Writer, Artist, or Otherwise: Here’s Why Talent Isn’t Enough

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For years I’ve gotten into hot water with my peers and aspiring writers at “how to” conferences and workshops for my liberal use of an apparently taboo word: talent. It took me a while to figure out why that word elicited such ire. Depending upon your worldview, talent is either a gift from God or a matter of genetic serendipity. But regardless of whether you believe it comes in on little cats’ feet or is a result of great grandma marrying the wine merchant instead of the tailor, one thing is true about talent: It can’t be taught. You either have it or you don’t. You can have all the panels you want on how to build a better website, how to create a foolproof marketing plan, how to write a great first sentence, or how to outline a dynamic plot. None of it will matter if you don’t have writing talent.

What my detractors often fail to hear above the din of their booing is that talent isn’t enough. As a philosophy professor might say, talent is requisite, not sufficient. And what else no one seems to hear is that you only need a little bit of it. Do I have writing talent? Yes. Either that or a lot of publishers have lost their collective minds. But I can’t tell you how much talent I have. And it’s not my talent alone that’s gotten twenty-five of my novels published. Here’s a secret: it’s not Lee Child’s talent or Janet Evanovich’s or Daniel Woodrell’s talent either. It’s what they do with what they’ve got. Does luck play a role? Of course it does. Luck and chance play a role in every aspect of life.

In Brooklyn, I grew up playing ball with a kid, Lee Mazzilli, who was a gifted athlete. He was just better than the rest of us at everything athletic. He was the first round draft pick of the New York Mets in 1973. The thing is, when he got to the minors, everyone else on the field was also the best kid among their friends, the best in their town, the most talented. But only a small percentage of the people in the minors ever sniff the major leagues. Lee made it to the majors, hit a home run in an All-Star game, won a world championship with the Mets in ’86, and even managed the Orioles for a few months. Was he talented? Yes. How talented? I don’t know, but I bet he worked really hard at his craft.

There’s yet another thing no one seems to hear. There is only one way to find out if you’ve got that requisite amount of talent: to try. And by trying, I don’t mean writing one novel or short story and endlessly tinkering with it. I once told an editor that I have my writing and I have my children, but I never get them confused. If you want to be a writer, write. Don’t be stingy. Write a lot. Write every day. There is no such thing as wasted writing. A few years ago when I was still teaching at Hofstra University, I wanted to make a point of this to my class. So I went back and did a rough calculation of how many words I’d written in my lifetime. The number I came up with was four million. Okay, I confess, some of those words were grocery lists, but mostly not. I’ve added about four or five hundred thousand to the total since then.

Lastly, I try to make the point that writing and publishing aren’t the same thing. Writing is art and publishing is commerce. There’s a fuzzy, wavy, constantly moving point at which they intersect and there is very little a writer can do to control where that point is or will be. In fact, there is little a writer can do to control anything beyond the words he or she put down on the page or screen. This is something else that gets me in trouble. Because I am always telling aspiring writers to focus only on their writing. In a way, it’s me getting back to my original point. A writer can only discover his or her talent in their work and their work is the key to their success or failure. Websites, marketing plans, finding an agent are things that should come after the work, not before it.