The remark came through my agent with a rejection of a picture-book manuscript. The editor turned the manuscript down—I’ve forgotten why now, perhaps because she had something on her list on the same topic—but added, “Your writer is talented.”
My response? A burst of surprised laughter. Talented? Isn’t that something you say about young people, those folks of high energy and raw hope? How long has it been since anyone has used that word about me? I bring to my work some facility for language, its rhythms and its nuances. I have a strong sense of story, too. Beyond that I am simply a solid craftsperson and a hard worker.
Eventually, though, the remark brought me back to a question I asked myself often during the years I worked with developing writers. What is talent? Who has it and who doesn’t? Who can be mentored into a viable career?
An old, old truism says, “You can’t teach writing.” But that should be called a falsism instead. There is much about writing that can be and is taught every day. There must be a foundation in place, though, for a person to learn, and here we return to those two important factors I mentioned above: a facility for language and a sense of story. Any writer who comes to the page unable to taste language, to feel it on the tongue, will be like a carpenter working without a hammer and a saw. And if there is any way to teach an understanding of the way stories make us feel, I have never found it. We have to be able to feel it ourselves to create it for others.
And so those are the tools we start with. I do think of them more as tools than as talents, though not everyone who wants to write has them and I, at least, don’t know how to teach them, thus I suppose they are talents.
Beyond those starting talents and a lot of hard-learned craft, what else does a writer need?
Freshness of perspective is helpful. And because writing is not so much an imitation of life as it is an imitation of other writing, freshness of perspective can be hard to come by. Interestingly enough, I have occasionally seen it from students who, for one reason or another, came to their writing without being lifelong readers. Their freshness rose out of innocence—or one might say ignorance—but it could sometimes be compelling. The problem was that their lack of foundation in the literature they were trying to create usually undid whatever interesting new perspective happened to hit the page.
How do we who are saturated in the literature find freshness when we sit down to write? Most readily, I think, by reaching into our most deeply hidden selves, into the parts of ourselves we don’t want anyone else to see. Perhaps the parts we don’t want to see ourselves. And I don’t mean to suggest that freshness comes primarily through confessional writing. Freshness often shows up in wacky humor, in high-flown fantasy, in newly conceived forms. But however off the wall our writing may be, it won’t seem fresh if it isn’t also true, if it doesn’t come from a place inside us that matters.
It’s what gives us something to say, and don’t underestimate the importance, even for the youngest audience, of having something to say.
A final talent I could name? An ability to follow through. Simply that. An ability to stay with a piece and stay and stay, turning it over again and again and again. An ability to conceive and reconceive and reconceive. An ability to keep working when writing feels like work and to keep thinking, plotting, planning, shaping when everything seemed to be already locked into place.
That last “talent” comes from wanting this single story—and the next day’s story and the next—so badly that the wanting gets out of bed with us in the morning and follows us into bed at night.
I have taught many years, and I have often seen writers who were every bit as “talented” as I . . . or more if we’re talking about those first three talents I have mentioned. I have not nearly so often seen developing writers with the same fierce wanting that has sustained me through a long career.
If that’s talent, then yes, I’m talented . . . still.