Practice Makes Perfect?
Recently an article written by a teacher who taught an MFA creative writing program caused a lot of backlash. Chuck Wendig’s blog post alerted me to the uproar otherwise I would have never heard of the controversy. If you haven’t read Chuck’s post or the teacher’s, both are worth the few minutes of time. The teacher’s opinion is just his opinion, of course. I’m not planning to drag us all into the weeds all over again about it, at least I hope I don’t. Chuck did a great job (when does he not?) at articulating his views, and as usual I found myself nodding many times while reading his thoughts.
The debate about inherent talent versus anyone can do it if they work hard enough, is interesting, another hot button topic if I ever saw one. For the most part, I think some people do have an extra advantage. Call it talent, or “natural aptitude,” as one commenter on Chuck’s blog pointed out. If not for that, wouldn’t we live in a world where all of us would be able to do just about anything, become pro football players, elite runners, play any instrument, become physicists, write Pulitzer Prize winning books, etc., if we set our minds to it and practiced or studied like hell? Personally, I don’t think so.
Our bodies, our brains are not all equally alike. When I was reading about gene/DNA coding, a fact sheet states “There are small variations between every individual in their genetic information that makes each of us unique.”
I think all of us are aware of that, and it’s not really the main point. Writing, painting, sculpturing or whatever art form chosen, the trite saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” couldn’t be more true. And what about “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” The argument was about who decides who is talented. It’s simply that whole subjective thing – all over again.
After I read Chuck’s blog, and then read the teacher’s article too, I sort of shrugged and thought, “well, I just don’t know what to think about that, and I’m not sure I care.” Maybe I should care. It’s about the writing community, after all. It’s about all of us hopefuls out here, MFA’s or not, who work so damn hard to finagle and wrangle and wring words into stunning, captivating, sentences that might thrill, excite, and grab someone, anyone’s attention and make them turn pages, again and again.
Think about Betsy Lerner’s book, THE FOREST FOR THE TREES, where she breaks down into six specific writer personalities or identities. (I think it’s six but, I’m too lazy to walk upstairs and verify, so oops if it’s seven. Or eight) And what’s one of them called? “The Natural.” When I first read her book years ago, that’s the one I wanted to be. The one who bubbled to the top of the pile with a natural born, uncanny talent for prose, the one who’d taken years for editors to find, the one they would whisper about around the water coolers (do they still even have those?) “did you read her…,? did you hear about…,? Her name is…”
Huh. Yeah. Well. Rrrrrrrrrrrrrreeeep! That there’s the sound of a needle dragging across vinyl. If you’re too young to get it, oh well. Let’s say I’m still “practicing,” shall we?
It’s obvious though, Betsy believes some out there have that awesome, wonderful, “natural ability.”
And then, about three weeks ago I watched the movie WHIPLASH. Have you seen it? Watch it because let me tell you what, my heart rate stayed elevated the entire movie. Talk about perseverance. Talk about not quitting. Talk about PRACTICE MAKING PERFECT. That movie holds all the lessons we receive from the writing communities we dwell in about “never give up, never stop believing it won’t happen, never stop writing, you can’t win if you don’t play,” and on and on. But, it still brought me full circle back to the question; was the MC as good a drummer as he was because of talent or was it because of all the practice? I think it was both.
That made me start thinking about the article that fired everyone up, and what if the MFA teacher had a point? Maybe he was sort of like the jerk of a teacher in this film, who recognized talent, and was simply on the lookout for it. Maybe he was just calling it how he saw it, but back to the rub, who was he to dictate a writer as talented or not? Subjective, subjective, subjective. And around and around we go.
What if I don’t have talent, or natural aptitude for writing? Is it going to do any good to keep at it? Is it possible to raise myself above mediocrity, and who will decide when I have? Will I actually get better and better or will I eventually come to a point where no matter what, this is as good as it gets?
What if we’re really being lied to when told, “practice makes perfect?”