The Talent Myth in Creative Writing

When I was practicing law, no law student said to me, “I’m going to get listed in Best Lawyers of America.” It takes seven years of higher education to become a lawyer, months of intensive studying to pass the bar exam, then more years of unrelenting work to build the kind of reputation and satisfied client base that gets you noticed. Most non-lawyers are impressed when they hear I’m listed in Best Lawyers.

On the other hand, when a group of people finds out I’m a published author, someone usually pipes up, “I’m going to write a novel. I’ll be joining you on those bestseller lists.”

Although lawyers are not held in the highest esteem in this country, there is a profound respect for the time and effort it takes to become one. For authors, it is exactly the opposite. We adore authors. We follow them on Facebook, we show up at conventions to get signed copies of their books, and we sit in rapt attention listening to them read. But at the same time, there is little appreciation for the time, effort, sacrifice, and sometimes brute force it takes to write a novel. As a society, we believe that writing is a matter of talent and if you have it, the words flow out all at once, with little practice or preparation, and in perfect form and order.

For far too long, I believed this talent myth, and given how much effort I put into my novels, I thought the bucket I’d dipped from the talent pool was drier than the Sahara Desert. But talent is mostly a myth. Sure, you need an innate sense of when your words flow together and a touch of imagination but, otherwise, writing – like any other skill or expertise – is about long, time-consuming, hard work. As Malcolm Gladwell explains in his book, Outliers, it takes 10,000 hours to achieve complete mastery in any field.

I didn’t make it into Best Lawyers in America until well after I had 10,000 hours of practice under my belt. Writing fiction set that clock back to zero, but I’m nearing 10,000 hour mark of studying writing and actually writing. I’m more comfortable with my skills and understanding of what works and what doesn’t than I was when I started. The talent myth doesn’t play games with my head anymore. I’m too busy writing to let it.

But the next time you read a novel where the words flow effortlessly off the page and you find yourself marveling at the author’s talent, stop for a moment and appreciate the hours of sheer determination that went into it.