Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
September 2012

Why Talent Doesn't Matter (and Probably Doesn't Exist Anyway)

One of the things you can say that makes me most annoyed is, "You are so talented." I am fairly insistent about the fact that I am not talented at any of the things that I excel at, if by talented you mean some inborn trait that showed early in my development and could not be stopped by any amount of direction elsewhere. I thought I wanted to be a writer when I was in elementary school, but my writing then is no better than most other children of the same age. Look online here if you don't believe me:


I wrote a fair number of short stories and some abandoned novels as a teenager. I was on the high school newspaper staff. I was also interested in drawing, acting, foreign languages, mathematics, history. I was a dilettante as a teen, as many teens are. At that level, you can be good at almost everything. Then you have to start deciding what you are going to focus on to reach a real professional level of excellence.

Yes, I won a high school contest for one of my short stories and I won a contest for essay writing. But I also nearly failed out of grad school my first semester because of my final essays. I got the lowest score of all the students my year on my final oral and written examinations. My first draft of my Master's Thesis was rejected by my committee. I wrote 20 really bad novels before one was accepted for publication. I might have given up at any time and gone on to do something else equally productive with my life. It would not have been a tragedy.

What has made me successful as a writer is not talent, but determination and hard work. Many of my writer friends describe me as the hardest working writer they know. In my early years, it was a joke in our writer's group was that if I had a baby that week, I would still come in with something new to read. Because I always wrote. Every day. I don't know that writers have to write every day to be successful, but it doesn't hurt. And having good habits of hard work improves any effort in life.

I also revised everything. For years one of the women in my writers group (Carol Lynch Williams) who was already an award-winning author, would tell me that this month's revision was "so much better" than last month's. She told me that for years, until it became a bit embarrassing to realize how much better I had needed to become before I could be anywhere near publishable. I took suggestions that worked for me, and I tried them out. Not every revision was the right revision (there's no guarantee of that when you're revising), but I wasn't looking for guarantees. I learned from every revision, sometimes only that this wasn't the right way, and then I revised again.

Another thing that I do is a lot of reading. When I was starting out, I read a lot of books about writing, as well as dozens of books a month. When I couldn't afford to buy them new, I would check them out from the library. I took my young children every week to storytime, and learned about picture books and the way that story arcs work there. Then I would take the kids to the park with bread to feed the ducks so I could read while they were busy. I set a goal for two years to read 300 books in the young adult fantasy genre that had been published that year (something that probably wouldn't have been possible twenty years ago) and I did it. This was a huge education in what is currently being published.

I read and reread books that I love and I analyze them. This allows me to think about how to create a story properly, and is great when revising. I have a model to set my own stories against. Is the romance as good? Does it have the right beats? Are the characters as interesting? Is the plot as exciting? If not, try again. I recommend that writers read. A lot. Not only is reading good practice, I believe that reading creates a huge well of possible stories in the back of my mind which I can take bits and pieces from without anyone realizing what I am doing. Stealing from other great writers and making it my own looks a lot like talent, I suppose.

I've heard beginning writers complain that they don't have enough time to write their own stories and read the stories of others. I'm afraid this sounds like an excuse to me. Divide your time and spend half of it reading and half of it writing. If you can't read 100 books a year, you need to stop writing and just read for a while. I think you will learn more about writing from reading than you are right now from writing. People say practice makes perfect, but my son's Karate studio has started to tell him instead that "perfect practice makes perfect" or that "practice makes permanent." If you aren't reading, you aren't practicing your skills of seeing good story, and you may end up making bad skills permanent.

One of the writing groups I went to was run by Rick Walton, who believed firmly in an open group policy. Anyone was allowed to come. He invited people who asked for his advice about writing to come to his house and bring something to the group. Sometimes we heard the most wretched writing you can imagine. Moralistic preaching to children. Encyclopedic articles that no child could understand. And sometimes I wondered if this was the right policy. Maybe we should be asking for some level of competence -- or talent -- before people came to this group.

But a surprising number of people whom Rick invited to this group eventually became published. Rick didn't believe he was especially talented and he didn't act as if talent was something that mattered in the business. He believed that good writing was about learning skills, just like swimming is about learning skills or playing the piano is about learning skills. Rick believed that anyone who kept coming and kept writing would naturally become a better writer. Anyone who stopped coming would not become a better writer. The community of children's writers in Utah still owes a great debt to Rick. Almost every one of them who is published today was mentored by Rick in one degree or another and those who weren't still benefited from the events that Rick helped set up and the welcoming community he established.

There may be people who are not talented enough to become professional writers. I doubt it, but it may be true. Mostly what I have found is that people whose writing I do not love also read books that I do not love. That is, the model they are striving to achieve is different than the one I have set for myself. I suspect that if they read different books, they would write differently. Not necessarily better, but differently. Again, it is a matter of skill rather than talent. We humans are excellent mimics. It is one of the things we do best, and writing is no different. I don't believe much in "artistes." I believe in craftsmen. Learn your craft. Hone your tools. That is what "talented" writers have done and continue to do.

But perhaps you might say that yes, every writer needs to learn skills. But what about expression? There are writers whose expression shows their talent, just as there are musicians who show beautiful expression. If this is true, then expression is not something that can ever be seen unless the years and years of honing skill is completed first. So get to work on the skills and don't worry so much about expression. It will come. I would also say that everyone will eventually be able to express who they are if they have the skills. Whether this expression is beautiful or not is probably in the eye of the beholder.

If I am credited with one thing as a writer, I suspect it is my consciousness of language. This is something that truly comes easily to me. But why? Because I was born speaking beautiful prose? No, absolutely not. It is because I spent years studying languages. I learned German as a young teen at a German high school and studied it intensely when I came home. I then went on to learn Spanish, French, Latin, Greek, and some Russian. I spent years reading the literature of the writers of the last several centuries who have been canonized precisely because of their heightened use of language. And I did it both in English and in German. This wasn't a talent. It was a skill I acquired after many years of working on it. My editors know that if they send me galleys or even ARCs of my novel, I will ruthlessly comb through it, making sure every word is the right one. I am never finished revising the language of a book.

If I am credited with a second thing as a writer, it is my use of plot. Why do I plot well? It isn't because I am naturally talented, in my view. It is because I love good plot. I read a lot of genre, in which plot tends to reign supreme. And then I steal plotting tricks from other writers. I use reversals, painful discoveries, secrets revealed, crucibles, deadlines, and anything else I've learned either consciously or unconsciously through reading thousands and thousands of well-plotted novels. And then, after I've written a draft of a novel, I rewrite it. I condense the plotline, I focus on the most difficult moments in the lives of these characters, and I am always twisting just one last little piece of the plot to make it better.

It is interesting, I think, how we think of certain careers as more talent-oriented and others as more process-oriented. Do we say someone is a talented trucker? A talented clerk? A talented waitress? Why is it that we say a writer or a musician is talented, but a surgeon is well-trained? A world class athlete is born with the genes to become legendary, but a farmer who knows when it's time to plant is just seasoned? An actor is gifted, but a politician is canny or smooth? A mother knows what her baby needs when it cries instinctively but a father has to learn these skills? I think the reality is that the less we know about a particular subject, the more inclined we are to believe there is something mystical in mastering it.

When my husband was a young father, he became an expert with babies. He could put one of our babies to sleep at church when I was ready to give up and go home. Why? Because he naturally communicated better with the babies than I did, the mother? No, because he refused to give up and he learned what the baby responded well to. He didn't pretend to understand different baby cries, but he made a list of things that baby's wanted and went through it from one to ten when a baby cried and he was almost always able to figure out what was wrong. (The list included things like -- the baby is hungry, tired, wet, and sick, but also included things like the baby wants to be naked, or the baby wants to be held facing out to see the world.)

A lot of people who know me now assume that I have always been athletic. They will try to get me to agree that some people will just never be athletic, that some people weren't born that way. Of course, these people could never sign up for a race or pump iron in the gym to any effect. These people claim they don't come from athletic genes. No one in their family has ever been successful at sports. They have the wrong bones or the wrong distribution of muscles or they don't have a high enough Vo2 max. (Vo2 max is a term used to refer to the supposed maximum amount of oxygen your body can process and Lance Armstrong is known to have the highest Vo2 max of any human ever -- only it turns out that the more people study Vo2 max, the less it seems to have to do with anything. Lots of great athletes have moderate Vo2 max numbers, and vice versa.)

I think this is ridiculous. I wasn't born athletic. In fact, it is new enough to me that I sometimes still balk at the word "athlete" in reference to myself. I'm just not used to it. I didn't start racing until 2004, and though I love it now, if I stopped working out, I would go back to having the same figure I did then, which is more generally roundish. I come from the least athletic family you can possibly imagine. We were geeks whose main goal in life was to earn enough money not to have to do our own yard work. The closest my dad came to "athlete" was watching football on television on Saturday afternoon.

I joined the swim team in high school mainly so I could avoid ever having to run the mile again because I hated running above all things in life. In the three years I swam, I never won a single race and never made state. In fact, after my experience in high school, I shrugged my shoulders and decided that I was never cut out to be an athlete. Whatever it was that other people had that made them athletically successful, I didn't have it. It wasn't until I was 32 and hired a physical trainer that I gave up the idea that I couldn't run and that I wasn't born athletic. I started getting muscles in places I hadn't realized I had muscles.

I signed up for my race on a whim, on the assumption that I might never be able to finish a marathon if I waited longer, so I better do it now. (I don't particularly recommend this strategy -- most people spend years training to do their first marathon. I did it on six miles as my longest run and I finished not because I am athletic but because I was very determined). Ten years later, I am still improving my times, not because I am naturally talented as a triathlete, but because I train damn hard and I train six days a week. Which is the way I get better at writing, strangely enough. I work hard, am determined, and have figured out the skills necessary to succeed.

The cult of "talent" that we have developed in America is of no use to anyone. It makes people who work hard look like they were given something, and it makes people who want something believe they can't get it no matter how hard they try. We need to start talking about success differently. I find myself trying to say to my children more and more things like "Wow, you worked really hard at that" and less and less things like "you must be good at math." I want them to see the connection between hard work and success and I want the mystery about acquiring skills in any field to disappear.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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