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Books on writing (and why I don’t believe in them)

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You can’t learn writing from a book.

There are hundreds (probably thousands) of writing books out there and some that are even considered essential, like ‘On Writing’ or ‘Elements of Style’.  You can read all the books you want though, but the only thing that is going to make you a better writer is…writing.

Reading is good, great even for a writer.  You should read widely to get a feeling for different styles and to expand your mind, but in my opinion, your reading shouldn’t necessarily include books on writing.  I’ve read a couple and at the end of the day, the main message from all of them is: get writing.  And so they should be.  Everyone has different opinions on what makes a good story, beautiful prose and stunning poetry.  Everyone has a different story to their writing life and, although interesting and sometimes inspiring, hearing the stories of how other people write (or got famous doing it) does little to help make you better.  Sure you can learn grammar rules from books like ‘Elements of Style’ but ideally, before you start trying to be a writer, you actually have a grasp on the basics.

With every writing book I read, the writer tries to guide and suggest and I don’t always agree.  I usually agree with about half of the things they’re saying and wholeheartedly disagree with the other half.  One person suggests writing in a coffee shop is for people who are just seeking attention, but I like the atmosphere and the bustle.  Another person suggests not to show your work in progress, but I love having Ben read my chapters as I go along.  Then, of course, there are the attributes that supposedly describe writers, stuck in your head, crazy, lonely, dramatically melancholy, plagued by stories and characters that kick you in the brain until you writer them.  These things seem to be universal, but I don’t really feel as though they fit into my vision of myself as a writer.  Then, on the flip side, there is the good advice: write every day, don’t be discouraged by rejection, dig deep to find good stories, focus on character.  All sound advice, but frankly it just seems like common sense.

I understand that writing is tough and sometimes you’re just looking for a little inspiration, a little moment where you can read someone else’s story and struggles and realize you are not alone.  The appeal of books on writing is that they allow us to connect with like-minded people.  But other than that, these books offer a wealth of advice I could either take or leave.  Simple logic.  So, ultimately, I hold fast to my original thought on the whole matter:

You can’t learn writing from a book.  The only thing that will make you a better writer is writing.

Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know!

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This is a post for www.writesofluid.com’s blog writing challenge.  One blog post a day for all of June!  Check it out at the website or on twitter: @sofluid or #wpad!

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On Raw Talent

I recently read ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King.  It was a good book and one I’d highly recommend for any aspiring writer who wants to know about the journey of a famous, published author.

One of the things that King talks about is talent and I think his theory on it was pretty spot on.  Basically he postulates that there are four types of writers (and I think this can definitely apply to pretty much any art): bad, competent, good & great.  He says it’s impossible to make a bad writer competent or a good writer great, but with a lot of hard work it is possible to make a competent writer good.

I find this to be an interesting theory because I’m absolutely fascinated by the concept of raw talent.  I look at artists who can draw without practice and I’m astounded (I can’t draw for shit, seriously even my stick figures are sad).  I hear these ten year olds on youtube belting out songs with voices of gold and I’m amazed.  I see documentaries about math savants who can see the numbers in their mind’s eye and I’m blown away.  To some people certain talents are just there.  So they work to improve them, but the talent is engrained, so all they’re doing is refining the awesome.

Then, of course, I keep pondering and I come upon things like this:

“I saw an angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” – Michelangelo

Now I’m wondering if that’s what talent is, maybe it’s the patterns and the beauty of the universe (and our brains) that these people are just recognizing and uncovering.  Like everything was all there to begin with and artists are born to find them.  All the stories, all the paintings, all the sculptures, all the equations.  Just waiting to be set free.

Maybe it’s because I used to be a hippy, took too many drugs and philosophized about the universe and how unbelievably crazy it is.  Maybe it’s because I still do that now (minus the drugs and most of the hippy part).  But the concept of raw talent gives me that same feeling I get when I stare up into the stars on a clear night, or when I was in Egypt looking up at those giant pyramids.  Wonder.  I mean think about it for a second, why are some people so good at things and other people are crap?  What are your talents, do you have one special thing or multiple things?  If so, where does it all come from and why?  Pretty crazy.

So talent.  Some people have it, some people don’t.  But does that mean that those who don’t can never achieve the same heights as people who do?  This is completely debatable, because a lot of the time, art is subjective.  Something I might consider to be abject garbage could make someone famous.  Something I adore could languish in obscurity.  So how does one gauge this idea of ‘greatness’?  It’s pretty tough.

But ultimately, at the end of the day, I tend to agree with King.  Perhaps it’s just that people who are bad at things typically don’t practice enough to get better.  But I kind of think there’s predisposition to a thing.  Being good at something usually tends to go hand and hand with a passion for it (I think) and I, for example, don’t have the raw talent of a visual artist.  I do, however, have the talent of a writer and I can only hope that if I try hard enough, I can go from competent to good.  Then again, it’s all just a matter of opinion now isn’t it?

Tell me your thoughts on Stephen King’s theory, or share some stories about awesome raw talent that makes you feel that jaw-dropping kind of wonder.