Chapter 12: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: The Myth of Talent


Series Note: I am now working on updating each chapter and putting together this book, finally, after over 100,000 words that started back in 2009. So I am updating each chapter and putting it up here now for those who have not seen them.  One new updated chapter every few days will still take me all summer to finish. Feel free to make comments and talk about each topic.

And again, anyone who has donated over the years will get a free electronic version of the book when it is all done. Thanks again for the support!

The word “talent” has been used for a very long time to destroy writers.

I have always believed that the word is the worst myth of them all in publishing, so here goes a chapter I’m sure will be annoying to some people, and should cause some interesting discussions if nothing else.

Okay, first to my trusty and well-worn Oxford American Dictionary for a standard definition.

Talent: Special or very great ability, people who have this.

That’s about it. Pretty straightforward. Notice the word “ability” and notice it says nothing about being “born with.” Just notice.

Okay, when it comes to writing, let me put my definition right out front here.

Talent in Writing: A measure of a person’s craft at storytelling at any given moment that depends on who is judging and the age of the person being judged.

As I have said before in a number of places, when I started writing, I was so untalented, it scared anyone who even tried to read something I wrote.

In school I hated writing because I was so bad at it. If I had listened to all the people who told me I had no talent for writing, I would have quit four decades ago. No, make that five decades ago, because all my early report cards said I had no talent for writing.

Now, after millions and millions of words practiced, many books and stories published, I get comments all the time like, “You are a talented writer, of course you can do it.”

Or one I got the other day. “You have the talent to write fast.”

Well, when I started to get serious about fiction writing, it took me hours and hours to do one 250 word page. Then that page would be so poorly written and riddled with mistakes that it got tossed away more often than not. (Remember, I was working on a typewriter.) Yup, I was a “naturally talented” fast writer. NOT!

Thank heavens for me I came to the realization early on in my life that talent was only a measure of craft at a certain point in time and nothing more.

Yet, frighteningly, parents, teachers, and so many family and friends think that talent is FIXED. If you are talented when you are young in something, you should be for your entire life. Well, sadly, as many have discovered, it doesn’t work that way.

Yet parents and teachers early on are determined to saddle kids with the “talented” label or worse yet, push them away from things they don’t do very well at first because they have no “talent” for that. Just makes me angry every time I hear of it.

The Problem of the Label

If you call a student talented, it’s an excuse for them to not work as hard. “It’s easy for them.”

If you say they don’t have talent, you allow them to not try at all, or think something is impossible to do and then quit.

In my opinion, talent is a deadly word to attach or even mention in front of any child.

Now, let’s look at writing. James Lee Burke, Stephen King, Nora Roberts and others at the top of the lists are the most talented writers we have working. Many readers don’t have a taste for a certain writer’s work, but doesn’t matter. The bestsellers are talented storytellers who sell millions of copies every time they put out a new book. The evidence is in the sales.

I’ll take myself at this moment as an example. Compared to a beginning writer, I have a vast talent for writing. Compared to King or Nora, not so much.

My talent AT THE MOMENT is a measure of my ability and craft. Right now.

And it depends on who I am being compared to.

But the key is that I am not permanently FIXED at this talent level. I can keep learning, practicing, working hard, and get better.

I can become more “talented.”

And, of course, that measurement of my talent is also completely subjective to who is doing the looking. One new writer might think I’m talented, some other writer might wonder why I even get published at all, let alone make my living at it.

So how did I become so “talented?” And how do I hope to become as talented as King and Nora someday?

Again, from an earlier chapter, practice and focused study. And then more practice, with the constant drive to learn and become a better writer with every story I write. As I improve my craft, sell more books, I will become more talented.

Factors of Being Talented

A proclamation of TALENT on a person depends on a number of factors.

1…Age of the person being judged.

Tiger Woods. As a kid, his father had him hitting golf balls. And his father was training him how to think like a golfer as a kid.

So he goes onto the Mike Douglas Show as a very young kid and manages to hit a golf ball into the air about fifty feet. WOW, he was talented. (For a kid his age.)

But compared to me at that time, if you just look at simple golf skills, no age factor at all, he was awful. He sucked, totally sucked and had no talent.

At that moment in time when Tiger Woods was that kid on the Mike Douglas Show, I was a full-time professional golfer playing qualifying stops for the tour. I could fly a ball 300 plus yards and seldom was over par on any course. Compared to me in strict golf standards, Tiger Woods at that time had no talent at all. I could hit a ball backhanded, standing on one leg, blindfolded farther than he could hit one at that same moment in time.

Age of the person observed was the major factor in calling Tiger talented at that time.

So what made Tiger Woods into the most “talented” golfer on the planet from that kid who could barely hit a ball fifty paces? Practice and focused study and years and years of more practice. He learned how to hit a ball farther than I could in my prime, he learned how to win, how to control his mind and his ability. He hit millions and millions of golf balls and played millions of holes of golf over a lot of years.

In other words, his craft improved as he got older.

As a kid, people called him talented, as an adult, they still call him talented. He managed to continue to increase his talent, his craft, his ability. He never once let the “talented” label go to his head, at least until the last few years with his famous problems.

2…What scale are you comparing the talented person to?

For example, I hope to run/walk a marathon in my 60th year. If I had gotten out about two weeks before my 60th birthday, my age class would have been 50-59 and I would have sucked compared to others. I will not be considered talented at all. But now that I am closer to 61, a marathon two weeks before my 61st birthday, my age class is 60-65 or 60-70, and you know, in that age class, my pounding and huffing along might be considered pretty darn good, even talented though I will have the same time either way.

A kid in high school English class might be able to write a paper better than his classmates because he’s spent time at home writing in a journal for five years. He has better craft because he has practiced and the others around him haven’t. So he gets called talented compared to the other people in his class. But now someone like me comes in, sits in that same class, with my years of experience writing and I write a paper. I would be called the talented student now and the previous talented student would just fade into the pack.

Talent is relative to who you are comparing the person to.

The Most Destructive Myth in Publishing

So why do I consider the talented label as one of the worst myths in all of publishing, and the most destructive? Simply because I’ve seen it kill writer’s dreams so many times over the years.

Both sides of the coin are destructive. Talented or Untalented.

Both judgments kill writers’ careers if the writer lets the judgment go in deep.

In my Clarion six week workshop, I was one of the least talented of the twenty-three writers who were there.  And I got toasted every critique and rightfully so. Plus I was still learning to type.

All the negative feedback just made me slightly angry because I knew they were right, and it made me want to work even harder. Remember, I had been very, very good at two national sports before Clarion. And I had been accepted and made it through years of law school when no one thought I could do it.

I knew that practice and hard work were the key. And when you want to play at a national level, you have to work harder and longer than everyone else in the country. I knew that. I was willing to do that.

So what happened to the most talented person at my Clarion? When I was the publisher at Pulphouse ten years later, I bought his only short story sale, a story he had written at Clarion. He got so much acclaim in that workshop and from friends, he clearly thought writing was too easy and went on to other things that challenged him while some of us also-rans are still hanging around and writing.

I’ve had “talented” friends get angry at me and become bitter. They think because they are talented they don’t have to work. Yet there I am, working my butt off and making sales and getting better, but because they think talent is a “fixed” thing, and since I had no talent, but am now selling, the system has to be broken in some way.

Or worse yet, I would get the comments, “He was lucky.”

As Kevin J. Anderson once said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Yup. And the harder I work, the more I practice, the more I want to learn, the more talented I become.

Comments like “He was lucky” often come from nothing more than thinking that talent is a fixed measure of a person.

My old friends who saw some of those early stories would never think of me as talented. I’m fixed in their minds as hopeless and it’s head-shaking to them how I have gotten so lucky.

Tiger Woods for the first ten years on the tour was known for being the first one on the practice range in the morning and the last one to leave at night. He worked with golf coaches, pumped weights, and did everything he could to improve his game. Wonder why he became for a time the most talented golfer on the planet? He worked harder than anyone else. And he taught other kids they had to do the same thing and now this new generation of golfers coming in are working machines.

Why am I here still selling and writing after decades and decades of this business?

Because I worked harder than most people. Simply but truthful answer.

In fact, I got angry once at a workshop of students who just shrugged off my success as nothing more than luck and me being me. (Sort of how I get angry at people who say, “Oh, you’re Dean Wesley Smith, you can sell anything.”

I challenged everyone in that workshop that I could write more books in one year than all of them combined. That’s right, combined. Six young professional writers against me. And I beat them. I did more work, wrote more books, in one year than all of them combined. None of them ever questioned again why I was more successful. And now they are all successful and going like crazy.

So it might also be safe to say that talent is a measure of how hard a person works at their craft and learning and practicing. The harder a writer works, the more talented a writer they become.

As I do with every chapter, I want to talk about solutions, but in this case, there aren’t many I’m afraid. At least not easy ones.

You have been labeled “talented.” And you believe it. Now what?

That’s the worst thing that can happen to you, actually, in writing, if that little voice in your head that drives you actually took that word in and believed it.

The symptoms will be some or all of the following if that has happened.

—Your work ethic has slowed down.

—You will be getting angry at rejections.

—You will believe that no one understands your work.

—Your ego will be so huge, you might think there is no point in going traditional publishing routes because that takes time and is rigged.

—You will start looking for shortcuts to becoming rich as someone with your “talent” should be.

You might even sell a couple of things, but alas, ten years from now we will be looking back asking that awful question: “What ever happened to…?”

How to fix this problem? Not a clue, actually, because I can’t help you with the ego.

Chances are that if you have been given this label and believe it, deeply believe it, you are doomed.

And that is the truth. Once you stop working, stop trying to get better, you stop, fix your talent right there, and then stand and watch the rest of the world go past.

For example, if you think you are a talented writer, chances are my chapter about writing faster made you angry. You don’t need to work as hard or write as fast because you’re talented.

And my posts upcoming chapters about agents will make you angry because you’re talented and you don’t need to learn all that stuff. Someone will take care of you. That’s your right because you are “talented.”

If your little voice really thinks you are talented, if you think every story you write should be bought first time out, and are angry it isn’t, if you think that famous is only for the lucky and bestsellers are bad writers, you are doomed. You have to kill that voice somehow, some way, as quickly as you can.

The belief that you are talented locks you in and closes doors.

But killing that voice, letting go of that belief that you are talented and dropping back to the belief that you must work harder and harder to attain what you want is difficult at best. Why?

Because of fear.

Inside, deep inside, you understand the truth, but fear uses the talented label as a shield.

Remember that talent is a measure of your craft at the moment which depends on who you are being compared to and your age.

Best thing I can suggest is figure out where that “talented” label went in. And then kill that moment.

For example, your workshop kept telling you that you are talented, but no one in there was published, and yet you believed them and it went in. Oh, oh… Get away from that workshop, join a workshop (and keep your mouth shut) that has professional selling writers in it. If your “talented belief system” can survive being torn down and you can go back to wanting to learn and get better, you might have a hope.

Find the source and clean it out of your mind as quickly as you can. If you can. Get professional help if you need it, which with this problem, you more than likely will.

How do you really know if you have this problem?

Here is the way you tell…

You think that all you need to do is sit down and write that great idea you have and polish it until it’s perfect and your talent will be shown to the world. Problem is, you just can’t seem to find the time to write it.

Which is your deep mind saying, “Don’t try, you might fail. Better to believe you are talented than try to write and prove you are not.

Truth: Thinking you are talented is an excuse to not work, to not write, to not drive forward.

Thinking you are talented is a reason to be lazy.

What happens when you really believe you have No Talent?

Almost as bad as the flip side, actually. Having a label of being bad at something gives us all an excuse to not do it, even though we want to. Back to the fear issues.

You think “If I am so bad at this and it’s impossible for me to learn because I have no ‘talent’ for it, why should I even bother?”

Fear wins and you stop and never really try.

When I started into writing, all the pounding I took because of my poor craft just motivated me to learn and get better. I was told over and over, by everyone from my family to teachers that I had no talent for writing. “It just wasn’t me.”

I was talented at skiing, or golf, or math, or architecture. (Never was talented at the law.) Why didn’t I just stay with those?

But interestingly enough, I had the strength to stand up and say (in my own mind) “Only I know what’s right for me.”

In writing, only sales are the judge of quality writing, no matter what anyone says or how loudly some failed writer/reviewer proclaims themselves to be the judge.

Readers purchasing your books and enjoying the read are all that matter.

And the only way to get more sales and to find more readers is to practice and learn and keep working harder than everyone around you.

So if you have been given the “untalented” label, (and you believe it) you have to somehow climb over the fear, tell everyone to go take a flying leap, and just keep pushing forward. Most won’t. Writing is hard enough just learning for the lucky ones that weren’t saddled with either side of this myth early on.

I have never believed I have talent. I have never believed I am untalented.

I have believed in my own ability to work hard, practice, and learn something I set my mind to learning.

And so far, that’s got me past a lot of proclamations by observers telling me that I have no talent or now that I am talented. And these days, I hate to admit, those hit me in about equal measure all the time.

And that just makes me laugh.

The real bottom line is that to get past this myth, you have to believe in yourself and ignore everyone else’s belief system about you. Learn from others, but ignore what they say about your “talent.” Because the moment you take that alien belief system into your own mind and believe it, either good or bad, you are doomed.

Talent in Writing: A measure of a person’s craft at storytelling at any given moment that depends on who is judging and the age of the person being judged.

In other words…

Talent Can Be Learned.

It’s up to you to work hard, practice hard, learn everything you can learn, so that you also become a “talented” (meaning skilled) writer.

The myth of talent kills more writers careers than any myth in the business.

Don’t let yourself fall to this one.

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Copyright © 2011 Dean Wesley Smith
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Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately really kept me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

Thanks, Dean

 


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65 Responses to Chapter 12: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: The Myth of Talent

  1. Blarkon says:

    I know it isn’t writing, but you did use Woods as an example … Where would Mozart fit into this? Or would he be such an extreme example writing the opera Apollo et Hyacinthus at 11 and Mitridate, re di Ponto at 14 (perhaps prodigy is a better term rather than “talent”) that he could be put aside in any discussion of talent? Was Mozart able to accomplish this at 11 and 14 through practice, or was there an innate ability there so extreme and unusual that there are few others who have accomplished such feats at that age? (as far as I can tell, the operas are still being performed, which pushes them away from the “stunt” category)

    I certainly agree with the Kevin J Anderson quote (and the thematically similar “I worked my whole life to be an overnight success”). I also suspect (though can’t of course prove) that there are some writers, musicians, painters (and so on) who have (and perhaps always have had) an implicit sense of how to craft things – something that they certainly hone through developing that skill.

    Of course as you rightly point out, only certain people would be able to judge whether that ability was innate, the result of diligent practice and attention to developing the skill, or some combination of the two.

    • dwsmith says:

      I know nothing about the early years of Mozart, but I understand that he wrote thousands and thousands of compositions for his church, and had a father like Tiger Woods’ father. But that would take a Mozart expert to tell you about that.

  2. I’m not a Mozart expert but in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outlier he debunks the Mozart child prodigy myth.

    First, Mozart’s father, a renowned composer in his own right started teaching Mozart at age 3 or so.

    Then, from age three on, Mozart practiced three hours a day. By age 6, Mozart had at least 3500 hours of practice under his belt. So, in comparison to his peer group who hadn’t put in that much practice time with an expert teacher [his father], Mozart seemed really “talented”.

  3. B.C. Young says:

    Dean, you never fail to inspire me. I’ve been going at this writing thing for a year and a half. There is so much I used to believe about writing, that you’ve set straight. Even now, as I mention things I’ve learned and understood, people look at me like my line of thinking is wrong and ridiculous. But then I realize, they have no talent for understanding writing. ;)

  4. I don’t know about the rest, but I’m willing to agree with it given how 100% on target you are in the “if you believe you are talented” section. Wow.

    All of your boldfaced text was the wallpaper inside my head ten years ago.

    BTW, I didn’t need therapy to break free. What happened was that I was “lowering myself” to use my “gifts” on a marketing day job and freelance journalism at night, and through a long string of events, I got what many people perceive as a dream job. Lots of people told me how lucky I was. I responded, “Uh, sure, I was in the right place at the right time – but I was in that place and time with the right skills and the right background, and I earned those.”

    It was like a firecracker going off in my brain. I immediately started selling a ton more non-fiction because I was able to work with editors as colleagues/mentors, instead of with my usual biting my tongue and rolling my eyes (which shows no matter how slick you think you are).

    I didn’t get serious about fiction until the end of 2009, but I sold the second attempt. Amazing what you can do when you’re not blinded by your own mythmaking.

    I’m babbling, but it’s because I’ve never seen anyone articulate my problem so perfectly and I’m in shock ;)

  5. @Blarkon: I can tell you, from the perspective of someone who got handed the gifted label at age six: Some people have something. The only benefit is that… well, you know how sprinters start their race in that low crouch? It lets them push off, get a split second advantage.

    People without the “something” of talent don’t start in that crouch. But first of all, they can learn to crouch, and in future races find themselves even with the naturals. And second, writing a book isn’t a sprint. Marathon runners all start standing up, so the natural ability to crouch amounts to so much whoopty-poop.

    Mozart’s dad and Tiger Wood’s dad have quite a bit in common.

    • dwsmith says:

      Kathleen said, “People without the “something” of talent don’t start in that crouch. But first of all, they can learn to crouch, and in future races find themselves even with the naturals. And second, writing a book isn’t a sprint. Marathon runners all start standing up, so the natural ability to crouch amounts to so much whoopty-poop.”

      Really good way of thinking of that. And you can take that even farther and golf (or any sport) is an interesting way of looking at it as well. If you think as your ability as talent, then why does it go away as you get older in sports? Jack is 70 or so, Arnie is 80 plus. Are they still talented? Sure, but it must be measured with age. Just like Tiger at age 5 on the Mike Douglas show was talented for his age, Jack is now talented for his age. Any of the young kids on the tour could kick their butts, so they are talented “for their age.”

      Those that believe that talent is a fixed item really, really need to watch the age factors change that “fixed” item. And the observer as well.

      • dwsmith says:

        My one major learning experience on this: A story I’ve told before.

        I was a young and cocky professional golfer working as the assistant professional for one of the greats of the game, Zell Eaton. I thought I was pretty good and could move it around most any course I played under par and Zell just smiled at me at times, knowing the truth. One day he decided to show me just how good I was, so he offered to back me and all my losses against a friend of his who was coming through town, an older guy named Jack Took. I had never heard of the guy and he didn’t look like much, so I told Zell I could handle my own bets. Zell insisted he would back me. So in 1972 I went out onto the course to play against this Jack guy for $100 three ways. $100 on the front nine, $100 on the back nine, and $100 on the full eighteen. Presses (meaning doubling-up allowed when you were down.) I figured I would be eating steak that night.

        Jack had a classically bad golf swing and a nasty slice that started off down the right side and ended up in the fairway. I flew my drives past him by 50-75 yards.

        I was two under par on the front side, had pressed him once, and lost $200. I was smart enough to not press on the back side. I shot five under par 67 on the par 72 course and lost $400 to a little guy with a bad slice. (I wasn’t angry and spent the back nine just watching how the hell he did it.)

        It took me two months to pay Zell back, but I paid him every penny, because it was the best lesson I ever learned. Night-after-night, day-after-day, from that day forward I hit golf balls, thousands and thousands of golf balls, often with Zell sitting in a lawn chair watching me as best he could with his failing eyesight. And I played every moment I could.

        Who was Jack Took (if that was his real name)? When I asked Zell a few days later he just laughed and said that Jack and Ben Hogan used to drive around and play matches with the rich guys at golf clubs to make a living back in the 1940s and early 1950s. He was Ben Hogan’s amateur partner. And he was twenty years past his prime and still kicked my young butt.

        That taught me that believing you are talented can be one of the most expensive and dangerous things anyone in any art or sport can do. And I’ve never once believed it about myself since, which is why I still work so hard at this writing business trying to get better and better.

  6. James Viser says:

    I could not agree more with you, Dean. It’s often said that people “create their own luck” through work and most importantly persistence. Talent can be learned, but it takes patience and perspective. Never believe others, good or bad, and belief in oneself helps maintain balance required for long-term improvement.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  7. Camille says:

    Here’s the thing I’ve learned after 30 years of teaching and working with art students:

    1. Artistic skills — like writing — CAN be taught, and especially CAN be learned. Of course they can. It’s pompous to think otherwise. _Nobody_ is just born with it. Not even Mozart.

    2. There are people, alas, who can’t be taught. They tend to be people who don’t want to change (or maybe just can’t). They have a fixed view, and while you can get them to work hard, all their practice is only on things inside what they know.

    3. I do believe in talent. Whether it’s inborn, or whether it’s early childhood influences doesn’t really matter. Some people take more naturally to math, and some to working with their hands or feet or to language, or to human interaction. That doesn’t mean that nobody else can do these things.

    Talent doesn’t mean success. It has more to do with your level of interest. Very often students who are talented at something don’t actually study or do the thing they have talent in, because it bores them. They go after things that they are less good at. Some talented students don’t have a lot of drive period, and the other students surpass them in everything.

    Of course there are some people who define talent as that drive which makes you work at something. And I think that’s the only practical definition. The person with “It” is the person who just can’t stop.

    • dwsmith says:

      Camille, I agree with #1, and I agree with #2 in your points, that there are some people who can’t be taught because they just don’t think they need to learn at a deep level. Often this is because they have bought into the “I’m talented” thought at a deep level.

      I don’t much agree at all with #3. I just don’t think anything called “talent” exists at all naturally. It is an observed label stuck on people by outside observers depending on the person being observed age. Nothing more. You believe there is something born in you with a skill and it will either hurt you as you say or stop you. Talent, the very word, used around any child, should be banned completely. Teachers and parents do more damage to children with that one simple word, usually said with complete belief they are helping the child.

      So I think your #3 point is hogwash. And dangerous. It assumes that a child can pop out of a womb with a talent for say golf or art or writing. That’s just flat silly.

  8. J. Tanner says:

    Tiger is a great example. Sports have a lot of them. The Williams sisters in Tennis. Jerry Rice in football. And even Michael Jordan in basketball.

    These people all outworked their peers.

    We got to a basketball game real early one time and watched Chris Mullen stand on the foul line and make almost a hundred free throws in a row. This was before warm-ups even started for the team. And the few fans scattered around spoke in awe of his “talent” for shooting free-throws. But it was so plain to me that Chris had been shooting hundreds of free throws every day exactly like this because it was obvious that talent was a myth–he was a 90%+ free throw shooter when the pressure was on due to shooting all those free throws every single day even though he was already considered one of the best in the league. He wasn’t out there to show off to fans. He was outworking his peers.

    And conversely, sports can break down at some levels because genetic luck can play a role. Shaq is just huge. End of story. He’ll still have to work hard, but there is an innate aspect to his “talent” in that case and this gives him a leg up on a guy who is 5’7″. The important point is that the hard work still tends to be the more significant factor.

  9. Steve Lewis says:

    Dean,

    This was a very timely post for me because I just started reading “Talen is Overrated” by Geoff Colnin last night. The basic premise of the book seems to be that people who rises to the highest levels of achievement do so through focused practice.

    @ Blarkon: Check out this video series on Talent by Howard Taylor of Writing Excuses fame:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4qBSrLe19k&playnext=1&list=PLF98E37A7A280B0C3

    He mentions the first composition that Mozart created at the age of four in the third video, saying that it’s neat but still the musical equivalent of refrigerator art. It wasn’t until about seven or ten years later, after focused practice, that he created the works that we really listen to again and again.

    Anyway, that’s just my two cents.

  10. Rasputin says:

    That was remarkably inspiring, thanks.

  11. Mercy Loomis says:

    Great article, Dean. I had that “talented” label for a long time about a lot of things that I never worked hard at. Fortunately at some point I realized they were all wrong and my writing sucked, and I was going to have to start (gasp!) learning how to write. Unfortunately I can’t quite remember how that epiphany happened, or I’d happily relate it in the hopes of helping others. I think that might be the “luck” part. I was lucky enough to wake up one day and get out from under that label. And work my butt off ever since.

    I wish we could teach this in schools. It would save a lot of headache. But then, I think you have to get to a certain age level before you realize you don’t know anything, and that it’s ok that you don’t know anything. Most of the people I know never figured that out until their mid-twenties at the earliest. (Some have never figured it out, more’s the pity.)

  12. C.E. Petit says:

    Perhaps I’ve spent too much time burrowing in H’wood documents over the last few years, but my immediate reaction to the title of this post was “It’s not ‘talent’ that’s a myth, it’s paying ‘talent’ that’s a myth.” Curiously, as it turns out, this is a more-appropriate reaction to Our Gracious Host’s entry before this one…

    In any event, I have three thoughts from other areas of the arts that, I think, only reinforce Our Gracious Host’s position.

    (1) Talent and technique are different creatures. There’s a reason that Itzakh Perlman still practices the violin several hours a day, and that an overly attentive musicologist can state with a fair degree of certainty how much Rachmaninoff was performing at the time he was composing any given piece. When we’re reading, though — and fiction in particular, but far from uniquely! — much of what counts for the technique of the writing process is invisible behind the page, leaving the misbegotten impression that talent is “enough.” Without the appropriate technique for putting one’s behind in a chair and getting the words on paper; and the appropriate technique for managing the business side of fiction/literature/publishing/life; and the appropriate technique for transitioning between projects — that talent means as much as any of the “talented” entrants to Julliard’s performance curricula that you’ve never heard of because their talent was not matched by their technique.

    (2) “Talent” incorrectly implies that there is no hard work involved in the arts. Perhaps Joe Lunchbox who works on some nameless production line/manual labor jobsite has that attitude, but that’s incited class warfare more than anything else. (The converse attitude from too many in the arts that the average gorilla is smart enough for any production line is just as damaging.)

    (3) “Talent” is a starting point at best. I’m not much of a fan of the “saying nothing beautifully” school of the arts. Leaving aside whether “saying nothing beautifully” is a matter of technique, of talent, of some combination, or of something else, the faults of seminihilistic postmodern fiction — the extreme instance of “write what you know” — demonstrate that talent is not enough. After all, if you write what you know, and you know nothing…

    If there is such a thing as “talent” for writing, in the context of this blog it is at most an ability to see “story” in a setting, an abstract character, or a set of events. That, however, is not a story yet — it still requires substantial technique and hard work to bring that abstract story out. “Greater” or “lesser” talents just measure how much must be there before one can begin to find the germ of story that will grow into a story. And sometimes it really does take a “big chunk” to make that; Picasso’s Guernica is an excellent example of an event from which just about any fiction writer could have found a story to tell (perhaps even the same one) but is guided by technique and not “talent.”

  13. One might say a person has some innate bend or lean towards art/creativity; we often call this, “talent.”

    What people often miss is that whatever talent one has must be backed up and underpinned/supported by Craft (in whatever art). Without the Craft and only “talent”, the artist isn’t going to be viable. He might be able to entertain his granddaughter with a bed-time story, but no one else will buy his work.

    Whatever talent anyone has _must_ be supported by the best Craft possible at that particular time in their development. Craft means hard work in discovering and practicing (applying) known workable and accepted methods of presenting whatever art they are doing.

    Lots of talent gives an edge. That edge is pretty dull, though, if you have no Craft in estimating which way that tree will fall when you cut it.

    A beginner can be a professional in that he is learning and applying Craft. The less Craft, the less viable he will be.

  14. “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

    Yeah, that one’s going on the wall above my computer. Great quote.

    BTW, are you aware that this essay is titled, “Killing the SCARED Cows of Publishing?” Maybe you meant to swap “sacred” for “scared”. Title works for me, either way. :)

    I agree with Blarkon. There are some of us — not many, not nearly as many as some would have us believe — who really are born with a gift the rest of us don’t have. It’s not that we are not “talented”, it’s that it comes easy to them. You were/are a golfer. You know that there are some athletes who, despite hard work and dedication, will never be in the class of a Tiger Woods. It’s no shame to admit, as I do to myself, that I will never be Stephen King or Dean Wesley Smith. I do think I have talent, and not because someone told me I did or didn’t. What that “talent” means is that IF I work hard at my craft, IF I put in as much time as I can, and IF I pay attention to reader feedback, then I can get better.

    There will always be Mozarts and Tiger Woods and Bobby Fischers among us, people born not with “talent” but with POTENTIAL. Some fortunate souls with that potential find the support and dedication of parents and mentors to teach them to work hard and to practice (I know you don’t like that word). Some don’t. Some of us are born with less potential, and have to work harder to achieve their goals. It’s no shame, either way. We’re all different. The trouble comes when, as you point out, people start slapping labels (and false, unrealistic expectations) on people who are just starting out. Some people just take longer to blossom into their full potential — like Rex Stout, who started writing Nero Wolfe mysteries at 48, Raymond Chandler at 43. In their thirties, those guys would have been called “untalented”, even when measured against themselves, 20 years later.

    It’s all a matter of perspective.

  15. K. W. Jeter says:

    Dean –

    I’m not an expert on Mozart, but I did quite a bit of research on him for an ongoing book project. (If you’re really interested in the subject, the best modern bio is probably Maynard Solomon’s MOZART: A LIFE.) Regarding the points you’ve raised about him:

    1) The difference between Woods’ father and Mozart’s father is that Leopold Mozart was himself a pretty accomplished musician; his treatise on the art of violin playing is still referenced today, though certainly not to the degree it was back then. I doubt if anyone would describe Woods’ father as having a similar level of personal accomplishment;

    2) Mozart didn’t write “thousands and thousands” of compositions for the Church; his compositions for the Church are substantial, but there aren’t *that* many of them; and

    3) Mozart is on record as having retorted, when people described his talent as ‘God-given’ — “Then what were all those hours I spent practicing when I was a child?”

  16. Camille says:

    Dean, I think the problem you are going after is something different than what I said — or perhaps something I left out of what I said.

    Here is where I absolutely agree with you: talent cannot be spotted or measured from the outside. Period, end of story. Nobody can look at a person and say “kid, you got talent,” or “kid, give it up, you ain’t got talent.”

    Nobody can actually see whether you’ve got “it” or not. Nobody. And it is pointless and counter-productive to try. (Because, frankly, everybody’s got it — but in different types and quantities.)

    Now, here’s where your “talent is a myth” thing is damaging: The thing we call talent is something everyone has, but it is shaped differently in every human being. We deal with it every day: students who have been raised to believe that there is no such thing as excellence. We’re all born the same so we all get a gold star and learning is just going through the motions.

    The biggest problem we have these days in teaching artists is not that they were told they can’t do it. It used to be, but no, today the biggest problem we have is that our students have been raised to ignore the difference between their own work, and truly excellent work.

    Now, what’s interesting, is that they DO know that the work is easier for some students than for others. And they know that some kids are born with a heard defect, and some are destined, genetically, to be taller and better at basketball. They know that some kids took naturally to letters or to math. And some get the social interaction better than others.

    What they don’t hear (and which they need to hear) is that yes, different things are easier for different people. We are not all exactly alike. They’re taught, unfortunately, that it’s rude to notice that someone did a better job than someone else. And they think that all criticism or praise is inherently unfair, even of yourself.

    So by not acknowledging at all that any of us have any strengths and weaknesses, you end up doing the opposite of your goal. You make students feel there is no point in making an effort.

    That said, I agree absolutely with your overall point: the truth is, everybody has talent (if you define it as a set of inborn abilities which are nurtured by circumstances).

    Everybody’s talent is different, and not as easily suited to what you want to do as it might be for something else — but that doesn’t matter. All that means is that you may have to work a little harder.

    And once you’ve done that work, you may find you are actually ahead of the people who didn’t have to work so hard.

  17. Tori Minard says:

    Maybe what we call talent in a child is partly the kid’s interest in that subject. So a kid who’s fascinated with art will be said to be talented. After all, if the kid is fascinated with it, he/she will spend lots of hours practicing it, thus developing skills other kids won’t have.

    When I was in college I took bellydance lessons. I was obsessed with being really good, so I took 2 classes a week and practiced 2 hours a day, six days a week (in addition to going to college classes). That’s not much for, say, a ballerina, but it’s a lot of practice compared to what the other bellydance students were doing. And I kid you not, one woman said I must have been a dancer in a past life (that was her explanation for why I was so “good”).

    I felt insulted by that. I was putting in a lot of work, and that’s why I sped past the other students. I did also have a background in music, which probably helped me succeed. But there were moves, like the head slide, that I found really difficult, and I worked until I mastered them. That simple.

    I also got the talented label in writing, and my mom encouraged me to read and taught me to read at an early age. But she also hated what I wrote and destroyed the bulk of my writing when I was sixteen because it offended her. So I got really mixed messages. I think internally I knew I had a lot to learn about storytelling, but the talent thing did hold me back for awhile. And then, when I entered a couple of contests and didn’t win, I was pretty upset and disappointed. Even though I scored high, I didn’t win and I went through a period where I thought I couldn’t write at all. I wonder why we do these things to ourselves?

    I think one of the most damaging things about the talent label, besides the “I’m talented & that means I don’t have to work,” is the idea that “I’m talented and Special,” and therefore I must succeed quickly and dazzle everyone with my wonderfulness. It’s a recipe for despair, really, because in the real world, no-one succeeds quickly and dazzles everyone. Success takes a lot of effort. Even for Mozart and Tiger Woods.

    Tori

    • dwsmith says:

      Tori, Yup, I agree. And it is insulting when someone credits anything but hard work for your success. It’s one of the reasons all professional writers bristle at the “Oh, you can sell or you can do anything because you are (Name).” As a few of you have noticed in past posts, I’ve started fighting back at that insult that discounts all the hard work I do every day.

      Camille, we are just not agreeing on a basic premise I guess. I agree with your results and how making everyone seem the same also hurts. But I completely disagree with what you said. You said, “the truth is, everybody has talent (if you define it as a set of inborn abilities which are nurtured by circumstances). I just don’t think anyone is born with abilities called talent. I think that is dangerous to children and babies to even think that, to be honest. And it is always, and I repeat, ALWAYS an interpretation of the adult watching the “inborn abilities” blossom.

      Let me state this one more time:

      Talent is a measure of a person’s ability at the time of observation, and is dependent on the person doing the observing and the age of the observed. Period.

      Anything past that is a belief system of the person doing the observing.

      Sorry, Camille, just don’t think anyone has a natural talent for anything. And if I did, I would be the observer giving an opinion (nothing more) about an observed and that opinion would depend on the age of the person observed.

      Talent is not a scientific fact. But it is an opinion of people observing others.

  18. Ann says:

    I needed to hear this. I wish this article was around for me to read when I was a teenager. I wish there are more people like you around period.

    As a kid, my passion was reading, writing, and storytelling. In fact, my childhood dream was to become a fantasy author. Unfortunately, I had no “talent” for writing and my teachers and peers convinced me to focus on the things I am good at (but don’t care much about), like math. So that’s what I studied in college and spent a decade at a soul sucking corporate job doing, though I quit 2 years ago to start my own business (which is way more work, more stress, less pay, but is 100x more rewarding, but that’s another story).

    I recently heard about the November writing challenge and decided to just do it; to just write for the joy of it and not care if I am “untalented.“ I just wanted to tell a story.

    See? I was stuck in that “I am untalented” rut for years, but once I decided that I don’t (and shouldn’t) care about how other people regard my “talent,” I was liberated to do what I’ve wanted in my heart since I was a child. I do regret squandering away a decade’s worth of time to build my writing and story telling skills, but I know it’s never too late to start. I have no grand illusions of becoming a best-selling author or even a published author. I just want to share this world that has been stuck in my head since I was a kid and tell a good story. I just want to become better.

    THANK YOU DEAN!

    • dwsmith says:

      Ann, you are more than welcome.

      But don’t sell yourself short. Your “not having grand illusions of becoming a bestselling author or even published” is still part of that early training. Why SHOULDN’T you be a published and bestselling writer??? All that means is that you have people reading your work. So you still have more cleaning out of that “untalented” belief system. (grin) Get it all out, believe that if that Dean Wesley Smith idiot can be a bestseller, than so can I. Honestly, I mean that. Clean it all out and dare to dream high in what you love. You may be surprised at what us untalented people can do. (grin)

  19. I enjoyed your post. You make very good points. Isn’t talent really a combination of factors, including, but not limited to, innate ability enhanced by education, experience, and practice?
    If you are killing sacred cows…mmm, scared hamburger! I’ll take some fries with mine.
    Good job!

  20. Camille says:

    Dean, your definition works for me too. I think this is to a large degree a matter of semantics, and I can certainly agree to disagree on just the meaning of a word. (And I wasn’t so much trying to argue against your position as defend mine anyway.)

    The bolded part of your message is the key thing anyway. It’s the part that matters.

    What you’ve had in the past, and what you have now — be it “talent,” luck, education, wealth, health — is not an indication of what you WILL have.

    I think that’s the key thing, isn’t it?

  21. David Barron says:

    The only really useful talent is knowing when you suck.]

    After that it’s time to practice.

    • dwsmith says:

      I don’t agree, David, honestly, even though I know you were sort of joking. No writer knows when they suck or when they have written art or just good story or whatever. We just don’t. And we all need to practice ALL the time. It should be as regular to writers as breathing. There is no useful talent. (grin) But there are a ton of useful skills.

      • dwsmith says:

        Bill Kuehl sent me this post:

        ——-

        Dean, I find myself in agreement with your take on the concept of ‘talent’, and for similar reasons. Rather than repeat myself, I’ll post a link to my blog on that subject, should you wish to peruse it:

        http://www.williamakselart.com/wordpress/?p=17

        Basically I divide the word talent into two factors, aptitude and skill.

        Aptitude being the natural born ability to grasp something, how you’re hard-wired, so to speak. Some people have a stronger aptitude in some discipline than others. I knew a guy who could pick up a musical instrument and be playing at a high level after a week. His aptitude was on the high end of the scale, while mine is pretty low: I picked up a guitar years ago, and set it down too many months later.

        Skill is the hard work you put into developing your ‘talent’, whether your aptitude is in art, writing, acting or whatever.

        I have other posting on my blog relating to creativity should you be interested. Just delete the stuff from “?” on to the right.

        Bill

  22. Silver Bowen says:

    One more encouraging idea about talent, or ability, or whatever – Future talent cannot be measured by current talent. Personal progress cannot be predicted. Talent equals effort multiplied by an unknown quantity of time (a unit I like to call a mysterion.)

    Some people suck at something for years, then all the sudden something clicks. Or they go from “just okay” to “wow” in a few short months, halfway through their career. The phenomenon of plateauing for a while and then making rapid progress is really common.

    Every time I find myself busting my butt at something, and feeling like I’m not getting anywhere, beating my head against a wall, and maybe I’m just no good at whatever it is I’m doing, I try to keep this in mind and take heart. Progress is a complex, chaotic, unpredictable thing, nobody knows which tap is the last one that brings the wall down.

    • dwsmith says:

      Silver, I agree. Progress and learning is chaotic and often uncomfortable, which is why so many would rather not learn than keep pushing forward. Thanks!

  23. David Barron says:

    Heh. Fair enough, but I’ll refine: ‘A writer can’t know whether the story is good or bad without consulting with the reader, but he can know if he sucks.’

    I’ll use a tertiary New World Writer skill as an example: cover art. When I started out learning how to make cover art, I didn’t really have the skill set to determine whether it was good or bad without consulting examples, but I could tell on my own that they hadn’t yet crossed the, for lack of a term of art, Suck Line.

    Not that that was an excuse: The only way to cross that line was to practice, and now I’m confident that my covers Don’t Suck, but it’s up to the buyer to decide whether they’re good or bad. Likewise with writing. The First Million Words probably suck: But you’ve got to write them anyway…or you’ll always think you suck. (Or you’ll never know you do.)

    The talent of knowing when you suck is the skill of having the self-awareness that you’ll always need to improve. More elegant: All that I know is that I know not enough (yet).

    • dwsmith says:

      David, you had me with “All that I know is that I know not enough (yet).” Right to the “Yet” word. If you ever think you will know enough, you are doomed when that day comes I’m afraid. Learning in this business never stops. So if you cut the word “Yet” I would agree with you. That one little word can mean so much. (grin)

  24. Dean, One of My favorite quotes has been:

    “A winner is someone who recognizes his God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses these skills to accomplish his goals.” – Larry Bird

    Perhaps as someone mentioned, potential may be a better word than talent. Another mentioned Shaq, there is the image of potential for many modern sports – size and agility. If he had just set on his couch it would have meant nothing.

    With writing, we all can work our tails off to improve. And even as I approach 60, I can develop new skills that look something like talent to someone that has not done the work. “Look Mom, I’m writing!”

    Readership and paydays can be an (eventual) proof of writing diligence rather than innate talent.

  25. Camille says:

    Dean: Bill Kuehl said exactly what I was originally trying to say.

  26. David Barron says:

    …so…close. I won’t even try to inflate that (yet) into “The balance of probabilities and hard-earned confidence indicate that I might know enough to get by without denying the onus of continual learning in the present and into the future.” That’s a lot for a parenthesis bubble to contain without popping.

    I’ll try harder next time.

  27. Excellent post, Dean, as usual.

    I’ve struggle against the early “talent” label, and know how much it can thwart productivity. It’s a hard word to live up to. That’s one of the reasons people endlessly rewrite—trying to prove to themselves and others that they actually have whatever “talent” has been ascribed to them.

    And yes, it can feel insulting when the hard work behind the “talent” is casually dismissed.

    I wrote an exchange in a verse play that addresses this issue. Machiavelli calls Leonardo da Vinci a genius, and he bristles at the charge:

    MACHIAVELLI:
    A work of genius!
    LEONARDO:
    What a wicked phrase —
    Condemns my effort in the guise of praise.
    MACHIAVELLI: Proclaiming genius is a compliment.
    LEONARDO: It claims the work was never work at all,
    As if the final frame were heaven-sent,
    As if God put the painting on the wall.
    You did not see me when my back was bent.
    No man can dance before he learns to crawl.
    A genius knows his mystery demands
    A sacrifice, the blistering of hands.
    His life is dedicated, disciplined,
    To conquer chaos — formlessness to form.
    The traits of nature must be tamed and twinned.
    Inspiration? A constant, seething swarm.
    It’s not the sudden windfall, but the wind —
    The whirling, swirling, skirling of the storm.
    The genius learns to stand, instead of duck,
    To live life under stress, till thunderstruck.
    Though pangs of anguish claim him on the cliff,
    He does not languish, living out his lot.
    While other men are scuttling the skiff,
    He crowns the crest, a fearless Argonaut.
    All life has genius. Yet you speak as if
    I have some gift that others haven’t got.
    No. Genius is a quest. It’s not a quirk.
    It is a willingness to do the work.

    David

    • dwsmith says:

      Really, really nice, David. I love the last two lines. “Genius is a quest. It’s not a quirk. It is the willingness to do the work.”

      Exactly! Thank you!

  28. Silver wrote:
    “…Some people suck at something for years, then all the sudden something clicks. … Progress is a complex, chaotic, unpredictable thing, nobody knows which tap is the last one that brings the wall down.”

    You’ve just described the learning experience at one of Kris & Dean’s workshops! Wherin a bunch of writers willingly try, fail, try, and fail again for days, only to all of a sudden break past a barrier and suddenly “get” whatever the point of the lessons were… and hopefully then go home and keep practicing them to the point of actualy developing something resembling talent for that particular skill.

  29. Thomas E says:

    At 11, I was diagnosed with dyslexia. At the time, the government tests they gave me said my reading age was five years younger than my contemporaries.

    Five years.

    So, I got a book. The first week, it took me an hour to read a single page. But I read. And read. And read. A fortnight later, I had read the first book in my life. I bought another one. And I read. And I read. And, then another. And another.

    Within two years, I had the same reading age as my contemporaries.

    Eventually, I got a first class degree in software engineering.

    I don’t really believe in fixed aptitude. I believe that the universe exacts a price in determination. Whatever you want to do, I think the universe asks you to pay the price for it. Nothing is free. The price can be different for different people: but often the person given the lowest price doesn’t choose to pay it.

    One of the myths I believe is very dangerous, that you don’t have covered, is the myth of originality. It says that people have to be original right off the bat. That everything you write has to be art, right from the start. I believe that one of the most powerful learning tools in any art is imitation. Originality comes sooner or later, but to express it you need the basic skills, the basic expertise.

    An exercise I am doing at the moment is copying books by hand. I write two or three pages of text by hand, all the while trying to ask myself why the writer is doing what they are doing. Then, the next day, I try to write something original but in the same style.

    It shows you how text that looks like it is easy, simple, is actually very skillful. It takes very little time to do.

    And, of course, I am also writing a story a week and submitting it to paying markets. So I can’t fool myself I am writing great art (yet) and learn where I need to improve.

    • dwsmith says:

      Thomas E., wow great points and great message. Keep going, with an attitude and drive like yours, there will be no stopping you. Thanks!

  30. M Rodgers says:

    I will attempt to find the links, but I believe that last year marked the end of a twenty-year study in which children who had the same musical interests were tracked for their various success rates, etc. This was a very large group, as I recall. In EVERY case, the prodigies came in last in terms of overall success, as measured by working in the field, winning competitions and acclaim, etc.

    The makers of the study posited reasons for this that parallel your thoughts on talent vs. sweat equity. Apparently, achieving success in a particular field really is about Just Doing It, and further, to lavish a “gifted” child with attention at an early age can be incredibly detrimental to their future progress.

    This means practicing, working hard to improve, being open to constructive criticism, taking chances, moving out of one’s comfort zone, over and over and over again…sadly, no short cuts appear to exist.

  31. Jenni S-G says:

    I’m with Bill Kuehl on his aptitude and skill division of “talent”. But I think most of us use the word talent to mean that someone is doing something extraordinary. And that includes the hard work, practice, dedication and drive that makes their “skill” seem so effortless.

    I think of that show, “America’s Got Talent”. I’ve only seen a few episodes and some of the contestants (applicants?) do seem to have spent a lot of time working at their skill (dance, singing, whatever). And then there are those who clearly have not. Does that mean the dance troupe who have been together for fifteen years is more talented than the magician who only started performing two years ago are more talented? I think they just had more time to practice and hone their routine.

    But then, “America’s Got Hard Working Dedicated Performers” just doesn’t have the same ring.

    Setting goals could be a way to measure your workload. So for writers, it’s easy to set yourself the goal of finishing x-amount of books a year and putting them up for sale within x-amount of months. Schedules are great ways to fill those ticky boxes and therefore, see measurable results. If the results aren’t happening, it means you either need more practice or need more information (like How To Improve the ad copy) or simply need to work harder (like putting your books into more markets other than just your tried and true). It’s work and it’s adding to your skills. You might already have the aptitude for storytelling, but you might need to improve your publishing/selling skills. Or it’s the other way round.

    Does that mean you’re talented? Should we instead start saying, “Hey, you’ve got aptitude! How about refining and honing those skills!” Talent alone, like aptitude alone, means nothing without drive, work/practice, and a goal.

  32. Once again, reading this blog has introduced me to a new talent. David Wisehart, I am now in search of this verse play, and will keep an eye out for any new productions of it. Brilliant summation of the argument here regarding “talent”.

  33. Brandon Wood says:

    I was told that I’m too much of an analytical thinker to write fiction. But I liked it so much that I didn’t let that stop me. :P

    The best part, for me, about e-publishing is that I can make money while I practice (and “practice,” in this case, means spending hours doing something I enjoy. Doesn’t get much better than that).

    For instance: I was writing a story and there was a sex scene that absolutely had to be in there. It would have been weird and off in the story if it wasn’t there. And I realized I can’t write intimate scenes. So I wrote a short erotica, and then another, and then another, and I’m planning on writing a couple more. I’ll never feel that I’ve mastered any part of storytelling, but I want to get comfortable enough with that aspect to be able to have a sex scene in another story that’s not awkward, dry, or comical. I’m always thinking about the next story. :) And I’m also writing a horror novelette and practicing other parts of storytelling. And so on and so on. But in the meantime, I’ve e-published my “practice” and sell a handful of erotica. It’s bizarre and makes me laugh, especially when I get a sale on kindle.uk. Random people in another country read the sample of my “practice” and liked it enough to buy it. That’s awesome. And the more I write, the more I can feel myself getting better at it. Very cool.

    Thanks for the post and for the great conversation it generated! All inspiring stuff.

  34. Mercy Loomis says:

    My husband did bring up a good point after I showed him this post. You can say that talent doesn’t matter up to a point, but you also have to take into account certain limiting factors. Just as there are physical limitations, like my poor eyesight making it so I will never be a fighter pilot, there are also mental limitations. He reminded me of a couple friends in high school who worked their butts off trying to learn stuff, and could just never wrap their heads around it. Certain maths just didn’t make sense to them, no matter how it was explained. And it’s not that they weren’t trying, but they just couldn’t grasp the fundamental concepts needed to improve their skills.

    I think hard work can improve anyone. Those friends of mine certainly understood more than they would have without the hard work. But there is a limit, and that limit is different for different people on different subjects, and I think that is what true “talent” is. Talent without hard work will only get you so far, and hard work without talent will only get you so far (although I’d wager that hard work will get you farther than raw talent 99 times out of 100). In the cases where you hit a limit, though, telling those folks that they just aren’t trying hard enough is cruel. They haven’t discovered a surgery yet that would make my eyesight good enough for me to be a fighter pilot, no matter how hard I worked at learning to fly planes.

    Ultimately, I think talent is anything you can’t take credit for. I learn things very quickly, much more quickly than most of my peers in school. That’s not something I did, and I can’t take credit for it. It’s a talent, and one I am grateful to have. I exercise and make use of it by always learning about new things, but ultimately, I can’t take credit for it. And I think recognizing the talents we do have helps keep us humble. Be grateful for the talents you have, and work your butt off in appreciation to make the most of them. I bristle when people say “well, you can be a published writer because you have talent,” because writing IS something I can take credit for. I’ve worked hard for years to get to the level I’m at now, and I’m going to continue to work hard, hopefully for the rest of my life. There may be some talent there, but it’s mostly hours and hours and hours of hard work.

    If someone tells me I’m “just talented” at something and it makes me uncomfortable, it’s usually because it’s something I can’t take credit for. That’s a talent. If someone tells me I’m “just talented” at something and it pisses me off, that’s not talent, that’s hard work. And that’s how I tell the difference.

  35. @Brandon, as another writer who tends toward “too analytical” (I also write software and technical articles), I appreciate you relating your experience with practicing writing erotica. I should give that a try.

    Meanwhile I’m doing all right (but always room for improvement) with hard (and sometimes humorous) SF, where analytical can be a good thing. And I’m practicing mystery, which seems another good fit.

  36. Eric says:

    I have a permanent 11 degree bent in my spine, because people told me I was special and I took that as license to be lazy. Every time my shirt slips a little bit to the right I am reminded why I chose hard work as my lifestyle.

  37. goldhawk says:

    A three-step plan to improve any skill:

    1. Practice.
    2. Practice.
    3. Practice.

    Simple enough?

  38. JohnMc says:

    Tangential to this thread. Americans are deeply unaware of the depth of talent that resides in this country in all forms. That includes writing. Neil Sadaka became a talent scout almost a decade ago as part of a promotion for one of his albums. He did 20 cities and worked with local radio stations for finding the talent. The radio station did the first level screening.

    The point is in many areas the stations found 20-30 people in every metro area whose talent was stellar. Sadaka by the fourth city was beyond disbelief at the talent pool. `They weren’t just good, they were stage quality.` was the consensus. It is the same in writing as well. Why should we suspect that there are only a couple of hundred `pro quality` people capable of writing? We shouldn’t.

  39. Steven Mohan says:

    I suspect that when most people use the word “talent” they mean what Bill Kuehl is calling “aptitude,” an ability you’re born with. I think it’s best to toss both those terms out and only talk about “skill,” which has the benefit of not having the same bad connotations that “talent” has and which people clearly understand can be developed and honed.

    One other quick note. The NFL great, Steve Largent was actually a terribly slow wideout. He was successful because he practiced enough that he could catch just about anything thrown remotely near him. Not much talent (or aptitude) but tons and tons of skill.

    Who cares where you start? All that matters is where you end up!

  40. Philip says:

    Hello Dean,

    I happened on Harvey Stanbrough a few years ago, and attended one of his seminars. What a kick. I went over to my songwriting side a year or so after that, but have come back to fiction. I was also a rabid golf head for many years, but just as I was getting into the low 80′s (on munys, at least) I took a lesson from Hell from a Haney acolyte. Ruined me forever, which he seems to have done to Tiger.

    So I quit golfing, but wrote several short stories based on what I had absorbed from those years playing with mostly strangers in pickup foursomes. If you’re at all interested in checking them out, I’d be happy to send you a ms – the possibility of running across a professional writer who was also a pro golfer never seemed possible, but here it is. Can’t hurt to ask, right?

    By the way, the Sacred Cow series is great. I grew up around writers as my father was an editor. I plan to do a series on some of those characters, as well.

    Thanks for the great reads…I’ll be joining up soon.

    Best,
    Philip

    • dwsmith says:

      Philip, sounds like you had some fun writing experiences. Interestingly enough, I seldom write about golf. Not sure why.

      Anyhow, I’m afraid I don’t read anything I either don’t buy in a store or see in an official workshop setting that I teach. Lawyers orders. Not kidding.

      Thanks for the comments, everyone. I’ll be back at my computer shortly.

  41. Philip says:

    Hey,

    Thanks for the reply, and I should have thought of that. Maybe one of them will be adapted and arrive at a screen near you.

    Since you were scratch, I know you had to see a lot of action and course drama that would be most story-worthy. Most of my characters are gamblers, the kind of guys I got to know a few of. It’s a different world just from what little I have observed from the side lines, I played for quarters as a kid…learned that lesson.

    You must be servin’ up some serious brisket with all the sacred cow meat you’ve collected. Bet it’s tender.

    PT

  42. I was a child prodigy at drawing (could draw before I could talk). I was also obsessive about it, and much more interested in accuracy than in crowd-pleasing. So I was at least eleven before some idiot teacher noticed my “God-given gift,” and by then I was articulate enough to argue with them.

    The myth of talent is also very useful for teachers who want to slack off and ignore the students who aren’t there yet. And having been behind the scenes at more than one university, this mystical belief also feeds into systems of nepotism, where very obviously the math professor’s kid is “naturally talented” at math (having been exposed to advanced material from an early age) whereas the pipe-fitter’s kid is not.

    So thank you for a very succinct and plain-spoken statement of the facts.

  43. Raven says:

    I was going to agree that “aptitude” does exist, and that I have personally seen it in action, but I had to stop and think about it. I am naturally good at languages, specifically grammar, but I’m also intensely curious about languages and always have been. I love learning more about them, and I rarely consider it work. I’ve met other people who worked much harder than I did, but who couldn’t grasp what I found to be obvious.

    However, what I realize is something I missed the first time I read this: the age of the person I was observing. And I realized that it’s not only possible, but also very likely that the people I observed were blocked in some way, possibly by believing in this or many other similar myths. I was always really interested in language. Even before I started kindergarten, I liked stories. I liked playing “make believe” types of games much more than sports or other types of games, and in particular, I liked fairy tales of all sorts.

    So, now, I wonder if all aptitude, aside from actual disabilities, which do exist (I used to work with adults with developmental disabilites), really is just interest without the interference of other myths. After all, I’ve also always been “gifted” at taking tests, and I think the biggest reason for that is that my parents always reminded me that it was just a test and to do my best. I didn’t worry and fret over it, so I didn’t let those things get in the way of my own performance. I think half the time people do poorly is that they let their worries get in the way of their own performance. They think they can’t do it, or they start focusing on what might happen if they “fail”, and so they don’t see what they’re really capable of.

    I’ve seen people encourage this, by telling kids to slow down and recheck their answers. Rechecking my answers is almost always a bad idea, because then I second guess myself and make more mistakes. The only thing I check is to make sure I filled in the right oval — I don’t rethink the question. I think this is like rewriting: rewriting makes you second guess yourself. I don’t know why I never saw that before.

  44. Asia M says:

    I don’t know. I get your main point, but what about that: I have a talent for drawing. Unfortunately, it’s not drawing I like to do, but writing. I seldom draw anymore–maybe once or twice a year for the past 8 years. And yet it’s easier every time, and the result looks better every time too.

    Whenever I decide to draw after one drawing-free year or more, I tell myself: I feel so out of practice, maybe I’m going to suck. But then I remember I’m “talented”, so I just do it for heaven’s sake, and wow! What I draw is so great it blows my own mind. LOL

    I submit this case to you, recognizing it full well for what it is: a mystery. I never draw. And by not actively doing anything, I get better. (Sort of like a wine.) Of course, I might get even better than better if I did practice, but then people would find it normal and wouldn’t call it “talent” anymore.

    Of course, drawing is different from writing ’cause it’s so much less intellectual. When you draw, your hands, your fingers are doing all the work, and your brain has no idea what’s going on at all. I’ve often tried analysing what goes on from the moment my eyes look at something, and when my fingers draw it, but it’s kind of like a blank process. I don’t know exactly what I’m ordering my fingers to do. They just do it. It’s quite relaxing because I can start thinking about something else at the same time, kind of like when I wash dishes. It’s just manual work, really.

    Obviously, I’m not an artist and I’ll never be one. But give me an object or a person or a picture and I’ll draw it the way it really looks. And that’s a talent because 99,9% of the people I know are not able to do it (or they only kind of start being kind of able to do it after they practice a lot). And I am, although I never even wanted or tried to. But of course, a talent is just a talent, it’s completely useless in the real world. My uncle is a painter and he’s never had a talent for drawing, but he’s still a painter. Talent’s got nothing to do with anything and will lead you nowhere, it’s like being able to touch your nose with your tongue; it’s a distinctive feature, but it’s no more useful than that. It’s only nice to have because you can show it off and get other people excited about it.

  45. Raven says:

    Here’s another article, with lots of academic research behind it, that supports this point:

    http://nymag.com/print/?/news/features/27840/

    It’s talking about “intelligence” in general, rather than “writing” in specific, but it’s right on target about the focus on talent vs. effort.

  46. Shawn says:

    I came to the conclusion a long time ago that talent is a myth when I was studying art.

    Drawing the human figure isn’t a form of creative imagination. It’s learning the organic shapes of an object. We’re all just squares and circles and triangles.

    The creative part comes through what you do with it. The ‘talent’ comes through how much you’ve practiced remembering those shapes.

  47. conradg says:

    My favourite Mozart story goes against the grain of this “hard work” ethic, but makes an even stronger myth-busting point about the myth of preparation, which might even worse for writers than the myth of talent.

    When Mozart was in his early thirties, he was already considered “the grand old man” of the musical world. One day a collection of seemingly advanced music students went to visit him at his apartments, to seek his advice and counsel in their attempts to compose music. One of them summoned up the courage to ask Mozart how to write symphonies, considered the most difficult and ultimate musical challenge of the day.

    Mozart replied, “Well, if you are serious about writing symphonies you must be ready to devote a great deal of your life to this work. First you must learn how to play several musical instruments, including the piano, the violin, at least one wind instrument, one horn, and percussion. This alone will take you many years of effort to master. Then you can begin to study basic principles of musical composition, including scales and chords, for at least a year, then basic rhythm and melody for another couple of years, then harmony for another couple of years, along with the basic elements of composition. Then you are ready to write your first simple songs, and after some time you may progress to minuets and sonatas, advancing year after year through these musical forms, learning to add instruments and voice, from solos through quartets, until you are ready to spend several years learning orchestration. Then you need to spend several years studying and writing basic orchestral work, advancing on to cantatas, which will take several more years, and then at least three more years with canons, and finally, if you are not too old by now, you should be ready to begin studying symphonies in depth, and at last daring to write your first symphony.”

    The musical students listened in shock and awe at the monumental work ahead of them, trying to calculate in their minds how old they would be before they were able to write symphonies. Realizing they would be old men by then, the questioner blurted out in horror, “But Herr Mozart, you wrote your first symphony when you were only eight years old!”

    Mozart merely smiled and said, “But I never asked how.”

  48. Jerry says:

    As a string musician, and as a writer, I have always understood talent as the coefficient of an equation. For example, “y=mx.” “Y” is the total number of sales, or overall storytelling ability. “X” is the amount of practice you put in, and where your version of the equation stops. But “m” is the third factor, the “talent” factor. It does not replace work (as it would if it were “b” in the traditional equation “mx+b,” which is where it is historically assigned), but instead enhances it. In other words, some people just learn faster than others. Mozart, on one hand, might have a value of “3″ for “m,” while Beethoven had only a “1.5.” Both achieved incredible levels of success, one just had to work harder at it.

    So, in my opinion, talent isn’t the be all and end all. It doesn’t replace work, but it does complement it.

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