by Amanda Smera
Few things make me angrier than when people read something I’ve written and point out my talent. The intentions, of course, always come from a good place and they mean no harm. And yet the bitter taste in my mouth never fails to feel discrediting. I want to scream from the top of my lungs: “I’VE BEEN WORKING ON THIS FOR A MONTH STRAIGHT, FOR YOU TO DARE AND ASSUME IT WAS JUST ‘MY TALENT’?!”
It feels like an outdated myth that talent is a bigger force, that either you’ve got it, or you don’t. I have hundreds of thousands of school essays, Harry Potter fan fictions, and journal entries that prove that I was no Jane Austen at the age of five or fifteen.
Of course I’ve always been passionate about writing, and I’ve dedicated countless hours to my craft. But to call it a talent, in my humble opinion, would mean that it flows naturally every time the ink of my pen touches the blank page, that I never have a day of mediocre writing, that I never check for synonyms online, that I never doubt my own words of wisdom, that I don’t have to put any effort into it.
When I announced to my friends and family that I was going to purse a masters degree in writing, you wouldn’t believe the amount of surprising eye rolls I received. “What for?” seemed to be a common question, insinuation that any art form couldn’t be mastered, that learning to be good at something so subjective, something that is considered a gift from above, wasn't possible. It’s a simple misconception, I assume, that any artist faces when trying to improve their craft.
The worst part about this is the not-so-subtle implication that writing isn't real work. That because you are “talented,” it means that you will breezily walk through any writing workshop and just be the best writer in the room. To hell with my countless hours of polishing, editing, and rewriting, right? After all, my first drafts are always perfect and I have literary magazines fighting over my essays to publish. As if…
A study by Science Focus posed the question I am trying to answer here: Is talent something you are born with, or something you learn? Their answer was a bit more hazy than I hoped for: “Both.” They conclude, “Some people are born with greater potential, but without hard work and practicing their talent will come to nothing.” Is this implying that if you are not born with said talent, but want to acquire it, it is completely unattainable? Impossible, even? That you have to have that great, born potential, embedded within your DNA, to make something out of anything you are passionate about?
Years ago, after watching a month-long marathon of Glee, I decided I wanted to learn how to sing. I was undeniably passionate about musical theater and I desperately wanted to become the next Barbra Streisand. I had the best vocal coach money could buy, and I dedicated my time to it, practicing day and night. I learned different vocal techniques, the different sounds my body could make, hell I quit smoking for the sake of my vocal chords, and I will tell you, I would never get cast as Fanny Brice, but if you take me out to Karaoke, I will belt the greatest rendition of any song (within my vocal range) I dare myself to sing – and people will clap! I proudly went from tone-deaf to a mediocre soprano. I've learned a skill, out of no talent, and mastered it to my full potential – which isn’t good enough for Broadway, but it certainly is better than anything I’d ever dreamed of achieving.
I remember having this discussion with my boyfriend while we watched the docuseries, The Last Dance, about Michael Jordan’s career. Jordan is, undeniably, the greatest of all time, no one could ball like Jordan could. And yet, the documentary isn’t simply about a guy who is a good basketball player, and perhaps an even better sneaker designer. The documentary shows, time and time again, the hours Jordan put in on and off the court. The countless days he was up before the sunrise, shooting on hoops until his feet were bleeding from running around and jumping for that perfect dunk – that even Michael Jordan wasn’t perfect every time. We then watched Get Back, the Beatles documentary, and while my boyfriend couldn’t believe how many drafts John Lennon went through before writing the songs we know and love as classics, I sat quietly and smiled, knowing that my point was being made without me even having to utter a single word.
I had written thousands of good but not good enough essays before I first got published – and even my final, super-duper edited versions had room for improvement. I’ve received rejections, I’ve spent days working on a single sentence, and I’ve definitely cried over a bad draft. I’ve felt defeated, even after being praised for my art countless times. Much like what Science Focus states, natural-born talent can only take you so far. There is no magical force, no outside genius that just touches the special ones, leaving the mere mortals behind wondering what good they are for. You’ve got to show up, you’ve got to put effort into it, you’ve got to do the work – and trust me, Jordan, and Lennon here, there is tons of work to be done. They say practice makes perfect, and never before has a popular saying made this much sense. So how about we ditch this ancient idea that talent can’t be taught and start seeing this so-called talent, for what it actually is: the result of very hard work and dedication.