KR BlogBlog

The Talent Tangent

I was teaching a writing workshop not long ago when I found myself on a tangent about talent. As an aspiring writer in school, I explained, my teachers and mentors often told me I was talented. Eventually I came to expect this praise, to consider it my due. But then I tried to make it as a writer in the larger world, and talent no longer seemed so meaningful. In fact, I told my students, if someone called me “talented” today, I might feel insulted—because talent, on its own, is empty. Talent is nothing without the work to back it up.

To be clear, I don’t think it’s wrong to encourage aspiring writers, to shine a light on natural ability, or to celebrate a precocious student. But I do reject the notion that talent is something writers either have or don’t, or that it’s some mysterious, coveted quality bestowed only upon a lucky few. Most of all, I’m wary of suggesting that “talented” writers have an easier path ahead of them.

Talent represents the easy part—the natural ability, the love of language, the attraction to the writing life—while ignoring the hard part, otherwise known as the actual work. Because no writer on the planet, naturally gifted or not, considers writing easy. It’s work, plain and simple, and talent can’t build a career on its own.

In his essay “My Parade,” which appears in the essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee writes:

I was told I was talented. I don’t know that it did much except make me lazy when I should have worked harder. I know many talented people who never became writers, perhaps because they got lazy when they were told they were talented. Telling writers this may even be a way to take them out of the game. I know untalented people who did become writers, and who write exceptionally well. You can have talent, but if you cannot endure, if you cannot learn to work, and learn to work against your own worst tendencies and prejudices, if you cannot take the criticism of strangers or the uncertainty, then you will not become a writer.

Everything Chee says here resonates with me. I, too, have known talented writers who faded away because they weren’t willing, able, or interested in sticking with the day-in, day-out slog of writing in the long run. I’ve also known writers who might not have been deemed as naturally, effortlessly “talented” who went on to publish well because they stuck with it, worked to improve, and never gave up. That requires something far vaster and deeper than talent—it takes determination, humility, tenacity.

But as much as I agree with Chee that the writing life demands more than mere talent, I also see the benefits of pointing out a young writer’s talent. If my teachers hadn’t praised me in this way, I might not have believed in myself enough to push on through the rejection and self-doubt. For better or worse, knowing that others thought I had a gift was sometimes the encouragement I needed to not give up. When I was young, I wore my so-called talent like a badge, my own private credential into the impossible life of a writer. I wanted that life, I wanted it desperately, and if talent was the first thing that made me believe it might be possible, then I’ll take it.

My relationship with my “talent” changed when I graduated from college and entered the working world. There I found no teachers to praise my writing, no reassurances or encouragement. Instead, my work was mercilessly rejected. At the same time, I learned the larger world didn’t care whether I wrote or not. If I was going to pursue this, I’d have to be stubborn and certain. I’d also have to be humble, to face my weaknesses as a writer, and to commit myself to the craft. I had to cast off the mirage of talent and give myself over to hard work instead.

The work is what has sustained me in the years since. Every publication, grant, residency, award, or accomplishment I’ve earned stemmed not from talent but the work I’ve put in day after day, month after month, year after year.

Or as Chee puts it, “the only things you must have to become a writer are the stamina to continue and a wily, cagey heart in the face of extremity, failure, and success.”