On Writing: Is “Natural Talent” All You Need?

“Before you can win, you have to believe you are worthy.”

–  Mike Ditka

 

I’ve blogged about this subject before. In a post from last year, I outlined my thoughts on whether writing is a talent someone is born with, or if it’s a skill everyone has equal chance at mastering. I concluded that it was a little of both, going on to say:

“[Rick Riordan] took ten years to get his story good! J.K. Rowling only took three with hers. Stephen King took less than that. Many would argue those two have more natural writing ABILITY, and I would agree with them. Riordan probably had to spend more time building his talent; had to revise his story dozens of times, and had a tougher time getting published than JKR or King. But he did it, same as them.”

A year later, I still agree with all that. Back when I wrote that post, I was a kid with forty rejections and no progress in the publishing industry. Today, I’m a kid with four full requests from agents, including the woman who represented The Hunger Games. Perhaps in a year, I’ll be further. Who knows? My point is, I’m no Shakespeare or even a Riordan or Rowling, but with a few years of hard work, I’ve made progress. I believe everyone has equal chance of doing the same.

Get to the point, Caleb.

Right. Since we’ve closed out that debate, I want to move on to a related topic: in the industry of publishing, is “natural talent”—if such a thing even exists—all you need to make it?

My answer, in short: no.

Let’s back up. First of all, have you ever been in a position where someone has confused your hard work with natural talent?

It happens all the time to me. People will hear about this progress I’ve made towards publication, and they tell me something like, “Wow, you must be really gifted!” or, “You must be a great writer.”

I certainly don’t mind the compliment, but I’m still trying to figure out if it’s fair to say I’m a talented writer. On one hand, saying that talent is proportional to progress is certainly a reasonable assumption. But on the flipside, I think if someone were to sit in the chair beside me while I take hours to research agents and revise my query letter, then perhaps they would re-think the idea that natural talent is all you need. I don’t think it is.

I’m not trying to sound ungrateful; the support of people around me is what keeps me going, and like I said, maybe they aren’t entirely wrong to believe talent equals progress. But having seen the harsher side of the publishing industry, I can say almost for certain that talent is no guarantee of success.

I’m speaking mostly to my fellow writers here, the ones who have had to craft a query letter and send those proposal emails and cross every finger, toe and other bendable body part for good luck. If an author were suddenly endowed with all the writing talent in the world, do you think they’d make it in this business eventually?

That’s what literary agents like to believe. How many times have we heard agents say, “If your book is good, it will find a home eventually”? More times than I can count. And yet, how many times have we also heard, “Even the greatest writers get rejected”?

I’m no calculus expert, but I think somebody’s lying.

You’re just bitter, you whiny child, you growl. If someone had J.K. Rowling’s talent, they’d make it easily.

At which point I would remind you that Rowling herself was rejected by thirteen publishers, AFTER she got an agent. What’s more, when she wrote a crime novel last year under a pseudonym, barely anyone picked it up until the author’s true identity was revealed.

My long-winded conclusion: talent is NOT everything in this industry. It won’t carry you across the finish line. Harsh to say, but I think talent is more like your entry ticket to the race. You still have a lot of work to do before you win it.

I don’t mean to lecture, because I don’t even know if I’ll make it. I’d like to think I will someday, but I also don’t want people to chock that up to natural talent, because believe me, I’m not bursting with gooey bits of golden blood from the writing gods. I started a crappy writer, worked my way up to not-crappy, and perhaps someday or another I’ll set foot into ‘good writer’ territory.

But no matter what happens to me or anyone else, I think the bottom line is this: talent alone isn’t enough, hard work alone isn’t enough, and luck isn’t enough. It’s a tricky balance between the three, I think; but, it’s important I also say, I believe that with enough willpower, you can increase any of those three in the amounts you need.

So, all that being said, I think there’s only one grand force in the world that, if you have it, can guarantee you’ll make it eventually.

It’s called willpower.

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