Are Writers Born, or Are They Made?

I think all of us have heard a lifetime's worth of talk about "natural talent" and being "born for" this or that. And while I don't dispute that inborn talent exists (have you seen those four-year-old ballroom dance prodigies? Holy cow!) I also believe that talent alone is not an indicator for success; in fact, in my experience, perseverance trumps talent every day of the week. 

I used to exist staunchly in the talent camp, especially when it came to my own endeavors. If I didn't appear to be naturally talented at something (read: if I wasn't immediately amazing at it) I would throw my hands in the air and walk away, even if I really wanted to be good at that something, and abandoning it made me feel like crying.

"There's nothing worse," I would tell myself, "than being like those poor tone-deaf saps on American Idol who think they can sing when they obviously can't. Everyone seems to know how bad they are but them - and they end up looking ridiculous." 

I think most of us are afraid of exposing ourselves to that kind of shame when we put out creative toes in the water. The potential for ridicule is like scum on the surface of that water; it clouds our view of the depths, and screams "Don't touch!" to our primal brains. However, if we can get past it, and take a deep dive, we will almost always be surprised, awed, and blessed by what we find beneath the surface. 

We can't all be good at everything, and there's obviously a point where desire becomes delusion - hence the American Idol fiascoes. But there's an additional element that the talent camp often ignores, to the detriment of all: practice

Excepting certain natural or genetic phenomena (e.g., the dancing toddlers referenced above), when we try an activity or skill for the first, third, or tenth time, we are going to suck at it. We are going to fall down, and sometimes it will hurt. That's because many of the skills we value and want to pursue are not already programmed into our brains, but rather have to be learned through trial, error, and repetition. Even walking (which now seems natural for most of us) must be learned through practice - so why should something like writing be any different? 

I write a lot about the difference between writing and speaking. Speech is natural and nearly instinctual for the majority of humans; writing is not. Like playing an instrument, dancing, or building furniture, writing is a skill that must be learned and honed; it requires a level of discretion and forethought that most of us simply don't practice in everyday speech. Yes, some people's brains seem to be built specifically for the task of writing; they think in prose and metaphor, and consistently observe the poignant and dramatic in everyday situations. But even those tendencies had to be guided and nourished; they had to be practiced to the point of fluency. 

After more than a decade of working with writers of all "talent" levels (and I use the term facetiously) I've abandoned the talent camp for good. I've witnessed writers who were at first timid and unsure blossom into powerhouses on the page and pen international best-sellers. I've witnessed writers with almost no understanding of grammar or flow step fearlessly onto their learning curves and hone their delivery to a fine point. And finally, I've witnessed writers whom others called "talentless" go on to publish books, blogs, and articles that now serve thousands of readers around the globe. 

I've also witnessed writers with loads of inborn talent do absolutely nothing with their skills, because their talent wasn't enough to get them through the tough spots. Being naturally good at constructing stories, they never bothered to learn the additional skills they needed to support them through tough plot tangles, organizational crises, or plain old bad days. 

Inborn talent is overrated. If you have it, don't take it for granted, or rest on your laurels. If you don't have it, don't worry, and don't give up. The only thing standing between you and your dream is a chunk of practice time. 

Go get 'em, HeartWriters!