Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Talent or Learning: What Makes a Writer an Author

I was scrolling through the Absolute Write message boards recently (a great Web site by the way) when I came across a very interesting discussion on whether or not writing is an innate talent or something that can be learned. Like many posters I have to agree that it’s a little of both...and it’s a little more.

I think anyone can learn to write. Like one poster said, it can be compared to throwing a football. Anyone can learn to do it and with practice and perseverance anyone can become reasonably good at it. But talent is what I think sets authors apart, just like it sets football players apart. While everyone on the field works hard to learn the game, not everyone walks onto the field with an innate talent to shine. Peyton and Eli Manning are good example of this. Presumably both have the same background, the same training and were taught the same skills. In fact, you could even argue that Eli, as the younger brother, might have had a little more training since the kinks were worked out with Peyton. Why then is Peyton so clearly the better player? Talent. Something that can’t be taught or learned. Peyton just has more of a natural ability for the game (in my humble opinion).

But I think there’s a third element we’re missing and that’s finesse.

I have a friend who is a professional skateboarder and during a recent discussion about many of the young up-and-coming skateboarders he mentioned that while a lot of them have skills, not a lot of them necessarily have the finesse that makes a really successful skateboarder stand out. I think the same can be said of authors. When you read a really amazing author, one that takes your breath away, it’s not the talent and it’s not the learned skills that wow you. It’s that author’s finesse. His or her ability to string words together in such a way that actually make you want to stop and read again.

Let’s go back to football. As a Minnesota Vikings fan I’ve been watching Randy Moss’s career from the beginning. Why is Randy Moss such star? Especially since he’s never even been to a Super Bowl (except as a fan) and he’s never really stood up to all the hype. Simple. Finesse. While many will argue that he might be one of the biggest jerks in football. Okay, maybe behind Michael Vick, none can argue that watching him play is like watching a ballet. That guy has style and when he makes one of those catches it will actually take your breath away. He has talent, he definitely has finesse, and now he just needs to spend a little more time learning the game and yes, you will have a true star on your hands (if he doesn’t get too old first).

Writing skills can be learned. You can learn to plot, you can learn to create characters and you can learn to string words together, but some of us have a talent for it. Some of us have an innate ability to string words together and don’t need to think about characters or plot because building both come naturally. And beyond that, there are a lucky few with real finesse. An amazing ability to wow just about anyone with their writing. And let me clarify, they aren’t necessarily literary authors. Finesse can come in many forms and in many genres.

So what are you thoughts? Is writing a talent or a learned skill?



Christopher M. Park said...

I think you've hit it. This is one of the best discussions of this issue that I've seen.


Conduit said...

Yep, in any creative skill there is an ingrdient-X that sets some apart. You see it in musicians as well, of course. Take Eric Clapton or BB King for instance. Both fairly straightforward bluesy players whose styles anybody with a bit of talent could emulate. It doesn't take that much technique to play a Clapton or King solo. BUT ... both those players have a unique voice that comes from something deeper than fingers formain shapes on strings, and nobody else on Earth can sound like them. An old music teacher of mone called it 'projection'. The ability to project the essence of yourself through an instrument.

Certain actors have it, too. Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford - none of these guys are brilliant actors in the way that De Niro or Hoffman are, but they have something, an indefinable thing, that makes them captivating on a screen. It's what makes them stars, and if anyone could figure out a way to manufacture it ... well, would we want them to?

Anyway, Laurence Olivier called this 'lookatme-lookatme-lookatme', and in musicians it's called 'projection', and in writing I guess it's 'voice'.

Interesting post.

Lauren J said...

Interesting blog.

I do believe anyone can learn to write - if elephants can be taught to paint, humans can be taught to write. But a good author is more than just a trained elephant, there is a depth, a tone, a voice that resonates in the writing and compels the reader to stay with the story.

Nonny said...

I like your comment about finesse. I've seen a lot of people talk about talent vs. learning before, and I don't think I've seen that mentioned before. I'll have to mull over that a bit. :)

I think that most anybody with enough determination can learn to write. Talent means that some things come more naturally and as a result, you learn easier.

Without meaning to seem arrogant, I've been told by many people through the years that I'm "talented." My biggest strength as a writer is my ability to create vivid characters. But I still had a lot to learn about other areas of writing. (Like, how not to infodump. Oy.) It doesn't matter how great my characters are if my story is unreadable or if my plot has more holes than a Swiss cheese factory.

What bothers me most is that people will come up and say things like, "You're so talented" -- and blow off all the years of hard work. You don't become a skilled writer overnight. You just don't. Everyone has to start somewhere, whether it's writer, painter, musician, basket weaver...

"Talent" gives you an edge up. It might even in many cases make the difference between a "good" book and a "great" book because of that undefinable spark. But I don't think that's true in all cases.

Wilfred the Author said...

Since we're on sports comparatives, Lee Trevino once came out of a completely buried lie in the bunker. The ball hopped once, skidded a bit then hit the pin hard and dropped in the cup. A spectator yelled, "You're plain lucky Trevino." Lee walked up to the man and said, "You're right, I am lucky. And the more I practice, the luckier I get."

I know writing can be learned. And I thing the craft is honed through practice and lots of it. I also think that some of us are just plain better at it than others, and I'm not sure if that's talent or finese.

Christa M. Miller said...

I think another valuable ingredient that most people discount is maturity. Practice is critical, yes, but the time spent doing it - and the life that occurs during that time - is IMO what eventually makes the writing "click." At least it did for me.

Also, I'm not sure I would have arrived at that point if I weren't absolutely convinced that writing is what I am meant to do with my life. Perhaps that's where voice comes from, and what drives dedication to all the practice?

Andrew said...

I have kind of a mixed reaction to this. I explored a similar question in my blog a while back, but in this case it was more about university students, determining which ones had the writerly stuff and which ones didn't. But I tend to be wary of romanticized discussions of Great Literary Talent. It kind of leads to the overblown perceptions some people have of The Writer's Life, which makes for all kinds of trouble. People get hung up on the question, "Do I have this amazing breathtaking skill?" They seem to think that writing a successful book is a near-miracle, an act reserved for Great Thinkers.

So perhaps what I'd say that good authors have is a realistic view of the act of writing. They don't dwell on fantasies that writing will vindicate their lives. The act of writing is an act of communication, and they write in order to be understood. Then someone understands it, and someone likes it, and they put it in books and in bookstores, and it's a good thing but it isn't romantic, and it isn't heroic, and it isn't destiny. It's just what we do.

Brandi. said...

I think you're right.

One thing that hasn't been mentioned is also the convergence of timing. I once heard that the difference between a good author and a great one is that the latter interweaves the language conventions of the past and the present.

Kaytie M. Lee said...

To a certain extent, finesse can be developed. That's where reading widely comes in. It's not enough to practice writing--you have to read others, see what works and what doesn't and what wows you, to find that finesse in your own writing.

tessa said...

Craft can be honed; voice is innate.

Anne-Marie said...

I think you've explained it very well- there is craft and skill, and these can and should be practised to become proficient. That undefined "thing" that can't be taught is what comes from within, that innate talent or spark that elevates certain authors above the rest. It's the same in every field, whether it's music, drama, of visual art.

Laura Kramarsky said...

There's another aspect I think is important, too: passion. You can have talent, practice, education, even some ineffable "finesse," but unless you're excited by writing, indeed, by what type of writing you're doing, you won't excite readers.

I imagine it's the same for an agent--you can have all the contacts in the world, keep up on everything in the industry, have worked and studied for years, but if you're not passionate about the piece you're trying to sell, you won't be successful selling it.

spyscribbler said...

I agree with you. In my years of teaching music, I've found that talent is almost a non-factor, and often a hindrance to developing the necessary work skills. Talent is usually coupled with such ill-disciplined work habits, that "average" students with good work habits far surpass the talented ones.

Talent + discipline is very rare, but when it happens, it sure takes your breath away.

Travis Erwin said...

Great post, and I love the football analogy.

Only thing I would add is that along with talent and finesse you better have a bit of tenacity.

Chumplet said...

I'm reminded of the fine art of cooking. Anybody can open a can or throw something in the microwave (well, almost anybody) but few make a memory out of a meal.

The first ingredient is desire. After all, how do you know you can do it if you don't really want to? Add the ability to take direction, open-mindedness and practice, and you likely have a meal that will satisfy the household. However, with that dash of innate talent, everybody will be talking about that meal for a long time.

Actors, artists, musicians, dancers and writers all fill their roles admirably. The ones who pull that extra ingredient from within themselves (not meant to be gross) will be remembered.

Tom Cruise is a movie star. Johnny Depp is an actor.

Christie Craig said...

Good post Jessica.

I seriously think it's both. I think a writer's voice may be ingrained in one's personality, but it may take an author years before learning how to let it flow on the pages.

I think craft is mostly learned. I know I knew nothing of things such as Point of View and pacing when I first started. And took years of working on craft before I sold.

Thanks for the wonderful blog.


Liz Wolfe said...

Great discussion. I'm not sure what I absolutely believe that some writers have an innate talent. It comes easier to them than to others. Finesse is an interesting concept. And difficult to define. Certainly there are authors who have it. But do they have it for every reader? I've read books that are best sellers, that almost everyone raves about and it just doesn't do it for me. And I don't know why. I don't think it's dependent on the type of book because I enjoy romance, Thrillers, mysteries, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Literary -- just about anything that catches my interest.
So, is the finesse different for different readers?
And where does desire come into play? And how much does it count for?

Kate Douglas said...

I think "finesse" comes from having the skills so well-learned and deeply ingrained that you're able to turn your voice free without worrying about the technical aspects of writing. It's a combination of so many different values: maturity, skill, desire, life experience and the overall belief in the beauty of the written word. I figure if I keep at it long enough, one of these days I just might develop a bit of my own finesse. :-)

Chiron O'Keefe said...

Wonderful post, Jessica. Followed by some great comments.

My feeling is this... Good writing is a beautiful blend of patiently developed skill and inborn talent. I've known people with oodles of talent who have no desire to take the flash out of the pan. All smoke and no fire.

Yet I've also found, in my endless pursuit of good reading, books that fill in all the blanks but lack any real spark.

In my RWAOnline group, I host the weekly Challenge board. In this week's motivational essay, I noted that writing a story is not quite the same as learning to play guitar.

I can pull out my songbook and pluck through the chords of a favorite tune. However, to put my own original spin on it... well... That's where the talent comes in.

I see it as breathing life into a story. You can piece together the bones, give it a zap of electricity but only a fine few have that bit of magic that brings the book to life.

Yet it's all so subjective, isn't it? What I might rave over, leaves another person cold. My friend may gasp out her admiration of a book that left me yawning as I flipped through the endless pages.

Hmmm... You've got me thinking now! *laughs* Always a dangerous thing.

--Chiron O'Keefe

Colleen said...

This leads to the question: what is talent? We seem to agree that talent can't be taught so, what is it? I think, perhaps, it's the ability to observe the world around us and to do so from a perspective outside ourselves -- to see life differently.

What can be taught is how to set these observances down in a way that is, hopefully, compelling.

Without the former the latter is boring and meaningless. Without the latter the former might be random and lacking and understandable form.

Karla said...

absolutely 100% I agree. I have used the sports analogy in the day job frequently, using Michael Jordan as the example. The folks can all do the job, but is it fair to compare them all to Michael Jordan when he is so clearly head and shoulders (maybe that pun was intended, not originally, but once it came out, then yeah) above the rest. Yep, it's a matter of talent. That doesn't take anything away from the rest of the team, but it does differentiate him from his peers.

BCNeal said...

Thanks for turning me onto Absolute Write- it's great!