Late last week, an article on The Stranger made the rounds on Twitter, shared among furious writers of all kinds. The article, “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One” purported to have advice for aspiring writers, by a former professor who had seen it all.
It wasn’t great advice. The very first tip said that writers are born with talent, and the odds were that you don’t have it. It went on to say that if you didn’t start writing as a teenager, it was too late now. If you don’t read the hardest, densest prose you can get your hands on, you’re a failure, and—in a very weird paragraph—if you write a shitty memoir about being abused as a child, the author wishes you’d been abused even worse as punishment for your crimes against language. No, seriously, he says that.
Chuck Wendig responded to the article with a couple posts. The first, “An Open Letter to that Ex-MFA Creative Writing Teacher Dude“, dissected the article point by point and is a good read. His second, “The Toxicity of Talent (Or: Did You Roll a Natural 20 At Birth?)” focused on that first point in the article, and that’s what I’d like to talk about right now.
When I was in school, I was a quick learner. I happened to be the kind of person who did very well in structured learning environments. That, paired with a terror of getting in trouble, meant that I did all my homework and read all the assigned textbooks and got straight As. I was good at school, and I got a reputation for being the smart kid.
Because of that, whenever I did something well, like write a short story I was proud of, kids would roll their eyes and say “Yeah but that’s just because you’re talented.” All that hard work I’d done on it? Yeah, no one cared. When they called me talented, even though they meant well, it was an insult. ‘Talent’ meant that the story was worth nothing, because I could have mashed my face against the keyboard and it would have been good.
So I’m going to call bullshit on the whole idea of talent right here. People do well at things because they work at them. I think the author of the original article had the wrong idea when he faced his students. He thought writers were born with talent, and the best writers he saw were ones who had started in their teens, yet he never made the connection that the ones who started writing in their teens had worked at their craft longer than the ones that started later.
Maybe you’re better at grammar because you read a lot as a child. Maybe you have a talent for dialogue because you watch a lot of movies. Maybe you’re a great artist because you enjoy sketching and people learn better when they’re having fun doing it. Those strengths didn’t spring from a vacuum. You have them because you worked for them, and the exciting thing about that is that you can develop any skill you want if you keep trying. ‘Talent’ is a myth. Start appreciating the hard work behind it.