The Secret of Gifted Writers

We often think of gifted writers as people born with natural talent. But in this post, GrubStreet Instructor Ben Berman explores whether being gifted is more a matter of aptitude or attitude.



There is an exit off the Mass Pike where cars merge from so many lanes at once that driving feels like the physical manifestation of writer’s block.


And though I tend to view such bottlenecks as the bane of urban living, my wife sees them as a blessing—an opportunity to slow down and notice the man on the median with a cup and cardboard sign, to model for our daughters what we mean when we tell them, we’re not obligated to complete the work but nor are we free to ignore it.


What often strikes me about my wife’s generosity is that it isn’t limited to the act of giving—she is also remarkably gracious when it comes to receiving gifts. My five-year-old will present her with a crumpled-up hot mess of scribbles and my wife will swoon and immediately hang it on the fridge.


I am convinced that this trait—this openness to whatever gifts the world may bring—is essential to the creative process.


When I first started writing, I would often stare at the blinking cursor on the blank page waiting for inspiration, longing for some vision of a stately-pleasure dome to flow out of me or for three strange angels, as D.H. Lawrence writes, to come knocking at the door.


Then the Muse would stop by and drop off some half-felt emotion or unformed idea or recurring dream that not even Freud could make sense of, and I’d find myself growing resentful—as though the Muse was Santa Claus and I was the only Jewish writer in town.


But the more I write, the more I’ve come to recognize the importance of staying receptive to whatever the Muse throws our way.


Here’s an image of some mouse droppings under the sink, she tells us. And here’s one of a diaper wrapped so tight, it looks like a perfectly wrapped present.


And yet if we can find a space for these things in our imagination, they often lead us to new insights and unexpected connections.

The other day my brother came over with some Beanie Booslittle stuffed animals that you hook onto your backpackfor my daughters.

There are hundreds of these Beanie Boos out there and my brother just happened to buy the very one that my older daughter already owned.


When my seven-year-old realized this, she immediately ran into the other room, grabbed her Beanie Boo off her backpack, showed it to my brother and then declared with the greatest of joy: I’ve always wanted twins!


It reminded me of the game that my wife and daughters sometimes play—where one person draws an incomplete figure on a piece of paper and then hands it to someone else to finish—how so much of art is about seeing the possibility in whatever stray marks come our way.



Read more posts about Writing the Family here!


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About the Author

Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters.

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by Ben Berman


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