Some may view being a writer as a natural-born talent, a gift. Some may believe that every word they scribble on a page is a masterpiece, and don’t expect any training or literary study is required. “It’s art,” one might say. “You can’t teach art.”
Well, is that so? Let’s look at some of the most famous artists and creators in human history. If writing is supposedly a natural-born talent, that would also mean any art-form is the same way. Right?
Ludwig van Beethoven
Composer and Pianist (1770-1827)
While Beethoven was undoubtably talented, he didn’t simply come out of the womb composing his famous First Symphony. He had teachers, including his father and a multitude of professional scholars throughout his upbringing. No one is quite sure how much practice he endured at a young age, but it seems generally accepted his father was quite severe and forced him to practice for hours on end, sometimes in the middle of the night. (Source)
Even though the majority of his work was after he went deaf, he had already learned the fundamentals of what made music work and no longer required hearing. It’s my personal belief that going deaf allowed him to focus on the pure technique of music composition and capitalize on the skills he had already honed throughout his childhood and early life. If that doesn’t say that trained skill outweighs creative talent, I don’t know what does.
Sculpter, Painter, Architect, Poet, Engineer (1475 – 1564)
Best known for his statues “David” and “Pieta” and the ceiling paintings on the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo created stunning work. But just like Beethoven, he had an early start to his career. Due to his mother’s death while he was still an infant, his father placed him into a family of stonecutters. So it’s no surprise that art is what he learned to do best. He even once said himself, “With my wet-nurse’s milk, I sucked in the hammer and chisels I use for my statues.” (Source)
I think to say that Michelangelo was a natural born artist is a mistake. What else was he going to do with his life? He could either embrace his situation, or…do what? Inherit his father’s financial business for which he had no training? That’s not a happy life. So he dedicated himself to painting when he was 13, and if you ask me, the only reason he became famous was by being in the right place at the right time. This apprenticeship when he was 13 gave him the opportunity to enter into the powerful Medici family and learn from some of the most skilled artists of his time.
Needless to say, Michelangelo wasn’t born with his skill. He earned it through years of practice and the exposure to those who could teach him to be great.
Inventor and Businessman (1847-1931)
Best known for his invention of the lightbulb, moving motion picture, and phonograph, Thomas Edison is a great example of proving that learning styles exist. He only spent 12 weeks in a public school before his mother pulled him out to homeschool him. She recognized he had an appetite for learning, as most children do, but also saw that he was distracted and unable to learn in school. I believe this to be the key factor to giving Edison the capability to become such a great inventor and entrepreneur. His mother helped him to gain the knowledge he would need later in life to make his ambitions a reality.
After a fruitful childhood of learning, he spotted an entrepreneurial opportunity at the age of 12 to sell newspapers on the railroad line, and was able to exploit the situation to create his own newspaper, which was a big hit. Being in the railroad industry is what led to what I believe a key event in Edison’s life. In his late teens, Edison became a telegraph operator after saving a toddler from being hit from a runaway train. Perhaps this was the inciting event which gave him the drive to make a positive change in the world. Whatever it was, he did the only thing he knew to do, capitalize on opportunities when they arose and keep trying until he succeeded. In his words, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Edison’s entire life was dedicated to experimentation and ideas. How many hours do you think he put in? How many failed experiments might there have been? He certainly didn’t just wake up with a lightbulb hovering over his head. He clawed his way there, just as most of us must do.
Now, perhaps I’ve convinced you that any form of creation takes dedication and training to make someone successful, but what about writing? Well. Let’s look at a couple of famous writers, shall we?
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Best known for “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Old Man and the Sea“
Hemingway’s writing career started in journalism, and I feel this gave him the set of skills he needed to be successful as a writer. Not all writers are in such a position to be exposed to the fundamentals of forming language suitable for public view. In his own words, he believed that his early career in journalism allowed him to”learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.”
By the time he was thirty, Hemingway had a successful journalism career but was spirited off to Paris due to his first marriage. It was there that he had the amazing opportunity to learn from creators such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso and James Joyce. This, along with his interesting hobbies such as big-game hunting in Africa, bullfighting in Spain, and deep-sea fishing in Florida, allowed him to have not only the skill and mentorship to create compelling work, but the taste of adventure to spice it up as well.
J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)
Best known for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
I like talking about Tolkien because he actually wasn’t a career writer, but a professor at Oxford University. His work at the University consisted of English studies as well as literary language, most of which required translating. (He was fluent in Latin, French, German, Greek, Italian, Old Norse, Spanish, Welsh–it’s no wonder he was able to create his own elvish language, eh?)
Although Tolkien served in World War I, and had a professional career, he kept writing throughout his life. He even formed a writing group at Oxford! And like many aspiring writers, he made illustrations demonstrating his novels. His son, Christopher, eventually published this as “The Art of the Hobbit.”
Given the sheer exposure and skill-development Tolkien received in language, I find it no small wonder he made a great writer.
What was a common factor between Tolkien and Hemingway? They spent their whole lives exposed to literary work. Both also went to war, but that didn’t stop them from writing. If a writer today wants to be successful, why should it be any different? Even war shouldn’t stop you from being a storyteller, in fact, stressful events should give you fodder to put passion into your work.
Something else I want to point out is that I feel like famous creators were more common in ye olden days than now. Sure, we have some modern day celebrities like J.K. Rowling, but her story definitely doesn’t show an overnight success. She planned out her entire series and spent years perfecting her work. And even then, her success hinged on the sheer opportunity of an editor’s 8-year-old daughter picking up the sample manuscript he was going to otherwise dismiss, and she loved it so much it won a second chance.
So why do true art-eests seem to be slim to none in the modern world? Perhaps it’s the simple fact that people like Michelangelo and Tolkien didn’t have phones with Facebook or 4k TV like we do today. Well, if the key to success is just how much time you’re dedicating to the craft, let’s look at the average American’s allotted hours per day and see how that adds up…
8.7 hours sleeping. (Source)
0.84 hours commuting (Source)
4.7 hours spent on phones (social media/news) (Source)
5 hours watching television or playing video games (Source)
That leaves 4.76 hours leftover. Which makes sense. A 40-hour work-week with a paid hour of lunch would equal 4.7 hours, or 20% of work-time per day.
Putting that raw data into a visual representation …
Wait. Okay, so… this says on average, we spend TWICE as much time doing absolutely nothing but staring at a screen than being productive at work. The only other activity which comes even close to the screen-staring is lying unconscious in bed.
I find this result nauseating. What will civilization come to if this keeps up? Those who are able to rip themselves away from screens will retain what little humanity we have left, and the rest? Well. If you worry about the zombie apocalypse, I’m pretty sure it’s already here.
Think of the possibilities if you dedicated 40% of your time to improving a craft or intellectual pursuits. How many languages could you learn? What inventions could you create? What goals could you accomplish?
If you’d like to really see how much time you’re spending on your phone, here’s a fun app. I bet it’s eye opening!
This post set out to prove the point that writing is a hard-earned skill, just as much as any other form of creation. Allot your time wisely and make a point to study the craft on a regular basis and you will eventually create work that will be loved by those who read it. Dream big!
In honor of this post I ran a 24-hour Twitter poll with the question: Do you believe that writing a best seller novel is a natural-born talent, or achieved by studying and developing skills?
Click Here to see the votes!
4 thoughts on “The Biggest Misconception About Writers”
Good post. I generally agree, but I think we’re in danger of going too far in the other direction and discounting talent too much. Of course that’s bound to be true when we’re using as examples the best of the best. Either way, it’s important to remember that creating is hard work and that that’s true for everybody.
(Also your Art of The Hobbit link is broken.)
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True, I realized that when I started making this post that naturally, the best creators are probably going to be those who had talent and LOTS of practice, and probably training. But you got what I was trying to say, and that is talent is just a foundation. We have to do the hard work to make something of it.
And thanks for letting me know about the broken link! Nastee Hobitses have been repaired.
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Alex addressed the point I was going to, so I’m just going so say I enjoyed this post and I definitely agree we could get a lot done if we spent more time working on something rather than on phones or watching tv… But at the same time, it would need to be something we’re passionate about. 🙂
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Absolutely, and I fear that many people believe themselves passionate but don’t want to put in the blood, sweat, and tears necessary to bring their goals to fruition. I believe this a symptom of the “instant gratification” culture, rather than a lack of passion and we have to encourage each other that it’s worth the effort to do it right.