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Monday, August 18, 2008

Do You Have "it"?

What is "it"? Where does "it" come from? Can you learn "it"? Can you buy "it"? Does everybody have "it"? If you do have "it" when do you know you have "it"?

It is talent. And no, you cannot buy it. And you cannot be taught it. And of course not just everybody has it. It is a treasured, ephemeral, wild thing. If you think you have it, you probably don't. If you know you have it but find that a very uncomfortable thing to admit even to yourself - you probably do.

Way less people have it than think they do.

People who really have it know it down deep but would never, ever boast about or even admit it. It's like being a magician during the dark ages - people both fear and envy it. You don't know how you got it. You feel slightly odd about it. Your mom recognized it right away and that was both thrilling and embarrassing.

It lives inside of you and may not make itself apparent in scripts or stories one through four. But it's there. And when you finally relax into your voice and your rhythm, it will emerge, unbidden. You will learn how to coax it out to play when you trust it. Sometimes it doesn't want to come out and play. You wait patiently.

If you don't have it, you cannot get it - anywhere. It's not like sea monkeys or chia pets - just add water. You either have it or you don't. If you do have it, it was within you all the time.

I can tell if you have it on the first page of your script, or in the first paragraph of your essay or story.

What if you don't have it and you know it? Should you stop writing? Well - no. But you should definitely re-frame your expectations. A lot of people like to swim but not every swimmer has it like Michael Phelps. Doesn't mean you should stay out of the pool but it does mean you need to downscale your Olympic hopes and repurpose them toward a local championship.

To be a successful, paid writer - you have to have it.

Would anybody be honest with you and tell you that you don't have it? No.

So how do you know whether you have writing talent?

Here are some hints that you might have talent:

*You have been writing from a very early age and have always delighted parents, teachers, friends and relatives with what you wrote. You started to believe them and kept writing. It was a thrill.

*In emails, letters and birthday cards, your words delight people. Not people you put on the spot and ask, but people who tell you that for no reason whatsoever.

*You love to read and you consume books voraciously. You mark pages that have beautiful passages and read and reread them. You think about the green light at the end of the dock.

*You obsess over words - you love to define and understand them. You will stop writing something for 20 minutes until you find just the perfect word for that sentence. Then you'll change it six more times before you're satisfied.

*You really don't care where you write or what you write with. You get strangely lost in your writing and don't hear the call to dinner or the train coming.

*Words have colors and sounds to you. You love to say "willow" and "ululate" and "melancholy" and "hot, humid gardenia-scented summer".

*You freak out when other people use or spell words incorrectly.

*You are never satisfied with your writing.

*You read writers who have it and get a sort of plummeting thrill. You wonder if you'll ever be as good as them.

*Sometimes you feel like a freak.

Here are some hints that you may not have talent:

*You compare writing to needing to breathe. You make much of this, wear a beret and have a poster of Ernest Hemingway in your bedroom.

*You ask other people if they liked your writing. This does not embarrass you.

*You are really, really sure you have talent and tell people that frequently.

*You are convinced that you will rush to the top of the heap once your talent is recognized and think bitterly about the fact that it hasn't yet. This fundamental unfairness bothers you a great deal.

*You love what you write immediately. You move on and you don't look back. You pride yourself on this. Any word will do. You are after speed and efficiency.

*You are so sure you're talented that you feel you don't have to read the classics, take a class or otherwise do any work. Your talent is natural, inborn and incorruptible.

* You think that writing is easy and fun.

*You don't think anybody else has it. Writers who are said to have it do not impress you. You think they got a lucky break that should have been yours.

*You feel like such a lucky rock star that you have talent and feel sorry for all the other poor saps who don't yet realize how untalented they are and how very talented you are.

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Margaux Outhred said...

I love this post. What a great way of looking at one's writing habits, etc.
One question, and I hope this doesn't mean that I don't have talent...but, what is the "green light at the end of the dock"? Where is that from, because I kinda love it.

Julie Gray said...

Hey Margaux! The green light at the end of the dock is from The Great Gatsby. It was on the end of Daisy Buchanan's dock and represented "...
the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther..."

Kirkland said...

Oh, I couldn't disagree more.

I know more than a few pro screenwriters who didn't even think about being screenwriters until it happened. They just sort of fell in to it. Some of them failed miserably at English class, some of them barely graduated from high school, and yes, some are truly gifted and always have been high achievers.

A few of those screenwriters learned from master storytellers who paved their own way in this business. A few went to those graduate schools which churn out screenwriters at an alarming rate. And a few screenwriters are seat of the pants guys.

One thing they share is this: they never gave up on themselves. Once you accept someone else's idea of your limitations, you're dead. I don't care who you are, what you accomplished or didn't accomplish with your life, or how you found your way into screenwriting--the key to success in this industry, or any other for that matter, is never giving up on yourself. "Talent" and "skill" aren't birthrights, they're earned. And anyone can make it as a screenwriter if they want it bad enough and work hard to achieve it.

PJ McIlvaine said...

Very, very true. A monkey with access to a computer and Final Draft could eke out a script, but does that mean the monkey has talent?

Kirkland said...

I don't know about "talent," PJ. All I know is that if you put a 100 people in a room and tell them to write a great screenplay. The one who walks out last with the script under his or her arm, having outlasted all the others, that's the person I'd want working for me.

Talent, as someone more talented then me once said, is highly overrated.

I tend to agree:

People put an awful lot of emphasis on "talent." I'll take commitment and determination and hard work any day.

E.C. Henry said...

Julie, I agree with much you have to say, though I think a lot of the pet peaves with spelling errors is more of a sign that you have a bend to be someone's editor rather than a small bread-crumb clue that you're a writer.

I believe talents for things come from God. I don't think we're preprogrammed with all the talets you will display throughout your live from birth. The bible is rife with stories of normal everyday Joes, who God equipt for great works. Something to think about...

Don't mean to get overly religious, but I attribute my own artistic bend to a time where I modeled clay figures based on what I was seeing from the "Jesus of Nazarth," which played on our TV. This was a VERY PURE thing. I was only like 9 or 10 at the time, and I think God saw what I was doing and blessed me. The "writing" thing didn't surface for several years later. I got selected to take part in an advance English class, and I got to write several fiction stories. After that I had several brushes with creative writing, before I got the idea for an epic fantasy story, screenwriting followed several years after that.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

PJ McIlvaine said...

Determination, perserverance, persistence, ambition, luck...but I still think you have to more. If the only measure of success is by "the last writer standing"...well, look at American Idol.

Kirkland said...

@PJ This business is rift with people who through their sheer determination have made it, and yet many "talented" people have quit. Give me a person with will and grit and desire vs. somebody with talent, And I'll take the former every time.

I'm not saying "talent" isn't valuable, but desire and "wanting it" more than the next guy brings much more success.

And that nonsense about screenwriting not being able to be taught, that talent is the only thing? One has to wonder who preaches that crap--because it sure isn't all those guys who teach in screenwriting programs, nor is it the gurus who pump out "how to" books. Otherwise, the call would just go out to the "talent" and the rest of us, who just plant our butts in the seat and work, would've been out of this industry long ago--I don't consider myself "talented," yet in 20+ years I've never not had a script not sell. I'm just out working the next guy, that's all.

I bet all those "talents" can't say the same.

Julie Gray said...

All right you two. Differing opinions. Kirkland, will you marry me? :)

meg said...

Yeah, I think you need talent. But you can coast on that only so long before someone with perhaps less talent but more determination and hard work over takes you.

I also don't think that "hardwork" is any more quantifiable than talent in many situations. Being the last one out of the room with a script doesn't mean you worked harder than all the rest. It could mean you didn't use your time well. There's a scene in The Office where Michael explains he's a harder worker because a certain job takes him 8 hours and some other guy only 2.

Real sustainable success comes when you utilize both talent and hardwork.

millar prescott said...

Excellence is It. The Olympic Games are all about excellence. Athletes who train for and compete in The Games have demonstrated their penchant for it. They have what it takes. Their desire and commitment for excellence is, curiously, what makes them excel. Talent is assigned at birth, but it's only the cultivation of it, the desire and the commitment, that produces excellence. The same can be said of writers. A healthy awareness of one's talent is half the battle and a foundation upon which legitimate targets can be set. It's the desire and commitment that makes up the difference. Those who are in serious pursuit of excellence don't indulge in delusion nor engage themselves with the intangible. They are focused only on the prize and what it takes to achieve it.

The pursuit of excellence should be paramount. Anything less is just ordinary.

Julie Gray said...

Beautifully put, Millar! Cupcake for you!

Erin Melanie said...

One part of your post in particular jumped out at me; "To be a successful, paid writer - you have to have it."

I don't think this is true at all. The measure of success is relative. Is it that you are paid? Is it the quality of your work, it's ability to grab a reader by the roots of their hair and jar them into knowing the insights that you offer? Who is your reader, anyways? Is success based on them? Also, I've read a lot of work where I would not consider the writer very talented, but somewhere along the line they managed to market their idea, and are making money off of it.

I agreed with Kirkland when he made the point that people with talent often scorn the notion of talent. Like James Mitchener said; "I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter." A classmate once told me I was smart, talented, but I disagreed and said I just work really hard. He shrugged his shoulders and said "Working hard is working smart."

I guess I don't believe in talent, necessarily. Rather the passion to consume yourself in whatever you create, to put in the dedication and effort to ensure it's as stellar a work as you're capable of producing at that time. Every writer looks back at what they wrote five years ago and cringes, mortified. We are only as talented as we develop ourselves to be.

Definitely an interesting post, sparked some conversation for sure. Thanks!

Dave Shepherd said...



Talent is what separates the elite from the rest of us. Even with the same work ethic, their natural ability will take them further.

You can be good without talent, but you can't be great. You can learn the techniques, you can learn the fundamentals, you can be good -- just not great.

True, a lot of talented writers received bad grades/weren't published/etc --

Everyone has a different learning curve, some people take longer to hit their stride.

Also, when you're getting reviewed -- there's no guarantee that the reviewer has the ability to recognize talent.

The talent to read well is almost as rare as the talent to write well.

Talent is rarely the difference between success and failure.

However, it is the difference between success and unbelievable success. The difference between Michael Phelps and Joe swimmer.

Talent exists.

But it's not the size of your talent level that matters... it's how you use it ;)

Dave Shepherd said...

Speed vs. Quality -- Yes, quality is important, but SPEED COUNTS.

Saying "I take three years to write a script" isn't admirable -- it means that you're effed if you ever have to write on a deadline.

If you want to be a professional you shouldn't take more than six months to finish a script. Ever.

(Exception: Charlie Kauffman -- but unless you have a similar talent level, the point stands)

Luzid said...


In the first-person essay that I recently sent in (on how writing heals), I wrote: "Story flows through my blood again, and I could no more stop its course than I could give up breathing."

That falls into the "may not have talent" camp. Yet you still posted it, calling it "lovely" and "beautiful". I made the same comparison posited as a negative example (though I don't own a Hemingway poster!) and it turned out to be a strong piece of writing.

I write and pitch ideas that impress others, and many times I have no clue how I come up with these ideas. That's not boasting, because I don't like that feeling. If you don't know how deep the well is, how can you see it it's in danger of running dry? It's damn scary sometimes.

Maybe these 'talent tests' are too binary. I mean, what is talent? A natural inclination toward a subject, motivated by the delight in exploring it and figuring out how the clockwork makes it tick.

Of course people geared that way will stand out as good at it, it's what they're about. Sometimes that love comes later, or is interrupted so you can get your life together (been there). People should write, firstly, for one reason: because it's so much fun!

(Also, Dave is right.)

Anonymous said...

Christopher Reeve said: "10% inspiration. 90% Perspiration."

You have that mysterious talent but you must work hard to realize it. Calling anyone a genius is insulting because it insinuates luck rather than the toil. Stanley Kubrick shrugged his shoulders whenever anybody called him a genius. He said: "I just work hard."


Pete said...

I always wonder what motivates people to complain when people talk about the need for talent in a creative field. Is it the thought that a key element to success could be completely out of their control? When it comes to screenwriting, why should that be so shocking? Isn't it generally agreed that there is a big element of chance in being a successful screenwriter? What's one more number in the lottery?

We all know that it's not an either/or question. Talent without determination is as useless as determination without talent. Who do you think you're complaining about when you talk about the people filling L.A. with crap scripts? The determined no-talents. That ought to be enough right there to squash the idea that talent doesn't matter.

I think a lot of the debate comes down to how you define talent and how you measure it. Everyone's got their own yardstick and it often winds up that people actually agree in principle, but they're using different terms. "Talent" and "skill" are completely different animals to me, but kirkland easily blends them together in his initial post. If we were to sit down and discuss it over coffee, what are the odds we'd come to an agreement if we don't even agree on the words we're using?

I don't know where this puts me on your scale, but I know I have talent. Talents, even.

Big deal.

In life as in writing, they're just one element of a person.

Kirkland said...

@Julie intriguing offer. But, shouldn't we at least date first (or meet even)?

Julie Gray said...

You know, Kirkland, in many cultures, arranged marriages are still the norm and serve an important social networking function. ;)

Luzid said...

@ Pete:

"Is it the thought that a key element to success could be completely out of their control?"

Imagine those who've been told over the years by many people - independent of each other, some of who have never met the others, some of whom are professional writers - that they have talent.

Knowing you have talent is no less potentially painful than worrying if you have it. After all, it's no more in your control if you *do* have it than if you don't!

beth said...

I'm just beginning, just getting started, and find myself being soothed by your words - success may be an intangible in the industry, but thanks to you I know now I likely have talent. I hope I do anyways. I spend a lot of time insecure about myself, worrying that I fall to the other side of your list sometimes, but I'm sensing a overwhelming insecurity pushes me even further into the "likely talented" part of the list. Man, this is worse than listening to my mother, you're going to give me a swelled head before I've even begun!

That green light? Yes! Totally! You couldn't have chosen better. My all time favorite.

Julie Gray said...

That's what it's all about on the Rouge Wave, Beth! You made my day. Believe, believe, believe. Work, work, work. Learn, learn, learn. But have a good time doing it. Do it for the joy. yes, you have to be very realistic about Hollywood, I don't want to peddle smoke and mirrors; it's hard. But anything worth achieving is. And you may just learn a lot about yourself on the way. Maybe you have a great novel in you. Maybe it's an academy award winning script. Or a nationally syndicated column. Be open to the endless possibilities of writing. Cupcake for you!!

Trevor said...

@ Kirkland

Well yes and no. To go back to Julie's Olympic metaphor, if you aren't a good swimmer to begin with, do you really think with training you can become Olympic?

Although, maybe that's not the best comparison. I think a better comparison is music, because music and literary skill are two different types of intelligence that are cultivated but are also gifted at birth (arguably athletic skill is also a type of intelligence but let's stay with the more cerebral, artistic types for now).

I think whether you want to admit it or not, Kirkland, you are gifted with talent. Obviously anyone can learn how to structure a screenplay but you can't make it work, you can't make the characters real, the stories powerful and leave readers with a shiver up their spine unless you have, buried however deep inside you, the gift of storytelling. I even believe that someone can be an atrocious speller or lack in the grammar department, but above all else you need that ancient shamanic storytelling skill.

However, talent isn't all - mostly you need perserverance. I just don't believe you can make it without both. I know what you're saying about just needing determination, but there are quite a few failed screenwriters in LA and elsewhere, and a lot of them continue to delude themselves, and have been "determined" for a long time. That sounds depressing but everyone can't do everything. I will never be a guitar hero, except on xbox.

Now that I think about it, someone should make the video game "Pro Monkey."