Teaching Writers to be Talented


As I’ve mentioned before on my blog, I’m pretty iffy on the subject of “talent.” People say “That writer is SOOO TALENTED!” based on the work they produce, and there’s really no way to know where the work–not to mention the expertise that created it–came from. Multiple revisions? Strong editorial hand? A childhood spent ear-deep in books? Years of study?

This blog is mirrored on LiveJournal and Dreamwidth, where people can leave comments. On DW, David Hines started a conversation about how we learned to recognize the things that need to be revised.

As I said before, if it feels wrong, I revise it[1]. The question is: how did I learn to recognize good from bad? I mean, it’s easy to talk about teaching the rules of grammar or plot cliches, but those are intellectual lessons. For me, I know it’s wrong before I really understand why. It’s the feeling that makes me give it a second look.

So how do we train writers to have this instinctive response to things that suck in their own work?

Here’s how I understand it works:

1. Make sure they’re exposed to good work.
1a. Make sure they understand what makes it good.
2. Make sure they’re exposed to terrible work.
2a. Make sure they understand what makes it terrible.
3. Tease out the good from the bad in problematic works.
(None of this is exactly revelatory, is it?)
4. Expect writers to explain for themselves why they respond the way they do.

It’s number 4 that matters most, I think. It’s important for mentors, peers, and teachers to point out not just good from bad but good from great, but it’s even more important for writers to acknowledge and analyze their own responses to work. What they feel, not what they ought to feel.

Eleven-plus years ago, when my wife and I were expecting, we did a lot of research on proper parenting techniques. Let me just say, there’s a lot of bullshit out in the world about raising your kids. Most of it is about discipline and far too much is faddish, but we were happy with John Gottman’s teaching. (Yes, this is a digression. I’ll bring it back to the topic at hand soon, I promise.) Actually, we borrowed a DVD from the library featuring a lecture he gave on “emotion coaching.”

Essentially what he explains is that it isn’t enough to love your kids or to be warm to them. It’s also important to teach them about their emotions. You set boundaries for proper behavior. You pay attention to those times your kids are feeling angry, frustrated, sad, etc. You don’t try to change their moods to something else with jokes or play or tickling. Instead, you teach the child an age-appropriate name for what they’re feeling and make sure they understand that it’s okay to be sad or angry or whatever.

And so on. The important thing is, when the child understands and trusts their own feelings, they get a host of benefits not the least of which is to trust the little feeling of alarm you get when you meet someone sketchy and manipulative.

To bring this back to writing, there are a lot of responses that people have to narrative and language that, left unexamined, lead them to make really shitty story choices. They may know what will evoke a particular response in a general sense, but can they predict the response accurately? Do they understand their own responses, and have they developed the empathy to incorporate the responses they’ve learned to expect from other people?

Because that sort of accuracy is what people call “talent.”

You can tell I think that previous sentence is important because it’s got its own paragraph. Here it is again in bold: Talent = Accuracy. If you can evoke a response from the reader[2] that you intended to get, that’s what people call talent. If you can do it while avoiding cliches like beautiful-but-klutzy-heroines or villains-shoot-the-hero’s-dog, people will think you’re even more talented. If you can make the reader feel something compelling but unusual, coming out of a narrative they can not find anywhere else, they’ll think you’re extraordinarily talented.

It doesn’t have to be something you’re born with. It doesn’t have to be something that makes itself known before you turn 18. It can come from hard work and close study and long sessions spent gabbing with other writers. No one can really tell, because the only thing they can see is the finished work.

That’s why I think that creating a talented writer is a pretty straightforward process, if the writer is willing to do the work: Examine their own responses. Understand how and why others respond as they do. Practice getting the responses you want. Become lauded as “a talented writer.”

The best(worst) thing about it is that people will see the end result of all that hard work and declare that it must have come from something innate within you, and they could never manage it themselves.

[1] Having already spent too much of my day on this post, I’m going to throw it onto the blog as a vomit draft. No revision! I fully expect to regret this at some later point.

[2] “The Reader” = Not every reader everywhere but a fair proportion of them.