Monday, January 16, 2006


Since our daughter was a newborn, we have had a photo taken of her and my wife for my birthday. Now, these aren't portrait-type photos. What we wanted was artwork, the kind of art you might see in a gallery, we just wanted it to feature our family. It doesn't even have to show their faces, but we wanted to chronicle the growth of our family in art. We found a photographer who normally does landscape photography, but she agreed to do a photo shoot of us. She suggested that we do the pictures nude, so we figured, "why not?" Nudity has never been an issue around our house, so it wasn't a big deal. The photographer is really good. The picture we got from the first session were simply outstanding. Some of the best artwork I've ever seen; it's hard to believe it's us in the pictures.

This past year, however, she just didn't seem to get the magic shot. She works in large-format film and does effects in Photoshop, but she still needs the raw material to start with. Our daughter was good, but she wasn't quite as cooperative as when she was only a year old, so we had a harder time of it. I'm not really happy with what we were sent to look over, though I realize there is only so much she can do.

Sometimes writing is like that. Like all artists, we need the raw material to start with. If the raw material is good, we can use our art to turn it into something outstanding. That ability is what separates the craftsmen from the mere technicians. Virtually anyone can write a passable story. The concepts aren't all that difficult to master. But there is an intangible talent -- an art -- that can turn that same passable story into something inspires us, frightens us, uplifts us, or just makes us see the world in a slightly different way. This is what it means to be a writer. Sometimes our brains give us the raw material we need to start our craft. Sometimes they don't. This is why I think some stories work, while others just ... don't. Part of our maturity as writers comes from knowing when we've got something we can work with and when something just needs to be recycled for later. It's not something that can be taught, and it's something that changes as our skill changes. The master can work with more difficult clay than the apprentice, after all. Sometimes it's hard, though, to see what is worth shaping and what isn't. I think this is one of the most critical and difficult skills for an aspiring professional writer to develop, and yet I can't recall seeing it mentioned in any of the books I've read on the subject. But I can't really say that I blame them.

How do you teach that which is unteachable, after all?

No comments: