Some Thoughts on “Talent”

For a few weeks now, I’ve been kicking around in my head the whole question of what it means to have “talent”–to be “gifted” at something, or to have “natural ability.” Not for any particular reason–it’s just something that often comes up in conversation (“He’s a talented musician…”, “She’s a gifted writer…”, “He’s a natural athlete…”), but how often do we ever stop to consider what that means?

Since we talk a lot about writing here, let’s take writing as an example. Most people beyond the age of five can write. Some of those people can even spell correctly, and some of those even have a handle on grammar. If a person can form letters into words, spell those words correctly, and string them together into grammatically correct and coherent sentences, does that make him or her a gifted writer? Almost instinctively, most people–if not all–would say “no.” But why not? Again, most people can point to the grammatically correct history textbook they had in school, compare it to HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, and rest their case. Even comparing fiction with fiction, we’ve all read stories that were well composed–correct spelling and grammar–and perhaps even had a good idea behind them… and yet there was something missing. They weren’t quite J. K. Rowling, or Stephen King.

Now, consider this: prior to the mid-17th century, English spelling was by no means uniform. Shakespeare spelled his own name five different ways. Can we say that because Shakespeare didn’t follow modern orthographic conventions, he was not gifted? Of course not! And consider for a moment the function of grammar. Anyone that’s taken the time to study more than one other language will observe that every language has “irregular” forms–verbs and nouns that don’t follow the rules, idioms that make no sense if translated but make perfect sense to the native speaker, and so on. This is because grammar books are descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, grammatical structures are derived from a language, not imposed upon a language. The function of grammar is to try to make some kind of orderly sense of the language, and describe the way the language functions when it is operating at its most communicative. Rules such as “the number of the person must agree with the number of the verb (e.g., “a man (singular) goes” vs. “women (plural) go”), are observations of the language functioning at its most understandable. You can mess with the grammar (e.g., “a man go”) and still be understood, but that defies the conventions of the language, which can lead to confusion.

If we understand spelling and grammar in this way, then it makes sense that spelling and grammar can change according to changing conventions (for example, Noah Webster “simplified” English in his American dictionary, changing “colour” to “color,” etc.), and one’s ability to spell and use grammar is in no way indicative of one’s ability to write. All it says is that a writer is able to follow social conventions with regard to orthography.

Another point to consider: would a writer still be a writer if he or she lost the ability to write? Popular English fantasy writer Terry Pratchett has Alzheimer’s disease. A few years ago, the condition had progressed to where typing was difficult. He forgot how to spell words, and his coordination was shot. I doubt that he is even able to type at all now. And yet he is still writing novels (his latest book, Dodger, came out in September, 2012). He uses a recording device and has a personal assistant to help him write, and I daresay he will continue to compose stories until he is no longer able to communicate the ideas in his head in some fashion.

The actual act of writing–putting words on a page (virtual or otherwise)–is merely a mechanical transcription of what’s going on between the author’s ears. As long as the writer can get those ideas out into the world, he or she is writing. Don’t forget that the tradition of storytelling goes back to the days when illiterate people would gather round a fire and thrill their audience with tales they had heard, or they themselves had made up.

So, what do we mean when we say someone is a “gifted” writer? I think we can say this: it has nothing to do with one’s ability to “put pen to paper”, or one’s ability to spell, or one’s ability to use correct grammar. But it has everything to do with one’s ability to tell a story, or communicate an idea, in a way that is compelling, and… well… communicates. And not every gifted writer is gifted equally. Some are better able to communicate than others. But there are a rare few whose gifting is enormous. And we all recognize who they are, because their audiences are large, and their emulators are legion.

Okay, I’ve babbled long enough. What does all this mean for me, or you, as a writer? I would say this: YES, learn to spell and learn grammar. Sure, you don’t need them to be understood, but you increase the opportunities for miscommunication the more you neglect these skills. I think it’s more important, though, to recognize that your writing gift, if you have it, is a gift. It’s not something you can learn, and not something that improved mechanics can increase. I can tinker with the engine of my lawn mower so it operates as smoothly and efficiently as possible–but it’ll never be a Porsche. And that’s okay. Start with your love of writing. If you love to write, and people enjoy reading what you write, the chances are you have a gift for it. Practice, and do everything you can to improve your gift. It may be no more than a lawnmower, but make it the best-running lawnmower you can! Don’t feel pressured to be what you’re not. Learn from others, but don’t compare yourself to others. Be the writer you are, using the talent given to you to the best of your ability.

What do you think, writer friends (and others)? Agree? Disagree? Please comment!

6 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on “Talent”

  1. Erin L. Funk

    Interesting topic. If you look at master painters, their work is often a balance of creativity and technical precision. The two go hand in hand. One provides inspiration and the other gives some kind of shape to the idea. I think the same can be said about the art of writing.

    It’s funny that you used the Harry Potter books as an example of writing with that spark of something extra, because as soon as you mentioned forming letters into words and stringing those words together, the first image that popped into my head was Gilderoy Lockhart wanting to sign autographs at St. Mungo’s. “I can do joined-up writing now, you know!” Haha! Love that part.

    1. cds Post author

      I wonder how many master painters spend time making sure their work is technically precise? I’m guessing that the technical precision is often observed after the fact by art critics. Not that talented painters can’t improve their technical chops, but they’re building on a foundation of natural skill that not everyone has. I think part of that “x-factor” that separates talented from not-talented is that sense of what works and what doesn’t. I don’t mean to make a hard-and-fast rule–just throwing ideas around. After all, Da Vinci seemed to spend a lot of time working out composition, structure, anatomy, etc. Did he learn these, or figure them out for himself based on observation and an innate artistic sense? Food for thought. πŸ™‚ Either way, he’s a good example of what you’re talking about: imagination coupled with a sense of structure and precision.

      Yes–that St. Mungo’s scene was both funny and tragic. A great example of gifted writing! πŸ˜‰

  2. Ian

    I think that in any creative field the difference between competence and brilliance lies in doing something original and being fearless. Shakespeare wasn’t taught plotting or story structure. He taught himself and did what he thought worked. The Beatles defied the record companies who said that guitar based bands were finished. They didn’t allow anyone to tell them that they couldn’t do what they did best and they followed their passion.

    1. cds Post author

      Of course, having an innate sense of what works is, I think, part of that talent. Our ideas of plotting and story structure are, like grammar, descriptive: we find stories that work, analyze them to find out why they work, and from that derive rules of plotting and structure. People who are gifted story writers have a natural sense of good plotting and structure; they certainly don’t need to be told how to write a good story. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t study plotting and structure–this only helps sharpen and enhance their gift.

      Anyone can learn to play the guitar, but not everyone will be a George Harrison, an Eric Clapton, or a Phil Keaggy. I think it was the Beatles’ fearlessness and tenacity that got the attention of the record industry. But they would still have been brilliant even if they’d never left Liverpool. There are many talented writers and musicians who are unknown beyond their own circle of friends. With YouTube and other online venues, it’s much easier for such people to find a wider audience. But there are many who don’t want the attention, and are happy doing their own thing where they are.

  3. Kirsty Stanley

    Really enjoyed this post Colin. Especially poignant is your reference to Terry Pratchett and the idea of writing as communication is one I recognise. Even if we are just communicate with ourselves.
    Thanks for linking me to it.


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