Sunday, November 9, 2008

What Makes a Good Writer

From the sometimes stable mind of Earl Staggs.

Remember those "Paint by Number" kits from years ago? Anyone could pick up the brush, put the right color in the right space and produce something called a painting. But would it be a work of art? Not likely.

A lot of people learn the basics of writing and write by the numbers. They may 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. But can they turn out truly good writing?

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, call it a knack. You either have it or you don't.

Spencer Tracy, legendary actor with a wry sense of humor, used to say when asked how to be an actor, "Learn your lines. When the director yells ‘Action,’ say them and don't bump into the furniture."

Just as anyone can learn the basics and be a writer, anyone can do that and be an actor. There's no mistaking, however, those actors with genuine and immense talent. Every once in a while, as an example, a Meryl Streep comes along. For her, the furniture moves out of the way.

I think it's the same with writing. Anyone can learn what it takes be called a writer, but to leave readers in tears, rapture, rage or rolling on the floor with laughter, you have to have a special something. It comes in your DNA, and you either have it or you don't.

While anyone can learn the basics and produce acceptable writing, when truly gifted writers sit down to write, the best words, characters and plots come calling, and no one bumps into the furniture.

For what it's worth, from Fort Worth.


Mark said...

Hey Earl,

Great insights. My brother started with paint by numbers when he was in kindergarten. Now he makes a living as a portrait painter and head of the art department at Lindenwood University. He doesn't teach paint by numbers but he does insist on the mastery of the fundamentals.

Dana Fredsti said...

Earl, I love this. While I totally encourage everyone to do pursue something creative, not everyone will produce something anyone else wants to read/watch/hang in their house. I would, however, rather see people take writing classes and master basic English than self-publish without even the basics. The results are usually painful.
Excellent post.

Vivian Zabel said...

Good writers do learn the fundamentals of good writing, but then they know how to use that knowledge creatively.

Good entry, Earl.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Truer words were never spoken, or written, Earl. You're right about the DNA. You can spot a writer at the age of five when they pick up a crayon or pencil. I taught in the Poetry in the Schools Program and could spot fledgling writers within minutes. You've either got it or you don't have the talent to become a good writer.

BTW, thanks for stopping by to sign my virtual guestbook. How about a photo to go with the greeting?:)

Helen Ginger said...

I wonder how many "truly gifted writers" were not considered to be gifted when they first put pen to paper. Some writers start out ordinary and then find their voice and passion.

Morgan Mandel said...

Your blog reminds me of when I took piano lessons. I learned the basics, but my heart wasn't in it. No matter how often I practiced, I made the same mistakes in the same spots. I was not one of the gifted ones. Now the piano is used as a place to put a lamp and candles and nicknacks, but that's it. I haven't opened it up to play in years, but hate to get rid of it.

Morgan Mandel