One Bite at a Time




Friday, December 9, 2016

Is Talent Enough?

I was fortunate to hear Reed Farrel Coleman speak at this year’s Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference. Some of what he said was new to me and some helped to confirm conclusions I’d come to on my own. I summarized his comments in an earlier post. Suffice to say if you get a chance to hear him talk about writing, make every effort to get there. It’s worth your time.

As luck would have it, Reed also wrote an article for the Signature web site last month, talking about the importance of talent in writing. I’ll leave you to read the whole thing yourself, as it’s brief and well worth your time. To me, the money quote is:

For years I’ve gotten into hot water with my peers and aspiring writers at “how to” conferences and workshops for my liberal use of an apparently taboo word: talent. It took me a while to figure out why that word elicited such ire. Depending upon your worldview, talent is either a gift from God or a matter of genetic serendipity. But regardless of whether you believe it comes in on little cats’ feet or is a result of great grandma marrying the wine merchant instead of the tailor, one thing is true about talent: It can’t be taught. You either have it or you don’t. You can have all the panels you want on how to build a better website, how to create a foolproof marketing plan, how to write a great first sentence, or how to outline a dynamic plot. None of it will matter if you don’t have writing talent.

What [Reed’s] detractors often fail to hear above the din of their booing is that talent isn’t enough. As a philosophy professor might say, talent is requisite, not sufficient.

To which I say: Amen.

Along these lines, Stephen King notes in his wonderful little book, On Writing, there are four levels of writer:
Great
Good
Competent
Incompetent

A competent writer can become good, but there isn’t really any movement between any other ranks. (Personal note: We all intuitively know great writers can on occasion piss away their gift through drugs, alcohol, self-indulgence, or a combination of any or all three.) What King says here is essentially the same as Coleman’s point: you can learn all the craft you want, but the key element, the one that has to be there for any education to make a difference, is talent.

I ca provide first-hand evidence of this: me. My formal education is in music. I hold a bachelor’s degree in Music Education and a Master of Music in Trumpet Performance. I was good. Every time I moved up a level—junior high to high school, high school to college, college to an army band—I started out somewhere down the rank and busted my ass until I was in the top couple of players in the group.

Then I went to graduate school at New England Conservatory and found myself in the company of trumpeters who were willing to work as hard as I was, and had more talent. Even more depressing, I found myself working with musicians who sight-read pieces better than I could ever hope to play them. I couldn’t compete with that. I saw the handwriting on the wall for a while but it took fatherhood and the need for a steady income for me to decipher it.

Do I have more writing than musical talent? Duh. I work hard on my craft, but I also must admit I’ve sweated far less blood to attain a higher level of accomplishment as a writer than I ever did as a musician. Not that I’m an award-winning bestseller, but I do have contracts and award nominations. There are no remotely similar accomplishments on my trumpet resume. That’s not to say I’m James Lee Burke or Joseph Wambaugh, either. I have more talent than some, less than many.

Here’s what a lot of people who get too close to their dreams to separate them from their goals lose sight of: There’s no shame in lacking talent. It’s hard to face up to its lack at the one thing you may want to do more than anything else, but that’s only you. No one else holds it against you. The older I get, the more I understand the core thing anyone should aim for is to be as happy as one reasonably can. This is easier for some based on circumstances beyond anyone’s control, but everyone should find some niche in their lives that gives them joy and spend time there. Constantly seeking accomplishment in a field one’s gifts are not well suited for can only lead to frustration, and frustration and happiness do not travel hand-in-hand.


Writing is by its nature a frustrating life. You work hard to get to an elusive and subjective accomplishment, and, even if you achieve it to your satisfaction, the odds are against general acceptance. (Calm down, writers. This doesn’t make you special. All the arts are like this.) Rejection is part of the business. Even if said rejection is an accurate assessment of your work, it’s not you that’s been rejected. It’s the work. Move on and be happy, even if that means something else to be happy at. Life’s too short.

2 comments:

Scott Parker said...

Fantastic piece. If I'm being accurate with myself, at this stage, I am competent, but I aim to level up to Good. And I'm perfectly fine with that. Lots of other writers write and make a living in that area. I plan to be one of them.

Dana King said...

I read WADING INTO WAR. You left Competent in the dust a while ago.