I want to preface this entry by saying I don't believe I'm particularly good at writing. I don't believe I'm the kind of writer to be analyzed by academics and held in the same esteem as Faulkner or Hawthorne. I wish I was, I truly do, but most creatives are always apt to believe their work will be never respected. I do, however, believe I have some authority on what makes good writing.
About a month ago my girlfriend and I were discussing some of the submissions I was reviewing for the Cicada Songs anthology I'm working on. I was sharing my critiques when she asked me if I knew what I was talking about. Her question was what gave me the legitimacy to read a stranger's work and know what needed to be corrected or refined. It's a good question. It reminds me of another question I've discussed with other creative types: the question of talent versus skill.
Talent is borne of pure fortune, either genetic or something entirely unexplainable. Some people have a spark in them that makes them naturally great at what they do, whether it's being able to memorize minute details or having indomitable perseverance. If you were to take two people, born into poverty, and give them the same lives, they would still approach the world according to the spark that fuels them within. Talent is part of the human spirit, the makeup of your genetics, something deep and latent that can either randomly manifest itself or be expected. I'm a short guy. I could never compete in a strong man contest, chucking logs several feet or hauling boulders onto platforms. That simply is not in the cards for me. It's not in my genes. Nor do I have an eidetic memory that would make me a stunning mathematician or forensic expert. I don't have the sort of beauty that could offer me a life as a model. I don't possess the same willpower and love for fitness that could lead me into any athletic field or body building. I don't have the patience to care about things that don't hold my interest. These are not my talents.
The talent I do have, the one that influences my writing, is something that everyone has as a child- imagination. Most children (I say most and not all, because I've met some rather unimaginative kids in my life) are gifted with talented imaginations. Kids are wonderful at creating. To them the world is new and filled with all sorts of things they have yet to experience. Children act, draw, write, and more, everything their young minds can imagine. They can take a single tv show and build their own mythos around it. I know I did. I know others that do, including my own children. Kids are a well of creativity. But as they age the imagination dulls. Their attentions are turned to new things like dating, education, social status, and so on. Their minds come to accept the world as it is rather than try to imagine it as something else. The fantasy worlds they built erode and become distant lifeless memories. It's just a natural part of growing up for most people. The world tells us that we can't keep our heads in the clouds forever. Daydreams and make believe don't make money. They don't put food on the table.
Well the movie industry is a multibillion dollar business and Stephen King isn't exactly struggling.
My talent was never outgrowing my imagination. Like other talents it was something beyond my control. I can't really explain it. It isn't hereditary either, from what I can tell. Outside of my brother, I don't know anyone in my family who shares it. Was it the environment? Was it something that was latent in my genetics, lost for a hundred years only to reappear in me? I don't know why, but when everyone around me stopped making up their own worlds to live in the real one, I refused, and I stayed in my mind. To me, everything I imagined, was alive. It was real. To shrug off those worlds I built would be to condemn something beautiful to death. It was too high a price to pay for the chance to join everyone else who wanted to be “mature”.
The rest took work. Keeping my imagination strong through the years is undoubtably a talent. Pulling things out of your mind and giving them form in words is something else entirely. I'm a big believer that anyone can write. Writing isn't difficult, I think, when compared to something like being a doctor or physicist. There isn't really any wrong way to write. There's certainly bad writing, but bad writing, with some wise and expert critiques and editing, can be turned into something respectable. Writing is that one weird art when a turd can really be polished to gold. All you need are the skills. Mine have come from years of practice. I've been writing about the things I've been imagining since I could. Writing made them real, taking their ethereal natures and making them solid matter in the form of words. I've also invested in my education to better my skills, having earned my associates in English and currently approaching my senior year for my bachelors, with my doctorate as the goal I'm aiming for. I've read countless poems, short stories, essays, anthologies, novellas, and novels. I've written equally innumerable essays about them. Not to mention that I currently have one novella, one novel, and one collection of shorts under my publishing belt. All these things go beyond talent. These are skills. Writing is learnable. I know because I'm still learning.
To be a good writer you need both. I know people who are competent writers but lack the imagination. I know people who have imaginations but can't seem to get the writing part down. And just as talent and skill go hand in hand when it comes to being a writer (and really any sort of creative, the kind that want to be taken serious) you need passion and discipline. Passion is in the talent spectrum, being something that you either have or don't. You either really really want to write or you sorta kinda wanna do it. Passion negates the excuses you'll make up for why you don't or why you haven't finished. If you love it, you'll find a way to do it. I love writing so I write constantly. I even enjoy writing essays for college. Discipline is a skill. Discipline takes work. Discipline motivates and keeps your passion focused. You can imagine and write a dozen things at once because you have the passion, but discipline keeps you productive. Without discipline your passion is an unbridled mess. You'll find yourself writing a hundred unfinished stories. Good, but unfinished.
So which is it? Talent or skill, that makes a good writer? It's both in equal measure. Writing, serious writing, needs imagination and the skill to bring it to life. So when my girlfriend questions the legitimacy of my ability to critique someone's writing, these are the things that give that ability to expertly do so. I've worked hard to better my writing. I take it serious. I work everyday to learn. I write constantly. I read things from both established and respected writers and burgeoning amateurs. I love what I do. I genuinely care. So for those out there hoping to write something, take this advice: Love what you do enough to slave away at it and cross your fingers you have a story to tell.