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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

on talent

First, thank you for all the supportive comments on my last post. I really appreciate it, and I actually feel much better this week (if the sensation of having vomit at the top of my throat can be considered "better.") But, the nausea and tiredness are good things, clear signals that I am, indeed, pregnant. I'll keep you posted on that front.

Over the last few days, when not thinking about the pregnancy, I’ve been thinking about talent. Last week in class we were talking about fiction versus nonfiction, and I told my students that if they have an extraordinary story (and there are a number of these in my class), they should definitely write it as nonfiction (rather than fiction.) Now, I’m biased, of course, because I primarily write nonfiction and I teach nonfiction, but I also know that nonfiction is more marketable. Literary memoirs are not exactly easy to sell, but I imagine they are easier to sell than literary novels. (This would be the reason, of course, that James Frey decided to sell his not-selling-novel as a memoir.)

As a part of this discussion, I also said something like: “If you have an amazing story and the talent to write it…” One of my students latched onto this, and said, when we later workshopped her piece, that she wasn’t sure she had the talent to write a book.

Other than the fact that I can be an idiot, I don’t know why I mentioned talent at all. You don’t need talent to write a book. It helps, certainly, but writing (and selling) a book takes perseverance more than anything else. And along the way, hopefully you become a better writer.

I actually started writing in a class at the Loft, ten years ago, and I sucked. Really. I was “working on a book,” but I rarely wrote. Instead, I thought about writing. (Totally annoying, I know.) Then, in 2000, I decided I really did want to write, so I applied to the MFA program at the University of Minnesota. I still sucked because I had done very little actual writing, so how I got into the program, which I just barely did, is still a mystery to me. (Know that I am not being modest here. I really was that bad.)

But while I was in the MFA program, something crazy happened: I started writing. At first, I didn’t write very much (other than assigned pieces for class), but when Stella was born at the beginning of my third year in the program, and I had to stop writing, I missed it desperately. So, after I was able to breathe (and think) again, I began to write whenever I had the chance. Partly, this was because I needed to turn in my thesis (the first 140 pages of my book) in six months, and partly it was because I finally had a story that felt worth telling. (I abandoned my earlier thesis topic and started writing Ready for Air.)

There was also something about having a child that made me stop procrastinating. I didn’t have time for writer’s block. When my dad or mom came over to babysit, I went straight to the coffee shop and barfed something onto the computer. Sometimes it still sucked, but sometimes it didn’t. I just kept writing. And a year after I finished my MFA, I finished a full draft of my book. Throughout, I read a ton—James Baldwin and Rick Moody and Jhumpa Lahiri, to name a few—and I paid attention to what they were doing, how they used dialogue, created scene and emotion.

I don’t know if I’d call myself talented yet—I hope to be some day—but I am persistent. I will keep writing and I’ll keep submitting pieces and I’ll keep getting rejected until someone likes what I’ve done.

I know a very talented writer who has written a couple of unpublished novels. She’s really good. But when she was querying agents about her first novel, she heard (from two agents) that there were too many novels with a mother-daughter story, and that her book wouldn’t sell. She took their word for it, and put her book in a drawer (or so I imagine.) And I wonder, how many great novels sit in drawers because the authors lacked persistence?

Five people told me that there is no market for my book, but I don’t believe them. There is a market. I am the market. And so I kept going. (And now I have an agent, and she believes in the book and the market, which helps.)

The thing I will say in class tomorrow (the last class of the summer) is that persistence is more important than talent. (And I should mention that there is already a ton of talent in my class.) I will say: read and write as much as you can. Pay attention to what your favorite writers are doing; it will rub off. But most importantly, don't give up. The talent part develops along the way.

5 comments:

jennifergg said...

I love to refer to it as "writing practice"--the idea being something like yoga practice, or any other endeavor where you never really reach the point of being done. You just keep going, at whatever level you are on, working toward that next skill.

I also think writing is a muscle that everyone has...it needs to be exercised, though, for it to show!

Terrific post. I am a big believer in hard work, and practice...

Gaijin Mama said...

Hmm. I enjoy writing essays, and I'd been thinking of trying to write a memoir about raising a bi-cultural disabled child in rural Japan, but then I decided to try to write it as fiction. It's partly because I'm afraid that I would pull a James Frey and take too many liberties in conveying "the emotional truth", and partly because the older my kids get, the more I feel that I should ask their permission to write about them. Also, my husband doesn't like it when I write about him. I love novels, and I believe that they are just as important as nonfiction books (the good ones, anyway).

Sheri said...

i love this post. and i also think there's a bit of luck or, as i prefer to say, "magic" that happens too! a little talent, a lot of persistance, and a bit of magic...h

**camera shy momma** said...

thanks for this. i wish i could take your class! :)

kate said...

Ooooo, I must clarify something. When I said that my students should write their extraordinary stories as nonfiction rather than fiction, I was speaking to a group of nonfiction writers, and I was really thinking in terms of marketing/selling their books. I didn't mean that fiction isn't as powerful, that it doesn't hold as much emotional truth. I am a lover of novels, and if I must admit, I will say that I read primarily novels. So I hope I didn't offend any fiction writers out there. I don't think genre matters as much as being able to tap into the human experience.