I Think It’s Time You Told Me That Story About Why You’re Still Wearing That Towel

Or, Talent VS Training

I was showing pictures of my costumes-in-progress to one of the men I work with, and his comment was “You have a real talent for this stuff.”

I accepted the compliment graciously, because I have learned over many years of being complimented for things I disagree with (or had nothing to do with and thus feel I shouldn’t be praised for) and showing that in my reaction, that rejecting a compliment only makes you look like one kind of asshole or another. Either you’re arrogant or insecure, and either way you’re attempting to invalidate another person’s opinion. So I just give an abashed smile and say “thanks” and let the conversation roll on.

But that comment struck me because, with sewing, I do not feel like I have a talent AT ALL. I feel like I have dedication, yes, and stubbornness; ambition and ingenuity and a really good eyeball for measuring short distances without a ruler, but are any of those things a TALENT? Not in my opinion. To me a talent is a natural aptitude that allows someone to perform a task with minimal frustration on their part; it is a process that just clicks for them, that they can do intuitively and without a great deal of hair-pulling. When talent gets to the point of hair-pulling, it is creating something that borders on genius.

But my hair-pulling and cursing and do-overs are invisible in the story photographs tell. Even if I admit that this design took multiple weekends to finalize, the way that story is heard by someone besides me still elides my sense of plugging away at a project that I have no talent for, only a hard-won and somewhat incomplete skill set.  So I get why my co-worker used the word “talent.”  Most people use the word to describe the process of creating something which they feel like they could not create.

You know what? When I first conceived this particular costume project, I wasn’t sure I could do it, either. But as I have mentioned before, one thing I do have a talent for is taking a big project and breaking it down into manageable chunks. Not just manageable–actionable. As in, “These are the available steps you can take from this point. No purpose is served by thinking about the other steps that will need to be taken to complete the project, because these are the only steps you can take right now.” If you look at a project in that way, the sense of being overwhelmed and not knowing where to start or go next tends to disappear. Once you understand that even the largest project has a narrow range of steps that can come next, the consumer’s paradox of too many choices being paralyzing no longer applies.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that what someone else perceives as talent is often merely the application of skills and logic that the person seeing talent just hasn’t taken the time to acquire/think through.

All that said: fair readers, I think it’s time I told you the story of how I came to view writing as craft and not talent.

As my “About” page attests, I began writing in a serious way in 8th grade, when I was 13 or 14. In my freshman year of high school, my favorite unit of study in English was grammar, because I learned all sorts of rules to apply and got articulations for why some sentences made sense but others didn’t. That point was my last formal grammar training until college. I picked up tips in later English classes where a teacher would point out (and define for us) things like parallel construction and dangling modifiers, and in studying Spanish I learned about mood and reflexive verbs, but those were piecemeal tidbits of knowledge.

The university I attended did not offer a creative writing major. I chose English instead, but never took a single creative writing course. Every semester I would look at the course descriptions and the syllabus each professor posted online about his or her course, and every time I would not want to take any of them. The course descriptions were so…squishy. “We’ll talk about character development and themes” (things I could study just as well from reading and analyzing literature in my normal English courses), and the focus was always on short stories, and always with the implication of literary bent (as opposed to SFF, which was what I wanted to write in those days).

Instead I took courses cross-referenced with linguistics, including an alternative grammar course that was meant to expose the natural grammar of English (as opposed to the grammar of Latin superimposed onto an entirely different style of language). The linguistics courses taught me more of the mechanics of language than I had learned since I was 15.

I also took a class on writing memoirs, because it was not through the English department and satisfied a particular elective credit. In that class I learned not to trust other writers just because they are writers. My first essay was, shall we say, offensive to the Ivory Tower sensibilities of my classmates. I sat through 45 minutes of being told I was a horrible person with my head high and then went home and cried. My only solace was they’d had very little to criticize in my actual writing–and I learned a valuable lesson that day: being told your writing sucks can never, ever, compare to being told you suck as a person. Most of my classmates from that course followed it with the most serious non-fiction writing class offered by the English department. I did not, at the time thinking I had no interest in non-creative non-fiction, but looking back I think I just didn’t want to take that class with the rest of them. I could get nothing out of it when I had no trust for any of them, not even in the sense of assuming strangers will take you as you present yourself.  When I did take that course, I knew no one in it, and heard stories about how the previous semester’s group had been so close. Ha ha ha, I thought–my old classmates. I would have hated being in that group. I might have dropped the course, and what a shame that would have been, because it changed my perspective on writing.

The course itself was combined to function as basically three rhetoric and composition classes in one. We wrote 13 essays of 13 different types of non-fiction, one every week, and line-edited the entire class set. So it was both a writing-intensive class and an editing-intensive class. Class meetings were once a week, and focused on workshopping two essays per night; everyone in the class got two essays workshopped during the course of the semester. The edits were done on communal copies, so that we could see the edits our classmates made on not just our own work but also everyone else’s. We could agree or disagree with their edits, and sometimes that was more illuminating than anything–having three different, contradictory, opinions on the exact same sentence. Nothing says “subjectivity in editing” like that.

I walked in a better writer than most, maybe even all, of my classmates. I walked out a better writer than I had started, but I feel like that course gave me the last 10% of knowledge and growth that I needed to become a professional-level writer. Some of my classmates had dramatic transformations. Their first essays were muddled, riddled with errors and inconsistencies, meandering and repetitive by turns–generally the products of people who had most of their college education finished and still didn’t know how to write. By the end they were writing some of the best essays in the class. I could never say that about my essays; mine were comfortably middle-of-the-road, because while my writing might have been better, my ideas were not. At least a couple of the ones who started with lower writing skills had amazing clarity of ideas and only needed the training to present them in a clear and exciting way.

And that was the most profound lesson I took away from the class: writing elegantly can be learned.

I truly believe this. I have seen it happen. It takes time, yes, and the desire to want to learn the tools of the craft, and a good teacher (be it in the form of person, peer group, or book), and the willingness to experiment and fail and do over again until you can do it by instinct. But writing well–by which I mean clearly, engagingly, and interestingly–is a skill, NOT a talent.

I am not saying some people don’t have a talent for writing (in the sense that writing well comes easily to them), or at the very least an innate ability that gives them an advantage. For example, some people have affinities for learning languages; I am one. Some people have a good mind for wordplay. Some people naturally think in multiple layers. But a lot of the people who are perceived by beginners as having “talent” are really just further along in their study of the craft.

And let’s face reality: the way writing is taught in the American education system is a joke. Students are told to write it how they would say it, or write what they are thinking–but this helps nothing if they are not also taught to think clearly and have never been taught to speak correctly. Students are given grammatical rules out of any context of the process of writing and then expected to internalize them without any practice or practical application of them. No one ever sits down with a student or a class and dissects, sentence by sentence and word by word, all of their mistakes and all of the things they got right just by instinct or accident. No teacher ever clarifies why the sentences s/he did not mark as wrong are correct–they just assume the student knows why, when in fact the students might not know why at all; they just took a lucky guess or just wrote it the way they would say it without knowing why.

Why? Because we are not taught how to write. We are told, Yoda-style, simply to do, on the assumption that we learn by doing.

Most writers are autodidacts. We take our understanding of English and then start “speaking” on paper. We develop a style that suits our personality, and refine it until we have a particular voice in which we write.

Most writers, though, are never given the actual tools to be able to write correctly. Sure, many are able to absorb by context and examples they read most of the rules of writing well. A friend for whom I beta-read has no formal training, for example, and her writing is better than plenty of published authors I’ve read. Even without the benefit of my last writing course, my own writing was “good enough” just by my attempts at self-education and the intuitive grasp of language a native speaker has. But none of that equates to having an actual understanding of what you are doing and why.

To bring this back to the example I started with: I am a self-taught sewer. I just jumped in and started doing, and every time I finish a new project–or start one and fail–I learn something. The heuristic learning style is effective for sewing because of the immediate feedback, the immediate awareness of whether something is “right.” You can look at a garment and tell if it matches the picture of it; you can try it on and know right away if it fits. You can wear it and see the seams falling apart or staying together. You know whether you reached your goal, because the goal is quantifiable, not qualitative.

Writing is not as good a subject for heuristic learning, because of its flexibility and subjectivity. As a beginner, especially, practice is almost pointless without guidance. Without a teacher to show you not only what is wrong but why, but also what is right but why, you have no way of knowing whether what you’re doing is effective or correct. You cannot know which instincts and habits to trust and which to break.

Therefore, when someone tells me I have a talent for writing, I do not give them an abashed smile and say “thanks.”  To do so would be to propagate the myth that good writing is reserved for certain people who were born with a talent. It also invalidates the hundreds to thousands of hours I have consciously put toward improving my skills as a writer. So instead of accepting the compliment as if I agree with their assessment, I say, “I’ve been at it for a long time.”

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2 Comments

Filed under Writing

2 responses to “I Think It’s Time You Told Me That Story About Why You’re Still Wearing That Towel

  1. ABE

    Maybe the talent lies in knowing that, if you just work at it, you can do this.

    After all, no one expects a sculptor to pick up a chisel and hammer and produce a lifelike statue of – anyone. But most people never even think ‘I could do this,’ and never pick up the chisel.

    The ones who don’t have talent are the ones who think that all they have to do IS to pick up the chisel, but they don’t feel like doing that right now.

    I can’t tell you how many people have told me they want to write a book – but reject any offers of suggested websites or writing books. They’ll just sit down and write the book. But they don’t feel like doing it right now.

    I don’t know if I have ‘talent,’ but I know how to make the words come out, I have a published short story, a trunk novel that I’m looking at with fresh eyes (got some nice personal rejections back in the day when that meant ‘keep writing, you’re almost there’), short stories on the blog, and the novel that, somehow or other, keeps going up, a scene every Tuesday. I’m a writer.

    My response to compliments is similar to yours: “Thanks, I work at it.”

    And I don’t usually bother any more with the people who say they are going to write a book. If they want help, they’ll ask.

    • That is an interesting take on talent, that the ones who have it are the ones who actually do something – what’s the adage about achievement being mainly a matter of showing up? I do think there are people with natural aptitudes in one direction or another, and that is what I tend to think of as talent.

      But talent or mere doggedness, the fact that you keep showing up at your desk to write and keep finishing things and making progress will, in my opinion, get you further than any amount of talent that makes no effort to sit down and do. In my university program I ran into the lazy smart person dynamic, where because they are so used to just being smart enough to get by they never really tried to stretch themselves. I tried, and still try, and I think that’s more valuable. So keep up the awesome work and relish that you are talented at doing things you set your mind to!

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