Great Writing Requires Only Dedication?

I’m a big fan of The Rumpus. If you follow me on Twitter and the stuff I tweet in the wee hours of the morning when I’m in denial that I need to get up and get ready, you probably know this.  I take it as a compliment that a few people have said they enjoy and appreciate the links I tweet.  I’m a mad tweeter and enjoy sharing the interesting articles I find.

The Rumpus is one of my favorite sites for its eclectic articles and points of view. There is a decidedly big-city mindset that is a little foreign to my tiny NC experience.  I signed up for the email notification of new content (please, everyone enable email notification for your content.  Please.) and I like how the editor-in-chief Stephen Elliott doesn’t just link the new stuff but provides explication and reaction to some of the stuff linked.  Last weekend, a lot of the email was taken up by the reaction to the NYT article on Lindsay Lohan’s behavior in The Canyons, a low-budget film with high pedigree based on its actors, director, producers and writers.

The article’s author had been on set during the 3 weeks of filming, and the article is jaw-dropping.  Elliott wrote a long comment in the weekend comment notification about his thoughts on the piece and talent:

There was another article, based on the NYT article, an essay really in Jezebel. It’s supposed to be a takedown of Lindsay, which seems like a soft target. And yet Jezebel gets most everything wrong. In particular, this statement: You don’t have to be a genius to be a working actress, but to be a working actress, you have to be able to recognize that you’re paid to say other people’s words and express other people’s thoughts, not your own.
Actually, to be a great actor you probably do need to be genius, and to be a working actor you probably have to be pretty close to a great actor, unless you have some other special skill. Classes don’t hurt, I’m sure, and dedication, but in truth acting is the one art that clearly requires talent. By that, I mean I’ve never met a natural writer, a talented writer, someone who could just sit down and start writing brilliant prose. If you were to teach a writing class or lead a workshop you would never know who was actually going to develop into a good writer ten years down the line. Almost certainly not who you thought. With writing, what we think of as talent is really just the urge and/or dedication to write everyday. Most anyone who writes everyday will develop into a very good writer eventually. It’s more a question of where you put your energy.

Acting isn’t like that. Some people just have something. And you do have to be smart to be a good actor. You have to be able to interpret a character, as well as inhabit them. You can’t play a character you don’t understand. A really good actor will know the character better than the writer or the director, and always show you something you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. An actor that only does what you tell them, trying to follow instructions like a robot, isn’t worth anything. Further, they don’t trust you, and they’re uncomfortable, and they don’t feel safe. No director wants that

I was surprised that Elliott believes that writing talent can be reduced to urge and/or dedication.  Good writers, amazing writers always had something in their writing that set them apart from the rest.  Yes, of course, they likely took classes to hone the skill of writing and improve it and of course, dedication to writing every day will improve the technique of writing.  However, I do not believe that writing every day or taking a writing class will grow a great writer from a mediocre one.

I tutored a lot of students while I was in college and have read a lot of great, mediocre and downright appalling writing.  It’s even evident in the fan fiction sites I frequent: there is something that sets apart talented writers from less-talented.  It’s more than just a well-crafted sentence and good grammar.  It’s a world view.  It’s the ability to harness a thought and idea and put words to it, to make the words bend to your will.  Perhaps if I were a better, more talented writer, I could better express what I mean!  The bottom line is that it is clear to me that talented writers have something that no class can teach and no amount of time can create.

Conversely, while I agree that there is a natural talent that separates great actors from competent or mediocre actors, I’ve seldom seen any actor who could harness that talent instantly and well without some sort of training and practice.  After all, isn’t that what a director and rehearsals are?  Isn’t the director somewhat analogous to the teacher in the writing class?  Aren’t rehearsals like writing every day?

To me, great acting and writing both require effort and talent. You can be competent through effort alone, but greatness requires talent.

What do you think of Elliott’s opinion? Are there any arts that require less talent than others?  What do you think is required to make a great writer vs a competent one?


  1. I think a more accurate way to say it would be that it’s rare for a good writer to become a great writer without writing consistently. I’ve been blogging every day this month (not necessarily on purpose), and I’m finding as the days pass that words come more easily and I look forward to writing more.

    1. I agree about consistency. NaBloPoMo is stressful, but I definitely agree that the discipline of blogging every day leads to greater ease. What role do you think talent plays in great writing?

  2. I absolutely agree with you. I think you can improve your writing, get better at it, learn what works and what doesn’t, but that spark is either there, or it isn’t. I’ve read a lot of crap too, and talked with the writers behind it and it’s obvious that they just don’t “get it”. They have their world view, as you said, and that’s it. It just isn’t grand enough, it isn’t magical. It might be theirs, and special for that reason, but it doesn’t put the fire in your chest when you read their work. And that’s all there is to it.

  3. And then there’s the fact that “great writer” (like “great actor,” I suppose) is subjective in the end. Many people might like someone’s writing but many others may not. Philip Roth, to pick at random a writer I didn’t enjoy, is known to be a “great writer,” but I don’t like his work. So no matter how much you practice and how good you get, you’ll never please all the people all the time.

    I think this is a good reason to keep going, not a reason to stop.

  4. I believe that anybody who is truly “great” at what they do is great at it because of something inborn in them, something that can’t be taught. There are so many people willing to work really, really hard to achieve their dreams (writers, actors, athletes) but only some of them ever become really great at what they want to do. And while I do believe that those people with great inborn talent can definitely benefit hard work and practice in the same way as someone else (they would probably benefit more from it, because they have so much talent to hone) I don’t believe someone who doesn’t have that talent can ever become as great as someone who does, no matter how hard they work.

    Maybe that is a defeatist attribute. Maybe not. I do acknowledge that it’s not always readily evident who has that inborn talent and you need the hard work to uncover it. So I do think it’s worth pursing your dreams, no matter what. Also, not everyone who is good at what they do, or worth reading (or watching in a movie or having on a team) is truly GREAT. You don’t have to be great to do worthwhile work in a field. But you will probably never be as good as the best in your field if you don’t have that special spark already in you.

  5. I read this post yesterday and didn’t have enough time to comment and I’ve been thinking about it all day today. a) I love the links you tweet and click on almost all of them 🙂 b) I agree that practice improves writing but I can’t imagine how one learns style and creativity. Seems like you’ve either got a certain spark or you don’t. I could write for days and years and I’m never going to be, say, Michael Chabon.

  6. No matter how much I work out, I will never be as strong as a star athlete. I do believe in aptitude, and a genetic basis for those kinds of gifts and talents. I agree though that without the hard work (the “90% perspiration”) the full potential won’t be realized. There’s also something about time and place – all those things falling together to make it possible for the exercise of greatness.

    I also read that NYT article and found it absolutely fascinating, chilling almost in its sadness – potential lost, I think. It stayed with me a long time. It sounds like the director saw something special in LL but her inability to SHOW UP made it impossible to make the movie they wanted to make.

  7. If there’s no talent, practice will not make perfect. Practice can only help with technical skills. If you’re writing a textbook or drawing blueprints, practice will improve those, but they’re not *art*. They’re practical.

    Art is talent. Talent is the only thing that can make me gasp with awe at a book, or a painting, or a song.

    Talent is what makes the art blossom beyond its bare bones. Practice can improve structure, but talent is what makes the art from work to joy, and the joy is what shows in the beauty.

    Competent writers are made; great writers are born.

    1. Now, the design of the blueprints is art. It’s just the technical drawing of them that isn’t. I’m not about to dismiss architecture as practice, but it isn’t the same as fine art, in that there has to be practicality in architecture, or else it become fine art.

      Had to throw that in. 🙂

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