Friday, June 5, 2015

The Kinds of Talent Writing Teachers Forget About

I have a headache. It means I should probably not write about academia because headaches and heartache made me try to pick fights on the internet. Fortunately, it seems the internet is like the world of fight club because people rarely take me up on the offer, so I thought maybe, just perhaps, I could discuss the academic world with an open mind and without sarcasm, or at least without someone calling me a whore on Twitter.

Which I have never managed to do in my life, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Recently I read an article by a professor who I would consider “burnt out”—if I was to be open-minded. If I wasn’t trying to be objective and positive, I might call him an ass hat, but luckily I’m censoring myself today.

As many of my readers know I had a bad experience in college which a bunch of ass— burnt out teachers. They didn’t criticize me so much. They were scared of me. So they just told other students that my plays "sucked" which is, you know, the best way to help someone get better. This was partially because I was producing them in their theatre without their permission, so in hindsight I give them a little credit for being angry with me.

It comes in more of a vigilantism when I grow irate about their outlook on students. These teachers were notorious for telling students they weren’t going to make it because they were “too brown” or “too fat” or “didn’t work hard enough” or were “character actors and character actors will only get parts when they’re past forty, so you might as well not bother.”

So, when I see an ex-MFA professor pushing the ideas he does in this article—like older writers will never be successful, questions about publishing are inane, and, most importantly, writers are born with talent—it makes me turn back to the good old days and return to an important argument to these sorts of people:

“Writers are born with talent,” claims Mr. Boudinot.

Well, I have a problem with that.

1) I am not paying you to judge if I will be successful, but to teach me how to be successful. What I do with your lessons is not your damn business. If you feel like it is a waste of your time because I’m talentless, or hell, even an ass hat myself (entirely possible) then find a career were you can pick and choose your customers. Just because you don’t like cleaning the bathrooms, just because it might be hard, and the customers are ungrateful, does not make it okay to do a crappy job.

2) There is no benefit to crushing a dream early, especially if you don’t have any other talent in mind that I might be wasting. There are very little downsides of trying. And anyone who writes, even if they don’t get published, still has something to show for their work, something to be proud of, something learned. It’s not like it’s a complete win-lose situation.

3)  Your pride should not be based around students who came in with the ability, but those who gained it under your teaching. If you have none who you’ve taught, then either your philosophy that they would never be great is true—then why teach?—or you aren’t a good teacher—so why teach?

But more importantly, his statement about there being Real Deals is an oversimplification of the issue. Now, I will admit that I firmly believe in nurture over nature, and I will confess I could easily be wrong about that. However, whether a student is “born” with skills or he just unknowingly practices them over time, it does not matter as much as he has to have some. Statistically.

The required skill sets in writing and the vast number of directions in which writing could be considered “good” are so diverse that every single person on the earth has to be good at storytelling in some way or another. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are successful in making people feel and think, but it does mean that they have something going for them.

For one thing, every flaw has a quality.

If you are too simple, you are clear. Too confusing, you are unique (your mind is your own and hard for other people to get a hand on). Too unrelatable, original. Too cliché, relatable.

When I critique work, I can always find something good to honestly say about it, and usually from looking at what I think is wrong with it. And if you don’t have any flaws or qualities, but balance somewhere in the middle, that can be a good thing as well. Hard to work with, but a sign of ability. It is impossible to be bad in every single way. Most writers, when trying to improve, are usually striving for a balance. They lean one way too much and now need to pull back. This “pendulum” solution is the reason why people go straight for the absolutes. They don’t say “Don’t use adverbs” because they’re always wrong, but because many depend on them way too much. Which is why, to the binary observer, the criticism of “just don’t” can seem completely inaccurate, but once he takes it with a grain of salt he’s more likely to find the right balance.

This is not meant to say that comments of your writing being “too simple” should be ignored. It’s just to say that it can’t be too simple and too confusing, which means that it has some sort of quality to it.

Sometimes mistakes are much more in your face and easier to see/point out than the qualities, which is why many will argue that there are no qualities. But I argue there has to be some. Even the worst story I’ve ever read I could say honestly good things about, and I really, really hated it.

Secondly, more importantly, there are two types of talent, one type that is praised relentlessly, the other type that is completely ignored.

Overt talents are those that stand out obviously in the art form. It’s what viewers tend to look for when considering if they should trust the artist. They are usually visual or, at least, less abstract, than more subtle but powerful elements.

Say you have two writers, one who has the ability to write convincing dialogue—he has a way with words and expressing himself—while the second has a deep, empathetic connection with people, a psychological insight to the way humans think, their motivations, their fears. The first, however, doesn’t get people in the least, the second can’t express himself worth crap.

Now, naturally, talents tend to seep into each other, (if you understand people, that will naturally affect your dialogue) and, normally, few people are completely talented in one area and worthless in the others. But this is hypothetical, so stay with me.

The first gets complimented all the time. It’s not that the teacher is exactly in love with the first’s work—there’s something missing… yet he seems to have more “natural talent” than the others. He is the biggest fish in the small pond and he knows it.

We’ve all had that kid in our class, whether it be painting, acting, or writing. There’s just someone who can make it look good. And yet, the other students have something to complain about. He’s a one trick pony—acting well but only with one character he does over and over again. Or he really does have a way with words, but he just can’t put in the gravity necessary. There is just something wrong about his work that really prevents it from being great—no matter how well it is written.

Then you got the second kid. He does not have a way with words. His language is stiff. The characters seem like they’re lying all the time. It’s a poorly executed piece with a brilliant depth—a depth that most people will not see, too distracted by execution. People don’t focus on concept when they’re paying attention to typos.

This kid will not get a lot of credit. Few people will be extraordinarily cruel to him (and those who are will do so for alternative reasons than pure, unbiased criticism). But he will not be encouraged, he will be self-doubting, and he will not, at that point in time, be seen as good.

As a teacher myself, I find that ignoring that second kid just because the first makes you look good (which a small amount of teachers have done in my lifetime) is a bad move. For one thing, improving your overt execution is a lot easier than the subtle subtext, if only because it is overt. You can see what is wrong easier, and that makes it simpler to fix. Meaning that you can teach a kid who is perceptive but bad with words faster than you can teach the kid who is good with words but bad with concepts.

They both deserve the lessons needed, and choosing the one with the more obvious talent is not only unfair, but also likely to be more difficult in helping him improve. Sometimes the kid who looks like he has more natural talent will have to work a lot harder.

Of course, this is an extreme example. In most context you have a person who is the sum of many different skill sets, some overt, some subtle, each with varying magnitudes. Combine that with his goals (which may have nothing to do with his actual skills) and there’s a decent chance that the amount of work it would take to help him become talented in the kinds of execution he desires is not worth it to him. And then you add in the whole aspect of luck and business-minded skill sets required in a successful career, and yes, it would seem that the person who happened to draw a specific pattern of traits and skills is the lotto winner of being a successful author. I, however, believe strongly in agency still being able to control some factors. If you don’t believe in it, teaching is a bad field.

To say that some authors “have it” and some don’t would require a definition of what “it” is. Being that there are so many “its” that could make a great writer in a certain context, it’s an oversimplification that is more up to the individual than for teachers to decide.

Most people who are successful are successful because they tried. I’ve been in many writers’ groups, classes, and conferences over the years, and my friends who have been able to be published, get agents, or make a decent living off of writing weren’t always the “best” in the group—they were the most dedicated. They wrote, they edited, they queried, and they had fun. Some of their skills may have been innate, but they definitely enhanced themselves over the years. Never write someone off just because you don’t see immediate value in them or their work. It’s far more likely you’re not looking for the right things than they don’t have it.

Especially when it is your job to teach them the best you possibly can.