Monday, May 03, 2010

Experience and Talent

I’ve been hemming and hawing over this topic for about a year now. I almost didn’t blog about it because I’m guessing it’s going to offend a few writers. So let me just say now that offending is not my intention. I’m just making some observations. Anyway...

I’ve written a few times before about writing what you know, as well as writing what you don’t know. Now I want to take that one step further and talk about how that ties in with experience.

When I was in college, I had an amazing creative writing professor. In fact, if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be writing today because he pushed me hard to keep writing (he knew my major was math, not English), and he pushed me to be the best writer I could possibly be.

While I was taking his classes, he said two things that I didn’t understand at the time. I also completely disagreed with him.
He said: “There is no such thing as a prodigy writer.”
Basically, he explained that when you see a movie with a ten year old kid who can write award-winning poetry or novels, that’s not possible. The reason is that writing comes from experience, as well as the understanding of that experience. If you’re ten years old, there’s a limited amount of things you’ve experienced. Even if you’ve seen a lot in those ten years, there’s still a limited ability to understand those experiences because you have a limited amount of things to compare it to. So, that ten year old writer may well be a prodigy, but that won’t be apparent until he’s closer to thirty years old.

I sort of understood what he was saying, but I didn’t completely agree.

Then, he said this: “Give yourself ten years, and then you’ll be a great writer.”
This one hurt a bit, partly because it was directed at me (it wasn’t a general statement about people). I was eighteen when he told me this, and I thought I was a pretty good writer already. Sure, there was still plenty to learn, but I didn’t see how ten years was going to magically turn me into a great writer. Plus, when you’re eighteen, ten years is a long time and I didn’t want to wait that long. :)

Now that those ten years have come and gone, I’m beginning to understand what he was saying. And I have to admit that he was right. Does that mean all young writers can’t write well? Absolutely not. But it does mean that a young writer can’t write a many-layered, timeless classic. And I’ve finally found the perfect example to illustrate this.

Earlier this year, I read the book Break by Hannah Moskowitz. She wrote it when she was sixteen (I think), and WOW can this girl write! Her teen characters are so vivid and real, and their motivations and choices exactly fit a teen’s mind. If she wrote a book that contained nothing but teens, I have no doubt that it would be amazing.

But the world doesn’t contain only teens. It has adults, too, and that’s where Moskowitz’s work is flawed. When I was a teenager, I remember not understanding my parents’ motivations for most things. They were the gatekeepers of what I could and couldn’t do, and their reasons for not letting me do certain things didn’t make sense. That’s how the adults are in Break. Their actions don’t make sense, and those actions are not things that responsible adults would do. But that’s how teenagers see adults. Since Moskowitz was a teenager when she wrote the story, that’s how she wrote her adults.

That doesn’t make her a bad writer, though. Moskowitz is obviously observant and insightful, and is only limited by her own experience. She’s about as close to a prodigy as you can get. :) It's only a matter of time before her adult characters are leaping off the page. I look forward to her future books, and I have no doubt that they will win some awards. To quote my professor, ‘in about ten years.’ :)


Marcia said...

Yes. I came to see this too, over the years. In fact, not only does one write better out of experience, one studies literature and history better out of experience, whereas math and science are just as accessible to the young. It's part of the reason a pro writer's apprenticeship is so long. The advantage of experience is at least somewhat reflected in the industry. For novelists, age isn't the drawback that it is in some careers. It's not that a young writer can't ever do it. It's that they can look forward to even better success down the road of experience as their range expands.

Robby said...

I'm so glad I just read this post. I finished my umpteenth manuscript yesterday and I've been considering querying it. I'm proud of it and I love it but I also know that, in a few years, the books I'll be writing then will be astronomically better. I'm only fourteen. I have time.
Break is wonderful book, but I see where you're coming from. Even some adult writers, trying to write teenage characters, don't completely understand. I feel like there's a time and place in your life to write certain books.
Thank you for posting this.

Tabitha said...

Marcia - you're so right. It's one of the things I love most about this profession - the fact that I have a limitless amount of things to explore and learn from. I never plan to retire, and this is the perfect field for it. :)

Robby - I'm so glad you weren't offended by anything I said. I was worried about younger writers when I wrote this, and didn't want to come across as discouraging. And you're absolutely right that there is often a time and place for our stories. Sometimes we can get going right away, and other times have to wait it out.

Frankie Diane Mallis said...

This is such an interesting post and I pretty much agree with your main points. Ive wanted to write since forever, but it took me awhile to start, at least, start seriously because I had this sense that I didnt know enough, hadn't experienced enough yet for something truly meaningful. I think everyone is different and maybe it wouldve been possible for someone else to achieve what I wanted at a much younger age, and by all accounts Im still very young, but me at 27 is a far cry from me at 17. I think every year I know more and expetience more and understand more. So yeah this post resonates with me though I so wish I could have figured things out and written masterpieces 10 years ago:-)

hannah moskowitz said...


Thanks so much for the good review, and I'm so glad you liked BREAK.

If I may...

I agree that my adult characters are definitely not my strongest, and I think you're absolutely right that BREAK shows evidence of a limited teenage viewpoint. Some of that is, absolutely, due to my age (16, you were absolutely right) when I wrote the book.

But I think even if I had tried to write Jonah's story twenty years from now, with more experience under my belt, the adults are one of the things that would not significantly change. (The girls, on the other hand...haha)

The book has a worldview limited to a teenager's point of view, maybe because that was my point of view while I was writing it. But it was also Jonah's. Some of what limits the book, I think (in my totally and completely unbiased opinion, obviously!) also gives it realism. If sixteen-year-old hannah didn't see adults as three-dimensional humans, seventeen-year-old Jonah probably wouldn't either. If I were writing an adult book with a seventeen-year-old protagonist, my teenage point of view would likely be a handicap. But given that I wrote a book about a teenager for teenagers, my inexperience just feeds into Jonah's.

Incidentally, I also reject the term "prodigy," but because it implies a lack of work. I know I'm young, but I wrote my first novel--complete and perfectly functional, if not publishable--when I was twelve. BREAK came out when I was eighteen, and was my seventh novel. If all these ages were transposed up twenty years, no one would throw the term prodigy around! That would seem like a reasonable amount of time for the "internship" of writing.

I hope I'm not out of line to comment here. I know the rule about not responding to bad reviews, but this certainly didn't read as a bad review to me, so I figured I was safe. :) Again, thank you so much for reading BREAK, and I'm very glad you liked it!

amy said...

With all due respect, I don't think your theory is born out at all by reality. If it were true, all writers would improve as they age. How then to explain that everyone still reads the stories and novels Hemingway wrote when he was in his twenties, and only completists read his later works?

Philip Roth won the National Book Award with his first novel, and has continued publishing a novel every couple years since... few people would claim that the recent ones are as good as his first.

I could go on -- there are any number of writers who produce their greatest work when they are young, and then never match it. Experience isn't everything -- sometimes you just have to hit that sweet spot.

Unknown said...

I so agree. I was so young and niave--I thought my first novel was publishable. I never would think an artist's first painting was museum quality...why should my first written work be worthy? It takes skill and practice, as well as experience.

Tabitha said...

Frankie - I had the same kind of experience with the MG I'm writing. I tried to write it almost eight years ago, but it was clear that I just didn't know enough yet. I just finished a pretty solid draft, and it's ready to send to my agent. It just took eight years of learning to get this far. :)

Hannah - I'm so glad you felt you share your thoughts here. I truly did enjoy Break, and I think you're a fantastic writer. So, no, this is definitely NOT meant to be a bad review. :)

You have an excellent point about writing adults through teen perceptions. A good YA should feel like it's being told by a teenager, complete with the inability to understand adults, and you did that well. That's not what I meant when I was referring to the adults in Break, though. I thought that some of the things the adults did were unrealistic (as in, adults would rarely, if ever, do some of those things). But that's because you wrote this when you were sixteen, when most of adults' actions were probably completely foreign (at least, that was my perspective when I was sixteen). But, as I said before, that's just a learning curve, and you'll be writing amazing adult characters in no time.

And I am so with you on the work thing. Writing is hard work. Anyone who doesn't think so hasn't actually tried to write well. :)

Tabitha said...

Amy - yes, there are definitely writers who peak when they're young. As in, they write something amazing in their twenties and then can never top it. These are the writers who don't continue to grow...and I wasn't saying that *all* writers grow. There are lots of variables introduced after a major success: fear, nerves, arrogance, withdrawl, etc. A 'superstar' author may not be able to handle the pressure of his success, and that may affect his future works. Or, he may get a big head and resist critique. Or, it could be that the writer only had that one great idea in him. Who knows? This industry is too subjective to be so black and white (i.e. all writers improve with age). It's possible for writers to improve with age, but it doesn't mean they will. It depends on the writer and where he puts his goals.

But that wasn't really my point. My point was that you can't write something amazing without a certain level of experience. Without experience, and an understanding of that experience, we can't properly convey our concepts on the page. So, sorry, but I really do think my theory is born out of reality.

Beth - yeah, I thought my first novel was publishable, too. *yikes* I've learned soooo much since then. :)

Andrea Coulter said...

When I started writing, I thought I was a good writer. The more I wrote, though, the more I found I had to learn about writing!

I think being a great writer takes a certain amount of talent, but that it takes experience and hard work to let that talent shine. It's true that sometimes even a lifetime of work won't make someone a great writer. But it's also true that a LOT of writers start out terrible but become fabulous after enough manuscripts and experience. So it does take talent, but the important part is the work.

PJ Hoover said...

I haven't read BREAK yet, but after this, I know I should!
I was having this SAT discussion with someone the other day and mentioned how much better I would do at the verbal and they commented that it was because verbal learning is based so much more on experience. I hope as I gain even more experience, I continue to improve in writing.

Tabitha said...

Lynn - well said!! :)

PJ - you definitely will improve, because that's where you put your efforts and goals. :)

Margaret West said...

Mmm a conundrum. I agree, yet disagree too. When I re-read recently something I'd written about twenty years ago I was horrified at all the mistakes. Yet the basic story was good. I don't think age or experience alone has anything to do with writing something good, it's what you know that makes you a good writer.


I think teens and adults both love YA, but we read it differently. Teens reading "Break" would probably think, "Oh, wow ... these are just like my friends/family/parents!" Whereas we adults, who read and write YA, admire well-developed teen characters but take issue with the adults' motivations (or lack thereof) when told from a teen's perspective.

But really ... if a YA book is written in first person, by a teen, shouldn't the adults appear a little unrealistic and skewed? If, for instance, a teen MC said, "Oh hey, Mom told me I couldn't go to that party, and when I went anyway and she yanked me away from my friends and my boyfriend and grounded me, she wasn't an evil psycho trying to ruin my life like my best friend said; she was just trying to keep me safe" ...

Well, I'd roll my eyes and think about how unrealistic that kind of perspective is in a book narrated by a teenager.


p.s. I do agree that experience is a necessity to be a good writer; I just don't think experience and age go hand-in-hand.

Tabitha said...

Margaret - you and I are actually saying the same thing. :) Experience doesn't make you a good writer. Talent does that. Experience makes you a great writer, because you know so much more about the world and can draw parallels to various concepts that others may not have. In other words, yes, you write what you know. Experience gives you more knowledge, as well as an understanding of that knowledge.

Jessjordan - the example you give is actually one that wouldn't bother me in the least because I'm sure a parent has done that at some point somewhere. Often? Probably not. But I'm sure it happened, or it could easily have been percieved that way by the teen. But when you're talking about medical conditions and rehab centers, that's different. There are legal consequences for the actions of the adults in Break, and for that reason it is *highly* unlikely the adults would have behaved in that manner. Those are the kinds of actions I'm talking about. Not the kind that can be misinterpreted by a teen.

As for experience and age not going hand-in-hand, well, that's kind of impossible. The older you get, the more you experience. Of course, experiences vary depending on the person, and so does the understanding of those experiences. Some 25 year olds are more astute than some 50 year olds. And, some 15 year olds are more astute than some 25 year olds. It's how their brains are wired. But the 15 year old is still more limited because he hasn't had something the 25 year old has had: being an adult in the adult world. And he *can't* have that until he gets older.

This is a great discussion, everyone. You all have said some fantastically thought-provoking things, and I'm loving every minute of it. :)


I probably should have mentioned before that I haven't read Break, so I may have misunderstood the actions the adults took that you were referencing.

As for experience and age: What I meant was that one who is older is not necessarily a more experienced writer.

To pull that out of the writing-only context and into the whole "life experience" aspect, you wrote "But the 15 year old is still more limited because he hasn't had something the 25 year old has had: being an adult in the adult world. And he *can't* have that until he gets older" -->

Quite literally, the only definitive thing that a 15-yr-old hasn't had that a 25-yr-old has had is being a legal adult. But that doesn't mean the 15yo hasn't lived as an adult, whereas the 25yo may have been spoiled and sheltered. Similarly, the 15yo may have written 10 manuscripts, and the 25 yo may just be getting started.

To me, human and life experiences are not all about age; in fact, a great deal of them (including most of the big, novel-making concepts and themes) aren't.

I guess what I'm trying to say is yes, the 25yo has been alive more ... but that doesn't mean he/she has *lived* more than the 15yo. And whoever lives more, to me, that's what makes for the most experience.

Okay. I'm finished talking myself in circles now.

Tabitha said...

The big difference between any 15 year old and any 25 year old is expectations. A 15 year old may have lived as an adult - taking care of himself, finding ways to eat and keep a roof over his head, etc - but the world doesn't expect those things from him. People will step up and help him if he needs it because he's still a kid. And if he fails, well, that's okay because he's still a kid. A 25 year old doesn't have those luxuries. If he fails, the world scorns him. Those expectations make a *huge* impact on a person. That's mostly what I was saying when I was comparing the two earlier.

Also, I want to clarify that when I talk about experience, I'm not talking about writing experience. That's something else entirely.

I'm talking about life experience. You are right that a 15 year old could have 'lived' more than a 25 year old, but he still has a limited perception of the world. A teen perception. And that almost always comes with a lack of understanding of adults. The more adult-like life a teen has lived, the harder his life has likely been. Which also means he'll have even less of an understanding of adults. A teen from this kind of life would likely write a story filled with horrible adults doing terrible things for no reason, because that's what he sees most. What he's been affected by the most. That doesn't mean he'd be a bad writer, just a limited one.

cleemckenzie said...

I was posting about a related issue, so had to mention you on my blog. Your post is so right on, Tabitha.

I think we're very brave to publish our writing and even braver to read it after a few years of experience have changed and developed us as writers.

Tabitha said...

Thanks, Lee! And you're so right that it takes bravery to publish a book. In many, many ways... :)