“You can teach craft but you can’t teach talent.” The most useless creative writing cliché?

I’ve worked with aspiring authors on an ad hoc basis for well over a decade now; running workshops at conventions and literary festivals, guest-lecturing at universities and colleges and occasionally running longer courses*. Most recently, I’ve spent a thoroughly enjoyable session with the Creative Writing M.A. students of Lancaster Uni, and had the distinct pleasure, and privilege, of selecting poems and prose pieces on the theme of ‘Monsters’ submitted by new writers, to feature in the new Mar/Apr/May 2016 edition of Mslexia magazine (now available!).

When I mention I’m doing one or other of these things, there’s a good chance someone will trot out this particular truism. It irritates me more and more, especially when you ask someone exactly what that means, and they say something vague about ‘well, people have to know how to spell and punctuate, but you can’t teach someone to have an imagination.’

Let’s examine both those notions.

There’s a whole lot more to writing craft than knowing where to put a full stop, or even the correct use of the semi-colon. An infinite amount; just look at the boundless variety of prose styles in published fiction. One of the workshops I run takes a wholly unremarkable sequence of dialogue and explores the different ways in which words can be woven around those identical spoken sentences to create significantly different effects for the reader, with regard to the place and the people. In one case, the addition of a single letter can be enough. Consider the implications of describing a woman as wearing ‘skirts’ as opposed to ‘a skirt’.

Then there’s the skill required to create atmosphere, whether that’s tension, sorrow, apprehension, excitement. It takes finely shaped prose to convey a character’s sorrow. passion, delight or fear. To indicate where the reader’s sympathies might lie or to hint that perhaps we’re not getting the full story quite yet? To write natural sounding dialogue – which is not at all the same as transcribing an actual conversation. To manage a narrative’s point of view, whether that’s in the first person or third person, and any transitions between perspectives. To convey vital facts and background to the reader without boring them rigid with a five page data-dump. I could go on but you get the idea. And that’s not even the half of it.

Once you’ve got all those words on the page, there’s the craft of cutting away the ones you don’t need. The more I write, the more eager I am to get the end of a first draft, to start refining and honing the piece, whether that’s a short story or a novel. Learning how to do that to best effect is a real challenge. Another workshop I run on such editing presents students with a piece of my work in draft and challenges them to get that down to a final version that’s on a par with my own. When I explain this means cutting those 388 words down to 117, hopeful writers’ faces vary from aghast to disbelieving. Because that first draft which they’ve just read is a perfectly good piece of writing, exactly as it stands. The craft comes in identifying the bits which the overall story can do without.

So let’s not get snobbish about the value of craft. Without a good carpenter’s skills, you’d be using splintery planks to board up that hole in your house instead of coming and going through a well-made and secure front door. Let’s definitely not accept any implication that writing craft is merely a toolkit of basic skills which a writer only needs to get to grips with once. I learn new twists and subtleties about different aspects of writing with every piece I write and frequently from what I read. Every writer I know says the same.

Now, about this notion that you cannot teach hopeful writers to have ideas, to have an imagination. The thing is, I’ve never, ever met an aspiring author who didn’t have an imagination. Surely that’s a prerequisite for being a keen reader, never mind for taking up a pen or keyboard to create original fiction? Would-be writers are never short on inspiration. Reviewing those Mslexia submissions proved that – not that I ever doubted it.

What writers need to learn is how to make most effective use of those plots and characters, scenarios and themes which are clamouring so loudly for their attention that the only thing to do is start writing them down. In some cases, the writer’s primary need is getting to grips with particular aspects of writing craft to make best use of their idea. As a teacher it’s very rewarding to see someone learning the skills that will turn their rough diamond of a draft into sparkling prose.

In other cases, in very many cases, the hopeful author needs to learn boldness. I see this time and again. I’ll be reading a well crafted piece, offering a solid foundation for a story, a character, an idea, but this particular writer hasn’t yet realised where and when they can take an extra step, or more often, a giant leap forward. Because all they can see is a leap into the unknown. Those of us who’ve already been through that learning process can now see it from the other side, where wide, new horizons open up before us. At other times, we take that leap and find a new vantage point to look back on a familiar idea and see it from a whole new perspective.

Here’s a case in point – without spoilers because this particular draft novel got all the way to publication and I don’t want to give anything away. The writer presented a confrontation between Our Hero and The Enemy. Our Hero used a recently acquired weapon to drive off The Enemy. I asked, why doesn’t he kill The Enemy? Because he’s not a killer, was the initial reply. No, I pointed out, but he doesn’t understand the weapon he’s got hold of. In this situation, he’s a toddler with a loaded handgun. He can still kill someone without any evil intent. What happens then? I saw the writer’s eyes widen, appalled at that notion, before they narrowed in thought… Even though that meant rewriting major chunks of the story to deal with the subsequent fall-out, both for Our Hero and for The Enemy’s Friends.

It’s that sort of boldness, offering some new angle, with some fresh take on places, characters or themes, which editors are looking for. Because they will have seen way more than enough slush submitted by writers who’ve been suckered into believing that the first idea they’ve had will take them all the way and once their genius is recognised, someone else will take care of full stops.

So let’s ditch this particularly useless cliché. How about we replace it with something someone whose name I alas failed to make a note of said? “Talent without craft is like fuel without a rocket. It may burn ever so brightly but it’s going nowhere.”

*For those interested in a week’s residential course focused on writing SF and Fantasy, I’m teaching at Moniack Mhor in Scotland, in December this year, alongside Pippa Goldschmidt. Ken Macleod will be our guest writer. More details here

7 comments

  1. I think it depends on how you define craft and talent. I’m reminded of a something I read in an interview with either Michael Crichton or Robin Cook (I forget which) who was talking about selling their first novel. They submitted it to a publishing house who bought it and then they had their first meeting with an editor. Crichton/Cook shyly admitted to the editor that they had been afraid their writing was no good.

    “Oh,” the editor said, “it isn’t. But that doesn’t matter. We can teach you to write. What we can’t teach is a feeling for what makes a dramatic story. That you have.”

    Of course, that was in the days when publishers nurtured new writers, using profits from the big names to experiment with new writers and to support a midlist: the days when editors edited rather than expecting publication-ready typescripts from agents.

    So, yes, I think you do need a certain basic innate talent to be able to write. To use an analogy, I once complimented an SF artist on his talent. He denied he had talent and insisted I could do the same if I worked hard enough. But I couldn’t. I spent a while when I was younger teaching myself the rudiments of drawing and, after a lot of hard work, I was… just barely competent. I could produce a recognisable image but there was something lacking. I had friends whose ability to translate what they saw in front of them (or in their heads) into a 2D representation was just that greater than mine. They also had a greater instinctive understanding of what made a good picture in terms of layout and colour etc. Learning techniques and theories made all of us much better than when we started but, the truth is, they were starting at a higher level. It’s my experience that this is true of a facility with words and storytelling too and in this the situation was reversed. I had a facility with words that they didn’t. I understood how words, prose and poetry worked in a fundamental way that others of my friends struggled with. Education made us better but equal education still left me better than them – and with a proportionally greater understanding still – because my basic abilities with English enabled me to learn faster and take more from that education.

    The thing is, talent isn’t that rare. It’s not universal by any means but it isn’t even particularly uncommon, not in any field. Talent is a necessary prerequisite for success in any artistic endeavour but it is nowhere near as important as skill. Stephen Baxter once said, “I think we talk too much about the art of writing, and not enough about the craft,” which I think is exactly right.

    So, I think part of the problem is that a lot of people don’t appreciate that talent probably makes the smallest contribution towards what a writer produces. Again, I do believe it’s necessary – and I’ve met people with absolutely zero ability to create a story or of stringing a euphonious sentence together let alone the crafting needed to create a length of even workman-like prose. Their brains just don’t work that way, just as I have zero ability with music despite some training. In fact, I’d say most people simply don’t have any understanding of how much of writing is a sheer, *unnatural*, applied skill in plot building, pacing, character building, scene structure etc, etc.

    The people you’re teaching are, of course, self-selecting for those who are interested in writing. This pretty much guarantees they are the ones who have the right kind of minds to have an imagination that lends itself to stories. That isn’t universal, in my experience.

    tl;dr totally agree that craft and skill are underestimated attributes of writers and the best writers are the ones who have honed their craft the most, but talent is still a small but necessary part of being an artist of any kind.

    1. I think we’re broadly in agreement here; what you’re defining as talent comes under the broader heading of imagination for me. That feeling for a story etc.

      I know plenty of people who have no feeling for devising a narrative, who couldn’t produce a worthwhile piece of creative writing for any amount of money. Some thoroughly enjoy other people’s fiction, others simply have no interest in fiction at all and read non-fiction etc,

      That’s fine, and no criticism. It’d be a very boring world if we were all the same.

      But I’ve never yet encountered someone with zero feeling for story who wants to become a writer. I’ve come across rather too many who aren’t prepared to put in the hard work to turn their ideas into something worth reading but that’s a different issue.

      That said, I quite agree with your points about artistry and music. My husband and elder son have that ability to see things in 2D and 3D which I completely lack. And someone who’s tone deaf will never, ever make a musician. But would anyone lacking these essential aptitudes even try?

      1. Oh yes, I agree with that completely! And the music analogy is apt because I am tone-deaf. I can be taught to make the right finger movements on an instrument but when it comes to actually understanding and appreciating music- well, that’s a closed door to me.

        And I also agree that without that relatively common underlying ability in a particular area you’re unlikely to be interested enough to want to try to do it (although I have always wanted to be able to sing!)

        I have come across the idea that “talent” doesn’t exist quite often and that is something I can’t agree with. We can’t all do anything – or at least do it *well* – because we all have brains that are wired up differently and that deal with learning a particular skill with varying degrees of competence and ease.

        And, indeed, it would be a dull world and we would have a dull global culture if we were all equally interested and capable at the same things.

        1. I’m curious how you both get on with poetry? I always felt like it was halfway between music and writing: the rise and fall of the voice, sudden sharp words and other emphasises and inflections, tone and pacing creating as complete a piece of music as an orchestra. Is this a music you can hear? At the risk of sounding like a lunatic, do some sentences sing in your head, beg to be spoken aloud?

          Agree with what you’re both saying for the most part. I have heard talent described as taste: writers who share common tastes with a lot of people are described as talented, because they produce things which attract or create feelings in a lot of us. I’d like to add a degree of need to that. It’s not enough to like stories about thieves, to create new stories you have to have a certain degree of *need* to see those stories which drives you to be dissatisfied in some way with the current offerings (if only by having already read them all and still wanting more! But equally it could be because of dissatisfaction with the treatment of female characters, or because while reading you thought “it be so much cooler if…”).

          There’s more to talent than just that of course. My husband at school had the ability to irritate his math teacher by solving problems in different ways to the one he’d been taught (the poor teacher didn’t know how to mark his homework). He somehow has a deeper understanding of how math works/what its function is than me, who blindly follows the set methods to end up with a number I’m not sure the point of. For me, learning the craft of storytelling has been filled with “of course, that’s why that works/does that” moments – I suspect maths is the same for him.

          So… perhaps we can’t teach talent at the moment, but perhaps that’s only because we don’t yet understand it? And I’m not convinced that it’s not something we’ll ever understand. I said to a friend recently that I’ve never met a person I’d consider stupid, she said people with low IQs jut need to be taught differently. That stuck in my head because based on my experience with writing, everyone starts off with different strengths and a different order they need to learn in. A piece of writing advice which meant nothing to me when I first read it ten years ago was insightful when I stumbled on it again six years later. Perhaps I needed to be taught maths slightly differently, or I missed a few key insights which my husband (the son of a maths teacher) picked up before he even started school. But of course, even if this were the case, it still wouldn’t necessarily make me care which number I ended up with 😉 And as long as I don’t really care, I’m not going to spend my leisure time idly contemplating how best to photograph whatever happens to have caught my attention at that moment, or how framing it would change dependant on what exactly I wanted to show/say with the image. When an image catches my attention I’m not going to analyse why the photographer/artist portrayed it exactly like that/consider how it would change if they did something slightly differently. I just don’t have that need, that drive. And maybe a talented person is doing some of this stuff unconsciously without really caring, but until they care and start to think about stuff consciously, they’re not going to improve that much.

          Of course, these are just my thoughts now, I’m not sure I completely believe in them. Would be interested in your thoughts.

          I mean, argh… talent. It’s clear from childhood that different people are good at different things. But our brains are so flexible and constantly making new connections. So, are people really just innately good at different things or is it that they find different things interesting/fun? (And therefore spend time thinking about/practising things which lead to enhanced ability in certain areas?) One thing a lot of writers have in common is they spent a ton of time reading stories as children. I know my tastes start very young – I can remember the first picture book I ever felt a real connection to. Not that I didn’t enjoy Peter Rabbit, but Brambly Hedge had secret passages, hidden imaginary palaces covered in dust and cobwebs, a great log burning in a huge fireplace, a sword and dramatic historic clothing. It was a place I wanted to be even before I had the self-awareness to know that’s what I was feeling.

          1. I enjoy poetry when I come across it but I don’t often seek it out, if that makes sense. I do pay attention to the rhythm and pace of the spoken word – and to the words on a page, whether it’s my writing or someone else’s. I frequently read bits of my work in progress out loud when I’m sat in the study with only the cats as an audience…

            Brains are definitely wired differently; my husband is also a maths intuitive, who was perpetually told to show his working at school which he tended not to, because the answer was ‘obvious’. He’s also intensely visual, so we get very different things out of places we visit – sharing those different things has long been one of the strengths of our relationship. And yes, the different things we see, and which intrigue us, has driven our conscious self-taught learning lifelong.

            It’s interesting to see these things in my younger son, who is intensely musical. When we listen to CDs in the car, he’ll be picking up aspects of the different instruments’ contribution first and foremost, while I’ll be listening to the lyrics. That said, I know he reads more poetry than I do.

            And picking up on your notion about learning more about what you’re wired for, he’s very interested in narrative so we discuss those aspects of film and TV. But is that nature or nurture, because we’ve always done that?

            Does this reflect back on Helena’s thoughts about an instinctive feel for story? There’s an awful lot of understanding relating to tropes and structure and foreshadowing etc that can be taught.

            It’s all very interesting, isn’t it? 😉

  2. It is fascinating. I’d guess nature and nurture – my parents have interests & tastes I share, and other interests & tastes I nod and smile for! If it was all nurture I’d be a musician. And at the same time I’m sure your son has a much deeper (and therefore more interesting) understanding of narrative than most of his peers due to your discussions.

    I think it does very much tie in with Helena’s thoughts on an instinctive feel for story. At the same time… my mother’s greatest frustration when I was a young child was that she thought I had a lot of musical talent, but I agreed to learn instruments to please her and never loved them enough for their own sakes to make the effort she expected (and necessary to become a professional). To whatever degree she was operating under maternal bias, my A-level music examiner assumed I’d be studying music at university so I must have some instinctive talent. Anyway, that’s why I think talent without a drive to use it is useless (outside of school).

    “There’s an awful lot of understanding relating to tropes and structure and foreshadowing etc that can be taught.”
    In which you succinctly explain why I could throttle teachers and tutors (*cough*Bath Spa*cough*) who say writing/talent can’t be taught (while taking a comfortable salary from their students’ fees). There are certainly tools of the craft enough to fill three years. If only my tutors (not at Bath Spa) had taught us the things they commented when they marked our work. I had to explain what subtext was to a friend whose use of it had been frequently praised, five years after we graduated (having spent 12k GBP on tuition fees & interest alone). I had only recently learned myself. I read back the marking justification on my own third year work about 4 years ago and thought “yeah, that’s fair… except you didn’t teach us ANY of this” (to the point of the jargon meaning nothing to me at the time). Thinking of students in similar situations these days with the rise in fees makes me feel sick. The quote you originally wrote about is, in my opinion, most often used to cover up/excuse lazy or just inadequate teaching.

    Your lecture (would have been in 2004 or 2005 probably) was the highlight, I left with my head buzzing. The course shut down after the last students graduated in the summer of 2008, thank goodness (and which might tell you which university if you’re curious).

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