My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Mailbox: Talent

Can I write or is there no talent? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Just remember that I make about $35/hr for editing services, so be considerate if you ask me to read something you wrote.]    

S.G. asks:

I really need your opinion on my writing. Can I write or is there no talent at all? 

My reply:

[Note-S.G. sent a private correspondence with a link to a blog post, but hasn't given me permission to quote the whole letter, so I'm just paraphrasing the question only. What was sent had some really good aspects, and some places that needed work, and I gave S.G. some more personal feedback privately.]

NOTE #2: At this point "talent" has come up so many times that it is in our FAQ.

Of course you can write!

I hope you don't hang too much on the idea of talent. You'll fritter away all your time and energy worrying about that ineffable crap, and end up at the end of your life, chain smoking Pall Malls and saying you could have been great if you'd just put your nose to the grindstone. But it will be too late. And you'll try to explain it to one of the kids that won't get off your lawn, but they'll just call you crazy and throw Tootsie Roll wrappers into your tulip garden like the ungrateful whippersnapper punk smoochers they are.

Something that maybe is called talent does exist (sort of), but on a timeline that goes beyond primary school (K-12), it is almost meaningless when compared to hard work and personal proclivities. Turns out your dad was actually right about that success/work/dictionary thing. A writer who works hard will kick the ass of a "talented" writer up one side of a manuscript and down the other within a year or two of dedicated effort. Most writers would be better to forget the idea of talent altogether and ignore anyone who tells them that they have any.

Look at me! I'm a total fucking hack.

Wait what the hell is this thing used for?
I've been at this for thirty years, and I'm not rich, famous, or even particularly good. I have a modest skill set that has mostly been cultivated through sheer force of will and has been gutted out through decades of effort. Somehow I just get up every day and keep working, and every once in a while, I write something that people enjoy. Those things accumulate over time, and I have built a very small audience.

None of that happened because I have an iota of talent. (I loved to read as a young kid and I have always enjoyed writing, but A.D.D. and dyslexia have made the skill itself ever a struggle.)  All the progress I've made as a writer has happened because I've worked at it for years. I've had benefits, of course, that others have lacked–biological and sociological benefits (everything from an English major mom who read to me as a small child, to an upper middle class background that emphasized education, to some really good linguistic aptitude genes, to being white and male and never having had to face the obstacles others have)–and those benefits can't be underscored; I got more bang for my buck from working hard. But even with almost all the advantages one can have short of sleeping with a publisher or being so rich I don't need a day job, those who work harder than I do still make me look like I am standing still.

Ask any famous writer, and they'll tell you the same thing. Forget about talent and get to work.

We may never catch up to the talented who also work hard–the Faulkners and the Shakespeares and the Morrisons–but we can set ourselves miles ahead of the talented who decided to play Halo 3 and watch six hours a day of cartoon network.

(Seriously, how much fucking Gumball can someone watch??)

I was ridiculously good at math in grade school. I could just...see the answer. All the way through pre-algebra I could just see the answer. We were getting into early equations in algebra and I could still just SEE the answer. You might say I had talent. However, I never learned to sit down and do homework, and we finally got into harder algebraic equations and I could no longer just see the answer. I instantly fell behind the other kids and even flunked a couple of classes. It wasn't because I didn't have talent; I did. It wasn't even because that talent didn't set me ahead of the pack; it did. It was because talent only got me so far, work ended up being more important, and the other kids caught up and then pulled out ahead.

I used to test in the top 1 percentile for math aptitude. And the other kids left me in the dust.

The work is always always, always more important.

"Talent" is a word used most often to mean one of two things. By people who have no earthly conceptual grasp of how much work it takes to be good in the arts, it is used as a misnomer instead of "skilled." People just think the magical fairies came and made artists good at their shit by sprinkling them with inspiration pixie dust and leprechaun burps, and work had nothing to do with it. Artists get called "talented" as a way of forgetting the thousands and thousands of hours those artists have spent practicing, rehearsing, and building their skills. Idina Menzel is called "wickedly talented" but it's more accurate to say that she's wickedly hard working and wickedly trained. (Maybe she did all her voice coaching under the pseudonym Adele Dazeem?) Vaslav Nijinsky may have had talent, but he also started dancing right after he learned to walk and was in St. Petersburg's Imperial Ballet School at the age most of us were learning what a noun is.

This idea of work-free awesomeness slips into the mindset of artists (and aspiring artists). It corrupts the whole idea of what it means to be an artist. And why not? Who wants to work when you can just be so fandamtastically awesome that it just comes naturally. The reason "talent" is so fucking seductive is that it means we don't have to work–and none of those working plebs out there is going to just catch up to us either.

"I just sat down and fired off the Great American Novel! I gotz TALENT!"

*Freeze frame high five*

And there's nothing wrong with chimerical fantasies. It's fun to imagine shocked faces of disbelief in all those around them when they first tentatively offer up their art to someone In The Know™. ("Mr. Creative Writer Teacher....will you read my story....um...please."  "My GOD! How can one person be So. Damned. Good? This writing... It's as if Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Toni Morrison had a threesome....genetically....and you were the result.")

But that's just not how life works for 99.999% of us.

                  I too want a swell of music and Ben Kingsley to turn dramatically when I'm writing.

There are a few prodigies out there. You'd already know if you were one, though. And frankly, prodigies don't stay at the top if they don't work. A prodigy is defined as "performing at the level of a highly trained adult in a very demanding field of endeavor," so eventually (by definition) "highly trained adults" catch up. Many child prodigies don't enjoy the thing they're so great at, and they are quickly overtaken by those with the passion and dedication to do the work. Most of the people with names you'd recognize (especially the writers) were never prodigies. They were adults who worked their asses off.

Writing is a skill, and like any skill, it can be taught. Creativity is largely analogous to a muscle, and BEING creative behaves quite like a habit (which is why so many writers tell you to sit down at the same time every day). Like any muscle it will atrophy with disuse and strengthen with use. Like any habit, if done repeatedly, day after day, it will begin to become second nature. Read a lot and write a lot and you will improve–it's as simple as that. You may not ever get that sweet book deal. A lot of factors go into that––some you can control and many you can't. But you absolutely will get better.

Though there are some aspects of writing (creative writing in particular) that are incredibly difficult to teach (pacing, tone, or verbal play would be examples), but it is quite unusual for someone who truly loves reading and writing to have absolutely no knack for it in some form or another. It's like tone deaf music lovers–yes, they exist...but they're VERY rare.

Actually, it's probably about as likely that you have no talent as it is that you are a prodigy. The rest of us are somewhere in the middle and need to get to work.

So yes your work is good, and yes it could use improvement. When it comes to writing, 99% of talent is just another word for work.  Keep writing!

1 comment:

  1. I liked your mathematics analogy. To expand on that a bit, I am NOT good at mathematics. I never was. When I finally decided to take some Algebra and Calculus at college, I had to work. That was the magic bullet. Hard work. I have since let all of that slide and am once again, unmathematical. The great lesson learned was that doing the work and doing it on a daily basis, did the trick, slayed the dragon, whatever. It's twue, it's twue.