For those who regularly read articles and blogs about writing, this is probably a question you’ve seen raised before. Can a person be taught how to write well, or is it an inborn talent? Good old nature-vs-nurture.
Once upon a time, I firmly believed you’re either born with writing talent or you’re not, and I was afraid my own skills were only mediocre. Oh, I could spin out some decent prose and even a little poetry, but I didn’t feel I was a good storyteller and that meant I never would be.
Mainly that was because I’m a self-made author. I took a couple creative writing courses in college, but they didn’t help much, and so I kept on believing that writers were born, not made.
This view changed slowly, reflecting my own path. It took me almost twenty years to go from bright-eyed kid writer to published author with a multi-book contract, and often that progress was hard for me to see. But the difference between my first attempted novel and my first published novel, almost two decades later, is like night and day. Somewhere along the line, I had learned how to tell a complete story, and well enough for someone to pay me to publish it.
Another thing happened on that long, long journey. I began to discover that even this old dog could learn new tricks. I had gone from thinking of plot as some artificial edifice to understanding how and why it could be used in my writing. I had learned how to use characters as more than cardboard props that simply moved around on my imaginary stage and squawked at each other. Heck, I’d even started to enjoy outlining my novels almost as much as writing them.
But perhaps my talent just took a while to develop. Maybe I just needed time to blossom. I might have gone on thinking that if not for another development in my life.
I became a writing mentor.
Two and a half years ago, I joined the faculty of Seton Hill University’s Genre Writing Program. My job mainly consists of reading chunks of writing and giving detailed critique on anything and everything—style, voice, character, plot, theme, setting, and so on.
I hope I’ve been able to provide a little insight to my mentees and pass on some of my experience. However, I’ve noticed something else over these past couple years.
I’ve been learning, too.
Each critique has forced me to break down what I know about writing and how I know it, to reach for real answers instead of simple platitudes. By doing so, I’ve come to realize there are things I can actually teach newer writers. And I don’t just mean basic constructions like grammar and punctuation. No, all of writing can be passed on to some extent. Sure, not every student is capable of learning everything on the first try, but with time everyone can be taught the principles of fiction.
This lesson has been liberating for me. For so long, I was convinced I already possessed all the talent I would ever have. That I was “stuck” at my level and hopefully it would be enough to support a career. Yet now I know that I’m still learning and growing. I can still achieve better writing that exceeds my baseline talent. Now I know that great writing isn’t just a fluke of nature. It can be taught. Sometimes painstakingly, or often agonizing, but it can be taught. I can learn to be better, and so can you. The only real limit to our potential is how hard we’re willing to work for it.
Jon Sprunk is the author of the fantasy epic Blood and Iron as well as the Shadow Saga trilogy (Shadow’s Son, Shadow’s Lure, and Shadow’s Master). He’s also a mentor at the Seton Hill University fiction writing program. For more on his life and writing, check out www.jonsprunk.com.