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Friday, June 14, 2013

Classic Tess ~ On Brains and Writing

Tess Gerritsen left a successful practice as an internist to raise her children and concentrate on her writing. She gained nationwide acclaim for her first novel of medical suspense, the New York Times bestseller Harvest. She is also the author of the bestsellers Life Support, Bloodstream, Gravity, and The Surgeon. Tess lives with her family in Maine. (PHOTO CREDIT: Paul D'Innocenzo) --as appeared her blog.

Do you have to be smart to write fiction?

By Tess Gerritsen
Recently I was asked to contribute my thoughts about this topic, for an upcoming book about creativity and intelligence.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is no, you don’t have to be smart not if by “smart”, you’re referring to the sort of intelligence that’s usually measured by IQ tests.I know a number of doctors and engineers.These are classically “smart” people – the straight-A crowd who dazzled their classmates in college and graduate school.  They’d probably ace a Mensa qualifying exam.  They excel in logic, they’re up on current events, and they know all the nuances of grammar.  They know how to spell. Every so often, one of them will write a novel, and beg that I take a peek at their first chapter.
Most of these people can’t write worth beans.
What is about writing fiction that’s beyond these brilliant people? How does it happen that a high-school drop-out can write a bestselling novel, while a PhD can’t even write an interesting query letter?
If anything, it’s been my impression that people who are highly educated in the sciences have a disadvantage when it comes to fiction.  It’s so ingrained in scientists to think objectively, to come to logical conclusions.  But real life — and human beings — are not logical.  And what we writers must do is create characters who seem like real people, with all their imperfections, all their inconsistencies and craziness. People who don’t always compute. In order to do that, you have to be a little bit illogical yourself.  You have to hear the voices of people who don’t exist, and know instinctively what unexpected things these non-existent people will do next.
Most important, you have to FEEL what they’re feeling, channel their emotions.  Feel the same stab of betrayal, the same giddiness of falling in love, that your make-believe people experience.  To do this requires a different kind of smartness, something that’s not measured on those IQ tests. Some people might call this “emotional intelligence”, the ability to connect with the feelings of other human beings, to understand what’s going on in their heads. Whatever it is, it’s an instinct one absolutely has to have to be a powerful writer.
And it’s not something they teach you in school.  It’s not something you can read in textbooks.  I think you’re born with it.  Or maybe you learn it from your parents and your siblings, by watching them scream and cry and throw tantrums at the dinner table.
Maybe it’s that same understanding that makes some people talented actors.  I think that a good novelist must also be a bit of an actor.  Maybe the writer’s too shy to ever get up on a stage.  But in the privacy of his office, a novelist will suffer all the joys and agonies of his characters.  He’ll say aloud the dialogue and dribble tears on the page.  I know that people seldom use the word “actor” and “intelligent” in the same sentence.  But by golly, a good actor will have special insights into his fellow human beings that most rocket scientists simply won’t have.
Finally, there’s the fact that some people are just born boring.  No matter how smart they are, how accomplished in their particular fields, they just don’t know how to tell a good story.Most of us know someone whom you dread sitting next to at a family gathering. Someone who, within a few minutes, has you ready to scream from boredom.
What they lack is a sense of the dramatic.  They don’t know what other people find interesting: conflict, crisis, fear, anger. They think that it’s just as interesting to talk about what they had for breakfast this morning, and how it gave them heartburn, and have you heard the latest about that antacid?
Can someone who lacks a sense of the dramatic ever become a good storyteller? I don’t think so.  I don’t think it can be taught, either. Writing workshops may teach them how to get their manuscript looking neat and how to submit it to agents and editors, but it can’t give them the insight to understand that “John finds spiritual growth” is a boring plot while “Mary fights to get her husband back” is a lot more interesting.


  1. This is an encouragement for those of us with out a college degree. Sometimes we forget to stop comparing ourselves to those with many letters behind their name.

  2. I agree with jubileewriter. This is a great encouragement. I only have a high school degree. I chose not to go to college. While I have a successful job (doing something that many companies will only hire college grads to do), writing fiction has always been my passion.

    Sometimes, when reading author bios that include their journalism degrees, it's easy to become discouraged and play the comparison game.

  3. Excellent points, and I loved your comment that some people are just born boring. Storytelling does require that sense of the dramatic, and I have learned so much ore about that by observing people than I ever did in creative writing classes.

  4. More, not ore. LOL. Still getting used to typing on my iPad and still making too many mistakes.

  5. Some people are born boring? Wow, I didn't know we were allowed to say that! I agree.


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