“Do I Have Writing Talent?” You’re Asking the Wrong Question

9187824_sHemingway. Austen. Dickens. Woolf. Carver. We know these names well, these masters of their craft. Were they born with an elusive writing gene the rest of us just don’t have?

We not-yet-famous writers sometimes ask ourselves, “Do I have talent?”—the implication being that talent is what makes one a real writer. We want some sort of assurance that—like “the greats”—we were born to write, or else we might just be fooling ourselves.

But, coming to the conclusion that we either do or do not “have it” can lead to some unhelpful assumptions. For example, I’ve always been good at writing, so writing a book will be easy (very probably not true). Or, My novel was rejected, so I guess I’m just not meant to be a writer (not necessarily true).

I’m not arguing that talent and aptitude don’t exist, but we sometimes take the concept of talent to the point of fatalism, and that limits us in a number of ways.

Are Our Abilities Innate and Unchangeable?

Psychology Today article I once read, called “The Trouble with Bright Girls,” rocked my world. The piece makes this claim:

“[B]right girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.”

In my case, that was true—although I’d never realized it. I tended to view my abilities, and even interests, in a somewhat static state. I was good at some things, okay at some things, and terrible at others, and there was little I could do about it.

Years ago I told a friend, “I can write, but I could never be an editor. I just don’t have that level of attention to detail.” What did that even mean? Sure, I didn’t have the technical skills to be an editor—I hadn’t studied editing. But I suppose I thought editors were born with an inherent ability that I just didn’t have. Whenever the thought of editing as a career popped into my head, I quickly quashed it with the belief that I wasn’t naturally detail-oriented enough.

But not everyone thinks like that. My father—despite never having any apparent aptitude for photography—recently bought himself an expensive camera and enrolled in a professional photography course. He’s undaunted by his lack of knowledge and experience, because he really enjoys photography and recognizes it’s an art he can learn.

If you believe your writing is an “innate and unchangeable” talent, you may be less driven to practice your craft and less likely to seek (and graciously receive) constructive criticism. When you experience failure (all writers do), you might think you’ve only been kidding yourself that you have talent. Or, because you think you’re a natural, you might feel the need to overwork to live up to that standard.

On the other hand, if you enjoy writing but don’t see yourself as having natural talent, you may never even give yourself a chance.

The Real Question We Should Be Asking

What if we agreed to stop wondering “Do I have talent?” in favour of another question: “How can I improve my writing?”

See the difference? 

The question “Do I have writing talent?” can’t tell you whether a particular piece works for its intended audience, or whether you have the patience to endure criticism, or how determined you are. It also tempts you to measure yourself again other writers: I’ll never write as well as that prize-winning author, or I’m so glad I’m better than the rest of my writing group.

The latter question is more constructive. You can answer it with strategies that fit your personality, strengths, desires, and goals. Implementing these strategies to any degree results in improvement, and the more you work at them, the more you grow. Here, the focus is on measuring your growth and success against yourself rather than others.

To improve your writing, you can

  • read critically in a variety of genres;
  • take a writing course—anything from an informal self-study program to an MFA;
  • practise writing regularly;
  • make a point of finishing what you start, whenever possible;
  • join a supportive and challenging writers’ group;
  • buy or borrow books on the craft of writing;
  • work toward getting a short story or poem published in a magazine;
  • study self-editing techniques;
  • listen more closely/observe the world around you more carefully;
  • subscribe to podcasts about writing; and
  • learn how to use social media to market yourself and your work.

I’m so thankful that I now have a more healthy understanding of who I am and what I can do—or learn to do. Given the right perspective, tools, guidance, and experience, I’m capable of a lot more than I ever imagined.

Remember how I once said I could never be an editor?

Well, I didn’t exactly sit up one day and decide to become one—I just realized I was already editing contributors’ articles on my group blog. In fact, I’d been doing it for years.

That small revelation spurred me toward editing for other blogs. I took an interest in learning more about copyediting, in particular. I studied hard and continue to study, and I’m working my way up from small projects to larger ones. I now edit for a number of websites and businesses (in fact, I have a big freelance copyediting assignment due on Monday).

I might not be ready to edit for The New Yorker, but as my portfolio expands so does my confidence. And that’s the most important part, because it’s confidence in what I can learnnot my degree of talent—that gives me the freedom to do more of what I love.

Photo courtesy of 123rf.com

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About Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Suzannah Windsor Freeman is a Canadian freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Writer, Sou'wester, Grist, Saw Palm, Anderbo, The Best of the Sand Hill Review, and others. She is the managing editor of Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing and Writeitsideways.com. She lives in Ontario with her husband and four children.

Comments

  1. says

    Sounds like your father has the right attitude: try it, see how much you can learn in the time you choose to spend on it, reevaluate. If it was enjoyable, and progress was made, repeat.

    There has to be joy in there somewhere – writing is a choice.

    I think the most important part is developing the ability for self-critique. If you compare what your favorite writers do, and what you can achieve now, and are able to see that, say, your character pov control needs some work, then you can figure out how to learn that.

    A good teacher can help, but it has to become internalized.

    Thanks you for a good post – and the reminder that you have to write to get better at writing. I’m off to do just that.

    Alicia

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  2. says

    Good post. The key for any writer is to keep working on what they have. If most writers asked themselves after completing the first draft, “Is the book I wrote any good?”; the answer the would be no. It requires more practice–what we call revision.

    The good news is having that, how can I improve this attitude generally helps (at some point, however, you do have to release your work into the world. You can’t keep tinkering forever).

    As a side note, a lot of parenting articles also have noted what the Psychology Today article you referenced mentioned. Several studies have shown that parents praise boys and girls differently. They often praise boys for their efforts (you worked so hard on that, you kept trying) while praising girls for their “innate” abilities (you’re so smart, you’re so talented). This gives girls a real fear complex because they’re concerned about being “outed” as not those things as they mess up. So, generally, they encourage parents nowadays to praise specific efforts, rather than general things (“You stayed inside the lines and colored it so evenly” compared to the vague innate, “that’s so pretty; you’re such a good artist”). That way children know that they can just work harder and accomplish things.

    However, just recently, I saw an article that indicates there is one area that you should differ, and praise innate characteristics rather than action: praising kindness and generosity. Children who did something kind for you were more likely to keep being kind to others if you praised kindness as a quality within them. So, when a kid picks up a quarter you dropped, you can say, “Thank you for picking up my quarter.” That’s good, but if you say, “Thank you. You’re such a kind person. You must really enjoy doing nice things for others,” the kid goes out and is kinder to other people. They internalize the fact that they are in fact kind and do acts to be that way. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/12/opinion/sunday/raising-a-moral-child.html?_r=0)

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  3. says

    Well said! Studying with Raymond Carver convinced me I wasn’t born with “it.” Plus, people telling me you cannot really learn to write fiction. I believed that for 10 years. When the hunger wouldn’t go away, I decided to purchase some WD books and see if I could prove the naysayers wrong.

    One of the reasons I teach now is that I want to explode that “Big Lie” I was sold so many years ago.

    Talent is the least important virtue of the writer. As Coolidge said, “Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.”

    Discipline, hard work, study, practice and persistence…that’s where it’s at.

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    • says

      James, it’s an absolute pleasure! (I have a copy of “Plot & Structure” on my Kindle.) I admire much of Carver’s work, so I can imagine studying with him would’ve convinced me I didn’t “have it” either. Most of us writers are thankful to have teachers like you to help us focus more on improving our understanding of craft. Thanks!

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  4. says

    Suzannah–
    Your post is all true. I would only add that James Scott Bell’s comment expresses what is for me the essence of the creative self. He speaks of having accepted, for ten years, the conventional notion of innate talent, and that he didn’t have it. But: “the hunger wouldn’t go away.” So he set about the hard work of making himself into what he is now, a successful writer of fiction, and a valued source of guidance to other writers. The key word is “hunger.” Without it, which is a kind of nutty passion and irrational commitment that non-writers shouldn’t be expected to understand, nothing much of value can happen.

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    • says

      Barry, so true. I know of a couple of writers who would probably see themselves as having natural talent, but they have few (or no) publications and spend less time writing than those in the “work hard camp.” To me, it’s because they fear rejection and the impact it might have on their understanding of their talent. So, they don’t bother putting themselves out there. Thank you for your thoughts!

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  5. says

    Suzannah-

    As an agent, I find that the “innate talent” myth manifests is a couple of common ways, and is not exclusive to women.

    At the beginner level, believers in innate talent resist changing their writing by saying “my character wouldn’t do that” or “it really happened that way”. More experienced writers of course see that as amateurish. More advanced writers, though, are not without resistance to growth.

    It’s normal for writers to work organically, discovering story as they go and shaping and refining in subsequent drafts. 50% of writers work primarily that way. Some, however, at a certain point declare themselves done and their work immutable. They refuse to revise further.

    In extreme cases this belief in innate talent gets nutty. I’ve known more than one writer who insist that their stories are dreamed in final form or are channeled through entities on another plane of existence. Changing those sacred words is, thus, not possible.

    The organic way of working can also become quasi-religious. It’s common in MFA programs, for instance, to meet teachers and students who distrust anything that smacks of method. Plot formulas are hated. Craft books are distasteful. The process of writing is the most pure when writing pours forth from an inner wellspring of honesty and truth. Revision should be akin to forging steel in the white hot furnace of peer critique.

    It’s not that MFA students shouldn’t become better writers, it’s that words come before concepts. Craft can’t be learned, it’s believed. Of if it is, it leads to cheap stories. Excellence in writing can only evolve through error and trial.

    Most tragic to me are authors who find success and settle into their formula. These authors usually insist, “I love being edited” and “I’m always learning”, but in fact their growth is incremental. Their manuscripts never change much from their first draft state. (Their sales also tend to stagnate.)

    As you say, Suzannah, growing as a writer means seeking new levels of craft. I believe it also means seeking new levels of self. Recognizing that one has hit a plateau or is hiding behind a logical sounding resistance (“My deadline is next week!”) is one of the hardest, but most necessary, skills of all.

    Many falsely fool themselves into believing they are growing. The best face themselves squarely and know how far they have yet to go.

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    • says

      Ah, so that explains why so many MFA graduates write novels about MFA graduates who are struggling to write their first novel.

      Thank you, Don.

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    • says

      Don–
      Years ago, I had a young agent who took me on because she loved my work. I have come to think this was because I taught college English, and she had gone to the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her reasons for appreciating my novel obscured for her the serious flaws in the story’s structure and the lead character’s development. In other words, co-dependency: her literary bent and mine prevented both of us from seeing what led all the editors she sent my work to to turn thumbs down. Only when I finally retained a hired-gun editor to read the manuscript were the flaws revealed to me, so I could get rid of them.
      These days, my agent search does not include anyone with an MFA.

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    • says

      Donald, thanks so much for sharing your experience! I too have connected with a few writers who were resistant to change, and I tend to find it frustrating. They can get quite defensive when you suggest there’s room for improvement.

      My best experiences of growth have come as a result of interacting with editors. Once, a literary journal’s editor sent me a few questions about a story I’d submitted. One of her criticisms, in relation to a particular sentence, was “this language feels a bit squishy.” She meant that I wasn’t exactly saying what I needed to say. I changed only a few words before she accepted the piece, but those few words made a lot of difference to how polished the piece felt. The lesson here was that—especially in a short story—every single word counts. And once I learned that lesson, I stopped being in such a rush to submit my work before it was fully cooked.

      In another instance, an editor accepted one of my stories, but with two suggestions: first, that we make the title less dramatic and more subtle (ironically, this made the title more powerful); and second, that we end the piece a couple of sentences earlier (which also made a huge difference because, in hindsight, the ending was just a tad too drawn out).

      You learn the lessons, you implement the lessons, you grow. Criticism really can be constructive.

      I can only wish that my stories were “dreamed in final form” or “channeled through entities on another plane of existence.” That would be nice.

      Thanks, Donald!

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    • says

      “As you say, Suzannah, growing as a writer means seeking new levels of craft. I believe it also means seeking new levels of self…”

      Hear, hear!

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    • says

      Dear Donald:
      Becoming more of a reader, observer, listener, participater in life has made me a better writer.
      I studied all of Hemingway’s short stories, dispatches, novels and the books written about him, as well as his letters to writers, while I completed the first in my series of novels.
      Books he recommended to authors sit on my shelves.
      I exercise each morning, not only physically, but mentally by writing short descriptive sketches with action and dialogue and then immerse myself in my novel.
      It’s hard work, but there’s nothing at the end of the day that makes me feel more rewarded.
      I think that when you yearn to share your vision, if the yearning is real, the love grows, so thanks for your informative blog. Ellen

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  6. says

    I always enjoy and learn something new from your posts, Suzannah. That word, talent, sounds like a gift and all you have to do is use it and put it out there. No so for most of us. I think talent (in writing, art, music, acting, whatever) is like silver that you have to keep polishing. It’s not the talent that makes someone a good writer. It’s also the skills and the perfection of the craft that is so essential. No matter how much talent a person has, writing is very hard work and demands constant exploring and developing. Your list to improve writing is terrific! I have one more thing to add: beta read other writers stories. I learn a lot from the weaknesses and mistakes I find in others’ work and it sharpens my own mind to my writing. Like you, I edit too (line edit nonfiction and fiction) and that’s a skill that will get rusty if you don’t keep using it. Great post!

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    • says

      Paula, I’m so glad you always find a “takeaway” in my posts. That means a lot to me—really!

      Your beta-reading tip is spot on. In my work at a couple of literary journals, I’ve had the opportunity to read a huge number of other writers’ stories. Like you say, it really helps you understand what works and what doesn’t.

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  7. Anne Buzzini says

    Thanks for the great post.

    So true! I have watched people with “talent” be happy with their level of ability only to be surpassed by someone who worked hard to gain skills. I’ve seen talented people decide they aren’t good enough because they have never worked to expand their abilities because of the myth of talent.

    Personally, i have a dollop of talent in many areas and persisting at writing has taught me more about my own depths than any IQ test.

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  8. says

    Yes! I labored under similar “bright girl” misconceptions for a long time, like “if it’s difficult for me, that means I’m not good at it and should just give up.” There’s a great TED talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN34FNbOKXc) about just this topic that opened me up to this and really changed my parenting, more than it changed me. I encourage my kids (and myself) differently than I used to. The talk suggests the power of the adding the word “yet” to sentences about what you can’t do. As in, “I don’t have great attention to detail … yet.” The yet reminds you that, with work, you can have better and better attention to detail. Thanks for this great piece.

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  9. John Robin says

    I resonate with your fourth suggestion, “Make a point of finishing what you start, whenever possible.”

    Many writers (myself included) give up too soon on a novel, stopping on draft three when the deeper, richer layers are not going to appear until draft seven, or eight. Consequently, a writer moves on to a new project and never actually learns how to write a novel to its fullest. I’m now 2 years into a novel, and expect another year and a half, even though I’m well past the point at which I’m itching to send it to an agent – it does read as a story, front to back, but I am not satisfied yet that every single page has something special for the reader.

    I don’t think it takes talent to reach this. More than anything it takes patience, the willingness to come back to your story and improve the craft again and again; refusal to accept anything other than finished work. You must be willing to kill your darlings even if they are one chapter long, or your favorite character; it’s all about the story and admitting that you’re a mortal handling this delicate thing with your frail limitations. I consume craft books, am helped by my previous work experience as an editor, and study writing masters, forever looking for ways to improve, and in the midst of this I notice one thing that is encouraging: the story is getting better.

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  10. says

    Barry, so true. I know of a couple of writers who would probably see themselves as having natural talent, but they have few (or no) publications and spend less time writing than those in the “work hard camp.” To me, it’s because they fear rejection and the impact it might have on their understanding of their talent. So, they don’t bother putting themselves out there. Thank you for your thoughts!

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  11. says

    “My father—despite never having any apparent aptitude for photography—recently bought himself an expensive camera and enrolled in a professional photography course. He’s undaunted by his lack of knowledge and experience, because he really enjoys photography and recognizes it’s an art he can learn.”

    I believe this is the key, not innate talent, but joy. Great writers never retire, not even the rich ones. When they die, an unfinished manuscript is almost always found on a computer or desktop. Good writers like to write.

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    • says

      James: since my dad got this camera, he’s been outside snapping photos nearly every day. Every time he come to visit my family, he brings his camera along to take shots of the kids. He meets up with a group of other local photographers for workshops and activities, and the course he’s taking online is helping him learn the finer points of photography. A similar regime/lifestyle would benefit any writer. Thanks!

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  12. says

    Great article, Suzannah! I agree, “Do I have talent?” is the wrong question to ask. I like “how can I improve my writing?” but I also think that an additional question is: “how can I improve my attitude?” People who are asking “Do I have talent?” are looking for outside validation — they want reassurances that they’ll be able to go out and avoid the pain of being panned by critics or rejected by agents or sell 5 books a year. They doubt themselves, and they’re afraid of the risk. With the authors I’ve worked with, the ones that take the risk and put themselves out there are the ones who go on to improve their writing, do the work to develop their craft, and ultimately go on to publish. It’s not just the craft — it’s definitely the mindset, in my experience.

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  13. Carmel says

    After reading “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” and discovering that anyone can draw, I realized that anything can be learned, if you have the desire and apply the time and effort. Thanks for the reminder.

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  14. says

    I’ve read that both Picasso and de Kooning, neither of whom painted figures that looked remotely realistic, were skilled at capturing the human form in their youth. Their apparent freedom from the conventions of the craft came only after they’d mastered the conventions of the craft.

    I suspect that MFA students read writers who are very free with the conventions of the craft and think that craft is of no value. They don’t realize that you can only ignore the conventions of a craft after you understand them.

    As to all writers relying on innate talent, I’ve seen just how much good coaching, carefully received, can transform a writer. Max Perkins made a big difference to Fitzgerald and Hemmingway.

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  15. says

    Thanks for the excellent and thoughtful post, Suzannah, and thanks to everyone else for all the thoughtful and excellent comments!

    I love that your father is willing to try new things and learn. Talent helps, but most anything can be learned. Putting in the hours and persevering through failure gets us way further than believing we do or don’t have talent.

    Maybe the only value in believing we have ability is that it makes us try and keep trying. I grew up told that if I didn’t get it right first time, I clearly had no natural talent and should give up. Such a destructive thing to teach a child! Thank God, I’ve finally unlearned that one, though it took a while.

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  16. says

    My first thought was “Hey, I can actually use this. Now I have another way to distinguish male and female characters. I could make my female characters believe in innate talent and my male characters not believe in it.” But then I decided that it can’t really be that clear cut along gender lines. Certainly a female musician would believe in developing talent more than innate talent.

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  17. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    A few days after I first seriously contemplated writing a novel, I had lunch in a Chinese restaurant. The fortune in the cookie delivered to me read:

    Discipline is the refining fire by which talent becomes ability.

    I later found that this was a quote by Roy L. Smith. After five complete gutted-down-to-the-studs rewrites, and several important books and classes on the skill sets related to writing, whether by fate or happenstance, I realize the truth of that fortune.

    Writing to the best of my ability is a never-ending pursuit.

    Thank you, for the reminder.

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  18. Priya Gill says

    Great post Suzzanah

    As I read it, I thought “she is talking about the old me” :-). Many moons back, I had started writing on a whim… and the words kept flowing. Next thing I knew I was at 77k words. Husband read the book. Loved it. I was clearly talented. Ha!

    Then sent a bunch if queries out. An agent asked for the MS. Edited (grammar and spell checked) the book and zapped it out. A week later the response email arrived. “Loved this and that but didn’t connect w the narrative voice and storytelling.” Oops! So what did that mean? I did what any person in 21st century does. Googled “narrative voice” and “storytelling”. After reading hundreds of hits, still no clue on what I did wrong.

    Clearly I have no talent. This is not the career for me. How can I write a story if a person cannot even connect with my storytelling (whatever that meant). Time to move one. Sob sob. Oh what can I do? Husband agreed (what else could the poor man of science say?)

    A few weeks later made a new friend at a mommy an me class for my son who said she is a writer working on her first book. After a week of hesitation, confided in her that I’d also written a book and told her about the comments from the agent. She wasn’t sure what it meant it either but suggested that I might want to read writers digest at the local bookstore. Not having the time to go, I just subscribed to the WD online and next thing I had signed up for a class on dialogues and in the first class I understood the problem. (Head bopping, too much telling, a million adverbs… and so on). A couple classes and agent boot camps and writing books later, the path is clear.

    So it was not talent (if it even exists) but careful study of craft that has helped me improve my MS by leaps and bounds. And still so much more to do.
    I also understood that writing is not a lonely pursuit that one does hidden at home. That feedback from other writers and editors and readers (excluding the poor husband) is what helps polish a book to its max shine.

    Now you know why the post resonated with me. Thank you also for the list of to dos.

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    • Priya Gill says

      Sorry Suzannah for misspelling your name. Clearly need more work on my editing skills.

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  19. says

    Thanks for this wonderful reminder to keep working at the craft. I think a certain level of talent does drive you in the proper direction. For instance, I am not athletic, and although I like playing games, I don’t have the will to work hard at them. But all the things I’ve done in my life (science, music, family, writing), I’ve had a great passion for, and that’s when a mite of talent helps because you get a reward and being that virtuous feedback loop.

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  20. Poeticus says

    Having studied at a graduate level creative writing program and surveyed many others, I confidently asert the shortcoming isn’t in the program function, it’s in the institution and instructors’ philosophies and lacks of comprehension for teachable-learnable creative writing skills.

    Sure, preconceived notions of talent’s nativity are persistently propagated by subjective opinions; however, they are a product of the times, from ancient to present, based upon a superstitious belief that creativity is an innate talent predetermined, ordained, inborne to native genuises only wanting trivial skill improvement.

    That belief reached a zenith with the middle twentieth century Postmodern cultural movement upheveal in sociological circles and overall culture generally; that is, foster self-esteem at the expense of self-discipline so that people are more self-actualized and happily anesthetized individuals; in other words, encourage creative expression and let the hard work of disciplined, competent expression go hang.

    Problem is writing workshops, studio-based creative writing study, and writing culture generally retain the outdated ideal that creativity needs little to no interferring disciplinary concentration.

    Frankly, part of the overall problem is self-preservation; professional and artistic jealousies: who wants newcomers overtaking their precious, hard-won place in the limelight? Therefore, spoil the upcoming competition by only doling out supportable, subjective, ample condemnation, scarce approval, and, tragically, an iota or two of actual shared instruction. Otherwise, let them drown or soar on their own creative and disciplinary initiatives. Hey. wait a minute, isn’t that what makes the world go around? Creativity and discipline: Darwinian survival of the fittest.

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  21. Linda Glaz says

    Yes, to keep working at your craft, because we all continue to learn until the day we die. And even more so to perseverance. Anyone who believes that writing is a walk in the park will soon come to realize it’s a marathon. And while you might not have to come in first place, you do have to finish. We all keep learning, we all keep running.

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  22. says

    My husband once told me that when our high school principal found out we were dating he said, “That girl can do anything.” I later dispelled the myth by admitting that the things I did publicly were the ones I was “naturally” good at–I simply quit the ones I needed to work hard at (like basketball) because others were already “naturally” good at them, so why compete? I stuck with the areas I was gifted in, but being at the top of those areas in my small school meant I didn’t try harder to stretch myself and get better. I wasted a lot of time thinking I was already great. I wasn’t. I was just in a very small pond. :)

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  23. says

    Thanks for the insight. Great points were made. Asking the right question how can I be a better writer is much more constructive and what we tend to usually ask ourselves.

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  24. says

    Oh goodness this article really resonated with me.
    I just finished my last semester at Emerson College and I majored in screenwriting. During my final months, I felt more and more defeated because I felt like I didn’t have the talent to really pull a good script together. Instead of telling myself that “I just have to keep working on it”, I told myself that I wasn’t talented enough and I will go on and find work somewhere else.

    I am an illustrator and a writer, but I feel like Impostor Syndrome plays a key in this thought process as well, and I wonder if women might be more susceptible to it. I try to keep telling myself “look at what I did!” but it doesn’t seem to do enough if I don’t get substantial recognition for it, and even then it’s hard to believe that I did anything right.

    So straight out of college, instead of trying to work on a script, I am trying to find other ventures. But every turn I take I see more and more requirements that, instead of me going “I’ll keep working to get to that spot”, it goes to “I’m not good enough for any of this, I guess I’ll go sell t-shirts.”

    It’s exhausting. Especially for a recent grad who doesn’t have much tangible experience in finding any kind of job but retail.

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