My piano teacher has this posted on a bulletin board in her studio. I noticed it today during my lesson; she told me she wrote it up because she was tired of people telling her how “talented” her students were. Talent in music, she said, means little; mostly, success comes through hard work.
I can’t count how many writers–professors, authors at conferences, authors in their books on craft–have reiterated these same tenets. Talent is MADE, not born. Everyone thinks that anyone successful in a creative field–artists, writers, musicians, actors–has been born with some sort of innate talent or gift that the rest of the world wasn’t lucky enough to get. Dustin Hoffman said something like, “I worked half my life to become an overnight success,” which pretty much sums it all up.
All of this–talent, effort, hard work, success (whatever that is)–has been swirling around in my mind lately. I began writing in 2000, and I wrote in complete privacy and silence for ten years–TEN years, a full decade–before I could admit aloud to anyone that I really wanted to be a writer (never mind that every day I wrote, I already was a writer). I just told a friend this morning that I wouldn’t have dreamed of showing my work to anyone during those first ten years; it would have been too painful and probably would have killed my budding inner writer.
I started my writing group in 2010, and I was still writing really awful, stilted stuff. Sure, there were some gems locked inside the lumps of coal I was producing, but I still had a lot of work ahead of me to get to the point where I felt really confident about my writing and my voice.
I published my first essay in 2012, twelve full years after I started writing in earnest. I have since had exactly seventeen more pieces published or accepted for publication since that first essay, and while this is something I’m proud of, I feel like it’s still only the beginning. What those seventeen published pieces do NOT show to the world are the more than 250 rejections I’ve gotten.
Even my husband, bless his heart, believes that I am experiencing some measure of success because I am talented. While this is a nice enough sentiment, it’s also unfair and untrue. It automatically dismisses all of the very hard work I’ve been putting in for many years. There’s nothing mystical or otherworldly about writing well–it comes from putting pen to paper, over and over. Any writing teacher or author will tell you: the writer who succeeds (gets published, wins awards, writes a bestseller, whatever) is the one who keeps writing. And every writing teacher has stories of their talented students, the ones who write stunning prose so beautiful it could take their breath away, the ones who stand out in a class full of mediocre students. Invariably, these teachers always say that their most talented students never keep writing. They simply fade away. These teachers are surprised to find that their “worst” students, the ones with little or no “talent,” are the ones showing up years later in literary journals and getting book contracts.
And so, once again, I am reminded by my piano teacher that it doesn’t matter that I didn’t grow up with music lessons, that it doesn’t matter that I don’t have whatever innate musical talent anyone else might have. What matters is staying on the piano bench, and staying in the chair to write. That’s all there is to it. And isn’t that wonderful?
Whatever we love, we must do, and do often. Only then will we do it well.