I saw this in one of Slate’s advice columns:
Q: This may not sound like a problem, but I seem to be surrounded by incredibly talented people. My boyfriend has appeared on magazine covers for his worldwide surfing adventures and is also a published writer (which is my chosen field, but I’ve found no success in it). My siblings and circle of friends are all artists and musicians enjoying relative success and happiness with these careers. I know this sounds hyperbolic, but all of them seemed to have found something they’re not only very good at, but passionate about as well. I, on the other hand, am a mediocre “jack of all trades” type and want nothing more than to find that thing that I will shine at… How can I find my talent and/or not be resentful of those in my life who already have?
Here are some thoughts:
1. Writing is more of a practiced skill you create than an innate talent you find. Temperament and attitude are better indicators of success as a writer than talent is.
- Are you excited about improving?
- Do you work hard and write often?
- Do you take constructive criticism maturely?
- Are you brave enough to make mistakes and learn from them?
- Do you read heavily, especially within the genre(s) you write?
- Are you willing to see this through even though it will probably take you years?
If you said yes to all of those, I think you will probably succeed with practice. If you said no to a few of them, it might be worth looking into other fields or other forms of writing. For example, if you would feel like a failure if you’ve been writing for a year and haven’t been published somewhere, it might help to start with short stories rather than novels.
2. Some seemingly-untalented writers make vast improvements. Even incredible writers very frequently start out inauspiciously. For example, Terry Pratchett’s first manuscript (Carpet People) was an absolute disaster, but he’s grown into an excellent author (maybe the best in his genre). J.K. Rowling got rejected 12 times and many authors top 50 rejections. Closer to home, P. Mac and I were not the most talented writers in our high school–hell, not even in our family–but we’ve both practiced heavily* and he’s since been published in the New York Times and I’ve had a few hundred thousand readers.
3. Don’t be discouraged if there is a gap between your self-expectations and the quality of your early work. You won’t impress professionals right away and that’s okay. When young writers feel frustrated by the quality of their writing, most often it’s because they’re comparing themselves to experienced writers that have had tens of thousands of hours of practice and are in the prime of their careers. If your self-expectations are high enough that you’ve read through this far, please keep in mind that the only way to close the gap between your self-expectations and the quality of your work is to practice.
4. Unless you’re independently wealthy, I would recommend looking into full-time writing and/or editing jobs to hone your craft (such as communications, journalism, publishing, publicity, marketing, etc). The typical professional novelist took 10 years of practice to get published. That’s a long time to go without getting much positive reinforcement–your self-doubts may overtake your drive. In contrast, a full-time writing job will give you writing assignments where you can plausibly succeed in the short and medium terms. That sense of success will help propel you forward. Additionally, the steady pay and practice will help you develop your writing skills and keep your anxiety level to a minimum.
And this concludes our hopefully encouraging note on talent, effort and the publishing industry. And now, back to our regularly-scheduled, morbidly depressing content, such as 5 Ways to Survive a Writing Career Without Buying Food.