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?