So, there’s this thing we say and take as a kind of intrinsic belief system about literature, wherein some people are just “talented” at writing. I don’t buy it. In fact, I think it is more about readers than writers, because saying someone has writing talent is just another way of saying “I don’t really understand how this is as good as I think it is, but I really like it.” or “Wow, you’re younger than ost of the people I like to read, and yet you manage to tell me a story that inspires me! How talented you are!”
This isn’t a mark against writers, or readers. But, this shorthand is damaging to writers because it presumes that there is a mark of quality that can only be achieved by the select few, blessed with some kind of miracle that others don’t have or can’t achieve. It ascribes what is essentially a lot of difficult, plodding and driving work, to the angels and the muses.
There are fields of human endeavor where talent matters, and exists. Music comes readily to mind. There is dexterity and mathematics involved, in very precise measures, and we see children born as prodigies, performing as prodigies, who have such manual skill so quickly, and such mathematical precision. Mozart is a kind of miracle. There’s nothing like that in literature. Nothing. Literature has no manual dexterity. You can type with one finger if you like. Or a toe, if that’s all you have. There is also no level of complexity or skill that demands advanced mathematics most of the time. There is no Rachmaninoff Concerto to challenge the skill of the person constructing prose. Nothing like that, at all. Our youthful prodigies, in prose, are grown adults in their twenties and thirties. They’ve been working for years, in some fashion or another, and had to take quite some time to get their work to a place where it is marketable and good enough, much less great to the serious tastemakers of the world. It took time for them to grow as humans before they even knew how to speak in such and such a way, about such and such things that people turn to literature to find. I think if experience matters more than ability, as the age question of authorial “prodigies” indicates, perhaps whatever we’re calling talent is something else, entirely. And, one person’s amazing talent, is another person’s reviled one-star review.
Let’s take as our example of “writing talent” James Joyce. To many serious readers, he is perhaps the greatest novelist to ever put pen to paper. There’s nothing like the depth and complexity of his work, and the love of serious readers has kept his work alive for decades beyond his death. My dad reads a lot of books. He hates James Joyce’s great masterpiece, ULYSSES, passionately, thinks it’s absolutely terrible, and complains about it at any given opportunity. A lot of people were forced to read this great, talented author, like my father, and think it’s absolutely terrible, unreadable dreck. For every cultural icon constructing meaning out of anguish in the pages of serious literary journals, there are a lot of readers that think that stuff is awful and boring and terrible. Calling these readers unserious does us a disservice, because they are serious about reading what they love. For every reader in love with the work of Dan Brown, of which quite a few exist, there are serious literary scholars who ridicule and mock and despise this work. Bear this in mind, then, as I try to explain why talent doesn’t work. None of these readers, the lovers or the haters, are wrong. One of the problems of the idea of talent is that we assume that there is one literary mountain to climb, and the measure of talent is the ability to scale that single mountain. There is room, in literature, for Dan Brown, Danielle Steele, James Patterson, and for John Steinbeck, William Carlos Williams, and Ford Maddox Ford. There are Westerns, and Biographies, and Romance Novels, and Mysteries, and everything in between. Asking me to write a romance novel is going to make me look like an untalented buffoon, at this moment in time. (Give me a chance to take the time to study the craft of that form of literature, then we’ll talk.) Asking a great romance novelist to write stream of consciousness about a disillusioned schoolteacher and/or failed actor in Dublin, is likely also a doomed endeavor, without granting them, as well, the time to study that form in-depth. So, in this sense, the idea of talent reeks of snobbery, of this book or style of book being better than that one, this narrative goal being more worthy than that one. Different people are going to love and hate different books. The community of readers that concatenate into a genre community, in their way, will celebrate what they enjoy reading, and call the authors talented, whereas other communities will dismiss them and speak their praise to others, entirely.
Also, and this is very important, calling an authors “talented” attributes to the miraculous and unknowable what is inherently just a matter of work, good ol’ fashioned butt-in-chair-stick-too-it-iveness and effort. That effect was constructed not out of the depths of some authorial soul, but from someone poking at something until they thought it sounded right, or angling their head towards one method of speaking versus another that they think sounds more interesting, or some other trick or technique. Getting to the point of something being poked into shape will be different based on the methods of the author, perhaps, but shall be driven by the gulf between what the author wants to make, and what effects are currently extant in the draft at hand. Talent is a phrase that people use to mysticise this process, make it inaccessible, and ascribe people who perhaps do it faster as more gifted than those who do it slower, when both instances are individual creators who are aiming in different directions in different ways, following a voice inside their head and their confidence and their sense of whether they can make it better or not.
When I have heard people talk about what makes someone “talented” it is generally just some combination of the natural voice of the author combined with skill of the writing craft. Everyone can learn the craft of fiction, and will learn it differently based on the genre that is the most natural to that voice, or author, and that natural voice is an awkward way of describing what is, in effect, an artifact that has more to do with readers than writers.. It is not useful to ascribe to talent, also, when some writers seem to pick up the craft a little faster than others. Different aspects of craft will be apparent in different forms and techniques. Each story will use and feature different aspects of craft based on what specifically is being attempted. How many of our great authors have trunks full of stories abandoned, stories that failed? Does that make them untalented? We only see their successes, not their failures. It constructs an illusion of skills, when we are not granted the chance to see their weaknesses on display. (If I had a dollar for every successful, working YA and/or genre author I heard describe how they felt like they failed as writers of literary fiction in their college writing workshops, resented it…)
People have always been telling stories, ingesting stories. We ascribe to talent when it seems like it comes from nowhere, but it came from somewhere. Writing teachers and literary critics encounter students who, in their opinion, are further own the path than their peers, and mistake that for talent, when all the variety of skills and insights that combine to form writing craft can come from practicing a lot of different things in different ways. Plotting skill can come from watching television, or playing a sport. Skill with character creation can come from drawing portraits, or engaging in negotiations in business or with difficult siblings. It can come from all sorts of different sources. It is not something that just sort of appears in a child at six or seven. It takes some wisdom, which is always hard-won. Nothing of it is effortless. And, for each and every student described as “Talented”, we also suggest unintentionally that they’re just going to be good at every aspect of writing when we say that. Every teacher knows that different students come with different gifts, so to speak. Our challenge is to help students identify those parts of narrative craft where we are not fulfilling our potential. That is also our challenge to ourselves as authors. Presuming talent exists, then, is license to sit back on our laurels and coast on what we can “naturally” do without effort, as if even on that path that that is going to be all that happens: as if we will not learn more about ourselves and our dreams and goals and skills along the way each time we start anew.
We ascribe to talent when we see an author with a distinctive voice. Creative turns of phrase, or cultural insight that bridge gaps between mainstream and outsider culture is often ascribed to talent. Again, everyone speaks uniquely to them. Everyone dreams uniquely to them. Everyone has their culture, their histories and memories and nostalgias, their interests and the music in their heart that they love. Everyone has their own unique voice. The application of the craft of fiction to that specific voice can lead to successful literature in a variety of genres. And, no matter how successful it is, some people will think it is terrible, others will adore it, and some will say it just meh, okay, whatever. Authors define for themselves what success looks like, and measure their success against that. What, then, is talent?
As readers, critics, and teachers, we need to abandon the notion of inherent writing talent. It is part of the force in literature that tries to rank things on a scale of greatness, to create some list of the best books of all time, as if that is even a useful exercise, and to push one form or goal of writing as the best one. It is part of the push to make the authorial process a mysterious one, an ineffable divine. It is an excuse that is used by people who do not meet their goals to explain why they (or you) failed – no talent! It is part of the force of literature that measures your success as a creator not by what you think of your own work, but what others think – more specifically, what others in cultural power think of your work. It is all well and good to pursue that imprimatur, if you like, but do not mistake your ability or inability to do so by anything so useless as talent.
There are much more useful ways of describing authors and their work. Focusing in on the very specific things that make that work speak to us, as individual readers, for example, is more useful. Trying to understand why different people love something we do not love, to get out of our own heads, for example, is useful. (That, in fact, is the foundation of literature study in school: Students are forced to read a lot of things much of which they will not actually like and are asked to take it all very seriously and learn from it and understand it.) Focusing on why the author felt that story was worthy of our time, what makes that story important or unique to us, is more useful than saying this or that person is a talented writer, and more helpful to others considering reading that work.
As creators, as well, there are far more useful questions to ask. How do I make my work the most mine? How do I let the things that I know, which no one else really knows, shine through? What form is the most interesting to me as a reader and writer? Where can I go to learn the things I’d like to do better in my own work?
Work hard enough, long enough, and eventually someone will call you “talented”.