Is there such thing as talent?
[Remember, keep sending in your questions to email@example.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. Seriously, we need more questions. I'm dying here.]
So....I've read your D&D talent thing [Author's note: Talent: A +5 Sword You Could Do Without] and bits here and there on your blog that make me think that you don't really think talent exists–that it's all just hard work. But then I read so many other people who seem to believe that there is some ineffable quality that makes writers good, and without it the struggle is pointless. So let's have it out officially, right now. Do you think there's such a thing as talent?
[Note: This question is now also in the F.A.Q.]
A very (very) qualified yes.
Two quick logistical disclaimers before I dig into this.
1) I'm almost out of questions.
PEOPLE, SEND ME MORE QUESTIONS!!!!
If you've always wanted to have a question answered by a washed up, over-the-hill writer who can't even say he's a has been because he never even was, now is your chance! I think I have one more week's worth, and then I'm going to have to start making stuff up from conversations I have in Taco Bell. (What sauce is writing like? PICANTE!!!)
2) This off-schedule mailbox has been brought to you by a surprise day off from child care. Dad was home on Wednesday and I got the morning off and was able to get this started (though not finished until Friday night, it seems). All the stuff I said on Monday about doing a major rework the posting schedule still applies, and The Mailbox will no longer be on Fridays after tomorrow's roll out.
Tomorrow I'll do photos of the little calendars I've been drawing. It's epic.
But on to your question, Alexis...
Fifty years ago the reigning school of thought in creative writing was that genius could not be taught and you could either write or you were wasting your time. They would even send crying people out of the classroom. "I'm sorry, but this is crap. You simply have no talent."
Then we learned more about how humans learn and really broke down what makes for good writing. (Plus crying students running out of classes is no way to populate an MFA program!) And we discovered that, lo and behold!, most of the skills that make for good writers are actually learnable and teachable. Of course fifty years ago, everyone wore tweed and liked Marvin Gaye, so I'm pretty sure I'm cool going with modern thought on this one.
Imagine what we'll think fifty years from now.
On the other hand, to say that every writer who has studied writing and written for exactly the same amount of time will produce exactly the same quality of work is absurd. Even accounting for stylistic variations, personal tastes, and the fact that not all writing is equally created for mass appeal, critical acclaim, or artistic integrity, such an assertion would be demonstrably untrue. Some writers take to craft with an extraordinary alacrity. Others (like me) have a vivid imagination but constantly struggle with the words and the language (and in my case, particularly my weakness with proofing my own copy). With the exact same amount of effort some writers will achieve great success and some will struggle to make ends meet–if writing ever pays the bills at all.
What is the X factor there? Could it be something we like to call "talent"? Do we have innate abilities or aptitudes that will simply carry us further and that's all there is to it? Are we like the snobby, tweed wearing, elbow patched professors of yesteryear who think that genius can't be taught?
I shy from the idea of talent is that it is talked about like it is some sort of secret formula that will make someone a good writer and that if one has it, nothing else matters. What really matters is work. If you work hard and write hard and read like you're supposed to and make sure you've got the basics down and are never to good to learn a little something then you will improve. It's that simple and it's VERY predictable. Almost no art can be counted on to have such a predictable and immediate learning curve as writing.
What most people say when they confer the honorific of "talented" on an artist is that the art is good. ("The wickedly talented Adele Dazeem!") They have no idea the years of training and hours of work that have gone into what they're looking at.
The problem is when you conflate these two uses of the word, and suddenly "talent" means you don't have to work.
I've seen writers who don't work every day, don't work every week, don't work consistently every month, barely have one first draft of a manuscript to their name, who have turned in the same short story in four different classes, wring their hands, bite their lower lip, and make impassioned pleas to get a teacher to tell them whether they have "talent" or not. And I mean these motherfuckers stop the whole class with a "Can you just tell me if I have talent?"
Like that's going to matter, you lazy fucking.....okay deep breaths Chris. Deeeeeep breeeeaaaaaaths.
We don't really do this with any other skill. (I mean some people do, but we roll our eyes at them and really don't lend it the credence we do with writing.) No one who doesn't go to practice and misses half the games says with a quivering lip, "Tell me straight coach, do I have what it takes?" No one who began a job last week corners their boss and says, "Am I a prodigy or should I just quit now?" No one who picks up an instrument says to their community center teacher while they're learning their first scales "Can you tell if I'm going to.....make it? Where can I find a manager?"
Because that's fucking absurd. Yet somehow in writing, we forgot about the work part.
The problem is, it's absolutely impossible to know what "talent" might actually be. Maybe in fifty years we can strap babies to MRI's and then follow the ones with the big linguistic centers or something. But right now there is absolutely no way to differentiate it from that which can be taught and learned.
Is it a family that instilled the value of books? Is it parents who used big words when you were growing up so that you not only were precocious, but you actually knew what precocious meant? Is it the teacher who read your story aloud to the class in first grade and made you want to feel that feeling again and again like your first hit of nicotine? Is it the subtle words of encouragement from a mentor to never give up that was the closest thing to a father figure you had? Is it learning the power of the written word as a formative experience by watching an intercepted note make Lisa Kulber cry for lunch? Because if it's those things, there's no real reason you can't start at twenty, or thirty, or sixty.
Or is it all just a genetic advantage in the linguistic centers of the brain, and some amino acid cocktail that adds up to writer juju? Where do the advantages that are truly innate separate from someone who works hard.
Thus, when I say there are things that make Billy-Bob a better creative writers (and there are) like imagination, intelligence, some kind of education, command of language but also linguistic flexibility, empathy, sense of pacing and story, a flare for the dramatic, or a sense of subtext, it is still very difficult to know where Billy-Bob the innate human ends and Billy-Bob the product of his environment begins.
And not to put too cliché a point on it, but if Billy Bob ends up in an MFA program or a published writer, statistically speaking, his intelligence had less to do with it than whether or not he was white.
Imagination can be cultivated by exercising it. Linguistic playfulness is nothing more than a command of language so complete one knows how to break or bend the rules for effect. Pacing and drama can come, not only from reading, but also from watching TV or film. Subtext can be taught. Even empathy isn't impossible to develop for most people (though not all). Technically none of us have any of these abilities when we're born. We're all shit stained egomaniacs who couldn't figure out the symbolism in an Updike novel when we're one. (I asked a two year old what the conch shell represented in Lord of the Flies–maybe the easiest symbol in all of literature–and he just demanded more cupcake.) They're all learned skills. Psychologists are still struggling to figure out what is genetic and what comes from our early childhood experiences.
The nice thing about talent though, is it almost always dovetails rather nicely with interests. If you have a passion, you will probably cultivate the abilities around that passion. Whether it's self selection or subtle reinforcement, you don't get a lot of talentless who really want to do something with all their free time. Tone deaf musicians aren't a pox on the industry because they don't tend to like music with the kind of lifetime dedication that musicians do. (I'm talking about real musicians now, not the deluge on the first couple of episodes of America's Got Talent.) People who have very unmathmatical minds don't burn to be engineers. The number of writers who don't have a pretty good command of the language, or some sense of pacing is usually pretty low.
Yes, there are people who (for example) do not pick up on subtext at all, but they generally do not have the sort of relationship with fiction that creative writers do and thus don't go on to badly want to be creative writers. They might be more inclined to pursue non-fiction, where other aptitudes like precision of language are valued. But talent and interest usually dovetail.
You just don't end up with a lot of people who have real drive and passion to be writers with absolutely no sense of writer skills*.
What you USUALLY see is not two people who have put in equal effort at vastly different points though. What you usually see is someone using "talent" as a codeword for "shortcut." What you usually see is someone who hasn't put in any effort wanting to get the nod that they will become rich without that decade of struggle that just about every writer has to go through. They want to know what the result will be before they put in all the effort.
This is entirely the wrong question. Not because we all don't want to know if the years of toil are going to be worth it (everyone wants a crystal ball), but because the real question is this:
Would you do it anyway?
That's what really matters. If you're writing for fame or wealth or publication it's never going to be as fulfilling as you think it will be. But the writing will. The writing always will. If you knew today that you would never be published, never make money, never get a book deal, never have a fan.....If you knew that for sure, would that stop you from the simple love for the act of writing itself? Because it's the writing that will change your life.
Now...all that said, there are people who try very, very hard to improve their writing, read voraciously, think creatively, and never seem to pass a point where they get published or maybe aren't publishing more than a couple of stories a year. They succeed, but it is with very limited returns. There may not be anything teachable, cultivatable, or practicable that is holding them back. And perhaps the easiest way to understand what is going on is that they don't have as much talent as the writers of comparable work who have gone on to achieve better things.
There are also writers who eclipse us all. Shakespeare, Faulkner, Morrison, Marquez. No matter how hard we work, none of us will achieve their skill and poise with words. Ever. And it is folly to compare ourselves to them. If we were as gifted as they are we would be wunderkind and already know it.
Most of us fall in the middle somewhere. Our skill will improve with practice. Our career trajectories will largely be based on how hard we're working. If we make money, it will probably have more to do with the kind of writing we're doing and our willingness to promote than the absolute level of skill.
But you'll never know if you don't put all that work in first, and that's the pisser of it. That's the reason why it's madness to do it if you don't love the shit out of it for its own sake.
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