as Junior turned the dial.

While wearing a tie. A fucking tie. That made him the worst of all.

Though Dharma was aware that yes, all life was suffering if we chose to think it so, the Wilsons were a unique and trying form of it. Were they as natural as the wind and the lightning, they could be endured as signs that all things were in their order. But they were not natural: they built their mediocrity, cultivated it, gave away all their spirit to other people on the other sides of TVs and radios.

The Wilsons, to Dharma’s knowledge, had never spray-painted an old school bus and rode across the country in it. They had never thrown beer bottles at the cops. They had never given a ride to an old hobo on his way to the Capitol. They had never spread open their arms at the edge of the Grand Canyon. They had never run naked into the surf, and the only sex the elder Wilsons had was arranged with all the clanking majesty of someone jumping on garbage cans.

There really was no way of getting around the fact that the Wilsons were complete squares.

For the last three months, Dharma had been quietly measuring each Wilson in his mind. Three of them disappeared every day, perhaps on a hunt though they never returned with much, and the fourth — Mrs. Wilson — stayed in the house. She did a lot of whistling while the record player turned and her hands were often in water.

What was different about her was that she cried. Often around one in the afternoon, she’d sit on the couch with her hands on her knees, staring at the clock. About five minutes would pass, and then she would sob. Sometimes she was quiet but others she really let it out, almost a primal scream. Almost a poem, a wordless poem.

When Mrs. Wilson would write her thank you letters, Dharma would pace across the paper with his tail in her face, trying to tell her to write something else.

That was Dharma’s only sign that someone in the Wilson house had even the glimmer of a soul, and it changed his plans from simple escape to an escape-and-rescue. He had slowly built her trust over the last three months by following her through the house and curling up on her lap at the crying time, and he was pretty sure that if he ran, she’d come after him.

True, Dharma had no real idea where The Man With the Long-Tailed Typewriter had gone; it was his disappearance on another bus trip that left Dharma vulnerable to Animal Control, after all. In the end, it didn’t matter because Dharma would simply keep running, slow enough that she could still follow even in heels.

They could find the old cottage easy. And if the bus wasn’t back, Dharma supposed they could always find one of their own, along with a Long-Tailed Typewriter for Mrs. Wilson.

Tomorrow, he thought, his paws flexing on Juney’s lap with impatience. Tomorrow this bullshit was over.

Tomorrow they were gone.

[Image “Family Night: 1957” courtesy of]

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