Are Writers Born or Made?
Writers Digest recently dug into their archives and found an article from January 1962, written by Jack Kerouac, about whether or not writers are born or made.
Though I haven’t read On The Road in 12 years, I still consider it one of my favorite books. And, since I’m at a totally different place in life from when I first read it, I’m curious as to what I will think about the Kerouac classic when I re-read it for the Time list. Probably soon.
Anyway, Kerouac certainly had his own style, one that you probably either love or hate. So it’s no surprise that he had a strong opinion on writing. He was obviously a fan of Joyce:
“Five thousand university-trained writers could put their hand to a day in June in Dublin in 1904, or one night’s dreams, and never do with it what Joyce did with it: He was simply born to do it. On the other hand, if the five thousand ‘trained’ writers, plus Joyce, all put their hands to a Reader’s Digest-type article about ‘Vacation Hints’ or ‘Homemaker’s Tips,’ even then I think Joyce would stand out because of his inborn originality of language insight.”
If I were editing Kerouac, I might change “inborn originality of language insight” to “creativity.” A little wordy there, Jack. Joyce was indeed creative. And I can’t help think about David Foster Wallace when Kerouac mentions the vacation and homemaker articles.
Think about DFW’s “Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”–his piece for Harper’s about vacation on a cruise. That could’ve been a well-written, run-of-the-mill travel writing piece that ran in a magazine for one month and was never seen again. But DFW turned it into a classic that is still talked about today.
Kerouac also talks about the writer’s ability to invent new styles:
“Anybody can write, but not everybody invents new forms of writing. Gertrude Stein invented a new form of writing and her imitators are just ‘talents.’ Hemingway later invented his own form also. The criterion for judging talent or genius is ephemeral, speaking rationally in this world of graphs, but one gets the feeling definitely when a writer of genius amazes him by strokes of force never seen before and yet hauntingly familiar.”
I wonder what Jack would think about today’s world of writers. If he thought anyone could write in the 1960s, what would he think about 2012–when anyone with an internet connection can instantly be “published” on a blog? Would he hate book bloggers like me? Probably.
And what might Kerouac say about those of us who think Joyce and Woolf and the like are literary snobs?
“Oftentimes an originator of new language forms is called ‘pretentious’ by jealous talents. But it ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.”
Ouch. I will fully accept the fact that I “don’t get” Joyce and Woolf and Faulkner. But, for those of us who aren’t keen on their writing styles, are we jealous? I, for one, have no desire to write like that.
What I’m getting from Kerouac here is that anyone can become a writer through training, but some writers are born with innate talent that a trained writer will never be able to match.
Some of us are born with certain talents that don’t require us to work our butts off to master. While other people have to spend hours and hours and hours practicing a craft to become respectable at it.
I used to play competitive golf, and I saw this all the time. So Kerouac isn’t (and wasn’t) breaking new ground here. You can apply it to anything.
So what do you think? Are writers born or made…or a little of both?
(Image: Tom Palumbo/Wikimedia Commons)