Wednesday, May 10, 2017

On writing talent

I want to be a weaver of words with the ability to thread vivid images and emotions through people's imaginations.

I wonder how much of this ability is dependent on my own innate talent, or lack of it, and how much of it can be trained and learned with practice and discipline. Much of what I've read on the subject says that talent is a necessity when it comes to writing. Ernest Hemingway himself once wrote, "Real seriousness in regard to writing is one of two absolute necessities. The other, unfortunately, is talent." If that is so, what is talent? More specifically, what is talent in the realm of writing?

My personal definition of talent is a sensitivity towards and instinctive knowledge of a particular skill, as well as an instinctive ability to use that particular skill. The question then becomes this: can people actually be born with these types of talents, or have them activate at a certain point in their lives? I say, maybe, but there's more to it than talent simply being a gift. That would be too easy.

Surely, Hemingway didn't come out of the womb with a pen. Neither did Einstein come out writing equations. Hell, even F. Scott Fitzgerald questioned his own writing constantly. They all had to work and discover their talent; mine for gold within themselves. So if figures such as these had to work at their crafts and sciences in order to get good at them, and if they struggled before becoming masters, what's stopping someone else from doing the same if they invest the time and earnest effort? If you truly love doing something and want to do it well, and you take the steps necessary to get better at it, what's stopping you from becoming good or even great at it?

In On Writing, Stephen King writes that "it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one." I prefer this line of thinking to Hemingway's. It at least looks at writing talent as a spectrum and not as an either/or scenario. Perhaps Hemingway didn't mean it that way and also believed that a person could have a range of talent, but King's words are more explicit and offer more hope on the matter. 

At this stage, I certainly wouldn't call myself a good writer. If I'm being kind to myself, I think I am merely a competent one. (at least, I hope so) I assume a bad writer lacks the foundations of grammar, vocabulary, and punctuation, while also lacking the organizational skills to make themselves understood in print. Of course, there are plenty of people who lack the ability to string together a coherent sentence, never mind a series of them, but even they might be able to write something which tugs at the imagination once in a while. It's also worth keeping in mind that some bad writers are likely so because of a lack of proper training and opportunity, so it's quite possible, and probably very likely, that there are many potential writers out there who simply haven't been put in the right situation to allow them to nurture their talent.

And there's the rub.

I firmly believe that talent - being an instinctive sensitivity towards and knowledge of a skill, as well as the ability to use that skill on instinct - can be developed, cultivated, and nurtured. The human brain is infinitely permeable and capable of adapting to new knowledge. Given the right conditions, mindset, discipline, and guidance, a person can learn to become a master in almost any field, creating the equivalent of muscle memory, provided they have a love for it. In some cases, even if they don't.

For the writer, developing sensitivity means observing, listening to, and experiencing life with an open mind and an open heart - focusing on the details of what makes people do what they do, say what they say, and react how they react. This is done both at the micro and macro levels. A great writer absolutely must have empathy and compassion for others, be it for their partner, their work colleagues, or people across the sea going through difficult times. These are traits which, barring a damaged amygdala, everyone possesses to some degree, and which everyone can learn to develop.

In regards to knowledge, a writer can study the rules of grammar; they can pick up books in their genre; they can learn the types of turns of phrase which stir the imagination; they can study story structure; and they can put all of these things to use through practice.

In the end, both sensitivity and knowledge, and thereby talent, can be acquired. It may take some longer than others, but it is possible. Once a writer acquires enough knowledge and fine tunes their sensitivity towards the world, themselves, and language, they are able to weave the types of tales that have the effect of magic on a reader.

Once I personally acquire enough knowledge and fine tune my sensitivity towards the world, myself, and language, I hope to be a weaver of words with the ability to thread vivid images and emotions through people's imaginations. One day. One step. One word at a time.

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