Born Writing

Reality Check No talent for proofing

The Page 117 Rule

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
Apparently, the first word that I spoke wasn't Mummy or Daddy but Book. This doesn't mean to say that I think I was born as a writer, though as I've always got my head in a book I might well be a born reader.

Come to think of it, I wish I'd been a born editor! :rolleyes:

It's an intriguing question to trace where talent comes from: some is a natural gift and though skills can be learnt, if someone doesn't have an instinctive feel for the craft it's going to show.

People I've known who achieved proficiency quickly included an above-the-knee amputee who took to turning wood on a lathe like she was born to make bowls. One of the keenest pool players in Liskeard, Cornwall was a ten-year-old boy who'd been handed a cue at the age of five, and standing on a chair to reach the baize playing surface proceeded to sink balls into pockets. Adult players avoided him, for fear of an embarrassing defeat.

Having a love for what you're doing helps. As Confucius said: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Think of the artists you like to see interviewed about what they do, be they writers, painters, actors or musicians—those with enthusiasm shine out—and they're not always massively successful commercially. It's easy to tell when someone is just going through the motions creatively...and I'm including those who are rolling in money from their shtick.

Raymond Chandler is admired for his terse writing style. He's been called a born writer, but he admitted that he slogged long and hard to make his prose readable while conveying the essence of what he was trying to get across. Robert McCrum makes some good points about the craft of writing in this article about Chandler:

Robert McCrum on Raymond Chandler and the craft of writing

Elena Ferrante recently pitched into the debate about natural talent versus training:

Elena Ferrante: ‘Are great artists born or made? Both – but they must also get lucky’

I like what she says about not wasting one's writing abilities. She also acknowledges that success is often down to luck.

"Talent is insufficient: if it’s not cultivated, it ends up, in the best cases, inventing the wheel, only to discover that this has been done already. Those who feel they have an artistic vocation have an obligation not to squander it by being content with what pours from their heart."

There's a story told about a sensei of Kendo, the bamboo sword fighting martial art from Japan. After defeating a much younger opponent, one of his students congratulated his master on a perfect fight. The sensei responded by saying that his technique had been flawed, but that was why he'd been studying Kendo for fifty years, and that he would never want to achieve perfection...the reason he fought was for the love of his art.

I've felt the same way about things I've loved doing, including motorcycling, cooking, boxing and writing. I've been known to turn around and retake a corner on a motorcycle, to get a more fluid line through the bend. In rewriting prose and poetry, it might mean that many versions of the work exist, eventually reaching a point where it's the best I can do. It's never going to be perfect, but that's OK.

Such striving for improvement doesn't feel natural; as Raymond Chandler showed it's a job that needs hard work. Albert Einstein said:
The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.”

I get a thrill out of reading something where I think the author really nailed it, and if it can be made to sound simple, almost as a throwaway line, it has more impact. I wrote down a couple of great observations from James Lee Burke's Robicheaux:

* “Solitude and peace with oneself are probably the only preparation one has for death.”

* “The only argument you ever win is the one you don’t have.”

I don't suppose that such pithiness came easy to Burke, for in offering some writing tips, he said

Robert Frost once said a poet must be committed to a lover's quarrel with the world. He had it right. If a person writes for money or success, he will probably have neither. If he writes for the love of his art and the world and humanity, money and success will find him down the line. In the meantime, he must work every day at his craft, either at his desk or in his mind and sometimes in his sleep. It's a lonely pursuit, one without shortcuts.

What do you think?

Is writing a natural talent?

Or, do you have to work really hard at it?

Have you always told stories?

If you have ever had to train someone to write, only to find h/she had no discernible aptitude for it AT ALL, despite being -- professedly at least -- desperate to become a journalist, you would know the answer. (And I can cite more than one case.)

Training can improve a person's skills, but the native aptitude/inclination/talent cannot be taught. It's either there, or it's not.
I would check if Kid A is dyslexic. Sounds very likely.
I agree with @E G Logan. As a teacher I've come across a few dyslexic kids. Most were brilliant and intelligent but they could hardly read or write as they see the letters "backwards"... typewriters help. What adds insult to injury is the dyslexic child is never recognised as such and passed off as being below average intelligence. Therefore that child gets no proper education because most teachers and parent's haven't a clue how to teach them. But you CAN teach a dyslexic child to read and write reasonable well, but it takes and awful lot more time than with normal children because they need to "read" a word several times, before they can recognise it again. It's a very, very slow process but it is worth it.
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It's a lot easier now with all the technical aids that are available. A family member was quite badly dyslexic, but with careful coaching from a specialist teacher from about age 10, plus all the aids you could imagine, s/he is more than getting by now.
On the other hand, my grandfather, which is where we think it came from, used to have to ask his young daughters to write things for him, to avoid showing his "awful spelling".
The old nature vs nuture debate! There's a balance. Whatever it is writing, sport, acting, selling, engineering, dancing and so on, all require a degree of natural talent. I think you've only got to look up your genetic tree to find others with useful creative genes your making good use of; my dad's a scriptwriter & my mum's a natural storyteller so I've got to give them some credit. I think if you've got the natural talent from your genetic precedent, you'll be drawn to whatever it is that's your calling. I've always been absentmindedly dreaming up stories often based on one off-hand remark or strange coincidence that just clicks something new into place. Most of them aren't very good, but my mind's always wandering towards a new story and I think that's got to be a natural calling.

At the same time you've got to nuture your skill. You can't expect to be the best at, whatever it is that you do, if you don't accept that you always have the capacity to improve. The fool spends all his time bragging about how great he is, the smart man spends all his time finding people who are smarter than he is, to learn from them and improve.

Then there's also luck, but I think you can make a lot of that through perseverance.
I was terrible at English in high school. I was always a B/C student. Essays were the worst. Half of the problem, I think, was that I didn't find the texts we studied very engaging and I lacked the life experience to identify with most of the characters in them.

However, I loved imaging stories (I would spend long car trips staring out the window in utter silence, brain whirring with whatever idea had captured my interest). Sure enough, one idea came along that was too big to contain in my head. To move on to the next scene of the story (and to find out what happened next) I had to get the start of it out. I tried to draw it (I was an arty kid)—no good, I couldn't capture it quick enough. So I turned to words.

Writing soon became a hobby. My grades remained pretty average, and I remember being worried that I wouldn't get a high enough mark in English to study it at uni. My first year was again nothing spectacular, but slowly I began to improve. I think the change came down to the sheer amount of writing I was doing at that time—creative and academic. I got into Honours, went on to do a postgrad diploma, then in a stroke of luck, landed a job as a publication assistant for a marketing team, which kick-started a career in content writing. I've been doing that ever since.

Having gone from a B/C English student to a full-time agency content writer, I'm of the belief that perseverance and time spent honing your craft can make a massive difference.
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Heck, I can't remember when I started writing. I remember standing on a chair under a paraffin light at my aunt's wedding, reading a poem I had written. I must have been about six. But I also remember my dad coming home after months in the mines in Switzerland, opening his case and there on top were all the letters I had written to him. He said when they came up from the pit, his mates gathered round and he read the letters during lunch. I beamed like a peach with pleasure. Then throughout my school years I found my compositions displayed on the wall. I also remember having won a second prize Brooke Bond Tea competition in writing when I was about eight. Only second prize, mind you. And that for the first ten years of my life is all I can claim for calling myself a writer. Guess we all have to start somewhere, do we not? ;)
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Reality Check No talent for proofing

The Page 117 Rule