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Jay Lake
Date: 2010-07-19 05:33
Subject: [writing|process] Talent, ability and voice
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
tchernabyelo on talent and ability. He asks if there is a limit on talent and ability, and discusses the need to analyze his successful work better.

As I said recently in a slight different context, "careful craft will beat brilliant inspiration nine times out of ten. The true point is, of course, to yoke careful craft and brilliant inspiration together in a single process."

I'm going to go out on a bit of a limb here and say that I believe talent to be rather overrated. This is not sour grapes; I say this as someone who considers himself to be fairly talented at the narrative arts. But ability, taken here for discussion purposes in the sense of "craft", is what makes for successful writing.

Be assured I am not discounting the value of talent. It is possible to dazzle with sheer brilliance, and I'm rather pleased when someone can do that to me. But even sheer brilliance must still rest on structure, plot, character, setting, and all the other impedimenta of story-telling. Those are craft.

I can't teach you talent. You have whatever you have. Hence matociquala's "box it came in" theory, which I prefer to think of as the "hand of cards". There are ten or twelve or fourteen things that a writer needs to attain mastery of in order to tell a strong, compelling story. We all first come to the table with two or three or five of those things in our hands. Natural talent, in other words.

In my case, as a very new writer, long before I'd sold a word, or even written a comprehensible story, that was plot (though not endings), setting, and prose styling. Characters, on the other hand, were sort of people-shaped black holes for me, dialog was so clunky it hurt, my control of POV was laughable. Those things I had to learn. Craft, in other words, carefully attended to and practiced over the past two decades.

One of my personal challenges in growing as a writer has in fact been to recognize the limits of my talent, and from that where and how to apply my learned skills at craft development to those areas where I already considered myself pretty hot shit. (Ego isn't pretty, is it?)

I may not be able to teach you talent, but I can teach you craft. Or at least someone can, if it doesn't happen to be me. In fact, with one notable exception, I'm of the opinion that any aspect of craft can be taught, and if practiced well, mastered.

Another way of saying that is to aver that you don't need talent to succeed at writing. You need the ability to learn good craft, you need to attain facility at that craft (if not mastery, eventually), and you need psychotic persistence. Talent sure can help, and may be a handy shortcut for some of the cards of craft, but it can also be a dead end and a trap; much as I have experienced.

The notable exception? I don't believe I can teach you voice. Voice is one of those things that adheres to the Potter Stewart test - "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." To my current thinking, voice is the distinct quality that makes you the writer you are, delightfully unlike everyone else. It arises out of the intersection of talent, craft, and life experience, and like the sea, voice is ever changing.

You have talent in whatever measure you happen to be granted it. Craft can be taught, and will bridge the gap between talent and achievement. Voice is the intangible fusion that moves you from practiced to good; and with luck and skill, from good to great.

So to speak to tchernabyelo directly, is there a limit on talent and ability? Yes, on talent, because it's an inherent quality independent of effort and focus. Potentially not on ability, because it's an acquired characteristic dependent on commitment and practice. You can't control talent, but you can control craft.

As I often say, "write more". That is the essence of commitment and practice.

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User: mikandra
Date: 2010-07-19 12:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I believe that to a certain extent, even voice can be taught or practiced. It certainly changes over time and probably between different projects. Most voices are pretty close to neutral, and I don't think there is anything wrong with that.

What cannot be taught or practiced is the ability to learn the difference between your (crappy) writing and writing of an experienced writer, and to understand, over time, what are the causes of that difference. The ability to absorb techniques and understand fairly quickly why they work (or don't work)
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selfavowedgeek: Louis L'Amour
User: selfavowedgeek
Date: 2010-07-19 13:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Louis L'Amour
I appreciate these posts about writing/process/etc. Thank you.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-07-19 13:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You are most welcome.
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A large duck: Puzzled
User: burger_eater
Date: 2010-07-19 13:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I disagree with your notes here, but I posted the bulk of it in my own blog because it got long long long.

Readers Digest version: all writing skills are learned, but the ones we call "talent" are learned young.

Me, I think the thing we call "talent" is just an accurate assessment of the effect of our writing; the more subtle or sublime the effect--and the more original the construction that creates it--the more talented the writer is perceived to be.
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Elizabeth Coleman
User: criada
Date: 2010-07-19 14:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm going to go off on a slight tangent and say there's a third variable to work with here, which is audience. First, I'll define talent as the ability to naturally channel the writing aspects we already love so much, (with that naturally channeling bit tied in with self-awareness and the notion of Follow Your Bliss. I also think this notion is tied in to finding your Voice.)
If you don't have an audience to bounce your particular talent off of, you're SOL. James Joyce was talented at channeling his thoughts very directly onto the page, and when I read him, I just think, "ugh! Why do I care?!"

You learn some aspects of craft from looking at your audience. Once upon a time, audiences liked dense, highly detailed omniscient works that could start out with pages of exposition about duvet covers. Audiences nowadays won't put up with that, so we learn our craft accordingly.
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Ben Peek
User: benpeek
Date: 2010-07-19 14:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
well, i guess that depends on how you define talent, really. for me, talent means a natural aptitude towards a certain thing--which i would, for example, say that you do not need to learn characterisation, plot, style. talent gives you this naturally, and allows you to grasp them as concepts very easily, and means you don't have to struggle with it when putting it on a page.

quite often, at least in my experience, i find that people define talent as being an almost like godlike skill. a super power, really.

but, you know, perhaps neither here nor there.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-07-19 16:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
We have pretty much the same view here, I am thinking.
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Jo Rhett
User: jorhett
Date: 2010-07-19 16:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Characters, on the other hand, were sort of people-shaped black holes for me, dialog was so clunky it hurt, my control of POV was laughable. Those things I had to learn. Craft, in other words, carefully attended to and practiced over the past two decades.

Thank you for saying something so blunt and honest. I feel much better about where I am now ;-)
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User: e_bourne
Date: 2010-07-19 17:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
On the theory that one art is much like another, I saw in art school artists who were far more naturally gifted than myself fail because they relied on their native talent. Which I always thought a shame.

Talent alone isn't worth a can of beans. I don't have much native talent either as an artist or a writer, but I'm a persistent @#$%@! and that makes up a lot of ground.

I also believe that reading helps. Read what you want to write like. If I've acquired any good skills at all, it's because of good reading habits. You are what you eat.
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Brian Dolton
User: tchernabyelo
Date: 2010-07-19 17:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Many thanks for the link - I'd forgotten the first rule of blogging, which is that if you mention Jay lake, he will come :) You're very summonable, that way...

I've been writing, on and off, since I was around 7 years old, although (thankfully) none of my writing prior to my mid-20s still exists (and a couple of the stories from my mid-20s, with only slight modifications, were sold 20-odd years later - on the one hand this feels kind of good, knowing that I had some kind of ability back then, and on the other it feels like I have a) wasted a lot of time and b) not learned as much as I should since then). As you indicate, there are some things I could do write off the bat, and the main one was that I could, in general, write pretty well at the sentence level (not that you would often believe it from my blogging). I have decent world-building skills, too, but beyond that it probably all starts to fall away. My character set is fairly limited, I think; my dialogue still needs work; my plotting is horrendously clumsy at novel level; POV is something I still work on actively (though in my experience it is something that this genre fusses over WAY more than most others, and I am still trying to work out why that is). And these are just the things I know I don't know. There are, I fear, things that I DON'T know I don't know, and that's what I have to learn more about.
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User: musingaloud
Date: 2010-07-19 21:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I could have written tchern's post that day (except for some of the details), so for this post of yours, I thank you very much.
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Fluttering Things: yarr
User: moxie_raqs
Date: 2010-07-20 11:14 (UTC)
Subject: "write more"
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User: livejournal
Date: 2013-09-30 03:33 (UTC)
Subject: [cancer] Writing, blogging and me
User besthdmi referenced to your post from [cancer] Writing, blogging and me saying: [...] | LiveJournal [...]
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