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.


Creativity and Talent

I think it’s important to try and separate your desire to do something creative and your desire to make a living at it. Not everyone who writes can become a professional writer. It isn’t even about talent and skill so much as it is about numbers and luck. There are so many people out there who are trying to get published, but the reality is that there’s only so much space for books in the world. Even if you make the decision to self-publish, that does not address the issue of finding readers who have time enough to read your particular work. People who read quickly and devour numerous books each year still have to make choices about what they’re going to read, and sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw whether they’ve heard of your book and it interests them enough to add to the stack.

This sounds discouraging, I realize, and I don’t mean it to be. If you want to write professionally, I urge you to go for it. Learn your craft and work hard, write a lot and read a lot, and educate yourself as best you can about the publishing process, whatever route you take. But… try not to let that interfere with the joy you feel as a writer. Writing should be your love, definitely, if you want to make a career of it. You won’t succeed if you’re anything less than obsessed about your writing. But don’t allow any frustrations with the business to overshadow the fun parts of the creative process.

You have to need to write. It’s said fairly often, but bears repeating. Writers write. They think about it all the time and scribble on whatever is at hand. Their characters invade their dreams. They love the creation process, the planning, the research, the agonizing over the perfect words. Writing is their best friend, their spouse, their secret bit on the side. Writing consumes writers. And you can be a writer without ever seeing your book in a bookstore.

Never mind how talented you are, or how long you’ve been writing, or how innovative your ideas. If you love writing, you should write. No one can say where your efforts will take you, but that uncertainty should never keep you from doing what you love.

This video by rosiefromthepast illustrates my point perfectly. It’s pretty short, and a perfect jolt of inspiration and encouragement. Give it a watch, and then go write something. Have a great week!