Thursday, May 11, 2006

Talent and Skill

I’ve been involved in a couple of discussions lately about writing, and it’s been interesting to see how different people view the act of writing a piece of fiction. To some, it’s almost a Zen experience of getting in the groove before one can write. For others, it’s more mechanical, more deliberate, something learned. The way folks from both sides talk about the writing experience is so different, that it sometimes comes across as the ‘Zen’ side saying it’s way is superior to the rest of us poor schlubs.

I know that’s not the intent of the folks on that side, and I think it has more to do with the difference between innate talent and having to work hard at something. Folks with an innate talent for something (and we ALL have talents in something) tend to think that EVERYONE does what they do in the same way. Because it’s easy for them, they have a hard time understanding why it’s so difficult for some one else. This is natural.

Over at elsieaustin’s LJ and in a friend’s Yahoo group we’ve been discussing this, and the following example was given in the Yahoo group-

Aaryk said:
Practice does NOT make perfect unless you have criticism.. PERFECT practice makes perfect. Otherwise you continue to repeat and reinforce bad habits.

ElsieAustin said:
Actually, I'm going to disagree with you--at least about this particular thing. When you're learning to play the violin you have to have someone standing over your shoulder, correcting your posture, fine-tuning the places you put your fingers, or else you do learn it wrong--you reinforce the bad habits. But writing isn't like that. First of all, there are just so many different opinions about what's a good habit for a writer and what's not, but more importantly, being in a state of mind to be a writer isn't something you learn by rote.

Having worked at both writing and music, I can say that there are more similarities there than not. Both have rules, things that MUST be learned in order to perform well. In both you have people with innate, natural talent who are able to take those rules and run with them in ways most of us never will. For instance, while I needed some one standing over me, correcting me, teaching me to play the cello, I doubt Matt Maher needed it to the level that I did, and once he learned the ‘rules’, even less, but he STILL went through years of formal study. Why? He’s obviously a talent to whom music comes naturally, why would he NEED years of study under people who are likely not as innately talented? Because you still need some one to correct you when you get sloppy (something I think that happens to the naturally talented more), and to encourage and push you further than you thought you could go. That’s the skill side of it.

Writing is the same. Even natural writers need to be well grounded in the rules, and have some one to tell them when they are overusing a certain element, or aren’t working up to their potential. Otherwise you cannot do more than you are today. The axiom that you learn more from your mistakes than you do from your successes is true, even here.

She went on to say-

It's something you can only learn by doing it over and over, and you can't get in that state of mind when you're scared you don't have any real talent. You have to believe in your own ability to be able to do it at all. Generally, even if you do something you're not completely satisfied with, you recognize the things you want to change the next time all on your own, and each time you try again, you get closer to being able to express that dream.

Like most things in life, writing takes a combination of talent and skill to do well. Skill is that which can be taught, and improved upon over time. Talent is what you bring with you when you start. Even the most talented, without some training to develop the skills, will only be mediocre, and never get better. Even the ‘greats’ still need editors to ‘look over their shoulders’ to point out what could be dome better.

So, this is not to dismiss ‘Zen and the art of writing’ but hopefully to get the point across that innate talent will only get you so far if you don’t have the skills to back it up, and even those folks with very little talent can make up for it to a large degree by honing their skill.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s not an either/or situation, but rather a both/and one. Or, in the words of the infamous (for my generation at least) commerical~

You got peanut butter on my chocolate…No, you got chocolate in my peanut butter!

EDIT- I just realized that there's another part to this equation.


You can have all the innate talent, great skill, but without the discipline to sit down and work at it (whatever 'it' is) it will still never get done. That's my problem. Great ideas, I know how I want to say them, it's just getting them out of my head and somewhere they can be seen (if only by me). I'm a bit like Richard Bach this way, he puts it-

I do not enjoy writing at all. If I can turn my back on an idea, out there in the dark, if I can avoid opening the door to it, I won't even reach for a pencil. But once in a while there's a great dynamite-burst of flying glass and brick and splinters through the front wall and somebody stalks over the rubble, seizes me by the throat and gently says, "I will not let you go until you set me, in words, on paper."

-From the introduction to Illusions

That pretty much sums up my writing style!


At May 11, 2006 7:21 PM, Blogger Alicia said...

Well said.

Now I want to go get a peanut butter cup...

At May 15, 2006 9:17 PM, Blogger Alicia said...

Wow, that Richard Bach quote is something else. I liked to quote Rich Mullins: "things that we would gladly life without, if only life were possible without them," but this is better. That image: of ideas bursting through glass windows!

I've read this one several times, and it's not just rhetoric: I find myself agreeing with you on every major point. I'd even take it farther: I bet Matt Maher had to have every bit as much practice and step-by-step correction at the beginning as the rest of us. (There's a fantasy book I'm reading now, that describes a young lady just learning to fence. She loses her first match spectacularly and wants to give up, but the book does an awfully good job of making the reader see what it's like to be in that situation--doubting but persevering, and eventually her body learns the habits it needs.)

Oh, yeah, too, feel free to use my name if it's less awkward than "Elsieaustin!" It's even here on my comments list. =)

I think I realized another miscommunication, too. I've had years of study and practice in different forms of writing, with correction all along the way, and I'm not intending to dismiss that at all. It's necessary for ANYONE, talent or not, and in fact those who do have talent (you, and all), need that practice, learning, and discipline, in order to bring it out. You argued that better in your actual post, of course!

The question that triggered the whole discussion was a question: why would someone show work to another person, if one wasn't looking for a critique?

I think the answer is, writing doesn't have to be perfect to be something. It's easy to lose faith in the process (to lose faith that there actually is an idea out there, bursting on the edges of the glass to get in), if the *only* reason people ever read your work is to point out the places where you might improve it.

Of course, though, you still make some good points about practice, and I'm going to take my own advice and not come up with a counterargument, because they're enough in themselves. They're good!

At May 15, 2006 11:14 PM, Blogger Kyrie said...

The question that triggered the whole discussion was a question: why would someone show work to another person, if one wasn't looking for a critique?

I think the answer is, writing doesn't have to be perfect to be something. It's easy to lose faith in the process (to lose faith that there actually is an idea out there, bursting on the edges of the glass to get in), if the *only* reason people ever read your work is to point out the places where you might improve it.

I think the difference can be summed up in how a work is presented. Is it, "Here, look what I've written", or "Will you take a look at what I've written".

One is handing the finished product to a reader, and the other is asking for input.

HOWEVER (and you knew that was coming, didn't you?!) I think that there are times when giving 'gentle criticism' is helpful and even necessary for a finished work.

For example, say I've written something that you know I hope will spark a discussion. But when you read it, you noticed several vague or misleading areas that muddy what you think I'm trying to say. Pointing this out to me (privately of course), even though I didn't ASK for it might be what's needed to make my point more clearly.

THAT comes from how well you know the author, andhow you think they will take the unasked for criticism.

Think about that another way. If I've written a story and posted it to be read, and you absolutely hate it, would you LIE to me and tell me it's good? I think Dee's idea of 'gentle criticism' is a good and necessary thing there too. For you to have the freedom to tell what you DIDN'T like about my story and why can help me make the next one even better.

But if you feel that you CAN'T tell me anything negative about me work, then I've put up a wall there that pushes you away from interest in my writing, and doens't give me the input I need to make improvements in the future.

That's bad all the way around, I think.


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