Toil vs. Talent: The Myth of the Natural

One of the most frequent debates in the writing world, revolving around workshops and MFA programs, centers on the question “Can writing be taught?” The flip side of this, of course, is can you learn to be a writer? The question implies that writing requires a certain innate talent, something you’re born with rather than something you acquire over time. This also suggests that those without said talent shouldn’t waste their time writing, but should instead go off and figure out where their own true talents lie.

Hogwash. Here’s the thing. I believe in talent, and I believe in genius. I also believe that true genius in any given subject blesses very few people, and that most industries offer far more opportunities than there are geniuses in that field. The true key to success in any given area, writing most definitely included, comes from dedication and hard work. Give me a determined writer with a teaspoon of talent and the willingness to practice their craft — to read and revise and strive to improve — over a lazy genius any day of the week.

Here’s the thing about talent, about being blessed with a natural affinity for a given skill. It can lead to all sorts of problems. Back in elementary school, I was one of those smart kids for whom learning came easily. I could listen to my teacher with one ear and get the lesson down, no problem. Homework required no thought at all; I simply worked my way through the pages and wrote out the answers. My brain organized arguments by rote, so my first attempts at school essays required a single draft. Plus my parents and teachers all told me I was smart, so I didn’t really consider that maybe, possibly, things wouldn’t always work that way. Until the day I hit algebra and couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on. By that point, I had no skills for dealing with a subject that didn’t come automatically. I’d never learned how to learn, how to study. It threw me for a loop, and it took me years to understand what the problem was and how to tackle it. In the meantime, I thought there was something wrong with me. That I couldn’t understand algebra because I didn’t get it from day one.

Similarly, a writer who is consistently praised for their early efforts, for their natural-sounding dialogue or beautiful descriptions, may take years to realize that good, solid writing takes more work than simply transcribing the words that flow from their brain. No matter how good the writer, projects still require thought and revision — clarification, the smoothing of clunky sentences, ratcheted tension, improved character motivation. The most brilliant plot idea requires follow through to do it justice. Talent must be backed up by toil, and every writer needs to learn and apply their craft. The talent might serve as a short cut, but it can never serve as a substitute for the labor that goes into each book or story. A writer needs to be prepared to experiment, to throw out what does not work, and to absorb new skills along the way.

Is writing difficult? Yes. I don’t care who you are or how talented you might be, writing is still a challenge. Plot, setting, character, motivation, pacing, description, theme, tension… a writer must keep them all in the air at once, juggle each and every aspect of a project, never letting a single ball drop. No one is born knowing how to do this. They must learn. And if some aspects of storytelling come more easily, then others will still serve as obstacles.

Writing offers no guarantees. The most talent writers in the world receive rejection slips. But the common ground of the successful writers is that they all work on their craft. They sit at their desks and write; they read the works of other writers and learn from their efforts; they put in their time and refuse to rest on their laurels. The career of the writer is a journey paved with words. Keep writing to get where you want to go.


6 thoughts on “Toil vs. Talent: The Myth of the Natural

  1. 100% with you on the work vs innate talent argument. Also empathise with the algebra – I was exactly the same. At one point my father was ever worried I was “numbers dyslexic.”

  2. Great post! I agree with everything you said here. I’ve been writing since I was 12 and somehow got sidetracked, and now it’s 30 plus years later. For the last 10 years I’ve been working hard, and for the last two very hard, at becoming a better writer and completing my first novel. People say getting published is like winning the lottery but what I’ve found is that some people didn’t expect to have to work so hard at something that used to be just a hobby. Many people do get published but most of us have to work very hard at it and sometimes it takes a long time and much more effort than we expected.

    Sidebar: My kids have so far been very talented in school but we are doing some math review this summer because algebra is going to be on the oldest’s plate next year and I want to make sure he gets the concepts. Math is not a gift they got from me the writer, I’m hoping dad’s genes kick in there!

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