Friday, September 22, 2006

What to Make of Talent

I’ll be honest. I don’t believe in talent.

Even though I was often told as a student that I was “talented,” I always found that label vaguely offensive. Calling me “talented” negated all the hard work, the sweat and sometimes literal tears that I put into learning. But then again, even though I got mostly As and Bs, I fought for each one of them. I’m mildly dyslexic, which meant, for me at least, that I had to pay attention, check and double and triple check my work, and there would still be mistakes. I loved school, but it wasn’t ever easy for me, like I’ve heard other people say it was for them. So being called “talented” grated. I would have preferred to be “accomplished.”

As a teacher, I truly believe that writing is a craft, and, like woodworking, can be taught to even the most novice practitioner. With instruction (either informal or formal) and enough practice, I believe that nearly anyone could write sellable fiction.

I only add the “nearly” because there is such a thing as having an “ear” for narrative and dialogue. Some people have a wooden or tin ear when it comes to storytelling, and that’s very difficult to rise above. However, I still believe it can be done. You develop your ear for the written word by reading it. If you read, your writing will improve.

Having an ear, well greased by copious reading, also explains those anomalies. Those of us who, when we sat down to write our first story, had people remarking that we had “talent.” It may have even come easily to us – those things that mystify others like pacing and plot and dialogue – because we read so much that we understood those craft-related things on a gut level, rather than an intellectual one.

I also suspect that’s why so many people start off with what is, in many ways, the harder of the two forms – the novel. While I read short stories (and did as a kid), I read many, many more novels. Thus, for me, the novel feels like the natural form. It’s what I’ve got an ear for. I’ve had to teach myself to write short stories, and I still don’t feel as comfortable writing them as I do novels. I just don’t have enough practice either reading them or writing them. The first time I decided to try to get over the transom, I sat down with one of Dozois' YEARS BEST SF collections and read the whole thing. When I was done, I got up and wrote a story called "Twelve Traditions" my first professional sale (to the now defunct SF AGE.) What was telling to me, was that when I finished the story, I knew it would sell. It just felt right. I'd found my ear (however briefly.)

What do you think? Are people naturally talented writers? Is it nature or nurture?


Stephanie Zvan said...

Ask me to pick a side in a dichotomy, and I'll pretty much always tell you the dichotomy is a false one. No different here.

Yes, some people have talent. They can choose the appropriate metaphor every time, or they have an ear for dialog that makes a story live, or the way they think about the rhythms of living translates into pacing that keeps readers from putting a book down, or they see the murky bits of humanity inside all our heads a bit more clearly.

Not that I'm suggesting that these are things that the Human Genome Project will be locating one of these days. Rather, I think they're combinations of temperament, learning styles, and hundreds of other things we couldn't possibly teach in a writing class. (No, not even you, Lyda.)

I think every successful writer has at least one talent of this sort, something they do so instinctively they'd claim they're not doing it at all. Surely we've all critiqued something and been amazed that another writer who's quite good at a number of things could do that so badly. Why, that's equivalent to breathing!

That's where craft comes in. There are so many skills that go into writing that you're never going to find someone who naturally does all (or most) of them well. The rest have to be learned, either by imitation of the talented or from someone who has done the painful work to break the skill down into its component pieces.

So, short answer (not one of my natural talents): I think it takes both. Craft, to pick up where talent leaves off, and talent, to provide moments of encouragement during the process of learning craft.

lydamorehouse said...

I certainly didn't mean to imply that _I_ could teach anyone to write. :-)

I would, of course, agree with you and yet slightly disagree. I think it's true that some people are instinctively better at certain aspects of writing, but I'd say that's not because they have TALENT, but because they have an ear for that particular writing skill (be it dialgoue, pacing or whatever.)

This is semantics, of course. What I call "having an ear for," you're calling "talent." Keep in mind that I have a personal reaction to the word "talent," because I think that even these "innate skills" really aren't. They're things we've developed by copious reading or just plain living and paying attention. But, I think those things shouldn't be dismissed by calling them talents, I'd rather say that those things are skills or accomplishments. You want to call them talents, okay. Just don't call *me* talented (as if there's any danger of that!)