Friday, January 14, 2011


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.



Helen Ginger said...

Does it follow then, Earl, that writers who are recognized as great were great all along? And those who languish in the lower realm are naturally not great writers? Is all greatness within the writer and not in the opinion of the readers?

Mark W. Danielson said...

Poe, who is today recognized as a great mystery writer, was mostly ignored during his lifetime. I seriously doubt that Hemingway would be published today. The same holds true for Ambrose. I agree with Helen that readers have a major influence on what determines "greatness". Greatness is aperception, based upon a moment in time. I don't subscribe to fatalism, nor do I believe that greatness is a lasting notion. The bottom line is that every writer who is serious about learning the craft can be molded into a good writer with the aid of proper mentors and editors.

Shane Cashion said...

Helen I trust there are many great writers languishing in the lower realm for myriad reasons, though largely related to bad luck, lack of contacts/connections etc that prevent their stuff from acquiring any significant audience. I thought I read Snookie from the Jersey Shore is releasing a book. I suspect she will propel herself amongst the highest realm of writers in no time, and to me, that speaks volumes about publishing today. On the topic of great writers, what I love about writing is how varied it may be and still be considered great. I'm reading the House of Sand and Fog at the moment. It's written in the first person, present alternating between the two main characters, which is a style I haven't come across often, but it works, and it's great.

Bill Kirton said...

There's an anecdote I always tell when this sort of subject comes up. When I taught at university, I used to have to sit through meetings. At one, a good friend, a graphics artist called Vic, instead of doodling, used to draw wonderful little soft pencil portraits of the people around the table. They were amazing and, after one meeting, I said to him 'Vic, I don't know how you can do that?' His reply was, 'Bill, I don't know how you can't'.

Earl Staggs said...

Helen, you raise interesting questions.

“. . .writers who are recognized as great were great all along?”

I say yes. A writer either does or does not have great talent within them and if they do, it was there all along. Whether they are ever recognized as great is another matter. Some will be so recognized, but sadly, some will not and will “languish in the lower realm” forever. As Shane Cashion points out, that’s the unfortunate truth about how the publishing world works.

I don’t believe you can rely on readers’ opinion because the only measure of that is number of books sold. A gazillion people bought Dan Brown’s books, but I’ve not seen anyone say Brown is a great writer. Sarah Palin sold a large number of books, as did Paris Hilton and George W. Bush. Why did so many people buy those books. Popularity? Curiosity? Notoriety?
I don’t believe any of those reasons are a gauge of great writing.

The other question raised by your comments is this one: Who decides if a writer is a great one? I think that decision rests with a mysterious, invisible, yet infallible voice known as “Posterity.” As Mark Danielson points out, Poe was largely unknown in his time. In fact, he died sick, drunk and destitute. Yet, Posterity labels him a “great writer.”

Of the writers of our time, upon whom will Posterity place the label of “great writer?” Stephen King? John Grisham? Dennis Lehane? James Patterson? How about Nora Roberts? I have no idea. Perhaps the list will include writers who are turning out great work at this very moment, but have not had the good fortune of becoming household names and will not be recognized until after they’re dead.

Here’s an idea. Let’s all meet here a hundred years from now and check the list. Whose books will be required reading in Literature classes? With whom will writers of that day be compared? Which writers will be the legends and icons then?

You never know. Maybe our names will be on that list.

Earl Staggs said...

Mark Danielson said:

"The bottom line is that every writer who is serious about learning the craft can be molded into a good writer with the aid of proper mentors and editors."

I completely agree with you, Mark. I would add hard work and perseverance to those aids for becoming a good writer.

I, however, make a distinction between "good" and "great" writers. Many good writers, If they're lucky enough to get the breaks, may sell a lot of books and make a lot of money. "Great" writers, in my opinion, may achieve those goals or not, but will be remembered long after all he "good" ones are forgotten.

Earl Staggs said...

Bill, I like your anecdote. Apparently, Vic had a gift and assumed it was normal and thought everyone had it.

Earl Staggs said...

Shane, you said:

"written in the first person, present alternating between the two main characters,which is a style I haven't come across often, but it works, and it's great."

Interesting. I've never seen that done before. Reminds me, though of the practice of alternating first and third person, something James Patterson has always done in his Alex Cross books. I thought it was strange and forbidden at first, but now many writers are doing it.

It only proves what I've always said. There's only one true rule of writing: Whatever works.

Bill Kirton said...

Exactly right, Earl. His point, I think, was not to belittle his talent but not to boast about it either. For him, he could draw - that was a FACT. He took no credit for it, he could just do it. I feel the same way about writing. Which doesn't mean I'm entering the good or great writer debate, but just that for lots of us writing comes naturally. It's what we do.

Jaden Terrell said...

I agree with Mark that any writer can become a good writer. I don't know if greatness is as accessible. I once moderated a panel at which a number of editors were discussing that very issue, and the general consensus was that goodness was achievable and greatness was something one was--or was not--born with.

I consider myself a "good" writer, but I would love to be a "great" writer. I said, "So a mediocre writer can become good, but a good writer can't become great?"

One panelist, perhaps sensing my disappointment, smiled and said, "I don't know about great, but I think a good writer can become a TERRIFIC writer."

In the absence of greatness, I'd settle for terrific. :o)

Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed reading the post and the comments. Can add little to all this GREAT discussion on GREAT writing, but I will add a question--Is great writing like great beauty? Does it rest in the eyes of the beholder?

Jaden Terrell said...

Sylvia, probably so. I'm sure some of those I think of as greats would leave other people cold--and vice versa.

Mark, I agree that Hemingway and Ambrose would not be published today if they wrote as they did back in the day, but don't you think if they were writing today, they might have written different-but-just-as-brilliant-books that were more in keeping with what is being published now? That their gift would still shine through, even though it would be influenced by the literature of the present day?

James Thompson said...

Why is it that writing is treated differently than other arts. Can it be said that any person can be molded into a great concert pianist, or ballet dancer? I would agree that most people, in most arts, can be taught to achieve a certain level of technical proficiency, but can anyone be trained to the point that they achieve that intangible something we call greatness? i don't think so.

Shane Cashion said...

I agree with you James.