Talent vs. Learning: Do You Have to Be Born a Writer?

Talent vs. learning: Do you have to be born with a genius for writing? Do you have to have some crucial chromosomal heritage from brilliant parents? Or maybe just a happy coincidence of the right mental wiring? If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then only the prodigies among us are going to make it at this writing game. And the rest of us? Well, we’re just as stuck as all the disappointed five-foot-twoers missing out on their NBA dreams.

But what if it’s not true? What if writing, like basketball, is something we can learn, but, unlike basketball, isn’t something we have to depend on our genetic heritage to ultimately fulfill for us? What if the dream of becoming a bestselling author is something within the reach of anyone willing to do a little hard work?

What is talent?

According to Barbara Baig (“The Talent Myth, The Writer, April 2012):

Talent, I have long told my students, is the assumptions we make about other people’s abilities that keep us from developing our own.

We could define talent several different ways, but I define it like this: talent is aptitude, and aptitude is made up many different factors, including the ability to spell, an ear for words, a sense of story structure, and an empathy for character.

And which of those can’t be learned? Granted, some of us are born with a natural gift for these things, and some of us aren’t. Some of us grew up winning spelling bees, while some of us can’t remember that “e” in “chicken” to save our lives. But most of us learned 222 how to spell and how to parse sentences, just as we discovered story structure through much reading and trial and error. In an April 2012 interview (The Writer again), award-winning novelist Sharon G. Flake admitted:

There are many ways to be a writer. You can be like me—self-conscious, a little learning-disabled, with a poor memory for details—and still do some awesome work.

How do you learn to write?

The answer to that one is easy. You write! You study. You rewrite. In the words of Samuel Beckett, you “try again. Fail again. Fail better.” There is no aspect of the art and craft of writing that cannot be learned. Anyone from any background or any walk of life can learn the essentials of writing.

So breathe a sigh of relief. If you weren’t born a writing genius, no sweat. You’ve got all the tools you need right at your fingertips—so long as you have…

The magic ingredient

 

Ultimately, the secret ingredient to writing success isn’t the elusive talent. It’s passion.

For all I know, my next door neighbor may have the mental skills and experiences necessary to make him a far better writer than I can ever hope to be. But he’s not interested in writing, so what good are those skills or that natural aptitude going to do him? Not much. On the other hand, there are those of us who love writing and are dedicated enough to put in the long hours of study and work. We are going to succeed in the end.

Not only is that great news for those of us who fear we lack the necessary talent, it also means we can take much greater satisfaction in our work. If we achieve great things in our writing thanks to hard work, how much cooler is that than being born with a truckload of talent?

Tell me your opinion: Do you think you have a natural talent for writing?

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

Email:
About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I think I had a natural interest in writing and reading, but turning an interest into a manuscript requires a lot (a loooooooooot!) of hard work. If you want to do something, the more you work at it, the better you will be. I do believe some people are naturally gifted but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t do it too.

  2. I had a cousin who had such a natural gift for writing, whereas I, did not. I knew immediately, the difference between us. Although I had never taken any formal creative writing courses and my English was so-so, and I’d only ever dabbled in poetry, there was something that made me different: I had the tenacity to finish my work and continuously improve. Two books (unpublished but great practice) later, I was definitely hooked; wanting to become better at the craft with such desire that I knew I had finally discovered my passion.

    I’m always working on improving and seeing myself as a humble pupil, gracious to receive the good AND tough lessons other writers have learned.

    Thanks for a wonderful post, KM!

    Cheers,
    Anna Soliveres

  3. @Miss Cole: Yes, I think one of the biggest parts of any giftedness we may possess is the gift of our interest in stories, reading, and words.

    @Anna: Too often, those who are truly gifted with talent never achieve the same degree of determination as those of us who have to work a little a harder. Sad for them, but good for us!

    • Sam Hasselbring says:

      @Anna & KM: There is no such thing as a sad talent. The lesson you should you learn from KM with one alteration is to value what you have, determination, without devaluing what you don’t have, talent.

  4. I feel like — respectfully — you’ve defeated your own argument. If passion is necessary for great writing, can someone learn passion?

    My argument is this: anyone can learn to construct a cohesive sentence. They can infuse it with basic rhetorical nuances. They may even create an emotion. But the ear for words and passion for language is something only good writers have, and I’m not sure those can be learned.

    I’m also not sure why it’s so important to try to make the playing field so level. There’s a tremendous number of things I’m not good at. In fact, given the total sum of things that humans can do, subtract the three or four things I do really well, and we’d have to say there’s a preponderance of things I cannot do well, and should not waste my time trying to do. Instead, find what you’re passionate about, and go change the world with it. Anything else is just a distraction from what you should be doing.

  5. I agree with the essence of what you’re saying. But can passion really be equated with talent? I don’t believe they’re mutually inclusive. I have a friend who is insanely talented. He’s brilliant, athletic, funny. But he has no passion for anything, and so he’s outstripped by so many people of lesser talent, simply because they possess the drive he lacks. Ultimately, the only point I want to carry across is that any given writer’s lack of talent (or perceived lack) isn’t important. We all have hurdles to overcome – if we possess the determination to keep trying.

  6. This sort of argument comes up a lot in art circles of all kinds. Talent will only get you so far without passion. Passion is what drives us down the right path for our lives, and it’s capricious sometimes. I like your post in that it is encouraging for those of us struggling to keep on writing in the face of rejection.

  7. Authors can become frustrated over a perceived lack of talent. But it’s a useless frustration, since there’s absolutely nothing we can do about the skills we were or weren’t born with. The best thing we can do for ourselves is to forget about talent and just try our guts out.

  8. I believe you left out one important ingredient: people who want to be authors need passion, diligence, the will to learn and work a lot, but they also need one other crucial ability, and imho it’s the ability to observe. No one can write a novel out of the blue. It’s like with painting: you need to SEE something first before you can write about it, or put it on canvas.
    Now I KNOW there are people who way through life nearly blindly (I’m married to one). These people may be great at something else, but I don’t believe they can write great stories. Maybe that’s what makes the “talent”?

  9. Great point. That gift of “seeing” is one of the greatest blessings of being a writer. I can’t imagine waking up in the morning and not noticing (or worse, not appreciating) the golden dust motes floating in front of the window or the glisten of the sprinkler droplets against the house bricks. It’s everyday magic for the taking!

  10. Can I please “like” your response? 🙂

  11. Only if I can like your original comment first!

  12. 🙂

  13. Passion and persistence. I know some parts of writing come easily for me- connecting with my emotions and putting them on the page. Imagination, though, making something from nothing, does not come easily for me. I can connect and build on parts, but I find it hard to pull things from nowhere. Maybe imagination is more about connecting than creating, though. I know I’m hungry to write.

  14. Although the active sense of “creation” is certainly a necessary part of writing, I find that imagination is almost more of a natural occurrence. Perhaps “connection” *would* be a good way to describe it. It’s like I just close my eyes and watch things happen. The creation part comes into play when I have to connect the dots.

  15. I suspect there is some natural talent in my jeans.. er.. genes.. 😉
    My dad used to write a lot, and all of my older siblings have varying degrees of writingish publishedness…
    But I do agree, most writing skills are developed with practice.

  16. Um…I do not. My friend Jon thinks all writers have a natural talent though. He was shocked when he found me with a book on writing. He said, “You mean there are really books like that? You have to learn how to write?”

  17. @Gideon: If you have talented jeans, I have a feeling a lot of writers would love to know where you buy them!

    @Lorna: Everybody wants to write a book. But so many people discover it’s not as easy as writing a grocery list, and they give up. We all have to study to show ourselves approved.

  18. No, I don’t think I am talented at anything. i agree, talent is how we account for good and unusual achievements. It is also a handy excuse for not trying to do what we would like to do.

    I think I have a good ear for writing, that is particularly for the rhythm of it, but then I was very active with music throughout my childhood.

    I strongly disagree with Stephen King who takes a dim view of people’s potential to become good or great writers–in his “On Writing.” Let me hasten to add that I admire his prowess as a writer of fiction.

    Years ago I took up watercolor painting. And for years I didn’t dare call myself an artist. My strengths and natural aptitudes didn’t center in drawing ability, but through hard work I can now draw much better than when I started out.

    “When one is endowed with talent,” goes the moral, “one cannot depend on it.” from The Tale of Kieu by Nguyen Du

    “It would be a mistake to ascribe creative power to an inborn talent; a creative operation requires an effort. Creativity takes courage.” — Painter Henri Matisse
    (Quoted in about.com by Marion Boddy-Evans, your Guide to Painting )

    “Let your mother worry about your talent. Work is what gets your around the bases to score.” Approx. quote: David Lyle Millard, The Joy of Watercolor.

  19. And, I believe more in gifts from God than talent, any day!

  20. I’ll second that. As far as I’m concerned the passion and discipline necessary to back up talent are the gifts for which God gives us responsibility.

  21. I’d like to respond to Daniel Dydek’s comment above — not so much to rebut his post specifically, but to use it as a jumping off point for further discussion.

    Daniel’s argument appears to be that we should all focus on the areas we are good at, and follow what we are passionate about; anything else is a “distraction from what you should be doing”. My question is, what if the thing you are passionate about is also something you are by nature lousy at?

    What if I am a fantastic computer programmer, but find that indescribably dull as an activity? I would rather spend my time writing fiction, but discover that my ear for words that don’t fit into a computer’s syntax is fairly limited. Should I abandon my interest in writing as a distraction, and plow ahead to be the best, most talented, and most bored computer programmer I could be?

    I was told once from a Catholic priest that the surest sign that you are following God’s plan for you is that you have joy doing it. It is definitely that thought — and not any notion of any kind of writing talent on my part — that even leads me to consider being a writer. If I enjoy the process of creating art through words and improving my skill over time, then I hope I will have the wisdom to see that effort as successful and worthwhile — even if I never end up actually getting anything published at all.

  22. Writing is one of those things that is often as much torture as it is enjoyment. If you don’t enjoy it, then what’s left but the torture? Pursuing writing if you don’t love it strikes me as both counter-productive and ultimately pointless.

    If you love something enough to keep at it even if you’re not so good at it, you’ll hang in there until you inevitably improve. Likewise, if you hate it, improvement will come with much more personal strain.

  23. I think you are right on all counts. I also think it is somewhat in the blood. You need to be able to come up with new and interesting concepts, and then be able to relay them. It is a special kind of person who can do this.

    When people contact me and say they are stuck, or have writers block, sometimes it is hard to relate, because I cannot stop the words from flowing.

    You need passion, ability to come up with story, the drive to better yourself, and the ability to relay your thoughts into words. This isn’t the easiest combination.

    It is frustrating for those who “have a story” but cannot “get it out”. It’s a shame.

  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

  25. I agree with this, in theory. I know that my creative writing ability is wanting, but now that I have a story idea and continuing personal confirmation that I’m on the right path, I’m willing to undergo the crucible that is learning the techne of writing.

    Thinking about your post on successful-but-bad writers from the other day, I hope that tenacity and dumb luck account for most of a writer’s success. Besides, as you mention, why should I be comparing my talent to another’s? It’ll do little good.

    Although, I do take comfort in the fact that Flannery O’Connor, for one, couldn’t spell a lick. 🙂

  26. I do have a passion to get my stories told, still learning the art of storytelling 🙂 Glad there’s hope for us who maybe aren’t as naturally talented as others, but have the “stick-to-it” drive that keeps us learning and growing !

  27. Passion is an ingredient for sure, but so is persistence. I like to write for “me”, perhaps one day be published. What helps me get through those tough days when my thoughts can not grasp what I want it to do…I read other great authors and learn their style, pose, poetic nature and structure. All these things, with passion and persistence…can help anyone (I hope me) become an inspiring writer.

  28. What a great reminder! Thanks so much

  29. When broken down, we have a nature vs. nurture argument here. Is it only the true prodigies and geniuses of the world who can excel, or can those without certain innate cognitive advantages enter the rat race and compete on the highest levels?

    There isn’t a definitive answer, but I do agree that a mixture of passion/dedication make for a vital ingredient in success. The “average” person who spends 20,000 hours writing is going to surpass the genius who spends 20 hours, but the “below average” writer may need to spent a lifetime.

    This is a great topic, though. I’d be curious to see a formal study done (or to see the results, if one already has) about the link between intelligence and writing success.

    -A.M.

  30. I think a writer needs to “discover” their talent within themselves. This can take a short time or longer but perserverance is the key. Great blog!!

  31. Jennifer: Writer’s block can be a tricky subject to address. Some writers swear there is no such thing; others swear they have stared the beast in the face (and that’s hard to argue with). I tend to err more on the side of the former, but my experiences with writer’s block have always been more of the minor I’m-temporarily-stumped-on-this-plot-problem variety.

    @Rhonda: At the end of the day, spelling is really the least of our concerns. We can always hire an editor to fix our boo-boos if we have to. If the prose is beautiful, the spelling, or lack thereof, is a minor hurdle.

    @Lorna: Stick to it! Stickiness will get you just about anywhere.

    @Daviid: You can’t go wrong writing for your own personal enjoyment and fulfillment. You’re much less likely to cave to peer pressure or write stories you don’t genuinely care about. And the result will be shining honesty and passion.

    @Julie: Thanks for stopping by!

    @amschultzcom: Yes, a formal study would be fascinating. I would be interested to see how the experts quantify and identify raw “talent.”

    @Traci: Very true. Even those who are naturally talented may have to do some digging to discover that talent.

  32. Anonymous says:

    I agree strongly with Daniel’s first comment. Particularly since I’ve taught more than 100 writing students and “passion” is not a deciding factor. Or perhaps it’s delusion mistaken for passion, in the same way I might have a “passion” for becoming king of Sweden or heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
    I agree it’s a lot to do with observation. Original voice. The best writing I’ve seen involves a unique take on world. Expressing it in a very special way. I’ve helped guide good writers to become better writers. But there are many who can’t write (and there’s no shame in it) and those people shouldn’t be filled with ideas that “anyone can write.” I particularly agree about not leveling the playing field so much. Let’s quit that. It’s demeaning to real writers who are truly talented. If I run into one more person that claims to be a writer merely because some book or class (or blogsite)told them “anyone can learn to be writer,” I’m going to scream. Again.

  33. i don’t think passion makes you a good writer, because there are plenty of times when we don’t feel like writing. but dedication is a must – dedication to learning the craft and time spent perfecting it. in the end, i would rather have no talent and work hard than the other way around.
    http://nealabbott.wordpress.com

  34. @Anonymous: I understand where you coming from, but I do have to disagree with the idea that “learning to be a writer” is a false statement. Few of us start out as wunderkinds. Granted, not all of us end as geniuses either. But there is a happy medium that most people are absolutely capable of achieving.

    @Neal: To me, passion and dedication must walk hand in hand. Passion without dedication is just a good feeling. Dedication without passion is drudgery.

  35. Anyone can learn to play basketball. But to be great, you must have innate talent plus drive. Anyone can learn to write. But to be great, I think there is magic included with drive and determination. I can be a writer and be published, but I don’t think I will ever be a great writer. Anyone can be a great craftsman.

  36. There is an innate magic that absolutely plays a part in the greatness of art, but it can never make up for the lack of earnest work.

  37. Anonymous says:

    @K.M. I’ve given it more thought. Yes everyone can learn to be writer. Though not everyone *should*. And you needn’t be a wunderkind writer, per se, but it helps greatly if your are a wunderkind dreamer, a wunderkind observer, or the like, and then apply yourself rigorously. And good gosh, it’s never too late in life to discover that you’ve been a wunderkind the whole time.

  38. “Wunderkind dreamer” – I like that a lot. Really, it’s the mindset behind the skills, more than the skills themselves, that determine true greatness in a writer.

  39. I was almost illiterate. I didn’t learn how to read until 8 years old and only because my Mom hired a tutor, yet I love writing and reading all the time now.

  40. There’s no model way to become a writer. We all come to it at different times and through different means. Some of us have to work harder at it, but that is no reason we can’t excel at it in the long run.

  41. I don’t think you are born with a writing gift, but I do think a writer is born with the writing DESIRE. A person who will go through all the learning and details and frustration and blood, sweat and tears that come with writing must have a deep inborn desire to write. I believe all the rest can be learned.

  42. Hi K.M. I enjoyed your post so much I shared it from my own blog and directed readers to yours. Thank you for being awesome! In case you would like to see it http://jenowenby.wordpress.com Have a great day!

  43. @Kerry: I don’t know that I was necessarily born with a desire to write. But I was certainly born with a love of stories. They’ve always been my language.

    @Jen: Thanks so much for sharing the post! I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

  44. K.M. – I think you more precisely said what I was trying to say. A love of stories, a desire to share them, to be IN them, is something I do think people are born with. Is there any writer out there who never once imagined actually being INSIDE their favorite stories? Who didn’t write entire sequels in their heads because they loved the story so much? I’m with you and hte love of stories!

  45. Anonymous says:

    I traced my writing journey back to its beginnings (age 4 or 5), and this was indeed the case. I saw a dumb afternoon outer space movie when I was quite young and began to write stories about the characters — imagine what other adventures they might have. I think it’s interesting because — for me — it was about creating a sequel, continuing the story, but also more about what I would personally enjoy or prefer happen to the characters and story; what I would make them say or do, and deciding how, as well. Taking my imagination and making that story my own, in my own way. And that’s the early beginning of ‘voice’ I think. So says the anonymous ‘wunderkind dreamer.’

  46. @Kerry: I think you’ve really narrowed this discussion down to its heart. Wordcraft is what can be learned by pretty much anyone. A love of stories, though – that can’t be taught. You either have it or you don’t, and if you don’t, you’re probably not going to want to write in the first place.

    @Anonymous: Boy, does that sound familiar! My earliest memory is of sitting in a tree house at a family reunion, making up a story about how aliens or something attacked, and I had to save the day. (*cue heroic toddler music*) Most of my early stories were sequels or spinoffs of movies and books I enjoyed. I called them “my movies” for years until I started writing them down so I wouldn’t forget them. The rest, as they say, is history!

  47. anyone can write. we use our own style and voice. and passion keeps us writing.
    the question of will we succeed and sell is subjective to the readers.
    will people like my simple, dry style? will agents and publishers think i can sell?
    i’ll keep writing & improving whether i sell or not, maybe self publish, just for me…thats my passion!

  48. If you write, first and foremost, because you love it, you’re way ahead of the ballgame. If *you* love what you’re doing, you can bet you won’t be the only one.

  49. That was my problem for years–I thought someone needed to tell me I was a talented writer in school or I had no business writing. If I’d been more confident, I would’ve pursued it much sooner. Perhaps it would’ve been my major.

  50. That was my problem for years–I thought someone needed to tell me I was a talented writer in school or I had no business writing. If I’d been more confident, I would’ve pursued it much sooner. Perhaps it would’ve been my major.

  51. The inclination to write is often a delicate flower. It needs lots of encouragement and kindness to fully bloom. Otherwise, we have to struggle along in rocky soil until we can grow deep enough roots.

  52. I don’t know if it sounds egotistical or what, but I have always sported a talent/aptitude and a passion for writing. There is nothing else I would rather do with my free time than write out these adventures for these friends others call “characters”. Like Robert Jordan and Andre Norton, I want to be writing books until the day the Lord calls me home!

  53. Confident truth is never egotistical. It would be dishonest to both yourselves and others to downplay what you know is true about your capabilities.

  54. I have always thought of myself as a good writer, but I think that is only as a result of my continued interest in English (as a subject) from a very young age, right through to university-level study.

    I’ve always enjoyed reading fiction, and been interested in writing stories. I fully believe that it all comes down to practice at the end of the day. It’s never too late to start!

    Thanks for a great post K.M.
    Ryan.

  55. Practice makes all the different. If we’re not writing, we’re not going to be actually stretching our writing abilities. Time spent reading is critical as well, but, at the end of the day, it’s the writing itself that makes all the difference.

  56. I think anyone can write. The difference is just what you said – passion. but there is one more thing. Anyone in the Humanities – writing/poetry/singing/songrwriter/dancer/actor/artist/etc must be willing to bare their soul to the world – and that stops those without the passion.

  57. Yes, a sort of reckless honesty is definitely a requisite. Without it, what do we have to offer readers that’s worth their time?

  58. K.M. Weiland, you know I have stolen and saved the picture here “Baby at computer” and I will give my opinion on your post through my blog “paliraj/blogspot/com”. So go to my blog and you find it interesting keep following me… B-) Anyway I am quite agree with Donna Yates… ;-o

  59. Glad you enjoyed the post! However, just so you know, the picture isn’t mine, but one purchased from iStockphoto.com. Technically, using it without purchasing it violates the photographer’s copyright.

  60. Aw! Such a cute baby….
    Ahem… Here I was meant to give thoughts on post, not the pictures… but look at how cute he is!!!
    Ahem ahem… As for the post, I believe pain is the glory. So not much interested in being talented, I prefer being determined. Even if that mean working hard, so what. Writing is working hard, and all the fun is in working hard…
    Now, I have used a word in my paragraph three times, and it is a rule for the writer to not do that. Before I become a bigger sinner of breaking rules, I will just make my leave.

  61. Heh. I know this post is old, but if I may beg your forgiveness for my tardiness, I want to offer my piece! I think that talent is a gift, but as you say, passion is more important. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I’ve always been told that I have a great talent in writing. However, I tend to lack passion. For me to achieve that goal, I think I will have to work a little harder at finding the passion than I will at the writing itself 😉

    • Let me amend that. I don’t necessarily lack the passion. I lack the motivation to do anything with it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If you have the will to work to find the passion, then I’d say the passion is there under the surface. 🙂

  62. Does anyone really believe anyone coul learn to write like Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemmingway, Tolkien, Emily Dickenson, or Shakespeare. Could anyone write sonnets like Elizabeth Barrett Brown or poetry like Robert Frost? Or how about Sylvia Plath? I think you could study and write your entire life and still not reach this level of writing unless you had a gift.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      True. But could any of them have written so beautifully without dedication to their craft? Talent must be honed.

      • I made some typos and misspelled a couple words in my previous post, sorry. I should not post so hastily. Yes, I agree that gifted writers must be dedicated to their craft and hone it. Emily Dickinson wrote approximately 1,800 poems. Only a few were published during her lifetime, though, so she wrote to please herself. It was her sister who found her poetry after her death and the bulk of her poems were therefore published and became famous afterward.

  63. Natasha says:

    I’m sorry for commenting so late! As for me, I’ve always been keen on stories since a very young age; when I was four, I used to create stories about a family of rabbits that decorated the inside of my bed. I was also very fond of dolls, not in choosing clothes for them, but in constructing wild stories for them to play in. I guess I’ve always possessed the passion, but without hard work and persistence, I know I won’t get anywhere. What I think makes the difference between wannabees and professional writers, is not possessing the innate talent but having the desire to pursue writing, even if times are hard. Excellent post 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree! I used to make stories like that too. I hated math, so I made up stories about all the numbers and the “war” between the odds and evens. :p

Speak Your Mind

*