Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Spotting Talent

Yesterday I read LADY SUSAN, the short epistolary novel that Jane Austen wrote while still in her teens. It is astonishing that I haven't read this before, since for decades I have been a devoted fan of Jane Austen's six novels. LADY SUSAN is not of their quality; the letter format precludes dramatization, and the ending is rushed. What surprised me, however, was how much of Austen's talent was evident even from this clumsy, juvenile attempt.

I teach a lot (this summer it was Clarion and Taos Toolbox). When a student is talented, it's usually evident right away. The story may be hopeless: badly constructed, implausible, too slight. But there will be an aptness of phrase, or a flash of complex character, or an interesting take on an old idea, or a gift for dialogue that brings personality alive. Something that suggests an original mind trying to paint a story in words.

However, talent by itself does NOT predict success. That also I have learned over decades of teaching. Many talented aspiring writers never grow beyond their initial talent, for one of three reasons: (1) They don't write enough to improve. A story or two every year is seldom enough. (2) They cannot take rejection, becoming too discouraged or too defensive, and so stop writing entirely. (3) They cannot really "hear" feedback and incorporate it into their writing, and so their aptitude for the phrase, the sentence, or the scene doesn't grow into an aptitude for story as a whole.

These are, basically, character traits: commitment, resilience, and humility. There is no way that working with students for a few weeks lets me assess those. So when a writer asks me, "Do you think I can make it?" the only honest answer is, "I have no way to tell." Talent is the seed, but only time grows whole plants and brings them to fruition.

1 comment:

Gary Piserchio said...

No, but seriously, do you think I can make it?