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Part III: Great vs. Adequate Writing
By M. Y. Mim
October, 2006, 13:00

The right mix of artistic elements and vital passion result in that spark of genius.
In Part I of this series, we established the importance of mastering the basics of the writing craft. In Part II, we explored the consequences of providing readers with real substance instead of just filling pages with words. Now we come to the last two and most abstract elements of the four essentials. Despite their intangible nature, we know when we experience them and they are definitive features of great writing.


Generally, writing is difficult. Dorothy Parker famously said, and I paraphrase:

"Writing is easy. You just get up, slash your wrists, and bleed to death."

Writing is work. For most people who engage in it, it doesn't even pay well. Much wiser to be a bank lender. Then why do it? Because you must. You are driven by the passion to tell your story, to reveal your truth.

True writers can't imagine doing anything else. We have a passion to write, to see ourselves as writers, to define ourselves thus. Passion keeps us going, keeps us alive and enlivens our work. And within this wild passion, one caveat must be adhered to: Passionate writing requires rigorous application of the basic writing skills less the piece becomes hysterical. The result of writing hysteria is not genius, but rather insanity.

In the world of writers, an elitist hierarchy persists. The novel-writer is perceived as the purest writer, the top of the heap. To me, this smacks of classism and probably reflects the era when people could afford to spend their lives writing stories—usually because they came from wealth and had a wife or servants to take care of the mundane chores of life.

Later came the romantic notion of the artist suffering in the garret—think of Mark Twain or Edgar Allan Poe. Many a would-be writer has devoted his or her life to alcoholism, mistaking drinking as a prerequisite to great writing.

However, both fiction and non-fiction book writers do display a very significant level of passion. That intense drive to write a book comes at a high cost, often the price is a marriage and family, or a social life at all. In the "old days" men wrote the books (or the symphonies, or painted, or sculpted, etc.), while women made the men's work possible. Of course this pattern exists today, but women are demanding to be heard, and giving up even more to do so.

The complexity of passion, as it applies to the art of writing, intensifies at different stages of our lives. Passion may wax and wane. Passion may demand sacrifices, or be re-evaluated. I am not a novelist. Does this mean I have lost my passion? Clearly not: I have written this essay with intense passion, bringing to it a life-time's work with words and making painful, physical sacrifices to complete it. By embracing a post-modern, self-reflexive approach, I've even brought my self into this article.

My thesis is that great writing necessitates four essentials, one of which is passion. I believe all writing (indeed, all art) must be created with passion for the subject. I believe passion brings alive even the most pedagogical piece, and that it enlivens the author. I believe that passion is transmittable, even as The Passion created transubstantiation. I believe there is Holy Power in passion. I also believe that writing solicitation letters is on equal par with writing a novel, given that it is written with passion and conviction, demonstrates a grasp of the craft, and may even have that touch of magic.


This last requirement for great writing is indefinable, making this discussion a very short one. We use descriptions such as "genius," "magic," "gifted," "natural talent," and others somewhat interchangeably to describe the indescribable, something that sets apart the magic from the mundane.

Some circles assign a certain spirituality to the achievement. I certainly have no answers. Some people believe the ability to write beautifully is innate. Others recognize the importance of nurturance and cultivation.

My son writes exquisitely. He was raised in a reading and writing environment, by a professional writer/editor/artist (his mom) and a professional editor (his dad) as well as an accomplished artist (his godmother). That and my constant admonitions: "Good grammar, good manners, and good grooming will get you through because you weren't born with a good fortune!" fairly sealed his fate. He grew up absorbing the craft and he has the touch of genius. Whether or not he chooses to use his gift is his choice, far beyond my influence.

I do believe it's possible to cultivate genius, or at least set the stage for her arrival. If one wasn't born with the delight of a nurturing environment, create one. Learn, relearn, apply and relearn, and reapply the basics. Write all the time. Most importantly, read well.

Explore the other arts for inspiration and a nudge to look at the unfamiliar. Steal from the fundamentals of visual art: line, shape, form, space, texture, value, and color. If you consider what you write is art, even engineering specifications and product brochures, you invite the muse. And finally, achieving greatness may take some blood, sweat, and tears along the way, but touching the sublime is sheer joy.

"Not what man knows but what man feels, concerns art. All else is science," Bernard Berenson, 1897.

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M. Y. Mim is a freelance journalist based in Santa Barbara, Ca. You can reach her at, or through her agent R. Almqvist, 805-705-5349.

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