The T-Word (No, not that t-word, the other one, and shhh! Don’t say it!)

Caution: if you’re an aspiring writer, this post contains potentially disturbing content. (This post is NOT about torture.)


Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

Have you ever seen one of those ads in a magazine that asks you to draw the bunny and send it to them so they can evaluate it (for free) to see whether you have artistic talent? And of course, if they say you you do, they’ll try to sell you art lessons to help you develop that talent.  I think we can all see what’s wrong with this picture. These folks make their money on the art lessons, right? So why would they care whether or not you actually have talent as long as they can get your money? Starry-eyed parents get sucked in by similar scammers telling them their kid has talent and could make big bucks in commercials or movies if they’ll just invest in…

We listen to these stories and shake our heads knowingly and say, “boy, how dumb can they get? They should have known better than to fall for that one.” These scams are obvious because we readily accept that artistic talent and acting talent are real things that are not uniformly distributed in the population. So it’s easy to be skeptical of people who have a vested interest in convincing gullible souls that they’re talented, when they’re not.

So why are there so many of us would-be writers shelling out dollars for courses, workshops, writing coaches, book doctors, and endless how-to tomes on every possible aspect of the writer’s craft – without seemingly ever wondering whether we are being led down the garden path? Think about it. How often, amid all the talk about hard work, persistence, dedication, and honing one’s craft, do we hear any mention of the t-word?

At least no one seems to be trying to convince us all that we have talent. Rather, there seems to be a kind of taboo against bringing up the subject. As if the question of talent is somehow irrelevant to the activity of writing. But seriously, do we really believe that hard work, persistence, dedication, and practice-practice-practice are enough? What’s our working hypothesis here? That a specific talent for writing does not exist? Or that it does, but everyone has it – in equal measure?

I don’t know about you, but when I pick up a well-written book, I know I am in the presence of talent. Hard work, dedication, and a certain amount of experience are probably in there too, but what really makes it shine is talent. Some people exhibit a kind of genius, a mastery of language, of expressiveness, of just plain old good storytelling, that falls outside of the common mold.

I’m afraid that, much as I might prefer not to, I do believe in the t-word.  In fact, I believe there is variation in people’s innate abilities with respect to pretty much every human activity – including things like walking and running. (There’s this thing called body mechanics.) And for things involving higher brain functions – like writing – well, how could anyone imagine that we are all equally endowed?

(Personally, I think it’s one of the great strengths of the human species that we are not all alike in our capabilities, combined with the fact that we are social animals who live and work in groups where we can combine our diverse strengths and shore-up each others’ weaknesses. But that’s a subject for another post.)

Okay, okay, I know I’m being unfair to imply that would-be writers are being systematically scammed by all the folks doing workshops and pushing books on writing. Most of those folks, I’m sure, are sincerely trying to help. And there are things that can be taught and learned on this subject. It’s just that some of the people trying to become writers probably just… shouldn’t… and no one wants to say it. (Actually, some people probably do say it. It’s just that someone else usually steps in and says, “Of course you can do it! Don’t listen to them.”)

And in a sense, it’s true that anyone can write a novel. Assuming that they’re literate and aren’t so physically or mentally disabled that they can’t hold a pen, or press keys – or can’t afford voice recognition software – pretty much anyone can theoretically put enough words together end-to-end to produce a novel-length story. All that takes is hard work, dedication, and persistence.

But does that story actually make sense? Is it worth reading? Is it something anyone would pay money for? That’s where the trouble starts.  Some people seem to believe that although the answers to all those questions may initially be “no,” all it will take to turn the “no” into a “yes” is more hard work, dedication, and persistence.  And while that may be true in some cases, it doesn’t follow that it’s true in all cases. Most of the time, I would say – and depending somewhat on your goal and on your audience – at least a modest amount of talent is going to be required.

By now I’m sure everybody hates me.

Topic for next time:  “How to tell whether you have at least a modest amount of talent”

(And don’t worry; I’m not selling anything.)

What do you think? Is talent over-rated? Is writing talent a myth? Is there something you think you have talent for? Why, or why not?