Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

I Have no Talent as a Writer (and Neither do You)

“There is no excuse for anyone to write fiction for public consumption unless he has been called to do so by the presence of a gift.”

– Flannery O’Connor

Talent is a beautiful thing. Talent is the concept that God (or the gods, in the case of the ancient Greeks who loved to talk about this stuff, or the cosmos for my agnostic friends) has imbued our flawed, frail mortal existence with a divine spark of greatness. It’s breathtaking.

It is also complete bullshit.

I’m not saying talent doesn’t matter, nor am I claiming talent is not important. I am going one step further. I am saying that talent resides in an imaginary world with leprechauns and gods who drive chariots across the sky, hauling the sun around like a boat trailer. Talent is not a thing.

Opportunity is a thing. Experience is a thing. Practice is a thing (and the right kind of practice appears to be the biggest thing of all). In certain endeavors, your body’s size and shape are things that matter – Michael Phelps’ clown-shoe sized feet certainly don’t hurt when it comes to swimming, and no matter how much or how well my daughter practices, she will never be an elite NFL Line(wo)man at 5’2 and about 100 pounds. But the concept that some people, in our case writers, have an innate ability that makes them superior to us (or that we have an innate ability that gives us some kind of leg up) is just flatly and empirically wrong.

This is not just my half-assed opinion. When addressing this issue with other writers (and surprised to find myself in the minority in an argument on this subject), my half-assed opinion was that talent is a minor element of success, far less important than diligently honing the skills required to write well.

I was wrong. It’s less important than that. Being a data-driven person, I went looking for studies evaluating the role of talent in controlled environments. There have been dozens of studies, and they all come to one of two conclusions:

(1)   The existence of talent cannot be proven to be a significant factor in reaching world-class performance levels in any activity (music, sports, writing, art); or

(2)   There is enough data to infer that the thing we conceptualize as “talent” does not exist.

So, if you were expecting to rely on your God-given gift to become a successful writer, you are shit out of luck.

FIRST, THE DATA:

Because we were having such a heated debate about this subject, I didn’t realize I was researching a question that has basically been put to bed in the scientific community. Geoffrey Colvin has a good rundown in his mass market book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. As far as free, objective resources are concerned, the study: Innate Talents: Reality Or Myth  published in Behavioural and Brain Sciences 21 399-442 #128 (available from Cambridge University Press) is awesome and free.  http://cogprints.org/656/1/innate.htm

Interesting studies have also been conducted on chess Grand Masters, dating back to the 1940s. They are consistently found to be of average intelligence and have average cognitive skills. They also have average memory ability, except when it comes to one thing. You guessed it, chess. After a certain amount (five or more years) of intensive chess-play, they begin seeing the board as one organic whole, rather than thirty-two separate pieces. Using magnetoencephalography (seriously, I didn’t make that up, it’s a machine that measures the electromagnetic signals in your brain), scientists have found that chess players get to a point that they access frontal and parietal cortices of the brain when they look at the board. They are not actually analyzing the move their opponent made, they are remembering past games. Lower-ranked players, on the other hand, are accessing their medial temporal lobes. When they look at a move, they are encoding new information about the way the board changed.

I’m going to generalize and oversimplify a tad here (so check out the book or click on the link for more data or search “precocity” and “talent” in Google Scholar). So far, researchers haven’t conclusively ruled out the existence of innate biological traits that may aid in performing at high levels in things like art, accounting, writing, tennis chess, gymnastics. or any other endeavor.They have, however, determined that there is no relationship between people identified early on as potentially having “talent” and long-term success in any of those activities. If you were deemed mediocre musically year 1 and another student was deemed to be musically adept and advanced year 1, it’s a coin flip to see which student would be better year 6. Starting at the opposite end, looking at the “world-class” participants in those activities and working back to where they started, the researchers have also ruled out any factors happening before the first several years of dedicated practice in any activity as being predictive of the subjects’ ultimate success.

SECOND: ENVIRONMENT

Eli and Peyton Manning are “talented” football players, having each won a Superbowl, each having jobs as starting quarterbacks in the NFL, etc. The odds of two sons from the same family having the top starting position on two teams in the NFL are mind-bogglingly low. But their dad is Archie Manning (a legend in the game), they grew up around it, it’s what they’ve known and practiced and done and absorbed since before they can remember.

Now let’s pretend they were my sons. Guess who would have no “talent” for football. Same dudes. I can almost guarantee we’d still be hearing from college coaches, but they’d be the college debate coaches we’re hearing from about my daughters. My daughters are “talented” debaters. Not coincidentally, I went through college on a full-ride debate scholarship, met their mother at the national speech championships, and she and I both coached college speech and debate for a few years. Drop Peyton and Eli into my household, and you would probably have two of the best debaters in the country and a perfect score on the English portion of the ACT, but neither one would have a lick of “talent” when it came to football.

There is a spinoff from that early exposure thing, called the multiplier effect. Here’s how it works: Little Girl A happens to bowl a really good game when she’s 5. Everybody says “ooh, aah, look at that,” and she gets some ice cream. Then she gets a bowling ball for Christmas and keeps bowling to get more ice cream until she is old enough to bowl in a tournament where, having been doing it regularly for a couple of years, she crushes everybody. Yea Little Girl A! So she keeps bowling and hanging out with people who bowl, and taking lessons and competing against higher level opponents until – wow! She’s one of the best bowlers in the country. Then she fires her old coach and has three new coaches, working on foot placement and stroke and other bowling stuff (because I’m in way over my head here, I’ve bowled about five times in my life). So she ends up the grand champion of bowling or whatever and drives a Cadillac with longhorn steer horns across the hood and a giant diamond belt-buckle that says she’s the best bowler in the world! Because she is! But she doesn’t have one bit more “talent” for bowling than I do. She’s just spent 50,000 more hours deliberately practicing how to bowl than I have.

That’s what environment contributes to “talent.” More than anything, the mistaken belief that you have it. Or, worse, the mistaken belief that you don’t, but someone else does.

Which means there’s some good news and some bad news:

The bad news is, you’re not a talented writer. the good news is, nobody else is, either.

In either event, if the numbers in the English study are roughly accurate, even if you are at zero, with no background or supportive environment or anything else, start now and you’re probably going to catch up to the people who mistakenly believe they have talent and have also been working on it in about six years.

Not coincidently, that six year finding nearly mirrors Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours conclusion, though coming at it from an entirely different angle. It also fits squarely in the realm of the amount of time invested by chess Grand Masters. Take off some rounding errors, and you’re right at those “first million words” that people generally agree are “practice” before writers become good writers. [Note: The original attribution of that number is disputed, but I can assure you that Stephen King was not the first or fourteenth person to use it, despite it often being attributed to him].

So you give me a break about this “talent” crap. I don’t want to hear about it if you believe you have talent and therefore your words are lyrical gold that flows onto the page. I don’t want to hear about it if you think you lack talent and therefore cannot succeed. Write seriously for six years/ten thousand hours/one million words and get back to me.

I genuinely believe that the only real “talent” an author may possess would be the “talent” to see her work objectively and critically.  To identify specific, precise skills that need to be honed and work on them. To evaluate criticism effectively (which sometimes means rejecting it, after earnest evaluation) but always looking for the thought in that criticism that can be employed to improve. Which is to say, the only ”talent” one can have in the field of writing is a willingness to practice hard and well and for a long time.

image

If he was all that “talented,” why does he have to change every single fucking sentence?

 

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