Versatility plus talent needed for arts career

March 29, 1998|By Glenn McNatt

IN THE TWO YEARS that I have been writing this column, I have often been asked to speak to young people contemplating a career in the arts. Last week I was on a panel at the Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson. Carver is Baltimore County's magnet school for the arts.

It was the school's "junior day," so-called because the 11th-graders had the place to themselves all day, when college recruiters came around to chat with next year's graduating class. Our panel -- a couple of poets, a screenwriter, a novelist and a journalist -- tried to answer the kids' questions about what the working lives of writers really were like.

I noticed several nervous parents at our session. They were no doubt wondering whether an artistic career was really practical. After all, they wanted their kids to be able to make a living.

I can't say our little talk reassured them much. I will always remember what Ann Schein, a brilliant pianist who teaches at Peabody Conservatory, once told me. "We can teach them to be artists," she said. "But nobody can tell you how to make a career."

It's the same for writers -- even for journalists, though we, at least, have the luxury of knowing where our next paycheck is coming from. For poets, playwrights and novelists, the specter of piles of unpaid bills can be truly discouraging.

One of the ironies of our profession is that aspiring writers often must do other things to make money. On our panel a couple of us had been to law school, others had worked for newspapers or taught in colleges, and one unlucky fellow -- me -- had done all three.

A couple of us had done stints writing copy for ad agencies. And almost all of us had some sort of graduate degree. But a fancy education simply is no guarantee of fame and fortune as a writer.

The one thing that seemed common to whatever success all of us had achieved was versatility. The novelist who wrote advertising copy also had written labels for museums and illustrated a book on Baltimore rowhouses. The screenwriter had written an 800-page novel (unpublished) before she quit practicing law.

A knack for all sorts of writing was what enabled most of us to survive by our pens. So I was ambivalent when the question of formal writing training, such as that offered in university creative writing courses, came up.

Some of my colleagues quite rightly pointed out that writing is a craft, and that one can learn a lot from studying the work of people who have mastered it. When I started in the newspaper business, it wasn't absolutely necessary for reporters to have college degrees. Nowadays, the big papers pick and choose among dozens of applicants with master's degrees in journalism.

The situation is different in poetry and fiction, which some people think cannot be taught. Still, there are basic literary forms and techniques that students can be trained to recognize and incorporate into their own work. Every aspiring writer shouldn't have to reinvent the wheel.

In this respect, I suppose writers are like visual artists, actors, musicians and dancers. My high school band director once said he could teach people to play the notes, but they had to learn to "find the music" on their own. A good teacher can develop a fine natural talent into a professional-level artist. But teaching is no substitute for talent.

I wanted to say to the young people at Carver that, in many cases, they probably have more talent than even they realize. Adolescence is a time of such disorienting change that it's often hard to evaluate the quality of the phenomenal energies it releases. Sometimes that energy is sheer youthful genius that fails to develop properly simply for lack of proper adult guidance and opportunity.

I think it was John Adams who wrote that his generation studied war and politics so that his children could study science and mathematics, so that their children could study painting and music. Perhaps it seems that way to every generation, but there's no denying that today more young people are evidencing an interest in the arts as a career than ever before.

I can understand parents' misgivings: They needn't worry. There will always be enough lawyers. But the arts ultimately live not in the concert, museum and theater audiences or the millions of people who read novels, plays and poetry. They live in the artists themselves -- particularly the young artists -- who create and keep them alive for the rest of us.

I think we should do everything possible to encourage them.

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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