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Thread: Learning to write

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    Learning to write

    I was talking to a literature tutor a while ago who told me that, in his opinion, creative writing classes are a waste of time. He has colleagues who run such courses, and some who even teach MA's and PhDs in creative writing. But in his view you can't learn to be creative. You can't even learn to write well!! For him, talent is inborn; you can either do it or you can't - and the vast majority can't. He also confessed that his colleagues generally agree with him, but they have to earn a living, and so they run these degrees in creative writing knowing that the vast majority of their students are wasting their time.

    What do you think? Can you learn to write stories? Or poetry? Or even non-fiction? Or does the talent have to be there in the first place? Obviously you can hone a talent that is already there. But how good can you get when the talent isn't there?
    Last edited by WICKES; 05-26-2019 at 03:41 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by WICKES View Post
    What do you think? Can you learn to write stories? Or poetry? Or even non-fiction? Or does the talent have to be there in the first place?
    Most writing requires innate talent to be worthwhile (with different muses controlling different sorts of writing). But please note that it's the lousy writers who make the most money.

    Quote Originally Posted by WICKES View Post
    Obviously you can hone a talent that is already there. But how good can you get when the talent isn't there?
    What you can hone is voice (even bad writers have to be able to do this). But maybe being able to hone voice in an innate talent, too.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    I have no idea what methods are used in Fine Arts of Creative Writing programs, although I seem vaguely to remember that famous programs have produced some well-known poets.

    But the notion that the ability to write well is "inborn" is so clearly incorrect as to be ludicrous. If you don't learn a language, you won't be able to write in that language (this is the reductio ad absurdum argument, and an appropriate one). Writing is a craft. The difference between writing and other crafts is that all of us learn the basics of writing, whereas most of us remain utterly ignorant about basket weaving, etching, furniture making or glass-blowing. That leads people to think (and even to WANT to think) that writing talent is "inborn".

    Is talent in other arts inborn? Obviously, all talents are innate to some extent (the reductio ad absurdum proof is that no chimpanzees have written best sellers). But they must be developed through training and practice. Mozart was writing symphonies when he was 6, but if he hadn't been trained in music from his infancy, his "inborn" talents would have remained hidden. No such prodigies have appeared in the realm of literature, which suggests that literature takes MORE training than music. In the Renaissance, all of those great painters seem to have served apprenticeships with other painters. So the Fine Arts Programs may or may not be helpful, but if we look at the example of other arts, some sort of apprenticeship is.

    If painters, sculptors, and musicians require years of training, why should the literary arts be any different? The only reason is that everyone receives a DEGREE of literary training, and some think it sufficient for expertise.

    I do think many literary artists are autodidacts, training themselves by extensive reading, and obsessive writing. Surely one benefit of Creative Writing programs is that they provide a structure that forces writers to write extensively, thus honing their craft.

    If we look at famous authors, they seem to have been either professionals (like Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens and Trollope) or obsessive autodidacts (like Keats). Either way, they wrote constantly, for either money or some inner need. Of course it is possible that someone like Keats was obsessive (in part at least) because who wouldn't obsess about one's own obvious and massive talent? Still, without the practice, the talent would have remained hidden.

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    Yeah, that's what Tim Tebow said. ;-)
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    Still, without the practice, the talent would have remained hidden.
    Even the greatest writers still had to hone their talent. I don't think anyone would disagree with that. The question is, how good can a talentless mediocrity become
    Last edited by WICKES; 05-29-2019 at 11:43 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    Still, without the practice, the talent would have remained hidden.
    Even the greatest writers still had to hone their talent. I don't think anyone would disagree with that. The question is, how good can a talentless mediocrity become through training, practice and hard work? It seems clear to me that all the great novelists, essayists and poets were born with a talent. It was there at the start. A first class education may then help of course. Dickens, for example, may have been an even greater writer had he gone to Oxford and then done a course in creative writing. For a start, we might have been spared the awful, sexless female characters like Agnes, or the padding, or the sentimentality. Indeed, many good writers could have been great writers had they worked harder or received a better education, and so on. The point my friend was making wasn't that you cannot learn or improve but that there must be something there to start with. And in the vast majority cases there isn't anything there. Most people have no talent. Most people are mediocre (including me).

    Still, it would be interesting to test this. Imagine someone with an interest in writing and a love of books, language and ideas. He has no talent, however, and his attempts at poetry and short stories have all been dreadful. Then a billionaire decides to try an experiment. He offers the man a chance to live in a villa on a desert island for twenty years. He won't have to earn a living or waste his time in anything but writing. The villa is filled with the classics, plus books on grammar and creative writing. For twenty years he does nothing but read, study, write, practice, read, study, and so on. How good would he be at the end of those twenty years? Would he be writing publishable novels and poems?

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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    Practice may not make perfect, but it might make "acceptable". Art (I suppose) involves both craft (skill) and imagination. Honing writer's craft will make him a better writer; I'm guessing that practicing his imagination will as well (as will studying literature and borrowing from it). Of course it's difficult to sharpen a knife made out of granite. Not everyone has the innate talent to be a good artist (whatever the art). Tim Tebow just can't throw the football at an NFL level, no matter how much he works at his craft.

    I'm guessing that those with no talent whatsoever won't even be accepted into fine arts programs. Tebow was given the chance to improve his throwing because he WAS talented, just not quite talented enough.

    By the way, my son is a professional writer (he's a journalist). I think he improved his writing dramatically in his Masters of Journalism program (I know that's different, but there are some similarities, one of which simply involves practice).

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    After years of puzzling over this question, I only have an inkling of an answer. It does take time to become a better writer. Remember what Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the 10,000 hour rule. Much of that time, however, should not be devoted only writing; part of it should go to a nearly-obsessive habit of reading

    Learning the art of writing as opposed to innate talent— the tired old "nature vs. nurture" argument — doesn't seem relevant. I often wonder if so called "talent" is the same as the desire or compulsion to practice the craft.

    The other question is art v. commerce. One could be a highly talented, skillful writer and never achieve any kind of recognition, financial or otherwise,yet seemingly "lesser lights" inexplicably prosper.

    Becoming a critical success is a worthy ambition, but even in that lofty realm some writers are heralded as literary "icons" while others peck out their creations on second-hand laptops between their shifts at Walmart.

    If writing is a lifelong compulsion, keep doing it. Don't stop just because somebody reminds you that "Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is a sign of insanity."

    Just don't expect any miracles.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Pompey Bum View Post
    But please note that it's the lousy writers who make the most money.
    Really? Then how come me wallet's so empty?


    Now -- to the serious question that opened the thread:



    After years of puzzling over this question, I only have an inkling of an answer. It does take time to become a better writer. Remember what Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the 10,000 hour rule. Much of that time, however, should not be devoted only writing; part of it should go to a nearly-obsessive habit of reading

    Learning the art of writing as opposed to innate talent— the tired old "nature vs. nurture" argument — doesn't seem relevant. I often wonder if so called "talent" is the same as the desire or compulsion to practice the craft.

    The other question is art v. commerce. One could be a highly talented, skillful writer and never achieve any kind of recognition, financial or otherwise,yet seemingly "lesser lights" inexplicably prosper.

    Becoming a critical success is a worthy ambition, but even in that lofty realm some writers are heralded as literary "icons" while others peck out their creations on second-hand laptops between their shifts at Walmart.

    If writing is a lifelong compulsion, keep doing it. Don't stop just because somebody reminds you that "Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is a sign of insanity."

    Just don't expect any miracles.

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    Quote Originally Posted by WICKES View Post
    The point my friend was making wasn't that you cannot learn or improve but that there must be something there to start with. And in the vast majority cases there isn't anything there. Most people have no talent. Most people are mediocre (including me).
    I agree with most of what you say, but I take some issue with the above. Everyone's talented at something and there are different kinds of writing that use different skills. It's not all fiction and poetry. More people do non-fiction, journalism, history, philosophy, politics, science, biography/autobiography, and criticism to name only a few. My wife (who is not even a native English speaker) has published articles in world-renowned journals. They have won highly competitive awards in two continents. But she couldn't write a novel or a poem. Her brilliance lies elsewhere. The trick is to stop expecting talents to be distributed evenly or fairly (they aren't) but rather to search for your own strengths. That means doing what you are good at--not what you wish you were good at.

    I appreciate Ecurb's comments about Tim Tebow (hey, Ecurb), but I was alluding more to the T-man's unfortunate baseball dreams (at least he's good at breaking up fights). There was also a famous basketball player (you may know his name--I'm not a basketball fan). Anyway, he was considered a talented player. At some point, his son died, which left him broken-hearted and questioning life. He decided that he'd been pushed into playing basketball when what he really wanted to do with his life was to play baseball. So he did. And the poor guy, he just sucked. I mean, he could play mediocre ball, but his talent, like it or not, was jumping up at hoops. You know who I mean, right? Anyway, life's not very fair--so you have to play to your strengths.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 05-29-2019 at 05:19 PM.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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    Quote Originally Posted by AuntShecky View Post
    Really? Then how come me wallet's so empty?
    Do the logic, Aunty.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    Tebow's and Jordan's baseball careers don't answer the question. Both quit baseball after high school, then took it up again. This might just as easily support the practice makes perfect theory as the notion that talents vary (although Jordan's talents seem uniquely suited to hoop).

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    And how did they do when they returned? As my college Latin teacher used to say (when explaining why the class was getting smaller), "Za proof iss in za pooding."

    So that was Michael Jordan, huh? Damn.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 05-29-2019 at 06:20 PM.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by Pompey Bum View Post
    And how did they do when they returned? As my college Latin teacher used to say (when explaining why the class was getting smaller), "Za proof iss in za pooding."

    So that was Michael Jordan, huh? Damn.
    Greatest shoe salesman ever!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    Greatest shoe salesman ever!
    Well, you know he was a great basketball player if I've heard of him. The only others are...Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, and Havlicek Stoletheball.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 05-29-2019 at 06:51 PM.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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