Are writers born with talent?
Right, that’s that cleared up. Shall we – Wait, you want more than that? Damnit, am I some kind of giant answering questions machine? Okay then, let’s talk a bit more about this.
In an article that’s generated more opprobrium than [insert witty simile about your favourite sports team] Ryan Boudinot said that he believes that ‘real’ writers are born, not made. Also that you have to start in your teens to be a member of the writing elite, and is generally snobby about non-‘heavyweight’ fiction. It’s similar to other stories I’ve heard about being selected to join MA creative writing course in the UK being mainly a measure of how many classics (Dostoyevsky, Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce and the like) you’ve read.
I totally, totally and completely disagree with that. I firmly believe that anyone can be a writer, just as anyone can become an expert in anything that isn’t dependent on the fallibilities of the human frame. Just as you can learn as much about the art from Harry Potter as you can from the ‘great works’. Bear in mind that Shakespeare wasn’t good enough for the founder of the Bodleian library; what’s considered to be a classic changes with time. I still remember snobbery about the Lord of the Rings when I was growing up. ‘It’s not real writing’. How can anything that isn’t about the human condition be considered worthy of your time?
Becoming a writer takes hard work and commitment. Mastering any skill takes hard work and commitment. 10,000 hours, that’s the figure that’s given. In order to become ‘great’ you have to have spent 10,000 hours practicing, training and learning. Of course reading the classics will help, but only in the sense that reading anything – reading everything – will help you learn how to put stories together and to experience new tricks and new perspectives. It’s true that starting early (writing as a teenager) will help you master the craft, but that’s just a case of getting your hours in ahead of the curve. Hey, I’m old now but I’m still getting better and better; reckon I’ve got plenty of time to knock off the remaining hours and build a career.
It’s worth saying that just because anyone can become a writer, I don’t think everyone should. Partly because of competition for my own work, but mainly because we don’t have time to master every skill under the sun. You have to love what you’re doing. You have to be willing to sink that time, and priorities are personal. It’s hard work. What Boudinot doesn’t seem to understand is that not everyone has that time at the same time: and it’s better to learn slowly and to really absorb the lessons than to become more and more stressed to the point of giving up completely.
10,000 hours is a really long time. I’ve done some thinking (a rarity) and I reckon that since I really started writing seriously – around seven years ago – I’ve clocked up about 1,500 of the buggers. That doesn’t include the time spent with my head in a book, or all the crappy essays I wrote as a student. And what about the time spent dreaming, concocting imaginary worlds as a child – should that time be factored in? In a way I hope it’s not: that means I can still get seven times better than I am right now.
Mastering a craft isn’t the same as making a career. You can be the most skilled artist in the world but someone still has to want to read your stuff. A market has to exist, and you still need to get the breaks, for your manuscript to land on the right desk at the right time. It’s a business, not a meritocracy – and even if it was there are a lot of writers out there who are as determined as you. They’re probably prettier.
But there’s not much you can do about that except to learn your lessons, drink your whisky and keep on trying. I’m personally going to keep on submitting my work whilst continuing to tap, tap, tappety away at my keyboard, working through my hours producing new and better material. The only thing we can really control is our own output and our own dedication. And more of that we pour in, the better our chance is of achieving whatever we decide success is for us.