Are writers born with the ability? Matt Posner in the Big Red Chair…
My guest in the Red Chair surprised me in our initial chat when he stated outright that he felt he was born with the ability to write. What surprised me was not that he said such a thing, but that I had never thought of writing that way. Some time ago I was asked whether I thought writers were born, not made and I sidestepped the issue by saying I felt at the very least, writers must have imagination and creativity. I remember saying that knowing all the so-called RULES of writing, didn’t necessarily make for a good story-teller. Was I saying the same thing as my guest? That writers are born with the ability? Read on and see what Matt Posner has to say…
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Glens Falls, NY, a small town nearby upstate New York’s famous Lake George resort area. I was raised and schooled in a number of places, including Durham, North Carolina and especially Miami, Florida, which I still think of as my home town although I have to say that about New York City also. My schooling was in Florida from age 8 up, all public and state schools, until I went for my second master’s degree in Alabama. So really I am a Florida person who has become a New Yorker by living in New York for a long time. That’s pretty typical for a New Yorker; the pace and the pressure do transform you, and if you meet me, you will find me to fit one of the typical New York personality profiles: quick, brusque, impatient, harried, task-oriented, but good at heart.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve I decided to be a fiction writer. At eighteen I was actively writing novels. At thirty I was newly married, had had writer’s block for years, and was scrambling for work while making the transition (education credits, experience) from teaching college in Miami to teaching grade school in New York. I always did some writing, but it took me a long time to find myself as a writer. Now I can always write when I have time and focus, but I was stuck from about 1996 (when I finished a painful MFA program in Tuscaloosa, AL) until about 2004-5, when I was in the home stretch with The Ghost in the Crystal.
Why did I want to be a writer? I think I was born with the ability. My early play was much more about narrative and character than the average kid’s. My parents are musicians, and I inherited a fraction of their musical talent, but only a fraction, whereas I am a natural with writing. To give you an idea what I mean, once I finish drafting this interview, I will probably not change more than a sentence or two: it comes out the way I want it to be.
Being a natural doesn’t make it easy; I think many successful writers are successful not because of any basic talent but because of a combination of strong effort and happening to be drawn to write what people want to read. I often think success is mostly about luck, but the caveat is the Samuel Goldwyn saying, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
When I was eighteen, I wanted to write on my dorm room wall “Literature is bullshit.” I felt that there was a distinction between Literature, a pretentious enterprise in which writers were deliberately obscure in order to intimidate others, and real writing, in which writers used their skills to communicate with readers.
I no longer believe this. I can only say now that there is stuff that people want to read and stuff that they don’t. A lot of Literature is stuff that people used to want to read but don’t anymore. And then there’s still the annoying crap, but in each case, the author was responding to the current conditions (the Zeitgeist) and to the conditions in his life and to the particular nature of his talent. My style (easy to read, with literary elements that you can find if you look) isn’t ever going to be how everyone writes.
4. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
I write mainly for personal, selfish reasons, but if I could indeed change one thing in this world, realistically speaking, it would be to give readers a sense of wonder and a sense of hope. The world is not devoid of meaning, but full of infinite fascinating variety. We are not limited to what is in front of our noses, but we can seek out amazement daily.
5. Whom do you most admire and why?
I’ve cited my influences in interviews before, so let me say something different this time around. Lately I’ve been teaching Shakespeare, so I’ll write about Shakespeare’s influence upon me. Even though I see the formulaic nature of the plays, I am still just stunned by the verbal facility, the power with words. Here is a selection from King Lear which I have taught in the last few weeks. The disguised Earl of Kent is insulting a servant of low character:
<I call thee> A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a
base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited,
hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a
lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson,
glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue;
one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a
bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but
the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander,
and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I
will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest
the least syllable of thy addition.
Kent just pounds on the guy with insult after insult after insult, with withering words, at a dazzling pace. Most people couldn’t think of this many insults in a month of trying, all painful, and all well-deserved by the recipient. I put something like it in my fourth book of my series, but it will be a while till I can share that.
This is certainly not the only reason to admire Shakespeare — there are dozens of reasons — but it should prove serviceable in regard to your question.
6. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. Do you believe in goal setting? What are yours?
A younger writer I met last year asked me if I expected to be successful. I said, “Within ten years. Not immediately.” While I know a lot of indie writers have rocketed to success, at least in terms of readership, I am not John Locke or Amanda Hocking. Those two authors’ career success is less a goad than a taunt to me, but I do understand that I will need to be awfully patient and build awareness of my brand, keep doing promotional stuff that has no visual effect and wait for a break. Again, “The harder I work, the luckier I am.”
7. What advice would you give writers?
I always answer this the same way: get a well-paid career and write in addition to that that. Trying to get established as a writer is a succession of frustrations and humiliations — you don’t need to add money stress on top of them. ‘Nuff said.
If you want advice about how to write well, I say that all story must emerge from characters, not from concepts. “Wouldn’t it be cool if this and that happened?” Yeah, sure it would, but only if the people in the story are interesting. If people behave according to the needs of the plot rather than in a believable way, or if they are bland or unlikeable characters, the fiction won’t work well.
8. What are the last five websites you visited?
Facebook, Amazon (KDP, .com, .co.uk), Goodreads, Cracked.com, Tinyurl.com. And Twitter on my iPad as I can no longer log in on my computer without massive annoyance.
9. What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?
I like to watch professional wrestling. I’ve given up watching wrestling in order to focus on building a writing career, but I used to watch a couple of hours a week and listen to pro wrestling podcasts from a subscription service as my primary entertainment while commuting. And before anyone asks, Andre the Giant.
10. If music be the food of love, what do you think art is and please explain your answer?
Art is a man-made reaction to life which provides some combination of entertainment, intellectual stimulation, and emotional release. This definition encompasses the forms of art I like — film, drama, literature, music, visual arts (painting, sculpture), architecture — and the forms I don’t (dance, fashion). Paradoxically, art depicts life by creating a falsification of it. The reality is that if a person considers something art, and has taken some sort of transformative action detectable by the senses, then it is art. It doesn’t have to fit any specific aesthetic standard. I may not care for certain artworks (“Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano, “F@ck Tha Police” by NWA, the choreography of Mark Morris, Two Broke Girls, any performance by Will Ferrell) and really like others (Michelangelo’s Pieta, the collective works of Rene Magritte, Pride and Prejudice, The Lord of the Rings, Unforgiven) but they all count as art.
Tales of Christmas Magic exclusively at amazon: US: http://tinyurl.com/84ezfrq and UK: http://tinyurl.com/7686u7o
Level Three’s Dream at Amazon US: http://tinyurl.com/3n29g6c
Level Three’s Dream at Amazon UK (I love my UK readers too!): http://tinyurl.com/3qvdbvk
Level Three’s Dream for Nook: http://tinyurl.com/3qehfgc
The Ghost in the Crystal at Amazon US: http://tinyurl.com/5wf5ypu
The Ghost in the Crystal at Amazon UK: http://tinyurl.com/3pepoby
The Ghost in the Crystal for Nook: http://tinyurl.com/44k8eto
The Ghost in the Crystal in Paperback: http://tinyurl.com/3gvapuk at Amazon or http://tinyurl.com/44j8klr
Kindle All-Stars Resistance Front, huge charity anthology with more than 30 pieces helmed by Harlan Ellison, Alan Dean Foster, Jon F. Merz, and others! http://tinyurl.com/7hqry37
The Evil Within charity horror anthology featuring stories by Kristyn West, Amber Scott, Kelli McCracken, Rachel Thompson, Patricia McCallum (my pal…) and me, 99C of real creepiness: http://tinyurl.com/3h8hmuu
After Dark charity paranormal anthology featuring Susan Roebuck, S. Ramos O’Briant, Stuart Nager, Isobel Herring, Gordon Bonnet, Gillian Taber, Lisa Voogt, and me: http://tinyurl.com/3hua6sy
With Love anthology for Japan at Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/3udh5kf featuring a supernatural story by me. Also in paperback and also sold at Smashwords.
Vampire Poet — featuring original poetry and photography designed for a Kindle screen: Amazon US: http://tinyurl.com/3zlv3ah Amazon UK: http://tinyurl.com/3wa72qn
Great to see you here, Matt.
Love those covers!
As for nature v. nurture…
As a CW tutor I always told my students I could teach them technique, and explain the rules, but to be “creative” they had to set all that aside.
To forget everything they were taught at school, and unleash the inner child that schooling had imprisoned. Then use those aforementioned techniques and rules to make it accessible to readers.
As per my one-day-to-be-completed book, “Childhood: the Highest Stage Of Evolution”, babies come into this world devoid of knowledge and experience, but at the peak of human intelligence and creativity.
Great artists are adults who somehow managed to retain a small fraction of that childhood ability, and then brought their accumulated knowledge and experience to bear.
Fantastic interview, as always, Prue. You ask such great questions. I agree Matt’s covers are the kind that draw you right in.
Interesting philosophy, Mark. Very Theosophical. PL Travers, who wrote the Mary Poppins books, was a Theosophist and had some fascinating things to say about how babies are born full of knowledge they learn to forget.