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Saturday, August 23, 2008

The "T" Word

Recently, as all good Wavers know, The Wave-inatrix started an interesting conversation about talent. Or - it - as it is sometimes colloquially referred to in the biz. The post sparked a healthy debate and dialogue. Is talent necessary to succeed? Who decides if you have "it"? Can talent be cultivated, taught or habituated? Most importantly, is talent some kind of mysterious word bandied about to keep the competition out? Don't bother - you don't have "it". Talent is a mysteriously arrived at, exclusive quality that only writers of the highest caste have.

My opinion - and it is only an opinion - is that yes, having that mysterious facility with words and story herein referred to as "talent" is crucial to having a paid writing career. And I define paid writing career to encompass novels, short fiction, essays, journalism, screenwriting and no doubt a couple of other mediums that are at the moment escaping me. Writers who lack talent are not, in general, published for public consumption. Because editors, agents and managers of all stripes receive too much for the slush pile to pay someone who ain't got that thang.

Does determination and perseverance matter - oh god yes. But if you don't have talent, perseverance is meaningless. If you got it, you got it and you always had it. If you don't, you don't.

I think that thought is absolutely terrifying to aspiring writers.

And it is complicated by the fact that while I do believe talent is inborn from day one, it does need to be identified and groomed. If Michael Phelps had grown up in a Bedouin family with no access to a swimmable body of water, perhaps his talent would never have blossomed into more than a great eye for a distant oasis. Or perhaps like a character in a sweeping novel, he would have traveled great distances seeking open bodies of water, mysteriously drawn ever forward by a desire and dream he couldn't articulate only to later write a clumsy novel about the experience that is picked up by a publisher with an eye toward a clearly unique story, who then hires a ghost-writer to tell the Wandering Erstwhile Swimming Bedouin memoir in an entertaining way. And that, Wavers, was what they call in school a run-on sentence. But I digress.

Here's the reality - everybody has talent. For something. Music, cooking, teaching, ping pong, diplomacy, animal husbandry, organizing, motivating, salesmanship, growing stuff, making stuff, swimming - something. Everybody has a talent. But not everybody has writing talent.

And it is a matter of great curiosity for me and some indignation, that consistently, the general public seems to feel that writing is somehow easy. Maybe it's because of the way we look, or the way we often work at home in our socks, or maybe we're just so cool we make it look easy. But the perception that what we do is somehow easy and can be learned by purchasing a few books on the topic is maddening and when I'm in a bad mood - demeaning. So many writers were outsiders growing up; the freaks, the geeks, the homebodies and we were misunderstood and abused for it. And now we're cool? And now our talents are instantly accessible by dilettantes and pretenders?? That the occasional indignation that arises like hot lava. And dilettante, by the way is the word we writers use when it's gettin' ugly and we're pissed. Oh yeah, we fight with words. Gol darn it.

The thing with talent that makes it a fun and provocative topic is that it is as elusive as hell and almost impossible to define. Which is why, ironically enough, "it" is a fairly accurate word for talent. Although of course, "it" is generally used when referring to actors and entertainers meaning they have a certain indefinable charisma and magnetism.

Do you have writing talent? Maybe. Maybe you do but you don't know it because you never tried. There are plenty of stories of successful writers who started writing much later in life. The fact is that there is just no end-all, be-all definition of writing talent, who has it, where you get it and whether it can be cultivated, taught or picked up at Walgreens on sale.

Well - Walgreens is always selling out. Try Target.

Do you have talent? Yes of course you do. At something. It might be writing. It might be wood carving. You can't really find out until you try. The only thing I can note, from my experience, is that writers who claim to have it boldly and flatly and with pride, consistently give me scripts that don't reflect that. The hallmark of a talented writer seems to be - again, from my experience - a great neurotic fear that they do not have talent at all. I cannot explain why this happens. Do I have talent? I think so. But I also think writing talent - like all talent - is on a spectrum. In the blogging world, Nikki Finke is quite talented, in my opinion. There are a lot of bloggers who just blow my mind. I love this new, Wild West of blogging, a path that was laid long ago by great journalists, critics, essayists and thinkers like Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Kenneth Turan and more recently, Christopher Hitchens, James Wolcott and Anthony Lane. To leave out about a thousand others that are eluding me at the moment.

The thing with blogging is that while it is an exciting Wild West, with saloon doors flung wide open by the notable absence (in many cases) of the gatekeepers - editors - the doors flung wide open thing is a double-edged sword. Resulting in numerous belly-button gazing blogs with little literary, entertainment or educational value. Anyone can blog. Writing has become a populist notion now more than ever before. No longer is it the exclusive purview of tweed-clad, pipe-smoking editors and writers imbibing at the Algonquin Round Table.

Movies are by definition populist entertainment and it is the proliferation of movies as popular entertainment which has, in my opinion, created a sense that anyone can write one and that it's fun and easy - liking taking up golf or knitting. Is Tiger Woods talented? Incredibly. But that doesn't mean that you can't go enjoy a game of golf for the sake of the game. It just means that you probably won't receive the accolades and earn the accomplishments that Woods has. If that's okay with you - go play golf. Maybe - just maybe - you are that Wandering Erstwhile Swimming Bedouin who just hasn't had a chance to try writing but in fact, that talent was nascent within you all the time. You can't know until you try. And if you want to try - then you should.

Here is my short list, in no order, of the necessary supplies to have in your travel bag if you want to be a successful (read, paid, produced, appreciated) writer:

Social Skills on a spectrum from charismatic to an ability to speak to people at all
Individualism aka "voice"

It is a provocative subject, this talent thing. I have no doubt that everyone possesses it. In one form or another. Anyone - and I include myself in this - can be taught to do math. But not everyone can be a super string theorist or Albert Einstein. Anyone can be taught to swim, but not everyone can be Michael Phelps. God I'm tired of the Phelps-worship running rampant right now but he is a great example. I'm a swimmer. I love to swim. I more than love to swim, I lurve to swim. (Woody Allen reference, people, keep up with me!) but I will never, ever be an Olympian swimmer. I don't care because for me, it's just the love of the water itself. If you love to write - you should WRITE. And write and write and write. Of course there are examples of successful screenwriters who are less talented than other successful screenwriters who got lucky, who knew the right people, who were in the right place at the right time. But they have talent. Every single one of them. This I believe to be true.

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Dave Shepherd said...

Tiger Woods is a great example. I could work the exact same amount as him, down to the minute, and I'll never be as good a golfer as he is. That's talent, folks. Hell, I could probably work ten years more than him and still not be as good.

But you said luck again. And I still don't see how luck factors in at all when it comes to having a career. This is a performance based industry, if you're not able to perform on a regular basis, the industry will eliminate you.

Basically you need to be good at:
Working with People

All four of those are skills. Writing being (arguably) the most important.

Luck = Perseverance. If you're good enough, and you work hard and long enough, you'll succeed.

This isn't the lottery. If you haven't succeeded yet, either you're not good enough or you haven't been trying long enough.

And a lot of people can't face up to the fact that they might not be good enough, so they throw in luck.

It's a victim mentality -- hey, sure I failed, but I mean, I didn't get lucky, so it was never really in my control.


There is no luck. Either you're good enough, or you aren't.

JPS said...

And now go out and see "Man on Wire" to grasp what talent, setting goals, inspiration and a touch of madness can get you.

Great little film.

Anonymous said...

Aren't you the one who said: "It is luck. And connections. It is persistence, it is talent and it is ambition. In about that order."

All of a sudden without talent there's no chance? If you have luck and connections and persistence and ambition, you're not going to make it?

Odd change of heart.

Chris said...

I think of it like when Matt Damon is trying to explain to Minnie Driver how he is so brilliant at math in "Good Will Hunting." Like Beethoven looking at a keyboard, it "just makes sense." Anyone can learn the piano and if they practiced long enough and hard enough, possibly achieve the same technical skills as a Beethoven. But he could just sit down at it and use it creatively because of his talent alone.

Or the scene in "Amadeus" when Salieri proudly plays a simple little theme for the prodigy that you know he must have agonized over note-by-note. And Mozart only has to hear it once before he's able to sit down and expand on it infinitely more easily and creatively than Salieri ever could no matter how hard he worked at his craft. Which Salieiri knew, and it drove him to madness.

To me, that's "it"

Anonymous said...

Nope, luck is absolutely a part of it. It's not the WHOLE of it, but it's part of it. Luck, timing, fortune, call it what you like. Anyone who has lived and worked in this business will say that luck plays a role. Right place, right time. A script/film might "catch a breeze," as Mike Nichols once said about THE GRADUATE, and simply succeed/sell/set the industry on fire. A year later, a few months later, that breeze wouldn't be there. A person might simply make the right connection at the right point in time and be off and running. Perseverance doesn't equal luck -- perseverance can overcome luck. Perseverance chips away at luck, little by little. That's my experience, anyway. I'm not a lucky person -- but I would NEVER let that get in the way of my dreams.

Great post. All very true.

Kirkland said...

Well, I think I've already documented my views on "talent." So, instead, I'll pose this as an alternative thought:

Is writing a sentence a talent or a skill?

Is stringing a few sentences into a paragraph a skill or a talent?

Is stringing those sentences and paragraphs into a particular form, like in an essay, or a short story, a novel, or a screenplay a talent or a skill?

Is telling a story--written or verbally or visually--a talent or a skill?

I submit that you can be a skilled writer (and skills can be learned) and still have a career in literature or film.

I submit that when people use the word talent, that what they really mean is that people who have "it" are somehow better ("gifted" is the preferred term, I believe) practitioners of a certain craft then those of us who are merely skilled. That somehow, their "talent" equates to being "special." And that having "talent" elevates them above the norm.

I submit that earning a living as writer does not mean that you have "talent," nor does it make those who don't earn money as writers any less "talented." All it does is make you a professional.

I could prattle on about all this, but I'm pretty sure I've made my view on "talent" clear.


Before I close this commentary out, let me say this: There are tons, and I do mean tons,of "professional" writers who have made a entire career from their skills as writers. Yet only a few have lasted in this business with just their "talent."

People aspire to greatness and think "talent" will get them there and when they find out their "talent" isn't up to the task they give up. In some eyes, "talent" equals greatness. But, in this business you can carve out a lifelong career as a serviceable writer, a skilled writer, somebody who can deliver the goods.


I dunno.

I've accepted I'm not talented, but I am skilled. And I keep my skill active and alive by working at it everyday.

Eddie M said...

"Easy reading is damn hard writing."

-- Nathaniel Hawthorne

This is a quote I often see on the Wordplayer site's random quote generator. In my experience, I find it to be absolutely true.

I know several produced screenwriters who find writing agonizing. They don't like it. It's not fun. I'm glad whenever I hear this, because -- I. Don't. Like. Writing. I am not a "talented" or "gifted" writer. I have my moments, while writing, that I throw some kick ass words together and sort of amaze myself, but most of the time I'm thinking "Damn, I wish I could write better." Thing is, I believe in my ability to dream up awesome worlds, characters and stories. I believe and hope that it's true about story being king. Because if I work hard enough, I will find a way to express my stories clear enough that others will recognize their greatness.

I guess my point is, I know a lot of "talented writers" that get so excited about stringing words together in an artistic way, they forget to say anything. Makes me wonder if they really even have anything to say.

Movies are pictures telling a story. As a screenwriter, we have to use words to describe pictures telling a story. Some would say, novelists are sissies in comparison. I guess my points is, about all this talent hoopla, is that screenwriters must be talented storytellers with a writing ability just adequate enough to communicate their vision.

Sorry about the long comment. For anyone who read this far, I promise to cut it in half when I rewrite it.:-)

meg said...

"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
Seneca (Roman philosopher,
mid-1st century AD)

“I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”
Thomas Jefferson (American 3rd US President (1801-09). Author of the Declaration of Independence. 1762-1826)

I've also noticed that the more others think they could do what I do --if they tried but you know they're way too busy-- the less talent they think I have and the more they believe they possess.

Julie Gray said...

Absolutely no change of heart. I am not contradicting myself whatsoever. You need talent. You do. It's the ugly truth. Be now we have to define "making it". I define it in this particular conversation as consistently earning money for your writing. Not once. Consistently and over time. I stand by my informed opinion.

Anonymous said...

"Or the scene in "Amadeus" when Salieri proudly plays a simple little theme for the prodigy that you know he must have agonized over note-by-note. And Mozart only has to hear it once before he's able to sit down and expand on it infinitely more easily and creatively than Salieri ever could no matter how hard he worked at his craft. Which Salieiri knew, and it drove him to madness."

Salieri -- one of the most popular and successful composers of his day. More so than Mozart.

Kirkland nailed it, IMHO. I know plenty of skilled writers who have success that most of us can only dream of.

Luzid said...

"And it is a matter of great curiosity for me and some indignation, that consistently, the general public seems to feel that writing is somehow easy."

Writing IS easy.

Writing well, now that's another story!

I used to get mad that everyone and their brother thought they could write, but then realized that my only real competitor is - myself. I have to beat me every time to know I'm working hard. Others will rise and fall independent of my efforts.

As far as luck goes, I think it really is necessary, at least when it comes to getting that initial break every writer needs.

Talent is such a touchy subject. Some think they have it and don't, some think they don't and do - and some have it thanks to coming from a line of professional writers, have feedback throughout their lives confirming it, and STILL question what talent is, exactly.

I think the reason people assume talent without supporting evidence is because writing is creative, and being creative is seen as cool (instead of seen as a compulsion that can't be ignored). People want to be cool. And rich. Richly cool.

Julie Gray said...

Preparation, opportunity, good karma, smart networking - whatever - it all combines to bring about a condition some might call "luck".

Luck is a word frequently defined to mean: absolute random chance. I don't believe that defines luck at all. In my view and personal experience, "luck" has to be attracted to you through your cumulative actions, your belief in yourself and a love of what you're doing. Note I am careful to point out that this is MY opinion and perhaps not true for everyone. Writers of all people are quick to argue about semantics. But that's what makes us wonderful. Talent, luck, success - all have myriad nuances in their definitions.

I taught both of my children to read and I was amazed by the process. It was teaching skills and recognition, it was practice and modeling (by reading aloud to them) and then suddenly - one day, a little bit of fairy dust showed up and it all clicked into place and my kids read their first words, "cat" and"Bob" respectively. And once it clicked - it clicked forever. Hard work, networking with mommy, practice, determination, curiosity - and a little bit of fairy dust. Now let's not have a big discussion about fairy dust. All my daughter knew, when she was four and five years old was that when she left out treats in a fairy ring outside in our San Francisco garden, the fairies made short work of it and left behind loving notes sprinkled with glitter. She believed in magic and she still does. Only now she knows the true definition of magic - attracting into your life what you most believe in. Do you believe in luck? Then it will show up for you. Not randomly, but over time and for a reason.

Mike Scherer said...

Stringing words together to create sentences, paragraphs, essays, etc. is a skill that can be – and is – taught every day. Where the truth about talent lies, is here – how do your words affect the reader? Your choice of words. The structure of your sentences. The use of metaphor and simile. IMHO this is where skill morphs into real talent.

Only my two-cents.

Keep Writing!

PJ McIlvaine said...

Nor every chef is going to be Gordon Ramsay.

Not every swimmer is going to be Dara Torres.

Not every singer is going to be Mariah Carey.

Not every guitarist is going to be Jimi Hendrix.

There are varying degrees of talent and skill.

I've had two movies produced and I kick myself every day. Kick myself to do more. To do better. To challenge myself. To set the bar higher. Sometimes I fall flat on my face. Sometimes I don't.

But I still try. Masochist, thy name is writer.

Dave Shepherd said...

I agree with Kirkland in that you can have a career without talent. Sure, you'll probably never reach the top or win an Oscar, but you can get by and get a consistent pay check.

All things being equal, talent separates the elite from everyone else. They still have to work their butts off, but talent is that little bit that will push them over.

I still believe luck doesn't play a factor. If you consistently write great scripts, are able to network, have a solid pitch, and can work with people, you'll make it.

Sure, there may be some timing that decides WHEN you'll make it, but if you don't succeed on one script because of bad timing, you may succeed on the next one.

There is no way you're going to be able to convince me that if you:
1. Write several great scripts
2. Are excellent at networking
3. Have a great pitch
4. Play well with others
-- that you won't succeed. You will.

It's only a matter of persistence.

Besides, even if you can't find anyone to buy your great script -- you can always make it yourself.

If you really want, you can remove luck from the equation completely. Rodriguez did. Kevin Smith did.

Therefore, luck is not necessary.

You can either wait for a break or take matters into your own hands.

No excuses.

Désirée said...

Talent is needed, I agree. But talent does not mean that everything comes on a silver plate. You still need to develop, to work on your skills.

Christian M. Howell said...

I doubt myself all the time. For months, if I got a little stuck, I would panic like I didn't have a day job and swear that all of the outlines I have mean nothing and that I suck.

Then I objectively look at my fears and say, screw you.

I, at least, have been told by a few prodcos that I have an interesting voice. I still panic though. Mainly because I want to make movies. Perhaps more than I wanted to be a computer programmer.

josie said...

Obviously a provocative subject Julie. I'd like to add this to the list of what a writer needs: the ability to listen and be open to feedback from experienced sources. That's a talent in itself and in screenwriting it's hard to get very far without it, unless you're doing the whole thing yourself.

E.C. Henry said...

Isn't the TRUE source of Tiger Wood's success rooted with ALL the time he spent practicing with his dad? His father grilled him mercilessly, as I remember the story being told.

My point: I DON'T THINK Tiger Wood's golf prowess was born in the womb, rather it was an achieved tallent.

But I am convinced that some tallents are predetermined genetically, like an aptitude for math. I remember back in high school I had to work my ass off to pass Triginometry. My then another guy, never cracked the book, and got either an "A" or at worse a "B+." Used to infuriate the shit out of me, but what are you gunna do, that guy had that tallent...

Great list, Julie. Your posts are always well thought-out, and I appreicate that.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Dave Shepherd said...

The true story with Tiger Woods is part practice, but part talent as well.

At two years old he could swing a golf club. You can check that out on Youtube, try Tiger Woods on Bob Hope.

When he was 3 he shot a 48 through 9 holes.

Three. Years. Old.

Yeah, he worked his ass off -- but you can't teach that.

Tiger Woods could swing a golf club. Mozart was composing at six. H.P. Lovecraft was writing long form poetry at age five. Marla Olmstead sold abstract art by the time she was two.

You can't teach talent.

Of course, to be successful beyond childhood these people all have to refine their talent, and develop the skills to compliment it, but it exists.

Everyone has a limit -- that's essentially what talent is. Your limit. Higher talent level, higher limit.

Thing is, most people don't work hard enough to come anywhere close to their limit.

It's like being able to read -- if you can read but don't bother to, you may as well be illiterate.

If you have talent but you don't use it, you may as well not have it at all.

E.C. Henry said...

Great points, Dave Sheppard, you-da-man. If you were intending on spanking me. I know consider myself spanked.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Emily Blake said...

I think talent is something you can discover by accident.

In seventh grade I was required to enter a story into a statewide contest as an assignment for English class, so I wrote a story about my dad just to get the grade.

I won $20 and a chance to compete on the state level against high school students.

I had no idea I could write well until that happened, but apparently I had talent. What I did with it - that's the part that's tough.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for another great post Julie! (And for sticking your neck out there on a controversial topic.)

I can kind of see Kirkland's point. However, I do think there's a huge difference between skill and talent.

Mike Scherer's comments are particularly astute -- it's how you use your writing skills that is determined by talent. How do you use metaphor and symbolism (if at all)? How do you use word choice and natural rhythms to make your dialogue stand out? How do you structure your story? What you choose to put in and leave out is important. How do you bring depth to a character by what you're choosing to show us?

As far as skill versus talent, to me it seems very similar to comparing a skilled cook to a talented chef. A skilled cook can take a handful of ingredients and make a tasty meal that meets all the technical requirements, but does not make a remarkable impression on the diner.

A talented chef can take even a simple handful of ingredients and make a meal that is infinitely more palatable and makes a lasting impression on the diner.

It's about the creative ideas that come to the chef about what to do with those ingredients and how he/she applies her repertoire of skills to transform those ingredients.

Does this make sense to anyone else?
~ Trina