Friday, April 07, 2006

What is Talent and What is Craft?

Diana Peterfreund
brought up an interesting point about yesterday's post. How do we define "learnable" talent vs. "inborn"?

Here's what I think.

I have a talent for putting words together. I can write prose that is readable and conveys my meaning. I have story ideas running through my head and for the most part, I can adequately portray those story ideas on paper. But I also have the desire to write. In fact, I have a quote on my desk that says, "God doesn't give you the desire without the talent." While this may be an idealistic quote, I believe it is true. Without the desire, I don't believe the talent will be there.

Can you learn to be a good writer? Yes, I believe you can. I have made leaps and bounds in my writing journey since I first started writing in the sixth grade. But here is the key. I had the desire to write. And I've kept at it for all these years. Even if you don't write for a few years, if the desire keeps nagging at you, begging you to sit down and write, you know that this is something you really want to do. I had the desire to learn how to knit once - but it didn't last very long. And to tell you the truth, I don't really care if I ever learn how to knit or not. The desire isn't there.

To me, you can't have the talent without the desire.

Now, is this completely off base? Am I drifting into psycho-babble with this? Quite possibly. It is Friday afternoon, after all.

Let me know your thoughts on this subject...I'd love to hear them.


  1. I think you make sense. Having an inborn talent doesn't mean you are going to be a great writer just as there are writers who were not born with any knack but learn the craft and produce great stories. Talent is only one portion of being a writer. The desire to write is a part of the equation but certainly not the answer.

  2. I think that whenever people, including me, talk about talent vs. craft, they are speaking on a personal basis, even if they don't think they are, and the thing they say is "talent" is what *they* do naturally, and the thing they say is "craft" is what they have to work at.

    So some people just come out with beautiful words, and so say that finding a story to go in them and learning all that storytelling stuff is the craft part, whereas other people have a natural knack for characters and finding plots is the tough part, or plots and finding words is the tough part, or so on and so forth.

    I blogged about this in February, and the ensuing debate made me realize how differently other people viewed the things i thought you were just born with.

  3. Diana - Good point. I'd have to say that finding plots - or rather getting those plots to WORK - is where I struggle.

    You managed to convey my point much better than I did. :-)

  4. "God doesn't give you the desire without the talent."

    Unfortunately, I have to disagree with this statement, even though I really like the idea. I have the desire to sing and dance. I really do. I'd LOVE to be able to do either. But I can't. I can carry a tune, but that's it. I have a small range, and no style whatsoever. And I'm hopelessly uncoordinated. Situations like this are sad. And I think it’s even worse for writers, for some reason.

    I’ve known writers (none of my friends, but past acquaintances) who really wanted to write. Really, really wanted to. But they were just no good. They learned all about the craft. They studied for years, and could spout off all the right phrases about plotting, showing instead of telling, pacing, grammar, characterization, and anything else deemed important. But they couldn’t translate that theoretical knowledge onto the page.

    It was incredibly frustrating to watch them struggle, but no one (myself included) wanted to tell them to stop, because they were never going to get it. No one wants to trash anyone else’s dream.

    Before anyone tries to string me up, I do NOT think this is the case with anyone I know at the moment. I’m happy to be able to say that truthfully. But another sad truth is that some people really do have the desire to do something for which they have no talent. Trust me. I’ve been there. I can’t draw either. ;-)

    Okay, I’ve wandered off the subject here, but I think you and Diana covered it pretty well. Definitions of talent and craft vary from writer to writer. I agree.

  5. I think that one can be taught to write, but not to tell a story. One is craft, one is talent. And you have to work on the former in order to exploit the latter.

  6. Rachel - You bring up a very valid point and I do believe that there are those who do have the desire and not the talent. This is a complicated issue to define with so many points of views to consider. I'm very glad you shared yours! :-)

  7. I think it's a mix. Some people can be taught to write well, but they'll never have the "spark" which makes them great. Stephen King mentioned that people have a particular level of talent: competent, good, great (for example). You can improve within your level and get to the highest point within it, but some writers will always be great.

    I'm not sure how right he is, but I think if you're willing to work hard enough and recognize what you need to do, you can take your writing further than you ever dreamed.

  8. Melissa, I'm not ignoring posting on this, I'm still thinking about it. Complicated stuff. Sorry about the headache.

  9. I think you can have lots of talent without desire. In fact, talent or no, it's those that work hard that are successful. In fact, there are a lot of quotes out there on this topic. For example:

    "Everyone has a talent. What is rare is the courage to nurture it in solitude and to follow the talent to the dark places where it leads."
    -Erica Jong

    “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”
    -Stephen King

    Every writer I know has trouble writing.
    –Joseph Heller

    “The real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved.”
    -Marge Piercy

    On the other hand...

    “You can point out to people how to make what they do better, but you can't teach somebody how to be a great writer, just like you can't teach somebody how to be a fast runner. You can work on their technique, but either they're fast or they're not; either they can write or they can't.”
    - Richard Price

    Hope your headache subsides and you have a great week!

  10. Great observations, Nienke and Michelle. I find it interesting to hear everyone's ideas on the subject. And now that I look at what I wrote, I believe there is room for a lot more interpretation than just what I came up with. I'm so glad everyone is chiming in with their thoughts.

  11. In the writing classes I teach, students often ask me, either directly or indirectly, if they have the talent to be writers. Of course, I don't know. A person can seem totally lacking in talent, and in a few years, she can progress to the point where she has the next DaVinci code in her briefcase. You can never count anyone out -- ever!

    So what I tell students is "Your longing is your calling." To me, this means we have permission to write if we long to. Talent or not, if we're called, just follow.


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