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The Writing Process, Part VI: A Question of Talent

Let us talk of talent, you and I--of writing talent.


It’s a touchy subject, I know, but we must speak of it as part of this series.


This is my sixth post in a series on writing a non-fiction book. In previous postings, I discussed selecting a topic, searching for a publisher, developing a book proposal, researching a non-fiction book, and the writing process.


Unlike those other topics, talent is difficult to talk about. Like pornography, we know it when we see it. Still, we don’t know where talent comes from or how some people get a lot of it and others, well, not so much. To suggest that talent is innate is to offend our democratic sensibilities, but there seems to be some genetic component to it.


Perhaps we should say at the outset that talent also can be cultivated. Make no mistake: A no-talent hack cannot diligently prepare and hope to somehow acquire talent. Most folks, however, are not completely talentless. They can write a bit—if only they would develop their God-given talent.


Ah, but cultivating talent requires work, and lots of it. Cultivating writing talent is akin to cultivating athletic talent. If writing a book is analogous to developing a muscle, the muscle must be worked—often, and strenuously. No pain, no gain.


I once asked a former professor, a man who started teaching at the college level during the 1970s, what major changes he had witnessed during his 40+-year teaching career. The decline in students' writing skills, he replied without hesitation. In a world where students can find research material in three seconds and write texts using shorthand abbreviations—Lol, BTW, TBH, etc.—who needs to work the writing muscle anymore? If good writing requires a person to grapple with the language, IDK. Maybe u just give up! Lol.


Condemning the current generation as lazy reprobates may be accurate, but it risks becoming too facile. Even the most devoted texter can hone his or her writing skills. It’s never too late to work the muscle.


But I digress: The subject here is talent. Let us accept the proposition that talent can be cultivated. The question is how do we know talent when we see it? How do we cultivate it?


A quick anecdote may appear to be a further digression but bear with me. Years ago, when I was a young lawyer less than a year out of law school, I argued a motion hearing in court. Opposing counsel ate my lunch. I fumbled around and lost the motion because my arguments simply were not as good, not as cogently expressed, as my opponent’s arguments were.


I saw my mother not long afterward, and I bemoaned my lack of legal prowess. My mother was a practitioner of tough love. She was never a person to allow someone to throw a pity party. She interrupted my tale of woe-is-me with a blunt assessment that I have never forgotten.


“Look, Mike,” she said with a grunt. “You’re a smart guy, but you can’t always be the smartest guy in the room. There’s always someone somewhere who is smarter than you. It’s a fact of life, so get used to it. You can’t do anything about that. But what you can do is be the most prepared person in the room. That is something you can control.”


What great advice! And it applies directly to writing.


You cannot control the amount of God-given talent, or lack thereof, that you have. Until gene-editing is a common occurrence, you are what you are. What’s that part of the serenity prayer that suggests that you accept the things you cannot change? That is good, sound advice.


You can control how well you cultivate the talent you do have. You can work the muscle, day in, day out, week after week, month after month, year after year. Diligent preparation can save you.


Here is a corollary to my mother’s advice: If you work hard enough, the distinction between a writer with God-given talent and a hard-working, seasoned, but modestly gifted writer may be difficult to distinguish.


So, do you have talent as a writer? Are you a Faulkner-in-disguise? Who knows? Who cares? Rather than sit around reflecting on your talent, or lack thereof, start writing. Write away. Write when you’re up. Write when you’re down. Write when there is no discernible payoff. Write when there is no hope of publication. Write soaring prose and pedestrian sentences. Write happy. Write sad. Write, write, write.


If you work the muscle hard enough, questions of innate talent fade away. Perspiration supplants inspiration.


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