This essay originally appeared on Violinist.com.
Every fall I teach an advanced fiction-writing class. Now that the semester is over I can report that my students were terrific this year, every one of them. Our discussions were dynamic and stimulating. The creative energy was sky-high. The did a lot of writing, and a lot of deep, thoughtful revision. Over the course of the past fifteen weeks, each of them has produced an exciting, well-crafted portfolio of new work. It’s my best class ever.
I’ve said that a lot over the years: “This is my best class ever!” I always mean it sincerely, but you’ve got to wonder if I’m just temporarily blinded by my enthusiasm for the writers I’m spending so much time with. Or is it actually possible that the students at my university are getting better and better?
If you go strictly by numbers, then yes. Over the past decade, our university has risen toward the top of national ranks. Back in 1980, the year I graduated, about 40% of applicants were accepted. That number has now plummeted to 9.5% for regular decision applicants. (Makes me wonder if I’d be able to get back in, if I tried.) Clearly, my current students have a lot going for them. They’re plenty smart; they have the APs and GPAs to prove it; and they know how to ace standardized tests.
But that’s not what makes them good writers. Like music and painting, creative writing is an art that demands technique and imagination. These are qualities that can’t be quantified by SAT scores (not even the verbal scores.) What good’s a great vocabulary if you don’t know what to do with it?
You may have noticed that I avoided the t-word when I described my class in the first paragraph. Okay, I’ll say it now: some of my students are very talented. All of them have what it takes to make a living in publishing, if that’s what they choose, and at least one is so lavishly gifted that we’ve taken to saying, “When you publish your first collection of short fiction…”
It would be disingenuous to deny that talent matters, but I have a problem with the romanticization of talent in our culture. Non-writers and novices often assume that the fiction they read springs fully formed from the heads of their creators—as if authors take direct dictation from the muse. This is a dangerous and discouraging concept. Sure, sometimes inspiration comes easily, and you don’t need to wrestle through quite so many revisions. But you can rest assured that, as the old chestnut goes, Easy reading is damn hard writing. If anyone tells you different, that’s just spin.
Writing (and painting, and violin-playing) is painful hard work. Talent plus hard work can produce brilliant results. But talent without work? All that and five bucks, as they say, will get you a gingerbread latte with extra foam.
Over the years I’ve witnessed many talented young writers surrender up dreams at the the first sign of frustration or disappointment because they assume that if it doesn’t come easily it can’t be done. Meanwhile, their less-gifted peers go on to achieve success in the publication world. When something comes easily, when you have a gift, you need to work hard against the impulse to rely on that gift to get by. In a way, giftedness is almost an impediment.
In the old days, in every class I taught there were one or two stand-out students whose stories and essays I secretly looked forward to every week. Many of them have gone on to fine careers in writing and editing—and many have not. But I can tell you that when you’re the star of the class, when you’re alone at the top, peerless, praised and recognized by all, it’s much more difficult to gather the internal resources needed to improve your craft. We all need pushback, dialogue, inspiration, and even a little friendly competition in order to grow.
Which brings me back to the original question: is it possible that my students are getting better, year after year? I believe they are, but it’s not because the baseline level of creative talent has changed, or even (directly) because they’ve scored perfect 800s in their SATs. They’re getting better because they’re getting better—together. You work harder and care more about your work when you’re surrounded by hard-working, dedicated, talented peers. My students are better writers, because they bring each other up. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And what’s this got to do with conservatory applications? When the question arises, Do I want to be a big fish or a small fish in this pond?, consider the profound effect of a talented, hard-working, and dedicated peer group. Consider who you’ll be playing chamber music with, and who will be sitting beside you in studio class. It’s true that you may be able to study with the same teacher at a less competitive school—and you may even get to be the concertmaster at that school, and win the concerto competitions. And receive all kinds of glory that would be out of reach for you at the uber-competitive school. But at what price, this glory? An elite peer group may help push you to achieve your full potential. And that’s a lotta latte.