Essays

Magical Thinking: Talent and the Cult of Craft

By posted at 6:00 am on November 18, 2014 49

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In August 1954, just months after he graduated from Harvard, John Updike had his first story accepted by The New Yorker. He was 22 years old. Three years after that, having spent a year studying drawing in England and two years as a staff writer at The New Yorker, Updike gave up his office job and set out his shingle as a freelance writer. For the next half century, he pumped out a steady stream of award-winning novels, poetry, criticism, and stories, often averaging more than a book a year.

Updike was an excellent student — all A’s from 7th to twelfth grade, summa cum laude from Harvard — and a ferociously hard worker, but he had little formal training in the craft of writing. In fact, as Adam Begley notes in his recent biography, Updike, the future two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner was rejected, twice, in his bid to take English S, Harvard’s most prestigious creative writing class taught by Archibald MacLeish. Yet from 1957, when he left the staff at The New Yorker until his death in 2009, Updike supported four children through two marriages without ever holding down a job other than writer.

Interestingly, Updike’s mother, Linda, was also a writer. Like her son, Linda dedicated her life to the craft of fiction, spending 25 years revising Dear Juan, a ponderous historical novel about the Spanish explorer Ponce de Léon, which remains unpublished to this day. She did eventually publish 10 stories in The New Yorker, along with two story collections (one posthumously), but Begley goes to some length to assure readers that without her famous son’s help rescuing her stories from the slush pile, they likely never would have been published. “I had only a little gift,” Linda once told an interviewer, “but it was the only one I got.”

coverIn many ways, the tale of the two Updikes is a familiar one. Anyone who knows more than a few writers knows one or two who have achieved great things and dozens of others who have worked just as hard, cared just as much, and seen their work come to nothing. But this reality — that for most writers, “a little gift” is all they’re going to get — runs counter to the prevailing ethic of the creative writing world. Talent is overrated, apprentice writers are told over and over; what matters is a sense of vocation and a dedication to the craft of writing. “[T]he truth is,” writes John Gardner in the preface to his seminal book The Art of Fiction, “that though the ability to write well is partly a gift — like the ability to play basketball well or outguess the stock market — writing ability is mainly a product of good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing.”

This ethic finds its purest expression in the genre of public performance known as a craft talk. If you have ever attended a writing conference, you have been to a craft talk. An eminent writer — the poet Robert Hass, say, or the novelist Jennifer Egan — stands at a podium and delivers an hour-long lecture on an aspect of literary craft. Done well, these talks can be interesting and useful. Some years ago, I attended a craft talk at the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop in California in which one of the faculty authors suggested that the secret to writing good scenes is keeping them short — no more than two or three pages, if possible. I thought this absurd until I started looking through novels I liked, and noticed that, with a few exceptions, the scenes were shorter than I’d thought, often two pages or less. Then I looked at my own fiction and noticed that my scenes were, well, longer.

coverSo, the problem with craft talks isn’t what is being said from the podium. The problem is the unspoken message of the genre of the craft talk itself, which is that one becomes a successful writer by mastering a series of discrete elements of literary craft. You learn to keep your scenes short. You gain a deeper understanding of the role of voice in narrative fiction. You remember to always put a little bad in your good characters and a little good in your bad characters, and — poof! — one day you open your laptop and discover you have written A Visit from the Goon Squad.

This is a species of magical thinking. It is, of course, impossible to write a good book without a deep appreciation of how language and stories work, but it doesn’t follow that successful writers have simply worked at it harder than less successful ones or that their understanding of the craft of fiction is any more acute. What successful writers have that their less successful counterparts do not is talent.

This inconvenient fact offends our sensibilities because it is elitist and because it means that for all but a very lucky few of us, literary greatness remains beyond our grasp. A belief in the transformative properties of craft also undergirds an ever-growing industry of creative writing education that, one way or another, now pays the bills for most working poets and literary writers. For these reasons, we have constructed a culture of discussing creative writing designed to skirt the obvious. Because craft exists outside us and can be improved through effort, a focus on craft gives us a way to talk about bad writing that is less hurtful to the writer. The successful writer is saved from having to tell the less successful one, “Sorry, but you have no talent.” Instead, the successful writer can say, “You need to work on your craft.”

More insidiously, the cult of craft encourages apprentice writers to tell themselves the same thing: “My work isn’t good, but I can fix that by getting an MFA or going to writing conferences to work on my craft.” This line of thinking is all the more alluring because it contains a not inconsiderable kernel of truth. Anyone who attends an MFA program and pays attention will learn valuable things about writing, and anyone who writes on a regular basis will get better. But that doesn’t mean they will get good. Becoming a good writer, one whose work speaks to a broad range of readers, is ultimately — and frustratingly — beyond our control.

None of this is to say that a concentrated focus on literary craft is a waste of time, or that writing can’t be taught, but as creative writing education continues to expand from a narrow field pursued by a devoted few to a profitable industry employing thousands, perhaps we should pause a moment to reflect on precisely what is being sold and what assumptions underlie the transaction.

By some estimates, there are now nearly 1,300 degree-granting creative writing programs in the United States, and as I reported in a recent issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, private, non-accredited writing programs are starting to pop up around the country, many run out of their owners’ living rooms. This doesn’t count the many writers offering one-on-one craft advice and manuscript critiques, nor the fresh batches of writing conferences, festivals, seminars, and retreats that seem to appear with each new season, each offering up another slate of famous or near-famous authors leading workshops and delivering craft talks. These can be expensive exercises. Bread Loaf, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious writer’s conference, where two summers ago I paid $2,725 for a ten-day stay as a contributor, recently announced that it will charge contributors $3,050 in 2015 — a 10 percent hike in just three years. And this is nothing compared to the tens of thousands of dollars students can expect to shell out in tuition to attend some of the pricier MFA programs.

This creative writing industrial complex has become a vital source of income for writers, especially midlist ones who have seen their ability to profit from books and print magazine publications eroded by digital disruption. For many writers today, teaching others to write has become a steadier, more lucrative profession than writing. Once upon a time, during the high-water years of the print era, readers paid enough for the short stories and novels they enjoyed that writers like John Updike could go on producing them. They did not, as readers do today, endlessly swap his work for free on Facebook and Twitter and download copies of his books at deep discounts off Amazon, and then pay thousands of dollars to sit in a room and have him offer tips on how they could become the next John Updike.

This signals an important shift in the relationship between writers and their readers. No longer are readers paying exclusively to enjoy a writer’s work; increasingly, writers are giving away their work for free or allowing it to be sold for far less than it cost them to produce it and making up the loss by teaching their readers how to become writers themselves. And the rhetoric of craft, which rests on the premise that anyone willing to put in the time can become a great writer, makes that possible.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and even if there were, we can’t put the digital genie back in the bottle. The fact is, the business of teaching writing supports many more literary writers than the old model ever did or could. The present model also promotes a more inclusive literary community, one in which writers and readers exist on a more equal plane — and can even switch places — in ways that would be unimaginable to the proud professionals of Updike’s era.

But writers have to be honest about what produces good writing. Craft matters, and under the right circumstances, with the right teacher, writing can be taught. But there are limits. Poetry and literary fiction, as they are practiced at its highest levels, are not merely learned skills. Writing isn’t a craft, like carpentry or knitting. It is an art form. No number of scouring MFA critiques, no profusion of summer writing conference sessions or visits to low-residency programs, ever could have turned Linda Updike into her son John. Only talent could make that happen.





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49 Responses to “Magical Thinking: Talent and the Cult of Craft”

  1. Karl
    at 8:09 am on November 18, 2014

    Thanks very much for this somewhat iconoclastic point of view. I’m surprised we don’t see this simple notion stated more often. In all the vast quantity of writing about writing, rarely does anyone seem willing to broach the idea that there is an undefinable and unteachable element to becoming a good writer.

  2. Janelle
    at 8:41 am on November 18, 2014

    This is an interesting topic covering a topic that my roommate and I had in our first week of our MFA program. Stephen King also talks a bit about talent in his book ON WRITING. I agree that, like anything, the more you study and the more you learn, the better you get. Also, the more you practice! Reading and writing are the two best things a beginning writer can do to become better, in my opinion. Then, if there is a kernel of talent, attending workshops and classes and even MFA programs can expand upon that talent and give it the window of opportunity it deserves.

  3. hildy johnson
    at 10:01 am on November 18, 2014

    Putting aside, for the moment, the question of the ethics of creative writing programs, the notion of “talent” as a predictor of success is problematic. This talent–presumably, in Bourne’s view, a gift from God, or from genetics, with no correlation to persistence–may be difficult to spot in a new writer who has yet to master the basics of her craft. As a participant and teacher of creative writing workshops, I have seen it happen dozens of times: the most confident writers, under the withering pressure of rejection, give up and go into other vocations; the hardest-working (and thickest-skinned) writers prevail. Often, the talent it takes to create a gorgeous image or a strong character can get lost in a beginning writer’s messy over-writing or reliance on summary, but those bad habits can, with training and practice, subside. I am very leery of teachers who encourage “raw talent” in some students and not in others, because deeply-felt writing can emerge from the most unlikely candidates. Moreover, a teacher can mistake a top-notch primary education (like Updike’s) and the privileges of an affluent background for talent, rather than encouraging writers from underrepresented sectors to immerse themselves in the practice of literature.

  4. Herb Levy
    at 11:24 am on November 18, 2014

    I’m not sure that the concept of “talent” is any less an example of magical thinking. There are a lot of eminent and successful writers who turn out a lot of hackwork.

  5. David Biddle
    at 12:45 pm on November 18, 2014

    Such sad truths here. One point I think about sometimes is that there are types of talent in the book world. The talent required for genre writing, though, is not the same as for literary fiction. It helps (sometimes) to be artful if you are a genre writer, but it certainly isn’t necessary.

    For literary fiction one certainly needs artistic talent (with language). More importantly, one needs to see a certain magic and meaning in things that others do not see. This last seems to be lost in the question of talent and craft.

  6. Anthony Martin
    at 3:19 pm on November 18, 2014

    Sobering and important words. Thank you.

    –AM

  7. Barry Knister
    at 3:33 pm on November 18, 2014

    Michael–
    Oddly enough, your post is an act of courage. It gives the lie to the current, conventional wisdom that dismisses talent in favor “good old-fashioned hard work.”
    I think the whole emphasis on craft rather than talent derives from the (possibly) well-intentioned insistence that Nature means nothing, Nurture is everything. Instead, what is true is that having talent is no guarantee of developing or pursuing it. It’s just there, a potential, like a special level of kinetic grace in sports.
    Thanks again for telling the truth in a very readable article.

  8. Dylan Hicks
    at 5:33 pm on November 18, 2014

    I’d second the points made above by Hildy Johnson and add that Bourne’s essay suggests that literary or, rather, publishing success is far more meritocratic than it actually is, or that commercial success and other forms of conventional status are the only real measures of success, as empirical as Grand Slam victories or CEO compensation. Bourne writes, “Becoming a good writer, one whose work speaks to a broad range of readers, is ultimately — and frustratingly — beyond our control.” It seems true enough that the quality of a writer’s work is restricted by elusive and somewhat innate qualities such as talent and intelligence, but I’d hate to define good writing as that which appeals to a broad range of readers. Perhaps all that Bourne means is that writers of distinction who treat essential subjects will find their efforts appreciated by a range of readers, even if the range is spread over small numbers. I’m not sure one would take away that modest point, however, when Bourne also writes that “what successful writers have that their less successful counterparts do not is talent.”

    Obviously, there are brilliant and obscure writers, those whose obscurity is justified, perhaps some doomed cases who are being exploited by creative-writing pedagogy, and many thousands of us who hope we’re not embarrassingly ourselves too much in between; there are dazzlingly talented literary superstars, successful mediocrities, and acclaimed half-talents. I admired and enjoyed much of Egan’s “…Goon Squad,” treated as a polestar here, but I also remember being frustrated by some of its rather banal and indifferent writing. Its success doesn’t make it inherently superior to the many distinguished books that sell modestly, fail to win prizes, and coax only a handful of reviews.

    Also, not every amateur writer has professional ambitions, and wouldn’t–shouldn’t–be deterred by talent’s unequal distribution.

  9. timble
    at 7:31 pm on November 18, 2014

    1. Talent does not predict success; Kafka was very talented and very unsuccessful.

    2. Talent is not always recognized as talent. Sometimes we don’t realize how talented someone is until they’re dead.

    3. You don’t need talent to be a successful writer. E.L. James has no writing talent. In fact, she has the opposite of talent. She’s a terrible writer. But she’s very wealthy.

    4. Talent doesn’t always work. Talented writers can write terrible books. Clearly, you need more than just talent. Joseph Heller was a talented writer and a hard worker, but the other thing he needed only came once. The other thing was a great idea.

  10. Karl
    at 7:51 pm on November 18, 2014

    Mr. Bourne uses the word “successful” a lot in this article, but I don’t think he’s referring to financial or popular success. I think by “successful writer” he means a good writer. (And that’s the only sort of success that matters to those of us who are pure of heart, right? :-)

  11. Michael Bourne
    at 8:24 pm on November 18, 2014

    Thank you, Karl. Yes, by “successful” I do mean “good.” But since I define a good writer at one point as “one whose work speaks to a broad range of readers,” I can see how others may have thought I meant only popular success. Forgive me. I talk in the essay about Updike, who was both good and widely read. I see this as a virtue in his case. He was an extraordinarily erudite man who channeled his erudition into stories and essays and poems that everyday readers could understand and appreciate. That’s a talent few writers possess.

    But what I mean by “successful” in this context is a writer who doesn’t merely publish books, but publishes good books, ones that succeed at their ambitions. Kafka would certainly qualify. But then Kafka’s books do speak to a broad range of readers. One doesn’t have to be indoctrinated into a cult of appreciation to appreciate a writer like Kafka. One need only be able to read and feel. That, in my mind, is the mark of a successful writer.

  12. Dylan Hicks
    at 9:08 pm on November 18, 2014

    Thanks, Michael (and Karl), for that clarification. I didn’t think so much that the word “successful” was being used to refer strictly to commercial or popular success, but it seemed that it was at least being applied mainly to folks who’ve managed to professionalize the pursuit, either as teachers or through publishing or both. I see, though, that you were chiefly talking about aesthetic success. And I’m sympathetic to your point that craft rhetoric and ten-thousand-hours dreams and so forth can conveniently and dubiously make it seem as if artistic triumphs and notable innovations are within the grasp of all hard workers. Still, it can be mysterious; some writers who don’t show conspicuous aptitude for many years ultimately produce noteworthy work, and lots of shining talents fizzle.

  13. Vardaman
    at 11:37 pm on November 18, 2014

    It seems odd to position “talent” and “craft” as polar opposites, as the writer does here, though it enables his argument that one ultimately trumps the other. And, of course, the one that matters most can’t be taught in an MFA program that supports the Creative Writing Industrial Complex, because there’s nothing more lucrative than the decidedly middle-class salary of a university humanities professor.

    Anyway, Bourne misrepresents creative writing programs, as if such an experience can be encapsulated by the 3-4 workshops a student takes. Obviously, professors need a tangible framework (re: craft) to run class, but the classroom experience is supplemented by readings, visits (many of those visits offer more than craft talks), one-on-one mentoring during office hours, conversations with peers about literature outside of class, and time to focus on generating new material. We are talking about 2-3 *funded years to read, write, and talk about books. Enough with the hysterical anti-MFA articles.

    *I only recommend students attend MFA programs with full funding.

  14. Karl
    at 6:34 am on November 19, 2014

    @Vardaman: I would say that talent and craft are only opposites in the sense that one can be taught and the other can’t. And I think Bourne’s only point with regard to MFA programs is that while they can certainly teach craft, they can’t instill talent. That point is inherent to the definition of the word “talent,” but if you don’t accept the premise that talent is crucial to becoming a good writer, it’s a moot point.

  15. Patrick, Naturally
    at 11:12 am on November 19, 2014

    I’m not sure I see the point of this article. Of course writing programs champion craft. What are they going to champion, being talented? Denying the existence or importance of talent is not a feature of most MFA or creative writing pedagogy, as far as I’m aware. It’s simply irrelevant since there’s nothing you could do about it, one way or the other.

    This cult of craft, so-called, actually does help marginally talented writers hone their craft and discipline to an extent that might allow them to write a plausibly intelligent, enjoyable, and publishable novel. Most of the novels that appear on The Millions, in fact, are these kinds of novels. Most people are not very talented, and do they get by on hard work and dedication.

  16. Patrick, Naturally
    at 11:20 am on November 19, 2014

    Put another way, this article engages in two strawman arguments. 1) That MFA and Creative Writing programs decry the existence of talent, and 2) That the average writer is delusional with regard to what they might gain from attending one of these programs. Maybe I’m giving the average writer too much credit, but surely most people aren’t stupid enough to think two years at Cornell will turn them into Nabokov or Toni Morrison.

  17. David Biddle
    at 11:32 am on November 19, 2014

    You know, I didn’t read this article as an attack on MFA programs so much as a reminder that talent is still pretty damned important. Folks, apparently including John Gardner, do forget that sometimes. Obviously, having an understanding of craft is essential for any writer, whatever their talent.

    One thing I believe was missed here is that “talented” writers — and there are many kinds of talent — tend to define success differently than others. These days, it’s awful freakin’ important when we find a novel that kicks ass not because it’s brilliantly written but because it’s an amazing work of art and expression.

  18. Patrick, Naturally
    at 12:10 pm on November 19, 2014

    I don’t know, I tend to think if anything talent is somewhat overrated, even in MFA/workshop land. Normal talent, small t, is a fairly plentiful commodity, and, as someone noted upthread, what separates “successful” writers in this cohort is work ethic, dedication, and mastery of craft–all things that creative writing programs can help with. Almost everyone in a decent, fully-funded MFA program is talented, to the extent that they can write well and probably have a better than average sense of language. It’s a commonplace in workshops to start with a perfunctory, “The writing is really nice,” before moving on to the actual critique.

    If we’re talking major talent, capital T–conspicuous, generational, Updikean talent–well, it just doesn’t bear much consideration, as almost no one has it and it’s impossible to attain through hard work, and it needs no defense, as it will out one way or the other.

  19. Vardaman
    at 1:04 pm on November 19, 2014

    @Karl: Writing talent is not like being born with fast twitch muscle fibers that allow one to run a 4.3 40. Writing is unique in that it requires the artist to use words and sentences. Someone taught the “talented” writer to read. No one taught Randy Moss how to be fast and explosive.

    And I’m not sure how you can read Bourne’s article without seeing the explicit and implicit critique of MFA programs, nor do I buy this notion of innate, magical writing talent when, again, the writer’s skills require an education.

    Finally, it’s too easy to imply that formal creative writing workshops and talks don’t balance craft with talent, or that teachers and speakers don’t deliver their courses and talks in honest, organic ways that balance craft with talent. In fact, it’s pretty pointless to discuss what’s happening in classrooms or talks based off what one witnessed in one or two or his own presumptions.

  20. Vardaman
    at 1:08 pm on November 19, 2014

    ” Maybe I’m giving the average writer too much credit, but surely most people aren’t stupid enough to think two years at Cornell will turn them into Nabokov or Toni Morrison.”—Patrick

    I see this straw man bandied around quite a bit, the notion that most MFAers enter with delusions of grandeur, only to be crushed by the Creative Writing Industrial Complex a few years later. Complete and utter BS.

  21. Karl
    at 1:50 pm on November 19, 2014

    @Vardaman: I personally think it’s entirely possible that writing talent is as innate a thing as being born with abundant fast-twitch muscle fibers. The fact that writer’s skills require an education doesn’t exclude the possibility that innate talent also plays an essential role. However, the issue is unprovable and therefor open to endless and fruitless argument.

    I see the value of Bourne’s article as being that it broaches the rarely-spoken notion that innate and unteachable talent is a necessary component of becoming a good writer. In MFA programs and other writing instruction, there is arguably an unstated (usually unstated, that is) promise that anyone who does the coursework and applies themselves will become a good writer. Perhaps you believe that that promise is a perfectly valid one to make; if so you’re welcome to that belief.

  22. Vardaman
    at 4:52 pm on November 19, 2014

    @Karl I believe David Foster Wallace said in an interview that writing and reading well require education. Writers use non-sensuous materials (words) to create art. No other art form presents the artist with so few materials, and the materials at the writer’s disposal do not possess innate sensuous qualities like paint and sound. A musician or painter is more likely to create a song or painting without ever hearing a song or viewing a painting than a novelist is to write a novel without ever reading a novel.

    For instance, the novel and short story are relatively new art forms. Any innate talent one possesses must be heavily informed by education. There is no way around it given the newness of those forms compared to others that are essentially primal. Sure, oral storytelling is primal, but the novel and short story coincide with the rise of the popular press. Novels and stories are meant to be read on paper, and their conventions are tied to technological advancements. If people need an education to learn how to read David Copperfield–and they do, beyond phonics–they need an education to write the next David Copperfield. So, while it’s reasonable to suggest that writers possess innate storytelling talent, or an innate vision or sensitivity about humanity, it’s unreasonable to ignore or downplay writing’s uniqueness compared to other art forms, as if the innately talented writer is no different than the innately talented painter or athlete.

    As for your second paragraph, I do not believe this “unstated promise” is valid. I believe it’s an inaccurate, dishonest, and unfair representation of most MFA programs.

  23. Karl
    at 5:04 pm on November 19, 2014

    @Vardaman: You’re repeating your “writer’s skills require an education” point, which I’ve already dispensed with. As I said, the issue is unprovable and therefor open to endless and fruitless argument. I didn’t intend that characterization to be taken as an invitation; endless and fruitless argument isn’t one of my preferred hobbies.

  24. Patrick, Naturally
    at 6:26 pm on November 19, 2014

    Eh, in my opinion linguistic/verbal ability is definitely a real, physiological talent as much as mathematical aptitude or anything else. Some people are innately good with words, with making words do what they want,. Updike is a pretty ideal example–divorced from any other aesthetic or moral or political considerations, his pure feel for language is staggering. The man was a genius.

    That said, there are many other aspects of good storytelling than pure feel for language. Much of this comes down to other unteachable and undefinable stuff like personality, moral aesthetic sense, interesting personal life experience, and so on. Some of it is what we broadly designate as craft. A person with some small admixture of good qualities from the first category with a lot from the second will be capable of writing a good (depending on how you define the term, natch) story or novel. This is the promise that I see extended by the apparatus of creative writing instruction–essentially, that if you have some small measure of the intangible stuff, you can be taught and learn how to write well–and by my lights, it isn’t a bad one.

  25. Jonathan Harris
    at 7:29 pm on November 19, 2014

    How true is this “…writers have to be honest about what produces good writing”. If at least half of the contemporary writers stuck to this statement, we would all be reading better, more sophisticated and intellectual material each day. Don’t you agree?

  26. timble
    at 8:49 pm on November 19, 2014

    @Vardaman
    “A musician or painter is more likely to create a song or painting without ever hearing a song or viewing a painting than a novelist is to write a novel without ever reading a novel.”

    A more honest comparison would pit the novelist and novel against a violinist and concerto; obviously, if you have never heard a concerto before, you are not going to pick up a violin and play one. Likewise you are not going to paint a work of abstract expressionism without having ever seen one; you might make a mess, but it won’t be the right kind of mess. You need an education to create any kind of art (other than art brut, perhaps)–that’s what distinguishes a child’s abstract painting from an adult’s.

    Now, it’s true that you don’t need an education to take in a string concerto or an abstract painting. However, you need very little education to read a novel. If you can read a newspaper, you can read Infinite Jest. Whether that is enough education to really appreciate it is questionable, but I’d say the same for someone who looks at a Pollock and says, “I like it, but it looks like he just threw paint everywhere.”

  27. Vardaman
    at 12:54 am on November 20, 2014

    “Eh, in my opinion linguistic/verbal ability is definitely a real, physiological talent as much as mathematical aptitude or anything else”–Patrick

    Fair point. And fair points to others who responded to my last post. I think we’re talking in circles at this point. I simply don’t see the problem Bourne sees with “the craft industry” or whatever. Nor do I see evidence that people are denying the reality of talent.

  28. David Biddle
    at 5:21 am on November 20, 2014

    So, Talent? What are we talking about? Artistic depth? Flamboyant, poetic panache? A weird, shamanic ability to see new truth and twisted stories in the dark? Alien intelligence that can’t help trying to create new meaning out of the utter bullshit of modern life (modern being whatever just started happening yesterday)? The simple ability to tell a story in a way to that holds the reader in a “What’s going to happen next?” pose? All of the above?

    Or is talent simply the ability to find good people to work with? Especially an agent with brains (gender no matter), an editor with heart (and talent!), and a publisher with balls.

    It takes a lot of talent to listen to people like that when they’re right, and to ignore them when they haven’t got a clue.

    It also takes talent to know that 79% of the rules by which writers write are utter bullshit and that talent is not something you are aware of if you have it.

  29. Patrick, Naturally
    at 10:09 am on November 20, 2014

    “talent is not something you are aware of if you have it.”

    Haha, are you kidding? Of course truly talented writers know they’re talented, how could they not? Do you also think Pavarotti wasn’t sure if he could sing well? Joyce, Nabokov, Woolf, O’Connor, Powell, Updike, Roth, Morrison, etc.–these people are/were aware of their talent, though they may have been more or less humble about it. By talent, to answer your first question, I’m talking about pure linguistic ability, which in itself is somewhat vague, but is what the above authors, and others, have in common.

    Of course, there are great writers without a huge linguistic gift, and other gifts that make up for it. I’m thinking here about someone like Kurt Vonnegut–not the greatest stylist, but prodigiously gifted with… I don’t know, what I think of as a moral aesthetic sense, a personal truthfulness that gives his books their peculiar wise humor. But this kind of gift is even harder to discuss than linguistic ability, and also probably equally applicable to other artistic and intellectual pursuits.

  30. David Biddle
    at 12:22 pm on November 20, 2014

    Yeah, “pure linguistic ability.” As opposed to impure linguistic ability? Say what?

    I stand by what I said about not being aware of talent. If you’ve got it, you’re not aware of it because you’re too busy working your ass off trying to perfect your next project.

  31. Patrick, Naturally
    at 1:53 pm on November 20, 2014

    I mean I’m defining talent in this conversation as having an innate facility with words and language, divorced from the myriad of other considerations that contribute to authorial success.

    And being a hard-working perfectionist who is dissatisfied (as any good author or artist should be) with his/her work does not preclude a person from knowing that they’re gifted. Michael Jordan’s drive to constantly improve his game, and his refusal to be happy with his success, did not prevent him from understanding that he was better at basketball than most people. I think you’re confusing or conflating some vision of smug complacency with an awareness of ability. And no offense, since I have no idea if you write or if you yourself are talented, but in general, the idea that talented people don’t know they’re talented is a convenient position for untalented people to have, which goes back to the original point of this article.

  32. Carrie Cuinn
    at 1:32 pm on November 21, 2014

    The author’s single example, comparing John Updike to this mother, Linda Updike, is incredibly privileged in expecting that a 1950s housewife with limited life experience or education should be compared to a man who studied at Harvard and worked at The New Yorker. Because Linda’s work is arguably less “good” than John’s, of course, talent is more important than craft. Except, I think he actually proves the opposite of his point, because Linda has less opportunity to develop her craft, her work was therefore not as good as her son’s, who had ample opportunity to develop his.

  33. Moe Murph
    at 3:44 pm on November 22, 2014

    My favorite comment in this general area is from David Lodge (“Creative Writing: Can it/Should it be Taught” – from The Practice of Writing – David Lodge c

    “But it is not

  34. Moe Murph
    at 3:51 pm on November 22, 2014

    Oops, pressed the wrong button.

    My favorite comment in this general area is from David Lodge (“Creative Writing: Can it/Should it be Taught” – from The Practice of Writing – David Lodge (Allen Lane – The Penguin Press (1996))

    “But it is not just a matter of technique either. It is like a chemical, or alchemical, reaction between form and content. So many factors are involved in the production of a literary text: the write’s life-experience, his genetic inheritance, his historical context, his reading, his powers of recall, his capacity for introspection, his fantasy life, his understanding of the springs of narrative, his responsiveness to language – its rhythms, sounds, registers, nuances of meaning, and so on….Even the most sophisticated literary criticism only scratches the surface of the mysterious process of creativity; and so, by the same token, does even the best course in creative writing.”

  35. Karl
    at 6:43 pm on November 22, 2014

    @Moe Murph: Great quote! It figures that David Lodge would have something wise to say on this topic.

  36. Moe Murphy
    at 2:48 pm on November 23, 2014

    @Karl

    Indeed. What a mind there… also he is both an excellent analyst and a skilled novelist in his own mind…. in a class by himself.

    Moe Murph

  37. Moe Murphy
    at 2:49 pm on November 23, 2014

    I meant to say “a skilled novelist in his own right…”

  38. priskill
    at 12:00 pm on November 24, 2014

    @Moe Murph
    Wow, that seems right on — “scratching the mysterious process of creativity,” indeed. I don’t think I’ve seen a better attempt to describe it. ” Craft vs. talent” becomes reductive, or at or at least simplistic in the face of the myriad little levers sparking creative process. Thank you for this — I will be looking for this book and his novels!

  39. Mygod
    at 11:54 am on November 26, 2014

    @Carie Currin, your statement is a great example of the vapid, rapid-fire assumptions that online “feminists” do now-a-days.

    You say: “The author’s single example, comparing John Updike to this mother, Linda Updike, is incredibly privileged in expecting that a 1950s housewife with limited life experience or education should be compared to a man who studied at Harvard and worked at The New Yorker.”

    She had a masters degree in English from Cornell University. She was more educated than her son. She was incredibly intelligent, and Updike recollects her working in her study, typing away on her typewriter, surrounded by books. I don’t know much about her personally other than that, but I suspect you know far far less.

    Please please please stop viewing the world solely through the lens of your ideology.

  40. Moe Murph
    at 12:05 pm on November 26, 2014

    @Carie Currin

    So, the key question here, Ms. Currin is: are you one of the dread pack of online “feminists” or simply a garden variety online feminist. The former have been known to drink male tears and laugh in a slightly disturbing manner.

    Cheer up, at least the forces of reaction didn’t label you a Social Justice Warrior. :)

    Moe Murph
    Smelling Eau de Gamergate

  41. Mygod
    at 12:23 pm on November 26, 2014

    @Moe Murph

    Yeah, pointing out that someone was clearly making assumptions based on current common ideologies is so “reactionary.” All those facts! Reacting!

  42. Carrie Cuinn
    at 12:56 pm on November 26, 2014

    I had a hard time deciding which part of your reply to me was the best — it was all so precious — but I think my favorite has to be that in your rush to decry my “rapid-fire assumptions” you couldn’t spell my name correctly, even when it was right in front of you.

    And speaking of rapid-fire assumptions, I think it’s safe to add “vapid online feminist” to that list, since you’re basing that on a single comment I made here. Just one. That’s all it took.

    I didn’t mention feminism because my focus was actually on another issue, the one this article was written about: craft vs. talent. From my perspective, as a writer, editor, and teacher of writing, I would suggest that one’s life experience is part of the craft/skills side of writing. Travel, working, socializing with other writers, going to war, having a major change in financial/marital circumstances — these are all part of what makes most successful writers more successful than those who did not have those experiences. Having a life, as it were, provides you with a wider range of characters and stories to choose from; it helps you to identify stories or even descriptions of objects which are not based on life experiences (and therefore don’t “ring true” for readers); it helps to provide depth, emotion, a sense of adventure, and/or gravitas to ones writing. It’s even been shown to improve the pacing and plotting of a story.

    Mrs. Updike came from a wealthy family which provided her with a somewhat sheltered upbringing and the funds to attend Cornell University. She married and settled into her role as a mother and wife, never holding down a job, never doing much of anything else outside the home. She wrote, yes, but was still limited by not just her lifestyle but her lack of writing peers with whom to discuss and critique each others’s work. Updike remembers her as intelligent but overly sensitive, perhaps even hiding in her office. You might argue that she had more traditional education than her son did, but in every other way, she knew far less.

    How, then, could she possibly have produced work which was equal to that of a person who was the president of and prolific contributor to the Harvard Lampoon? Who went to not just Harvard, but also attended a fine arts school at Oxford? worked at the New Yorker? Who had access to a community of writers? Who suffered a major religious crisis of faith, was divorced and remarried, raised several children? Who is primarily known for his careful and nuanced writing about these exact sort of things — the experience of living?

    But please, tell me again how you’re right to make an assumption about me since I’m ” clearly making assumptions based on current common ideologies”.

  43. My god
    at 1:20 pm on November 26, 2014

    The ignorance of saying that a wife and mother with a Masters degree in English from Cornell cannot have had “life experiences” because she was a wife and mother is astounding. You claim she “hid in her study” and “never did anything much else outside the home.” My suspicion is that you are again making assumptions (in your view, she appears a shut-in! With no job!) and don’t actually know anything about Linda Updike.

    However, even if she was (your words) merely “a mother and wife, never holding down a job, never doing much of anything else outside the home” – well that home, Shillington, Pa., is central to much of Updike’s fiction. In which Linda also lived! He’s not Melville, writing about whaling. He’s literally writing *about* people like his mother! And Updike himself lived in a similar small town, and didn’t do anything but be a father and write for the vast majority of his life! In other words, exactly what she did!

    I mean really, off the top of my head: Kafka barely ever traveled. I don’t think Bruno Shulz ever went 10 miles from where he was born!

    But your sexist comments about how stupid and oppressed she must have been are appreciated. Please, forget I said anything. Facts are terrible inconveniences!

  44. Moe Murph
    at 1:35 pm on November 26, 2014

    Interesting how those who question institutionalized sexism and racism and its effects, and the significant benefits accruing from simply being born into the power group are so quickly labeled “sexist” or “racist.”

    Not to mention the grotesque description of the recent reportage on the bullying activities of Uber’s executives as a media “stoning”

    GamerGate playbook, Rule #62.5(b)(iii)

  45. My god
    at 1:48 pm on November 26, 2014

    @moe murph

    You realize you’re a conspiracy theorist, right? I mean – it took me 5 minutes to figure out what you could possibly mean by your comment. Apparently I am connected to Uber… A car service that uses an app…

    Please address points and have a discussion or debate, but try to remain coherent and relevant.

  46. timble
    at 9:41 pm on November 26, 2014

    @Carrie Cuinn

    You make it sound like Linda Updike was forced into those roles. Was she really less privileged than Willa Cather, Tillie Olsen, or Eudora Welty? Was it impossible for her to simply write a novel right out of college, like Harper Lee? The truth is that if she had the talent and drive to become a published author, she could have done so. From the sound of it, she only had the drive.

  47. Brian Holmes
    at 8:20 pm on November 30, 2014

    To “spell” on paper; almost sounds like something a person could be called a witch for.

    When we write down words and make them ours, a magic spell of sorts has been whipped up. Just as we should be careful what we say, the power of our “spell” would be wise to be held with a purpose.

    To hold the intangible. to make what cannot be seen twist; to make it bend. To be asked to do this in an environment that has likely been a cause of diminishment to the power of the everyday normal superheroes’ ability to cast a heart felt permanent abstraction that is of their life force and no-one elses….

    Yea..How can this be taught ? Maybe 1:20 are gifted from the getgo. The rest; pain, failure, and circumstance…

  48. jong
    at 3:29 am on January 28, 2015

    As someone who came to this discussion late, and after reading the comments, as a male, I found the discussion quite civil between what I could make out as males. When Carrie jumped into the discussion later, her views were dismissed and pigeonholed as sexist. Talk about white men only wanting to talk to, seeing only, other white men as their equals.

  49. Elliott
    at 2:50 pm on October 25, 2016

    Great post! I think that, on the talent vs. work balance of things, more people are born with a chance to be a very good writer (if they love it & work at it) than are born over 6’4 and thus have a chance to play in the NBA.

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