You have heard that old saw, genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration, something like that. Once I was talking to Molly Lamb Bobak, a wonderful painter based in Fredericton. She asked me if I had many talented people in my creative writing classes. I said I did, and I was surprised that they never went on to write more. She expressed the same surprise with the people who took her painting classes.
It is my experience that some people with little talent can learn to write if they spend a lot of time writing and studying. Their work is often pedestrian, but they get published. Some people have talent but they don’t develop it; the rewards are not great enough. One man said to me after he had had something published, “Why would anyone do this?” He had received something like $25 for his effort. He could make more money picking up beer bottles, he said.
Blockbuster talents, however, start off great, and I for one couldn’t teach them anything. They don’t take creative writing classes or do degrees in CW unless they use them for an excuse to get time for writing. I remember the initial time one young kid, David Adams Richards, read to our writers’ group. We were bowled over. Here was an authentic talent. He went on to write to great critical acclaim and to win many awards. Into my husband’s MA creative writing class came Wayne Johnston, a natural born comic writer. He too has gone on to critical acclaim, won prizes, and had his novel on the front page of the NYT Book Review. Bill said that the only thing he could do with such a writer was to let him write. “What could I teach him?” Nothing. Such people do need an excellent, sympathetic editor, need to read widely, but they do not need much teaching.
At the writers’ group, I would amuse myself with predicting the next word in a poem being read. Then one night came a young kid who read a poem whose words I couldn’t predict. He hadn’t read much, hadn’t seen the big world, knew only that he was a poet. Joe Sherman went on to publish, also to critical acclaim, and to be made an Officer of Canada. Alas, he died of pancreatic cancer a year ago. After his diagnosis, he wrote for the nine months he had left, and two terrific books came out of it. Over the years he would send every manuscript to me and to Robert Gibbs. I would comment, make suggestions, fully realizing that I was only providing a sympathetic, dedicated ear.