Talent as a toxic notion. I can explain that. Being told you’re talented is like being fucking cursed, man. I’ve known way too many writers who were plainly more talented than I was, and yet, every last one of them are nowhere in their respective writing careers. Hell, they don’t have careers. Talent seems like a key to a door but it isn’t any such thing, and this is one of the things I really like about NaNoWriMo — all those people who think they can hang tough with a novel because someone somewhere told them they were talented, well, now they’re getting a hard Shotokan straight punch of truth delivered right to the solar plexus: discipline and devotion and skill are a trio that overwhelms any presumed talent any day of the week. You can be as talented as you want, but you still need to sit down, learn your craft and then demonstrate it. Over and over again. If – if! — talent is a real thing, the best that it gets you is that it cuts down the time it takes for you to get to a qualified end result.
Oh MAN did I ever need this entire article this morning.
I absolutely think talent, or a propensity, for a facet of a task like writing is a real thing. It’s a real thing like some people are good at spatial relations and some people are good at identifying colours. But I don’t think anyone is good at the whole of writing, or almost no one is.
For me, being talented at writing simply means that you’ve got an easier time with one or more of the multitude of tasks needed to be a writer—not all of them, sometimes not more than one of them. To assume that talent translates into ease is a huge fallacy. It’s often like expecting someone to go race stock cars because they’re a whiz at parallel parking. “But the thing, in the car, you do the thing in the car!”
Writing is so much more than just words, characterization, plot, psychology, a command of the cultural gestalt, decision trees… Writing is a towering and complex assembly of skills that becomes more complex when you add wanting to write for publication.
People who have “talent” at some skill that translates into excellence in some area of the vast wasteland that is writing are often backed into a corner when, shockingly, writing is extremely hard. It may be even harder for them because some parts came so easily they never identified and exercised other skills needed to master the whole. This happens a lot to gifted people—their mastery of early skills (maybe all the way to college) is so inherent to them that they don’t know what to do once they hit something that doesn’t come easily. And then with all that comes shame.
When someone who’s always had to just work along at things runs into something else they need to just work along at, welp, it’s another day at the job of being human. Doot-de-doo, let’s figure this out, what are my usual strategies? Let’s get shit done.
When someone who has mastered things with ease, when someone identified as “talented”, runs into something that doesn’t come easily—they’ve failed at being themselves, they’re broken, they’re defective, they didn’t deserve anything they already had because they obviously didn’t earn it or they’d know how to do this thing in front of them, they’re done, it’s over. Identity death. Shame. A scramble to cover it up because you can’t ask for help, you’re supposed to be the help.
That probably seems a little dramatic but compared to someone’s entire SELF coming apart like a Jenga game played by drunk monkeys, it’s not.
Talent is a real thing, but it only applies in certain areas. Hard work, discipline, strategy, focus, failing, those apply all the time, to everyone. Social value on giftedness and talent boxes people with those labels up and puts them in a corner because the system strips away other identifiers and leaves them with their ego foundation limited to this one thing.
And that’s where talented people end up frozen, end up flipping burgers, end up with a stack of half-finished brilliant novels, end up personally unrealized. Because who they are doesn’t incorporate failure, doesn’t allow for failure, and identity-preservation is probably the strongest force in the human body, stronger than the preservation of the biological function of life. Talent, the identification with talent, deprives us of the freedom of being untalented, being a hack, being a failure.
And that’s back to where NNWM is a particular service. NNWM—when I started back in ‘01—was founded on the premise that you were going to produce a piece of crap. And you were going to do it with a bunch of other people. Gift and talent didn’t mean shit, as long as you put your words down.
NNWM gave gifted people a way out of living up to that. It put everyone on the same level. It let people who had shied away from writing because they weren’t “talented” do the writing because, hey, I can write 1667 words of shit a day, watch me. I don’t believe “the world needs your novel”. I do believe that you, “talented” or not, need permission to write it even if it’s shit—permission to write it, to fail at it, to discover what went wrong, to try again.
No one succeeds at anything as complex as writing without that permission existing on some level.
The unrealized gift can feel like a curse, because there’s a moral judgment in the idea that you’ve “wasted your talent.”