I once read that within five years of completing their degree only ten percent of MFA grads are still writing. I may be wrong-I’ve never conducted a study-but if I were to guess, I’d say most of those writers gave up because somehow, battered by poor sales, a harsh inner editor or the snide implication of others, they concluded that they had no talent.
What is talent, anyway?
The definition depends largely on values and taste. For some, it’s the ability to write lyrically or win prizes; for others, taut plotting or book sales. Even these definitions are vague. Which prize must a writer win? An online contest? The National Book Award? The Pulitzer? How many books must he or she sell? 10,000? 1 million? 50 million?
Stephen King defines talent this way: ‘you wrote something for which someone sent you a check . . . you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce . . . you then paid the light bill with the money.’ Considering that, for a frugal inhabitant of a tiny apartment, a light bill can be as cheap as $10, I applaud his generosity.
But what does King’s definition say about writers like John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces?
The editors at Simon and Schuster admired Toole’s writing, yet ultimately rejected his novel, because, as one of them put it: ‘your book really isn’t about anything.’ In 1969, after several failed attempts to revise his unpublished work, Toole committed suicide.
If we can’t define talent, how can possibly we know if we have it?
Defined strictly by dollars and cents, Toole, who failed to sell his novels, had no talent.
After Toole’s death, his mom passed the manuscript to the novelist Walker Percy, who shepherded the book through publication. In 1981, A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize. The book has sold 2 million copies and been translated into 18 languages.
So, Toole had-what?-posthumous talent? This anecdote might be humorous, if not for the fact that so many writers buy into this or other, equally spurious, definitions of talent.
Who but artists are judged on the basis of whimsy or taste? No wonder we’re insecure.
One Percent Inspiration, Ninety-nine Percent Perspiration
Thomas Edison said: genius (talent) is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.
I like Edison’s definition. Genius is a birthright, after all, beyond our control. Perspiration-now, that’s a matter of choise. Equating talent with hard work motivates me; it puts me in charge of my future.
One of my grad school professors used to tell this story: A woman, an inch from having been rejected-talentless, in the view of the committee pressured to admit her-busted her butt for three years, and emerged as the finest writer in the program. Work hard and you can do anything.
Sure, a facility with language or other natural ability may shoot a determined, hard-working writer into the stratosphere. But without hard work, even the writing equivalent of Einstein will go nowhere.
Next time you start to question yourself, remember best-selling author Jeffrey Archer‘s advice:
‘Never be frightened by those you assume have more talent than you do, because in the end energy will prevail. My formula is: energy plus talent and you are a king; energy and no talent and you are still a prince; talent and no energy and you are a pauper.’
How do you define talent?
- Amelia Curzon: The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Writer
This is a fabulous, fabulous post, Terri! I wholeheartedly agree. It's all about the hard work, the perspiration. It's what I emphasize to my kids, at seminars. Work, work, work. Fight for what you want. Go get it. I had never seen that Jeffrey Archer quote, but I'm adding it to the "favorite quotes" page of my blog for sure. :)
Thanks so much, Dina! I really appreciate your kind words!
I emphasize the same in my classes. So often students either think "real" writers are brilliant–they put pen to paper and spit out perfect first drafts. Or they think they can't write because they're not smart enough, talented enough and so on. In reality, of course, neither is true. You are absolutely right–you've got to fight for what you want. Go get it. And, I would add, don't give up. :)
So glad you like the quote! It's one of my favorites. I don't remember where I initially read it; I do remember posting it over my desk.
Barry Hannah was a college classmate of mine.
when we graduated i went into the marine corps, then i coached football, built buildings, raised a family. barry started writing … wrote like hell, everyday.
i started writing when i was 60, and still had a day job, owned a business.
barry made some money writing … but, he became a writer's writer: critically acclaimed.
i have yet to be published … am still paying my dues. and, my stuff is really pretty good.
what if i had started writing in the late '60s?
Great point, Tom! I started later in life, too, so I know what you mean about still paying dues. Whenever those age thoughts creep up, I remind myself of Harriet Doer, who published Stones for Ibarra, the National Book Award Winner, when she was 74. I really do believe that, in the end, persistence pays off.
Very best wishes for your writing! Here's hoping you're published very soon!
This is one of those blog posts that should be archived and revisited often!
Thank you so much for your kind words, Rob! I completely agree, in terms of the concept. I used to beat myself up, worrying about whether I had what it takes (whatever that means) to succeed. Once I realized talent only gets us so far, work is the real determining factor, I was much happier.
I appreciate your visit! Thank you again!
Thank you for this article. There seems to be so many obstacles to being published, that it sometimes seems to be a hopeless fight. It's good to be reminded that everyone faces these same challenges, and persistence will succeed.
I know exactly what you mean. Those obstacles – and, for many of us, setbacks – can feel overwhelming at times. Reminding ourselves that we're not alone really does help. Time after time I've seen persistence pay off, so I really do believe that's the key. :)
Thanks so much for visiting!
All the best,
Furthermore, "talent plus no energy and you are a pauper" is this the energy it takes to get published? With the many steps of producing and polishing a work, hiring an editor, getting an agent and finally MAYBE getting it published? And then if you're not high profiled, your book doesn't get pushed by your publisher and languishes on the shelf? Yes, you're a pauper. But is that such a bad thing? Many of us will remain writing paupers due to the incredible competition today, but we're still writers. Better to have tried and failed, and all that.
To me, talent is the ability to craft interesting stories. But I also think that talent alone isn't going to make you successful, because publishing is a business. There are a lot of very talented starving artists of all types out there. It's the ability to take your talent and turn it into something that has commercial appeal is what sells your art. I went to art school with some incredibly talented artists, much more skilled that I am. I put in the effort to learn the commercial side and they didn't. So I got a job fast and they wound up working in non-design fields. I doubt it's that different for writing. Talent alone won't cut it. You need to work hard to make the most of that talent.
I wholeheartedly agree! Publishing is a business – and, yes, I think the importance of that is too often minimized. Also, talent isn't always recognized immediately. Some of the most commercially successful books – Harry Potter, for instance – were rejected numerous times before they were published. As you point out, we have to work hard – continue working on craft, keep knocking on doors. As Flannery O'Connor said – the world doesn't need another writer. It's our job to distinguish ourselves, not the world's to accept us. :)
All the best,
It's a bit of a hobby horse of mine, so maybe I'm coming in with a some bias, but I ascribe a lot of this to the 'mystification' of art. MFAs live in a somewhat more rarefied world than the rest of us, and while many of their professors are undeniably with it, many more are willing to pass on a lot of awful habits – the idea that you needn't write until a muse sweeps in with inspiration, that there's something mildly heretical about writing more than 1000 words a week, that everything needs to be workshopped and peer reviewed and polished for years, that it's terribly gauche to consider the business end of it, and so forth.
In short, too many writers buy into the idea that writing is somehow different than other jobs, that it's a matter of native talent and not simple practice and slogging it out. And it's much too easy to find writers who fail to understand that they're operating within an economic context, and that in truth their rejections often come not from people who think their writing is poor, but people who aren't sure how to market and sell it.
I don't have a single definition of writing talent, as a result. Some writers are excellent with characters, some write gorgeous prose, some give us white-knuckle pacing and suspense. And some are good at selling themselves, at writing solid back cover copy, at approaching the right people and writing for the right audience, or at just never giving up. These are vital talents as well, but they too frequently get denigrated as mercenary.
I could not agree more! Talent is hard to define; most times, the definition is arbitrary and it changes with trends. Moreover, as you point out, there are a lot of talented people. It's what you do with your talent/ability that matters. That willingness to stretch, to push yourself, to do what it takes is the true differentiator.
Congratulations on your success – I wish you a world of success going forward!
Thank you so much for visiting and sharing your insight!
This was a great post! And so true! Often times, people think that talent comes easy and therefor so would anything fantastic that follows. Even Aristotle had it figured out: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit."
Thank you so much, Carissa! I really appreciate your kind words. I completely agree – people place far too much emphasis on talent. As you say, if it's about talent, it's easy. The Aristotle quote is one of my favorite! Here's another, from St. Augustine:
"Pray as though everything depends on God. And work as if everything depends on you."
Thanks so much for your thoughtful post!
I'm smiling as I read your comments – I so often say the same myself. The distinction between literary and commercial work, while perhaps (to some degree) useful as a means of categorization, is far too often used to denigrate those who, as you point out, have the audacity consider writing a business. This may be because people who write character-driven fiction (the typical MFA prof) think differently than those who focus on plot (one very honest teacher said that if he could write plot-driven stories, he would), and so pass their own prejudices to students, who take them for gospel. Literary and genre/commercial fiction differ, yes – but one is not necessarily better than the other – Stephen King is a great case in point. You're right: talent comes in many different packages.
Along the same lines, I know wonderful writers who refuse to promote their novels for the very reasons you mention. It's too bad, because novels don't sell themselves – and the writers end up depressed.
Thanks again – I appreciate your stopping by.
God .. the gods .. good genes .. mother nature blessed me with the ability to run long distances in an amazingly short period of time ( i am told ) .
it wasn't until i worked really hard for long streaches of time ( months, years ) however, that those periods of time became amazingly short.
i had team mates who worked just as hard … but did not run those same distances in amazingly short periods of time.
i think it is both. i know for sure that had i not worked really hard for long periods of time that the times would not have become amazingly short. … i think that terri is right ( and edison, too. )
i suspect that the same is true for writing, for writers.
Hi Tom –
Welcome! It's good to see you! My husband and daughters ran cross-country and track, so I know exactly what you mean. And I completely agree! Talent can take us far – but not, as you so beautifully put it, without working hard for long periods of time.
Thanks so much for your insight!
Terri thank you so much for this post. It is one of the most inspiring things I have ever read.
Reading your positive, encouraging and kind post makes me believe that with hard work anything is possible. I thank you for words which offer inspiration as well as direction.
You are so kind and so sweet for saying that, Debs! Thank you so much! I truly believe that hard work trumps talent. Talent is such a squishy, squirmy thing. As soon as we think we’ve identified it, it morphs – or tastes or trends change. Of course some talent is easily identifiable, but even the most talented among us have to work hard to succeed. I always think of athletes – sure, the superstars have talent, but when you start asking questions or their teammates talk about them, you almost always learn that they’re the first on the field and the last to leave. They may have great hand-eye coordination, blazing speed, or whatever it takes to succeed in their sport, but it’s only in pushing themselves that they become superstars. Less naturally talented athletes – the famous Boston Celtics basketball player, Larry Bird, for example – sometimes become stars as a result of motivation and drive. All of us have access to that.
Honestly, I love Edison's view on talent. I mean, you could have that one percent that puts you ahead of everyone, but if you put no effort into it, how can you excel at anything?
This is just a recent example of this from college, but I think it applies. In my math class, I've been struggling really really hard to get the concepts. The teacher helps with his simple definitions and step-by-step processes, so I got a very high A in math for the first time since like first grade, haha.
But what was interesting is the people behind me thought it was just because I was "talented". When they asked me how I was getting my grades, I said with a lot of effort. I did my homework, did each and every problem on the review until I understood it inside and out. That's a lot of hours, but they just chalked it up to talent and got insecure about their own grades (or got mad at me for being so "superior") when they weren't putting in half the effort.
I think beginning writers look at other, established writers like that, and even then, in the publishing world, a lot of it is based off of mood and perspective. What an editor disliked two years ago he might love now. It's just how it goes, and that doesn't mean you're talented. Effort is talent, at least that's how I see it.
This is an insightful response, Elisa! I completely agree – it's easy to look at others and assume their success came easily. You're also right about editors: acceptance and rejection are so often a matter of right or wrong time and place, having to do, as you say, with mood and perspective, or sometimes having to do with nothing more than editorial needs. Assuming acceptance means talent logically leads us to believe that rejection means lack of talent, and neither are necessarily (always/entirely) true. The only guaranteed way to excel is, again as you so beautifully put it, by putting the effort.
Thanks very much for commenting! And congrats on the A! Fantastic job!!
The one thing I’ve learned so far from high school, college, and my attempts to get my stories published is that no one really cares if you have talent. They want to be inspired and shown new things through your writing, and that takes time and practice. Lots of practice.
Sorry to use another non-writing example, but back in middle school there was this really smart boy in my class. He impressed all the teachers and made most of us jealous of how simple homework seemed for him. He got all A’s, grasped complex concepts like they were nothing. So talented, right? Well he became very, very aware of it and started slacking off. Never finished high school (though he eventually got a GED) and he has no intention of getting any type of degree, and he spends a lot of time fishing and hanging out with his girlfriend. He knows he’s brilliant, but without any effort he’s staying at the pond and his job.
Now in my friend’s case, he’s where he likes to be, and that’s fine, but the concept applies to the whole issue of talent. Sorry, I know this was random and rambling.
Great post, Terri. I'm passing it along. I had the pleasure of meeting (being introduced to) Harriett Doerr just before "Stones" was published and knew slightly her mentor at Stanford, John L'Heureux. I believe she entered the program there in her 60's after she was widowed and many students in the program with her doubted her pieces would come to anything. Guess what . . . she persevered. Look what happened.
Thank you so much, Helen! Such a great story about Harriett Doerr! I had no idea people doubted her. I knew she was older when she went and really admired her determination. Now you've given me even more to respect and admire! She was such a wonderful writer! Thank you for sharing this story!
If you could indulge me one more note, Terri. I tell my students that the one major thing that distinguishes them from their favorite writers is that the published writers finished their books. We will never know know how many great works went to the grave because the writers just never finished them.
I wholeheartedly agree! It's so easy to get discouraged and give up, yet story after story confirms that even the greats faced rejection at some point/s in their career. I really appreciate your adding your insightful comments to the blog, Helen! Thank you so much!
Thank you so much for this. I've been writing for almost 35 years now, have yet to pursue publication and often think that I lack what it takes, be that the ability to craft a commercially attractive plot, interesting characters or shed any new light on a typical situation. Because of that, I shoot myself in the foot and give up. I believe I have a better than average ability to craft a character but a worse than average ability to do anything with the character. So I do nothing.
What your post tells me is that in doing nothing, well…I'll never get anything done! In giving up, any potential I have will go by the wayside, any wealth of ability I have will be wasted.
The Archer quote is perfect.
This is a bit of a wake up call. Thanks so much!
Hi, Eva. Yes, take this article as a call to action. I can say with utmost certainty that in your 35 years of writing, you've developed a huge talent – now why are you hiding this away from the rest of the world? Clearly, you have an insurmountable love for the craft. You've perspired more than 99% in your warm-up, now get out there and join the game. Just do it. You know you can :-)
This is excellent, Terri. Thank you for working as hard as you have. I'm making the trek sans MFA, sans BA as a matter of fact. It feels good to have my own voice, and the work is nothing but play.
Oh, and I will take issue with King's definition of talent–come on, one can write soup labels to pay the bills, Mr. King. How does the writing strike at the readers' hearts?
Well, a soup can label at the very least can lead to the filling of said reader's tummy. That's got to count for something, right? ;-)
Great ideas on your page. I have only been on twitter and blogging since Oct 2010. I started to list my older poems about 12 or so and then started to tweet. I found my voice (if that is what you call it) in writing tweets of romantic thoughts. I am looking into a book of my tweets condensed. My earlier work on my blog is quite different than my recent writes. The hard work aspect has taken over. I was a financial advisor for 30 yrs. now looking to branch out and learn to write well and often. I will look forward to your tweets and blog suggestions thank you.
Hi, Steve! I love that tweeting has improved your writing. It certainly drives home the lesson of brevity. Have you written a blog post on this topic? If so, please share the link, because I'd love to read it!
What a joy it's been to find your blog, Terri! (I'll have to thank Erin Reel for that. I read your profile on her blog.)
It is so true that we authors/writers have to work even harder at promoting our work than we did at writing it! How unfortunate it is that the publishing world has changed to this degree. I honestly get tired of having to spend more time marketing myself and my work than I do creating it. And I'm not shy! I can imagine how difficult this process must be for the introverted writers among us.
I look forward to connecting with you on Twitter as well and to keeping in touch.
Hi, Doreen. Yes, I agree. The promotional part of the craft is certainly time-consuming. Although it is stressful, it is also still enjoyable in its own way. The good news is this: the publishing industry is constantly changing – maybe the next innovation will free up some more writing time for the two of us?
Wow, what a wonderful story of encouragement, a "Must read" for all starving artists and mankind alike. Kim
Thank you so very much for your kind words, Kim!! I'm thrilled that you enjoyed the post.It's sad to see so many people discouraged by arbitrary judgments, which often change. If, instead, we focused on working hard, we'd be less discouraged and far more likely to succeed. But of course I'm preaching to the choir. :-) Thank you so much for stopping by!
Just when I was feeling like a talentless hack, you saved the day. Thank you! Hard work…I can do that.
LOL! Oh, Julie – haven't we all had THOSE days?! You have a wonderful attitude. It's one that I also try to always carry with me – hard work. I can do that! I love it! Thank you so much for your visit!!
I came over from Julie Musil's blog. It's a treat to find your blog.
Wonderful post here! Really makes you think. I have always believed that you usually have a little talent to work with to start – a natural born something that drives you to do whatever – then with hard work, the talent blooms. You've got to put in the work though.
So sad for Toole. He gave up.
Hi Loree! Welcome! I'm thrilled that you enjoyed the post. I agree – hard work can take modest talent and make it shine!! Thank you so very much for stopping by!
I agree with you. Especially the last quote. Often times talent is defined by the RECOGNITION of talent. But that's not my definition.
A vigorous work ethic could be defined as a talent–the talent to work hard. Learning from others and learning from one's mistakes? Two more talents. I could go on, but I suppose you get my point. Thanks for opening this discussion.
You make fantastic points, Angelina! I could not agree more. Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your insights!!
I think the heart of this post goes to intent. I didn
Hmmmm…some people work hard and do not succeed ever. Not in life; not posthumously. One must work anyway, and sometimes work trumps talent. However failure is possible. Work is no more a guarantee than talent is.
You're right, Barbara, absolutely right. But we can't know, unless we try. And I for one love the business of writing ;-)
Excellent post Terri but reading about Toole made me think that if he had been living in this age he could have self-published his work on the Amazon Kindle. It would not have earned him a Pulitzer Prize but it would have been a better alternative to suicide.
Thank you so much for your kind words!
I wonder if he would have considered indie publishing a success or if his book would have been as well received. Very interesting possibilities to consider! Thank you so much for stopping by – and for giving us these intriguing questions to consider!
Excellent thoughts, and so true. I learned many of these lessons while working as a weekly newspaper columnist — something I've done off and on for nearly 20 years. There are weeks when I had nothing to say and felt like a fraud, but the non-negotiable deadline kept me writing. Sometimes I surprised myself and wrote a better piece than I'd imagined I could, while other weeks, not so much. Perseverance is everything when it comes to writing, and I have to remind myself of this fact all the time. Thanks for sharing!
I think everyone has some degree of talent. If you have a lot and don't work, it withers. If you have a little and put in the necessary blood sweat and tears, it grows. I enjoyed this post very much, Terry.