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?


  1. Very interesting!
    I am guessing this student right now! haha.
    How awesome that he came to you!

    I don't have it all figured out, but I guess my initial thought would be that there are some out there who things just come easier to. They've never done something before, and the first time they try it and every time after that, it just works for them; while others have to try try try so much harder. But it doesn't mean that those others can't succeed. Like you said, they just need to keep working trying working trying, and eventually they'll get there, but ultimately, they did have to work harder than someone else who it just came naturally to. So I def agree with your VP, just with an added thought.

    ps. This post reminds me that I love you. the end.

  2. i agree, there is no "it".
    or if there is an "it", it is not aestheical,
    but embedded in the writer's life history
    more than the words that represent it.

    another important thing you should mention to
    your student is instead of focusing solely on the "work"
    to make sure to keep eyes outward and unfocused
    instead of inwardly focused on the "work"
    writing, like art, should be about process
    not product. it is the flow of one's consciousness
    from an internalized state poured out into reality
    like water from a jug. we have the water inside us
    already, all of us. what we need to focus on as writers
    is how best to get that water into the mouths of the

    my two cents, take it or leave it ;-)

  3. I think when we discuss talents, its important to remember the flipside of personal fulfillment. I do not sing just because I have a nice voice, I sing because I love to sing, and because I sing so often, my voice will improve, which will improve my enjoyment of singing. If I had started with no talent at all, I probably would never have enjoyed singing, so I would have enjoyed something else, maybe something horrible, like math, where I would have followed the same pattern. Also, there are always going to be flukes, natural outliers on the bellcurve. Sometimes someone comes along with a lot of natural ability in one field, making the rest of of us look bad, and I think we all want to judge ourselves by their abnormality, rather than asking ourselves if our activities are edifying and fulfilling. If you enjoy writing (which, strange to say, not everyone does)chances are you have a natural talent for it, otherwise you wouldn't like doing it. Talent and enjoyment are, I think, two sides of the same coin. And someone will always come along who just whips through that area of life like its no big thing, but they are the prodigy, the abnormality, someone off the curve. If I compared my voice to Charlotte Church, I would never sing again. And even with all her natural talent, Charlotte Church would not be Charlotte Church without the hard work she has done. If you find writing fulfilling, you should write, and the genius will come. You have been given a gift by God, but like a marble slab in an artist's hands, you will have to chisle out your craft. If your students want to write, they will walk the same path, and no amount of genius can insulate them from the need for hard work and persistence.

    Additionally, the most "talented" are rarely the happiest or the most fulfilled. They are typically tortured souls. Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allen Poe,...their genius came at the cost of their lives and well-being. In some sense they sold their souls to the craft. Better to be a mediocre writer who is never well-known who enjoys life and is fulfilled, then to burn the candles at both ends and die in personal tragedy while publishers make money off your death.

    In conclusion, the few people in the world who seem to have "it" without working hard for it and persevering, run the risk of being mentally unstable and unable to handle their talent, in which situation it becomes a curse.
    Better to perservere and learn slowly over time than become the Michael Jackson of the writing community, to be exploited by others and die, dissatisfied and emotionally-tortured, before your time because your fame and talent have destroyed any semblance of a satisfying personal life.

  4. Wow! People have A LOT of thoughts on this topic.

    Meghan- I bet you know this child- and I love you, too.

    I'm a Superhero- thanks for your insight. I like your water analogy for writing.

    Carolyn- Just Wow. Lots of thoughts on this one. but couldn't I be wildly successful AND fulfilled? I believe it is possible.

  5. carolyn - two rebuttals, but first i want to say
    i loved your comment, it was very pleasant reading!

    first, there is nothing horrible about math,
    mathematics is very beautiful if you can get
    past the fear people tend to have and into the
    flow of the variables moving through your mind,
    dancing around in your head before they dance
    on the paper. it is at least as peaceful and
    beautiful as a slow-paced walk through the woods
    on a nice spring afternoon.

    second, i want to attack this statement of yours:
    "chances are you have a natural talent for it, otherwise you wouldn't like doing it."
    i am by nature a math/science brained person
    at least as far as the ACTs had reflected and
    also my grades always showed my aptitude as
    leaning ever towards mathematics. but i've
    chosen to pursue writing, english always having
    been my absolute weakest subject, yet i find
    writing to be my most treasured ability because
    it lets me express myself, my feelings, my thoughts
    in a manner others now and then can relate to
    and find beauty themselves in my words. talent
    isn't everything.

    'it' comes from loving what you do, not necessarily
    because you are 'good' at it.

  6. Well, yeah, but not without a lot of hard work. I think most prodigies get too much too soon and can't keep up emotionally. So I'm just saying, its better than it doesn't come easy, because when it does come, you will be ready for it and you will avoid the pitfalls of too much success too soon.

  7. Hi Sandra,
    Wow, I really needed to read this today. I have been so disappointed in myself/writing the last few days. I went to bed last night with this thought- "I'll write for my own pleasure and that's it." And after I said that my chest exploded into deep spasms of sorrow. I don't want to keep it hidden, but I don't feel I have "it".
    I should know better. I'm an artist and I know how hard I worked at it. I work at my writing as well. I know I have to keep working at it. And, hopefully, the day will come-just like it did with some of my paintings-when someone says, "Wow, I want to buy that piece, I love it."
    I'm glad you told your student he had talent. Sometimes, one just needs to hear those words to have something to hold onto.
    Thank you for stopping by the writers Meet n Greet and sharing with us!

  8. Fair enough Superhero:). But I don't think you and I are going to agree much on math anytime soon:).

  9. Carolyn and Superhero- my goodness! I am glad you two have agreed to disagree.

    Welcome, Ash Joie Lee! I am glad you heard what you needed to. I guess I told that kid that he was talented because it's what I longed to hear so badly.

  10. Hi SRH. I don't know if you have "it", but you are definitely a talented writer. I will never forget your sweet "Young Writer's Camp" piece where the idyllic pastoral scene turns bloody when the larger birds attacked the smaller birds. No one in the room could believe that this petite, cute little girl came up with such material! It was awesome.

  11. I agree. This notion that there's some secret magic formula called "writing talent" that people are given at birth is just a way of playing into people's fears and insecurities. I can't imagine that Ernest Hemingway just sat down at a typewriter one day when he was five and starting punching out masterpieces. He had to work on his ability, just like we all do. Telling a fledgling young writer that they don't have "it" because their awkward sentence structure and limited vocabulary aren't pure Shakespeare...well, that's just plain mean. It's true that not everyone who tries will always develop into a good writer or get published (two things which certainly aren't the same), but it's always worth the effort. Who can really say who's going to make it and who isn't? It's a jungle out there. There's a risk you take pursuing any dream, but win or lose, it's always worth the risk.

  12. We all have a mishmash of different abilities. I have a facility with words but I’m useless with my hands. Talent is natural ability. Mozart was a naturally gifted composer and a pretty decent pianist from all accounts whereas Yehudi Menuhin was a world-class violinist but not so well known for his composition skills. I have the technical skills to write music and I once fancied myself as a composer (when I was thirteen) but although I can rattle together simple songs anything more is beyond my natural abilities. With hard work and dedication pretty much anyone can learn to play all the right notes in the right order on a musical instrument and many earn a living in orchestras all over the world but only a select few become soloists because they have that certain something, that je ne sais quoi. I see talent as potential not simply ability. A person with a 140 IQ is intelligent but that doesn’t make them automatically knowledgeable and someone with an IQ of only 100 may know a lot more than them because they’ve studied hard and applied themselves. All you can say about the person with the 140 IQ is that they should be capable of catching up quicker.

  13. Brian- one of my favorite stories is about the children's writer Avi who battled with severe dyslexia and recieved little encouragement in his writing. Through persistence and imagination, he became one of the best children's writers of the last century. I love his work!

    Jim- don't give up on your composing just yet- who knows, maybe you will think of something no one else thought of. I think that's an interesting point about what IQ means. It's just potential ability- not actual ability. That's why it's such a poor indication of future success.