Monday, July 19, 2010

Instinct or Learning?

I'm involved in an industry that relies heavily on understanding instinct.

Horses are creatures driven by it. In the wild, they herd to confuse and confound predators, move constantly to find better grazing and water, and the mares know to stick with the biggest, baddest stallion. Out there in the big scary, when confronted by danger, they have one basic decision: flight or fight.

These drivers are still prevalent in domesticated horses, and training methods revolve around them. It's a struggle, sometimes, to overcome that flight or fight instinct. Something as simple as stepping into a puddle of water becomes a battle of wits - we all know who would win if it came down to strength!

In turn, I firmly believe that there are individuals who have an instinct for working with horses. We call it 'feel', and IMO, it's not something that can be taught.

There are varying degrees of feel, but one can always see the riders without that natural ability - 15 years of steady lessons and their elbows are still flapping like chicken wings, or they still balance on the horse's mouth via reins and bit instead of using their seat. They don't ever 'get' the timing of leg pressure or learn to read their horse's body signals that they're about to leap sideways because there's a mouse rustling in the grass.

Sure, a coach can help hone it, and it takes practice to bring it to the forefront sometimes, but that innate ability to read body language, time your own movements and give reward has to be there from the get-go.

It's this instinct that makes a talented horse-person. They ride better. The horses perform better because their handler is speaking the same language. They win in the show pen. And they can make a living in an industry that's just a huge money-suck for the majority of participants.

It's usually these folks who make the best coaches, although that's a special talent all on it's own. A good coach will focus on the natural abilities of a rider and make the rider think about them in a way that brings acute awareness. That awareness usually leads to another epiphany.

Every light-bulb moment illuminates another point of instinct, and those pinpricks of light accumulate until the person is one big ball of glowing talent.

Yeah, yeah. A little dramatic, I know.

You're probably wondering why I'm rambling on about horses when this is supposed to be a blog about writing, right?

I do have a point. No, really. I do!

It is the following:

I believe that great writers must have natural instinct.

Okay, maybe it's not exactly the same as seeing a horse's ear stick out sideways and know they're about to bolt. But knowing when to go into deep point of view, when to end a scene, or even when to have the hero and heroine meet is instinctual.

Again, there are varying degrees of this special talent, and it translates into different aspects of writing: dialogue, sex scenes, conflict, flow. All the stuff that makes a great story. Some writers can do humor, some gut-wrenching emotional journeys. Others make you want to chew your nails off in suspense.

A naturally talented writer can make a heroine sitting alone in her car during 5 o'clock traffic completely enthralling.

They'll also have the ability to know what isn't working, admit "that's crap" and clip, trim, and shuffle words until it does work without losing the original intent.

Let's use me as an example, because I like to talk about me. (kidding! sort of)

I do not have a natural talent for dialogue. I struggle with it. I can make it work, but it's not something that just writes itself onto the page for me. No one will be able to teach me to write dialogue, because it's one of those things that will never be the same. It comes down to the author's voice, the setting, and the characters' personalities.

Telling me to make conversation "engaging" and "interesting" doesn't tell me WHAT people find engaging and interesting. That part's instinct.

Um, you may have already noticed that grammar isn't a particular talent, either. I lubs my commas.

I do think I have flow, though. That ability to order a sentence, scene or entire story, even, into a smooth entity that keeps your eyes and thoughts moving forward.

Based on feedback from others, this has pretty much always been the case - from personal emails to work correspondence and now in fiction. I developed this skill as a young'un, and have been honing it ever since.

I'm proud of my flow. Yo.

I've worked with people, training them to write (not fiction, which I'm still new to, myself), and have noticed time and time again this phenomenon of natural ability. I can give 5 people the exact same (precise) outline of how to write a piece of correspondence, and 3 out of the 5 will get it wrong. Every. Single. Time.

I can see it. They're reading what they just typed out, and their eye stops. Backs up. Travels over the paragraph again. There's a pause. And then a mental shrug because they can't pinpoint what makes it read weird. Then they continue.

To me, that's an obvious stumble in flow that needs fixin', but they plow ahead regardless.

Oh, I'm sure a lot of folks will argue with my theories and beliefs about this subject, citing that one can learn to write.

Sure. Coaching will help, and some will learn to fake it, mimicking other writers who get fabulous results. They'll do good. But the ones who have that "je ne sais quoi" will be GREAT writers.

I believe it's really important to always work at improving craft skills, to bring those natural abilities to the surface so they can be nurtured. Workshops, craft books and most importantly, reading other people's work are all pivotal to sparking one of those light-bulb moments.

There's nothing wrong with basking in the glow of a really great talent, as long as you're using their light to take an inward look at your own strengths and abilities.

Maybe, if I keep working at it, I'll learn that, while I don't have talent for dialogue, I can write mind-blowing emotional discovery.

What's your instinct?

1 comment:

  1. I think you're right on so may levels about this. And I love the horse analogy. ;)

    The sad truth is the while people can be "good writers" that doesn't neccessarily give them talent. And I honestly don't know what category I fall under. I've received amazing feedback over the years - on fiction and scholastic essays. I know I can write well, but I'm not 100% convinced I have talent...yet. I'm my own worst critic after all. ;)

    Reading novels is a good training tool for me, and workshopping with peers. But other than that...I just write and hope for the best.

    I'm not sure what my "instinct" is...but I hope to figure it out. ;)