INTERN will never forget the time she went to hear Margaret Atwood speak at her university. The auditorium was packed with adoring Canadians. There was a mood of feverish excitement. Even the ushers (who would normally be stoned to the point of psychomotor retardation) moved about briskly, their maroon vests flapping about them like wings.
Margaret Atwood spoke for something like an hour and a half. She must have said many interesting things. But the only thing INTERN remembers Margaret Atwood saying came during the question period.
A small girl, all earnestness and pigtails, had approached the mic to ask Ms. Atwood what she should do if she wanted to be a writer. It was supposed to be some cute and fuzzy moment. Margaret Atwood was supposed to give the girl a kindly grin and coo something about reading lots of books and writing every single day.
Instead, she said something that had the whole audience muttering to one another as they filed out of the auditorium a few minutes later. She compared being a great writer to being a great magician, and said you were either born with the “hands” or you weren’t. Anyone could be taught to be a good writer; but only those with the ineffable “hands” would ever be great.
Afterwards, in the bathroom line, INTERN overheard an outraged woman complaining to her companion: how dare Margaret Atwood imply that literary greatness was not an equal opportunity employer? It was undemocratic. It was something like sexism or classism—it was hands-ism.
It upset a lot of people. To this day, whenever INTERN runs into someone who was at that talk, the “hands” comment is all they talk about.
There are always a lot of theories floating around about how great artists or athletes or business tycoons become great. Here are the three most common ones INTERN has seen:
1. “Either you’re born with the hands or you ain’t.”
According to the Margaret Atwoods of the world, it’s not just unreasonable to expect that absolutely anyone can be made into a great writer—it’s downright insane. Is everyone on the planet capable of being a great long jumper or a great forklift operator? Most people can become capable at these pursuits—but greatness, Atwoodians claim, is something else.
2. “10,000 Hours.”
According to the Malcolm Gladwells of the world, greatness isn’t something you’re just born with—it’s the entirely predictable result of practicing something for ten thousand hours. Take anyone with an interest in violin, writing, or hockey, check back once they’ve logged ten thousand hours in their chosen pursuit (or when the microwave dings) and there you go—great.
3. “It doesn’t matter how hard you work—in publishing, nothing matters except HOTT CONNECTION$$.”*
According to the conspiracy theorists of the world, it doesn’t matter how much writerly talent you possess or how hard you work—haven’t you seen those stickers that say Publishing Is An Inside Job?
4. “It doesn’t matter how hard you work—in publishing, nothing matters except being HUGE ON $$$OCIAL MEDIA.”*
It’s true, guys. Didn’t you know the formula the Big 6 publishers use for calculating advances is (Twitter followers + Facebook friends)2? Srsly.
What do you think goes into the making of a great writer? Was Margaret Atwood smoking crack when she told that little girl some hard truths about hands? Or is everything possible with enough practice and willpower and education? There’s a perception that writing is more “accessible” than other pursuits because it takes no training (besides basic literacy) to get started, but is our affront really justified when it turns out to be just as hard and frustrating and unfair as ballet? Is all this preciousness about "hands" just empty snootery?
INTERN is curious to hear your thoughts. In the meantime, she will be working on some complicated juggling tricks. Really. How else is she supposed to find out if she has the hands?
*note that #3 and #4 have nothing to do with Great Writing and everything to do with Great Networking—in keeping with INTERN’s recent theme of mixing up art with business.