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:
Several interesting and smart people (Ryan Boudinot, Chuck 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.