Thursday, July 26, 2012

Are Writer's Born or Made?

When I very young, maybe ten years old, my fifth grade teacher told me I was a "born writer." I had completed an assignment on my favorite things. I wrote about the smell of coffee wafting from the Maxwell House Coffee factory as my grandmother and I approached San Francisco from the Oakland side of the Bay Bridge.

My proudest moment, though, was in eighth grade when my teacher took my paper from the stack of class autobiographies and compared my writing to that of Dickens. From then on, I believed I was, indeed, a "born writer."

Until, that is, I was eighteen and decided to write a story based on my latest tragic romantic adventure. What I wrote was flat, turgid, and boring, not to mention amateurish, awkward and embarrassingly self-indulgent. I tore up the piece and threw it in the nearest waste paper basket. Shortly afterward, I read Carson McCullers' stunning first novel, "The Heart I a Lonely Hunter" written when McCullers was no older than I was.

That cinched it: I was no writer after all. Some people had it, but I wasn't one of them. I would teach like all the other unfortunates who belonged in the category of "those who can't." I didn't write fiction again until I was forty.

I don't know why I started again exactly. Marilyn Monroe's story had come to fascinate me. Even more, I became curious about people who adore celebrities and follow their minutest doings. I found myself itching to write a piece of fiction that would explore how an ordinary person becomes consumed by the life of a celebrity.

But the reason doesn't matter. What's important is this: Being older helped my writing. For one thing, I wasn't so callow as I had been. For another, studying writers for years had improved my technique. The writing was just good enough that I kept at it.

That's when I discovered the most important lesson I've learned as a writer: Fiction writing is as much a set of skills as it is an art form. No way could I become a good writer until I learned the skills and techniques that move a story and its characters forward. And the only way to learn skills is to practice, practice, practice .

My first novel--the Marilyn Monroe material was in the form of a short story at that point--was autobiographical. I entitled it, "Smile for the Camera." I labored over it for a year. I asked my friends to read it. I sent it to an editor for feedback. I shouldn't have wasted their time. IT WAS AWFUL. But having spent so much time on it, I kept thinking it deserved to be published. Besides it was my personal odyssey and so it must be fascinating, right?

WRONG! It deserved to be just what it was--a practice piece.

I wrote two more novels that suffered the same fate: oblivion in a bottom drawer.

But here's the thing. I learned my craft by writing those three wretched novels. Those novels made me confront and solve technical problems, problems like how do you bring a story to life, how do you develop believable characters, what does realistic dialogue sound like, what creates dramatic tension, how do you transition smoothly from one character or one setting to another.

I'm certainly not suggesting that anyone can learn to be a writer. I read too many Freshman compositions in my day to believe that. While most people can learn to write clear, well-thought-out paragraphs if they practice, very few can learn to give us lively, interesting fiction. It takes a certain amount of talent to write that.

So talent is a factor, and an important one. And maybe some writers are so naturally gifted that literature pours out of them like a fountain. But most of us need to learn our craft and spend a certain amount of time as an apprentice.

I wish I'd known that when I was eighteen.


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