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

Friday, March 16, 2018

Question: Is Talent Important to a Writer? (F.A.Q.)

Short answer: Not really. At least not the way you're probably using the word. But maybe. But not as much as work.

Longer answer: This is less of a frequently asked question, and more of a frequently hot topic

Some comic or writer or something expresses irritation at having their years of studying, their decades of practice, their unpaid hours upon hours of building an audience all reduced to "talent*" that someone envious of them wishes they simply....had. ("If only I had TALENT, I could be more like you....") Or it goes the other way: talent comes up, and people are 100% cocksure it is absolutely vital (and usually that they got it), and that anyone without it is simply wasting their time.

[Generally, no one cares if someone calls them talented, by the way. Particularly not once or before saying their name wrong at the Academy Awards. It's a fine word with a lot of metonymy. But when someone starts to actually convey that they think that the artist simply has some mystical ingredient that makes them good, and there hasn't a boatload of work––that's when many artists start to get a bit "Well actually…" about it.]

And while the existence of talent might be a complicated topic for a series of conversations, the artist who is having decades of toil reduced to some innate aptitude that one is either born with or not isn't likely to find this exchange quite as charming as intended.

But should they point this out, another group shows up.

There's a real loud faction out there advocating hard for the idea of talent — and let me go ahead and spoil the ending for you: they're almost exclusively not the successful writers/artists/whatever. They want talent to be real because they want to believe they have it and that it is going to set them apart. Toss the lot in a crucible, and you'll find the writers on the other side of paychecks and publication generally have a vastly different picture of what got them there than "talent," how important a role "talent" plays, and particularly what could be done by a determined person (no matter how old or "untalented" when they start) if they wanted to become good at some kind of art.

Dissing "talent" seems to be an existential threat to the former group. I don't know if it's because then that means it's a wake-up call that they'll have to get off their asses or just that almost anyone who works hard can become what they think makes them special, but they treat the idea poorly even though it is ubiquitous among those they often seek to emulate.

[Note: I mention this periodically in this post, but I want to acknowledge it explicitly now: Not everyone can write. There are limiting factors that it is sheer ableism to ignore. Physical realities of human bodies (including human brains) make it a skill that not everyone has and incredibly difficult for others to cultivate.]

First of all, it's really hard to figure out what "talent" even means.

This is like trying to measure intelligence–what you end up with is a messy glob of data that has profound cultural biases, favors certain kinds of bellwethers, and reveals a tremendous inability to separate nature from nurture.

It's a little easier in kids, but not that much. But by the time a linguistic aptitude shows up, it's very hard to know if that's some innate circumstance of genetics or if it has more to do with parents who talk a lot and use big words. By the time someone can be said to have a "talent" in writing, it would be nearly impossible to know if that was merely a result of their particular swirl of genetics or if had to do with their parents' love of books, with a dedication to library visits, with trips to museums, with the quality of preschool, with their culture's value on particular art forms....whatever. (And if you're noticing that a lot of this "talent" dovetails strongly with having upper class resources, that's very perceptive of you.) Even the famed geniuses folks want to hold up as proof of talent, like Mozart, had a childhood of dedication, practice, ruthless drive, and parents who could afford to be supportive. (And by "supportive" I mean an ambitious helicopter parent living vicariously through their kid.) Look at the actual lives (even of wunderkind), and it complicates and undermines the narrative of casual, unpracticed genius.

Not every writer writing for the same amount of time will produce the same quality prose even if we could somehow account for stylistic differences (we can't), but consider this: Fifty years ago the dominant thought in creative writing programs was that genius could NOT be taught. You either had it or you didn't. Then a bunch of education experts broke down what people meant by "genius" and discovered that actually most of it could be learned in a classroom. What will we understand fifty years from now, I wonder.

What IS clear is that very little under the superficies of what people call "talent" can't be trained, practiced, refined, achieved through careful revision, or taught, even much later in life, whatever their "opening" skill set, and that seems to break with the idea that you're either good at something or you're not.

Trying to figure out whether you have talent or not is almost meaningless. Defining it and understanding it is nearly impossible and it won't take the place of work anyway.

Okay, well, whatever you call it, some people have a leg up, right?

Sort of?

Some people start with a leg up, though it probably depends on what you consider the "starting line."(First grade? Graduation from high school? 20 years old? Graduation from college? 30?)  Certainly, some people, through some unknown cocktail of nature and nurture may have an advantage over others, but this will not last if they do not continue to work, particularly if they count on that advantage to keep them better than those who work hard. A hard-working writer with less initial advantage can catch up, and eventually excel beyond them.

In fact, this happens quite often.

What seems to be clear is that, barring physical limitations, getting really good at a skill like writing might take a while and a lot of effort, but it doesn't require one to be innately "good" and can be started at any point. And while an athletic skill started after forty might mean someone is never going to the Olympics, they can still get quite good; and furthermore, writing tends to have a longer window of opportunity before it is made difficult by biological degeneration in most humans. Some folks write bestsellers and literary masterpieces into their fifties, sixties, and even nineties.

An aspiring writer never deemed to have "talent" and lacking a casual skill in writing could begin in their thirties to read voraciously, practice writing, commit themselves to improving, learn the craft, study narrative and storytelling, teach themselves the grammar they still struggle with, and, in short, immerse themselves in reading and writing, and within a only few months would be writing at a level far beyond someone who was told they were "talented" in high school and got all A's in their English degree, who then went on to be a general manager at the Coco's in Arcadia, rarely reads anymore these days, and almost never writes except to poke at a half-finished vampire vs. zombies novel tucked in a drawer every once in a while when the inspiration hits on their days off. 

Even if the latter still nurtures the quiet belief that they have talent. 

Within a few years, the former might have an audience and perhaps be making some money while the latter is basically doing the same thing as ten years earlier except hoping that this time around they'll get that promotion to district manager. Where's the talent now?

Even the most ineffable qualities of many writers — like imagination and language play that can't necessarily be taught — CAN be practiced like a muscle and most folks will get better at it in time. There are some neurodivergences that would make this particularly hard, and such folks might have to stick to more clinical writing. Still, what certainly merits out over and over again is that if there IS something like talent, it means absolutely bupkis next to hard work.

Is there something? Anything?

Sort of?

There are some obstacles (like learning disabilities). It would be ableist to claim that everyone will have exactly the same difficulty/ease becoming a successful writer. Of course some people have a physically harder time writing. And certain disorders make organized thought take more effort. It stands to reason that other folks will have an easier time. (But if you want an example of someone with two major learning disabilities [dyslexia and fucking RAGING ADHD] who has substituted hard work and passion for innate ability, and gotten to the point where they're making money writing, you're reading them.) 

Obviously, there are some people who have proclivities to tell stories or display linguistic aptitude. There are people who have the discipline to sit and write alone, calmly and for hours; the kind of self-control that other people can't even fathom. There are people who are exquisitely precise with language. And there are people with a penchant for keeping large ensemble casts of characters in their heads. (This may have more to do with whether they end up being a tech writer, a poet, or a novelist than whether they can write at all, but certainly these inclinations exist.) Maybe we don't know if these predispositions are all in the genes or have something to do with early childhood (maybe we're all wrong, and it's prenatal vitamins or zodiac signs [Libras, baby! We're all entirely a monolith of writers.]), but they're there early enough to affect a whole lifetime.

However, the most meaningful "talent" when it comes to who merits out at being a "successful" writer (by whatever bellwether is being used to define success) seems to be genuinely enjoying writing (and reading), and being passionate about doing it and getting better at it. It's the people who like sitting down every day to do some writing and who enjoy the endeavor even when it feels like work who typically have enviable careers or accolades, not the people who run around trying to find a Talent-O-Meter to use on themselves. If someone likes writing and has been doing it regularly for years, they're likely to be seen as "talented" by most of the world that uses that word as a synonym for "skill that took a lot of hard work to acquire."

Mathematical aptitude exists too, but you rarely hear physicists worrying about their talent.

But what about prodigies and the completely talentless? Surely they are real?


And if you were one, I guarantee you'd already know it.

The Shakespeares and Faulkners and Morrisons and Rumis of the world may be beyond the grasp of most to approach, and we may never compose such delectable prose, but keep in mind a few things:

1) These people may have had something "talent-shaped," but they stayed at the top of their game with hard work. If Shakespeare had gone into the goat breeding business and only ever wrote "when the muse moved him to words," we'd probably be down one Globe theater, all reading Beckett and Wilde in high school, and people would have to say my sweet and charming innocence is as pure as something OTHER than the driven snow (which, baring the occasional threesome, it totally is).

2) An okay writer can become a good writer with work. A decent writer can write something poignant. A good writer can have a career, and even write a masterpiece with enough revision. Almost none of us are Shakespeare or Morrison, but most of us can develop our skill.

3) The truly "talentless" writer is probably as rare as the Shakespeare or Morrison. It's the entire other side of the bell curve and just as rare. Most people who love reading and love writing (and are not just floridly expressing love for something they never do) are pretty good at it. Not that everyone is pretty good at writing, but most of those who are not don't actually want to be writers, and many of them don't read very much. It's like having someone with actual amusia (not just an unpracticed ear) who wants to be a (non-percussion) musician. It happens, but it's very, very rare that someone with amusia actually passionately burns to recreate the note-y part of music (the beat and the lyrics would be more likely). Most of us who love writing have gone through a hazing process that we weren't even aware of over the years, and we are going to get better if we get our asses to work.

Now if you're using prodigies to prove that there must be a bell curve that some people fall further to the right on, that's probably true in theory, but even if you could separate it from passion and hard work (spoiler: you can't), on a long enough timeline, it won't matter. Genius might give you a boost, but the work will always merit out.

Why do we have such a hard time letting go of this idea?

I think there are a lot of reasons. Cultural mythos narratives of exceptionalism. The ubiquity of prodigies–often messianic "chosen one" prodigies–in popular media. A deep societal demand that we be "really good" at something "productive" because that's what good capitalists do. A strong correlation that belief in talent has with unearned advantages (such as being born rich or being a white man) that probably leads to feelings of entitlement. And the fear of something called "effort shock," which frankly (when it comes to writing) should terrify the total fucking shiznit out of anyone who doesn't love writing for its own sake.

Did you know that it goes back to a class issue? It's why painters often DO want to be called "talented" instead of skilled. Painting used to be skilled labor. Then it was turned into a "fine art" that only the aristocracy sat around doing and suddenly sprezzatura demanded that they needed another word that meant anything other than "long hard hours of practice."

It's a seductive world to imagine that if we aren't good at something, it's because we lack some je ne sais quoi we can't control, not because we haven't put in sufficient effort. Similarly, it's more compelling to imagine there's an "IT" (and we have IT and could tap IT at any time, should we so choose) than to imagine that lots of folks could quickly and easily match and then exceed our skill if they started working hard.

What does matter?

Ironically, most successful writers (the ones you've heard of–the ones you might have a book of on your shelf or recognize the names of) have a very different formula for what got them to where they are. They don't spend a lot of time worried about talent. Not that there aren't any arrogant writers who talk about how awesome they have been since the moment of their conception (there totally are), but for the most part, most writers pretty consistently talk about a different handful of contributors to their success. Some leave out one or two (though never the first one on this list) but these are the recurrent themes.

Tons of hard work: I don't really know any writers (personally or through stories shared by those I've never met) who got to where they would consider themselves successful, and who don't ALSO have similar stories of the long, grueling hours they toiled away at perfecting their craft. A few of them undertook some part of this process in the service of another writing career (tech writing or content writing), some learned in years of college and MFA programs, but all of them have put in the hours. Some have put in decades of "unpaid internship" hours before they see their first paycheck or fan. Some had to walk five miles as children to get to the library that was their sanctuary against the bullies (uphill both ways, right, Dad?). Some worked full time jobs, came home and cooked dinner, put the toddlers to bed and crept into the hallway (since there was no dedicated office and that is where the TV was least distracting) to write for a half an hour a night. 

But all have worked hard and none relied on talent to carry them.

They do the work. And they recognize that the more work they do, the better their output becomes.

Unearned (but not innate) advantages: Oddly we come full circle to the idea that much of what we call "talent" might actually be privilege. A lot of writers acknowledge that their humble beginnings of writerdom sparked by having access to a library, parents that read to them every night, or a writer in the family. Maybe they had a tiny bit of nepotism in the form of an uncle who is an agent or editor, or a trust fund to burn through in those initial years of writing without pay. (Some obviously have more advantage than others.) They acknowledge the role something that was neither earned nor innate had in shaping their destiny as a writer. They may not call it "privilege," but they acknowledge it.

And some will call it privilege–recognizing that publishing is whitewashed, sexism and heteronormativity influence what sells, class restricts access, and even their titanic amount of work might not yet have found fecund soil were their circumstances different.

Luck: Most writers seem to have a sense of fortune. Maybe it comes from telling ourselves so many "believable" stories that genuine coincidences are things we would tell ourselves are implausible and deus ex machina. ("Ridiculous that this book offer would just HAPPEN. Please revise!") Not that these writers think anyone, regardless of skill, standing at the same place at the same time, would have gotten the same opportunity, but it seems a lot of us aren't quite sure we quite earned every twist of fortune that came our way. (I often talk about how lucky I got to have my Facebook page explode–I would not be where I am today without it.)

Maybe just a little bit of nerve: The writers who are making money (or maybe not, but enjoying success by their own yardsticks) all seem to share just the tiniest bit of moxie. Most struggle with imposter syndrome. Many fret about their peer reviews and are devastated by criticism. (~raises hand~) But at the end of the day, they do believe they have something worth saying and they keep putting themselves out there for the world to see (.....and point at.....and tear apart).

Almost none, ever, talk about their talent.


  1. I just had a similar conversation about a "talent" for making art last night. It's all art ( writing, visual arting, Dancing etc), and it all takes Practice practice practice and the passion to continue practicing.

  2. 99% perspiration, someone once said. It would be indelicate of me to tell you that I'm sweating cobs here. Oh, I just did...

    Another great post, Chris.

  3. How I interpret "talent" is it has two aspects: first, an initial inclination to be good at something--an ear for music, a body type that's good at running, a knack for telling stories in an interesting manner. Second, there's the ability to learn and improve.
    Neither aspect does a person a lick of good without practice. Just because you can run faster than average doesn't mean you'll be winning any races. And the ability to learn quickly doesn't do you any good if you're not actually learning. All it means is that a writer with "talent" won't have to work quite as hard as someone without those advantages; but they'll still have to work. And someone without it can still catch up by putting in more effort.
    It reminds me of a story my dad told me. The most successful person from his graduating class was the saludatorian. The valedictorian had "talent" and thus never had to put forth any effort. The saludatorian didn't, and worked hard for his grades. The saludatorian went on to be successful, because he knew the value of hard work.