Bad Advice Wednesday: Have Way (with words)

categories: Bad Advice


                 As a writing teacher, my favorite joke is one of Steve Martin’s.

                “Some people have a way with words,” he said famously.  “Others…not…have…way.”

                This point, as you can imagine, is fairly relevant to a class full of people who want to be published writers.  If you are going to try and be a professional athlete it’s helpful to be relatively athletic.  And if your goal is to be a writer it helps to have an innate gift for words.

                But why bring this up to a bunch of people who are already determined to become writers?  Isn’t it potentially cruel to point out that some lack this gift?  I prefer the word “realistic” to cruel.   One thing a writing apprenticeship is about, on top of putting in thousands of hours of writing sentences and producing work , is finding out who you are, or at least who you are on the page.  This process of discovery is not often started with clear eyes, but it better be ended that way.  As full-fledged writers, we had better have at least a passing acquaintance with how our own minds work, with our particular quirks of imagination, and with a general sense of our strengths and weaknesses.

                So take, for instance, a writer who does not have way, but has everything else.  Work habits, a sharp mind, a ready imagination, determination, a great subject.  It is entirely possible that this way-less individual will become a great writer. Her words may never  dance and skip over the page, but that doesn’t mean she can’t write with power.  But she better be aware of this.  Better know that she is at her best when she is a word middle linebacker, not a word ballerina.   Maybe “wisdom” is too loaded a word, but I think that if you do anything for long enough, you start to see patterns, possibilities, and potentials, and you see these things with a relatively calm, if not cold, eye.   In short, you get to know your self and how the self you are works.  (By “works” I mean both labors and operates.)   

                 When Wallace Stegner was asked how to determine if someone had potential as a writer, his answer was not so different than Steve Martin’s.  He said: “One looks for signs of gift: obviously perceptiveness, alertness to the observed world, a feel for language.”  But then he added in the next sentence: “It is not easy, different kinds of writers display very different stigmata of gift.”

                He mentioned Dreiser as an example:

                “If you looked only at the feel for language, you would never predict that Theodore Dreiser, say, would become an important writer.  The fact is, Dreiser had everything a novelist needs except the feel for language.  He became an important novelist without having the ability to write an English sentence.  So, prediction is a dicey matter.”

Which says to me: be realistic, but don’t despair entirely if you never told the wittiest joke at the ball.  It doesn’t mean you can’t write a short story.  Being a writer without verbal felicity isn’t quite as tough as being 5 feet tall and trying to break into the NBA (and Mugsy Bogues even did that), since there are so many types of writers and writing that we want to hear.  And not all of them have way.    


  1. Debora writes:

    I went down the river with Pam Houston, a five day writing workshop, all women, so fun. She told a story that I heard her repeat at another workshop, so I think she wouldn’t mind if I recounted it here. When Pam was nearing the end of her graduate program in creative writing, one of her instructors evaluated her work by saying, “Pam should find something else to do with her hands.” Shortly thereafter, an editor that was working with the school read her work and published it. I love Pam’s voice. Her language is simple and direct and completely engaging. I also love writer’s that I would call eloquent and intellectual, their prose astounds me. I agree there are many sorts of talents. Variety keeps us all reading and keeps this art form fresh. The most important thing is not to live your life and then die with your music still inside you. Essay, a little try.

  2. Matthew Taylor writes:

    I think that one tough thing for someone who is a writer without a way with words is finding the right audience. My sense is that a majority of readers have an expectation for writing that some writers are unable to fulfill. Getting these writers hooked up with readers who appreciate their talents is a gamble.

  3. Mike Land writes:

    A great one to use in my writing classes — as long as I don’t have to put an arrow through my head and master the banjo.

    One of my favorite bits. I still have the album.