I was talking to a friend last night about a local musician we both like. This guy started playing guitar and singing somewhat late in life, and despaired that he was never really going to be able to do either well. And in fact, when you hear his stuff, he doesn't strike you as being a hugely talented musician--his voice is rough-edged, his playing is unvirtuosic.
But man, the guy just does not sound like anybody else. What obviously happened is that, instead of cultivating "talent," he cultivated the part of himself that knew it could make music. As a result, his music lacks many of the things you expect it to have--instead it has these other things, inimitable things, stuff that comes from him, and from nowhere else. He couldn't imitate, so he made up his own rules.
I have a real fondness for people who are self-taught, who discover things in themselves that aren't visible to others. Great writers, I think, bring more than just their skills to the table--they bring something that's impossible to define, something that in fact defines them. They bring their personalities.
"Talent," I believe I've said before, is overrated. When we talk about teaching creative writing, we speak of "nurturing talent," but that's not really what we're doing. I think what we're doing is trying to help unusual people refine their peculiarities so that others can appreciate them--without, that is, accidentally refining them out of existence. This is what people are talking about when they complain about "MFA fiction"--they're referring to polished stories that are the product of de-peculiarization...or perhaps the result of attempting to refine something that was already gone.
We're all weird. Some of us, however, are more in love with our weirdness than others, and it's these people who develop reputations for distinctive work. For me, writing is often a process of wrangling my peculiarities--trying to drag them into the light, trying not to scare them off. Personally, I've always gotten off a little too much on other people's approval. I spent my teen years doing the opposite of what most cool people did--I basically tried very hard to fit in, and do what was expected of me. I got good grades and didn't get in trouble.
But the older I got, the more I felt as though I'd willingly snuffed out what was most enjoyable about being myself, and when I started writing seriously, I started trying to figure out where I put everything strange and unappealing, unpacking it, exploiting it. Everything I wrote was crap, of course--I hadn't been friendly with my quirks for some time. But eventually I managed to get some of that stuff back.
I still feel as though my writing is too predictable, too contoured. But to reach too hard for strangeness is to write something false. Nobody can really define "authenticity," but everyone can tell when it's missing--there is only so far I can push it before I sound like I'm pushing it. There's only so much oddness I can trot out before it becomes a tic.
"Be yourself." Can you think of a more exhausted cliché? Everybody knows you should be yourself. The trouble is in figuring out what that is, and then not being afraid of it. When writing's bad, that's often why.