Writing and talent

Recently I showed someone a story-in-progress of mine, and they said I had talent. Naturally it pleased me to hear this. But I was also aware of how misleading the situation was. To the reader, who’d never seen the piece before, it perhaps seemed like a fresh new story, one I might have composed quickly and with inspiration. In reality, it was the product of several labored drafts, and it will go through several more before I finish. In addition to this, I’ve made conscious effort to improve my writing craft over the last five years. This has involved classes, critique groups, and hours of reading, thinking, and practice.

Sometimes I’m in the reverse situation, in which I read a piece somebody has written and impulsively form a judgment about whether they have talent or not. This, too, can be inaccurate. A single piece of writing may be good or not, but it doesn’t give a whole picture of the writer. Writers’ stories vary in strength. In addition to this, the writer exists in time, developing their skills over an extended period.

I have no idea whether I’m a good writer or not. It’s impossible to judge one’s own abilities. And when it comes to judging others, there is a great deal of taste and subjectivity involved. Many excellent books elicit polarized reactions from readers. One example of this is Madame Bovary. Of people I know who’ve read the book, some love Emma Bovary and others hate her. This affects their enjoyment of the book as a whole.

So I can’t say whether I’m a good writer, but there are a few things I know to be true. One is that I’ve been published and paid for my work. The other is that I’ve improved significantly over time.

I took my very first writing workshop in my senior year of college. I had just started to write seriously around that time. There were two levels of the writing workshop class, and both had competitive admission. I was admitted to the beginning level—barely. It soon became clear that I was one of the worst writers in the class. In retrospect, it was one of the more difficult workshops I’ve been in (or maybe I just wasn’t used to it, since I’d never been critiqued before). I remember some particularly harsh comments about my characters and dialogue. I felt embarrassed and ashamed about my writing, especially since some people in the class had written remarkable stories. I’m sure that I seemed quite untalented.  That spring, I applied to the advanced fiction workshop. Other people in my class got in, but I was rejected. The worst part was you had to go to the English department and look for your name on a list posted on the wall. When I didn’t see my name on the list, I rushed out of the building in shame.

Now, when I look at the stories I wrote back then, it surprises me how amateurish they seem. Over the years, I kept at it, and it’s unquestionable that my writing is much better for the work.

The point of all this is sometimes people appear successful, but there’s a whole story of struggle behind how they got there. If you’re just starting out as a writer, don’t be discouraged because other people seem more accomplished or talented than you. Chances are they’ve already been working at it for a few years. Also, it’s impossible for other people to judge your talent. They’re looking at you at a moment in time, when in reality your life is a trajectory. You’re the one who gets to decide that trajectory—i.e., whether to keep working or not. You’re the only one who gets to decide whether you’re a writer.

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