Don’t Tell Me I’m Talented

I remember when I used to be really annoyed with John Scalzi’s arrogant swagger about being a good writer. No, scratch that. It wasn’t annoyed so much as jealous of the fact that he had confidence in his writing abilities. This was way back in 2005/6 when I was still working a shitty admin job and had never compared myself to other working professional writers and Scalzi was just that guy who’d sold a book he published on his blog.

I have now spent a decade working with a truckload of other writers across various companies and in many capacities. I have been the middling writer in the room. I’ve been the best writer in the room. I’ve been the new writer. I’ve been the old pro brought in to save accounts. I’ve written email, direct mail, newsletters, radio ads, TV commercials, press releases, media statements, presentations, and hundreds of thousands of words of blog posts and another million or more words of fiction and I’ve been nominated for and won some awards along the way.

And now, you know:

I get it.

Because what all that writing – and, more importantly – working with other writers has taught me is that I’m good at what I do. Am I great? Eh, sometimes. Yes, sometimes I am great. What I do know is that I’m talented, and I’ve known that a long time, since my early 20’s, which is why it’s so grating now for strangers to stumble onto my work and say, “Oh, you’re so talented!” when yes, you know, I make my entire living this way so I’d sure hope so and my god how many NOT talented people honestly last in this game for more than ten years?

Talking about talent is supposed to sound like a compliment, but I haven’t found it complimentary since I was young and desperate for someone to validate my talent who wasn’t related to me.

The first day of the second week of the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop, Geoff Ryman said the words that all seventeen of us were desperately eager to hear at that point in our careers:

“I’ve read your work. You’re all very talented. If you weren’t talented, you wouldn’t be here.”

And then he said something to the effect of:

“So I’m not going to spend the next week telling you how talented you are. We’re going to work to make you better.”

I admit I gave a sigh of relief after this. It had been said. I didn’t have to work for it. I was here, and it meant I was talented. I’d been validated.

Now I could actually learn to get good.

Like most folks who end up in a writing workshop at the pro level, I was singled out as the “talented” kid in my small town when it came to writing. Writing was all I did. I read a great book recently called Talent is Overrated that pointed out how much more common it was for kids from small towns to end up pursuing a creative or athletic passion to the pro level than those from larger cities because there were fewer people to compare themselves to in smaller towns. They got more attention. It fed their belief that they were special. With fewer peers to compete against, you feel like you must have some natural inborn talent that’s setting you apart. In fact, it just so happens you’re merely working longer and harder at your particular interest than your peers are.

Talent is just putting in the work.

Talent is the bare minimum.

And yes, I have worked. For a long time. I put in the active practice from the time I was twelve years old. Most of talent is just that: it’s working longer and harder than other people. If there are people more skilled than you, they probably started working earlier, and longer, than you did. This is one reason why it’s so difficult (but not impossible) to become, say, an ace violinist if you start at age 40. It’s not difficult so much because you’re old, but because you’re competing against people who have 20, 30, 35+ more years of experience than you do. If you work relentlessly, you can aspire to be as good as an expert violinist is at the age of 30 by the time you’re 75. Note that by that time you’d have both put in about 25 years of active practice by then.

So when people tell me I’m talented, what I’m hearing isn’t “Gee, you’re an amazing writer!” What I’m hearing is that you think I’m 20 years old, when someone having a talent for writing is actually a surprising thing. At 36, with 16 years of professional writing experience on top of my 8 additional years of active study, I should sure be a hell of a lot more than “talented” to have made it this far.

I am not just “talented.” I’m really fucking good at what I do.

Because let’s be real, here. You do not come up through an industry as tough as this one, and thrive in it (especially if you’re a woman) if you’re shit at it. You just don’t. There are too many hurdles in your way. Too many doors closed. Too many people making it impossible to keep on. Sure, I guess you could be well-connected, or rich, or have a one-hit wonder, but even then, keeping on in this business requires a lot of mental toughness that not everyone has. It’s one of the horrors of the business, because we lose a lot of great writers who find the business side deplorable, and it breaks them. I’ve certainly wanted to throw in the towel more than once. It’s a shit part of the job that I wish we could change.

So now it’s me who’s the arrogant little SOB of a writer. It’s me who says, “Yes, I’m good at what I do, and you acknowledging that is cute, but let’s get past the niceties and into the meat, shall we?”

I don’t need to hear that I’m talented. I’ve been talented for thirty years.I’m far more interested in talking about how talented writers become great. I’ve been moving toward that next hurdle – going from good to great –  for a decade now.

So thanks, but don’t tell me I’m talented. I’m not just now getting on the pony for the rodeo, folks.



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