I promised Mod R this post.
Talent, what is it, why is it, how much does it matter in writing?
Short answer: I don’t know.
Longer answer: I think talent exists. The exact definition of it is harder to nail down.
When I wrote my first novel in Russian – I was 14 and I did it on a manual typewriter – my father took it to the head of the Russian Literature faculty at the university. My dad was high up in administrative structure and he had a lot of connections. He also showed it to a physics professor who was a friend of the family.
The story was cringe. The professor came back with all sorts of edits and suggestions. He was helpful that way in general. The reply from the head of the Literature faculty was short. “You either have it or not. She has it.”
At the time, I didn’t pay any attention to it and I forgot about it for decades until our children started writing, and I read some of it and realized that yes, whatever the mysterious it was, it made it over.
But is it nature or nurture?
I didn’t know how to teach the kids to read in English, so I bought Hooked on Phonics. Ten out of ten stars. The little books were amazing. Not only we read to the girls every night, but they were reading Dr. Seuss on their own by the time they went to kindergarten. As they grew up, they read non-stop and widely, everything from Chicken Soup for a Teenage Soul to Fifty Shades of Grey. We had heated discussions about Dickens and Twilight. Keeping them in books was a race.
If they hadn’t read everything they could get their hands on, would their talent ever show up?
I don’t know.
Reading is a learning process. It can be passive, when we read for enjoyment, or active, when we pull sentences apart to see how they are made. But despite the educational nature of all reading, reading and writing are separated by a massive gulf filled with labor.
Reading for fun is easy. Writing is difficult. It takes effort. Writers become physically fatigued after an intense effort even though they are barely moving. Active reading, the type you do to better your writing, is also work. It takes a certain amount of effort to bridge the gap between reading and storytelling and then more effort to learn how to tell that story so other people would want to read it.
So here is my definition of talent. Writing talent is a person’s natural ability to bridge the gap between reading and writing faster. It’s a shortcut. A head start.
Some of us naturally read a little more actively than the others. We note how the words are put together. We instinctively identify natural sounding dialogue and then remember it. We tend to think more about what the characters experience. We think about our feelings, we think about other people’s feelings, we construct elaborate scenarios in our heads where we triumph over everyday evil that wronged us and so on. We collect witty comebacks. This is talent. It’s a predisposition to obsess and therefore become more proficient.
Can someone without this vague talent write a good book? Absolutely. They will just have to work harder and it will take longer. I know someone who was in the workshop with me fifteen years ago. She wrote, but it didn’t have that spark that pulls the readers in, and people I will not name said some unkind things about her lack of talent, which was why I left a particular email loop. Recently, I saw her first book from a respected imprint with excellent reviews. It just took longer, that’s all.
But talent alone will get you nowhere without hard work.
When I heard the back door close,I opened my book.I groaned.
It was so dark outside, the words looked like eligible little scribbles. I rolled onto my stomach and shut my eyes in frustration. I should of thought that through.
All at once, I was hit with the undeniable feeling that someone else was outside with me still.
“Ezra, I know you’re still there.”
He didn’t reply, so I sat back up and stared into the darkness. I squinted my eyes, hoping to enhance my vision. There was absolutely nothing outside.
Teenage writer, 2014
Talent, plus a lot of hard work, some crying, and then more work:
A violent eruption of tremors shook the room. The REDACTED wrapped his arms around my waist and pulled me in. With my eyes clenched shut, I pressed my face against his muscular chest and braced for impact. Everything collapsed around us.
Deafening silence. An eerie stillness froze the air.
Cold hands grabbed my hips and spun me. I could feel the REDACTED behind me.
His icy breath brushed over the side of my face, and chills trickled down my spine.
“Open your eyes,” he whispered in my ear.
Emerald hills of luscious grass rolled over the horizon under a glittering night sky.
A blood red moon loomed above, illuminating the valley with a soft, crimson light.
Hanging behind it like a distant shadow was another moon, sickle shaped and faint.
I must’ve been asleep the whole time. That was the only reasonable explanation for what I was seeing. Waking up in my dorm, the building collapsing upon us, it’d all been just a trick- one of the mind games that the REDACTED’s kind was known to use on humans. It should’ve been obvious, and I should’ve been mad. But I wasn’t.
The strange world around me now felt more like home than Earth or Mars ever did.
I liked being here.
Same writer 2021