Wheel of Fortune

036LuckMr. Chuck Wendig recently wrote another impassioned post (his second on the subject), spurred by an essay written by a former college professor who taught a course as part of a certain university’s MFA writing program.

The professor in question didn’t mince words: in his opinion, most of his former students were not writers and would never succeed as writers, because they lacked writing talent.( http://www.thestranger.com/books/features/2015/02/27/21792750/things-i-can-say-about-mfa-writing-programs-now-that-i-no-longer-teach-in-one )

Mr. Wendig, emphatically, did not agree. 
( http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2015/03/02/the-toxicity-of-talent-or-did-you-roll-a-natural-20-at-birth/ ). To paraphrase, he said talent doesn’t guarantee success. What matters most is hard work and perseverance. In fact, he said talent is overrated, to wit:

 . . .for authors, it’s a very, very bad thing on which to focus. In fact, I’d argue you shouldn’t care about it.

At all.

That got me thinking. I’m a writer. Unpublished as of now, but hopeful. I’ve completed five novels to date, the last two of which–CHERRY and EFFIN’ ALBERT–are decent; even good, or so I’ve been told. To what do I owe this consensus: talent, or hard work?

Certainly, doing the work was critical. Just finishing a novel is an accomplishment in itself; a lot of aspiring novelists never get that far. But writing a publishable novel requires more than getting that first draft down. Revising and revising and revising some more is what makes a decent novel good; a good novel, great. But revising requires effort and dediction. For me, buckets of blood, sweat and tears were spilled in the process of writing and revising my novels, especially those last two.

Why, though?

I think because, as I learned more about writing–about the craft of writing, what makes a good story; as I became more aware of what good writing looked like–I began to hold myself to those higher standards, and I worked that much harder to reach them. Perseverance was paramount, especially on those dark days when I found myself supremely frustrated or worse, stuck. But, without talent, I doubt those novels would exist today. I may have known the stories, but writing them well enough to be worthy of being read demanded more than a modicum of talent.

I’ve always been a shy person, easily befuddled when I try to communicate something verbally, especially when that something is important to me. But writing is different. I feel more confident when I communicate in writing. My thoughts are more cohesive, my voice isn’t as tentative when I write. I’m able to string words together in meaningful ways; even eloquently on occasion. I enjoy writing, perhaps because it comes easily to me, just as drawing comes easily. I suspect I have a talent for both. And yet, without doing the work, learning the craft, taking the risks, putting myself out there, there is no doubt in my mind that my stories would remain closeted; my dreams of publication, unfulfilled.

I know how fickle the business of writing can be. Success isn’t promised to any writer, hard-working or not, talented or not. But to have any kind of shot of seeing my stuff published one day, I have to believe that talent and hard work will have gotten me there. Together, and in equal measure.

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10 thoughts on “Wheel of Fortune

  1. I think you’re right. A measure of talent is necessary – a certain affinity for words. Sheer determination alone won’t result in a publishable story but you need boatloads of determination coupled with talent in order to get anywhere. Over the years I’ve read work by writers I couldn’t wait to see in print. They were good, very good. They had talent. But they lacked the perseverance necessary to see a novel-length piece through to conclusion. Personally I think a writer needs three things to get the job done. Talent is one, persistence is another, and resilience is the third. We have to be able to bounce back from criticism, no matter how harsh. I’ve seen countless writers falter at this last hurdle and never get up again which is a great pity.
    I suspect those who have a natural ability for something are the ones who think talent is overrated. Case in point – my husband and daughter. They have an uncanny ability to see through people and know exactly, and I mean exactly, how they think, why they think as they do and why they do the things they do. I’m a reasonably good judge of character but their ability goes far beyond that. They don’t think it’s anything special because it comes naturally to them. I suspect some talented writers can be the same way. All they see is the hard work they do. They don’t recognize the first part of that equation, the talent.

    • Linnea, how could I have forgotten resilience?!

      This writing stuff is tough, tough, tough sometimes; not just getting the right words down on paper, but dealing with the inevitable disappointments that come afterward. I’d venture to say that–for most of us–talent, perseverance, and resilience are the trifecta for success.

      Talent is a funny thing. Your husband and daughter are astute judges of character. One of my sisters is an excellent listener. My husband has tremendous hand/eye coordination. Those traits, in part, define them and enhance their lives, I’m sure. But to what degree?

      It’s up to us, what we do with the talents we have, how far we want to take them, how far we are willing to go.

      Thank you for weighing in, Linnea. The pleasure is mine, as always.

      xo kk

  2. Well said, as usual, kk. I was pretty offended on behalf of the former students of that professor (not that they need my “offense,” just…well, I couldn’t help think of how I’d feel if I recognized myself in that piece), but he does have a couple of points. The trouble with saying it the way he did is that there will be the predictable boomerang argument that talent doesn’t matter. (Not what Chuck is saying, but things I’ve read in comment sections, etc.)

    As you prove here, in all things, moderation rules. Even in argument.

    Yes, hard work and perseverance is absolutely required. Loads of it. Scads. And without it, talent simply doesn’t matter. But there is something to be said for some form of native “talent.” I honestly can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t telling stories. Before I could write, they were stories I made up in my head and told myself and my imaginary students playing “school.” For the longest time I didn’t understand not everyone’s brain worked that way. I don’t know if it’s “talent” or just hard wiring, but my brain is wired for writing. It’s the only thing I really feel compelled to do.

    Maybe the problem here is the verbiage. We’re supposed to be wordsmiths. Maybe we can find a new word to define the optimal combination of inherent skill, hard-ass work, stick-um, chutzpah and, oh yeah, luck, timing and fairy dust. Any suggestions? (And PUBLISHED doesn’t count. :D)

    • Hi Elaine.

      I was a teacher as well as a student, so I can empathize with that professor to a degree. But also, like you, I imagine how hurtful reading something like that might be to students of that professor.

      I don’t know why I can pick up a pencil and draw whatever, without effort. Why I can sit down and write words that bring people to tears. On my best, best day, I mean. Not that I’m suggesting, you know. How utterly pompous that sounds, my God.

      :p

      Or maybe my stuff really does bring people to tears . . . because it’s so, so bad. Maybe my stuff sucks buttermilk, and my talent is the utter and complete denial of that fact.

      😀

      Regardless, I feel as you do, Elaine. Something compels me to write. Is it because I can? I dare not get into why I want to be published. I did read something the other day, I think from Chuck Wendig’s first response to that essay, that pretty much says it for me. What was it?

      Oh yeah: We write to be read.

      Whether that comes to fruition is due to a number of things, many of which you’ve gracefully alluded to. You mention needing some sort of verbiage, but I submit that some ideas defy one-word descriptions. And sometimes, the struggle to communicate an idea is exactly what propels that idea forward, breathes life into it.

      I think you did alright, ElaineA.

      -kk

    • I dare say, I wholeheartedly agree with you, mrs fringe.

      🙂

      Hey, St. Patrick’s Day is coming, right? Everybody’s Irish on St. Patty’s day! So, luck o’ the Irish for all aspiring writers. Couldn’t come at a better time, I’m thinking.

      xoxo kk

  3. I think some of us go to college too early. And DEFINITELY go on to advanced degrees too early. I know my Psychology degree was a mistake. Would an English degree have been better? I’ve read the stories I wrote in college, and they’re not as awful as they could’ve been. But are they what I want peoples’ opinion of my writing to be based on? No unedited. Not unupdated.

    I think that’s the problem with some MFA students. They’re 21, 22. Their writing comes from perhaps a less rigorous undergrad program than it could’ve, with a lot of people saying yes a lot, and talking about color and eggs and shit. You start with talent, you finish with hard work. You need both, I think.

    • I don’t know if your Psych degree was a mistake, you learned things, broadened your horizons. You had experiences that you may be tapping right now and not even be realizing it. And college had to take discipline on your part which certainly is helping you now, right?

      You had to write, and even if your stuff wasn’t publication-ready, you were communicating on paper, putting thoughts together in a way that worked for your purposes.

      I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and a Masters in Early Childhood Education. Lots of college for me. Lots of research papers, blah blah. A couple of creative writing courses along the way. I earned my living as a graphic artist, then a teacher before seriously trying my hand at writing. It came later in life for me. I’m north of 40 and just started writing 5 or so years ago.

      Could I have done it in my 20s? I don’t think so. I wasn’t driven enough, nor disciplined enough. I didn’t know enough. I think everything that happened to me up to now was necessary for me to be where I am. Maybe that holds true for you, Jen.

      I really like your last comments: start with talent, finish with hard work, need both. That pretty much says it all.

      Thank you for weighing in, Jen. It was worth the wait. 🙂

      -kk

      • Well, maybe I shouldn’t have called my degree a “waste”; it is hard to tell what an effect something has ended up having on your life. What I’ve retained from the coursework is inextricable from my life, certainly, as are books I’ve read, movies I’ve watched, games I’ve played. They’re all threads in the tapestry.

        I agree with you; I wasn’t driven enough in my 20’s either, not really. When I wrote my fabled first fantasy novel, I was “driven”‘; I worked on it every day, frequently long into nights (in the summer). I’d like to recapture that, and sustain it, for my writing now. Sometimes I do. It’s a hard thing to sustain.

        But, like you, I’m querying now. And, like you, my two most recent novels are completed, edited, and ready to show to folks.

        Hard work is hard, man 😉

        • Jen, sorry I didn’t respond sooner, a pox on me for a lout I be. :p

          Threads in the tapestry, I like that. You are absolutely right. And I can so relate to your first novel experience. I wrote my first novel in about three weeks, writing like a bloody maniac. I could not do that again, it almost killed me but I had to get the damn thing OUT.

          Writing is different now. I’m a more thoughtful writer now. But I can still get in the zone now and again, which I need to keep myself motivated. Those are the times that propel the story forward, give it that momentum that carries me through when I hit the inevitable doldrums. It’s those times I value most. As long as I can still tap that thing, whatever it is–the Jetstream of Creativity, maybe–I think I’ll be okay.

          Keep the faith and good, good luck with your stuff, Jen.

          xoxo kk

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