The Canyons

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?