The writing gift is precious. But we mustn’t be.
I’ve never trodden on eggshells (life is so busy, and one doesn’t get to try out everything) but I have taught creative writing to adults. I suspect that treading on eggshells is much, much easier.
Here’s a story about a student I’ll call Mr Eggshell.
Mr Eggshell wanted to be a crime writer. So he signed up to my creative writing classes ostensibly to study the writing craft. He joined in the activities with gusto, shoehorning a serial killer, a bent cop and three corpses even into ‘Describe a landscape’ and ‘Recount a joyful moment’ exercises.
On Week 3, Mr Eggshell read us his new crime story. We listened carefully, although Brenda, a lavender-scented lady from Virginia Water, blanched at the throat-slittings. I made my customary notes as he read, and wondered where the story was leading, when the dénouement suddenly arrived, like a thunderclap. Several students gasped, which I suspect Mr Eggshell took as awed ‘Oh my, what talent!’ gasps.
They were not.
I chose my words carefully. ‘I thought your characterisation convincing,’ I said, ‘but I wonder whether you might have dropped some clues to make your ending more credible. What do you think?’
What Mr Eggshell thought was that it was time to leap out of his chair, smack his notebook down on the desk (Brenda put her hand to her heart) and shout, ‘Do you KNOW how many people read my story and thought it publishable? My mother, my sister and my wife all loved it.’ And, with that, he left the class, pushing past other students and slamming the door with venom.
‘Oh dear,’ I said to the class. ‘TWO over-dramatic endings with absolutely no warning!’
Actually, I didn’t say that, although I wanted to so very, very much.
The students were shocked, but reassuring. ‘You were right, Fran. We all thought the same about his ending,’ said one. The others nodded. Then we continued the lesson.
Do I need to say that Mr Eggshell didn’t return for Week 4?
I heard someone speak at a conference and describe a writer as a ‘craftsperson’. He said writing was a skill which had to be practised, studied and improved, although he did believe that innate talent was necessary for eventual success.
Many of us would agree. But that doesn’t stop it hurting when someone says, ‘Sorry, but despite your talent, you need to address the long and rambling Dickensian sentences/tendency to use adverbs like confetti/sudden forty-year time shifts.’
This hurt is intensified if we feel we have received our talent and our words from God. Surely, the ideas we have poured onto paper under the inspiration of God himself (aided by a candle and a Praise Him on the Strings CD) cannot be faulted?
I once heard Christian songwriter Chris Bowater say that optimistic lyricists often presented a new song to him, insisting, ‘God gave me this, so I know you’ll want to hear it.’
‘And when they’d played it to me,’ he said, ‘I’d think, well, I know why God gave THAT one away!’
We cannot afford to treat our writing gifts and ministries like precious babies. It’s bad form to say to the mother of a newborn, ‘Nice face; shame about the conical head.’ But we should never think it bad form to say to another writer, with tact, ‘I like your structure, but do you need all nine adjectives in that sentence?’
Mr Eggshell believed he had a natural talent and perhaps he did; he didn’t stay around long enough for us to judge. But instead of seeing constructive criticism as positive, he saw it as a personal slight. So why was he in the class, if not to receive help to improve? I think he believed his talent came ready-made and that, once he was discovered, bargain bins would be stacked with Rankin’s novels to make way for his on the shelves.
I fear he may be waiting a while.
|Despite Mr Eggshell's hopes and dreams, Rankin was still top of the bestseller lists, so his wait for fame continued.|