The second set has to be acquired through hard work. It has to do with knowledge about the craft, such as how to fashion the theme of a story, how to make characters engaging, how to weave plot and subplot together so that they compliment each other, is easier to acquire.
Much of the writerly advice offered in books, blogs, and courses emphasises this second set. Mention is made of the importance of the first, a writer’s powers of observation, or the need to be inquisitive, but the emphasis is on how to work with technique.
The reason is simple: It is far easier to teach someone how to deploy a turning point to spin the story around than it is to align that turning point with some astute observation about the human condition.
I often advise fledgling writers to pay equal attention to both sets of requirements; to try and integrate them into their writing process from the start.
“Great writing, given the presence of talent, stems from a continuous process of learning—learning from one’s own experiences and learning through study.”
The information needed to produce great writing is all around us—in streets, shops, restaurants—if only we can learn to observe, relate, and recognise its relevance in our work.
I was once fortunate enough to be teaching at a college in Australia, which was situated a few hundred meters from the art gallery at Brisbane’s South Bank. I would often spend my lunch hour there browsing through its many treasures.
I remember on one occasion being captivated by a painting of a young woman in a floral dress. She was leaning against a tree and seemed rather forlorn.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that someone else was studying the painting intently. A glance revealed that this person, an elderly man with deeply wrinkled skin, was working his top lip with his teeth. Another glance revealed his moist eyes.
I crept away so as not to intrude, but my imagination raced with narrative possibilities. Did she remind him of his own daughter that had, perhaps, passed away? Or, had the young woman once been a lover who had perhaps rejected him?
I tucked the image away in my mind to use in some future story, perhaps as a minor beat, perhaps as an inciting incident or a turning point.
The point is that one’s readiness to absorb experiences, to remember the small details that breathe life into memory, and to allow for the narrative possibilities to take hold of the imagination, is a wonderful way to broaden one’s skills in life and in writing.
Great writing requires the integration of two distinct sets of skills. The one stems from living and learning from life, the other from mastering the techniques that transform life into stories.