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 In 1969, after several failed attempts to revise his unpublished work, Toole committed suicide.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.

But wait.

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?


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