Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Ability to Write: Nature or Nurture, Part III

By Pete Klismet


(Continued from Part II last month)

My research into the ability to write had to go a few steps beyond where I had taken it to that point, which wasn’t very far. So I searched under the topic of “Are Talented Authors Endowed with an Innate Writing Ability?” and found an article by one Mathew Kulas, who claims to be a professor of writing (do they really have these?).

In his article, Mr. Kulas proposes: “Many people argue that accomplished storytellers are born with this skill, however I am in no way certain. Maybe you might have a degree of predisposition, yet I think that authors are created (my emphasis added). In my opinion certain authors are highly gifted but even so these individuals still had to develop the gift by way of extensive learning, practice, in addition to thinking. For that reason, I think writing to be all three — a skill, a craft as well as a talent.”

That didn’t help a lot, but I also realize research means you form a hypothesis (a theory) and then seek to either prove or disprove it. Thus, Mr. Kulas didn’t help much, because he seemed to equivocate, claiming all three are factors. But maybe he’s also saying if you have the native ability and hone it, you could become a skilled writer. Makes sense. However, I have also learned the idea behind investigating or researching something is to avoid coming up with a theory, and then finding facts to fit the theory, not disprove it. So I needed to press on.

Next I came across an article by one James M. Jaspar. Reviewing his website, Mr. Jaspar appears to be interested in teaching people how to write, particularly when he says: “Anyone can learn to write well. This is not some innate skill like perfect pitch. Solid, even elegant writing is an ability we acquire little by little, learning the proper uses of one verb or preposition at a time, mastering long sentences then short ones -- and then figuring out how to combine the two. We learn to compensate for our own stylistic idiosyncrasies, whether these are an excessive use of adverbs or logical connectors or a tendency to write one paragraph after another of exactly the same length.” His website is located at:  http://www.jamesmjasper.org/Writing.html.

So I concluded: Either he’s wrong, or I’m wrong, but I’ll go with him being wrong, since I have little clue what he’s trying to say. Albert Einstein once said “If you can’t explain your topic simply, you don’t understand it yourself.” I didn’t find Mr. Jasper’s article to be simple. Plus, he seems to want to make money by teaching those who can’t write how to write, so I had to conclude we’d have to agree to disagree. Mr. Jaspar’s article definitely didn’t advance my theory much farther than where it had already been.

Part of the reason for even looking into this somewhat esoteric topic was based on thirteen years of teaching in a community college. I found out that reading the written work of some of my students was almost impossible. Many couldn’t spell, but worse than that those same students were not able to carry out a thought beyond one sentence. Others did quite well. So I was stuck in a quandary, wondering if I was truly accomplishing anything in trying to make my poor students write yet more while frustrating themselves to death (not to mention me having to read what they were trying to say). It took some time to figure out that there was a direct correlation between those who were poor writers, and those who got poor grades.

“Ah-ha!” I thought. “Now I’m onto something.” Perhaps the ability to learn is based on one’s intelligence level. Contrary to what the U.S. Constitution says, my theory is that “All men are NOT created equal.” I had a living laboratory right there in front of me. So, I had a meeting with myself, tried to think outside the box, and formed my own theory: “The ability to write well is based on one’s level of intelligence.” Good writers tend to be brighter people. They can interpret information and think critically about what the information means. Then they can explain it in understandable terms. Those who don’t have this ability are only capable of parroting back rote information. 

Absolute proof of this came in my Human Relations and Social Conflict classes. Part of my final exam consisted of doing essays on topics we’d covered over the course of the semester. Being the nice professor I was (!), I let them use their notes to do the essays. I would pose eight questions related to topics we’d covered, tell them to pick the four they liked, and finally to create essays on those four. Without fail, the better students could take their notes and explain what we were covering. By contrast, the poor students would simply re-write their notes, meaning they had written down the information, but had no clue how to explain it, so they just simply parroted their notes back to me.

In the Criminal Profiling class I taught, I did the same thing, only with a higher degree of difficulty, since it was the most advanced course in our program. I’d give them four fact patterns and ask them to do a ‘profile’ of an unknown offender, based on the fact pattern of a murder case or a sexual assault. Voila! Exactly the same results. Some would just re-write a laundry list, but could not explain how they’d come to the conclusions. The better students would do an in-depth analysis and explain every point they were making. It was a pleasure to read the latter, and whether they were right or wrong was less important than how they explained the conclusions they arrived at.

My educated guess would be that the ability to write is a function of one’s intellectual capability. Those with higher intelligence simply write better. Sort of the old “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” The best example of that would be personal observations in my college classes. In fact, I eventually learned to minimize the amount of writing in my classes, because I found a direct correlation between good writing and good grades, and that the reverse was true. The other thing I found was that students who couldn’t write, or were too lazy to do so, would get someone else to write a paper for them. Or wouldn’t write it at all. 

In conclusion, I believe you’ve either got it or you ain’t got it. I’ve thought that for years, and I now have myself even further convinced. If your intellect isn’t fairly high, you probably have failed to learn the basics you needed to learn about writing well in the early grades. And if you missed that, or ignored it, then it will influence your ability to write the rest of your life. I’d like to think I proved my theory, but I’m still not sure. It was fun thinking about something I’ve wondered about for years. The question would then be, am I a good enough writer that you understand why I wrote this and what it all means? If the answer is “yes,” then I’ve done my job in expressing my opinion.


About the Author: About thirty years ago, a small cadre of FBI agents were hand-picked by the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) to receive training in what was then a highly-controversial and ground breaking concept: Psychological Profiling. Pete Klismet was fortunate enough to have been chosen to become one of the original FBI “profilers.” He received additional training, was temporarily assigned to work with the BSU in Quantico, Virginia, and put that training and experience to work in assisting state, federal and local law enforcement agencies in investigating violent crimes. 

He was named National Law Enforcement Officer of the Year in 1999, the same year he retired from the FBI. For the next 13 years he taught in colleges, and is now retired as a professor emeritus. He and his wife Nancy live in Colorado Springs.


Pete’s award-winning book FBI Diary: Profiles of Evil is available at www.houdinipress.com and www.amazon.com. He plans to release ‘a couple more books’ in 2014.