Is Talent More Important Than Passion and Persistence?

In my Suspense/Thriller Writers’ group on Facebook, one author mentioned that she was skeptical of her ability to come up with an interesting idea. Horror writer Rob M. Miller gave a wonderful response that I’m reposting here. Considering the ephemeral nature of Facebook, in a couple of days his comment would have disappeared into the great maw of FB, and I didn’t want it to be lost forever. As to why Rob leaves such helpful and detailed comments, Rob told me, “I’ve been very blessed.  Have had several incredibly talented writers, authors, and editors … well, just give, and give so freely.  Facebook, and blogs like yours, offer opportunities to pay-it-forward.” So, here’s Rob’s take on talent:

Let’s shoot the elephant first: Maybe you have no talent.

Ouch.

But, hey, maybe…?

Talent, though, is over-rated. Heart trumps talent. As does persistence. Talent, or natural ability, only carries a person so far, and then it comes down to heart, passion, time, and yeah, work. Workworkwork. This holds true with just about anything. Certainly with the arts, but also with athletics. Is Michael Jordan a gifted athlete? Absolutely. But such an assertion also masks, or can easily gloss over all of Michael’s hard work.

Personally, I do believe that writers are born with some kind of special something, some X-factor, some proclivity for story, character, situation. It’s indefinable. Writers often don’t necessarily have genius intelligence quotients (I.Q.), but often do have very high emotional quotients (E.Q.).

One might theorize that writers are most often inherently empathetic, or for our sci-fi lovers, are empaths.

Maybe that’s it. At it’s core, maybe it’s about the ability to feel the pain of others.

Author and writing instructor Maralys Wills has put out that in her many decades of experience, she’s found quality writers to have two domineering traits: a) that the writer has been through trauma; and b) they tend to be optimists.

I tend to side with Mrs. Wills on this. (God help the writer who’s a pessimist.)

With that out of the way, let’s presume (’cause it’s better to be an optimist) that you have been born with that magical W chromosome that producers writers, then it can be a confidence issue.

This is common.

Jack Ketchum (or Dallas Meyer), one of Stephen King’s favorite authors — and one of mine — has mentioned more than once of having a writing friend, a gentleman with more “talent” than Jack, but who keeps his writing to himself, afraid to have it seen, afraid of rejection.

And, of course, even amongst the greats, or the commercially successful, one might be surprised to find that even these icons are still (and always have been) quite human. Stephen King has talked about finishing one’s various projects, that even when a writer thinks they’re producing crap, they can be wrong. The cliche is true: We are our own worst critics.

With writing books, classes, critique groups, online writing groups (like this one), etc., there’s often an arrogance involved. Even a necessary degree of arrogance — after all, if a writer didn’t have passion, and passionate opinions, what would they have to say or write about? End of the day, though, despite there actually being sound writing principles worthy of a craftsman taking the time to learn, writing well is often more about what not to do than what to do.

Proof?

Look at the number of times writing rules are broken, and with great impact, such as with Cormac McCarthy work “The Road,” where established guides of good and proper grammar were tossed for the sake of story and delivery.

Sometimes a writer, even those blessed with talent, needs to simply put in the time. Often, this is easy, what with the necessary and very true maxim of: write write write, read read read, write write write.

Sure. But write what? Read what? Practice with what?

As a general rule, I say have your car book, your bedroom book, and yes, a bathroom book … works that are always being read. Always be reading something within your favorite genre of fiction, but always reading a non-fiction work, too, as well as a work on the craft of writing, and another tossed in that’s outside of your favorite genre … perhaps even a work that’s in a field you might not normally consider. For me, that’s chick lit. Though it was akin to pulling teeth, I determined to read Billie Letts’s work “Where the Heart is,” and “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” by Rebecca Wells. With Letts, I remember being alone in my apartment, taking a bath, reading the final pages, and bawling my eyes out, thankful that no one was around to see me break down. (So much for ever denigrating chick lit again.) And, of course, the novel by Wells is simply brilliant, and brilliantly written.

What else might a writer do?

The could — and probably should — write a bestseller.

In 2001, I attended the annual World Horror Convention in Seattle, Washington, where I met the iconic Michael Slade (pseudonym for Jay Clarke). This brilliant author, during one panel, suggested that developing writers could do far worse than sitting down and transcribing, word for word, one of their favorite bestselling works of fiction, the entire book, front to back.

Sound tedious? It is. And, at times, can be boring. But it helps. A lot. In my case, I spent a bit more than a week transcribing Stephen King’s novel “The Dark Half.” The rewards were many.

Doing such an exercise helps to force a writer to reverse engineer the structure of a book, of a part (i.e., Part I, II, III, etc.), of a chapter, of a scene, and yes, even with paragraphs and sentences. Grammar and punctuation is absorbed as well. So’s how to build suspense … how to characterize. Hell, a lot of things.

I’m thankful I took Mr. Slade at his word; I know many did not — and still don’t. It’s not hard to imagine, is it, that such an exercise would be off-putting? After all, it seems like work.

But that’s the answer for the writer, or a significant chunk of it: putting in the work. Optimism and work. Passion and work.

We should read garbage once in a while to bolster our self-confidence and the greats to remain humble. We should be happy where we’re at, but never satisfied.

And we should work.

We can do that.

Was I born with that amount of talent? With that? Have I been mightily blessed, or merely cursed with a love and desire to write, but without that special something?

Such questions don’t really help. They can, however, hobble an artist, which is never a good thing.

Better to persevere, remembering that those things which are too easily given are often too lightly valued. Better, perhaps, to, through blood, sweat, and tears, develop ourselves.

In the meantime, for something practical, if your own work appears to be missing some needed bit of pixie dust (and maybe it’s not), you might consider Michael Slade’s advice.

And do consider mine: there’s always better and worse writers out there besides ourselves. We are what we are, and we are stuck with ourselves. We have a tendency to flip back and forth between being very thin-skinned (’cause we’re emotionally connected), and covered in rhino-hide (a covering we also need), but let’s never get too wrapped up in comparing ourselves with others, or our work with the work of others. It’s a fruitless waste of time.

All we can really do is write the best we can, practice and learn, and do it all over again.

What fun, what pain, what adventure.

***

With a love for reading and writing that started in his youth, Rob has traveled far to get to the place where he can now concentrate on breaking into the horror market.

Born and raised in the “micro-hood” of Portland, Oregon, he grew up as the oldest of three children, the son of a book-lover and a book-hater.

It was after two years of free-lance stringer work, and a number of publishing credits, that he tired of non-fiction and decided to use his love of the dark, personal terrors, and talent with words to do something more beneficial for his fellow man -– SCARE THE HELL OUT OF HIM.

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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