Novel-vember; Talent or Craft?

A couple years ago, I had a conversation with a friend while we were both working on writing projects. We were giving feedback on each other’s work, and I was talking about some principles of writing I had gleaned from all the books, podcasts and articles on storytelling I have read or listened to over the years. He thought it was odd that I considered storytelling something I could learn how to do better by reading books on writing. In his mind, writing was largely a matter of talent, while I thought, and still think, writing is a craft that you can get better at by a combination of practice and study of underlying principles.

I had encountered the writing as talent perspective before, and I have encountered it since. When I was a kid it worried me a lot, because there were times a story just wasn’t working for me, and if I was talented I shouldn’t have that problem, right?

This is a worry I rarely have now, because I have begun to question my whole concept of “talent.” Growing up, I thought that talent was A. a thing that you either had or didn’t have from birth, B. the reason people became successful or not successful. I think that’s a fairly common perception, and also a fairly debunked one. For one thing, many gifted people don’t grow up to be successful, and many successful people aren’t gifted.

For another, now I’m not sure that talent comes in a tidy little binary switch. I think people can be born with varying levels of ability, but whether that natural ability turns into real talent depends largely on how much time you invest in it. Someone who has a naturally athletic build, but who rarely exercises, is never going to be as athletic as someone who plays sports every day, even if they started out scrawny, asthmatic and easily exhausted. See Teddy Roosevelt for details. Similarly, I think people can vary in how creative, observant and eloquent they are, but anybody who has enough of those abilities to be truly interested in writing can make themselves a good writer.

Furthermore, I think the idea of writing as talent, rather than craft, makes it more difficult for writers to be objective. Growth in ability, for any skill, tends to jump most dramatically when somebody leaves their comfort zone and fails. Simply retreading areas of mastery can’t result in growth. To get better, you must first be incompetent. If you are hooked on the idea that you are talented, being in a state of incompetence is threatening. It clashes with your self-image. However, if you see any ability, including writing, as a craft to be studied, you can separate yourself from your failure. You have the resilience to stay in that area of incompetence until it becomes an area of mastery.

I was a terrible writer at five. I know because I wrote a short story as a present for my grandfather that had royal guards chasing away evil robbers by calling them buttfaces. That doesn’t matter, because I was writing at five, and was still writing at ten, and fifteen, and now I’m twenty-five and still writing.

And hopefully you all think this was at least somewhat well-written, because otherwise I have set myself up for serious embarrassment.


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