Recently I was asked to contribute my thoughts about this topic, for an upcoming bookÂ about creativity and intelligence.Â And I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is no, you don’t have to be smartÂ –Â not if by “smart”, you’re referring to the sort of intelligenceÂ that’s usually measuredÂ by IQ tests.Â Â I know a number of doctors and engineers.Â Â These are classicaly “smart” peopleÂ — the straight-A crowd who dazzled their classmates in college and graduate school.Â They’d probably ace a Mensa qualifying exam.Â TheyÂ excel in logic, they’re up on current events, and they know all the nuances of grammar.Â They know how to spell.Â Â Every so often, one of them will write a novel, and beg that I take a peek at their first chapter.
Most of these peopleÂ can’t write worth beans.
What is about writing fiction that’s beyond theseÂ brilliant people?Â How does it happen thatÂ a high-school drop-outÂ 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.Â It’s so ingrained inÂ scientists to think objectively, to come to logical conclusions.Â But real life — and human beings — are not logical.Â And what we writers must do is create characters who seem like real people, with all their imperfections, all their inconsistencies and craziness.Â Â People who don’t always compute.Â In order to do that, you have to be a little bit illogical yourself.Â You have toÂ hear the voices of people who don’t exist, andÂ know instinctively what unexpected thingsÂ theseÂ non-existent peopleÂ will do next.
Most important, you have to FEEL what they’re feeling, channel their emotions.Â Feel the same stab of betrayal, the same giddiness of falling in love, that your make-believe people experience.Â To do this requires a different kind of smartness, something that’s not measured onÂ those IQ tests.Â Â Some peopleÂ 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.Â Â 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.Â It’s not something you can read in textbooks.Â I think you’re born with it.Â OrÂ maybe you learn it from your parents and your siblings, by watching themÂ scream and cry and throw tantrums at the dinner table.Â
Maybe it’s that same understanding that makes some people talented actors.Â I think that a good novelist must also be a bit of an actor.Â Maybe the writer’s too shy to ever get up on a stage.Â But in the privacy of his office, a novelist will suffer all the joys and agonies of his characters.Â He’ll say aloudÂ the dialogue and dribble tears on the page.Â I know that people seldom use the word “actor” and “intelligent” in the same sentence.Â But by golly, a good actor will have special insights into his fellow human beings thatÂ most rocket scientistsÂ simply won’t have.
Finally, there’s the fact that some people are just born boring.Â No matter how smart they are, how accomplished in their particular fields, they just don’t know how to tell a good story.Â Â Most of us know someone whom you dread sitting next to at a family gathering.Â Someone who, within a few minutes, has you ready to scream from boredom.Â Â
What they lack is a sense of the dramatic.Â They don’t know what other people find interesting: conflict,Â crisis, fear, anger.Â Â 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?Â I don’t think so.Â I don’t think it can be taught, either.Â Â 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.