Does it Really Take Talent?

Consider two writers:College_study_learnin_268377_l

Writer A, is unbelievably talented.  She writes prose so gorgeous and true and deeply felt it makes your hear break.  Not only that, she has that ineffable trait called a voice.  You'd recognize her writing anywhere and drop everything to read it.  In short, Writer A has talent.  Scads of it.  But Writer A also has a little problem.  She doesn't write much.  Once every month or so, if the spirit moves her, she picks up her pen and scrawls another page of beautiful prose.  And then she lets other things get in the way.  You know.  Important things like watching TV, and cleaning the sink, and thinking profound thoughts about how wonderful life is going to be once she has finished that novel.

Writer B, is just an old workhorse.  Every word he puts on the page he has earned.  This writer doesn't have a lot of natural talent.  His writing is pedestrian at best.  But our Writer B works hard.  He writes every day and reads and reads and reads.  Whenever he has a spare moment, he's working on improving his writing.  He immerses himself in words, whether writing or reading.  He's obsessed.  Sometimes he misses dinner, and often he doesn't turn his TV on for weeks on end.

So who do you think is going to be the most successful writer?

I'm betting on Writer B.  Why? Because Writer B is doing the work, sitting at his desk, writing.  You learn writing by writing.  You learn fluency and ease and flow by writing every day, which is why I'm always harping on it.  You figure out how the plot of your novel is going to work by actually working on the novel, or you learn more about your characters by writing more about them.

Talent will get you started, but it is the actual work that will allow you to succeed. 

There's an old debate in the writing world: can writing be taught?  Do you have to have talent to succeed?  I think that writing can be taught, and the teaching occurs in every word that you put on the page.  Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, Outliers, says that mastery comes after you have spent 10,000 hours on something.  Yep.  It will probably take you 10,000 hours of writing to master the craft, though many people believe that writing takes a lifetime to master–which is why it never gets boring.  This 10,000 hour rule is why the brief-residency MFA programs or certificate writing programs are so great–because writers should be writing, not sitting in class talking about writing, fun as that is.  Writers learn to write by writing, natural talent or no.

And those with natural talent who write all the time will see their talent come to fruition.  But those with natural talent who don't write will never succeed.  Persistence will always prevail.

The moral of the story? Just keep writing.  It is all you need to do.

**This post came about as a result of a question asked in the comment sections on my post, Burning Questions.  Thanks, Walter, and I hope this helps.  Meanwhile, if any of you have any burning questions, hope on over to that post and ask away. 

And feel free to weigh in here on the topic of talent versus persistence.

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12 Comments on "Does it Really Take Talent?"

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Derek
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Derek
02/11/2010 01:39
There is something very Zen about what you are saying in this post… It is said [in Zen] that “when the student is ready, the master will appear”. The master isn’t necessarily a person. It could be a rock or a tree that brings the teaching. In writing, I see the master come as the first word appears on a black page/screen. “Now what?” he asks. Zen masters also, only pose questions. I do not see myself as gifted, but the muse does visit, often when I least expect it. And that is so identical to enlightenment in Zen meditation.… Read more »
Maryse
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02/11/2010 06:20

Practice and disciplin are key to any successful endeavor. If you want to run a marathon, you’ve got to train too. I’m slowly coming to terms with the practice side of writing. I so want to feel free and practicing brings me back to school. not my favorite thing. Is there a way of making practicing more playful?
Maryse

Jessica
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02/11/2010 07:04

I would add that along with persistence, it also takes a willingness to look for improvement – the ability to graciously accept criticism.

Writer B may write every day and be putting out masses of words, but if he is not (as you say) ‘looking to improve his writing’ he will not actually progress as a writer.

It takes humility to improve, and I would think that is just as important as persistence.

Charlotte Dixon
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02/11/2010 09:14
Derek, I love the analogy of the master being the first word that appears on the page or screen. And I also love that you getting more into interacting, since part of that is on my site and I love having you here. Maryse, Try starting your sessions with 15 minutes of free writing where you choose a prompt or topic that interests you and just let yourself go and write whatever comes up. Have fun with it. Glumping everything out onto the page is an important part of writing practice, too. Jessica, I like your addition of humility to… Read more »
Heartandcraft.blogspot.com
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10,000 hours… At 1000 hours per year, that would be 20 hours per week for 10 years. If that is serious writing and not just cranking out emails and blog comments, I have another few years to go. More specifically, the rest of my life. It never gets boring, for sure.

I love that you offer so much encouragement to plodding writers, the most numerous group I encounter in classes. Not all will commit to 10,000 hours, but many will. And if they fall short, they will still have an intriguing adventure.

don
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02/11/2010 13:01

Thanks Charlotte, this is another great post and makes total sense. It’s also encouraging since I have no talent at writing, but at least I have (so far as least!) kept my word to write one post on my little-bitty blog each and everyday, come hell or high water!

As for having burning questions, I can only think of one, one that has been puzzling me for ages: How in hell do they get the caramel into those bloody Caramel Bars! I’ve been scratching my pea brains for ages on that one and one of these days…..one of these days…….

Melissa Donovan
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02/11/2010 14:25

I agree 100%. I’ve actually read quotes from successful writers who say they have no special talent for writing but their productivity is high. If you write 100 pages (and have limited talent), you’re bound to get lucky on one of those pages and create something amazing. So, if your output is high, you increase your chances of creating good work.

I’ve actually heard musicians say the same thing — not a great singer but a hard worker/good marketer/etc. Those are the folks who make it!

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
02/11/2010 16:22

Sharon, I think I’m a bit of a plodding writer. I know I’m not as fast as others, but that’s okay, as long as I’m writing. And I’m glad that some of the posts are helpful.

Don, I read your blog and even though you say you don’t have talent, you must have persistence because your writing is great! Let me know when you figure out about the caramel….

Melissa, So true, so true. There’s simply no way you can diligently keep writing and not at least get a little better.

Josa Young
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02/14/2010 12:10

I can feel the way I think changing now I am writing every day again. Pretty much gave up for 15 years after first novel rejected and agent didn’t help or support me in any way. Now I am up to nearly 70K on the new novel, and writing short stories and looking at another project I started and didn’t finish, and I have a new agent. So yes, keep going guys, don’t be like me. http://www.oneappletasted.co.uk

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
02/14/2010 13:15

Yes, but, Josa let’s focus on the fact that you are now back at it. I’m so glad–sounds like you are making huge progress on the novel. Yay! And thanks for stopping by.

judy
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02/15/2010 10:55

I watched an interview with Apolo Ohno in which he said the hardest question to answer yes to every day is “Did I do everything I could today to be the best at what I do?” (I’m parphrasing.) On day that I don’t write, I know what the answer must be.

Thank you, as always, for the reminder.

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
02/16/2010 08:46

Judy, that is a great question to remember to ask each day because it puts a broader spin on it. Maybe the most important contribution you can make to a writing project is to spend some time reading and researching the topic you’re writing about. I have difficulty reminding myself that things like that count, too!

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