The question I am posing this week is this;
As writers, does it serve us better to be an expert – an absolute genius within a limited field…
…or a multi-skilled ‘Jack of all Trades’?
Having asked that, I will immediately concede that in order to write non-fiction and instructional works, a high degree of skill or expert knowledge is desirable. But what about we writers of fictional works?
It took me a long time to reach my own conclusion on this. Throughout my twenties and thirties (oh, such a long, long time ago) I harboured a mild, jealous resentment towards those who constantly excelled in their field of choice, grudgingly wishing them well whilst questioning those that administrated the Universe why it was that I struggled to master tasks, gaining only a limited skill (consistently in the top 1/3) in anything that I attempted. I had immersed myself in many disciplines (mechanics, electronics, motor racing, sketching, painting, computer programming and numerous others) during those distant sepia-tinged decades, emerging each time without the satisfaction of having truly mastered the necessary skills.
It took me a long time to realise that whilst I couldn’t proclaim myself to be fully skilled in anything I attempted, I was able to turn my hand to a great many tasks – and take some pride at being reasonably competent at most of them.
Then I remembered a story my father told me about a pathologist he’d worked with. The man in question was an expert in human anatomy. He could dissect a body and proclaim cause of death without error time after time. Often he could estimate the cause before he’d even touched the body (no, really!). He would teach class after class of young proto-pathologists, leaving them staggered and wondering how they could ever match up to this great man.
He was an undoubted expert in his field.
But one day, following some car trouble and a rather large repair bill, he took my father (a mortuary manager and owner of a series of self-maintained cars at the time) aside, showed him the mechanic’s invoice and in a low voice he asked; ‘What exactly IS a spark plug?’
It turned out that he was super-brilliant, but also limited in scope.
I have since learned to content myself with the notion that whilst I know very little about a great many things, I do know about a great many things. The difference here is that, like a contestant on ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’ one who still has their ‘phone-a-friend’ option, I know that there many people, reference sites and numerous sources of information available to me in the world today.
I don’t need to be expert in any particular subject – I just need to know that the subject exists and where to find out about it. Then I can research it thoroughly enough to weave the facts discreetly into a story.
I have finally concluded that knowing even a little about a great many things is a very useful position to be in.
Makes me wonder if I’d been born with an ‘expert’ brain – would I have ever embraced writing?
How do you view this? Are you particularly skilled and able to use that skill to your advantage in your writing? Or are you happy to be a ‘trawler’ like me, sweeping the internet for information, happy to leave the specialism to other people?
I’d be very interested to know if I’m alone in this…