Sunday, November 08, 2009

Wasting Time and Self-Imposed Boundaries

Nathan Bransford’s recent blog asked the question, “Can anyone be a good writer?”

For me, the answer is simple. But the commenters’ answers were more fascinating than my own take, because most of them were so adamant.

A few years ago, I volunteered to run an art appreciation program at my kids’ school. I designed classes around famous artworks and spent a good portion of the time discussing the artist and time period, and then modified projects so that the kids could use an array of mediums throughout the school year that were age appropriate – depending on the grade. I worked with every grade from pre-k through sixth and wound up teaching a lot of classes instead of just my own children’s classes.

Now, I helped other moms design their projects, found volunteers, even put together the art show at the end of the year, and worked with the program for I think two years... but the most vivid memory I have of the entire experience is this:

I set up a still life in the middle of the fourth grade classroom. I don’t even remember who the artist we studied for this one was, but the fun part was letting each of the kids find things in their desk or around the room that they thought were interesting and decide where to set them on the table in the middle. So there was this great big hodgepodge of STUFF. And I had them all sit in a circle around the table and then I told them to draw it... oy, the looks on their faces! Like a deer caught in the headlights. I wasn’t thinking.

When you tell someone to draw, someone who hasn’t already studied how to see things in that way – with an artist’s eye, well, they need something specific. You can’t give them too much. They don’t know where to look.

So I slowed them down a bit. Told them to breathe and told them each to pick a spot out of the still life that most appealed to them; I even let them move around the room to find what they found most interesting. They could draw it as large or as small as they wanted, include as many things as they wanted... it was all about their own perspective.

As I was walking around, a boy raised his hand, his page was still blank and the pencil was in his hand... and he looked at me and said, “But, most of us won’t be good drawers, right? I mean, like, some people are good drawers and then the rest of us will never really be good at it, right?”

So I told him the truth. “No, that’s not right. Anyone can learn to draw. Any person who wants to spend the time and put in their best effort can learn to draw and draw well. It’s a skill, and there are techniques, and to get really good takes a lot of practice, but there is no special ‘thing’ you either have or don’t that says you can draw. It’s all about working on it.”

See, there was another kid in this class who was talented. She had that X factor and had the ‘artist’ title in the class... so that’s probably where the question came from, but I wasn’t about to be the person that gave this kid a boundary and told him he’d never have the capacity to cross it.

And you know what – he crossed it. His drawing was good, and detailed, he picked small little skeleton erasers and some portion of a weaved basket thing... you could see every bone.

Now I’m pretty familiar with the whole, talent vs. work debate. And I do personally think there is a little kernel of something, that intangible we call talent, in great artists, writers, or really anything... I mean, there’s probably some intangible in surgeons and mathematicians, too, we just don’t generally call it talent, we call it intelligence instead... but it’s the same thing really. Some people have a natural ability in certain areas. That’s talent. It comes easier or there’s a spark there, and you’ll often hear other writers or artists talk about how you could see it as far back as grade school.

I had it. I got all that attention for being talented and creative... in drawing, not writing. If teachers from grade school saw me today, they’d probably wonder if I was doing anything with visual arts, because that was what I was known for then, what seemed to come easy for me. No one noticed anything interesting in my writing until late in high school... in fact, I was in one of the lower reading groups in grammar school.

And, getting back to the talent thing – I don’t actually have that spark in the visual arts. I figured that out on my own, and I think that’s how everyone should come to their own limitations or lack thereof. Just because my early dispositions leaned toward drawing doesn’t mean I was talented, it means I was interested. Interested in saying something. That’s what it was about. I’m still interested in the same thing, telling a story, but I’ve found I like doing it in words, scenes, through characters... or sometimes through blog rants.

So I don’t know – can anyone be a great writer? A great artist? Well, I guess it depends on your definition of great, and that’s subjective at best. What’s more interesting though, is why you come up with your answer to that question, and who you’re drawing boundaries for... because really, all of the years I spent drawing and painting... they weren’t wasted. I’ve taken the techniques and way of looking at things into every other area of study – no time you spend learning anything is ever really wasted, the skills always translate to other areas if you’re just open to it...

What’s your answer? Can ANYONE be a great writer? If your answer is no, who do you think needs to stay behind the line your boundaries draw? And how did you make it across, or did you?


Stephen Parrish said...

Good post. Betty Edwards showed that pretty much anyone could learn how to draw, and draw well, given dedication and the right teacher. I wonder what the Edwards-equivalent approach to writing instruction would be.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Stephen,

You know I had to look Betty Edwards up! :-) What I read was pretty interesting, too because there is a click, an adjustment in the way you SEE things when you're drawing or painting or capturing anything from model or picture. I wish they taught it to every kid, not just the ones who take art courses, because that way of looking at things in a detailed way, it's invaluable. I've used it in every single area of my life, and it has obvious benefits for writing... but it's a skill I wouldn't have found or developed without art.

Gary Corby said...

I'm glad you wrote about this. I've wondered about the same question a few times.

I suggest almost anyone can learn craft. Basic narrative structure and the elements which make a sentence, a scene and a story are all learnable.

The story you choose to tell with your craft is another matter. How do you teach someone the art of imagining an original story?

Erica Orloff said...

Blogger ate my response yesterday.


I think any HUMBLE person willing to find mentors, teachers, and put in lots of hours (I'm talking years) to learn craft can write something publishable.

Publishable doesn't mean great. And it doesn't mean that book will ever actually BE published. I think elevating writing to a higher plain cannot be learned. There is an element of talent that perhaps people don't even want to think about. I agree with Gary's comment. You can't teach inspiration, spark, originality . . . the true nuance of every word.

So I think there is a little of both.


Natasha Fondren said...

Talent, schmalent. Okay. I have a post about this in my drafts folder, that I need to write and post. Because I just wrote five paragraphs on the subject and I wasn't done, LOL... :-)

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Gary,

I agree with you - I think anyone who WANTS to learn the craft of writing, can. There's always people who have horrible grammar, but it's not because they can't learn, it's because they're not that interested, I think. And reading skills don't come as easy to everyone, so if there's not a lot of interest and it's a lot of work for them, well, they generally don't push to master it - just well enough to get through their classes and then it pretty much goes by the wayside.

And you're right, you can't teach someone to tell an original story. There are other variables you can't teach, but yeah, that's a biggie. I think there are a lot of talented writers out there with the ever-elusive spark, that haven't found publication for this reason - their stories aren't saleable. Well-written, maybe, but no one wants to take a chance on them because they just aren't written to a market.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Erica,

And I agree with you! That's the thing, I do think you can see that spark in some writers. But I've also read a number of published books that didn't have that spark - they were okay, maybe a great story but not brilliant writing, or maybe the other way round...

And in theory we talk about work ethic vs. natural talent all the time, but then I think these kind of conversations get inside writers heads. (eeek, what if I have no talent and that's why I'm having such a hard time getting published?)

Like artwork for me, I think that's a decision the writer has to come to on their own. And somewhere in there I really believe that you couldn't keep moving forward in the face of rejection without some bit of talent, or at least an amazing love for the process of writing.

Talent vs. work ethic... I think work ethic wins. Not that the ones with the work ethic will necessarily write better, but they have a better shot of getting where they're going. A lot of talented people don't do the work... and you can't get there without the work.

Hi Natasha!

Can't wait to read it. I'll stop by soon.

Gary Corby said...

Something struck me as I read the comments: we always talk about the skill of writing as craft. Which coincidentally is how witches refer to their own skills. I wonder how much we think of what we do as a little bit of magic?