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What Is Talent? Does It Matter?

Pub Date: Jan 30, 2015 | Columnist: William Kowalski, reprinted from WRITING FOR FIRST-TIME NOVELISTS, Practical Thoughts on the Creative Craft. Kowalski is a bestselling author and independent publisher

kowalski_013015What Is Talent? My thoughts on talent have changed radically over the last twenty-five years. I used to believe you were either born with talent, or you weren’t. Now I see what a simplistic viewpoint that is. Like most attempts to force things neatly into one box or the other, it’s wrong. It misses the entire point.

I feel almost the opposite about talent these days. With the rare exception, I don’t believe that talent exists–or, if it does, its absence does not mean that a person can’t become good at writing.

Talent, in other words, doesn’t matter.

I believe now that most people become good at things because they try very, very hard to be good at them, and the reason they try hard is because it’s important to them, for reasons they themselves may not even understand. These reasons are probably unconscious, meaning the author doesn’t know why writing is so important to her. It just is. Maybe years of therapy will help uncover the reason, but does it really matter? Just accept it. You have a burning desire to write. That’s the way you are. Save that therapist money and put it in a retirement fund instead, so that you don’t spend your final years living in a cardboard box in the middle of Central Park.

If you insist on keeping the word talent in your lexicon, then think of it this way: What you lack in talent, you can make up for with motivation and hard work.

Yes, some people do have a natural aptitude for certain things, and it could be argued that this is talent. While still a child, Mozart could hear a musical piece once and then play it back perfectly, without skipping a note. Newton invented calculus before he hit puberty. There is a long list of people like this throughout history. But these are not merely talented people. They are prodigies. They are the result of a perfect storm of genetics, psychology, and environment. You cannot force a prodigy to come into being, as a gardener can force roses to bloom by tricking them into thinking it’s summer. And prodigies are rare enough that they are not worth discussing here.

From an early age, I worked very hard at writing, because I wanted people to say I was good at it. I needed to hear that. It wasn’t just that I wanted to tell them stories they liked. I never actually cared about that. I wanted their adulation. So I did everything I could to ensure that I kept hearing praise. That meant writing obsessively. I wrote stories while other kids were out being normal kids–playing sports, torturing younger children, committing crimes, whatever. I felt socially awkward, so there were times I preferred to write as an escape rather than deal with those feelings. And part of me wanted to stand out the way other boys stood out for other qualities, such as prowess in sports or academics, good looks, or owning the first video game system on the block. I felt that writing was the only chance I had to distinguish myself from the herd. I once believed this was true of me simply because that’s the way I was. I now believe it was true because I decided it was true.

In other words, despite the early words of praise I received from my parents and teachers, I don’t think I was naturally talented as a writer. Instead, at some early stage I don’t even remember, I decided that being thought of as a good writer was the most important thing in the world to me–and from that point forward, I devoted all my energy to it. To the outside observer, it looked like talent. But really, it was the result of a strong desire and a lot of hard work. In fact, it was an obsession.

I can see now that I needed praise like oxygen. Why? That’s a separate conversation. But it really doesn’t matter. That’s just the way I was.

There are, I know, lots of people who are the same. More than anything, we want to hear these words: You’re a great writer. And so, we write. We write our asses off, because we know that’s the only way to get better at writing.

There is no shame in any of this. It could be a lot worse, after all. Some people are motivated to do far worse things for unconscious reasons. Some people grow up to be mass murderers. You’re lucky writing is your affliction. At least you won’t end up on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity.

This section exists only to encourage those who feel they don’t have the necessary talent to pursue writing. Let me repeat something I said at the beginning: What you lack in talent, you can make up for in hard work and motivation. If you’ve never heard the words You’re a talented writer in your life, that doesn’t mean you can’t become a competent writer, and maybe even a very good one. You can do it–if you want it badly enough.

Talent is overrated. Don’t even worry about it. If you free yourself from this concern, just as if you free yourself from all other mental traps, you will become a better writer for it.