Talent is overrated

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeThis is my first ever post for the Insecure Writers Support Group Blog Hop. On the first Wednesday of each month, participants, “Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling.” Today I’ll use this opportunity to talk about why I didn’t start writing fiction till my late 40s, even though I’d always dreamed of doing so.

I’ve been a bookworm since forever. I still remember one Saturday afternoon when I was about 6 or 7, and my mother was too busy to stop right.that.minute and read me The Wizard of Oz for the 472nd time. Yes, I was quite the Oz fangirl. I picked the book up, tried to read it myself, and discovered I could. The first time a kid reads a chapter book on their own should be a milestone celebrated with fireworks. And cake. Lots of cake. But I digress.

I started journaling not long after that and fantasized about becoming a fiction writer. So why didn’t I? I am going to tell you, and you are going to think I’m an idiot.

When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher told us to write a short story. That’s it. Write a short story. We had spent exactly zero time talking about how to write fiction. We’d read plenty (thanks, Mrs. Rainer, for interrupting my senioritis with Heart of Darkness), but we hadn’t studied a dang thing about how to write anything other than essays and term papers.

So I wrote a short story. And it sucked. Big time. It sucked hard enough to create a black hole that threatened to consume the entire planet. The planet survived, but I got a lousy grade and assumed I didn’t have any “talent” for writing fiction. And splat went my dream like a bug on a windshield.

I majored in English as an undergrad, but I avoided all the creative writing courses, because I didn’t have any “talent.” Of course I didn’t, because I couldn’t produce a decent short story with no training whatsoever. I told you, you’d think I’m an idiot. Instead I wrote boring literary criticism, got my degree, became an English teacher, hated it, went to grad school, and became a librarian. All the while, I kept writing. I even won a student paper contest in library school, but I’m pretty sure I won by being the only entrant.

As a librarian, I wrote and published journal articles and book chapters. I blogged. I struggled with how to channel my compulsion to write into actually getting an audience. I read about how fiction writers got started and ached to have the “talent” to write fiction.

And then I approached 50. My boobs went south, my blood pressure went north, and I began to reconsider my dreams. There’s something about knowing ~2/3 of your life is over that makes you think long and hard about how you want to spend the last third.

Around that same time, I reread Diana Gabaldon’s account of how she wrote Outlander (tl;dr: she wanted to learn how to write a novel, and decided that the best way to do that was to actually write one). I read about how other authors started their careers. And one slow afternoon at work, I Googled, “how to write a novel.”

That was in 2014, and I’ve been writing fiction ever since. I won NaNoWriMo in 2014 and finished the first draft of my first novel a few months later. I’ve spent the years since revising it from almost black-hole-level suckitude to something almost worth reading. I’ve written a couple of short stories. I’ve read books and articles and blog posts about fiction writing. And I’ve learned two priceless lessons that, had I known them 30 years ago, might have changed the course of my life:

  1. Talent is overrated.
  2. Creative writing is a skill, and skills can be learned.

Why are those lessons so important? Because “talent,” is some mystical magic bestowed on the very few, probably those born at midnight under a full moon in a witch’s side garden or something. But learning is something we control. We have the power to get better. It’s hard work, yes. Lots of reading and learning, and lots and lots of practice, practice, practice. But those things are under our control. We can choose to do them. We can’t choose to be born in a witch’s side garden at midnight.

So if you’re discouraged, if you look at other people’s writing and wish you had their “talent,” remember: You can learn it. You can build it. You can choose to invest time and sweat and blood and tears in yourself, and you’re never too old to start. The power is yours. Claim it.

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21 thoughts on “Talent is overrated

  1. aandj8804

    Fantastic post. I’m glad you decided to go back to your dream. I’m wondering how your teacher graded your creative writing? I feel like you can’t really grade creativity… Furthermore, one person’s viewpoint on your writing is going to be everyone’s viewpoint, right? Have you looked at that piece you wrote in high school since?

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    1. Yeah, I’m not sure how one would grade creativity either. I think I trashed the thing right after I got it back. I knew it was terrible when I turned it in and didn’t need any reminders later.

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  2. helenmatheyhornbooks

    Lots of things can be learned if we put in the practice/time. Good advice for any age and unfortunately, some times school/teachers knock it out of us. (I was a teacher of science, so I’m kind of pointing a finger at myself.) Enjoyed your story.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I started writing at 50 as well. Like you, I felt the clock ticking and had always meant to write, when I had time. 50 must be the magic number. And you’re right, it is a learned skill. I didn’t learn to ride at school either. I mostly started learning all the ins and outs when I joined the writing/blogging community. I’m cohosting this month. Welcome to the I WSG!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s nothing like a good milestone birthday to shake us out of our complacency. As I age, I’m getting better at prioritizing and saying no, so I have the time for stuff that matters most to me. That’s helped me make the time to write and stick with it.

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  4. Debbie Johansson

    What a great post and thanks for sharing! I’m also in the 50 something age bracket and planning on self-publishing this year. I’ve been writing all my life, but after having a couple of kids and watch them reach adulthood, now is ‘my time’. Welcome to the group, it’s good to meet you. I look forward to hearing more about your writing journey. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. debscarey

    Oh yeah, I’m another of those 50 milestone shake up types. I did a lot of writing, but it was mostly about me, me, me – getting my experiences & thoughts down on paper. While that helped emotionally, it’d make boring reading for anyone else 🙂 I’ve really enjoyed learning how to write fiction and get huge joy out of the practice. Excellent first post!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Excellent post! You definitely have a strong writer’s voice. You and I have tons in common–in fact, we former English teachers turned novelists are legion. I also grew up in NorCal, did a summer term in Flagstaff (gorgeous!), and started writing seriously around age 50. Unlike you, I never got the message that my writing talent sucked. Or if I did, I didn’t listen. It’s clear from just this post that you’ve got the “write stuff” (sorry, couldn’t help myself). That and your openness to learning will take you far. I look forward to reading your books.

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    1. I can’t believe I missed your comment when it posted. I’m so sorry! And thanks for the kind words. How cool that we have so much in common. And yeah, English teachers becoming novelists is practically a cliché. But I’m fine with that. Nice to (virtually) meet you!

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  7. Welcome to the IWSG! Excellent and inspiring first post. I’m sorry you got discouraged at an early age – I’m assuming that, having offered no guidance on writing, that teacher offered no feedback to improve either. But you clearly had that bug that drives us all to start writing seriously at some point – doesn’t matter how long it takes. I do agree we all have the power to achieve something worthwhile through hard work.

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  8. Pingback: Learn to Write Fiction 1: Get Started – Janet Crum

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