I’ve been fortunate, in my new career as a novelist, not to be an especially gifted writer.
I’m good with that. It means I have to struggle, to work hard, to consciously grow and to improve in some areas if I’m going to keep writing. Which is as it should be.
(Portrait of the Artists, as a Young Hand)
I mostly don’t believe in “Gifts” and “Talents” with capital letters, which by themselves can shape someone into a Great Artist in a creative arena.
Oh, there are amazing writers creating amazing works, but the more I talk to them about their process (“It took twenty-eight drafts, and I wasn’t sure I really had something until draft twenty-six…”) it sounds more like the product of hard, fierce work over a long time.
Even the outliers, the absolute bursts of inspiration (“The picture book came out almost complete, and when I sent it to my agent, she said she’d send it out without changing a word”) have—in my experience, anyway—happened only to the hardest-working and most steadily productive writers I know. (*Cough* Merriam Saunders.)
If you want to be struck by lightning, it turns out, you need to spend lots of time outside, uncomfortably wet, on high ground, during thunderstorms.
I do believe in smaller things, though—aptitudes. If you’re smart and analytical, for instance, that may help you learn faster in an area that requires lots of sub-skills (such as, say, writing novels.) Having lots of endurance also helps with things that take sustained effort over time, like novel-writing. If you are resilient, you can more successfully weather the setbacks of rejection that are part of the process.
Me? As a writer, I have an aptitude for dialogue and voice. Description of setting, explicit point-of-view character emotion? Not so much. So I know some of what I need to work on.
But the truth is, if you work hard, you can improve even at things you don’t have much aptitude for, so long as you have passion for them.
Last year, in my fifties, after a particularly unfortunate U.S. presidential election, I took up the study of Aikido.
Aikido is a wonderful discipline. To oversimplify and perhaps miss the point completely—as we enthusiastic white belts are uniquely positioned to do—Aikido is a martial art that allows one to throw, immobilize, and pin attackers while doing the least amount of damage. It involves balance, mindfulness, blending with the attack, flow, relaxed shoulders, and a combination of footwork and moving one’s torso—not just arms—in a wide range of what seem to a beginners extremely precise techniques.
It’s a martial art I’m almost spectacularly exactly unsuited for.
I have limited forward flexibility, but there are lots of forward rolls involved, as ten-year-olds throw me onto the mat. I have a PTSD-heightened fight-or-flight reflex (without, in my case, much flight component) but Aikido involves relaxed shoulders and flow and grace, not tensing, even when a black belt simulates a punch to my face. I’m a concrete, analytical guy, and there is a ki energy flow aspect to Aikido that doesn’t translate exactly into those terms. And I’m really aggressive and somewhat athletic, so my go-to approach is to add more—a lunge, an oomph, a little body English lifting my back foot as part of the throw—which is exactly, precisely not Aikido.
Part of the reason I love Aikido, though, is that it almost completely challenges me and who I am, and asks me to learn a profoundly new approach. It doesn’t speak to my pre-existing strengths or the gifts and aptitudes I bring from my first fifty-some years, but asks me to develop some new ones.
The best way to progress in anything—writing, Aikido, or anything else—is to get some coaching. Practicing hitting a golf ball 10,000 times wrong doesn’t do you much good. Getting guidance on how to hit it better, and then practicing that, does.
So, when I was in my fifties, while my first novel was under submission, I also went back to school, at Vermont College of Fine Arts, to get an MFA in writing for children and young adults.
It was wonderful. It was amazing. It was humbling.
The faculty, it turned out, was amazingly talented. My classmates, it turned out, were also amazing and talented. There were writers who were much, much further along their writing journey and more accomplished than I was. (*Cough* Ally Condie.)
There were writers less than half my age who were more than twice as talented as I was. (*Cough* Marianne Murphy.)
There were writers who were so amazing even at the things I did best—voice, humor, blending humor with serious topics—that I would have been intimidated to read their novels before mine came out. (*Cough* Addriene Kisner. Buy. Her. Book. Out this spring.)
And that, friends, is one difference between almost all of us who write for young people and some of those who don’t: The brilliance of my classmates does not diminish me. We’re on the same side. We believe in the magic of books for young people, because we experienced that magic, as young people.
I have come full circle. I believe somewhat in talent. I believe somewhat in gifts. But I believe more in hard work and in practicing a discipline and in improving. My job, these days, is to get better. It’s exciting and it’s fun. I'm a very lucky guy.
Dean Gloster graduated with an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in July 2017. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out now from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's and Jesse Andrews's .” They are remarkably patient with him at the wonderful dojo Aikido Shusekai in Berkeley, California.