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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Which is better...generalist or learned specialist?

I've been pondering this for a while now: which is better for a writer of fiction, or poetry for that matter, to be, a generalist or a learned specialist?

Quite a few doctors and lawyers have turned to writing fiction, and I would consider them to be learned specialists. And they seem to be quite successful as writers: Steve Berry, Michael Creighton, Robin Cook, Frank G. Slaughter, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and many others. I'm sure that many successful authors were also generalists: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and many others. Of course, I've done no study of this. I'm just speaking off the top of my head (I'm a generalist and don't have any special knowledge; I have a BA in English, I studied and obtained a certificate in computer programming, and I worked for a while on an MBA, before deciding that running corporations wasn't for me). I'm more of an autodidact and have read about almost every subject under the sun. I'm a jack of all trades and master of none.

It seems that being a learned specialist is valuable. If nothing else, her dedication and concentration on one subject for a number of years lays the foundation for the discipline necessary to be a writer. The subject of study perhaps doesn't have much bearing on it, just the fact that she's studied something assiduously for six, eight, ten years has prepared her for working on novels for long periods of time and seeing it through to the end. To me this is a distinct advantage.

As a generalist and autodidact, I wander from one subject to another, never mastering anything. Perhaps I just have a short attention span (and I do). Jumping around from one subject to another gives the illusion of being learned. I can talk about most anything up to a point, then I have to shut up. When confronted with a specialist, who doesn't need to b. s. anyone about his subject matter, and doesn't have to b. s. about subjects he knows nothing about, I must shut up and listen.

Does this mean it's better to be a learned specialist before turning to writing? I wonder. What do you think?
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