Wednesday, February 2, 2011
"Please Rip my Work to Shreds."
A few years ago, I studied creative writing during my Semester at Oxford. I was at a turning point in my writing and really wanted to know if it was worth pursuing writing, basically, "do I have what it takes?" My creative writing tutor seemed pretty unimpressed and when I left England, it was with the impression that perhaps I did not have the "right stuff," to be a writer.
Thankfully, I didn't listen to my tutor. I wanted to write and no amount of insecurity was going to stop me. I still have a long road to go before I will be a good writer, but I have learned some valuable lessons through my attempts.
Over time I have discovered that there is no such thing as writing talent. There is no "it." There is only me, a blank computer screen, and my own persistence.
Successful writers write. and write. and write.
They improve. Succesful writers work and work and work and eventually their work turns into what someone else might see as "talent," but it was really persistence all along.
As an English teacher, I often have students ask me if I'm writing a book. I tell them, "Yes! I have actually finished one, and I'm working on a second." Then they proceed to tell me about their writing project. Sometimes they will even ask to see my work or bring me their work and ask me to look at it.
I see the hunger in their eyes. They want to know if they have, "it."
It's fun to share with these aspiring writers. Their work is sometimes good, sometimes awful, and sometimes blah. I always try to find at least one specific, positive thing to say about it (no matter how god-awful!) and encourage them to keep at it. I believe that honest positive feedback is much more powerful and productive than negative.
Yesterday, a young man brought me a page of his writing and asked me to be extremely critical of it. He wanted me to rip it to shreds, to criticize everything I could find, and to give lots of negative feedback. He seemed to believe that that would improve his writing. He is a pretty strange kid.
I told him, "I'll do my best, but that's not really how I work. If you're looking for extreme criticism, I'm just not the person to give it."
He left his page with me, and I was surprised to read it and find out how good it was. There just wasn't much to criticize! It was intriguing, mysterious, and simple to read. This student doesn't succeed much in his classes, so it's neat that he has this other ability that his teachers don't usually see.
I corrected a few grammar problems and fixed some errors- just cosmetic things, really.
I tried to ask him a few questions to help with his creative process like, "where is this story going?" and "what will make your story different than all the other dark magic stories out there?"
I even ended by saying, "You have writing talent. You need to pursue this."
I wondered later why I said that when I don't believe in writing talent anymore.
I guess it's because I want this kid to succeed so badly. I am hoping that if he believes me about his ability, he will keep trying, he will keep writing, and maybe it will be a way out of the hell-hole he lives in.
What do you think?
Is talent real or just a figment of our imaginations? Is it just an excuse for unsuccessful people to explain why they failed and someone else didn't?
Should I have told that kid he was talented even though I don't really believe in talent?