Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Nature vs. Nurture in Writing

Dan O’Shea has another thought-provoking post on his blog today, referring to posts by John Hornor and Chuck Wendig about how much of writing is talent alone, and how much of it can be taught. (There’s a lot more to their comments than that; go check them out. I’ll wait.)

I commented on the other blogs, but it occurred to me that my two comments tied well into a single blog post and, since I haven’t posted anything for about a week, I might as well get off my ass and do it.

Stephen King has my favorite take on how much one’s writing can be improved in his excellent book, On Writing. (Recommended for all writers, regardless of style or genre.) I don’t have the book handy, so I’ll paraphrase (while plagiarizing my comment on Dan’s blog):

There are four levels of writer: Incompetent, Competent, Good, and Great.

An Incompetent writer is, well, incompetent. Not much you can do with him.

A Competent writer can, with work and guidance, become a good writer.

A Good writer can, with sloth and dissipation, become a Competent writer. He cannot, however, become a Great writer, only a better writer.

Great writers are born. They can, however, piss that greatness away and become Good, or merely Competent. We all know people who have done this.

Greatness is that unteachable spark called talent, or a gift, or God’s Lips to our ear. Everything else can be learned. Incompetence is like anti-talent: no matter how hard you try, you’re just not wired that way. You’re never going to get it.

I suspect it’s not just writing. Every field is like this. I used to be a musician, and it’s certainly true there.

Can anything truly be taught? The best teacher I ever had says no one can teach you anything. Everything is learned through a combination of trial and error and rote. The teacher—if he’s good—is a guide. He uses his experience to suggest paths most likely to lead to success, and cautions against dead ends. He encourages, but not unrealistically.

So I’d say yes, writing can be learned, though it cannot be taught any more than anything else can. Which is still plenty.


Chuck said...

Great comment. I just said this over at Dan's site, but it bears repeating here --

Learning is an active state. You can't do it passively -- or, at least, you can't learn most skills passively.

Hence, in a way, you can only teach yourself, yes. Others are simply giving you the tools that allow you to learn.

-- c.

Mike Dennis said...

Right on, Dana. Especially with the musician analogy and with the incompetent-competent-good-great scale. I also saw Dan's post today and like you, wrote a little piece for my own website on this topic.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think there is another element-you have to be the sort of person who invents stories about what she/he sees around him. Stories have to be part of your makeup. When my husband and I take a walk, I am wondering about why that car doesn't have the snow cleared off it after three days. He is wondering why President Nixon claimed he had a solution to the war in Vietnam. Both of us are thinking of our work though.

Dana King said...

Thanks to all for stopping by. Following the links from each of the related blog posts turned this into practically a meme. Lots of good comments; a lot of thought went into them.

I like that, "Stories have to be part of your makeup" concept. I wish I'd heard it for those times my dad called me a lazy daydreamer. ;-)