On Being a Writer: 1 – In It to Win It

Success in writing, as with any other vocation or avocation, is restricted less by “talent” than by focus. Now, I know that probably differs from conventional wisdom and may be quite a different philosophy than is taught in literature class. After all, we are taught artistic hero worship. We are given the catechism of the mythology of divine talent and told, if only implicitly, not to question it. We do as we are told. We burn incense at the alter of our holy writing demigods, never noticing that quite a bit of what they write is no better than what we’ve done. We pour the holy wine (and drink a bottle or two) in the name of Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Chandler (who’d have preferred the whisky, truth be told). We believe — with all our hearts — that theirs were singular talents that we could not imitate, and we don’t even notice the irony of our belief in so many singular talents.

And certainly, talent does play a part. Sure it does. Some would say talent is all that matters.  A tone-deaf singer will never perform an opera … oh, wait — that’s been done. Strike that. Florence Foster Jenkins was a fluke and she had a benefactor, in the form of her husband, who shielded her from the painful revelation that she was talentless. Still, Enrico Caruso “is said to have regarded her with affection and respect,” according to Wikipedia, and Cole Porter was among her other fans. So, maybe singing wasn’t her talent. But whoever said it was? Perhaps her talent was what she worked hardest at — performing.

But still, we know that talent is all that’s needed for success, and without it, failure is inevitable.  So, let’s try a sports analogy. A basketball player who cannot shoot will never make the Basketball Hall of Fame … shit, Dennis Rodman did that, didn’t he? The man couldn’t hit the basket if he were standing in the basket, but he won 5 championship rings and made the HOF. So strike sports too. Sports are a bad example. Ooh, wait, I know  one! A moron could never become leader of the free world … crap, that’s been done more than once. (Is anyone else getting the feeling we’re all trapped in the movie Being There?)

You see, although it’s more difficult to achieve success without the benefit of some inborn talent, it isn’t impossible, given enough commitment and focus. Yes, I will grant you that the most talented person in the room will achieve the best results, every time. But here is where I differ from conventional thinkers: there’s no such things as inborn talent. Talent is the intersection of interest, effort, and self-determination. Sure, maybe in some obscure way genetics has a role. I don’t believe it’s a major one, however. My father wrote poetry and loved photography. My grandfather was a photographer too. So maybe I’m a writer-photographer because of genes? Well, no. None of my three sisters does either thing. Neither does my daughter. Want to know why? Because neither writing nor photography interested any of them. They did me, so I worked at them.

Let’s go back to art. Vincent Van Gogh sold, at most, one painting in his life before dying of a gunshot wound at age 37. Still, he completed nearly 900 paintings and 1,100 sketches in his life. He began painting in earnest in 1881, after being fired from his attempt to become a pastor for being too pious.  At his brother’s suggestion, he started painting nine years before his death in 1890, meaning he completed his 900 paintings in around nine years–an average of nearly two per week. That, friends, is talent borne of hard work and almost obsessive diligence and dedication.

Similarly, the greatest athletes in their professions are usually renown for being the hardest workers too. Neither Michael Jordan nor LeBron James were ever going to be outworked by anyone.  LeBron reputedly spends $1 to $1.5 million per year on just his body alone. Have you ever seen a sports superstar whom the announcers didn’t represent as being the “first in the gym and the last to leave?” If you did, I bet you also later heard a story about how their careers came crashing to Earth too soon.

We get to where we’re meant to go by being committed from the start. There are no exceptions. There are no shortcuts. I’ve completed ten books since I began writing eight years ago, despite having being working full-time for the first 6.5 of those years. And while I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, I’m not even close to being satisfied by any of them. Satisfaction is the thing you reward yourself with for a night or a weekend before you get back in the gym, or at the desk, and go back to work because you inherently know, “I could do better.” Achievement is what happens when you go out and try to do it.

I thought of all of this earlier today as I looked at a photograph I took of my wife when we were doing street photography in London on our second date together in 2013.  There she is below, slightly hunched over her tiny Canon camera like an MI-6 spy, shooting. Her seriousness, her mental focus, her deliberate pacing and approach as she tries to get the little camera to make the image she sees in her mind mirrors what I’ve seen her do since thousands of times. I could show you a hundred photos I’ve taken of her as she takes photos, with increasingly better cameras in her hands, and she looks the same in each one. She is focused. She is deliberate. She is at work. There are no hobbies; there is only work. I promise, were she out there with a $30,000 Hasselblad in her hand, she’d look exactly like this (well, maybe a little cooler, because those things rock). My wife began her photography with the same dedication and approach she’s had since mastering it. And I am certain she would tell you she in no way believes she’s mastered it yet.

But that’s the point too. You should like your work, or at least like producing the work, but that doesn’t mean you have to believe it’s great. The great ones aren’t their own worst enemies (that’s just self-destructive) but neither are they their biggest fans. Instead, they focus on a singular mantra: “I’m just trying to get better every day.” It sounds pat precisely because it is. There is no other way to success.

Talent isn’t magic, it’s sweat. You may never sing your way into the Metropolitan Opera, but you might learn how to sing well enough to get work, or maybe you’ll decide you like playing the guitar or songwriting better. You may never pitch well enough to beat the damned Yankees, but maybe you’ll learn well enough to coach someone who does. And you may never write the #1 New York Times best seller, but then again, you just might.

Talent is a small bird with a large voice, singing the same song every day until the right bird hears it. Talent is a stream, sliding down a rock until, a million years later, it splits the stone in half. Talent is a jump shot that you miss on Tuesday, and in April, and for all of 2017, but you hit in July 2018 at the last second in the last game played that year because you were too damned stupid and stubborn to quit shooting. Talent is the voice inside that says, “Hey, I got a story I want to tell you about. You got a pen handy?”

Talent is always available. Get yourself some.

What have you written for me lately?



  1. Great post, honey. And, in answer to your question: Almost… :p

Comments are closed.