Sunday, October 18, 2009

Inspired, or disciplined?

Are writers born, or can one attend to, and develop their craft through toil and perserverance? That seems to be an age-old debate that continues to rage in writing circles.

Glimmer Train, a great literary publication featuring many new voices, sends out their magazine on a quarterly basis, and includes Writers Ask, along with it. Writers Ask deals with many of the craft aspects of writing, and it has always been a favorite of mine for advice on bettering myself as a writer.

I happened to be perusing an older issue (#42, Winter 2008), which discussed the topic of inspiration vs. discipline. The commentary and back and forth between the GT writers and the writers interviewed seemed to be split between a sense that a skilled writer had some inherent ability, but there was an obvious nod to the understanding that work ethic was also important.

Here are a few highlights from the issue:

Jay McInerney (interviewed by Victoria Blake)-

I used to idealize those people who made it seem all the work of inspiration, who seemed not so much to work as to channel the muses....I was wrong to imagine literature is a divine gift. A career of writing entails a lot of hard work, but if it were only a question of hard work, then anybody with enough of a work ethic who's ever enrolled in a creative-writing course would presumably be Phillip Roth. Whether it's ninety-nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration, I don't know. The predisposition and the innate talent can't be willed into existence. I think Jane Austen was in some sense was born Jane Austen.

Mark Winegardner (interviewed by Robert Birnbaum)-

If they (aspiring writers) have no talent, no matter what their work ethic is they will recognize that their talents lie elsewhere.

This is my twentieth year teaching...the most talented undergraduates, you can write them off. They'll never be writers. They don't have a chance. They are freaked out that they just did it. People who are brilliant at nineteen freak out. They don't know what to do with that, "How'd I do that? I don't know." And also, early praise is damaging. We live in a culture that thinks the entire country is above average. C is a bad grade now. C is what F used to be. So everybody gets this fatuous early praise and it ruins everybody who receives it. So they are all destroyed by it. People who are a little further along, blossoming later, even then I would bet on the person who shows up at the computer every morning, rather than the one who has a world of talent and no discipline.

So there you have it. Talent matters, but working at your craft cannot be overemphasized. I've touched on this in the past, referencing Stephen King's excellent book, On Writing.

If you want to be a writer, then you need to write. It's a simple fact, but one that many wannabe writers seem to miss.



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