Nature v. Nurture (or, Talent v. Tenacity)

Before I began the quest for my Dream Agent (which has happily ended because I already signed with her), I compiled a rather lengthy list of Agents With Whom I Might Work Well and followed them all on Twitter. (If you’re a writer hoping to be agented and published, I highly recommend you do the same. Not only will you get a sense of their personalities as people – because, yes, they are people, too – you’ll also get a sense of what kinds of submissions they’d like to receive and what absolutely not to do.)

Anyway, on this list was Michelle Witte from Mansion Street Literary Management. She’s funny and provides tons of great insight (and she knits bracelets – how cool is that?), and I like reading her tweets.

Yesterday, she tweeted something to intentionally spark discussion among those of us in the Twitterverse:

Pervasive yet untrue philosophy among writers: You don’t need talent to be a writer. Practice, hard work can overcome lack of natural ability.

When I read this, my eyes about popped out of my head, only because she actually put it out there!

What she was saying is that there are some people who may really enjoy doing something but just aren’t as good as others. We see it at the start of every American Idol season. Just because I can carry a tune and like to sing, it doesn’t mean that I can should compete against someone whose talent is so much greater – and quite frankly, there aren’t enough voice lessons out there that will make me sing as well as Lea Salonga. It won’t keep me from singing; I just know not to be crushed when someone tells me that it’s not my forte.

For the record, I completely agree with her statement. I’ve been on Wattpad for almost a year now, reading some of the most cringe-worthy words  storiesthings out there. Some are really good, and you can tell these kids (I say that because a lot of them are under the age of 18) have real talent. But then there are some that are just God awful, to the point where you don’t know where to begin with providing constructive criticism (because saying “Please start all over or, better yet, just stop” would be too mean).

But then you read the comments people leave for the latter group, and you wonder if they’re reading the same thing you are. There’s so much praise, so much bull-shit (for lack of a better word) that you’re wondering who these sycophants are. And I can’t help but wonder if these “critics” really understand what a disservice their false bravado provides.

When I was in high school (and about the age of most of the Wattpad users writers), I wrote a lot. A lot. And I have a feeling it was almost to the point of irritating my friends, though they still kept asking for the next installments of my stories. And while I don’t think what I wrote was terrible, it was still, well, juvenile. Pedestrian. Rough and unpolished. But if I listened to what my friends were saying back then, I would have been submitting my work to agents and editors as it was (and collecting tons of rejection letters). Instead, I listened to my English and creative writing teachers, people who knew quality writing (and were always extremely encouraging with their comments and critiques of my work). I studied journalism for a while in college and discovered exactly how much there was to the art of writing well that I never knew.

And the more I learned, the more I learned how much more there was still to learn. (And even now, the more I read, the more in awe I am of other writers.)

I never stopped writing, though it was mostly done in journals instead of attempts at the next Sweet Valley High series. I read a lot, soaking in whatever I could. In college, my mother gave me Colleen McCulloch’s Masters of Rome series, and they’re  still among my favorite historical fiction books.  I devoured every Regency romance that Jayne Ann Krentz released as Amanda Quick, often reading them three or four times a year (and sobbing every time). I spent entire paychecks at Barnes and Noble and read just about everything I could get my hands on. And I dissected just about everything I read in an attempt to understand how an author used words to elicit such strong feelings while I was reading.

But while I was reading and writing, I also lived. I graduated from college. I got my first job. I learned from my first job – and from every other job I’d had since. I moved across the country, met new people, tried new things. I experienced some amazing high points, sank to devastating lows, and persevered through it all to keep going.

And I think know I’m a better writer now for having gone through all of that.

I have a favorite quote that serves as encouragement whenever I feel start doubting myself:

Hard work without talent is a shame, but talent without hard work is a tragedy. – Robert Half

Am I among the two percent of the population with a real aptitude for writing? I don’t know. That’s up to a publisher and ultimately the general public to decide. But I’d like to believe I am. (I know I’m not among the two percent with a real talent for singing, though I still like to do it.)

I’m not saying that sites like Wattpad or Authonomy or FictionPress are not good for writers. They are. They’re great for soliciting feedback and creating a sense of community when people directly around you in the physical world aren’t big readers or writers. And I highly recommend people join these sites and connect with fellow writers.

But there’s a fine line between offering encouragement because you truly believe in someone and just saying the nice thing.

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