April 13, 2017
Write Like Mike
I get my students to discuss creativity and the limits of human achievement through the example of basketball legend Michael Jordan. Although he retired (for the second time) in 1999, his reputation as the greatest basketball player of all time and one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century guarantees that even my freshman students know about him. His gravity-mocking leaping ability, astonishing speed, and knack of always thinking two steps ahead of his opponents may never be matched. How does one, in any field of endeavor, become highly successful, much less get to the very top?
My students usually anticipate the question before I get to it. Which is more important for accomplishment, talent or hard work? The students’ views tend split evenly. Jordan worked hard his entire life, one side says, but he never would have become as good as he was without enormous innate talent. I ask them, when does talent show? Does it naturally manifest itself at an early age? If not, could one lose the talent if it is not recognized and nurtured? The other side argues that we can meet any goal with enough determination. Jordan became a superstar in the same way, as the old joke goes, that one gets to Carnegie Hall—practice, practice, practice. I ask that group to consider me. Had I started playing basketball for five hours every day when I was a kid, would I have been like Mike? This question stumps them; picturing me as an athletic youngster surpasses their imaginative capacities!
I suspect that my students take sides in this version of the nature/nurture debate in accord with their self-image. Those who consider themselves especially good at something, say, writing, will probably favor talent as the necessary condition of their accomplishment. I wonder, though, if this is a form of lazy thinking. If I believe myself to possess an inborn gift for something, then I may think that I do not have to work at it very hard. I just turn on the talent spigot and let the pages flow. Plus, if I fail at some other task, I can take comfort in the notion that it is simply not in my nature to excel at that field, so, no need to waste my time at it.
Regarding those who tout hard work as the key to success, perhaps it is due to their belief in the American Dream or something similar—you can succeed at anything if you put your heart, and sweat, into it. As a professor I prefer, of course, students with that attitude about their course work. Those who complain, “I’m just not good at writing” or “I’m a visual learner, not a verbal learner—could I just draw pictures instead?” have already given up. Besides, those who believe that practice makes perfect are better prepared for a world that demands adaptability.
When we think of great writers, we probably initially consider them people of prodigious talent. When I read Twain, Faulkner, O’Connor, Dostoyevsky, Rushdie, and other Michael Jordans of the literary world, I wonder how mere humans can make language into something so magical. This discussion often arises when I get together with my fiction-writing friends. Despite our mutual admiration for each other’s work and our similar views on what makes for good writing, we disagree on the talent v. work issue. I wonder how much our egos form our views. Those who argue for talent may actually be bragging about being selected by the Muse. Those who defend constant toil (and some even deny that talent exists at all) might be boasting about their stamina for a demanding work ethic.
In all my classes and in all the writing workshops I teach, I deliver the message that students do not wish to hear: regardless of how much talent you may (think you) have, hard, hard work wins out every time. I illustrate the value of relentless practice to hone writing skills with two of my favorite fiction writers, Larry Brown and Harry Crews. Brown produced mounds of unpublished work—he said five unpublished novels and hundreds of short stories, and he collected scores of rejection letters—while working as a firefighter before a story finally made it into a magazine. When things were slow at the fire station, Brown wrote (reminiscent of Faulkner writing during a series of jobs, including one in which he spent his nights staring at a temperature gauge on a boiler). His big break came when a publisher happened across one of his stories in a magazine and wrote to ask if Brown had others. Brown often told how he laughed at that inquiry, which resulted in his first book, Facing the Music. He turned to writing full-time only after ten years of being virtually ignored by the publishing world. Crews also put in his years—four unpublished novels—before his first book, The Gospel Singer, was published to great acclaim. This landed him a spot on the creative writing faculty of the University of Florida, and many more books followed.
Both authors were quick to tell beginning writers that the most important elements to literary success is an unfailing desire to write, the refusal to become discouraged in the face of rejection, and the treatment of every work as an exercise to discard, not a completed masterpiece. Two American authors lauded for their natural talent but whose lack of that third element above nearly cost them their careers were F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Had it not been for the tireless slashing and sculpting of editor extraordinaire Maxwell Perkins, we would never have seen The Great Gatsby or Look Homeward, Angel. Lucky for Fitzgerald and Wolfe, they were not attempting to sell their writing to today’s editors, none of whom is willing to put Perkins-like effort into a writer’s work. Perhaps Brown’s and Crews’s willingness to hone their craft for years before getting recognition stemmed from their impoverished childhoods in which every meager meal makes it to the table only because of daily struggles. If you already believe that success in any endeavor is due to how much you time and muscle you into it, you may have the right stuff for the writing life.
We all want to be like Michael Jordan. If you have immense, natural physical abilities, then you have an edge over other athletes. Are there intellectual, creative abilities that parallel the physical ones and help one to become a successful writer? That is a tough question. Perhaps the best approach is like that of the old-style Calvinists in regards to spiritual salvation. Their view was that whether or not you are heaven-bound has already been decided by God. The catch is that you cannot know if you are one of the elect. Your only option is to act as if you are and to work hard while on this side of paradise (you caught that joke, right?), as if you can earn your reward for the other side. Maybe you are already like Mike, but you will never know unless you work at it.