By Earl Staggs
Most writers, I think, have discussed this question at least once, maybe many times. Were those who produce great writing born with extraordinary strands in their DNA or uncommon neurons among the millions of them in their brain? Or, is the ability to write brilliant prose something that can be taught and learned?
Here’s my take on it. This isn’t new. I wrote it several years ago and like to toss it out every once in a while. Feel free to disagree if you want, argue if you will, call me an idiot with homicidal tendencies. Others have, may they rest in peace.
Remember those "Paint by Number" kits from years ago? Anyone could pick up a brush, put the right color in the right space and produce something called a painting. Would it be great art? Not likely. You can’t produce great art simply by following the numbers.
Two people can tell the same joke. One will leave an audience rolling on the floor in laughter, one will leave them yawning. People will sigh and say, “Some can tell 'em, some can't.” Call it talent, call it a gift. You either have it or you don't.
It’s the same with writing. A lot of people learn the basics of writing and write by the numbers. They take one writing class after another, try one genre after another, one formula after another, and reach a point where they can string words together and tell a story. Can they turn out truly great writing? Very unlikely, unless they had genuine talent to begin with.
Spencer Tracy, legendary actor with a wry sense of humor, used to say when asked how to be an actor, "Learn your lines, say them at the right time, and don't bump into the furniture."
Anyone can do that and be an actor. There's no mistaking, however, those actors born with genuine and immense talent within them. Every once in a while, for example, a Meryl Streep comes along. For her, the furniture moves out of the way.
I believe it's the same with writing. Anyone can learn the basics and produce acceptable, even good writing. To lead readers to tears, rapture, rage or revulsion, however, you must have a special gift. You’re either born with it or you’re not.
When the truly gifted ones sit down to write, they may have to write, rewrite and rewrite again, but eventually, the best words, plots and characters appear, and no one bumps into the furniture.