What is Talent?

I quit a job years ago so I could write a novel — the sensitive and wise story of a love that transcended time and physical bonds. I sat down at my desk, pen in hand, and waited for the words to flow effortlessly from my subconscious, through my fingers, and onto the paper. I waited, and I waited. The paper remained blank.

I couldn’t understand the problem. I’d written poems and short stories, and even summoned the nerve to send one of my better efforts to Alfred Hitchcock Magazine, though they declined to print it.

(Since you asked: the story was about a guy on a train who got stuck sitting next to a smoker. He asked the smoker to put out the cigarette, and when the smoker refused, the guy shot him, proving that smoking really is hazardous to your health. This story may not make sense now, but I wrote it before the prohibition of smoking in public places.)

I thought that since the novel didn’t come effortlessly, didn’t come at all, I had no talent. Perhaps I didn’t. But what I didn’t know then is that by learning and perfecting the craft of writing, one can fake talent. Or maybe talent is perfecting one’s craft. Doesn’t matter. All I know is that now when I sit down to write, I do not expect the story to appear on paper by mental osmosis or as some form of automatic writing. I consciously choose every word. I consciously develop every character. I consciously create every scene. And when the novel is completed, I rewrite it, edit it, polish it. None of it comes effortlessly. But so what if it takes a year, two years, ten years to complete? The joy is in the process, in the effort.

What do you think talent is? Is it something you can learn, or is it innate?

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22 Responses to “What is Talent?”

  1. JennieB Says:

    Art is innate, craft can be learned. Or honed. Or whatever. A good writer can become a better writer (although perhaps not a great writer) by perfecting his or her craft. Craft is incredibly important. Is it possible to write a book on craft alone? Absolutely. Will it be a great book? Probably not. Talent is what gives it that little something extra, that makes it inspired and sets it apart from the rest. And whereas I don’t think talent can be faked, or learned, I certainly think it can, and should, be developed. Which is another way of saying that you have to work on the craft. 🙂

  2. J.W. Nicklaus Says:

    A friend once wrote me stating “writing isn’t so much a matter of using the proper words, as much as placing the proper words in the proper order.” As JennieB has alluded, it’s the talent that lifts that mundane above all else. The proper order of the most fitting words can be taught, sure, but knowing when and why to use them, and being passionately cognizant of their evocative capabilities–that I believe is indeed innate.

  3. Dr. Tom Bibey Says:

    My wife says there is no such thing as talent. That is probably because she has spent her adult life hanging out with me.


  4. Shirley Ann Howard Says:

    Talent by Marge Piercy

    Talent is what they say
    you have after the novel
    is published and favorably
    reviewed. Beforehand what
    you have is a tedious
    delusion, a hobby like knitting.

    Work is what you have done
    after the play is produced
    and the audience claps.
    Before that friends keep asking
    when you are planning to go
    out and get a job.

    Genius is what they know you
    had after the third volume
    of remarkable poems. Earlier
    they accuse you of withdrawing,
    ask why you don’t have a baby,
    call you a bum.

    The reason people want MFAs,
    take workshops with fancy names
    when all you can really
    learn is a few techniques,
    typing instructions and some-
    body else’s mannerisms

    is that every artist lacks
    a license to hang on the wall
    like your optician, your vet
    proving you may be a clumsy sadist
    whose fillings fall into the stew
    but you’re certified a dentist.

    The real writer is one
    who really writes. Talent
    is an invention like phlogiston
    after the fact of fire.
    Work is its own cure. You have to
    like it better than being loved.

  5. joylene Says:

    You are hilarious, Pat. “Smoking is hazardous to your health.” And so is Dr. Bibey. Which just goes to prove that laughing is medicine for the soul.

    Thanks, Pat!

  6. joylene Says:

    Sheesh, I forgot to say, I think talent is the desire to learn. I had no talent when I began writing. It was because of my love for the craft that help me reach my dream.

    Course, all the desire in the world won’t have me singing like Celine.

  7. Pat Bertram Says:

    Very interesting comments. I still don’t know what talent is when it comes to writing. The writings of many people with so-called talent seem like scribbles to me. So is talented, like artist, a name other people give you after the fact? And if there is innate talent, why does the best writing show up in rewriting?

  8. joylene Says:

    People (like me) give flippant answers when nothing else comes to mind. What is talent? If I believed it couldn’t come with time then I’d be a contraction. My first book was horrible. There are exceptions, but general everything gets better with age. The things you can’t see seem to get better with time.

    My English Professor told me to go home and have babies because I’d never be a writer worth reading. I had babies, but him telling me that made me determined to prove him wrong. Truth is I had to prove it to myself that he was wrong. Still, part of it was an addiction. Writing made me fill better than anything else out there: booze, drugs, sex, money, and power.

    Some would argue that my gift was raw, hence unreadable until I had the tools necessary to transpose my gift on paper. I kept writing until I got it right. If I had given up and stayed home having babies, today I’d be uninspired, disappointed and full of regret.

    My persistence came from determination and years and years of educating myself. Would the one have survived without the other? Didn’t the yearning prompt the determination? Cause and effect. Stimulus and response. Desire and talent.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I’ve had teachers who discouraged me from writing. One, who knew I wanted to be a writer, said, “I’ve saved papers from every student of mine who I think will make it. I’ve never saved anything of yours.” Sheesh. How cold is that!

      Like those teachers, I don’t think I have a gift, but if I do, it’s a love of words. I make no secret that writing comes hard for me, but finding the perfect word to give the perfect effect makes it all worthwhile. One quality I do have is the will to write and rewrite a novel until every word means something, every word adds to the flow. In the end, what counts with me, both as a reader and a writer, is a good story.

      Which brings me to another point: can one have a talent for storytelling but not writing, or for writing but not storytelling? Or do the two work together to form whatever it is we call talent?

  9. Kenna Says:

    I think someone can be born with an innate ability to write a ‘good’ story, but without the drive and passion to make the story ‘great’ is there any perceived ‘talent’? I agree with Joylene – but I would add that perhapes talent is the juxtaposition of at least some level of innate ability, with a passion to develop that ability into the ‘talent’ to write a great story.

    Too many quotes – sorry;)

  10. Kathy Says:

    Great post! I’ve heard that only a few have real talent. And the rest of us can improve to the next level or two by practicing your craft. But I, too, thought it should all work the way you wrote about it. Now I know better. That no matter how high on the list you are, writing is still tough work and for me, it just happens – I can’t overthink it.

  11. Shirley Ann Howard Says:

    All great artists/athletes/musicians/writers work at their craft. Some, however, end up with a product that millions of people want. Is that talent?

  12. joylene Says:

    John Grisham was interviewed by Charlie Rose last night. He admitted that he’s not good at creating characters or writing sex scenes. The last one he wrote had his wife roaring.

    Tiger Woods has a coach. Hemingway worked as a report in Canada as a young man and was full of doubt. Anthony Hopkins once admitted that he was embarrassed by his success because acting seems so shallow.

    Luck? Fate? Talent? A combination of all three maybe. Listen to BB King and it’s difficult not to believe in God.

  13. Pat Bertram Says:

    If a writer ends up with a book that millions of people want, it seems to me the writer has a talent for giving people what they want, not necessarily a talent for writing.

    So much of getting published is a matter of luck rather than talent. Being on the right desk at the right time with the right “issue” is more important that being talented. Or being good. Or being dedicated.

  14. joylene Says:

    That raises an equally interesting premise. Who determines what talent is?

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      You’re exactly right, Joylene. Who does determine it? I know I’ve read thousands of barely readable books by authors with “talent”.

      I never did understand what is wrong with that tired old saying, “I don’t know art, but I know what I like.” If you like it, isn’t that all that matters? Why do you need to know art to know what you like? (Someday one of my characters is going to say, “I know art, but I don’t know what I like.”)

  15. Cliff Burns Says:

    I’d have to concur that talent is innate but sometimes it’s also deeply hidden by insecurities and various blocks and impediments the mind puts in place. Writing and writing and writing (and reading and reading and reading) can help identify strengths and weaknesses, which is where the DAILY practice of writing (no weekend warriors) is essential. Gaining confidence and courage by devoting yourself utterly to the printed word, immersing yourself in language, a constant flow of words.

    But for some, sadly, there will never be any music to their prose because they are tone deaf and nothing can save them. While this tends to work against most writers, for some “talents” (stretching that word as far as it will go) like Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer, being tone deaf and semi-literate hasn’t hurt their careers AT ALL.

    Go figger…

  16. Danni Says:

    Dear fellow talent-finding-and-defining writers,

    I wonder if you would be so kind to give me some advice…

    Ever since I learned to read and write I knew I wanted to be a writer.
    At school I was crowned “talented” by my family (how much do you trust them) and teachers.
    Life took its direction and I hopped from country to country and lost the ability to paint pictures in my mother tongue. For years I felt empty and unable to write at all as I always entered an internal conflict on which language I should write in (3 to choose from).
    I’ve now decided that I should try it in English as I’ve been in England for 8 years and am surrounded by the language that I always loved; through the books I read, the BBC, TV, friends etc..
    I seem to enter into autobiographical themes each time I write and struggle to create characters from scratch – is this a sign of my lack of talent or simply lack of experience?
    I’ve gone on a creative writing course a couple of years ago and am considering doing a course with Writers Bureau – any warnings, opinions, recommendations on them?

    Thanks for listening (er…reading)

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Danni, Talent is like luck, the harder you work, the more you have. For many writers, the autobiographical themes become downplayed as they gain experience, for others, the autobiographical themes are the reason they write. Keep in mind that the story is paramount. Everything in a story/novel must add to the story and not be tagged on just because you like it or because you feel compelled to write it.

      One suggestion: write whatever you want. The more you write, the more you learn what you can do and what you want to do. You can always clean up the work in rewrites. It’s been said that a writer is a novice until one has written a million words. So, just write.

  17. Danni Says:

    Thanks so much for your advice Pat! I shall continue plodding along.


  18. Nosa Says:

    I believe that true talent can be seen by the world when you write from your heart; when you can emotionally feel what you are writing while you lay the words on the sheet of paper (or computer) tenderly. I think that, even if your work is perfectly punctuated and well structured, true talent cannot be seen unless you feel your words when you pose them on the paper (or computer). Of course, perfect punctuation, grammar, & structure is relevant, but the words should pour out of your soul like a seemingly interminable river consisting of a variety of feelings. When a reader reads your words, he or she will feel the words exactly the same way you felt them when they transpired from your soul.

  19. danagillican Says:

    Talent belongs to anyone who hold intrest in a certain field, and pursues it 100%. Anyone can be great at anything if they put their heart and soul into it, I believe.

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