Who Decides?

On July 17, 2020, Pleasure Writer wrote, How do you know whether or not you even have talent as an unpublished, unknown writer? I’ve only had close friends read my work, though I’ve been writing for four years now. What I would really like to know is if I even have hope of ever being published. Any thoughts on how to know if I even have potential?

Several of you weighed in:

Melissa Mead: Honestly, from what I’ve seen with other writers, “talent” really doesn’t mean much. The things that seem to help most are the ability to think of interesting ideas, accept and learn from constructive feedback, and persist in the face of rejection. And practice beats potential any day.  

Writeforfun: There’s an author on YouTube who believes that writing fanfiction is helpful for this when you’re learning to write, because you can post your writing online for wide audiences to read and review. They’ll let you know what they think and offer constructive criticism.

That said, I’ve never written or posted fanfiction, nor do I plan to, but I thought it was interesting that she recommended this.

For me, I don’t think I have talent – I just enjoy writing, so I do it. I started writing when I was fourteen or fifteen I think (when this blog was very young!), and rereading what I wrote back then is a little painful because my first books were so poorly written. But I can also see how I’ve improved over the years! Each book since I started has gotten better and better as I’ve learned and practiced.

You know, I’m actually really interested to read a blog post on this! Because, sometimes I think it’s kind of funny that we worry so much about having talent for creative things like writing. I used to draw and paint portraits for a living; but I learned to do all of that artwork through practice, not talent. Don’t you think that’s generally the case? I don’t think anyone, no matter how talented they are or think they are, can pick up a pencil for the first time and know automatically how to create a photorealistic portrait. I would be tempted to say that if I had any “talent,” I think it was only the love of drawing!

For that matter, my sister is a concert pianist and harpist who also arranges and composes music, which is another creative discipline; but that all comes from practice, too!

Melissa Mead: I think you’re right. I think learning and practice counts for more than talent.

Christie V Powell: You can definitely learn to be a good writer. Everyone has potential.

I really loved this motivational speech by Brandon Sanderson. He talks about the value of writing whether or not you publish, and setting realistic goals, among other things. Plus there’s a funny parrot. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oH9sJrAVeC0

It sounds like you could use a good writing group. Do you know how to find one? I found mine on facebook, in a group for writers from the same religion. I’ve also met with the local one, though more to socialize than to get feedback. One of my local friends has dysgraphia and he still publishes a book each year–he just uses multiple editors to help him.

Fiona Wherity: Honestly, I have this very same problem. I always start writing and then hate it and stop so I get nervous that I’ll never be good enough. My friends and family say they love it, but I feel like it’s their job to say that. I always end up writing and having more ideas for more stories, but then I read an amazing book I love and realize that I might not ever write as well as my favorite authors. I always try though, that’s what really keeps me going, the fact that I might. I might get there. I might finish this book. I might get it published. I just keep hoping. Hoping and trying.

Melissa Mead: Hang in there! The more you practice, the better you get.

Pleasure Writer: Thank you all so much for your thoughts! I am not a part of a writing group, though I have wanted to find one for a while. I guess I should start looking for one to be a part of. It sounds like it would be helpful.

These are terrific!

For me, the question about talent comes down to: Who decides?

I may not have mentioned here that I’m working on a memoir, mostly about becoming a writer. I don’t have a publisher yet and don’t know if one will want it, but it’s an interesting project and has drawn me back to my early days as a writing wannabe, and even before then. You may have read here or elsewhere that Mr. Pashkin, my high school creative writing teacher, wrote across the top of one of my stories, “You know your problem. You’re pedestrian.” In his inscription, pedestrian meant dull, and he meant not just my story, all of me.

He didn’t think I had writing or any kind of creative talent. I go into this more in the memoir, but for here—I believed him and stopped writing for about twenty years, returning to it only because I had a job that involved writing, and everyone there loved my wordcraft and encouraged me.

In the years following the release of Ella Enchanted, my first published book, success has rose tinted the nine years of rejection that preceded it. Fellow wannabes in my classes and critique groups encouraged me. They became friends. I was happy.

When I don’t have access to my laptop—and before laptops were invented—I write in steno pads. I’ve gone through those pads, and the ones from the rejection period tell a more rounded tale. After receiving yet another rejection for an early version of my historical novel, Dave at Night, I wrote that I couldn’t stop crying and my stomach was churning. 

This will see the light of day if the memoir gets published, the most derogatory of my rejections for a picture book that hasn’t ever been picked up. Here’s the body of the letter:

What I mean when I say that a story is not strong enough to sustain a 32-page picture book is that I don’t feel a young child would be captivated enough to sit through a reading. A story that speaks directly to children, that has a strong plot and interesting characters is perhaps the most successful type of picture book.

Sweet Fanopps is an example of a story which in my opinion does not have enough of a plot. The idea is very basic and it’s not very emotionally-charged—I don’t think it has enough substance to be successful.

This editor did not believe I had talent. I wish I could go on to say that she later edited one of my books–or recanted. She did not.

My steno pads are filled with these two sentences: I don’t want to write. I’d much rather read my book (written by someone else)—followed by pages of me writing, a lot of it whining about how hard both writing and publishing were, but also ideas and text of whatever thing I was working on.

I have thirty pads of this stuff. My guess is that some of you have many more. I wrote down dreams and even used two of them in a poem recently. I found a few puns, like this one, which no one but you is likely to read, and you may have to be my age or a classic car nerd to get it: Which country has the most old automobiles? Answer: Finland.

You’re groaning, but I like it.

For me, writing is hard, especially plotting. I just played the Brandon Sanderson talk that Christie V Powell suggests above, which I think is worth watching (or listening to if you don’t mind missing the parrot’s tricks). Thank you, Christie V Powell! He talked about a dark time in his early writing days when he was facing only rejection and when he decided to keep writing because he loved doing it.

To this day, I love only some of writing. I adore coming up with ideas, but the seeming infinity of time before an idea bursts through I decidedly do not love. Being stuck is miserable. When a scene is mapped out in my head, I’m happy as can be while writing it.

But everyone is different. Some enjoying revising (me); some despise it.

I don’t like whining in my pad or now, usually, on my laptop, but it serves a purpose, which is freeing me up. When I moan and complain, I don’t expect quality writing—or achieve it. If I write down a dream, I’m not shaping my sentences. Plop! There it is. If an idea arrives, I don’t censor it or make it pretty or even ask myself it’s a good idea. Generally, I explore it and see what other ideas come in its wake.

I don’t ever ask if my idea is one a talented person would have. It’s just an idea. If I decide to go with it, I don’t ask the question either. I see where it takes me.

There are readers who don’t like my books, who may think I’m not talented. A lot of reader reviewers call my books boring. If you look, you’ll see their reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. I look at the reviews for the weird and embarrassing reason that I want to know if anyone happens to be thinking about me. But I’m sure that not one of them is the Lord or Lady High Pooh Ba of goodness or talent. No one has that power!

I’ve probably said this before: When I was in poetry school and I showed a poem to more than one faculty member for a critique, I would leave thinking I had given them different poems. They never agreed or said anything alike. I took what I could use and was grateful for their various perspectives.

The talent question is, in my opinion, just one of the many ways we find to make writing even harder, to freeze us.

Being a writer isn’t for everyone, and there’s no shame in deciding it’s not for you. This is not a decision anyone has to make quickly, and it’s reversible. Practice and writing a lot will help you discover what pleases you, what you like to write, what you must do because unless you do it you won’t have a story (plotting for me, revising for some).

Also, just saying, since no one can coronate us as talented, as an experiment, we can try going with the opinions of the readers who like our work!

Here are three prompts:

  • Make up three which-country puns like my Finland one.
  • Invent a board game or a video game of the steps, pitfalls, good luck and bad, failures and successes, story fragments and finished stories for an aspiring writer. You decide what winning means. Winner gets an earmuff for one ear.
  • Write down your dreams for a week. Put three or more together, which will probably involve changing them, to make a story. Don’t worry about logic or sense. Just see what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!