I’ve lately been thinking a lot about literary talent and whether I am competent or “talented” enough to be the writer I want to be. When I first started out writing, I pictured a romanticized version of a lazy genius, someone who could write perfect sentences and construct perfect plot lines and characters when they first came out of the womb. And perhaps there are these geniuses, perhaps there are math prodigies and music prodigies who can simply understand and create without having to go through the hard work that others have gone through.
This perception was greatly damaging to me in the past few years, making me doubt that I would ever become a Murakami or a Stephen King. All these writers that I loved seemed to have something that I did not, at least from the surface. But I’ve begun to question the validity of my concern: is it really that I’m lacking that special something, or simply that I haven’t worked hard enough?
My question is not a new one; the question of talent v.s. hard work has always plagued not only creatives but also people in other professions. And most of the advice I read from now-successful people is to work hard, to not get defeated by rejections, to not give up, all of which points me to believe that hard work is more important than talent.
I’ve been meaning to write this post ever since the Oscars, after Lady Gaga’s acceptance speech for Best Original Song. What she emphasized most was that she had worked hard for her Oscar, fallen down, got rejected many, many times before she finally became successful. “It is not about winning,” she said, instead, it is about the struggle. Do I still think that Lady Gaga is extremely talented? Yes, of course. But as Stephen King so wisely put it:
“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separate the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”
– Stephen King
This brings me to my next question: What is talent? Are there multiple forms of talent? Can one be talented with words and not with character development? Can one plot out whole books in one’s head but have no idea how to write dialogue? And in my opinion, the answer is yes. I do think some writers have more of an aptitude for certain things than others. For example, I can make my sentences flow with ease, see characters in my mind, and yet have no idea what to do with plot.
So what is my point in writing this post?
I want to suggest a different way of doing things, because praise (while some times feels good) in my opinion, is extremely damaging to a creative person. It blurs the lines between what is there and what isn’t, and praise is hardly ever constructive. I know this because, in the past few years, I’ve been constantly told that my stories were really good, that my writing was beautiful, and that I was talented. I say this not in order to boast (I know that I still have a long way to go), but in order to prove a point. This year, my school hired a new writing teacher, and she was the one who opened my eyes. Yes, your writing is good. But your words are not doing the work they could be. As a result, I am much more aware of the faults in my writing.
Sometimes praise is great – who doesn’t want their passions to be affirmed? – but more often than not, it creates this image of a “perfect writer” or the “talented genius” that is overly romanticized.
Instead of telling people that they are talented, tell them what works well in a story and what doesn’t. Of course, that doesn’t mean completely tearing down everything they’ve ever written and telling them they suck. Every story has its merits (well, nearly every) and applauding those specifics is much more productive than simply saying “you’re so talented.”
What finally prompted me to write this post was the creation of Goya Writer’s Workshop, an online workshop for young writers. If you are reading this and you’re thinking, “wow, I want some honest feedback on my writing!”, you should check out (or maybe even join!) Goya. It’s completely risk-free and does not cost anything, because we’re all writers, and we’re all in this together.