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Delany on “Talented Writing”

Marc Laidlaw recently shared a link on Facebook to a post on “Good Writing vs. Talented Writing”over on Brainpickings featuring some ideas by Samuel Delany. Essentially, Delany draws a line between “good writing” and superior “talented writing”:

The talented writer often uses specifics and avoids generalities — generalities that his or her specifics suggest. Because they are suggested, rather than stated, they may register with the reader far more forcefully than if they were articulated. Using specifics to imply generalities — whether they are general emotions we all know or ideas we have all vaguely sensed —is dramatic writing. A trickier proposition that takes just as much talent requires the writer carefully to arrange generalities for a page or five pages, followed by a specific that makes the generalities open up and take on new resonance. … Indeed, it might be called the opposite of “dramatic” writing, but it can be just as strong — if not, sometimes, stronger.

As I noted on Facebook myself,

Also, one reason the Clarion workshops stopped inviting Delany to teach, IIRC. This message runs counter to the conception of becoming a writer central to the business of Creative Writing programs, workshops, etc.

And in the comments, I added:

Note, he does teach at Clarion Workshops these days (he’s teaching in San Diego this year, in fact), but I’d be very curious to know whether he talks about such things while there. I’ve heard in the old days, he would actually go around the room, saying to each writer whether he thought they would “make it” or not. Which, well… I can think of cases where such a thing might be a mercy, but as a general practice, I dunno. Certainly it was mentioned in the context of why he hadn’t taught a Clarion workshop in a while, at the time I heard the story.

The “more” than I alluded to, as in more thoughts, are as follows:

I’m not sure what I think of Delany’s ideas as presented in that post. I suspect there is something to it, though. Most people agree that excellent writing (or other creative work) is 5% inspiration (talent, etc.) and 95% perspiration. But most people seem to say this and then want to talk about the 95%, and leave the 5% alone. Because, of course, it would seem apparent that writing programs can do nothing to address that.

Hmmm. Then again, I also think that there’s a certain tendency among some creatives to say these kinds of discouraging things as a way of romanticizing their own work and their identities as creators. They may not be wrong… but they may be emphasizing it for reasons other than describing how human creativity works.

What I’ve read about creativity (I did what research I could on the subject a few summers ago, while working on an academic paper), though, suggests that the difference between great artists and the rest of the population seems to boil down to quantitative differences in motivation, rather than qualitative differences in thought processes… that so-called geniuses in one or another creative field are not (a) more genius in all fields, and (b) are not performing their acts of genius by performing qualitatively different sorts of mental processes. They’re doing what we all do in problem solving, they’re just way more interested in the ride, and explore different solutions to problems that most of us are happy to solve in the quickest, easiest way possible.

But that leaves open the question why so many of the greatest jazz musicians were so eccentric, as driven home by a truly hilarious blindfold test with Thelonious Monk I read earlier this week. (I found the link over at Ethan Iverson’s wonderful jazz blog Do the Math.) The anecdotes about Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus, Ornette Coleman… and that’s to say nothing of people like Sun Ra and Albert Ayler. So many of the foundational, Grandmaster-level jazz musicians were really, really odd people, in ways that were immediately apparent in interaction off the bandstand. Wonderful people, too, some of them… but so many were ever so slightly (or ever so much) odd, by the terms of mainstream culture in their time, and arguably by the standards of our time, too.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if part of the hostility towards arts education–on the part of plenty of people who still show up to teach workshops–isn’t in part a reaction to having depended on educational work as a day job at one point or another… a resentment of their complicity with the system. Delany was a creative writing instructor for decades, so he obviously believes that writing can (and should) to some degree be taught. Is he talking about the students who excelled in his classes? Or the ones who had failed to excel by the end of those classes?

I suppose it would help to read the essay the pull-quote was taken from. If only I had a copy of the book… or, rather, if only I didn’t have a ton of other books already paid-for and loaded on my Kindle (and some paperbacks of actual novels by Delany, too) waiting to be read.

But at the moment? I’m still digging my way through Defoe’s Moll Flanders

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