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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Best Writing Advice: There's No Such Thing As Talent

A writer's main activity is procrastinating. Sometimes it's useful procrastinating, like time spent letting a manuscript marinate before starting to edit. Sometimes it's the procrastinating that happens when you have a deadline (self-imposed or otherwise) that you really don't feel like keeping. I'm excellent at both.

Self-portrait in charcoal,
September 2008
Recently, I've gotten back into art as a form of procrastination. I enjoyed it when I was younger, though I was never particularly good and, like with writing, my teachers taught me how without the subject ever penetrating deep enough to matter. Thanks to a poor teacher in college, I barely passed my required art class. She noticed that I wasn't doing the techniques correctly but couldn't be bothered to teach me the right way. Didn't stop her from grading me down, though.

Thankfully, you don't have to be very good at whatever you do to procrastinate for it to be a worthwhile pursuit. So I looked up tutorials and got to work. It turns out, the writing advice I once received from a critique partner applies to art as well, and it's the most important advice I've ever received, inside or out of writing:
Flower in oil pastel,
circa spring 2009

There's no such thing as talent.

Sometimes things come easier for one person than another, but in every project you take on, something will come easier for someone else. And there is nothing that cannot be taught. A tall person might have the advantage in basketball, but tell that to 5'3" Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues, who played for the NBA from 1987 until 2002.

If something about your writing isn't working, practice. Find a critique partner (or several, or an editor) and learn what your weaknesses are. Work on them. Practice creating plots that are organic. Practice writing dialogue. Practice weaknesses in short stories until you master them, then move on to novels. Don't be afraid of writing something that is horrid and unsalvageable. Just learn from it and improve the next time.

Portrait of my daughter in colored pencil,
July 2015
The only thing that separates "experts" from "n00bs" is the number of hours put in. Sometimes those hours are spent learning. Concert pianists practice their scales and arpeggios daily. Sometimes those hours are spent on actual projects. When I paint my nails, I run the polish over my finger and move onto the next. When I get my nails done professionally, they mess up as much as I do. They just go back and remove their mistakes. They use more layers of polish to keep it on longer. When a child colors a pictures, they grab blue for the sky, green for the grass, and peach or brown for the person. When a professional artist colors a picture, they grab five different blues, three grays, a white, and a few purples for the sky alone.

The change in perspective is everything: lacking in talent means you're setting the blame externally. Lacking in practice, however, is something you can fix.

Don't use a "lack of talent" as an excuse for not reaching your goals. Call it a "lack of practice" and then get practicing.

Flowers in oil pastel
June 2015

Rochelle Deans sometimes feels like the only writer on the planet who rushes through the writing so she can start editing. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and young daughter. Her bad habits include mispronouncing words, correcting grammar, and spending far too much time on the Internet.


Jackie Buxton said...

Many a true word spoken in jest! Great post, amusing but oh, so true.

ProvidenceMine said...

Thank you very much for this post! When Michael Jordan started out in Basketball he was supposed to be pretty miserable and nobody thought he'd amount to much, but he worked at his craft to become one of the greatest players of all time in the NBA. Harper Lee wrote a first manuscript called Go Set A Watchman which lacked focus and had some weak writing, but then an editor told her to zero in on the little girl and the memories of her father in the book. She did, and in two years finished To Kill A Mockingbird. Your lovely article is one that I wish I saw more of back in the day when I wanted to write.

On the art side, I had a lousy art teacher also. I had some lousy writing teachers as well, but years after college I picked up some really fine books like Writing Down The Bones and that started me on my way again. Of course, I put off writing at times but I enjoy it far more than I did when I was stuck listening to some jerk professor who believed that 'you either had it or you didn't.' Too bad Natalie Goldberg and Betty Edwards weren't teaching in my college.

Rochelle Deans said...

ProvidenceMine, thank you for your thoughtful response! I'm honestly so scared to read "Go Set a Watchman," although I'm sure it would be interesting just in terms of seeing how she got from a mediocre manuscript to an American classic.

Thankfully, I've never had any lousy writing teachers; it was pretty much my hubris that kept me from learning what they taught. (I was good at spelling, grammar, and sentence flow, so I *obviously* had nothing left to learn...)

Keep writing if you enjoy it! It can be a rewarding experience, same as art. I'm definitely glad I haven't let my lousy art teacher keep me from practicing. :)

Adventures in YA Publishing said...

Great, grounding article. I especially loved the lines: "Sometimes things come easier for one person than another, but in every project you take on, something will come easier for someone else. And there is nothing that cannot be taught." We'll hear talent praised so much, that I think it can become easy for writers, when they struggle, to presume that they're just not talented and give up. And it's easy to fall into this trap, because when we read other people's books, we're looking at professionally edited manuscripts that the authors have spent years writing and even more years honing their craft. And we don't see any of that behind-the-scenes work. We just see our in-progress manuscripts, still riddled with weaknesses, and assume there is some problem innate with us. But writing is a craft. It takes time and effort to master. It's important to remember that everyone has their strengths and struggles in writing, that everyone had to start somewhere, and that no one gets published without persistence and lots of hard work.

--Sam Taylor, AYAP Intern

Michael McDonagh said...

You know my sentiments on this, so all I can really add is "here, here." :)