As promised from last month’s blog post.
Approaching this subject is always a risky proposition. I’ve seen writing teachers cancelled from their positions when their frustration with emerging writers emboldens them to say that some people cannot be taught how to write. The issue is far more complicated than that.
In my writing and editing experience I’ve noticed that it’s not so much how you grew up or where you went to school that determines your writing talent and ability, but a set of qualities or personality traits that lend themselves to a writing frame of mind. It isn’t a question of publishing success either. The publishing industry, especially now that it is controlled by corporations fixated on profit rather than quality, is not a fair barometer of writing talent. I know hundreds of people who have the ability, but haven’t had the recognition.
All of the qualities I list below can be learned. It’s certainly easier for people who are born with them to employ them in their writing, but with commitment they can be achieved. In fact, these are all traits that I believe can help people in many different pursuits in life. I tend to think of them as part of a personal growth process.
These are in no particular order, with some brief explanations:
- Attention to detail: The kind of person who is aware of what is going on around them, and, more importantly, recognizes which ones are connected to human desire and motivation.
- A questioning attitude: Good writers rarely take information at face value. Like good journalists, they understand there is an agenda of self-interest behind almost every statement. This is also the ability, and the desire, to look at things from a variety of different perspectives.
- Imagination: Instead of settling for tired conventions and predictable plots, good writers ask, “what if?” What if something different happened? What are the possibilities? Imagination is often the product of planning and spontaneity.
- Memory: A powerful memory helps writers keep the details of their work in mind as they continue to write forward, leading to plot turns that surprise and yet make sense.
- Risk: Good writers write what they believe needs to be said, whether or not it might be published or popular.
- Focus: The ability to turn off email and social media, to basically shut out the real world and immerse in the world of the story.
- An understanding of character psychology: Awareness of subconscious perceptions that their characters have, and the ability to connect those perceptions to meaning for the characters.
- An understanding of reader psychology: What engages readers? What makes them want to turn the page?
- Selflessness: The ability to take the author out of the story, to recognize that the story and its characters are the most important things, the reader is the next important thing, and the writer (and his ego) don’t matter at all. Someone once asked Laurence Olivier what makes a great actor. Olivier responded, “The humility to prepare and the confidence to pull it off.” I see plenty of writers who have the second half of that equation, but not the first.
Notice I didn’t say intelligence. Not that this doesn’t have anything to do with writing well, but without embracing the above qualities intelligence doesn’t translate into good creative writing.
Definitely writing instruction can make a difference to someone who is truly committed to learning the craft. An experienced writing mentor, someone who understands not only good writing practice, but also can accurately assess the abilities of students in order to build their strengths and address weaknesses, can be invaluable.
Those teachers who believe that some people cannot learn writing might consider their teaching technique, not to mention their sense of privilege and their own educational opportunities, before making a judgment about their students. Maybe they are more into their own ideal of writing than helping others; perhaps it shows an insecurity about their own talent, or an inflexibility regarding what is acceptable writing style.
For their part, emerging writers should remember that writing instruction can only take a person so far. Like any form of education it is done best when its goal is to get the student to think, rather than recite—to explore and connect apparently disparate ideas in order to create an understanding of how the world actually works. That creates a foundation for good writing. But students must realize that the education process continues long after they have stopped working with the mentor, and that writing is not so much an occupation, as it is a life.
– Joe Ponepinto