We don’t know whether we hope this is right…or pray that it’s dead wrong. Talk about out of frying pan and into the sizzler:
Is Talent Overrated?
by Anne R. Allen
I often run into new writers who want to be reassured they have talent. They sometimes ask me to read some fledgling work in hopes I’ll pronounce them “talented.”
I always decline. (A wise author never goes there.) It’s not simply that I can’t fit one more thing into my already jam-packed schedule—it’s also that I have no way of telling if people have talent.
I can only tell if they have skills. And if they don’t have skills—which they probably don’t if they’re newbies—their job is to acquire some, not rely on some stranger’s opinion of what abilities they were born with.
In fact, sometimes I think the most insulting thing you can say to an author is, “you’re so talented,” although I know I’ve said it myself, intending to praise.
But when most of us say an artist is “talented,” we actually mean “skilled”.
Lots of people are born with creative gifts—but very few have the ambition and determination to use those gifts to create anything meaningful. Many talented people sit around in cafés and talk about the great art they’re going to create someday.
But skilled people are more likely to be at home actually creating it.
I believe everybody comes into this world with certain talents, and the talents you’re born with will probably determine the path you take in life (assuming you live in a society where you’re allowed to choose.)
You find out what your talents are by what you’re drawn to. Nobody else can tell you that.
But even if you do have loads of talent, that and five bucks will get you a Venti Caffe Mocha. What you need is talent plus skills.
And acquiring skills takes time.
I have known lots of wannabe writers who sabotaged themselves with magical thinking about their own talent. Usually some teacher or mentor told them early on that they were gifted in some way, and this made them feel special.
Feeling special is great, if it motivates you to work hard and acquire skills.
But unfortunately, for a lot of people, this “special” feeling either makes them feel entitled to a fast-track to success, or it paralyzes them with fear they can’t live up to the promise.
This is because so many people believe talent alone is all that’s required to be good at something.
It seems to be true of writers more than musicians, visual artists, or athletes. I suppose because there’s a prevailing feeling that “anybody can write.” But that’s simply not true. Nobody’s born knowing how to write strong, compelling prose. You need to study and practice.
What aspiring violinist wouldn’t take violin lessons? What painter doesn’t learn how to mix and apply paint to canvas? What golfer doesn’t constantly work to perfect a golf swing?
But writers think we can hit a hole-in-one on our first day on the course without so much as a lesson.
Some seem to feel too entitled to bother to study the craft and business of writing at all, and others seem embarrassed to admit how much they don’t know.
It’s as if they think they’re betraying that talent by going out and learning how to use it.
Agent Jo Unwin, talking to the Bookseller in October said something I don’t think I’ve heard voiced before: “it seems to me that the people who find it easy to submit to agents aren’t necessarily the best writers.” She added: “Some people feel more entitled to write than others.”
I recognize the two types of writers she’s talking about. And I fear I may have once been in the ranks of the “entitled.” I queried way too soon and expected agents to recognize my talent even though I hadn’t studied enough about the marketplace to know what today’s readers are looking for.
I’d spent most of my life reading the classics and shunning the bestsellers my academic family considered “beneath” them. And yet I wanted agents to see my work as the next bestseller.Obviously I still had a lot of skills to acquire.Mostly I learned them the hard way. But you don’t have to—if you put the idea of your “special artistic talent” aside and work on other things that are more likely to steer you onto the road to success.